on this day

November 30, 2017

IMG_6606Last year an odd “coincidence” occurred as it came time for me to share this post. This year the same thing . . . the same sort of coincidence has coincided [;-)] with the day. I still don’t have any idea what the significance of this is, but it clearly has one, so I will simply tell you what happened and let you draw your own conclusions.
In chapel yesterday, the speaker was one of our new-this-year teachers. The topic he chose to talk about was his sister. I knew that he had a sister who had lived where we did in Zambia, but did not know specifics until now: and today those specifics hit hard. In short, she lived in our village. She worked in the hospital in which I watched my mother lay on a rickety hospital bed. She was a missionary doctor. And she died young—younger even than my own father was at the time of his death.
What struck me as I listened to her story was how small this world is. I thought of the two other families who lived near us in Zambia, who had their own tragedies within a year of ours—the death of a 16-year-old to a croc, and the death of the father of four to a brain tumor so rapid he hardly had time to treat it before it took him.
Like my coworker’s sister, my father knew early in life that he would go to Africa as a missionary. I have never had such a sense of purpose. Oftentimes it seems, those who die young are those who had a great mission in their lives—the sort of thing I’m a bit envious about, truth be told. But I certainly have nothing to complain about in this life that I’ve been granted. It is a good life—a “wealthy” life in the way that really counts.
This year something even more significant than the coincidences is on my horizon. My husband I are about to revisit that same country of my childhood. He will see my old home for the first time. We have talked about this since we were dating, and this year decided it was time. I am terrified. I feel ill-equipped as any sort of tour guide, and I’ve grown fearful in my “old age” about travel uncertainties, discomforts, and expenses. Yes, it is time;there is no other. In 25 days we will depart. But today it is time for this . . .

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, during my childhood, 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 4, 2017

Thinking about what it meant for Abraham’s descendants to “be strangers in a country not their own” (Genesis 15:13). And about what it means to live as perpetual “strangers” in this world. My husband and I spend our lives as “strangers” in a very real, and obvious, way. We are expats—we are a different color from our neighbors, we speak a different language, and we have a different home.
Today, I danced with the lady who cleans the library each day as I close up for the end of school. I had never seen her in anything other than her school cleaner’s uniform, and I gasped when I saw her this afternoon for the first time, before the wedding ceremony began. “Auntie J—you’re beautiful!” I exclaimed. She returned my smile as if it was only fitting that I recognize such a fact. And it was. She is beautiful. And I am sorry—ashamed, rather—to admit that I have never noticed before.
After the meal I held back a bit but soon, as happens, the music drew me onto the dance floor. Instead of joining the center ring, though, I noticed Auntie J off on her own and went to join her. I matched her moves, admiring the fluidity she displayed. For several songs, the two of us smiled and swayed in our own world of motion; then a couple others joined us. That is where I stayed until the party was clearing out and Peter and I also headed home.
Later we talked of how good of a party it was. For us, the major gift of the day was due to the fact that we ended up spending it with a small group of coworkers whom we had spent days with but never shared our lives with. They welcomed us into their partying group today, making sure we joined in on all aspects of their local celebration. We did nothing to merit this inclusion—but there it was, all the same . . . and our lives are just a little bit lighter, and brighter, this evening, as a result.
For us this inclusion is obviously significant. But truthfully, is it not the same for us all, as citizens of the world, yet children of the Father? We are strangers here, all longing to belong, and longing to be included. Sometimes we get tastes of what it feels like to be welcomed in, as we were today. How beautiful to think about a day when this taste will be a banquet—an eternal reality of ultimate inclusion.