Prologue “What do you think you’ll do, now that Peter has gone?” My sister Jenna had flown halfway around the world, all the way from Australia to Germany, to keep me company, and to say her last good-byes to my husband Peter. I had done the same in reverse when her husband died. Our son and his wife arrived from their home in Korea in time to be with Papa for his final hours on this earth, and stayed for the burial. August 24, our wedding anniversary, was the day we said our final farewell to him. Now my kids were leaving, tearing another hole out of my heart. Why does my family have to choose homes impossibly far and fantastically expensive to reach?
My family of origin, which consisted of seven children, now down to six still living, is literally a micro-United Nations. We have all married or live with people from different cultures, races and countries. I went to Germany and married a German. There’s Australia, where Jenna and her family live. Japan, where my brother Simon lives with his Japanese wife and family. One brother is living in America, but with a woman from Bangladesh. My brother Jason, who also lives in America, married a Malaysian. Naila’s Sam is African American. Their son Blair longs to go back to Asia to live, where he went to music conservatory. Knowing my family, that is what he will end up doing. My son went to Korea to study, and met and married a lovely Korean girl, and settled down with her in Seoul.
Because my family is so spread apart, there are many places for me to go to. “Go on some long trips and visit all the people I love,” I answered. I had already been to Korea and Japan last summer, so I wouldn’t go there just now. I would go back to America, the land where I spent the first thirty-six years of my life.
I’ve been back “home” so many times over the years, but there are people dear to me whom I haven’t seen very often, some not in years, who live in America. Besides people, there are also places in America leaving holes in my heart, just like people. Places like New York City, where my soul seems to be drawn, like a magnet to its pole. The aching hole in my heart keeps finding reasons to go back to New York City and be filled again. There are a couple other places I love too. The Boundary Waters of Minnesota, too, where I was conceived and kept returning to, year after year during my childhood. The wild coast of Oregon, the State where my sister lives. She brings me back to the coast each time I visit her. Other places I’m not so familiar with, and there are still one or two others where friends live, but whose homes I have never seen. There is plenty for me to discover in the land of my birth. Where to go on this long trip back home?
My wonderful, strange friend “Serendipity” had already stepped in for me, months before I had any thoughts of going back to America. I had just come back from the States, where I attended both my sister’s funeral and that of my friend’s father. I wasn’t really looking to return to the States. But Serenditpity came in the form of a phone call a couple months after my return. My timeshare company wanted to know if there was some location my husband and I would like to travel to. “What? Didn’t you know? My husband had a massive stroke over three years ago and can’t travel!”
That was one of the biggest losses I have had to face since Peter’s stroke. He and I were such good travelers, and he was never as interesting or stimulating as when traveling. We fed off and nourished each other’s curiosity with our contrasting insights and information.
“Oh – I’m so sorry,” the voice on the other end said. After a pause, “Maybe YOU would like to get away somewhere. Is there anywhere you would love to travel to?” I couldn’t think of anywhere. All there was now was family, and I didn’t need a timeshare for that. A twinge of self-pity threatened to tug at a corner of my heart. Then, just as I was about to hang up in disappointment, I remembered New York City. “Well, there is New York City, but you never have any openings there.”
“Let me just check,” the agent said. “Ah, there is an opening at a hotel called The Manhattan Club for the first week in February. Would you like that? It is a suite that can sleep four.”
“Yes!” I said, with no questions or doubts in my voice. So, months before Peter died, the seeds of a trip to the US were planted. I would be a tourist again in the city I spent ten years of my life in. As soon as Jenna asked her question about what I would do, I knew I would make a long trip out of this week in New York City. I also knew just how I would do it. I had already found friends, people who had supported Peter and me throughout Peter’s entire illness. These friends had recently asked if they could travel with me to New York City sometime. And the rest was there, sitting in front of my imagination like a trayful of goodies.
America seems to be slipping away from me, the longer I spend away from it. People watch TV differently. Now at least those of us with internet have Netflix and Prime, no matter what country we live in, but what do people in America watch? They eat different things too than they used to. What would I discover in the culinary landscape of America? New words keep creeping in, new expressions, new fads, new phobias. I am way out of touch with the bureaucratic side of America. I don’t have to deal with Obamacare or group health plans, thank God. But I wonder how other Americans deal with getting sick. How do they face longterm illness like I had just spent four years dealing with, as I became acquainted with the German system? By now, I know more about how Germans live than Americans, the people Germans keep asking me about. The longer I spend away, the less I know.
