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Foto: Kirsty McHenry

Kirsty McHenry | I’d like to preserve home in a jar

Kirsty McHenry,
16 januari 2024 - 15:57

The free life of an international studying abroad comes at a high price: the faces of loved ones and acquaintances from home are increasingly blurring when time passes by, writes Kirsty McHenry, who is from Ireland but studies Political Science at the UvA, in her very first column for Folia. 

For many internationals, it is comforting to hold onto the image of home as it looked in that last glimpse before we left to make our way abroad. In doing so it seems that we may keep them - those people and places that dwindled in the rear view - safely fixed in our memory. Inevitably, however, change arrives to shatter this illusion. News of such change reached me by way of a phone call in the days before last winter break. As she explained my grandad’s quickly declining health, the sound of my mother’s voice on the other end of the line seemed more distant than ever.
As soon as the assignments relented and exam season drew to a close, I caught the next flight back home. Arriving at his bedside, my eyes sank to the figure asleep beneath me, and I was seized by a desire to retreat. There was surely some mistake. This man looked nothing like the one I had seen during my last return in June. His body, which had at one time seemed to stretch into the sky, had changed in the autumn months I had been absent. His face, which was once so vibrant, had since withered. Now he was bent over, lurching further forwards with every strained breath.
My Grandad’s funeral took place the day after St Stephen’s Day, on the 27th of December. Wearing borrowed black attire (out of haste or reluctance, I had not packed anything appropriate for such an occasion amongst my Christmas jumpers), I sat in the pews watching my family. As relatives reflected on their relationship with the deceased, I noticed how their faces too seemed to have grown unfamiliar. When I first chose to go away, I had not realised that I’d be committing to a future in which almost all of them, my cousins, aunts, and uncles, would fade into strangers. 

“In leaving, internationals agree to an invisible contract of sorts that requires we give up the reality of home”

I got to visit my grandad twice before his death and, though it felt fleeting, I remind myself I am lucky to have had any time with him at all. For many of us students who are living far from home this kind of fortune cannot be relied upon. We cannot ensure we will be there to stand by loved ones through times of change. To reap an education abroad is a strange privilege, as much as there is felicity there is also risk. The freedom itself can create an impounding sense of guilt.
In leaving, internationals agree to an invisible contract of sorts that requires we give up the reality of home and replace it with the dulling image preserved in memory. For better or worse, we miss out on the collective experiences of those who stayed behind. While we could scour our tracks in an attempt to retrace the way, the longer we wait the fainter they become. Though some refuse to believe that what was once home has been lost, many more of us choose instead to turn our eyes to the other paths that extend ahead. Accepting that with each step, it is less and less likely we will make it back.

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