Homesickness and Monkey Bites

I am a homebody.  Always have been, always will be.  I don’t like getting too far away from  home.  An occasional vacation is nice but in the grand scheme of things, I prefer home over vacationing.  Call me boring, call me weird, but that’s the way I am.  My husband’s the same way, so we’re very much alike in that regard.

College was a hard time for me in this respect.  Even though I attended an undergraduate university which was only about 35 miles from home, I was without a car and felt like I may as well been 1,000 miles away.  I was homesick and miserable…. away from a family I loved with all my heart, away from my pets that I loved, missed and cried for, and away from a young man I had fallen in love with (who later became my husband).  I found a way to come home every weekend.  Every. Single. Weekend.  Looking back, I wish my parents would have encouraged me to stay away and participate in college life a little more than they did.  But they were more than happy with me coming home every weekend.  Most of those weekends, I had a job at home, working for Opryland USA, and then later a local veterinary clinic, and so that was another reason for me to come home every weekend.  My only goal in college was studying hard and making good grades to get into veterinary school.  I had no desire to socialize or “party” as a lot of college freshmen do.  I had no desire to date as I knew I had already found the man I wanted to marry.   My oldest sister was a senior when I was a freshman at the same university.  We were in different dorms though and didn’t see each other much.  She had a car and so most weekends, I rode home with her.  In later years, I caught a ride home with a friend on Fridays, and if I couldn’t find a ride home, my father would either drive down or fly his Cessna to get me (which was about a 15 minute flight).  Regardless of how I got home, I was always grateful to be there and I remember always dreading Sunday night when I had to go back.  Always.  Homesickness is a horrible feeling…. one of the worst feelings I think one can have.  I recently read Rhinestone Cowboy, Glen Campbell’s autobiography.  In it, he described his feelings of homesickness when he left home at a young age to travel and pursue a career in music.  The feelings he described while on the road and missing his family hit home with me and brought those terrible feelings back to the forefront of my memories.  If you’ve never experienced homesickness, consider yourself lucky.

Back when I was attending undergraduate in the late 70s and early 8os, the only way we had of communicating when away from home was by long distance phone calls and handwritten letters.  My small dorm room had one of the old rectangular black rotary phones on the wall but phone calls home were long distance so that phone wasn’t used much.  I called home only to arrange transportation home for the weekend or in the case of an emergency.  That was all.

Receiving written mail while in college was heaven.  I used to think I hid my homesickness from my parents pretty easily, but now I know they were smarter than I was giving them credit for.  I did get frequent letters and cards from my  mother, (even though she knew she would be seeing me on the weekend) or a post card or a short note scribbled on hotel stationery from a far away city from my pilot father, who travelled extensively.  This always meant a lot to me.  I think I saved all of those cards and letters and I imagine one day, reading them in my old age, will bring back a lot of happy memories.  In high school, I remember being pretty close to one particular teacher.  We exchanged addresses when I went off to college, and I remember the joy I would feel when I would get a letter from her.  How it helped my homesickness!  Being away from home made me appreciate home all the more.  Parts of me wish I would have stayed on campus more, broadened my horizons, and experienced a little more of college life.  But instead, I gave in to the homesickness.

After graduating from college, I then went on to Veterinary School.  I was excited and fulfilling a life-long dream, but this time I was moving even further away.  Instead of 35 miles away, I was moving about 181 miles away– about a three-hour drive from home.  This time I was engaged to be married (we became engaged the summer before I started vet school and decided on a long engagement as my fiancé was in nursing school, and we both wanted to be forever done with school before we married).  Long distance relationships are tough.  Not everyone survives them.  We did but it wasn’t always easy.  Obviously, coming home every weekend as I did in undergraduate school (pre-vet), was not feasible in veterinary school.  I tried darn hard to come home once a month, but even that was not always possible.  Fortunately, the rigors of veterinary school kept me busy enough that I didn’t have enough time to think about being homesick very much.  But I never stopped missing home, my family, my fiancé, my friends, and my pets.  My parents usually called on the weekends and they were always good to send cards and letters.  I paid my veterinary school tuition from my personal savings as well as my apartment rent and utilities, but my dad was generous about sending $20 weekly.  Back then, in the early eighties, that bought all my groceries, and I still had a little left over for emergencies.  Hard to believe now, but it’s true.  My fiancé wrote me weekly and those letters were always a joy to receive and “kept me going.”

