Last Tuesday, my dad turned 65. Three days later, after more than 40 years in the work force, he retired from his position as the Deputy Chief Political Officer at the American Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, forced out by the U.S. government because of his age. My parents have lived in eight countries, changed career paths in their late 40s and lost both sets of their parents. My mom, however, insists that this new change, retirement, is the hardest challenge they have encountered. And despite the fact that I live thousands of miles away in New York City, I find myself distressed, coming to grips with a new reality for my parents and a new reality for myself.
My dad worked as a criminal defense attorney for almost 20 years in San Diego, eventually running his own successful practice. He got clients off of death row, argued a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court and received acclaim throughout the greater county. At the same time, he was rarely home for dinner, became disillusioned with his practice and yearned for opportunities to travel the world (he and my mom took a year off in their 30s to backpack around South America). And so, almost on an impulse, he took the Foreign Service exam, and within a year, our family found ourselves on our way to the Dominican Republic. My dad went from arguing murder cases to processing visas, from making a respectable salary to earning less than what he paid his secretary. But he was home every night for dinner, and he was happier than I had ever seen him.
Throughout the next 18 years, we traveled from the Dominican Republic to Argentina, from Kenya to Ecuador. My dad took a pit stop for a year in Afghanistan, working with a Spanish Provincial Reconstruction Team, before dealing with Mugabe's despotic regime in Zimbabwe for four years. Along the way, he was the first American diplomat in Mogadishu, Somalia since the Black Hawk Down incident of 1992, was handcuffed and kicked out of Sudan during a meeting with the opposition and defended Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld's handing of the Abu-Ghraib prisonscandal on Ecuadorean TV (it wasn't all glamorous).
And on September 1st, after 18 years in the Foreign Service, he and my mom will be moving back into their home in San Diego. It's been difficult on my parents.
But it's been hard on me, too. Candidly, I am having trouble dealing with these circumstances. There is the part of it, which many experience, of recognizing that my parents are now in their mid-60s. As an only child, I worry about them (and worry about myself without them). I worry how my dad, who loved nothing more than dissecting Kenya's ever-changing politics over dinner on a Friday night and stalking lions in a game-park on Saturday morning, will deal with living back in this country. I worry that my dad, who mountain bikes vigorously every weekend, has absolutely no interest in resting, but that the State Department's completely antiquated retirement policy, which was created for a past time, will rob my dad of the smile I have seen so much more of in recent years. I worry that, for my parents, nostalgia will become the new reality.
But, selfishly, I also worry about me.
After telling my parents that they had ruined my life non-stop for years, I came to appreciate our nomadic existence, recognizing the unique perspective I became exposed to. I was incredibly lucky. I observed the first democratic elections in Kenya's history and witnessed a presidential coup in Ecuador. I traveled to Major League Baseball academies in the Dominican Republic and talked to hundreds of internally displaced people in Zimbabwe who had been tortured by the government. Each day was a new learning experience; every person met shaped my worldview.
Even after I went back to the U.S. for college and stayed after to run an educational non-profit, the fact that my parents still lived overseas was important to me. It allowed me to continue to tread the line between my American background and my international upbringing, not committing fully to either side. Visiting my parents once or twice per year gave me much-needed perspective in my young professional life in New York City, reminding me that the average income in Kenya is $2 per day, while I was asking wealthy donors for five-figure gifts to support my non-profit. It allowed me to dream of a more adventurous future.
As my parents move back, I know that I will need to be there for them as they get used to a new, or past, life. I know that some days will be harder than others, that the longing for the African plains may never leave their eyes.
But I also know that, completely selfishly, it is going to be difficult on me. I will be there for my parents, through the good days and the bad. But I also don't know how I will deal with their return. Will I start my own family, moving closer to them? Will I embrace our family's American renewal? Or will my parents return produce a nostalgia that pushes me back to the idealized international terrain?
The uncertainty of the future scares me. I always knew that retirement would be hard on my parents. I didn't know that it would hit me hard, as well.
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