Last night was my last evening in Malawi for seven weeks. And although I am returning to the very same country in a little less than two months, some of the ‘goodbyes’ I said yesterday were ‘forever’ goodbyes – there are friends I left last night and this morning that I quite likely, will never see again and that is weighing heavily on me today as I sit on a plane and head west.
I took a long walk early this morning around Lilongwe, thinking about the reality of giving someone a hug, looking into their eyes and realizing that they are about to disappear from your present life…or that you are about to vanish from theirs. I have had to leave a lot of places and have left many, many friends behind, but this morning feels different. It feels sad, and lonely, and in some ways, a little bit unfair. And the question of the day is, why, of all moments in time, leaving people behind should be so difficult, particularly since I am not actually leaving Malawi forever this time around…
Between meandering through Lilongwe, packing my things, sending farewell messages and trying to hold it together long enough to get on the plane I am on right now, I sort of figured something out about this whole ‘saying goodbye’ thing. Like I said, this isn’t my first time around the block with all of this but I think that is precisely WHY watching people move in and out of my life at this stage is such a slippery, sad feeling. It occurred to me today, somewhere between the capital city roundabout and town, that as we get older, that beautiful, naïve, youthful optimism about the wide-openness of the future settles a bit, and age and experience inevitably temper that sense that anything is possible. The once novel idea that we never really have to let anything or anyone go, starts to fade as life sort of proves that fate often has other ideas. Living in Latin America at 23 years old I would have thrown my hands up to the sky and shouted with certainty that my friends and I would hold onto each other forever, that we would travel and meet up in exotic places, and that there were indeed no obstacles to those goals.
To a certain extent this is true – there are those people who you can and must hold close to you long after you depart or they take off from a particular junction in your life. I have those friends – I cherish those individuals beyond all reasonable comprehension. But there are always other people in your life who despite playing important roles in your everyday experiences and being the powerful, colorful backgrounds of your stories and memories, inevitably fade away or flit out of your life without warning or control.
I don’t mean to say that getting older kills off that wonderful joy and anticipation of what lies ahead, because I don’t think it does. (I certainly look at my future right now and although it freaks me out a little bit, it does so in that great, butterflies-in-the-stomach way that only having no earthly idea what you’re doing can). Nor do I want imply that I haven’t made absolutely amazing lifelong friends over the past four months, because I have, way beyond my wildest expectations and much to my immense joy and surprise. But this is precisely why moving on from a place, a home, or a tight-knit community often just blatantly sucks – my friendships and my experiences from this winter and spring are why I am struggling so badly with heading back to the states right now.
The circumstances of living abroad as an expat tend to perpetuate the development of fast, intense friendships. For me, moving to Malawi hasn’t just been about finding a niche in my professional life, it has been about finding a community and a home where I feel like me for the first time in a long, long time. I have fallen madly and deeply in love with my friends here, not in a romantic way, but in the way you love your family, or your childhood friends who know everything about you from the time you were 8 years old. I have fallen in love in that way that makes your heart want to explode and break at the same time when you think about what your world is going to look like without them in the not so distant future – Avik Maitra, you know who you are.
What I am trying to say, sitting on this plane, writing a letter to the world and thinking about how ironic it is that I will be saying goodbyes all over again next week in Boston, is that in committing my future to one more year in Malawi, I have committed myself to one more year of amazing friendships, of falling in love with the people in my community over and over again, and to having another 12 months of incomparable and unfathomable experiences. But this means, too, that I have also agreed to open myself up to an endless stream of goodbyes, some of which I anticipate are going to make my world seem empty for a long, long time. It’s a spiral, cyclical existence, one that would be impossible to cope with if we didn’t build strong relationships with those around us. I don’t think that any one of us who chooses this future goes in thinking she can do it all on her own.
So, with a twinge of sorrow and a bit of sad acceptance, (and just a smidge of sentimentality, let’s face it), my final thought is this: the very existence of true friendship and community forces the existence of ‘forever’ goodbyes – none of us can really say for sure what the future holds, or who will enter or leave our lives at any given time. And as much as the leaving part is painful and hurts to even think about, maybe it is also a good reminder that each of us needs to embrace who and what we have in the present and take those wonderful experiences and people for what they are worth right now.
The last few months have been a great gift in my life, one that would not have been the same without those individuals who shared it with me, even if only for a moment. A million thank you’s to my friends, past, present, and forever…