Thursday, February 23, 2012

Thinking of Good-bye

It's been three months today since the little EmbraAir jet (Brazilian, appropriately) taxied onto the snowy runway in Rapid City, South Dakota. Through frosty plane windows, my son, Ethan, and I watched tropical fields of banana trees and red Brazilian clay fade into ocean, into night, and then into snow-dusted patches of prairie flanked by rugged Black Hills.

We have left Brazil and made our home in South Dakota - for good. My husband joined us in December, and I cannot remember a time I've been happier. All the years stored up waiting have finally come to pass. We are here - we are home!

And yet we have not forgotten all the faces and days we left behind in warm Brazil, where afternoons smell of sunlight and dried leaves, of summer grasses and salt breeze and hibiscus blooms.

Here is something I wrote back in September, never imagining that two short months later I'd be buying American furniture and winter coats and car insurance.

And yet - by some strange miracle, we are.


Sept. 3, 2011

I’m sitting here in the Galeão terminal overlooking Rio’s misty, jagged mountains. Lighter spots of favela housing dotting the hillsides like patchwork quilting. A heavy, gray tropical sky. Yesterday I saw the beach, a clear gray-blue under overcast skies, and pale, wheat-colored sand like sugar. Soft as powder beneath our feet. We stripped off Ethan’s shoes and he jumped and danced, barefoot, leaping and rolling and tossing handfuls like he’d been marooned at sea for months. “A mess!” he said in giddy joy, sifting handfuls down over his brown toes.

I just checked in at an automatic check-in machine, entering my numbers and making the mistake of punching “English” for the language option and choosing my nationality as “The United States of America.” Because then, of course, the machine promptly asked for my passport number. Which I didn’t have with me because I don't carry my passport for domestic flights. “You should have said you nationality was Brazilian,” smiled the TAM worker as she helped me punch in my RNE (foreigner’s ID) number instead.

I wheeled my single small suitcase through security, speaking and answering in Portuguese, and found the gate myself. A man just came over to ask me if I’d picked up an Internet connection at the airport. And no, I hadn’t. In fact I couldn’t get one yesterday, either, at the Maingots’ house, because I'd inadvertantly messed up the wireless configuration on my laptop.

All of this I told him in Portuguese without thinking twice. Then I turned back to my laptop to finish editing my third novel and watch the planes take off across dove-gray morning. The mountains disappear, jagged, into the deep, dark, tropical haze like they did in years ago in Fiji.

All at once tears spring close to the surface as I realize, for perhaps the first time, the extent of what I will leave behind. This trip to Rio—our morning spent in the American consulate—has just nearly finished our process for immigration. As soon as they receive my tax forms and Athos’ police report from Japan, they’ll mail us the visas we need for Athos' green card. Ethan will become an American citizen the minute he sets foot in an American airport. We can count the months now, and perhaps even the weeks. The process has gone staggeringly fast—so fast that we are not quite ready for it. I felt the same way in 2009 when, from Monday to Saturday, we became parents of a fragile infant. The mess, the cribs, the trying to figure out how to use a diaper and a bottle—all sprung on us in a few days’ time.

Now I sit here and stare out at the moody runway, a straw color through the tinted glass, and realize that, in a few short months, we will step off the plane into blustery South Dakota winter. Equally unprepared. Our suitcases filled with linen pants and green-and-yellow short-sleeved soccer jerseys. Sleeveless silk blouses and strappy sandals and thin cotton skirts. Jobless and homeless and wondering, as I did the day we carried that warm little bundle into our tiny, one-bedroom-apartment living room and put him in a borrowed crib: "Have we done the right thing? Can we possibly live up to the enormous responsibility required of us, and can we make it work? Make it a blessing?”

“Do we have what it takes?”

Are we what it takes?"

Suddenly it hits me: For the first time in ten years, I will leave behind my international life. I will no longer be exotic, odd, a curiosity. I wonder, with the first tingles of apprehension, if I will forget my Portuguese. The way my Japanese disappeared, like a reluctant cat, under the bed—toe by toe. Until I can barely coax it out into the light.

I will no longer breeze through international security lines at huge airports in São Paulo and Atlanta, switching languages as easily as I switch international documents. No more chatting in Portuguese about Brazilian soccer while I wend my way through the quicker “Brazilian” line. No more switching coins and currencies. No more blast of warm, tropical air as the airport doors swing open, Brasilia’s concrete terminal verdant with plants and glinting from rippling reflecting pools.

No more chilly green coconuts hacked open with a knife, in three perfect strokes, and pierced with a straw—the severed wedge given as a spoon to cut out the jelly-like white interior. No more macaws screeching from the trees as I run in early morning coolness just before sun-filled heat. No more nodding hibiscus flowers or clear-water beaches or fresh payapas and pineapples, like the sweet, pale yellow cubes I ate this morning for breakfast.

