When I had left the States to take up the post of „Graduate Assistant to the Director of the Austria-Illinois Exchange Program at the Vienna School of Business and Economics“ (yes, that was the full title) in September of 1997, Susan and I had already been engaged for months and were planning to wed in on the 8th of August, 1998. We were not planning for either of us to visit the other in the interim. We were doctoral students in the humanities, for cryin‘ out loud! Flying was expensive and…then as now…grad student life and money don’t really go together. Not even at Big Midwestern Research Universities ™.
All this being true, it was with great surprise and delight that I learned in one of our November phone calls that Susan was able to find an affordable flight to come and visit me in Vienna for the Christmas-New Year’s Holiday. I picked her up at Vienna’s Schwechat Airport- which at the time was the first airport Susan had seen in which policmen armed with submachineguns were on patrol and there were no waste bins to be seen.
„That’s odd. Why are there no trash cans? And why do those cops have…are those Uzis?“
„No. Steyr, I think. Why? Abu Nidal is why. There was an attack on the El Al counter back in 85? I think it was 85. About this time of year, too.“
That was our pre-9/11 introduction to the kind of airport security that would later become standard for airports in the U.S. and Europe. But in ’97? It was a mark of the heightened security at Schwechat that I had to wait for her beyond the gate area. In Indianapolis, my mother and brother had been able to walk with me right to the departure gate.
We spent those glorious days at the end of December together in the snow-flecked Vienna air. We went to the Bellvedere and Schönbrunn Palaces (the „Gloriette“ at the latter shown above), which is also home to the oldest zoo in the world. Their lion got really close to edge of the enclosure and roared at the setting sun the day we were there. We revelled in the art availablee to us in the city- we went to the Dali Museum and the Kunsthistorisches Museum (where we had an enounter with a German tourist I may recount later) and to various Christmas related events with my International Baptist Church family. When we went down to look at the Vienna Synagogue, we were again greeted by policemen armed with submachine guns. They took the threat of terrorism against Jewish targets seriously then, and still do. Still should. And we went to mass at Stephansdom. Which was a deeply powerful event, even for two then-Baptists. In 1997, Susan had not yet converted to Catholicism and I was still formally a member of the Southern Baptist Church, though already more open to Charismatic, Holy-Spirit-focused Chrisitanity than is usual for the SBC.
And then came the day I had to take her back to Schwechat for her return flight.
It was New Year’s Eve, 1997. We were at a party at the home of Pastor Donnie Bond of International Baptist, and had to leave at around 4:30 to get her to the airport on time. We took public transit lugging Susan’s suitcase through the underground, up escalators, and to the boarding desk. And every second hurt. I could not show it at the time, of course, wanting her to leave well, have a good flight, and enjoy pleasant memories of our Christmas in Vienna together, but raking the edge of my conscious mind the whole time were the ragged claws of impending sense of loss. The minute she walked through those gates to the departure area, we would not see each other until July, two weeks before our wedding.
So, after a mercifully short and loving parting of our company, she walked at haste through the gates and I stood there and watched her until she was completely out of sight. Then, feeling stunned, I made my way back to the underground, eventually taking the U4 back to the Pastor’s house, back to the New Year’s Eve Party Susan and I had left together. Coming back alone was difficult.
My friends, Greg Crutchfield and Elena Todorova must have noticed that I was suffering from Susan’s departure because they asked how I was feeling.
„Can we just stay together for a while? I can’t go back to my apartment right now. Not alone.“
So, they and a couple of other of the younger set from IBC- mostly fellow exchange students attending either the University of Vienna or the Business and Economics School- stayed with me for several hours after Susan’s departure and we rang in the New Year in downtown Vienna. I did not take the Straßenbahn 38 back to my apartment in Grinzing district until after 1AM- one of the last available streetcars. Only then did I weep.
The empty cathedral in that photo? It’s kind of how my life felt for a few days after Susan left. I still had an apartment, a job, a church community, and so on, but the most significant person in my life, my wife-to-be, was gone and for the next several months she was only present as an electronically attenuated voice brought to me via wires and radio signals.
Over the years, God has used this event as a key for understanding grief in a Christian understanding. Every departure, whether seeing friends depart for the mission field knowing that you won’t see them or the final departure from this life in death, does leave us feeling empty and in pain, in one degree or another. And that is real. Denying the reality of loss is not holy or godly, it’s simply embracing unreality- lying to yourself about your loss and your emotional pain coming with it. What do we hear from St. Paul on the point of mourning our losses? „…Do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope“ (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Jesus himself, in the opening statement of the Sermon on the Mount pronounces „Blessed are those who mourn“ not „Blessed are those who pretend that they have nothing to mourn“. We have the promised comfort of the Holy Spirit („…for they shall be comforted“) and the hope that Paul talks about in those next verses in 1 Thessalonians 4 and in 1 Corinthians 15. We can mourn losses. And departures. We have to to live honest to our hearts and honest to God.