I received a text from my mom Saturday morning (Tanzanian time) that my dad’s heart rate and oxygen levels were both very low and that he was not responsive. I began looking up alternative flights home (the conference officially ends Tuesday night, and my flight home was scheduled for Wednesday morning). The earliest flight I found would have me leaving Sunday night, arriving home late Monday evening. But it was still uncertain as to whether I should go ahead and make these arrangements or try and wait with fingers crossed till Wednesday.
As the day went on, things back home continued to decline, and it became apparent that I would need to try and get back as soon as possible. I was on the phone with the airline late Saturday evening when I found out my dad had passed away.
He went peacefully, while sleeping. At home, in his own bedroom, where he had been able to live for the last three months with hospice care. He wasn’t hurting, and my mom was by his side.
It still hurts, though. And it hurts even more being so far away.
When I got off the phone with my mother, I booked the soonest flight home, set to arrive Monday night. I notified the GETI leaders. I cried. I texted a few close friends. I talked to my amazingly supportive boyfriend, Jim. I tried to figure out how to feel and what to do next.
Death is strange. So is grief. It’s awkward and messy, painful and sad. No one knows what to say to you. No one knows what to do. Earlier that day, I shared with my small group that my dad’s health was declining, that it was possible I would need to leave for home sooner than planned.
Joas, my small group leader from Indonesia, asked if someone from our group would pray for me. But he requested that they do it in a language other than English. He explained that he wanted me to feel God’s presence and the group’s support in an incomprehensible way that mirrored God’s incomprehensible love. That I do not need to understand the words of a prayer to know that it is about me and for me; that God hears it just the same.
And so, we held hands in a small circle, all 12 of us. Christina, a participant from Tanzania, offered to pray. I took the hand of Diana, from Germany, on my right, and Araz, from Lebanon, on my left. Then Christina lifted up me, my father, and all of my family in Swahili, praying to our God who speaks in all tongues, understands all needs, and stands beside us in all our suffering.
I slept in this morning, as my fellow GETI participants awoke for a 5am breakfast and a 6am departure for worship in local congregations. I took my time getting up – journaling, sitting in silence, listening to the birds outside my window. I wasn’t eager to go out and see the Conference staff and GETI leaders who had remained at the lodge for the day. Word had spread the evening before of my early departure and loss, and I knew I would be greeted with many well-intentioned, but still super awkward, I’m sorry’s and how are you doing’s.
It’s as if, when you experience the death of a close loved one, you suddenly become a very fragile egg in the eyes of all around you. Again, it is meant well, but it is unnerving, the way people look at you differently. How suddenly every conversation is held in a sort of whisper, as if a normal speaking voice might startle you and break the fragile shell you are trying so hard to hold together.
But really, I don’t care how loud you talk to me, as long as the words you are saying are authentic and real. One of the most refreshing conversations I had today was with one of the facilitators who came to me, offered a hug, said he was sorry, and then just said, “Well…damn.”
Because, really, what else can you say? I don’t want to hear your theology (especially because people tend to offer the worst kind when talking about death), don’t want to hear my dad is in a better place (do you have a GPS tracker on him?), don’t want to be told I need to “be strong” (because, honestly, I already struggle with showing my emotions and being vulnerable, I don’t need to add to it), don’t want to be treated as if, at any movement, I might fall apart or shatter into a million pieces.
I just want to be able to be real. To say, “damn, yeah, this sucks. I hate that I am in another country and apart from my family right now. I hate that it is going to take me 34 hours of travel time to reach them. I hate that I am 27 years old and have lost my father.”
I don’t need anyone to fix it (because none of it can be fixed), but rather to just sit with me in the midst of it, in the midst of the sadness and the sucking and the learning how to grieve. Someone to tell me that it is ok to cry, that it is ok to not be strong, to just try and breathe and focus on taking whatever the next step is, one step at a time.
I had notified my group leader, Joas, soon after my dad passed. He offered to meet with me today and talk, or sit in silence, whichever I preferred. I took him up on that offer, and met with him after I had finished packing my suitcase and getting my things ready to leave.
Joas didn’t try to fill the void with words of reassurance or encouragement. He let me talk, as I processed and tried to make sense of this new reality. I expressed to him the challenge of being both pastor and human, questioning how I would return to my congregation with this on my heart. I complained about people treating me like an egg, with the hushed voices and the sad eyes. I named the awkwardness that is death, that is people trying to be supportive in the midst of it.
He listened to me, without trying to offer answers, without chastising me for being a bit too harsh towards those that were simply trying to help. He placed a small, beaded, Tanzanian keychain in front of me, as a gift. He told me that he had originally purchased it for his daughter, who is 28, but would buy her another. He wanted me to have it as a symbol of his support, and as a reminder of my time here and all that I was able to experience and learn.
I took the keychain in my hand and, surprisingly, began to grasp it like one would a life raft in the midst of a tumultuous ocean. I held it in my hand as I encountered others and thanked them for their condolences and hugs. I held it in my hand as I was driven from the lodge to the airport. I held it in my hand as I passed through airport security and immigration. I held it in my hand as my plane took off, as the tears streamed down my face, as I wished for the hundredth time that I was already home.
When I hold this keychain in my palm, I feel… maybe not close to God, since that is so abstract and difficult to grasp while I sit here, in the midst of death. But I do feel close to people.
I feel close to those whom I became friends with over this last week at GETI. I feel close to Joas, who sat with me today and listened to me talk and struggle and question. I feel close to my family and friends back home, who I draw nearer to with each minute that passes. I feel close to my church, who has been praying for me these two weeks that I have been gone.
When I hold the keychain, I can know that, though I currently feel very alone, on this plane however many miles up in the air, I am not alone: I am surrounded by the incomprehensible love of an incomprehensible God, tangibly shown to me through the individuals who have been set along my path.
And that knowledge very much feels like a life raft. At least, enough of one to help keep my head afloat until I can be again with my family.