When the plane touched down on an impossible airstrip, the neat rectangle carved from a defiant jungle, the stewardess would walk down the aisle with an aerosol can in one hand, fumigating the cabin. Henderson Field, originally RXI Airfield, was built by the Japanese military as a place to land their planes on Guadalcanal, in World War II. American Marines captured it before it was completed and renamed it Henderson. After the war, the Islanders continued to use it as their main gateway to the Solomon Islands. It continues to serve this purpose today.
Us SITAGers (SITAG stands for Solomon Islands Translation Advisory Group) had a little tradition of gathering there at the International gate whenever one of our own was arriving at, or leaving, the country. The leavings were always the hardest.
A little about SITAG. We were a ragtag group of random missionaries, drawn together by a like calling for bible translation. We came from the States, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and even the Netherlands. We were all white though, set apart from the people we had come to serve by our outward otherness and by the loss of our home cultures and families. The void caused by our shared otherness and loss made us draw together. Us kids called all of the adults Aunt and Uncle, and the gang of us formed a pack of adopted cousins. We’d have potlucks, sleepovers, late nights playing under the frangipani trees, boys vs girls wars, and sometimes participate in a homeschooling conference with teachers imported for the occasion. We had our rivalries and crushes and dramas and escapades, of which I want to write, but today is not the day. Today, I write about Henderson Field, and our tradition of leaving.
The leavings were always the hardest.
I remember saying goodbye to my friend Miriam when she was off to furlough. She and her siblings weren’t wearing their Solomons play clothes anymore, but new and slightly alien looking Western outfits. I knew this uncomfortable feeling of donning Western clothes, as if changing your outside would somehow make you feel Western on the inside. The looming departure gate waiting on the periphery with patient inevitability. The adults talked and laughed as if smiling would ease the parting. We kids put on brave faces because that’s what you do when leaving is a constant in your life.
The air in our group was thick with the knowledge of the leaving.
I don’t remember the actual goodbye that night. I usually can’t. What I do remember is the tangled mix of emotions. Sadness of losing a friend. Resignation at the inevitable leaving. Anger at the gate for taking them and at the adults for letting it happen. Relief that it wasn’t me who was going. Guilt at my relief.
For a missionary kid, leavings are one of our few guarantees.
Another fellow SITAG kid left last week. Libby of the bright eyes, of the impossibly wide smile. Libby of the quick laugh and deep love. My missionary cousin. She left, dressed in new clothes that don’t belong to this world. Left through the departure gate alone, and the rest of us are standing on the earthly side in a sodden group wondering what to do now because leaving is inevitable. Sad and resigned and angry and guiltily relieved it wasn’t us. Wishing it was us. We belong but don’t fully belong in this world. The next is a familiar unknown. The only thing that’s certain is that transition will come, and that leaving is inevitable.
If there’s one thing a missionary kid is good at, it’s goodbyes.
Goodbye Libby. I wish you didn’t have to leave. I know you went through the departure gate with bravery and a smile because you’re good at that. Trailblaze the other side for us, because we’ll catch up with you eventually, the leaving after all is inevitable. And until then, Love will connect our hearts.
“It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember, that she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside-- but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond-- only a glimpse-- and heard a note of unearthly music.”