My last night of every overseas tour, I have traditionally bid the assignment goodbye with a post I draft and publish upon my departure the following day. As much chaos as a PCS entails, once the packout is over, the badge is handed in, and the suitcases are packed, I will find moments of calm to reflect upon such an exercise. I did so in 2017, in the wee hours before the expeditor came for us in Uzbekistan, filled with gratitude and nerves. I did so in 2019 as we wrapped up our last breakfast in Australia on the back veranda, when the only thing that kept my heart from bursting was that winter had made our vibrant, colorful yard cold and still.
And now I’m getting ready to do it again in 2022. This morning we will load up our cars and begin our nearly 2,000 mile drive across Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee to our new home in northern Virginia. The end of this tour feels both too soon and like it should have happened months ago. I probably won’t truly understand how I feel about it for a long time, but it’s a definitive goodbye all the same. As we start over we will carry with us a piece of this place we barely got to know, and I will leave a piece of myself behind.
The last days have passed in a blur of packout preparation, the packout itself, and yesterday – my last day in the office. It has been an exhausting time, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Unlike my prior overseas packouts and PCS preparations, this all feels strange and unfinished. My tour, truncated at my request in a way that tastes bittersweet and complicated. I didn’t arrive at this departure day point after the expected two or three years of work that felt like a natural finish line. I drew the finish line in front of myself like a boundary marker, saying, this is where my highest obligation to myself takes over.
Although I have truly loved the work, have respected my excellent local staff colleagues, and have grown as a consular officer here in Ciudad Juárez, my overall experience has not gone as I expected or hoped for when we hit the road from Virginia to come here in the summer of 2020. As I hope I’ve made clear in previous posts, in light of all circumstances, I feel I had no real choice but to depart ahead of schedule.
Although it may sound petty, I blame the pandemic for almost everything. Had the pandemic never happened, I know my tour here would have been radically different, and much more like my first two tours. In many ways, the past 18 months feel like a tour that has never even begun, although given the nonstop nature of our unit’s work supporting U.S. citizens, the time has still been filled with professional development and chances to learn. While I have learned a lot, I’ve been limited to operating in a tiny familiar space. I’m sure many people feel similarly about the extent to which they’ve been able to fully live these past two years, or acclimate to new environments. There have still been all of the difficult things, and precious little of the fun releases – travel, parties, movie theaters, bars, tourism, the normalcy of togetherness – that offset the stresses, help us get to know our surroundings, and renew us.
What do I blame the pandemic for? For the practical side of things – the effects of never being able to plan, for the duality of settling into a place for more than a year and still feeling as if I’ve never arrived, for the disruptions and the setbacks, and for the breakdowns in institutional knowledge. For the loss in missing out on overlapping with my predecessor for a month, which I suspect would have made an especially critical substantive difference for me.
And for the human side of things – the isolation, the illness, the loss and grief, the blurred boundaries, and the “languishing.” And most of all, for the gobsmackingly massive hypocrisy about being in the pandemic together, which was laid bare once most people felt safe and took over spaces that belonged to everyone by removing their masks while some people still weren’t over the immunity wall. I especially resent that this was done in such a way that prevented the most vulnerable employees from accessing federal workspaces, while imposing undue risk on them and simultaneously requiring them to be present there by the nature of their professions. Further, for the immunocompromised, the implication of any lack of commitment or unwillingness to be a team player and carry one’s own weight in a situation (a) where we are destined to fail with no policy recourse and (b) where we are measured by a different standard than the able-bodied who informally shelter whenever deemed to be “in danger” is unacceptable. All this stacked up against the risks we are taking going invisible and unacknowledged, with no protection against mitigation being conflated with performance for me was the last straw.
And to be clear, I loathe the pandemic for creating this situation in the first place, for forcing every civilized social space to turn into some kind of “survival of the fittest” Darwinian exercise by which people are either selfishly hyper-focused on getting back everything they’ve lost at all costs, or trying desperately not to become collateral damage of those efforts and have that seen as a legitimate pursuit. Like COVID germs, it’s all invisible and lurking under the surface.
When I leave Mexico today, if I am sad, it will be for what I am losing professionally, financially, and personally by these circumstances. My decision to leave is the correct one. So we will say farewell without regret to a place that already said farewell to me several months ago. Maybe someday, we will see each other again in better times.