November 30, 2007
I remember, this day–November 30–in 1988. On this day, I awoke excited–no, more than that–I was ecstatic. I was running through lines of the Christmas program in my head, eagerly rehearsing for the program that night. You see, tonight we were performing for our families, for my family. They were on their way by this time, I knew, beginning the drive early that morning that would bring them along many lonely dirt roads, winding through villages and across open plains, to arrive here.
It had been 3 months now since I last saw them, when I boarded the little Cessna on the grass strip of our village, clutching my stuffed bear in one arm and holding my sister’s hand with the other. We stood there waving goodbye one last time on the boarding stairs, and then waved again out the window as we sped along the airstrip and lifted off into the air. I loved that moment of lifting off in the airplane–and have ever since–the exciting rush of becoming airborne and soaring faster and faster through the air.
That day, however, my excitement of the beginning was tinged with the sadness of knowing I would be away from my family for many nights now. The days were always full of learning, fun adventures in the bush with friends and with various creatures to be discovered and trees to be climbed. The nights were the hard part, though, when I fought the tears that often came in spite of my fierce will, silently dampening my pillow while I stifled the shortened breaths that may give away my tears to the classmates sleeping near me in rows of bunk beds.
The 3 months since that last flight had passed quickly–3 months of good books read, math problems solved, geography discovered, play weddings acted out in free time, and all manner of grade 4 activities. I had also turned 9 the previous month, and knew my family would now celebrate my birthday and my brother’s 4th birthday 3 days earlier, as soon as we made it back home. While on a shopping trip in South Africa, my Dad had acquired our first car, so the decided to make the road trip instead of Helen and I flying home as we had always done before. So, I knew they were loaded up in the Isuzu, along with 2 village friends–a teenage student of my Dad’s and the Zambian pastor he worked with in our Church.
So that afternoon, after various activities designed to keep all us boarding students preoccupied so we wouldn’t be bouncing off the walls with the excitement of our families’ arrivals, we all filed out the drive-up area to await the first arrivals. I had in my mind the perfect picture of what to expect, so as each vehicle arrived, I craned my neck to see my mom’s long arm waving out the window and Alex’s goofy grin peering out from her lap. But the cars came, parents claimed their clamoring kids, and my picture-perfect arrival still had not appeared. Finally, a lady I recognized as the mom of some friends who lived fairly near us went over to our Dorm Mother and said something to her, gesturing in our direction. She then came and told us to go ahead and get ready for the program–not to keep waiting for our parents there.
I was disappointed, but assumed they would arrive at any moment, so just kept waiting as we practiced our songs. My mental image just altered itself to adjust to a late clamor of hugs and kisses rushed in before the program started . . . but the program came, began, and ended, and they had not arrived. The next morning we were taken to the Cessna, and told we were going to go back to the village by flight after all. This time I imagined the whole family standing there on the airstrip, coming into focus as the plane landed, with eager smiles and waves–still, no. The parents of a classmate took us in their car instead–so of course I changed my expectation once more, this time thinking they were taking us to our house where the family would be, picture-perfect, waiting in front of our little home.
Instead we arrived at their house. Auntie Elaine (according to British habit, all family friends were “Auntie” and “Uncle” to us kids) finished up dinner preparations while we helped set the table. And then, instead of sitting down to dinner, she asked Helen and I to come and sit with her on the couch–”Anna, Helen–I have some really sad news . . . your Daddy went to heaven . . . ” Before the sentence was finished, I had burst into loud sobs, Helen looked at me and started crying, and Auntie Elaine and her daughter were both crying and hugging us.
I don’t remember any mention of the rest of the family at that point–nor did I wonder, as far as I can remember. The rest of the day, of the week, of the month, passed in a sort of a fog, in which my memories are clear but displaced, as if each memory was plucked from its proper place in the continuum of time and placed instead in some never never land of homeless moments.
