When I was 24 my parents moved to Hanoi, Vietnam to be missionaries. I was an adult, living on my own several states away from where they’d been living, and was surprised at my own response to the announcement that they were moving. I found myself grieved, giddy, mournful and completely unable to account for those emotions: all in all, things were not really going to change. I would not see them often (which was already the case). Instead of a 10 hour car ride, there would be an 18 hour flight. That’s only 8 hours! Why was I shaken? I’d lived ‘away’ from them since I was 11. I took to writing to try to sort this out, and ended up writing them a letter, to be opened only AFTER they arrived in Hanoi. The letter turned out to be a series of affirmations of them, coupled with apologies by me… some things I needed to get off my chest… or at least have them understand.
One such incident: As a special surprise for my thirteenth birthday, my mother scraped up enough money to fly to the boarding school to spend the weekend with me. The day had gone largely unacknowledged, and routine: I went to school, ate lunch, and had a fairly uneventful day. So I was startled to see her in the shared sitting room between the boys and girls halls in the hostel. I stopped in the doorway, unable to take a step forward. One of the boys pushed me on through, moving me out of his way. Mom stood up and turned to me and said “Happy Birthday! I’m here to spend the weekend with you! I am staying at the guest house. Do you want to stay there with me this weekend?”
My behavior was less than stellar. I refused to go to the guest house with her, refused to stay with her, refused to eat with her. I made certain we were never alone together and Saturday morning I got up early and took off, not caring who was worried or offended. I spent the day romping in the jungle, and when I returned late that evening hardly spoke to her. She was hurt. The house parents were livid. I’d proven how unruly I could be. She finally declared that if I didn’t want her there, she’d save herself the housing expense and just hop the next flight home. Fine.
The 24 year old had spent 11+ years thinking about how awful she’d acted. She needed–I needed–my mother to understand what was going on. So in that letter read 11 years later in a hotel room in Vietnam, my mother learned this: “It wasn’t that I didn’t love you. The problem was that I loved you too much to have you just come in and out my life–too much for these sorts of surprises. You see, I’d spent the year at boarding school pretending you were dead. It was easier for me to be the orphan than the unwanted child. The idea that life for you and dad went on without me and Bill was just too much to take in. I wanted to not think about you until the holidays. Then the holidays felt like heaven: a reunion of sorts. But during everyday life at the boarding school, I just couldn’t bear you both moving through the routines of life without us kids.”