Tuesday, 11 June 2013

#3 Lessons from the Empty Nest ~ When Missionary Parents Leave Their Children Behind


~*~ Experiencing the Deep ~*~


I think I was 6 years old when we went on a family vacation with two other families. Our parents had rented cabins for what seemed like a two or three night stay at a vacation spot with a wooded area and places for swimming, fishing, and boating. I had a "new" hand-me-down bathing suit, a one-piece that had the cute little ruffled-skirt, and I felt like a ballerina when I put it on. It would be my first time in water deeper than my bathtub and I was excited. I was going swimming... real swimming, not just bathtub swimming.

This one lady friend with us didn’t have children. I don’t know if their children had grown and gone or if they never had children, but, either way, this lady took a liking to me and wanted to teach me how to swim. She gave me a few basic instructions, and then she took me a little further into the lake.

The lake had a designated swimming area that had been boxed-in on three sides with a dock, and we were in the middle. Kids were playing all around us, and they were loud. The lady held me close and started gently bouncing me in the water until she knew I wasn’t afraid. With my excitement and lack of fear, her bounces got bigger and deeper, and I was enjoying this wonderful first-time fun in the water. Funny how playing in the water always works-up an appetite, and we were soon ready for lunch. We left the water with promises of more water-play later in the day.

After lunch, I walked the backside of the swimming dock and watched the other kids playing in the deep water. They were jumping off right next to me. I watched as they sank under the water, popped back up, and grabbed hold of their inner-tube or the side of the dock. Then they would climb back up the dock and jump off again. I remember thinking, "I can do that"... and I did.

I jumped in, sank under the water, popped back up... and sank again. I didn’t have an inner-tube, and I wasn’t close enough to the dock to grab hold. I remember thinking I would wave my arms and call for help when I popped back up... but the only thing I had time for was another quick breath, and I went under again. This time I opened my eyes under the water, and I could see kids all around me playing and kicking. Some were close enough and bumped me in the water, but noone was close enough for me to grab and hold on to... I was sinking. I tried "climbing" the water wishing it was thick enough to hold on to and support me so I could get another breath, but I kept sinking.

While everyone else around me was having so much fun, I felt alone in my world of danger. I tipped my head back wishing I could stretch my neck to get more air; but I was too deep, and I felt the end of my life was going to happen. Then I was grabbed... pulled to the surface of the water gasping for air, arms held me up while I coughed, wheezed, and rubbed my eyes... it was my lady friend, and her voice was gently telling me I was alright now.

A little later, I went with my friends to play in the woods... but I felt sick and sat down on a log... my body began to shake uncontrollably, but I wasn’t cold. I looked at my friends and they told me my face was white and that I should go back to see my mom. I told them I had almost drown.

Years have passed, but jumping off into the deep is a horror to my soul that I will never forget. I’m not afraid of water, but I am cautious about it’s depth and aware of my limitations. I remember the feeling of being alone while surrounded by people... I remember being in extreme danger without the person nearest to me even aware of my struggles... I remember feeling all my efforts exhausted me and only sank me deeper.

Jumping off into ‘the deep’ is not just about water... there are moments in life that are just like ‘the deep’.

The day came when, for the first time, we were going to leave two of our five children behind while we returned to our mission field in Kenya, East Africa. I remembered watching from the bleachers of the gym as our son and daughter were making their way around to the different tables signing up for their college classes. The gym was crowed and loud, and the place was filled with anticipation of what the year would mean to so many.

But only the Lord knew the horror I felt in my soul and what I anticipated the years ahead would mean for my children. There my children were, surrounded by people, but noone knew them... struggles for them were going to happen, and yet I wondered if those nearest to them would know. It exhausted me to think I would be an ocean away, knowing even an emergency departure to reach them would take 3 days of planning just for one of us to make the trip. I took some deep breaths and managed a smile for them. I was there to support them, not to spoil their excitement.

We knew these days would eventually come... the days when our children would leave to make their own way in this world. After all, it’s natural for our children to leave ‘the nest’. But in all my thoughts for the future my children would have, I always imagined we would be near enough for them to bring college friends home for the holidays, and I anticipated keeping their room and beds ready for when they came home for the summer breaks, too. But instead of our children leaving ‘the nest’ we, as missionaries to a foreign field, packed-up ‘the nest’ and left them. I felt like they were in ‘the deep,’ and I was walking away... leaving them to either sink or swim on their own.

This is part of the missionary’s life... to experience ‘the deep’. Because we live in foreign lands, we’re halfway around the world from our loved ones. When it comes to the natural occurrences of life, such as our kids leaving home... their first loves... courtships and weddings... funerals and family gatherings... missionaries miss-out on a lot. Our kids never brought friends home for the holidays, there is no home in the states... we missed our daughter’s wedding... we missed my brother’s last days and funeral... I wasn’t there to help Mom when Dad was dying. To be absent from my loved ones, in these times of great need, felt like ‘the deep’ to me. I felt like I had left them to sink or swim on their own.

This absence from my family has always been my greatest struggle with this part of our missionary life, but I take great consolation in knowing we are where we are supposed to be, on the mission field.
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