Being the first kid in the family, I had been used to being the one who left. The one who is being dropped off, sent off, or called in from miles away.
My first departure from home took place way back when I was barely 14—it was my first night at the boarding school. I cried myself to sleep; wanting the separation to be over the next morning. I remembered feeling devastated. The darkness made it impossible to think about anything else than the comfortable place where everyone I loved were, where I could sleep with the lights on.
I remembered missing the familiar texture of my bed. I didn’t know then, but I know now that I cried for selfish reasons.
Good for me, I figured out soon that the distance between Tangerang Selatan and Bogor was less than two hours. I figured I could took an angkot every other week. I stopped crying the day after.
When I started out college three years later, I had been smarter. I skipped the crying part right into the conclusion that Depok, too, was only an hour away from Bogor. Going home was a piece of cake.
Fast forward to the time I had to live in Singapore for a while. This occasion, I spent a good hour crying the night before my flight—probably because apparently I was still smart. I knew what living abroad entails: being on your own, making friends with strangers, but worst of all, being away from your family and closest friends—this time by a distance that is much further than mere two-hour angkot ride or one-hour commuter line trip.
My first night at the dormitory, I cried again. Facing the side wall, trying to keep my voice close to non-existent because I didn’t want my new roommate to think I was a freak.
It was not so bad because it turned out my scholarship can cover a round-trip at least every two months. That aside, I’m pretty sure I also cried for selfish reasons.
Yesterday, though—yesterday was different.
Before anything else, it’s probably relevant to highlight that Boston/Cambridge is not exactly close from Jakarta. You either have enough cash to afford a 24-hour flight, or you’re just stuck being away from each other for the rest of your program (20 months, that is).
Knowing how my hormones usually react to separations, I expected myself to wail either several days before, or at the airport scene.
And yet, there were no tears. Wikan and my entire nuclear family members and a couple of our best friends were present—which would’ve been the perfect let-go/crying scene for yours truly—but to my own surprise, we left very calmly. There were exchanges of hugs and kisses, prayers and wishes, but that’s about it.
We waved for the last time, didn’t bother to take a final look, and off we went through the immigration desk to the boarding gate.
Before the airport, there were also farewell dinners. Ones you spent with your work colleagues, best friends, good friends, and intellectual friends. At each one’s end, there were exchanges of hugs and kisses, prayers and wishes, but that’s about it.
It felt unnatural.
Was it because my subconscious perceives Harvard as such a significant deal, separations seem like a sensible price? One that isn’t even worth a short, good cry? Was it because I have Wikan—my very definition of home—coming along, it doesn’t really feel like being away?
While I do consider the latter as truth, it still feels wrong not to at the very least feel sad about leaving everything behind. The familiar faces, roads, foods, scents, and rains. But there was nothing.
The answer arrived five hours later, when I broke down at the airplane.
It was midnight when the flight attendants switched the lights off. I put on my eye mask, and leaned to sleep on Wikan’s shoulder—if anything, feeling a bit giddy because of the show I just watched.
In complete darkness however, without a cue, my mind floated itself home—playing a scene where my frail father struggled to pick up his mug because his muscles had now began rebelling, my kind mother juggling through responsibilities when she should’ve just stayed home and spoil herself, my grandmother stuck to her bed probably wondering how quiet our house would be when my youngest brother goes to college in a year. There was also my aunt and uncle whose only daughter just got into college—who else would they be taking care of? And just like that, I wailed.
I wailed, this time weirdly not because my family wouldn’t be there for me, but because I wouldn’t be there for them, probably in the period when they need me the most.
It suddenly hit me that without me or my cousin and younger brothers, they would be five old parents, getting even older, while taking care of one another. As much as it would make a beautiful movie story, the thought of it makes me sad.
Banda Neira’s Di Beranda triggered this realization a while back (sent it to my mother when she told me she’d been crying for how empty the house was after my wedding), but tonight it hit me much harder. Maybe because it lacks anticipation. Like a Katrina on a summer day.
Prior to writing this down (which was Wikan’s idea), I finally had the good cry. Partly because I felt sorry, but mostly because I felt sorry about not telling my parents about how sorry I felt, how I do wish I could spend more time with them, how I regret not making enough time for them when I still could.
I know for a fact that I would feel twice as devastated had Wikan not come along with me. But I wonder if that would be another selfish kind of sadness—of wanting to have him around, of not having to be apart, of never having to feel lonely again.
I wonder, if you can only start thinking about someone else when you stop being selfish—or can you do both? Do I start shifting to the other kind of separation blues because I finally have everything I need? Is this part of growing up?
If you’re reading this, Mom, please know that I love you. And tell Pap and Eyang and Papah and Mamah that I love them, too. Please be good and take care. Your daughter will be home before you know it.