Hearing from family and friends is important. The farther the distance you are from them, the more you cherish it. I’ve known this for years, but Peace Corps has amplified it.
For the most part, correspondence from home doesn’t even have to contain any real substance. Mundane details of someone’s daily routine become fascinating; real news about someone important to you takes on a new level of importance. Many of my compatriots here get extra excited for a handwritten letter, but I’m too impatient for that. Not that I would turn down a letter, though. I appreciate the time and effort of pen and paper, and the sensation of physically holding the envelope that someone half a world away addressed and stamped. But email is right next to immediate and nearly nothing can be as reassuring as a phone call.
But all of it is great. Even smoke signals, carrier pigeons, and messages in bottles can perform that all important task of letting someone know you are thinking of them, and reminding them to reach out and touch you back, at least every once in a while. All of it makes you feel like you really aren’t that far away.
I really am that far away. Or, better stated, I am just far enough away to feel like I am missing out on things, because it just isn’t the same as being there. Ideally, there would be some kind of magic pause button that I could hit just before leaving. “Ok, nobody do anything important until I get back. This includes but is not limited to: births, deaths, marriages, medical operations, new culinary inventions, any general important milestones, and parties. Especially parties.”
When leaving for South Africa, I set a goal not to return to the U.S. for the duration of my two-year commitment. Not that I wouldn’t love to see everyone, but I want to take advantage of my physical position on the planet. To boldly go as many places you’ve never been before as you can is easier (and cheaper) when you are surrounded by new places at every turn.
And I knew before I left how I would be forfeiting the opportunity to be around for things that it really pains me to miss (or, at least it just bums me out a bit). My niece, Fiona, will be nearly five by the next time I see her. My friend Tina’s baby (that she hasn’t even had yet) will be close to two by the time I meet him. Family reunions have already happened, and more are sure to come and go. And Gramma Lil’s 80th birthday party I missed by one month! Come on!
But then, there’s Facebook. For the most committed of FB users in my friends-list, I suppose I know your every move. Some of you are losing weight. Some of you are at a bar drinking. Some of you regret going on a date with some loser last week. Some of you torment me with pictures of cookies, mochas, elaborate breakfasts, etc.
Don’t stop any of this. I know I used to be a harsh critic of publishing the mundane, but now I find it strangely comforting.
And the food photos, though temporarily torturous, actually have inspired me to flex my cooking muscles. Folks in my rural South African neighborhood have now tried chocolate chunk cookies (since you can’t seem to get chocolate chips in town). Kids from the neighborhood were very literally and audibly licking their chops as I was spooning the cookie dough on to the baking sheet. If I hadn’t known firsthand the authenticity of their anticipation for this out-of-the-ordinary delight, I would have thought they were paid to overact how badly they wanted to eat the stuff. I should have recorded a video of them. It would be a YouTube sensation.
And then, there’s bad news. In the three months since leaving the United States I’ve learned of the death of a childhood friend and my dad needing to have his thyroid removed due to a cancerous tumor. If there were ever times for wanting to be closer, it is these.
Sadly, I couldn’t attend my old friend Bob’s funeral. It is hard to say if I would have figured out a way to be in Ohio for it had I still been living and working in Arizona when it happened, especially since it happened the weekend after my Grandmother’s big birthday party that I definitely would have been in Ohio for. Bob was one year younger than me and lived down the street from me growing up. We were in a band together in high school (the Flower Punks!). He played bass guitar. We were really close for a good part of our formative years as rock and roll musicians, but I haven’t talked to him in a long, long time.
The way he died was really unfortunate and sad, too. He was hit by a car while walking down the road. The news report …
Because he was something of a Youngstown fixture (especially due to his bass playing, which was quite good), he was still running in circles of people I still talk to from time-to-time, some of whom are folks I consider to be friends for life. So due to this unfortunate event, I’ve been in contact with many people who I haven’t talked to in years, like my high school friend, Lee Ann. As she wrote in a Facebook conversation we had in the week following, the funeral was “… the worst high school reunion I never wanted to attend.” But, I’m glad to know so many people were there for it, and for each other.
Happily, on the other hand, my dad’s surgery was a success and he is recovering quickly. Though there were some moments that I wished communication was a little more immediate and/or thorough, sometimes – no matter where you are – the only thing you can do is wait. And as Tom Petty says, “The waiting is the hardest part.”
Through a couple of email messages and a couple of phone calls leading up to the surgery, I was confident that the procedure had a high chance of going smoothly, as my mom and dad were both very optimistic. Then the big operation day arrived: just this past Monday, October 8. I was told I would get an email from my sister when he was in recovery with an update on his status.
What I hadn’t counted on was a mystery text-to-email message that I received on Monday evening. It came from a phone number that I didn’t recognize and it wasn’t signed, so I assumed it was from the hospital – like some kind of update service you could sign up for before going into surgery. The information contained only the basics (the “who” and the “what”), followed by “keep him in your positive thoughts and prayers.”
After a few more hours with no updates, I called my sister’s house. I got to have a nice chat with my brother-in-law, Dan, who helped me piece together that the message I had received earlier was from my Aunt Peach (my mom’s sister), that the message was sent to a bunch of other people who know my mom and dad, and that though they did find some additional cancer cells and would have to do a more intensive post-op therapy, everything else was going as smoothly as possible. But honestly, just talking to somebody about it all can calm you down a lot … more than you consciously realize until the conversation is over.
Something else I should point out here is that I decided to watch Amistad on this particular evening while awaiting the update of my dad’s condition. I had picked it up at the library earlier that day. Watching people suffering in a fight for their freedom – and, in effect, their lives (even if some of the historical parts were bent to further dramatize this Spielberg flick) – is not recommended for the day a loved one goes under the knife. I knew I should have checked out the remake of The Pink Panther starring Steve Martin instead. C’est la vie.
I did get an honest-to-goodness email update from my Mom late last night. (Due to the time difference, it was early evening for her when she sent it.) It is thorough to the point of how nice the people are at the hospital and how good the food is there. Things seem to be even better than in the picture painted by Dan.
All of this reflecting on communication makes me realize how much I rely on it. And I haven’t even scratched the surface of how much the majority of the volunteers in my group communicate with each other on a daily (hourly, perhaps) basis. That would require its own blog post.
It makes you appreciate what our war-time armed services personnel go through even more; they have limited ability to communicate with their loved ones on top of the already hellish conditions of war. My hat is off to them. Or, more appropriately, I salute them.
I am lucky that so many people are following my little adventure here, if for no other reason than for when they tell me so. It gives me an opportunity to talk/write to them and reminds me of how I am connected to my home and my hometown and all the people who are important to me. But the truth is, even just reading a stupid Facebook update about what someone ate for breakfast allows me to have my cake and eat it, too … to a degree. (Cake for breakfast: a wonderful, Cosby-esque idea. Better make it chocolate.) So, to my friends and family, keep up the good work. If you write to me, email me, FB message me, call me, whatever, you know I will happily return the favor in kind.