I remember my senior year in veterinary school, I was doing a clinical rotation in exotic animal medicine, where we visited the Knoxville Zoo daily to treat the animals there.  This particular day in February, it was a Friday afternoon and I was happy as a lark as I was to be going home that afternoon after finishing up at the zoo.  I had not been home in over a month and I remember the gnawing homesickness feeling I was having.  It was bitter cold that day and Knoxville had recently had a bad snowstorm and frigid cold weather.  Our “job” that week was mainly in the primate house, where several of the primates had suffered from frostbite– mainly on their bottoms and digits.  I remember assisting the veterinarian that week, who was in charge of our rotation,  as we amputated little primate fingers.  This particular Friday, I was grabbed through chain link fencing by a very LARGE chimpanzee named Debbie (who I learned later had a very bad temper and a reputation for amputating zoo keepers’ fingers).  This was not one of the cute little chimpanzees you see on TV wearing diapers.  This was a very large chimp.  It all happened in what seemed like nanoseconds, but when I was grabbed, the force was incredible, and I remember catching a glimpse of the “anger flash” in Debbie’s eyes, and I knew what was about to happen.  I tried curling my hand up in a fist but my strength was no match for hers.  I was a rag doll in her hands.  She proceeded to open my clenched fist, which she brought to her mouth, and bit down.  I was helpless in preventing this.  The zoo veterinarian, who fortunately was right behind me,  saw this all going down.  With all his might,  he screamed a blood curdling scream while throwing his whole body against the chain link fence.  His quick thinking and action was enough to scare Debbie into dropping my hand and jumping back from the fence.  In truth, I’m convinced his actions saved me from losing a finger (or two).  I was bleeding profusely, but I still had all my fingers.  Debbie managed to nearly amputate my right index finger (thank goodness I’m left-handed).  The zoo employees and veterinarian rushed me to a primitive sink in the primate house and held my bleeding finger under the freezing cold water and kept it there until I had to sit down from almost fainting.  They put a temporary bandage on my finger and I was whisked away by another student to the University Student Health Center several miles away.  The veterinarian instructed the doctor there to give me a Hepatitis vaccine (I don’t recall whether it was A or B) and an immunoglobulin shot in the rear (ouch) and I remember vaguely being warned about Simian Aids (SAIDS) which was terrifying to me at the time.  This was in early 1985 and AIDS hadn’t been on the scene very long.  I also remember that the temporary bandage they had put on my finger in the primate house was saturated with blood by the time we got to the health center (as were my student coveralls).  Upon entering the student health center, I remember hearing gasps from the employees there.   I remember the saturated bandage being removed and my hand being dunked into a metal pan of Betadine solution.  Between the throbbing pain from the bite and the sting of the iodine, I never knew a finger could hurt so much.  The doctor stitched my finger up (and a darn good job he did of it I might add), applied a fresh bandage, and sent me on my way with antibiotics.  The next day was Saturday and I was advised that if I had any “complications” over the weekend, I should go to the UT Medical Center emergency room.   I remember calling home and telling my dad what had happened, and advising him I was on my way home.  My dad made it clear he was against me driving home after experiencing the trauma I had just been through.  In fact, he forbade it.  So I stayed.  A good friend, who lived in the same apartment complex, insisted I stay with her that night and so I did.  My parents and I were grateful to her for watching over me.  I remember not sleeping much those first few nights after the bite and again never would have believed that a finger could have ever hurt so much.  When I did sleep, I often had nightmares of being chased in the zoo by a loose Debbie the Chimpanzee.  The next day I developed angry red streaks up my arm and a slight fever, so off to the ER I went.  My bite wound was already getting infected and they decided a much more potent antibiotic was needed.  To this day, some 27 years later, I have a barely visible scar (thanks to the excellent suturing techniques of the doc who stitched me) and I still don’t have all the feeling in that finger.  It’s funny what you remember from incidents like that.  I was in a lot of pain, but mostly what I remember of that day was how angry and resentful I was towards a big Chimpanzee named Debbie who had kept me from going home when my homesickness was at its peak and I needed to be home.

