We’d finished scarfing down Chic-fil-A nuggets and fries, we’d made one final pit stop at the airport restrooms, and boarding was starting in 20 minutes. With the knot of emotions tightening in our stomachs, we knew it was time. The whole group formed a circle, and a few people prayed.
Then, one by one, we started saying our goodbyes. I (Rachel) had already spent the last few weeks crying at the oddest times – at my sister’s wedding rehearsal dinner, in the shower, and late at night in bed. But now, as I hugged my siblings and parents goodbye, the wave of emotions hit me like a ton of bricks. And the tears came.
I couldn’t stop them. It was hard to make sense of the whole tangle of emotions, thoughts, and memories that all coursed through my heart and head. I realized I was crying not only because of all the good times we’d had together over these past few weeks, but also because of all that I would miss in each of their lives while we’re gone overseas. Four years is a long time. A lot of life is going to happen to each of them, and I won’t get to be there for it. My niece will be 6 years old the next time I see her. My youngest sisters will be 17 and 20 before I see them again. There will be so many moments of their lives that I’m going to miss.
And so I cried. And I held them tight, trying to etch those hugs in my memory. Trying to memorize their faces, their voices. Trying to choke out the words “I love you” between my tears.
For Josiah, the wave of tears welled up inside him and started leaking out his eyes even before we all circled up to pray. But as our pastor prayed for us, prayed for God’s guidance and peace for us, he felt an incredible sense of calm come over him. It’s not that he wasn’t sad to leave our family, because he was. He cares about them deeply. But the tears and pain were overwhelmed by an even greater sense of peace and security in knowing that this is exactly what God has for us. He still felt the pang of loss as he hugged our family members and friends goodbye, and as we waved one last time before we disappeared out of sight.
Since walking down the jetway to the airplane in Kansas City, both our faces have been watered many times with unbidden tears as memories of our family members flood our minds. I’m sure we looked pretty strange to many people as we sat there on the plane with tears running down our faces.
Please understand I’m not having a pity party, and you don’t need to have one for me, either. I’m just trying to give you a glimpse into the real heart and guts of what it’s like for missionaries saying goodbye at the airport. It is honestly one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
So if you were to lick our fingers, you wouldn’t taste the nuggets and fries we had for lunch, or the soft pretzels we ate during our short layover in Dallas….you would taste the tears that we have wiped from our own faces, from each other’s faces, and from our family’s faces. The tears that mean that we care so very deeply for our family, but we have to leave. The tears that realize that no matter how tightly we hold them when we say goodbye, we still have to let go.