Little eyes twinkle closed
to dreams of grape juice laughs
and grass stained knees.
Child, you are savage, wild, and brave
how I miss finding innocence and heart
laughs on the hardwood floors of
your, our, childhood.
Bleary eyes blink open,
to a room much smaller,
dreams dusty and cobwebbed.
Trapped in that perpetual haze,
to sleep and dream of
childhood insouciance, or
press forth while
the dry rot planks push us out.
Weary, heavy, off we are,
To make tired heroes of ourselves.
Tucked safely in the back seat of the car, we drove smoothly over the sweltering asphalt. The late September sky was unrelenting yet the heaviness inside the car was unrelated to the weather. It was the end. This was the drive to the aeroport. The drive to another goodbye, another change, another move, another hectic uprooting and another opportunity to unravel. It’s a drive all TCKs know. It’s a drive all parents and children know, and, regardless of family relations, it is never an easy one.
The year in Laurel, Mississippi was over. My husband had come to collect me and move me back to Cambridge, England with him. While delighted to be living with my husband again, I was torn by the change. Laurel had become a place of soft continuity for me. With the overbearing humidity, the summer thunderstorms, the noisy, lovely family meals, Laurel had embraced me when I desperately needed a place to call home. Now, that season had come to an end. Home had to again become Cambridge, a place I’m learning to love but a place I don’t really belong.
Once the Yukon had maneuvered New Orleans streets much too small for it, we found ourselves at the aeroport. Dinner had been eaten, with conversation carefully tiptoeing around the inevitable end of the evening. It was a meal I’d had with my own parents countless times. We stood with our overweight suitcases and began the arduous process of checking in and saying goodbye. My husband’s parents walked us to the beginning of security. There we hugged and cried and promised to call as soon as we had landed. We forced ourselves to pull away and join the trudging queue to the TSA checks. Just before passing through the doors, we turned to give that final wave to our parents.
When I was thirteen, I traded home schooling in for a missionary boarding school in Kenya. My mum accompanied me for orientation, settled me into my dorm room, and left too soon. I stood in the school parking lot and watched her board a bus with my best friends’ parents. Then, in true high school girl fashion, my best friend and I collapsed despairingly on the bottom bunk of my dorm room. We wept and wailed and promised not to tell anyone else how much we were crying at our parents’ departure.
Although, I don’t think we were really sad because our parents had left. I was thirteen, fighting with my parents on a weekly basis and desperate for some sort of experience close to my older sisters’ adventures. Boarding school held so much potential – friends, sports, theatre, advanced classes, and, of course, the downfall of all high schools – dating. Anticipation for the next four years overwhelmed me, as did the reality that I was saying goodbye to my mum, to a life at home, a life known and familiar. I was saying goodbye to being a child – and thirteen is a tender age to do something as bold as that.
While in boarding school, saying goodbye to parents at aeroports became routine. The last night of holiday would inevitably arrive. A final meal would be made, and shared, normal conversation would be had. In reality, all everyone wants to say is that they love one another, they’re sorry for anything that went wrong, and they’ll miss you. But even the closest families aren’t always good at telling those truths.
My parents would wake me up on the last morning, I would give my dog a final pat, climb into our Toyota Hilux and off to the aeroport we would go. There, one last café latte, one more picture for Mum, a few more hugs, and onto the aeroplane I would walk. Just before boarding I would turn and look at the window where my parents would be standing until the plane took off into the sky. I didn’t wave. I should have, but some things are just too embarrassing for a teenager. I did try to look back though.
While in high school, leaving home felt so normal and grown up. I would saunter down the aeroplane aisles blasting All American Rejects in my headphones. I would walk off the ramp mouthing Good as Hell and thinking about all the fun (or heartbreak) ahead in the new semester. But now, as an adult, saying goodbye to parents feels unnatural, and painfully difficult.
As an adolescent, I broke off ties with childhood to keep up with my peers. Boarding school doesn’t allow for people to be homesick, or to play pretend, or to spend days crying alone. Lately, I’ve been trying to find my way back to the tenderness of childhood, say a soft farewell, and grow up properly – without the jolted interruption.
