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Friendship in the Foreign Service

May 2016

by Regina Landor

The longest I had with a good friend in our current posting was nine months. That was long enough to feel comfortable going up to her apartment when I got mad at my husband. It was long enough for her to tell me she was pregnant before she told any other friends. It was long enough to be able to share a private joke in the company of others, just the two of us laughing. 

My husband and I could go on a date night with her and her husband, say goodnight, and then I could plop into my bed and text her at midnight about something else I forgot to say that I thought was funny. And she’d text me right back, with something funnier. She was that kind of friend. And she lived only two floors above me. I’ve learned that forming bonds can happen quickly in the Foreign Service because you know that you only have a finite time together.

This friend of mine was even more eager than I was to help feed the hungry street kids outside our apartment building, and her enthusiasm for bargaining at the egg stall of the cavernous food market was impressive. She wasn’t going to pay one more taka than necessary. The less we spent on an item, the more mouths we’d be able to feed. Dhaka, Bangladesh hit us hard with its poverty, but my friend had a motto: “It’s so easy to help people.” With that in mind, we scrubbed chicken poop off eggs, boiled them in our kitchens, and brought them to schools in the slums.

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But then she was gone, and there were many times over the following three years when I came inside from the unstoppable city noise and wished I could push number seven in the elevator, go past my own floor, and pay her a visit. Without her, being on Egg Duty wasn’t nearly as entertaining.

Kind of like another friend who lived across the street from me, with whom I was able to form a bond for a year once, a few tours ago. Aside from the stray dogs roaming the streets and the smell of linden trees in the springtime, our neighborhood could have been any suburban neighborhood in America. Other American moms brought their children outside in the cul-de-sac and we were all happy friends. My neighbor across the street had a hell of a start to living overseas—with a newborn, a toddler, and a fairly absent husband—and we became fast friends. I could walk over to her house in my bedroom slippers; it was that easy. One afternoon, when we had the unlikely opportunity of being alone without our children, we sat in her living room and watched the entire movie of “Shakespeare in Love,” and we both cried at the end. But when that year was over, I left. And for the next year she had to walk past my house every day, my yard emptied of my kids’ toys, dark, sad windows staring back.

Saying goodbye to friends is what we signed up for. But we didn’t have to make this choice. My husband and I really did have a house in one of those suburban American neighborhoods. It was the first home that we bought, despite the shag-green carpet, and every year we lived there we made some kind of improvement that made us proud. We had some friends, too, and I was part of a group of moms who, like me, were brand new to mothering. I met up regularly with them, sometimes several times in one week. We were first-time moms. We were learning together. We were nursing our new babies together. We were trying to figure it all out together. We had play dates, shared our babies’ first birthdays, and rejoiced when a baby in the group reached a milestone: taking a first step, uttering a few syllables, tossing a ball. Tiny, daily miracles that we celebrated, together. In the living room of our first house, around our oval dining room table that we had found in the Classifieds, we celebrated a total of six of my kids’ birthdays.  

I know that everyone who joins the Foreign Service asks the same question: is it better to live your life and form one community around you in one place, or is it better to form many communities in many different places?

Had we stayed in our town in America, my husband at his job, and I with my group of moms, I would still be saying goodbye to people. There was one mom in our group who kind of exhausted me with her cheerfulness. One day I realized why she might be in such a good mood all the time: both her babies took two naps during the day! Both! Two! My toddler had stopped napping when he turned one; just decided he was done with that. Meanwhile, I had an infant on my hands. I was impressed with how easily this woman whose babies both slept soundly during the day and at night seemed to handle her life. I remember her laugh, and I remember her presence at my youngest son’s first birthday party. I have a picture of her older daughter, who was three, holding my son in her lap, with her younger daughter next to them. My son’s face is scrunched up in an adorable smile, big gaps between his teeth. Happy times.

She went on to have three more children, who are now between the ages of three and thirteen. That one-year-old birthday party was nine years ago, and it may have been one of the last times I saw her, along with most of the women in that group. Having finally torn up the shag carpet and redone those gorgeous wooden floors, we made the hard decision to leave everything and join the Foreign Service. But if I had stayed there, if we hadn’t joined the Foreign Service, I would have been sitting in the pews with those moms last week, no doubt crying with them. This mom of five slipped in the bathtub, hit her head, and went into a coma. She died a few days later. She was only 39 years old, and she left a husband with the daunting task of raising five children alone. I heard that her children were all at the funeral, and like their mother, carried themselves with uncommon grace. They must have been in shock. I felt so much grief for her children, wondering how they will adjust to that gaping hole in their lives and hoping others are present to help guide them along. I also felt grief for the group of moms who had lost such a pillar of strength and stability.

I thought long and hard about this woman, losing her life so unexpectedly, and about the group of women that I needed so dearly during those initial parenting blues. And I revisited that old, nagging question about what type of life is better. When you face a loss, it seems unquestionably better to be surrounded by permanence: family members who will always be there, friends that you’ve known for half a lifetime, not just nine months.

But I also know that everything changes. Maybe there’s no such thing as a permanent community. When I was in kindergarten, my best friend moved. Again, in third grade, another best friend moved. I was so little and those losses were so big, I think they left a kind of dent that I spent years trying to fill. But friendships are not big blocks of cement that stay in one place. Relationships shift. Even as I sometimes yearn for that day-to-day exchange that some women have for decades, I have grown to acknowledge that the intimate moments I have shared with women friends over the years are just as precious. I like to think that we made the right decision by choosing to raise our boys in different places around the world, and maybe there’s no right answer to that question about how to live your life or where to raise your children.

Friendships in the Foreign Service can feel very sturdy and permanent, like the firm, fresh, green stalk of a dandelion stem, rooted in the terrain, until one day someone comes along and picks it, and then—Poof!—the seeds are scattered in the wind, and all the seeds that felt like one whole entity have gone off in their own directions, possibly never to meet up again.  I get a big lump in my throat at the thought of my children saying goodbye to their best buddies. Such comfort, farewell. But here’s what I tell them: we have to say goodbye, but we are so lucky we got to meet them. We had them in our lives. We’ll keep the shared memories of all the sleepovers and the birthday parties, the school play and band practice and the midnight texting. Those memories will last a very long time. That’s what feels permanent. Life is so fleeting. We are all fortunate for the connections we make with others, in whatever increments of time.

Regina teaches elementary school in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She recently wrote a book about her mother and her decline into dementia, called Marry Me Stop . Her first book, Forever Traveling Home , is about moving overseas and her first tour with her family. She and her family head to Ethiopia in the fall of 2016, where she’s certain she’ll continue to form bonds with amazing people. She’ll probably write about it, too, on her travel blog:    www.woodlandtravels.blogspot.com .