When I was young, maybe 8 or 9, my grandma told me something that has stayed me with me. She said, “Katie, I don’t always like to tell you the fun things we have planned for your visits because if something goes wrong and we’re not able to do it, you get really upset.”
At some point, I came to this realization for myself as well. I was talking to a counselor about it once and she mentioned that sometimes being hyper vigilant about plans and expectations is the result of trauma and it’s a way we can feel like we’re in control. When she said that, something inside released and came undone in the same way coming home feels.
Now, as an adult, I feel like I’m in a relatively good place with expectations. Being married to a 2 on the Enneagram and needing to be aware of unspoken expectations has helped this dramatically, and I am so thankful I have a partner who loves me through my sometimes spastic control.
I’ve also learned there’s a vast and stark difference between plans changing and dreams changing.
For the last five years, Stephen and I have diligently and relentlessly pursued one specific thing: to raise our family in Thailand as cross-cultural workers, being a voice and witness for those whom power and religion has forgotten. For the last five years, the majority of the real estate in my mind was given to Thailand. At any given moment, I was thinking about something surrounding Thailand.
We went through four surgeries and living with friends in the pursuit of this dream. We had two kids 13 months apart so our little expats would always have a friend, no matter the circumstances. I had a baby two months after landing in a new country in a room with no one who spoke English, while being ‘shushed’ as I pushed. We lived again, with two kids this time, with friends or in a borrowed home, all while working hard emotionally and physically to get back to Thailand. We sent money when cars got crashed and babies were hospitalized, and packages for baby showers and Christmas to friends in Thailand, all in the hope to build and maintain a thriving community to which we could return.
Our motives, direction and desires were all pointed toward Southeast Asia. Our prayers, conversations and waiting were all spent on this place and this dream.
And it didn’t stop there. We also asked people and churches, friends and family and strangers to also point their hearts and their money and their compassion toward Thailand. And they did.
When we missed weddings and deaths and kids coming home, the balm to the pain was the peace that came from living in our truth. We knew there was a cost, but even the highest cost didn’t pinch too hard because we were made for this.
Our hearts, when sliced, were for this place and these people.
Coming back to Thailand has not been, in nearly every way, what we thought or planned or dreamed it would be. I plan on sharing more and more theology and thoughts on mission as time goes on, and a very wise woman said to me, quoting someone else, that I should never write while the wick is still warm. The wick for me, in many arenas is not only warm but still very much aflame. The places where we were met with literal silence and rejection, the spaces where we were boxed out and told there was no longer room for us, are still raw. I wish these relationships weren’t so much of our pain now, but they are, and I am not iron. I am very sensitive and I need community, and rejection hurts me deeply. There’s something in rejection that shakes me to my core and triggers me, bringing up questions of value and worth. There was one day when Stephen was in the grocery store and saw some people who no longer speak to us. Stephen watched one of them hit the other and say, “There he is.” She looked up and saw that Stephen had seen her, and he just waved. Stuff like that hurts. It messes with you, rattles you, and there’s so much of that my heart can take.
While all this was happening, Shepherd was having his own battle. Before we left Minnesota, Stephen and I were talking about the kids, particularly Shepherd because he’s the oldest and so far he’s the one with the most preferences. I was worried about him missing people and places, but Stephen said he was worried Shepherd would have the hardest time not being able to communicate with people. I didn’t think a ton about it because I assumed, as I generally do, that I was more right and more in sync with my boy.
I was profoundly wrong. While yes, Shepherd misses his friends and places, the thing that has caused screams and tears and kicks and late nights with all of us crying in the bottom bunk together has been his inability to communicate with people. We thought sending him to a Thai preschool to make friends and learn Thai was the best choice, and we were wrong.
His angst and fear started to come out in ways with which we weren’t okay.
Since he’s not even 4, Shep’s ability to communicate is obviously limited. One day, driving to breakfast, we were stopped at a light and were surrounded by motorcyclists- mostly Thai. The boys love to have the windows rolled down and say sawatdecup. The window was down and Shep and Valor were happily putting their hands together in a praying fashion under their nose and saying hello. All of a sudden, Shepherd burst into sobs. Through probing, it finally came out that Shepherd was sad that no one talked back to him. Shepherd said the kids at school wouldn’t talk to him and then would run away from him. He said he didn’t have friends and Thai people didn’t like him.
