Once the party was picked up and everything put away, it was time to focus on the fact that Penny was really and truly leaving. We had all had moments in the past weeks where we were all getting pretty teary eyed—once we were standing in line somewhere and I just patted Penny’s back. She asked me what I was doing and I told her I was holding onto her while I still could. We both got a little weepy.
So Sunday, we spent as much time together as was absolutely possible. We played last games of “I’m going to get that baby!”, a game Penny and I had invented for Leah where one of us held her and the other chased the two of them in circles around the living room/dining room/kitchen while Leah shrieked and laughed. We did last minute packing, or so I thought. I wound up having to take my buddy Joe home early, since he got a migraine, and when I got back, we had a nice dinner out and then watched The Princess Bride, all four of us.
Monday morning, Penny was freaking out because she couldn’t fit everything in her bags. She had flatly refused to spend money to ship anything whatsoever, and she had also spent months building up a supply of junk food to take home with her. Half of one suitcase was filled with cookies, candy, crackers, nuts, etc. Finally she came to the conclusion that she couldn't fit it all, so she abandoned a box of Ritz crackers, her Pringles (about 600 chips by the looks of it, all tucked in a Ziploc bag—they would have been crumbs by the time they got to Thailand), and her Chips Ahoy cookies (also in a Ziploc bag, about 200 of them).
Finally, she asked me for help getting things put in her suitcases, and I made her make some tough choices. Her favorite sneakers that had holes in the bottom went, as did 2 other pairs of shoes. Scarf and gloves that she has no use for in Thailand are gone. Sweaters and blankets are no more. There was some crying over the scarf (“But my friend gave me that!”), but I pointed out that she had another scarf in her suitcase that I hadn’t made her get rid of, and so she had to choose between the two. All the DVDs were removed from big cases and put into a sleeve. She had to abandon her iCarly DSi game boxes. What with one thing and another, we finally got everything put together. She did leave behind things that I would have found more important than Pepperidge Farm cookies—the autographed book from Paul Burrell, cards that friends and family had given her. She asked what I was going to do with her room when she was gone and I said it would go back to being a guest room, but I wasn’t keeping things indefinitely and it was not turning into a Penny Museum.
Then I made her take her bags to the car, just like she would have to in the airport, although this time through the obstacle of toys in the backyard. She was pretty upset with me and informed me that there wouldn't be toys to go through in the airport, but I pointed out there would be hundreds of people and she wouldn’t be able to just abandon one bag and go back for it. Finally, she got her stuff into the car, and we all sat in the living room and tucked into a bag of Lindt truffles that her friend, Taylor, had given her.
We left at about 12 noon, stopped to copy her report card for AFS, and then headed to McLean to drop her off and say our final goodbyes. It was a tearful ride up for me (every try driving when you’re crying and trying not to cry? It’s not easy!), and Penny said she was trying not to cry her eyes out while we went. It was definitely rough. We discussed our year and she thanked us again for giving her the opportunity to stay and prove herself and we told her she had done a great job.
We got to the drop off location and Penny gave her stuff to AFS Volunteer Paul, who was manning the luggage truck (They had gotten a Uhaul!). Another volunteer informed us we had 5 minutes, and despite my earlier sentiment in the day that it would be better to rip off the band aid and just be done with goodbye, suddenly only having a few final moments together sucked. Penny asked us to go out to the car so we would have a little privacy instead of standing around with the other kids and their families, and so we did. She put Leah in her carseat, hugged and kissed her, and the tears were really flowing. We shared a family hug, she hugged Mike hard and helped him into his seat, while he was busy assuring her that we love her and are proud of her, and then she walked me to my side of the car and I hugged her until I couldn’t hug her any more. Through our tears, I told her I loved her and to be a good girl and she swore she’d call from Thailand and she loved us. I got in the car, and that was that. We left her there, crying in the street, as we drove slowly away. I couldn’t even bring myself to look in the rearview mirror. (And I didn’t take pictures—we were all a mess and there just wasn’t time anyway!)
On the way up, she asked why I was crying and I said I hated myself for driving her up there and away from us. That was nothing compared to how much I hated myself for driving away from her. But there was nothing else to be done—we had to say goodbye, and we always knew this day was coming. It’s part of the experience, and despite the fact that it is now Thursday and I am crying as I type this, it does get easier and as we told her, “it’s not good-bye, it’s just see you next time!”
So we got home and Monday night I spent the evening stacking her belongings in the closet in that room and changing the blanket on the bed. The room is now basically empty, which has helped Leah make the transition to understanding that Penny is gone. She has done really remarkably well—she is living the dream as an only child again and center of our attention. She asks for Penny every day, but seems satisfied with, “Penny went bye bye” or “Penny went to see her mommy” and there are no tears, we just move on to the next thing.
Last night I stayed up, tracking Penny’s flight, until I saw it safely landed in Bangkok. There was a definite sense of it ending, and a few friends on Facebook this morning put “Welcome back” on her page, so she must be there. I know we will hear from her again, and we’ve kept busy, so it’s easy enough to be patient.
And thus endeth our year. We are now officially a “former host family” and a very proud one at that. I’m still somewhat numb and can only explain it like as if someone had cut off a finger—nothing life threatening has happened, but I definitely have to get used to living a little bit differently. We all miss our girl, but we’re doing fine. Who knows what adventures will follow!