One of the hard parts about living here is that my friends move away all the time. My Zambian and Zimbabwean and Malawian friends finish their studies and leave campus; they spread throughout central Africa, ready to serve God with faithfulness and courage. My American friends finish up two to four year terms and move back to the US, or on to another assignment. The same thing happens to Frankie and Johnny; at their international school, children come and go with enormous frequency, as their parents’ terms begin and end.
In the past year, I had a rash of losing friends that hurt a lot. An American friend, who served as auntie to our children and family to me, returned to do important work in the United States. A Zimbabwean friend who was a sister and beloved cultural guide, returned to her home, to work as a nurse. A Zambian friend moved to the other side of the country. My pastor took on a new church, hours away. And a lovely Zambian colleague left Lusaka for the Copperbelt. Five good friends in a very short period of time; it left me reeling. In a different country, very, very far from family, these friends provide space to breathe and process and feel less alone.
I have made new friends, and some of my old friends remained. And yet, as I anticipate this fall, I know that three more neighbor families will move away. Two of the families have children who are dear friends to our boys; the other family sang to us in Chichewa last time we had dinner together. And now, I am getting tired. Tired of trying to form new friendships, knowing that everyone is in transition, moving from one place to another, and the effort of loving another person will most certainly result in the pain of saying good-bye.
I remember being eight, finding out that my best friend was moving to another state...I sobbed until my whole body shook, and my dad held me on his lap, and he said, “Oh, Kari. Your heart is so big it is going to break a million times.” And I remember thinking that was a good thing: a big heart. What could possibly be wrong with that? Why would it hurt so much?
In Zambia, friendships don’t just end because people move away. They also end because of death, and I look at people I love who are very sick, and I am terrified. It hurts. Over and over again, it hurts.
My Zambian friends, colleagues, neighbors, choose to love. And they have big hearts, and when they lose someone, they sob until their whole body shakes and they fall to the ground and they let loose the pain of love. They don’t give up, despite tuberculosis and HIV. They don’t give up, despite dysentery and malaria. They don’t give up, despite hunger and disease. They keep on loving. They don’t give up on people. They don’t give up on love. They let their hearts break, over and over again. A big heart. Bigger than mine, because I struggle intensely when friends leave my life, and yet they have struggled with more death and loss than I will ever face.
This month, I am in the United States, initially for work, and then for my mother’s wedding. I will hug my darling sisters, and my hilarious brother, and my beautiful mom. And I will cry. I will cry a lot. And then, I will say good-bye, and I will go back to Zambia, and I will welcome new neighbors, and start all over again. Because we just don’t give up. We choose to love. We choose to let our hearts hurt. We choose to face loss, guaranteed loss, and I am not sure why.
It is either something that God does to us, or something God does for us, and I don’t know which it is. This power to love so much that we will crumble, that we will have to say good-bye, and yet we decide to do it anyway. I think it is because God’s love remains. It always remains. It is the one thing that will not leave us. And once our heart is big enough for God’s love, it is tough enough to mend, strong enough to heal, and brave enough to love again. So, I guess it is something God does for us, after all.