I wonder if homesickness is as bad in college kids these days because of the advances in technology.  I often think I would have had less homesickness had we had cell phones and Facebook back then like we have now.  I’ve also always been curious as to why some people are more prone to homesickness than others.  And I wonder if females are more predisposed to it than males.  Or maybe males are just better at hiding it than females.  Who knows?  I can remember worrying that my new husband would experience homesickness after we were married and moved into our first home.  He had lived at home while attending college working on two degrees and married life was his first “taste” of living away from home.  He had a good home life, a good childhood and was (and still is) close to his parents, but he tells me, he’s never been homesick.  I’ve asked him about it more than once.  I’m sure the fact that we moved only about 12-15 miles from where we both grew up had something to do with it.  I also worried about my sons when they went off to college and felt I needed to somewhat prepare them for homesickness.  I hoped and prayed they would not experience it like I did.  I tried to do a lot to make it easier for them.  Cell phones helped, Facebook helped, and I sent care packages (which is a topic for another blog).  My oldest son experienced a little homesickness, but not until his second year I believe and it was short-lived.  My youngest, who started college last year, got a little homesick in October, two months after he left home.   I remember a teacher friend of mine telling me that was perfectly normal, as by October, the “newness” of college life is starting to wear off, reality is setting in, and there is the bombardment and stress of midterm exams.  His was also short-lived.  I also wonder if homesickness is heritable.

At 53, I still find myself homesick at times but for a different reason.  My parents are gone now and I no longer have my childhood home to go to.  Saying goodbye to that home about broke my heart.  I don’t think I’ve ever cried harder in my life and I’m convinced I’ll never stop missing it or my parents.  I’d be curious to know if any of you ever experienced homesickness.  How did you deal with it?  Do you think it’s as common today with cell phones and social media?

Gail ♥

About Gail

I am a wife, mother, sister, aunt, friend, veterinarian, and wanna be writer. I love nature and animals of all kinds, music, cooking, and spending time with my family.
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6 Responses to Homesickness and Monkey Bites

  1. Wendy says:

    Oh Gail, I remember the pain you were in after the gorilla bite! I didn’t remember though that you were planning to go home that weekend. I think the time I’ve felt most homesick was when I moved from PA to TN for graduate school – literally did not know a single person – was sick to my stomach when my mom and dad left me there all alone!

    • Gail says:

      Yes, I really really wanted to go home badly that weekend but I guess it wasn’t to be! I can imagine moving all the way from PA to TN and not knowing a single person would bring on some pretty severe homesickness. I remember crying for hours when Rick, my dad, and my sister left me there after moving me in to my apartment.

  2. Wendy says:

    Chimpanzee – not gorilla!

    • Gail says:

      Wendy, it may has well been a gorilla. I distinctly remember the first time I saw Debbie and the other chimpanzees at the Knoxville zoo. My first thought was that I didn’t realize chimpanzees got that big!!! She was the size of a gorilla (a small gorilla maybe) and I think her strength matched that of a gorilla!! I could not bring myself to see the recent documentary movie about Chimapanzees as I was afraid it would bring back those recurring nightmares of Debbie! LOL

  3. Beautiful post Gail. Homesickness is a sign that we had so much loving and happy memories that being away from all that makes us long for home. I was like you until I left the country. There is no place like home. God bless.

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