Saying a premature goodbye to childhood is natural for third culture kids, I believe. We’re asked to see much more of the world than our original neighborhoods. We’re woefully unprepared and still asked to face situations, stresses, and battles that are not ours. We’re asked to see wars, despondency, and spiritual barrenness knowing our family back “home” will never understand.
It is no one’s fault, it’s Lord’s will, part of our journey in this world. It’s the same plight for those whose families fall apart, or those who are abused, betrayed, abandoned. Once the innocent safety of childhood is cracked, in floods the unprecedented pressure. Grow up. Toughen up. Deal with it. Move on.
And so, we do. But anyone who knows anything knows that when something grows too fast, it eventually breaks. Its weak foundation forsakes, crumbles. Its proud head topples down to the sinking earth. You can’t grow strong on a collapsed foundation. Forgoing childhood – denying the need to be kind, soft, curious, safe, whole – will lead to confusion and loneliness as an adult.
As most women my age did this January, I went to see the latest Little Women film. Jo has a short, knowing line about childhood. As she lays on her older sister Meg’s lap she says, “I just can’t believe childhood is over.” Meg replies, “Well, it had to end at some time.” Then Meg marries her love and Jo runs off into the homesick angst that overwhelms us when too much changes too fast.
It’s a tender moment. As a sister, it reflects so much of what I want from life and family – just a moment to breathe in and mourn childhood, before it’s out of my reach. It may not happen, and that’s okay. If Jo’s sisters hadn’t moved away, if their club had never dissolved, then the attic wouldn’t have been left empty. She would not have had all that space to dream, to write, to lay pages of her book bravely down and create something new and good and wonderful. She would never have been able to realize her own dreams if she had remained in childhood.
Maybe, it’s the same for TCKs, or for anyone struggling to say goodbye to their younger selves. We have to let go of the lives we knew, whether they were beautiful or traumatic or mild. We have to say goodbye. We can’t move fully into the next season of life if we’re still clinging to the leftovers of years gone by. But we grow in faith, knowing that at some hour we will be called Home. There we will be children, safe and contented, whole and innocent.
Recently, I was speaking to that same best friend who cried with me on our first day of boarding school. I was sharing the dark weight of loneliness, the fear of the unknown, the general upheaval I felt in moving. We cried again, together, across miles of ocean and through computer screens. We shared the same sorrow of saying goodbye to old homes and familiar knowns. We shared the same knowledge of that in between place – not quite grown up, no longer a child, but teetering dangerously between responsibility and abdication.It is the same coming of age story for anyone who’s previous life was steeped in change or upheaval. We spend our minutes carefully watching others, wanting to imitate correctly but always taking it a bit too far. We’re distorted figures of our friends and families’ reflections. Almost normal, but not quite, and exhausted from trying.
It’s good to have friends who knew you as a child, who can remind you of your lost wonderment and compassion-driven spirit. It’s good to have friends who remind you to cry, to mourn, and to put the fear away with prayerful hope. It’s good to have friends who remind you this life is not full of endings or changes, even when it feels that way.
My husband and I have countless aeroport goodbyes ahead of us. We have many more aeroport hugs waiting for us in NOLA. We just had a tearful train station goodbye with my parents in Scotland. During those final hugs I felt more like an unhinged fifteen-year-old girl than I ever did in high school. And I think that’s okay. Growing up takes time. It’s painful. It takes time to heal and repair. We’ll always be saying goodbye to someone, some place, some version of ourselves, some season of life. It’s much kinder to let yourself look forward to the adventures ahead, instead of mourning the hazy, memory dimmed days of what-might-have-been’s. It’s much grander to walk with bold faith through that final TSA line than to stay – straddled between aeroport and aeroplane, this life or that. As I said in my previous post, we cannot go back. So let’s go forward with faithful anticipation.
Author’s Note: While I never want to discourage open discourse, I do want to give a brief disclaimer. The reader may find themselves thinking I am a naïve and privileged girl who’s overly dramatic about spending time away from family. The reader is entitled to this opinion. I can only combat that by saying that I did not share extensively my personal experiences, nor my families’ experiences in Angola and elsewhere. The upheavals of personal or family life disrupts us all in different ways. While my challenges may not be yours, I hope that in some way, you find compassion through what I’ve written. Compassion for TCKs, for others, for yourself as you fight internally between childhood and adulthood. We all have to endure this fallen world together, may we do it with grace.