No more bitter Brazilian cafezinho coffee, piping hot and sugary-sweet, in tiny demitasse cups and saucers. No more golden loaves of ubiquitous French bread. No more fresh-squeezed orange juice or mangoes or bananas fresh from the tree at Athos’ grandfather’s farm, or walks through his plantations of blue-silver cabbages and striped zucchinis—dry red soil clinging to our shoes. No more round limes plucked from the limb or thick layers of dark coffee beans roasting in the open sun. No more conversations with my brother-in-law Kyle while we sit in his parents’ wooden house, rain pouring down outside in heavy sheets.

No more sultry bossa nova, at least not without a twinge of what-used-to-be-familiar-now-turned-exotic. No more airline instructions that I understand in either Portuguese or English, and do not remember which language was used. No more palm trees or beach-swept, salty hair or pungent scents of espresso or sautéing garlic.

No more TAM, and no more Brazilian phone numbers with the Brasilia (61) prefix code. I will not need to write +55 in front of my phone number or “BRAZIL” after my address.

After hours in the over-air-conditioned American consulate Friday morning, Athos and Ethan and I walked under palm trees, past tropical blooms and chattering macaws toward Botafogo. Then I took off my fancy heels and walked in the sand along the beach, listening to the waves roar and crash against the beach of Praia do Flamengo. Past empty cabanas where vendors sell coconuts, soccer jerseys, beer, and flip-flops during the summer months. Right across from those black-and-white wave-patterned sidewalk tiles—Portuguese in origin, yet so distinctively Brazilian.

Eternal summer, for better or for worse, is about to become a distant memory. Replaced by snow and cold noses and bitter mornings and brown autumn leaves and simple American addresses and phone numbers and postal codes. When I attend the American Christian Writer’s Conference, I will no longer be “the girl from Brazil.” I’ll be instead “the girl from South Dakota,” with a normal life and a normal residence. Only that I’m not really from South Dakota. I’m from Virginia, but I’m not really from Virginia, either. I’m from South Carolina. Although I’ve never really lived in South Carolina. It’s complicated, really—when who you are becomes somehow who you are not at the same time.

Should we move? Of course we should. We’ve been waiting for this day nearly seven years. I can’t wait to drive a car again. To speak in English and not answer questions constantly about where I’m from. To buy American clothes that fit me, and pay American prices that leave me with a little (or in some cases a lot) more left in my wallet. To earn money again instead of dividing precious reais with my husband and coming up short, all in hopes that we can both pay our bills for the week. To be near my family for a chance—my friends, my memories—and remember a bit the girl I used to be. Back before I left first for North Carolina and then for Japan so many years ago.

More importantly, Athos needs to go. He’s been blocked in here with his education and his job opportunities, neither going up nor forward, nor finding jobs in other cities, and we find our possibilities and assets decreasing almost daily in super-expensive Brasilia, which now boasts a higher cost of living than New York City. Athos needs the peacock fan of opportunities the U.S. can provide—in jobs, in career options, in movement, in locality, and in personal growth. He plans to get his master’s in the U.S.—more cheaply, more quickly, and with a wider array of choices, each of which suit him brilliantly.

My family needs to know Athos, the Brazilian in-law they love but know only as a distant acquaintance who appears in letters, notes, and occasional phone conversations. And Ethan needs to know his American family. The American life God has given him, too, which is equally as important as his Brazilian life—which he knows virtually nothing about.

We want to homeschool, which is illegal here. We want to drive and live in a relatively safer environment, pay lower taxes, choose our own schooling, and earn money to bless others, buy our first home, and adopt again. We want to plant a garden and show Ethan how a tomato grows—in our own backyard. We want him to run free, learning about trees and soil and animals and rugged life, rather than living out of a city apartment and running with whatever ill-behaved neighborhood children happen to congregate below us. We want him to step over snowdrifts and blooming columbines rather than discarded toilet paper and snack wrappers.

It’s done. We decided to move back to the U.S. ages ago, prayed toward it, and when the doors began to open, they opened so rapidly we nearly had to run to hold them back so we’d be ready. Life is never static--always moving, always changing. We cannot dig in our heels and refuse to change when the world around us is shifting, squeezing our family in directions we don't like. The time is coming; the time is nearly now. We will move forward with confidence.

For God's presence will follow us wherever we go--surrounding us like the pillars of fire and cloud as the Israelites camped on the banks of the Red Sea.

Yet I remember now, sitting here in the gray morning of the airport: that whenever we give up something, even for the exponentially better, there is always, always a loss.

I feel it. A little twinge of something sorrowful, a sob rising below the surface. That yes, Brazil, the land I once called the land of my dreams, the place that has torn me from blessing to torment and back again, I will miss you.

I cannot stay here, but I will miss you.

