My sister has never divorced me, although she’s had a lifetime of opportunities to do so. We’re a couple of years apart in age, I’m older, and we couldn’t be more different. However, if there were anyone I could kill for, it would be her, and if not kill, then at least walk through fire. If there is anyone in my life who is steadfast and true in her love for me, it is my sister. She has never let me down.
Peace Corps has been in business now for 50 years, or will be as of 2011. They’ve figured out a few things along the way, about what does and what does not work for volunteers serving in-country. When you apply for Peace Corps, they ask you several “nosey” kinds of questions, but none in the least is about being in a committed, romantic relationship, or marriage. If a potential volunteer is in a serious relationship, the “spouse” remaining at home must sign a consent form, a “permission letter,” so to speak, acknowledging their blessing of their mate’s intended service. If I remember correctly, the document is official enough to need notarization.
Why is this highly formal spousal agreement necessary? Because Peace Corps has learned, that of all the challenges in-country volunteers face, one of the most insurmountable involves matters of the heart: especially if matters of the heart call the volunteer home.
When I applied for and was accepted for Peace Corps, I knew I was taking a risk with my primary relationship. Although we had been in a partnership for nearly 10 years, and I felt remarkably happy, I must admit (I felt) we had reached a “flat place” in our relationship. While I had idealistic notions that our time apart would allow us to foster and enrich our personal lives, so that we could come back together and reunite as a “better, stronger couple,” I intuitively suspected the relationship wouldn’t make it and, as best as I could, found a safe home for my belongings. If the relationship were lost, I didn’t want to have to deal with “moving” from the other side of the world. I found a home for most of my possessions, but not all.
Even though I prepared intellectually for the loss of the relationship, when the loss was finally realized, the emotional reality of it unraveled me. And this is why Peace Corps is very smart about their qualification process: it is very, very, very difficult to come to a new world, where the language, the people, and the culture is very different from one’s own, to try to integrate and try to find meaningful work, and to operate as a functional human being when one is devastated from the loss of a romantic relationship.
As hard as it is to lose love in one’s own country, it is a billion times harder to lose love in another. I’ve certainly been here before, in this place of lost love. I joke with others that I don’t know if I’ve been incredibly lucky in love or incredibly unlucky in love, (as I can’t seem to find one that “sticks”) because I’ve had quite a variety! I’m approaching 50 years old and feel pretty grown up most of the time, but the loss of this relationship has completely undone me and at times in my Peace Corps service, I’ve felt less than functional.
Everyone knows the pain of lost love, and I think Elizabeth Gilbert does an excellent job of describing it in her Eat, Pray, Love. For me, there is the loss of appetite that lasts for weeks and the choking down of meals into a stomach that refuses to cooperate; there is the ongoing and never- ending sobbing and production of mucous; there is the dull ache on waking in the many mornings on the realization of “Oh my God, did this really happen?”; and there is the feeling like a zombie-fied, empty-shell remaining of a person, gliding through her days with a smile pasted to her face and the robotic, “Yes, I’m fine. How are you?,” all the while feeling anything but fine. But the worst of it, for me, is feeling unloved in an unlovable world: my surroundings feel chaotic and threatening, and I miss, sorely miss the comfort of knowing that on the other side of the world, someone loves me, and only me (or, well, mostly me), and lives and breathes with loving attention for me. I wore that love like a magical, all-powerful cloak: it was durable, it was warm, it was inpenetrable, and it was indestructible. It kept me safe and sheltered… Or so I thought… And without it, I feel raw, naked, vulnerable, unprotected, and exposed.
Only days after hearing “the news” of my break up, I was asked to “go to Grade Seven and make them be quiet” and I entered the classroom wondering, “What can I do with these kids for all of the eleven minutes I have before I have to teach my own class?” Being somewhat silly, I decided we would have a few minutes of a game-type quiz show: “Ask an American ANYTHING.” Of any question they could ask, they asked, “Who are your friends in the US?” When I stumbled back with, “I have many, many friends in the US, far too many to name,” I nearly came to tears when they revised their question with, “ Who is your BEST friend in the US?” The children, of course, had no idea I had just lost my “best friend.”
I’m finding myself in a strange place, away from family and friends, away from everything I know, and am awkwardly trying to live “all alone in the world.” Of course, I’m not alone, but it feels like it. I’m amazed too, to find how much my identity was derived from being a part of this person’s life, to be a part of this couple. Who will I be now without this person in my life? Who will I be when I come home? Where will I live? What work will I do?
I told friends and family members on coming to Africa that I felt the experience of my Peace Corps service would “crack me wide open.” I feel indeed “cracked open,” but rather from the loss of this relationship than my Peace Corps experience.
For perhaps the first time in my life, I’m experiencing the pain of loss of love unaided by the “crutches” of food, chemicals, alcohol, compulsive “busyness,” or indeed, in the love of another. I do have friends and family that are supporting me and nurturing me through this painful transition and I’m working furiously trying to gain a better spiritual grounding. I do, in fact, feel as though I’m walking through a fire, and that the old me is breaking to bits and burning ferociously away. On bad days, all of this feels absolutely dreadful and I can’t imagine enduring yet one more day of it. On good days, I’m excited about the new Karen and who I’ll be when I emerge from this fire and rise up and walk out of it from the other side.
My sister will spend a weekend very near the Thanksgiving holiday, with her family having just arrived just from out-of-town, and with another family member seriously ill in the hospital, to interrupt her always-busy-life and stop what she’s doing to go to my former-residence to pick up my belongings, as I am indeed, bothering with a move from the other side of the world.
In this way, and as she always has when I needed her to, she is walking through the fire with me.
PS. I have many other “sisters” (and brothers) of blood and of choice who are loving and supporting me through this incredibly challenging time of my life. And in my tribute to my sister, I honor you all. Thank you, I am incredibly lucky and blessed to have so many loving people in my life.
PSS. My zinnia is more fully opened now… Isn’t it divine? I have another partially opened and several more buds. God is good!