I remember falling asleep with fitful dreams, waking up convinced I had dreamed reality, and that Daddy would walk in and comfort me any moment. I remember being reunited with my brothers, staring at Alex’s discolored and misshapen head, and carting Ian around carefully in his body cast, propping him up against walls . . . supporting him and holding his modesty blanket over his midsection as he pinned the tail on the donkey at his belated birthday party. I remember visiting Mom there in the Zambian hospital, horrified at the sight of my strong, active, beautiful mother lying there on the stretcher bed unable to move herself. At one point during a visit, the nurse had to turn her over so that she wouldn’t get a bed sore. As she did so, she let go of the sheet and mom was briefly exposed to us all in the room. I didn’t know whether to blush, sob, or scream–I wanted to just run away, to disappear forever into the endless, dreadfully beautiful African wilderness. I hated seeing mom like that, and dreaded the visits . . . and I hated myself for feeling that way, thinking there must be something wrong with me if I didn’t want to see my mother . . .
Somehow, time passed. My Daddy’s funeral passed in a blur of friends, strangers, languages I didn’t know, and wails I knew only too well. As soon as mom was strong enough to be transported, we were shipped to the U.S., where hospitalization and then physical rehab came for her. I hid in my books–in beautiful worlds of fantasy–to the extent that my grandmother still teases me for always having my “nose stuck in a book” as a child.
And eventually Mom was well enough to take over the care of the 4 of us again. I still don’t know for the life of me how she did it–a paraplegic supporting and caring for a home of her own and 4 not-always-angelic children. She did it well . . . she loved us well.
On this day, when we were children, Mom beautifully commemorated the anniversary. She would buy what looked to me like hundreds of helium-filled balloons, bringing them home so that the house was bursting with balloons. Then she tied note cards to the string of each one, and told us to write notes on them–as many as we wanted, and whatever we wanted to say to a stranger. I remember writing things like “Jesus loves me this I know . . .” and “My Daddy died on this day, and he is now in heaven with God, because he loved God. I do too.” I wrote silly notes, but meaningful ones, longing, in all my childhood intensity, to somehow tell the world that I had a great Daddy, and that some day I would see him again.
I still catch myself, when I am still enough to listen to the deeper desires of my heart, craving moments of remembrance of my Daddy, and eagerly clasping to memory any tidbits about him that people from his past may be able to share with me. And thankfully, my own mind clamped down firmly on all the memories I had of my times with him, out of a personal need for them and, I suspect, out of a nagging suspicion that someday, somehow, there would be a greater use for, outlet for, it all.
November 23, 2007
Break dancing for Thanksgiving? I don’t see why not: I mean, we all must be thankful for the ability to dance, are we not?
It was not the first time I have attempted this variety of dance. It was, however, the first time I have done so in front of many people . . . I think it may have also been the first time I have unabashedly done it in front of adults [rather than just children, since the last time I remember busting a move was with my students, as a home schooling teacher].
And I know for a fact that it was the first time that it has been a part of my Thanksgiving celebration.
This morning, before my family gathering, a friend and I attended the community meal—this year a rather chilly affair, at the outdoor pavilion. There turned out to be a wonderful abundance of volunteer help, so all were well-fed and [hopefully] well entertained. I add that small clarification as I must admit to being a part of the entertainment:
My planned participation was simply vocal, chiming in with a few Thanksgiving-appropriate tribal songs I picked up in Zambia. But as I do when I sing, I had to dance a bit as I clapped; and I explained that one of the songs was much better when it included a chorus line of dancing vocalists.
So it seemed fitting that the next performing group was a quartet of break dancers. And I was simply one of several who, when given a good beat, simply cannot help but dance—especially when watching skilled folks who are already doing so . . .
And so we danced.