Seven years has woven you into my life like the patterns on a homespun hammock—in glistening, brilliant colors and darkened bands. Beautiful and deceptively strong.

And I will always carry a piece of you with me, wherever I go—like the ivory sand that sifted from my cuffs from when I unrolled my jeans after walking on Praia do Flamengo.

Jennifer Rogers Spinola lives in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, with her Brazilian husband, Athos, and three-year-old son, Ethan. She has lived in Brazil for nearly eight years and served as a missionary to Japan for two years. Jenny is the author of Barbour Books' "Southern Fried Sushi" series (second book released March 1, 2012) and an upcoming romance novella collection based on Yellowstone National Park (also with Barbour Books).


  1. I cried when I left after five years in Brazil. So many beautiful places and people. We still have lots of close Brazilian friends. Through the internet you can keep in touch--and keep up your Portuguese. Eight years is a lot longer to live in a language than two. Ethan and Athos need for you to remember. May God bless you in your new home. (South Dakota in February is even colder than Sao Paulo in July!)

  2. That was beautiful, Jenny. I felt your longing. Thank you for sharing.

  3. This is so amazingly written! You have put into words what I have struggled for 12 years to explain to people! I was nodding 'yes, yes, that it exactly' at every line!

    For 15 years I lived in East Africa, having gone out to teach, married a local, had three children and stayed much, much longer than I ever intended.
    But oh! the JOY when the doors finally opened for me to return home to Ireland! And the wonder and delight of the first year, and then the next...even 12 years later I still have to remind myself that this is real and not just a visit!

  4. Thank you guys so much for your comments! And I'm sorry about the crazy spacing - not sure what happened! I should have fixed it now.

    LeAnne, I do miss it. My son is forgetting his Portuguese, and it kills me. We are trying so hard to keep it from happening, but with all the new things to see, say, and do, he just doesn't have much interest - and we're too busy looking for jobs and keeping us fed and WARM :) that the Portuguese activities we planned aren't happening. Thank you for your encouragement!

    Valerie - you are always a blessing! Thank you so much!

  5. Hackerty - your comment touched me so deeply. This is EXACTLY what I've been feeling - the wonder and absolute delight at so many things. From the language to being accepted as an American without explanation to the foods and snow and... well, just about everything. It's been amazing. I keep going to sleep at night and wondering if I wake up, if it'll be all over.

    I feel a bit guilty saying all that, because it sounds like I don't love Brazil, or that I think my country is superior. I do love Brazil - and every country has superior parts and not-so-good parts. But the United States is MINE - and I come from here. I belong here. I was born and grew up here. It's extremely hard to be a foreigner - far harder than I ever knew it would be. I empathize with Ruth of the Bible, of Jesus as a refugee in Egypt, and the "alien" that lived among the Israelites.

    Sometimes it's just good to come home. :)

  6. What an amazing post :) Though I can't relate in the sense that I've always lived in my homeland, I can in that my parents live in Cambodia and they express some pretty similar sentiments every time they come home.

    P.S. I just got notification from Book Depository that my pre-ordered copy of Like Sweet Potato Pie is on its way - I'm so excited for Shiloh's next installment!

  7. Kara - you are so sweet! Thanks so much for reading my book! Wow! What do your parents do in Cambodia?

  8. Thanks so much for sharing. I understand so much of what you have written. I was born in MN and have lived in Ontario and British Columbia in Canada, the Netherlands, Germany and 4 different states before returning to MN. I really don't know where "home" is, except that it is here in the USA with my husband and daughter!

  9. Thanks, Betz! I know what you mean about not knowing where "home" is... Now I'm living in South Dakota, where I've never lived before, but it feels more like "home" than some of the other places I've actually lived. Funny, isn't it?

  10. Hi Jennifer,
    Your story is very poignant and evoked memories of a place I miss very much. I taught at several universities in China from 1997-2009. I was not allowed to stay any longer, but still miss it. I eat at a local Chinese restaurant just to be in that atmosphere and chat with the wait staff. My China memoir is underway...

    Judith Coopy

  11. Jenny thank you for giving us insight into your old and new way of life. May the Lord bless you as you settle "back home" in the USA and as your family get to know their new way of life.

  12. My Mum is a nurse and they've established a Healing Home / hospice where they take in people who are falling between the cracks on the pretty much non-existent healthcare system. My Dad was also a pastor for many years so he also does a lot of development work with Cambodian churches. You can find them at :)

  13. Kara - thanks! That's really neat to know - and what a great ministry! I was active in a local Cambodian church when I lived in Richmond years ago.

    Shirley, thank you for your sweet comments! It was a rough start with all the adjustments, but I'm loving every minute of it now. Three inches of snow! I can hardly wait! :)

    Judith - I love your comments about China. I was there once several years ago, and Asia has a way of staying in our blood...