Autumn Bleeds Towards Winter

In the last four weeks since my most recent post, it seems that a lot has happened, so this entry will probably be less thematic and more of a mixed bag.

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On October 29, my husband returned from nearly a month abroad with his children. I was so relieved to watch their flight cross the ocean via my FlightAware app and land safely at Dulles International.

Then on October 31, about a week after my official paneling, the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan sent a cable within the State Department announcing my assignment as consular officer beginning in May 2015. I was excited to receive it, until I realized that my husband was not listed on the cable as my Eligible Family Member (EFM). When I checked with the Human Resources office, I discovered that they were unaware I was married! That’s funny, since I have copies of all paperwork I’ve submitted to the contrary.

In any case, HR should be making the updates soon and after post has a chance to correct the cable, V and I will be able to start the process of obtaining our diplomatic passports. For the time being, he does not “exist”, which means that he won’t be a factor in my travel orders, housing, or anything else until I get it corrected.

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On the evening of November 10, I received the sad news that a former Peace Corps HQ colleague of mine, SP, had passed away due to complications from pulmonary hypertension. She was only 35 years of age, married, and had no children.

I was out walking through my neighborhood as I frequently do after dinner, and was looking forward to sleeping in on the Veteran’s Day holiday the following day. I was aware that she was in the hospital and that she’d undergone heart surgery earlier that morning. Although the procedure was a serious one, in my mind it was simply another step on a long road to try and maintain her wellness. Since she collapsed at work on Valentine’s Day in 2011, and was subsequently diagnosed, she had been hospitalized more times than I could remember.

I pulled out my iPhone and navigated to her Facebook wall, expecting to read some type of announcement that she was resting easily. Instead I saw a couple of wall postings – from her aunt, and a close friend – stating that she had died a couple of hours prior. I stood there staring at my phone, not comprehending what I was seeing. I suddenly had the sensation that someone had hit me in the chest with a hammer.

I sat down abruptly on the curb in front of some random house and just stared at the screen for several long minutes. I found myself ridiculously wondering about her emails, her to-do lists, her car, her long red hair. How could she just be gone like that? Where is she actually right this second? My mind reeled backwards through every conversation we’d had – about my Foreign Service candidacy, about her illness, about our work at Peace Corps HQ. We spent so much time together when I worked there; our similar jobs in different offices led us to coordinate frequently on best practices, and eventually led to a friendship.

One day in 2011 I mentioned to her that I had passed the FSOT, and she reminded me that her husband was a Foreign Service Officer. She shared with me about their previous postings in El Salvador and Switzerland, and we spent long hours talking about the career. She coached me on preparing for the FSOA, and I still have the congratulatory note she sent when I passed in 2012. This past May, when I received my offer to join the 178th Generalist Class, I ran up a floor and went straight to her office to let her know. I still remember her telling me that she knew it would happen for me.

I just still feel heartsick thinking of her husband’s loss, and trying to accept that all of the things she wanted from her future will never come to pass.

I will never forget when she told me she had given up on her dream of becoming a mother; her heart condition would not have permitted a pregnancy. She said that all she wanted was to grow old with her husband, and she suspected it wasn’t going to happen.

I felt so inadequate to comfort her at that moment, and all I could think to say was that she shouldn’t envy anyone. My husband and I are young-ish and healthy, but none of us are promised tomorrow. She wasn’t a person who needed to be reminded to live every day.

Tomorrow afternoon I will attend her memorial service in Washington, DC and I will do my best to help celebrate her short time here. She lived very fully, and I will sincerely miss her brutal honesty and razor-sharp wit. How I wish I could sit with her in the armchairs in Bourbon Cafe on L Street again, or stroll to Chop’t for salads and let her make fun of me that I didn’t understand the ordering system.

Godspeed, SP. You were loved, and your absence will be felt.

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And then, on November 14, after a couple of weeks of feeling generally distracted, restless and preoccupied, I underwent my first Russian language assessment at the Foreign Service Institute. Since I never tested in Macedonian during my long wait on the consular register, or during A-100, I didn’t quite know what to expect.

In some regards I was frustrated with my performance, although the assessor, my learning consultant, and both of my Russian instructors who work with me every day have all assured me that I am right where I am expected to be. My listening and reading are very strong, far ahead of what would be expected, because of my familiarity with another Slavic language that uses the Cyrillic alphabet and has many similar words and constructions.

However, my speaking is suffering from lack of practice, and I make lots of errors with adjectival and case endings. I inadvertently said a couple of things in Macedonian and Serbian during the assessment, which led to an inquisitively raised eyebrow from the assessor. It wasn’t that she didn’t understand me, but…“That’s not Russian.” !!

I have another assessment two months from now, and two months following that will be the final assessment, which will determine whether or not I have achieved sufficient levels of proficiency in spoken and written Russian as required by my consular assignment. In other words – be ready, or face a delayed arrival at post! (Nobody wants the humiliation of that.)

Yesterday was the end of the twelfth week of Russian class. Twelve weeks down, 16 weeks to go. Onward!

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And the autumn bleeds towards winter, colder here in Virginia with each passing week.

As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, I try to stay warm inside my own mind and heart. There have been times this year that I stood in the spaces between myself and others and felt empty, and times that I did not recognize myself in the mirror. But at the end of each day, I focus for a few moments on my gratitude for a lucky life, full of good people and brilliant opportunities. I am relieved that I have the courage and presence of mind to reach out and embrace everything around me. I hope that each dry, falling leaf this autumn will be renewed next spring when the world starts blooming again.

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Sarah W Gaer

Author, Speaker, Thought Leader

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