Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Goodbye Season - Part 2

(Written June 3, 2016 while flying over Madagascar. Posting now when I finally had time to sit down at the computer.)

Over the past few weeks, I have said many goodbyes to the people and places that have been by family and home for the past 9 months. As I said in the previous post, I call this “the Goodbye Season”.

The hardest by far of all the goodbyes have been the people. When you live in such close community like we do on the ship, people you meet, even just for a few weeks become more than friends. Life on the Africa Mercy has its own culture that is nearly indescribable and hard to understand unless you’ve experienced it. I have been extremely blessed to have an incredibly close group of friends that mostly came together to the ship in August with a few additions along the way – and what’s even better is that most of them will be back onboard for some time during the next field service in Benin, making the goodbyes much easier (more like ‘see you later’). It hurts my heart to even think how much harder “goodbye season” would be if I didn’t know I was coming back in a few months! Nevertheless there are a few friends who are moving on from life on the Africa Mercy and those goodbyes have nearly broken me. I joke that I have probably cried more times in the past 9 months than the previous 9 years! This place will do that to you! Thanks to technology and easy travel, there is a good likelihood I may see some of these people again, but the hole they will leave on the ship is hard to fill. I’ve found that with each person who comes and goes, I notice something memorable about them that changes once they’re gone. It may be an empty office, a missing breakfast companion or the spot we would share our coffee break – each person changes the atmosphere of a place and memories of them are all around.

The final goodbye is in process as I write this from thousands of feet in the air about Madagascar. Yesterday, we drove from our little port city of Tamatave to the capital city, Antananarivo, where we spent the night before boarding our flight today (‘we’ because I’m leaving with a group of 5 other girls and traveling to South Africa before heading home). Madagascar is an exotic country full of beauty and diversity. The people have been welcoming and generous – showing us all their country has to offer and laughing along with us in our feeble attempts to learn their language. “Azafady Tompoko, Malagasy Kely Kely!!” (Very sorry, little Malagasy!) I never imagined before coming how much excitement Madagascar would have to offer and how much exploring we would get to do while serving here. My fellow crew will laugh at this, but I naively imagined we would rarely leave the ship and I never considered the idea of vacation time, haha! Instead, I’ve had the opportunity to travel several times around this country and spend many weekends and days off out exploring the town! The past few days were spent revisiting all my favorite places: the little hidden café for coffee and homemade chocolate croissants, the Bazaar where they know who we are and what items are our favorite, the grocery store where I learned the French word for flour and how to buy yummy local Malagasy snacks, the man on Beach Road who chops open a fresh, cold coconut for me to drink for about $.30, the ice cream shop with the most incredible passion fruit sorbet, and the secluded Oceanside hotel with the goat cheese salad and best chocolate mousse (and where they don’t mind if you sit all day reading a book or chatting with friends!). And this is just to name a few. I’ve taken a piece of Madagascar with me in my heart and left a huge chunk of myself here on this magical island.

So how do I make sense of this inevitable part of the life I’ve chosen to live? This is only my first experience with ‘the Goodbye Season’ so I am not an expert by far. But I do know a few ‘experts’ who’ve experienced this 5 or 10 times before and even they say there’s no easy answer. It never gets easier to say goodbye unless you close yourself off and become hardened to people – something I will fight to never let happen! Why does God put us here to meet amazing people and visit incredible places and open our hearts to new friends – only to have them ripped away? There are many thoughts on this and each person has to cope with it in their own way. For me, I’ve come to the realization that God is not in the business of intentionally hurting us. Instead, he allows us to experience His awesome creation – people and places – even if only for a short time. I know in my heart that each person has been put in this place at this time for a reason. He doesn’t allow accidents or make mistakes. Rather than focusing on the sadness of leaving, I am forced to appreciate what each interaction has brought to my life. Each goodbye is a person who impacted my life; or maybe I was a part of something they needed during this time. Even in a short few months, I have learned so much from knowing these people, and I will carry those bits in my heart forever. Instead of pieces of my heart being ripped away, I prefer the image of my heart being molded and shaped with each person leaving their mark for me to cherish always.

I wish I could wrap this up with a bow all nice and neat, but the truth is I’ve shed a few tears just as I’ve written this out. Also know that I don’t write this expecting sympathy (except in the form of prayer for wisdom and comfort through these transitions). I write this from a place of authentic honesty and openness to show that while this life has so much beauty and wonderful things to offer, it can also be hard and take its toll on your mind, heart and emotions.