It hit me that he was receiving the language barrier as rejection. He was seeing the exchange happen and internalizing it as not being liked, wanted or fun.
We processed a lot, me explaining that they were talking to him, he just didn’t understand what they were saying. I said maybe those kids went to their mommies and daddies and were sad that Shep didn’t talk to them. We talked about how we use different words. It was such a relief to know, finally, what was hurting his heart.
In the midst of all this, the theological and practical rumblings, the pain, the difficulty for Shep, we found out one of my grandmas has terminal cancer.
That’s when we decided to move back to Minnesota. We’re flying back on February 5.
This, weirdly and tellingly enough, was a quick and easy decision.
This decision felt like a release, much like naming the root of my control. It felt like a balloon popped and the pressure left and we realized we were able to breathe deep again. This is the right choice, of that we’re sure.
Before we left Minnesota, I was standing in our dinning room one afternoon. That house got a generous amount of light and it always came in so beautifully in the afternoon. I remember posting that I hoped our new house would have beautiful light as I admired the dancing rays on the floor and dreamed about the sun dancing on bare feet on tile floors in Chiang Mai.
As I type these words, the sun is streaming through the window and palm leaves, covering the keyboard in beautiful patterns.
I love this place. I love the air, the smells. The way the light meets me. I love the mountain view outside the window of the hospital where Valor was born. I love the lights in the temples dotted across the mountains- they way they look like errant stars at night. I love the small streets lined with gates and food stands, neighbors yelling across to each other and cars just inching past. I love the way Thai people love my kids. I love the tropical birds that sing the sun up each morning and bring the moon out in the evening. I love the colors on the trees- especially the fuchsia flowers that scream beauty.
With the release and the balloon popping, I’m left with an entire empty space that was once given fully to this life, this place, this dream. Everything we did was in preparation and hope for being here.
What do I do now with this space?
As I mourn the change, the dream losing it’s grip on my heart and mind, I feel empty. What will I pursue? What will I work for? What will I console myself with? What will I be looking forward to, pressing on to?
And more, why did this come to an end?
As I laid in bed on New Years Eve, with Shepherd and Valor piled between me and Stephen, I listened to the pops of fireworks and the low reverb of karaoke. Valor and Shepherd love to cuddle and they love to cuddle each other. Looking at them, Stephen the biggest spoon (the serving spoon if you will) and Shep’s arm wrapped around Valor’s waist, I was overcome by two very strong emotions: gratitude and disappointment.
Disappointment that the dream has changed, disappointed we couldn’t make this work, disappointed that the image in my head of me and my family living in this place is now dying. And, at the same time, the deep gratitude that we’re making this hard and right decision, gratitude that I have kids who are so connected to us and each other, gratitude that there is an army behind us cheering us on.
When Grandma Opie told me that about myself all those years ago, it bothered me but I didn’t know why. Hearing that today would not bother me in the slightest. Yes, I am sad when plans change. But I’m sad because I give myself to my plans, my intentions, my dreams. And that is something about me I never want to change or see die.
As we sell the things in our house we worked so hard to find or get here, the people buying it from us come into our gate and I see myself in all of them. Eager, hopeful, excited and called. As my curtains go to a couple expecting their first baby, I think about having Valor here and the crazy insane story it is. As our shelf goes to a family who couldn’t find one for the longest time and are so happy to finally “finish” their house here and make it a home, I remember the feeling of peace and safety and accomplishment that came from making a home here. With each thing we sell, I feel my heart sending a buoy out to whomever buys it, cheering you can do this, you can make it here.
In spaces we were met with silence, we found people who opened their arms and hearts to us and our kids. Families with whom we did dinner and park days and holidays. Saying goodbye to these people, knowing that what could grow would be strong and beautiful, makes me so sad. Knowing new babies will be born and I won’t be here, birthdays will come and go and life will go on without us, stings. We wouldn’t have survived the last few months without these people. The regret I feel is wondering if we gave them enough, if we weren’t consumed with our own growing grief could those relationships have been even more? I’m not sure.
The space in my heart is wide and achy, and I’m not in too much of a hurry to fill or heal it. Time and space and new yeses will take care of that. For now, I’m sitting still in our emptying house, bare feet on tile floor and eyes transfixed by the light as I let the overwhelming amount of gratitude and disappointment dance together in my heart.