November 19, 2007
The time I get to spend with the Burundi refugees is all too short lately. But I am grateful for the time I had, pre-job, for daily visits that built a foundation allowing for easier relationship building even when so limited in quantity. So as time passes, and we grow more comfortable with each other, it seems that this comfort lends itself towards more frequent moments of spontaneious laughter. This afternoon I drove them home from Church, now that they have been placed in local subsidized housing units. My poor little Pearl didn’t know what to think with four extra bodies piled into her . . . I don’t think I imagined the extra creaks and groans mixed in with her usual gear shifts and clutch adjustments. But she carried us safely—and happily—to their home. It being my first time there, I relied upon Petronie’s unique brand of direction-giving: a mixture of wildly waving gestures and blurted orders of “Stop!” “Go!,” “Here!” and “No!” Considering it all, we managed the journey surprisingly smoothly.
Once parked in front of their apartment, as the rest of the crew bounded towards the door, the elderly Evode stopped and looked back at me in the car. He said something and then walked back to me. I expected him to give another goodbye handshake, as I have grown fondly accustomed to his hearty and repetitive greetings and goodbyes. But I realized he was saying something else, trying to tell me something specific. I was afraid something was wrong: were they locked out? But no: I saw that Faransine was already traipsing in the door, dancing as she sang the refrain from one of the day’s songs.
And besides, Evode was smiling awfully broadly as he gestured . . . I rolled my window down and listened as he beamingly gestured towards their apartment door. “Numba!” he said, pointing to the sign. “Numba!,” he repeated. Then it hit me. He was proud of his progress in the language, and was simply showing me his newest word: “Number.” I laughed and shook his hand “Goodbye” again.
The drive home was a happy one; I was energized by the vibrant love these friends so freely offer me. And I was honored that Evode—a man whom I suspect to be a deep well of experience and wisdom—was so set on sharing his small victory of learning with me before I left them for the day.
November 15, 2007
It was odd to discover that I still cannot bring myself to look at a dead body. For as long as I can remember, I have had this fear—rather inexplicably considering my usually abnormal lack of fear in normal fear-provoking circumstances.
Losing out first resident—in my tenure on the job—I found myself deliberately avoiding a direct look at the frail body lying on the bed. Mr. C had died rather suddenly, having been vibrant up to this point. He was known as “the screamer” thanks to his habit of shouting at the top of his lungs [literally] even if you were standing within a foot of him. His deafness coming late in life, he had never quite grasped the reality of what his own hard of hearing meant: so he did what came naturally and spoke at an all-out shout: it’s actually a wonder he could maintain the roaring decibel level he seemed to consistently manage. So I had grown accustomed to bracing myself each time I approached him, prepared to be blasted by a bellow of a request to call his brother, or to get him a cup of coffee. But Mr. C’s apparent liveliness hid from many of us the truth that he was in the latter stages of prostate cancer; so his abrupt death was no surprise to his family.
When I entered the bedroom to discuss logistics with his case worker, it caught me off guard to feel my heart beat more rapidly and my breathing become shallow. I was instantly afraid: a sudden and illogical fear of looking at his dead body.
It’s not as if I have some scarring memory of seeing death in my past; I never saw my father’s body. And when my Opa died, his expression was utterly peaceful. He wore such a normal expression that Oma had even kissed him before realizing that he was gone.
But for all the funerals I can remember, I have tried desperately to avoid the viewing parade. Granted, I also find it a rather disturbing practice in general; but I can understand how some bereaved people find it comforting. I simply am afraid of seeing death face-to-face like that, so on the occasions when I could not slip unnoticed out of the viewing line, I simply averted my eyes discreetly so that I made every semblance of going along with the flow without actually looking . . .
I suppose it should come as no great surprise to realize that it is a strange thing to be faced with our fears in life.
November 13, 2007
November 9, 2007
1. Drive at a slow speed. Faster speeds are for outdoors only.
2. Always yield the right of way to pedestrians. Remember, neither of you know what the other is going to do.
3. Make eye contact with pedestrians and speak your intentions such as, “Passing on your left” or “Passing on your right.”
