For me, birthdays are always a time for thinking back, and in the last years when I have thought back on other birthdays the needle invariably has settled around the memory of one birthday in particular… There is something incomplete, unfinished about that one. Probably me-then is still needing something. This here is me-now, years later, going back for her…
Three weeks shy of my twelfth birthday found my parents standing on the roof of the airport in Chile waving goodbye to my brother and me as we set off for Quito, Ecuador to board at a school dedicated to educating (and keeping in line!) the children of missionaries, which we were. My youngest two siblings remained in Chile.
As the oldest, I had always done my fair share of taking charge and taking care of things I thought needed caring for, tending to, or fixing. Some would call that flair for care “bossy,” but isn’t there always more to those things than what an easy label implies? “Besides, what’s so wrong with bossy?,” I say with a hand on my hip: I’m a helluva good at knowing what’s missing, what’s broken and what needs fixing. I can look at something and see what’s broke before you even register what the thing itself is. Anyway, where was I? Ahh yes…
When Karl and I boarded that plane on that 22nd day of January 1980, the mothering and care I knew so well to extend to others served me not one bit: I had not the first clue about directing my superpower onto my own dear self. Also, Karl who would be living in a separate wing in the dorm from me, understandably wanted nothing of a barely-older-than-he sister taking care of or fighting any battles for him thankyouverymuch.
On the plane I cried and cried, quietly, mind you, as secretly as possible, but still. I would cry plenty more at school also, but always —if it could be helped— alone and, I hoped, out of sight and sound of anyone. Apparently I believed there was something wrong with crying and with a person who cried. Oh dear. Oh, dear…
The dawn of my very first morning at school found me awake earlier than my roommate and rummaging as quietly as I could —sense a pattern here?— for a notebook and pen. That was the day I began writing letters as if my life depended on it. I’m sure my letters home contained agonizingly detailed accounts of this that and the other and not much mention of how I felt. I wrote almost every day but I don’t think I ever fessed up to crying and how homesick I was for Chile other than the usual sign off of “I miss you tons” or “I love you.” If you read between the lines, though, it was there: a homesickness so constant it would cry me to sleep most nights, while I tried, as best I could, to keep it quiet and secret.
Year before last when I met the man I would fall in love with, one day he saw me crying. I let him see me and it didn’t scare him. It did not make him turn away. It did not even make him try to make me stop crying. He just sat with me while I cried. Later, I forget if that day or another, he would say to me: “You are the quietest cryer I have ever met. How come you don’t make noise when you cry?” That was the day it started dawning on me that maybe I did not have to cry alone and keep it a secret. I had a lot of things to cry about and he wanted to be with me while I cried. (Wait, what?!) And sometimes he even cried with me.
I’m not sure when or why I picked up the belief that crying is shameful, but I had. Back when I was 12 I must have thought: Whatever would people think if they found out I was so homesick? Me-now replies: That I was homesick?
“Be strong,” people say. All the time people say that. Have you noticed?
Thing is, there is a lot to cry about and the more we try not to cry when something in us wants to, the more brittle and hard we become. And brittle and hard is not actually strong anyway! Brittle and hard takes a toll, especially on the body. I know. I know from my own body’s experience and from the bodies I touch every day. Brittle and hard is much more likely to be injured. Soft and supple is flexible and bendy, giving here, taking there and allowing for the support of the ground and the support all around us, rather than trying to keep it all in and hidden and pretending all is fine when it isn’t. The body really does not when we pretend things are different than they actually are.
I turned 12 in the days before e-mail, when snail mail letters —especially the ones that had to cross a border or two— took what seemed like forever, which is exactly how long it took letter #1 from home to arrive at school. In actuality it was probably somewhere between one and three weeks —like I said, forever. I turned 12 also in the days of outrageously expensive phone calls, especially international ones, and especially on my parent’s missionary “allowance.” But on the morning of February 10 I was woken up by a knock at my door and the dorm-father’s voice saying, “Heidi, there’s a phone call for you.” It was my mom and dad calling to wish me, their oldest daughter, a happy birthday, singing it to me, I’m sure, followed by three minutes in which four of us —for bleary-eyed Karl had joined us by then— would exchange the quickest of quick I-don’t-know-whats. To this day, I am not a fan of talking on the phone but I remember not knowing what or how to say anything, certainly not as fast as I knew I needed to; all I could see in my mind’s eye was a picture of the place called home where my parents were, surely, huddled around the one and only, black, rotary-dial, rope-chord phone in the living room in the house where I wasn’t in Temuco, Chile. And anyway, what can be said in 3 minutes?
“Three minutes is just not enough.” I said this once to a friend as I recalled this birthday memory. And she, playful and wise soul that she is, replied: “Wouldn’t that be interesting to test?”
I was a bit puzzled but said, “Sure.” And then she proceeded to tell me, for 3 minutes, all the things she loved, including, yes, the things she loved about me.
Three minutes. What can be said in 3 minutes?
Today, in honor of me-then who, in writing this I go back for, and in honor of all of us who cry or want to cry or can’t cry or are embarrassed to cry, and in honor of anyone with a homesickness or a longing for something which they may not even have words for, in honor of us all: What can be noticed and said in 3 minutes? Set a timer. Ready, set, PLAY!
Maybe you’ll write it down. Maybe you’ll even put it in a letter to someone: What do you hear? What do you see? What do you sense? What do you remember? What’s it like around you? What’s it like inside you? What feels good? What feels OK, so OK even that you get to take it for granted? What feels hard? What makes you cry? What do you miss?
Ahh, the presence of what’s missing…the space left by what’s not here… But, funny, that! Because the moment we notice that we miss something, aren’t we then, in the noticing, experiencing it ever so intensely? And in some way then isn’t what is missing even more present?
Maybe missing is just be another word for love.
Missing you. Wishing you were here… Oh wait–!