Friday, March 13, 2015

Grief and Thankfulness: When Peace Corps Sent Me Home

Last Tuesday, I got a phone call from the Peace Corps medical staff in Morocco. The moment the doctor said hello, I knew what she was calling about. It was her voice, the kind of voice my mom always used when she had bad news. Full of apology and regret.

Sure enough. Peace Corps had decided to medically separate me, which in PC jargon means that they'd decided I have a medical condition (asthma) that cannot sufficiently be addressed in Morocco, that staying for another year poses harm to my health, and that they are sending me home. Now.

I was actually prepared for this. They first mentioned it last fall, then more strongly a month ago. I went through an appeal process, tried to keep hoping I'd be allowed to stay. But I'm a realist, and I knew. I'd started making lists in my head: reasons I was happy to go home, reasons I wouldn't miss Morocco, people I needed to tell, items I needed to pack. I'd begun designing contingency plans: this person might be able to help take over this class, that person could help me finish that competition, I needed to print these documents in order for this counterpart to successfully continue with that project. I reminded myself how unhappy I was in Morocco in the beginning, how much medical issues have frustrated and inconvenienced and sometimes scared me this year, how nice it was to be home for Christmas and how it could be nice to be home again. Plans, logic, lists. Using reason to counter emotion. It usually works.

Not this time. I was not at all prepared for the wave of emotion that swamped me, for the tears that started to spill almost immediately. I was embarrassed to be crying on the phone, embarrassed to find myself tearing up again later when I told my sitemate, embarrassed by how easily and often I choked up over the next few days. 

It took almost a week to realize: I'd had this reaction only three times in my life, each time when a friend passed away. This was grief. Hovering in the periphery of my consciousness constantly, jumping in during logical moments (breaking the news to friends, receiving the official exit paperwork, saying goodbye to my host family) and during odd ones (getting cat-called, taking a bucket bath, hurrying home to get out of sandstorm, lying on my roof under the stars.) Big moments and little, the grief hit me again and again, leaving me emotionally raw for days on end. 

As you can imagine, this was not quite the frame of mind I'd wanted for my last few days in my town. I was busy and stressed, trying to do in four days what I could have used two weeks to do well. I was irritable and tired and always on the verge of tears. I found myself wishing I could just leave. Get out of that weird half-existence and just go.

Then, on Saturday, my two best friends in site came over to spend the day with me. They helped me pack a little, but mostly we just hung out. Played Settlers of Catan and talked about life and made pizza and laughed. A lot. At the flour dusting my shirt when I mixed dough too enthusiastically, at our half-hearted plans to hide me where Peace Corps couldn't find me and thus couldn't send me home, at the squeal one of them emitted when I asked if she wanted to keep my exercise ball. We reminisced about the year and all the good times we've had, and one of them told me she's changed a lot this year and it's because of me.

That was the beginning, but it wasn't the end. The tears and the grief were pushed away by a new feeling: thankfulness. When other volunteers stepped up to agree to continue the programs I've worked so hard on, when I met a young university graduate who was looking to gain experience and was thrilled to take over my English classes, when friends set their plans aside to make time for me before I left. When mere acquaintances reached out with words of comfort, and students without two dirhams to rub together gave me gifts, and I paged back through my journal and remembered the good moments this year. When I filled out my "Description of Service" form and realized just how much I have accomplished. 

That, I think, is the key to making sense of this. I'm still grieving, still angry and frustrated and wanting to rail at the injustice of it. But none of those emotions are productive and none were contributing to making my last days in Morocco happy ones. So instead of focusing on what I'm losing and what I won't get to do, I'm doing my best to focus on what I gained and what I did. What I learned. Who I met and will never forget. Because, in spite of everything, this year has held more goods than bads, and for that, I am so very thankful.

No comments:

Post a Comment