4. Keep a space cushion of at least three feet around you at all times.
5. Slow and stop sooner than you think necessary.
6. Back up only when absolutely necessary and always look behind you first.
7. Keep your hands, arms, and feet inside the chair when in motion.
8. Never try to crowd inside an elevator with others. Politely ask them to step out to allow you to enter safely, or wait for the next empty elevator.
9. Always wear your seat belt on ramps and outdoors.
10. Travel up and down on slopes, not sideways.
11. Avoid holes and drop-offs.
12. Never attempt to drive over any obstacles over 2 inches high.
Today I learned that driving a POV is a lot harder than you’d think—it also, coincidentally, is a whole lot of fun. I was quite bad at it, veering wildly in my efforts to steer. And I was worthless in the Obstacle Course, demolishing the walls of the pretend elevator, and knocking down all the cones. But all in all, it was definitely a successful afternoon of Motorized Driver Safety class. I think my personal lack of skill provided some amusement to the residents ☺
And in case you needed to know for future reference, I thought I’d provide the cardinal laws of driver safety—that is the list posted above. A couple other topics that came up were “keep your batteries charged” and “don’t drink and drive.” In fact, we were all seriously warned, a “motorist” was recently issued a DUI for wheelchair-operating under the influence!
November 4, 2007
Due to the nature of my past work and life experiences, I am accustomed to being given nicknames. Some come as a result of memory lapses, some come from teasing, and some from sweet, and greatly appreciated, affection [this I can attribute to the loving side of children's inherent openness].
My most recent work has offered several new ones, some of which I know the root of and some I do not. All I enjoy . . . so far!
Here are a few of them, along with the best elaboration I can offer:
“Little Miss Africa” — The first newsletter I distributed included I section in which I introduced myself as the “new face” around the facility. I also gave a shortlist of the places I had lived before now. In a low-income residential facility, deep in the Heartland, the mention of Zambia, Africa rather understandably stuck out to some of the residents . . . to those who are literate, mind you!
“Miss Bonjour” — For a reason unbeknownst to me, one lady mistook my name for “Bonjour” when she was using the telephone in my office and needed to give the name of her social worker to the Department of Human Services. She asked me, a moment later, if that was how I said my name. I corrected her, but the actual pronounciation did not stick in her memory. Since then, each time she needs to say my name, she calls me “Miss Bonjour.” This has become so natural to her that she simply does not think to question any more if it is indeed my name. What I find ironic about it all is that she has no way of knowing that French is one of the languages I know: the one I know best. So I figure it is a nickname I was destined to have :-)
“Tulip Toes” — I haven’t the slightest idea where this came from, but yesterday I arrived at work to find Jo waiting for me to arrive. And as I approached the office she smiled and waved from down the hall: “Well there she is–hey, Miss Tulip Toes!” I waved back, shrugged, and laughed to myself, figuring I would just leave that one be :-)
November 1, 2007
As I vented about the day over dinner this evening, it occurred to me while speaking that my workplace sometimes feels surreal even to me. It is my real, every day life, and yet the daily reality of it is certainly beyond any daily-ness I have ever experienced before . . .
Since my last post a certain resident [about whom I have written, if you are a regular reader] has had a warrant put out for his arrest. So when I saw him the next day, I did my citizenly duty and called the police [mind you, the words I just used to describe the action do little to convey agitated, nerve-wracked state of mind I was in at the time].
The next day I arrived at the office and was relieved to discover that he was incarcerated. This news encouraged me greatly, as I assumed this would be the end of it, for a little while at least.
But today he was back, roaming the halls as usual; I was told that his mother had bailed him out.
Oh, and I got another call from the DA’s office, requesting contact information for one of our residents. When I realized it was the individual’s mother he was asking about, I assumed it pertained to our resident sex offender. But the officer knew nothing about that turns out he was calling about her: she is now being investigated for using a fraudulent check to post bail . . .