I have been writing this particular blog post for three months.
In my first few weeks in Paraguay, we as trainees were asked to give self-presentations in front of the other trainees and training center staff, paying particular attention to our recognized strengths and weaknesses. As a strength, I sited my resiliency in overcoming difficult times in my past and how with those experiences, I had come to recognize that I could get through anything because, “I had been through worse”. At that time, I hadn’t had the wisdom to ask myself what if I was going to face worse while in Paraguay; what then? Could I get through worse? In July, I received word from home that my father had passed away. The moment of that phone call and the next few months have been far worse than anything I have faced before but I have to believe that I can get through this.
I’ve spent months deciding whether or not to post a blog about the events and emotions following my father’s death and I have come to the conclusion that to use this blog for its intended purpose, I should document my whole life in Paraguay, a life that has been irrevocably altered by the past few months. I feel that I cannot continue writing about Peace Corps service without acknowledging how my life has changed. Also, I use this blog to let people back home know how I am doing. And with it I can tell everyone, I’m okay. I’m not great but I’m getting there. I am getting up every morning and living and breathing and DOING. Finally, as I recognized through the support of fellow volunteers, talking about my father’s death helps me to deal with it and to not be handicapped with the feelings of isolation that are common to a Peace Corps volunteer and astronomically more so in my grief.
The first few days following the call and my trip home, I was taken aback at how supportive the country staff and my fellow volunteers were. I found myself crying silly tears of gratitude each time I got a text or facebook message from a fellow volunteer. As soon as they had received the news, PCPY staff got in touch with my closest volunteer neighbor that first night and I can’t adequately put into words my appreciation and relief seeing her bike pull up in front of my house just as the sun set knowing that she had dropped everything to stay with me. My host family was supportive without being overbearing, quickly making a bed for my fellow volunteer to stay with me and giving me hugs and words of encouragement but also the space that I needed. The country staff sent a car to pick me up from site the next morning and take me to the office and then to the airport. The trip home was long but bearable as at that point I had reached a numbness that comes after the angry tears have been spent. Also, I took comfort in the knowledge that in a limited number of hours, I would see my mother, brother, step-father and best friends.
How surreal it was to be returning to the US after almost six months. In the airport in Miami, I forgot I could flush toilet paper and spoke to the cashier at the coffee stand in Spanish when she only spoke English. Ironically, after two US airports and driving past the buildings and traffic of Philadelphia, I didn’t feel any reverse culture shock until we pulled into a Starbucks parking lot in a strip mall in a Philadelphia suburb. I had a mild freak-out at the sight of the fleet of SUVs and minivans and shopping bags but my cursing only bemused my mother and step-father. When we returned to my mother and step-father’s house, it was the sight of one particular SUV that forced the reality of my situation to come crashing down upon me. In the two days after my father died, my brother had cleaned out my father’s apartment and moved his SUV to my mother’s house. Every Sunday since my mother, step-father and I had moved to that house when I was 16, my father had picked me up in that SUV and we had driven to Church together. After seeing that car parked in the driveway and realizing that we would never go anywhere again, I had to stop the façade I had tried to keep up during the journey home- this was not a reunion with friends, a vacation to the US or a trip home where I could pick up all the fun “stuff” like non-stick skillets that makes other volunteers jealous. I had gone home to bury my father.
From the moment of receiving that first phone call to seeing my Dad’s SUV through the following days of funeral planning, warm-hearted embraces from friends and family whom I had missed dearly, painful hand-shaking with strangers offering condolences that only made me feel more hollow, eulogy giving and the legal ramifications following a parent’s death, I had aged more than I had thought possible in a week. I am so grateful for my family but for my brother, in particular, for helping me through and for being so strong and handling the most difficult decisions and duties with fortitude and grace. After the first week of fulfilling the majority of my new and unsolicited adult responsibilities, it was time to decide when I should go back to Paraguay. I will not lie and pretend that I never entertained the question of “if” and not “when” I should go back. The first night upon receipt of the news, I was grieved and shocked and I questioned whether going home would mean that my service ended after not even being in site for 3 months. However, by the time my plane had touched down in Philadelphia, I had resolved to return to Caazapá, Paraguay.
It was the hardest decision that I have ever made. For me, life in the Peace Corps isn’t necessarily difficult due to bucket bathing, water shortages, missing Philadelphia Eagles games and constantly trying to keep the baby goat from eating my flowers and clothes. These are inconveniences and, although they wear on me, the goat more so than anything else, they can’t break me. What made getting back on that plane so gut-wrenching was returning to a place where people like me, but no one loves me. At the time of my trip back home, I had only been living in Caazapá for three months. I had made friends, formed relationships and started projects but I was and still consider myself to be an outsider in a place where most people live their whole lives, often only a house or two away from almost all of their extended family. Every social interaction takes five times more effort for me here than it does in the US. There are barriers of language, culture and my status as an outsider with which I contend during every new experience. I like my community and they like me, too. I have a wonderful relationship with my contact and I believe that I am on my way to creating a lasting impact on the lives of several youth here. But that is not the same as the support that I receive from the people back home whom know me completely and love me because of it all/despite it all.
So why did I come back? The same reasons that I left the US in the first place. I want to use my skills and knowledge to help the people of my community lead better, healthier lives. I want to learn a new culture and form relationships with the people teaching me that culture. I want to become a stronger person. I want to better understand the world, not just my tiny corner of it. None of these things had changed with the death of my father. If anything, I am now more driven to have a purposeful life. I recognize how short life is and I want to make sure that I take the opportunities available to me. Further, my family misses me but no one needed me to stay. It is true that my life would have been immensely easier if I had stayed in the US but I do not believe that it would have been better.
So I’m back. I’m working in the school and with some community groups and trying to become less of an outsider with every new and awkward interaction. I sometimes get overwhelmed with grief at the thought that I will never see my father again but I remember how much he loved me and how much he wanted me to have a purposeful and happy life. So that is what I am trying to do here in Paraguay. I came back here to have a full life and I think that my father would have been proud of that.