And then there’s the political scene. What on earth is going on in America, that a man like Trump can be President? How could the evangelical Christians ever support such a person? I consider myself an evangelical, but I sure don’t share any values with this man. Or at least, I don’t think so, but then we don’t get Fox TV in Germany. Still, I get enough information to ask how myself how Christians can explain their support for the current President and administration. It was time for a lengthy visit.
February is a strange month to travel, one would think. It’s dark and deathly cold. But nothing beats the winter blues like traveling, and where do many Americans travel to in the winter? To the South! It was clear to me that since the week of my timeshare stay in New York City was the first week in February, I would follow that week up by traveling to the three peope dear to me who live in the South. Everyone was excited at the idea of my coming, so I planned a trip lasting five to six weeks. I would not travel north this time to my brother in Minnesota. I had seen him last year at our sister’s funeral, and Minnesota is infamously cold and snowy in February. It would have to be the South – and New York, which is cold enough.
From New York I would fly down to Austin, Texas and visit my cousin and his wife. From there I would somehow get to Louisiana and visit an old friend from college. And I would travel by some unknown means from there to Tennessee to visit my brother Jason and family, who recently moved to Tennessee from California and were having some problems with their adjustment. Then I would travel back to New York City from Tennessee and have plenty of time for family and friends. I checked Google Maps. The distances between each of these places were quite far, but doable, either by renting a car or traveling by bus. Why not? I could take the Greyhound bus, just like Simon or Garfunkel does with Kathy in that song about being lost and looking for America. That kind of fits me, I thought. I feel lost too, and am looking for America.
But first there was Christmas to get through. One piece of advice I got after Peter’s death was, “Whatever you do, don’t spend this first Christmas alone. Go visit someone in your family.”
By the end of October, the days were getting cold and the nights long. I sat in my living room, imagining Christmas. Would I buy a tree? No way! Why would I lug a tree from my car, spreading needles and scratching myself, spreading pine resin on my fingers, just for myself? The idea of decorating a tree and then sitting there all by myself to look at it made me so depressed, I knew I could not spend Christmas at home. I also missed my only other living sister Naila, who had not been able to come to the funeral. I hadn’t had much contact with her since we’d seen each other in Minnesota after our sister’s death the December before. Soon after her return home, a double whammy of bad news came to her. Both she and her husband had cancer! Naila ovarian and Sam prostate cancer. And both would need treatment. Naila went in for six months of chemotherapy, and Sam radiation therapy. Naila was told she needed to take time out from the world and go into a long hibernation of several months. She was too vulnerable to infections. She was also exhausted from chemotherapy. We wrote, but she didn’t want to share her burdens over the phone.
I risked phoning her on that long, cold night in October. Chemotherapy would soon be over and she was feeling stronger. Yes, she was up to talking now. “I miss you, Naila,” I said. “I wish I could just fly out there and see you for Christmas,” popped out of my mouth.
“Why don’t you do that?” she said. “We’d LOVE to have you! I just saw a commercial on TV from Condor Airlines. It looks like they have cheap, direct flights from Frankfurt to Portland.” Naila lives in Portland.
And so I booked another flight – to Portland, Oregon, but it wasn’t direct. I’d have to fly to Seattle first.
In November, my dear friend Miriam from Seattle came to visit me for three weeks. Unable to come to be with me for the funeral, she offered to come and keep me company for three weeks. What a wonderful buffer that was from the pain of being alone! We went on a couple of short trips to nearby tourist sites, did Thanksgiving together, another hurdle I needed to somehow clamber over. We talked and cried nonstop for three weeks. And then, before I knew it, it was time to fly to the States.
Going to Oregon for Christmas was the perfect thing to do. Both my sister and her husband were feeling pretty good by the time I arrived. I was a caterpillar cocooned in familial warmth. My nephew Blair, living for the time being with his parents, is a fabulous cook and we were treated each evening to feasts. The Christmas tree was decorated when I arrived, and everything was as I remembered a Christmas or two in the past, spent with my sister. But there were stabs of pain, too. Remembering a Christmas and other visits to Oregon with Peter stung. He loved Oregon. We had sat on the living room couch, opening Christmas presents together. Now I had to sleep alone in the same bed we both had slept in on our many trips to Oregon. Mornings, we would gaze together at Mount Hood, sometimes peeking through our bedroom window, sometimes hiding from view.
Together we discovered a popular Oregon activity – tide-pooling. On several vacations at the beach we would head for the rock pools formed at low tide, identification book in hand, identifying and marveling over the sea stars and anemones. Sometimes we would see little crabs climbing miniature rock cliffs. We had enjoyed the seagulls and pounding waves together. Sam and Naila’s home is our son’s American home, and Oregon became our home away from home, after my parents had both passed away and their house was sold.
