When I was 22 years old, I had the exciting opportunity to travel to India on a Fulbright Fellowship. I can clearly remember looking up to the sky just before boarding the plane to India and thinking, “I am flying into my future.” I knew that my life would be forever changed.
I was assigned to teach English at a college. I was not good at it, and it was very frustrating and unsatisfying. It shook my confidence, and caused me to question what I was really good at and what I was going to do with my life after India.
As the weeks went by, a feeling of lassitude came over me. My life up to that point had been organized by others, by my family and then by school and college. That gave it structure and purpose. On my own, I could hardly get out of bed in the morning. I felt, as the science fiction author Robert Heinlein titled one of his books, like “a stranger in a strange land.” Worse, I was a stranger to myself.
Being such a long distance from home provided the opportunity for a lot of perspective. That included friendships. Friends that I had felt close to sort of fell away, except for one – my best friend of many years, Ellen. She was the one I most enjoyed sharing my experiences with – both good and bad. And I loved getting her letters from home. I found that as much as I missed home, I missed Ellen more. I realized that she was the person who was most important to me, the one who could always make me laugh. Somehow, the idea of being with Ellen after India felt complete and right. Now, how was I to share this exciting and somewhat scary realization?
Keep in mind that all this took place in 1964, when there was no Internet, and certainly no possibility of calling home. The only means of communication was through airmail, and letters took seven to 10 days to go between India and the United States. Even if one responded to a letter immediately, it was often three weeks between writing a letter and receiving a response. It was not a good medium for sharing emotions, but it was the only means at hand.
So, with heart in hand, I wrote Ellen telling her that I did not want to be apart from her again, that I wanted us to be together from now on. I mailed the letter with considerable anxiety. What if she didn’t feel the same way? Now, I thought, I will need to wait three weeks to get her response.
A letter from Ellen arrived the following week, far too soon to be a response to my letter. When I opened it, I was surprised to read that she felt the same way toward me. She had taken the risk to say so in a letter, not knowing how I would feel about it. It was so redemptive for both of us. Of course, it took another three weeks for us to tell each other how relieved we felt and how happy and nervous we were about what lay ahead for us!
From that point on, even though our letters were still full of details of life at home and in India, they became more affectionate. They were becoming love letters. When I returned home, this new love did lead to marriage – a marriage that is strong and happy more than 45 years later. We now have three grown children and two grandchildren, with a third grandchild on the way.
I went to India in search of many things. I hoped for adventure. I wanted to learn about a very different culture and perhaps make a contribution. But I did not know that I was traveling halfway around the world to find my wife.