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April 25, 2022

Living Abroad: The Pain they could Never Prepare you For.

Since I was young, maybe 14, I knew I was leaving and so did everyone else.

I was sure to mention it to everyone who mattered. I mean, who tells their first boyfriend not to get attached because they won’t be here after high school? I did.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an adventurer with my eyes set on new land, new people, new culture, new food, and new experiences. It’s as if that was my comfort zone—being on an airplane, waiting for the opportunity to step out of the big metal door into the next destination with no idea of what’s to come.

It started when my dad took me on my first trip. We went to Sint Maarten with my aunt and uncle. I was the only child tagging along. That was the norm—being the only child in a room full of adults. I remember it so clearly; it was my first time on an airplane.

Walking up the narrow steps of a Dash 8, a plane that now seems so small, but from my tiny nine-year-old eyes, it looked huge. Looking into the cockpit and seeing all of the flashing lights and buttons made my eyes widen with curiosity. I wondered how the pilots knew what to press and pull; how did they know where to look next? What if they pressed the wrong button?

I took a seat beside my dad, something that was a bit unfamiliar because we didn’t usually spend time together; we sure as hell never sat side-by-side with nowhere to go for this long. He looked over at me and said, “You know, when the pilot starts the engine, we all need to rock back and forth to get the plane to move. Get ready!” So here I am, gullible as they come, rocking back and forth in the rickety seat, looking around at everyone else wondering why they weren’t helping. A core memory, one of the only memories that includes my dad.

After that trip, I traveled with my best friend at the time (two tweens free from their parents) from the East coast of Canada to the West, on my own as a teen to visit my brother across the country, and with family to the Dominican Republic and Cuba. By the time I graduated junior high school, I had been on more airplanes than most people get to experience in a lifetime. It felt natural; it felt freeing.

When I went to visit my brother on the other side of the country, I had convinced my mother that I didn’t need that silly “Unaccompanied Minor” badge (how embarrassing). She agreed and sent me on my way. Here I was, 14 years old, responsible to get myself on and off of four different planes and a ferry, alone. I was fearless, feeling as though I had already been practicing for a lifetime.

This was the moment of truth, proving to myself and my mom that I could do it on my own and that she made the right call. That was until I found myself in the Montreal airport whining on the phone to my mom that I was lost and couldn’t find the gate. “Just ask someone!” she screamed. Another core memory. I made it to the gate just in time, by the way—and yes, I had to run like I had never run before.

It’s in my blood. That feeling of freedom and excitement that comes from walking through the narrow aisle of the flying tin can to a window seat, squished into a row of strangers who awkwardly never know where to put their elbows. It’s my comfort.

I think that became my identity in some strange way. Not meaning for it to end up that way, but it did.

I became the cousin who was never there for Christmas dinners, the sister who was never there for anything at all, the daughter who abandoned her single mother, the stepsister who felt more like a stranger, the (step) aunt who isn’t worthy of the name, the niece who was oddly more independent than their own, the family member that many never met, the daughter who finally made her father proud.

The one who everyone assumes is okay.

That’s the part they don’t prepare us for.

What they see are tropical destinations with crystal clear blue water and white sand, the trip that they so desperately crave to experience as an escape from their nine-to-five job. They see me drink from a coconut assuming that nothing could be better than that. They see the stamps on my passport as they wish to feel half as free. They see photos of me holding a cute, cuddly koala bear and feeding kangaroos from my hands. They see the endless amounts of golden orange sunsets and the free time I have to enjoy them. They see the delicious food that I get to eat on a daily basis. They see the smiles and the happiness of a girl who’s livin’ the dream.

What they don’t see is the grief.

The loneliness.

The pain.

The instability.

The heartache.

Grief is often not visible. It doesn’t translate well through a photo. It’s easily hidden behind the smile of the girl who is supposed to be happy because, well, she chose this life after all. She decided to leave. She did this to herself. And how sad can she really be when she’s living the dream of the majority of the population on Earth? She has no right to be sad.

Talk about pressure.

Not only is there grief, the loss of everything I’ve ever known, but there is the obligation of holding the image that others have painted of me. There is the feeling of not being heard, seen, or understood because most would kill for the life I have. I don’t dare say that I’m sad and lonely because that just means I’m ungrateful. They just don’t get it, and it’s exhausting to try to explain it to someone who hasn’t lived it.

So often, we hold ourselves back because of the fear. We fear what might happen if we leave our family behind. We fear our own ability to support ourselves financially, emotionally, and mentally. We fear the loss of our weekly paycheck because it always finds its way into our bank account without much thought. We fear not having a stable place to call home. We fear leaving our parents and grandparents, knowing that they are growing older each day that passes and that it may not be a choice to see them soon.

I’m not that person.

As much as I would love to be just like my family—to settle down, have kids, and live a life that is seemingly predictable, I would be leaving my needs behind.

That’s not okay for me.

I see the fear and I challenge it every single day. I follow my heart even when my brain screams otherwise. With stepping through the fear comes loss.

We can’t have it both ways.

We are always faced with leaving something behind when we step through the door of our desires. There is always someone or something that we have to let go of and accept for them to stay where they are. We have to come to terms with the fact that we can’t have it all.

Every day I am faced with the loss of my family, even though they are still earthside. I grieve the absence of a warm hug on a bad day. I feel the sadness of not being included in the family photos, as if my existence isn’t real. I feel the envy of not being a part of the celebrations like birthdays and Christmas, or even just the simple occasions like stopping by for a coffee with family.

Oftentimes, I’m crying myself to sleep because all I want in that moment is for someone to say “I’ve got you, it’s okay.” I grieve the familiar scent of home. Just the other day, I received a care package from my mom (something that meant way more than she will ever know). Inside the package was a reusable grocery bag that she had used to put stuff into, so simple and also convenient! The next day I grabbed the bag to go do some shopping when I caught a whiff of it. It smelled like home. The smell of home had me on my knees, sobbing and longing for a hug, or even just to be in the same room as her. I was just about to leave the house to go shopping, and a scent alone had me spiraling into a pit of despair.

Our body remembers.

As much as we tell our mind to forget the pain and to push down the uncomfortable feelings, our body can never escape it, and that’s not the goal. Whether it’s a familiar scent, a touch, a song from childhood, or a memory sparked by something we see—our body always knows.

Those are the days that are louder than the freedom and fun. The days that have me on my knees in tears, not knowing the next time I will see my loved ones.

Yes, it’s a choice, and yes, it still hurts.

Sometimes we make choices that hurt. Honestly, most choices that mean anything to us do hurt. It’s inevitable. There’s no escaping the pain. But if there’s one thing that the pain does give me, it’s the awareness of how grateful I really am. Knowing that when I do get the time with those I love that it’s extra special and those become the moments that I hold closest to my heart. Those are the moments that get me through the hardest days of my life. The days that many people don’t get to witness.



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