Since posting “A Place Called Home” we have learned of the passing of Otto Warmbier. Just as home is the place where absence is felt most durably, so home is the place where loss is felt most deeply. The Staff and Contributors of Front Porch Republic extend our sincere sympathy to Fred and Cindy Warmbier and their family. We’ve also removed the photo out of respect for the family. -ED/MVG
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Normally when the flood of daily news is being repeated on my TV I listen while doing something else, but today I stopped and gave my full attention when Fred Warmbier’s image came up on the screen. Fred was wearing the jacket his son wore during his trial in North Korea. He is a father totally bewildered that any government anywhere would sentence a young man like Otto to fifteen years of hard labor for stealing a propaganda poster. How could this happen?
Fred speaks for all of us who have dropped children at the airport for a semester abroad, for all of us who have sent our children away with extra hugs and advice as they ventured out to explore new corners of the globe. I sent my own children off for their adventures before there were cell phones or text-messaging. One of my children lived in an auberge whose only phone was at the main desk. She wasn’t there during the day, and at night the phone was tended by a clerk who was usually either not awake or not sober. Sometimes the message got through, but just as often it did not. My daughter has no idea how much I worried because she had great adventures that later made for great stories, and she returned home safely.
Traveling to “somewhere else” is a rite of passage with a long history, and the disconnect from home is the purpose of it. Parents fund it and schools expect it as a routine part of the college experience. When I was teaching college I advised students to do their semester abroad somewhere their parents had never been. “If your parents are from Europe, don’t go to Europe; it’s too easy. It’s better to venture out more,” I said. “Find somewhere else in the world that you can call your own at least for a little while.” I recount that now with slight embarrassment; it was trite to say that to someone else’s son or daughter.
The globe has gotten smaller and we are hyper-connected, but that hasn’t stopped parents from worrying when they send children off to unfamiliar places. We still worry about what we would do if we became disconnected from them; we fret about how we could help them if they became sick or injured. We can identify with Fred and Cindy, but their agony is something we hardly dare to imagine.
There’s another side to the Warmbier’s story that impresses me. For over a year Fred has been trying to bring Otto back to the people “who love him,” and now that Otto is home Cindy Warmbier is keeping vigil at her son’s bedside. Do our children know as they venture out to discover the world that someone at home is waiting and watching? Does it mean anything to them that far away from the place of their adventure, someone tells about them at the office or the grocery store because present or absent they are still important? Do they realize there is a place where they are known with a depth of years that is more profound than anything they could reveal about themselves or discover in the conversations they have with new acquaintances on the other side of the world?
We get the passport, book the tickets, and send our children away so they will feel at home in the rest of the world. Whether we say it to them or not, we also hope they will come back better able to define what home is. It might be a stretch to expect young people who are fearless about their own mortality to consider that if their fortunes turned to disaster, there is a place that would desperately want them back, and that on their return there would be ribbons around trees? But shouldn’t we at least help them imagine that the place they come from has a place for them to return to because it is the place that the people who love them call home?