Last month there came a day that would have been the official end of our 27 month commitment to Peace Corps Thailand. On that day we stayed up all night doing laundry and packing, and then at first light piled ourselves into a taxi, and then onto a plane, for what turned out to be around 36 hours in total transit door-to-door from Bangkok to New Orleans.
Fortunately, that particular day wasn't how we marked the end of our tour of service. Instead, we joined the fresh-faced, newly minted Peace Corps Trainees in their Swearing-In Ceremony. Starting their journey as we finished ours, they stood and raised their hands to swear the oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, and to defend it against all foes, foreign and domestic. Those of us who made it to the end sat in silence and watched and listened, reflecting on all of the moments and the memories that comprise our two years of Peace Corps service. While the U.S. ambassador to Thailand was ill and couldn't make her scheduled speech, we were lucky, truly lucky, to have the Deputy Chief of Mission, W. Patrick Murphy, speak in her stead. Not only is he a gifted speaker, he is also a genuinely warm human being and a returned Peace Corps Volunteer. So, needless to say, he had a few relevant things to say on that day. I only remember one, however.
When you get back to America, he said, when you step off the plane in your "Peace Corps uniform" (he smirked, and so did we), no one will thank you. No one will thank you for your service, even though they should, because what you do, he said, is invaluable. So let me say it, on behalf of America, on behalf of everyone, "Thank you for your service."
Well, that was nice, I thought, that he thanked us. But what stuck with me was a feeling of needing to steel myself against the possibility that no one else would say it. No one will thank you. It almost became a mantra, it lodged so forcefully into my subconscious expectations of what the month long home-leave would be like. I didn't feel negatively about it, merely strengthened by the warning and thus ready to face the inevitable disappointment when neither gratitude nor interest regarding my two years away was particularly forthcoming from others.
On maybe the second or third day in New Orleans, we made the somewhat questionable decision of going out for tacos with my Dad and step-mom, who had graciously opened their home to us for a week, and also let us borrow their cars, spend quite a bit of their money on delicious food, and generally relax and recover from jetlag in peace and quiet.
At any rate, after we'd ordered appetizers from the busser who set down our four ice waters, the platinum-blonde, fifty-something waitress came over to the table balancing a giant tray of tomatoes, avocados, jalapenos, and limes between her shoulder and palm. As she swirled the tray down from her shoulder onto the tray stand she'd set up with her other hand, she greeted us, and my father, never one to miss an opportunity to turn a stranger into a familiar, promptly let her know that he was here tonight with his daughter and her husband, who'd just returned from serving two years in the Peace Corps in Thailand. With the now halved avocado turned upward in one palm, a spoon poised to scoop it's meaty flesh out to begin the ritual of table-side guacamole (which I could not wait to eat, my mouth already salivating as my brain conjured up the heavenly taste of fresh, ripe avocado and lime), she stopped suddenly, and looked directly, deliberately, at us.
"Thank you," she said. "Thank you for what ya'll are doing over there. Thank you." She said it as sincerely as I have ever heard anyone say anything.
My mouth stopped watering and my eyes immediately started. Deborah, or Tammy, or Kathy, or Dolores - she could have been any of those - had stopped my heart in an instant. I briefly wondered if she had misheard my father and thought we were in a branch of the military, but then decided that a) that was cynical and rude of me to think and that b) I didn't really care anyway.
Later I wanted to kick myself for not asking her what her connection to Peace Corps was, or why she had so emphatically thanked us for our service. But it didn't really matter. It doesn't. I will cherish that moment as though it were preserved under a glass case, frozen in time, forever.
Ultimately, that brief encounter colored my experience at home: gratitude, perhaps, must be at the center of all we do, or it's easy to start taking everything for granted.
For over two years, we had been enveloped in the kindness and generosity of Thais, who have accepted us, and loved us, and many, many times, simply shaken their heads at us and let us do something they thought was crazy. In coming back home, I was overwhelmed with kindness, too. From our first week in New Orleans, our weeks in Albuquerque, and even during our jaunt in Tokyo, and our return to Bangkok, I was shocked and heartened to discover that kindness, and love, and generosity are alive and well all over the globe.
To our friends and family, all I can say, is thank you. For the use of your cars, your extra beds, your phones, your homes, your old clothes, your shoulders, your ears, your time, your music, your food, your arms, and most of all, your beautiful, beautiful hearts: thank you.