Saying Goodbye… for Now

Published by Matthew Johnson on

A week ago today, we took Margarita to the airport for the long trip back to Ukraine. It’s possibly one of the most painful things our family has done together. You might think that it was only hard for Christy and me, but our entire family felt the pain of this goodbye. It has been a difficult week and I’m just now finding some time to put that day into words.

Packing Up

As we neared the end of the summer hosting, Christy and I started noticing the “last times”. Last time at church with all of the familiar people, liturgy, and songs. Last dinner together with my family on Tuesday night. Last time swimming at my sister’s neighborhood pool. And then came Saturday, the last full day together. We packed that day full of activities. But we also packed Margarita’s small suitcase that afternoon, carefully arranging a few changes of clothes, a photo book of memories, and some of her favorite things. What struck me the most was how much was left behind. All the crafts, extra outfits, stuffed animals, little trinkets. Any one of our kids could look at these things and tell you who it belonged to. But it was staying behind. That definitely got me thinking about what it’s like to be a pilgrim and traveler in the spiritual sense; but I’ll save that for another time.

Our first supper the night Margarita arrived was pizza from Dominos. On the last day of our summer together, we needed something quick and easy… so the oldest four went with me to pick up some Dominos pizza. We finished off the summer with the same favorite meal. Afterwards, we walked to Grandpa and Grandma’s house, the kids riding their bikes. That evening, my mother gave Margarita a special blanket she had made for her, with her name embroidered in Russian. Many families who had hosted previously warned us that most clothing and toys rarely come back; some things are stolen, broken, or just distributed to other children. My mom wanted to make something personal that might survive longer. Margarita loved it!

Last Morning Together

Sunday, our last morning together, started like most days of the summer, with Margarita snuggling in the sunlight on Christy’s lap, our oldest daughter close nearby. Breakfast went mostly untouched, and then there was getting dressed, braiding hair, and preparing a lunch for our little traveler. When the time finally came to go to the airport, we piled in the van and said goodbye to the house before driving away. All through the morning with its final preparations, I was pretty emotional, thinking of all the little routines and special memories with this sweet girl that all of us were saying goodbye to, yet I noticed how bravely and quietly Margarita handled these final moments at home. I told Christy as we drove away from the house how new this experience of loss was for me, yet this had become the “norm” for Margarita.

At the airport, we met up with the rest of the families whose host children were leaving from Denver. Margarita’s schoolmate, Masha, ran up to her with a photo book, excitedly chattering about all the fun things she had done in Texas with her host family. We talked with other host parents, and stood in line to check suitcases; all the while, Margarita primarily wanted me to hold her. After checking in bags, our group gathered around for a short prayer for the kids’ safe travels, and then it was time to say our goodbyes. It was so hard. They told us in our parent training that sending the kids back would be difficult, but I had no idea how painful it would be to say goodbye to a child that I had allowed myself to love like a daughter. I’ve never been a foster parent, but this must be what it’s like to care for and love a little one for months… even years… and then have to send them back.

Saying Goodbye

Margarita was hugging me when I started to cry and she pulled away to look a my face, saw my tears, and exclaimed “Papa!” almost indignantly, then started to tickle me to make me smile. I don’t know if our children really felt what was happening until the goodbyes started. Then nearly everyone was in tears. We had to walk almost the entire length of the airport to get to the security checkpoint, a line of families with kids in yellow shirts. I carried Margarita the whole way and felt her cling to me more and more tightly with every step. Our kids followed, the older ones crying… Christy and the little ones trying to keep up. Then I had to pry Margarita’s arms from around my neck, tell her one last time that I loved her, and send her into the security line with the chaperone.

We joined most of the other families on the upper level of the airport where we could view the security line. Our family watched as the kids slowly worked their way through the TSA checkpoint, waving and blowing kisses. Once through security, they would take an escalator down to the train to their concourse. I pointed out the escalator to my children and mentioned, “That’s the last place we’ll be able to see them”. My oldest son choked through his tears, “Not if we can host her again!”. When the time finally came for them to go down that escalator, our family was standing directly above and waving until they were out of sight. Margarita saw us and blew kisses in our direction. And just like that, the summer was over, and this little girl we love so much was on her way back to Ukraine.