Want some more honesty?? I wouldn’t trade it for ANYTHING!!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Goodbye Season - Part 1

(Written June 3, 2016 while flying over Madagascar. Posting today when I finally had time to sit down at the computer.)

A blog I read, called A Life Overseas, calls this time of year (around May and June) “The Leaving Season”. I guess it’s a common occurrence of missionaries living in other countries to travel, take vacations or return home from the mission field during these months. My personal opinion is that it should be called “The Goodbye Season” instead. Mercy Ships runs on a field service cycle: working in one country (this year, Madagascar) for about 10 months from August-May, then two months ‘shipyard’ period (in South Africa) from June-July to do basic maintenance and repairs on the ship, then sail to country next (Benin) in August to start all over again. Because of this cycle, about 50% of the crew onboard leave or take PTO in May or June. This is especially true where I work in the hospital, since we don’t need doctors or nurses to run an empty hospital.
I explain all this to say that the past month or so has been a season of emotions, mostly sad ones. People and places come and go all the time – it’s just the way of Mercy Ships – but it’s a billion times harder when all the goodbyes come at once and some of them are very hard ones. In this post and the next (it was too long so I had to split it in half), I will try to give a picture of what the past few weeks have been like in yet another part of ship life on the Africa Mercy.

Last week it started with saying goodbye to our final patients in the hospital. Although we finished surgeries the week before, we still had several patients waiting for follow-up appointments or final dressing changes and rehab. One small ray of sunshine in all of this was that our Hope Center closed a week early to start packing up so all the patients staying there moved back to the ship. It was fun to spend a few extra days with some of my previous patients who had surgery back in January or February :) On the last day, they were all ready to go home. It was such a touching thing to watch them all shake our hands or give one more hug, then the kids skipped down the hall shouting “Tsy Veloma” (no goodbye) over and over!
The next few days, any hospital crew still onboard were put to work cleaning and packing up the hospital to prepare for sailing. It was eerily quiet and a little heartbreaking to not hear children laughing, babies crying, women singing or even any Malagasy language spoken at all :( But with each surface cleaned or bed put away, I thought of each life impacted in that place in the past 10 months and how many more lives are waiting to be changed in Benin! It’s a lot of work but I know it will be worth it to see those first patients arrive on the ship in a few months.

The next goodbye was Friday when we had our Day Crew Appreciation party. I can’t remember how much I’ve written about our Day Crew, but they are Malagasy people the ship hires to help in translating, cooking, cleaning and keeping the ship in top condition. In Madagascar, we had over 300 Day Crew that worked in almost every area of the ship. At the end of each field service, we have a giant party to celebrate them and thank them for all their work. The captain and managing director speak, each department is recognized and the Day Crew put together special performances like singing and dancing. Then at the end, after lots of hugs and final pictures, it was time to say goodbye. This is an especially difficult goodbye for crew members who have been with the ship the past 2 years because they’ve gotten so close to the Day Crew being together almost 20 months. I am sorry now that I didn’t take the time to get to know our Day Crew as much as I should have and it’s a goal I plan to work on for next year. But I hope they know how much we appreciate their hard work, long hours, flexibility and forgiveness as we often make mistakes trying to navigate the Malagasy culture. Mercy Ships could absolutely not do the work we do without their translating, serving alongside us and answering our endless questions about Madagascar. I have heard from the Day Crew many times “Thank you for coming to help my country”, but what I want to tell them is “It’s an honor to serve Madagascar and thank YOU for loving your own people and serving them so well!”

It’s never easy to leave the country you’ve worked so hard in year after year and I’m sure people who have served with Mercy Ships for a long time would say that it never gets easier, but our organization chooses to visit many countries to provide our services to more people instead of focusing on one area. It’s a hard choice and neither way is right or wrong. One solace in these goodbyes is that I can see the potential we are leaving behind in Madagascar. In those 300+ Day Crew, there is the potential to change this country. They are intelligent, skilled, passionate and driven. They WILL do great things here and continue bringing hope to this country – and Mercy Ships was only the beginning for them!

God brought Mercy Ships to Madagascar two years ago through a series of circumstances no one could have seen coming…but He had a plan all along to bring the ship here and use this ministry to further His kingdom. We can leave this place knowing for sure that God is working in this country and that doesn’t stop once the Africa Mercy leaves. He goes with the ship, but He also stays behind in Madagascar and goes ahead of us to Benin as well.

“Great things He has done, greater things He will do.
Unto the Lord be the glory, great things He has done.”