But there is comfort in shared sorrow. There is healing in pain that is shared. I felt warm and secure, spending Christmas with my family. The warmth spread over the pain like a balsam.
I had asked Naila if there were any choral concerts in Portland during the Christmas season we could go to. I love the Christmas concerts in Germany, and was singing in several myself with my choir and vocal ensemble. It would be nice to partake in some of the lovely things of Germany in Oregon, I thought. “There’s the Festival of Lights,” my sister said. “For two weeks or so before Christmas, an abbey in Portland puts up loads of Christmas lights and choirs come from far away to sing in the chapel. We could do that.”
We did that. We went out in Portland drizzle to see the lights and hear some music. That was perhaps my first truly touristic American experience this trip. The abbey gardens were giddy with lights of every color and shape, everywhere you looked – overwhelming after years of pristine white lights in Germany. Almost all the Germans I know consider colored lights to be garish.
And stations, like stations of the cross, with recordings recounting the Christmas story. The choir we heard wasn’t very good, in my estimation, but at least they were singing Christmas music. And I was doing something Christmasy with my sister, who a month before this could not have left the house.
I baked their favorite Christmas cookies for them. We went to church together, and we watched TV together. We discussed politics. Here my sister and I were of kindred minds. Her entire family and I felt alienation from the current political situation in Washington. I discovered something in this alienation that I hadn’t expected. Naila and Sam, also evangelical Christians, feel alienated from the political attitudes of almost all the people in their church. They say this sense of alienation is not unique to them. Evangelicals all over America feel politically estranged from other evangelicals, something that never existed before the last election. The estrangement is so severe that people even feel unable to talk about their opinions with one another.
So Naila keeps company with Rachel Maddock. “Let’s watch Rachel Maddock,” she said. “She explains it all better than anyone else.” We watched Rachel Maddock and fretted together. Here, even on the political level, we were able to share our feelings.
I did get sick while in Oregon. I came down with sinusitis and by New Year’s Day really needed to be treated badly. “I’ll take you to urgent care,” Naila said. I had to ask what urgent care was. Another new development since I have lived in the States. A pretty cool thing, actually. You can go there at any time, even on New Year’s Day and be treated, generally by a nurse practitioner. There is no such thing as a nurse practitioner in Germany, nor are there urgent care clinics. Naila’s urgent care clinic accepted my German insurance card, so all was well on that front. And with medication, my sinuses were also soon healed.
I had booked an airline ticket I could change. Perhaps, if all worked well, I could also visit Miriam in Seattle at the end of my trip.
Things did work out, and I rode the Amtrak train to Seattle in the New Year. Miriam greeted me at the train station, just as I had greeted her at the Cologne train station just two months before.
Miriam lives on a island off of Seattle, which to me has always sounded very romantic. I was so curious to see how she lives! Of course,you have to ride a ferry boat every time you go to the mainland, but the ride is only fifteen minutes. Miriam tells me that the wait can be up to an hour and a half, however! This island is lush with majestic pine forests and huge ferns.
There are so many forests, human settlement feels like something of a rarity. On this island, Miriam and her husband live close to nature. I thrilled to see an everyday occurrence for them – deer grazing in their garden. Beautiful blue birds and squirrels came to feast on peanuts Miriam’s husband feeds them every day.
This is America too, the America I love, just like the Oregon coast. Here I saw the Puget Sound, dotted with so many islands, so peaceful it reminded me of a lake in northern Minnesota. When I am out in nature in America, I feel in touch with myself, with my family, the animals and all the other people living in America. Peter had never been here before, so for the last part of my journey I felt less pain, enjoying this beautiful landscape with my friends.
Watching the Puget Sound in Washington with Miriam, I remembered also having stood a few days before on the Oregon Coast. There, in contrast to the still waters of the Sound, I had experienced the foaming, turbulent waves coming from the same ocean. Even more than the calm water, tamed by the many islands in the sound, it was the surf that touched me the most. The surf, pounding and crashing onto the rocks, transforming into dazzling waterfalls, calmed my soul.
I had gone for long walks along the beach each morning, allowing the constant movement of the waves to move my turbulent heart. I would stop and feast my eyes for minutes at a time, gazing at the powerful waves. I missed Peter, but also felt the peace of sensing that he was perhaps somehow standing there with me. Perhaps he was also able to see the perfect rainbow given to me one morning, a promise of happier days to come.