This morning I found a copy of a document I needed, had been begging for to any benevolent force that might be listening. And when I found it I was thankful, felt like my prayers had (Deservedly? Finally? Lovingly?) been answered. But this morning my sister-in-law’s cousin woke up to find his 21 year old son dead. An entire universe shattered to dust. What prayers are that family saying, will they say then they can breathe again? How can any deity hold both my petty beggaring for a convenient photocopy and the death gasps of a parent destroyed by grief? How then shall we live? Lord have mercy. All the same cliches uttered through the centuries, and still our only recourse. This world is too difficult for us. Who can survive this humanity?
Today things are not going well. Not on any grand scale of lumps on CT scans or terrorist attacks, just on the very puny scale of lost paperwork and messed up scheduling. And yet, it’s enough to leave me frustrated , swearing, petty and teary as though I’m being elaborately and wrongfully mistreated. What a waste of these precious hours- not the events of the morning, but my response to them. All that groveling and fuming and storming around with my fists clenched as though the world depends on my paperwork.
And now the morning is over, and it was such a beautiful one, so many birds flew by my window that I missed completely, so much silence in my home, earth beneath my feet, breath filling my lungs. I missed it. These are the easy days- the ones where all mostly still feels right in the world and I still have my lungs and mental capacities. Why not save the groveling for the real doozies coming my way, and instead practice all the great truths now while I’m mostly still in hardship Kindergarten. If nothing else, why not notice what’s in front of me- fresh coffee, majestic hornbills, wild red poinsettias. Why not turn off the annoying commentary in my head that manages to ruin just about every gorgeous moment and clear a space for reality. Oh God, forgive my tiresome whining, my constant judging, complaining, categorizing. I’d so much rather be open, clear, standing wide eyed and silent before the world as it really is and leave the judging to some other sucker. This life is too good to miss.
Here I go. The next stage of life. For almost ten years I have been home tending to little ones, feeding, consoling, entertaining, scolding, guiding little ducklings under my wing. I have read books, painted pictures, done puzzles, gone for walks, pushed swings, made snacks, wiped messes, wiped bottoms, sung lullabies. I can barely remember those early days with M, blurry like someone else’s life. Crying while she cried, long mornings rocking her in the rocking chair, trying to get her to nap, nursing for hours, sleepless nights, walks around campus with her tucked into the sling. So many years of mothering all day all night. Some of it was impossible, exhausting, frustrating. I scolded too hard, cried long tears. But I don’t think I regret any of those years. I loved them so dearly. Believed so completely that this work of fostering love, gentleness, playfulness, those hours and years spent on the floor with stuffed animals, or humming in the rocking chair were serious and significant work.
My only sadness about all those years is that they’re over. I’m still a mother of course, my children still need me, but that beautiful eternal season of tending to the little world within my walls is over. This morning all three girls ran up the stairs ahead of me, eager to run beyond my borders to find their own worlds. Even my little P now has a life that I am not witness to, relationships, interactions, mistakes, triumphs that I will not see or know. Oh my precious babies. Go with God, with love. Remember how I love you, but fly free on your winged path. I bless you and I miss you and I believe in you and I admire you. You do not belong to me, though I’m so honoured to know you.
This grieving, these tears, this is the reality of now, of what it means to move from one season to another. I spent so long in this last one I’ve forgotten how that grieving feels. And now there’s no going back. I knew it all along, I reminded myself daily to savour the present, to remember it would be fleeting, so I think I did it well, but there’s still no preparing for the actual end. The permanence of change. The never going back to little toddlers running around the house, little babies crying in their baskets, morning coffees with the girls on the porch, long afternoons of picture books. It was such a beautiful time. I miss it already. I will try to grieve well, to close that chapter with honesty and grace, and then, as the tears dry, to move into the next one, with strength, courage, presence, gratitude. Oh Life you are too beautiful.
It is supper time but the girls are not here, so I leave Thai soup simmering on a small gas flame and walk down the hill. Before I can see through the branches i hear the shrieks and laughs of more kids than my own. At the bottom of the valley I find them, a pile of children, some gathering sticks, some climbing ladders. Penelope is standing on a flat platform high in a tree, clapping her hands, bracing herself for the wooden seat that comes flying her way. She grabs the rope, lifts bare legs over the wooden disc, and jumps off the platform, wrapping legs around the rope just in time, as Sean grabs the rope beneath her seat and flings her faster down the zipline than a mother can bear. She disappears into the branches, bounces as the pulley hits the rubber tire attached at the far end, smiles as the seat comes to a stop. When she jumps off to the ground, I close my eyes. But soon she is running back, pulling the seat behind her, leaping over the booby trap pits dug by neighbour boys. Then it is Josephine’s turn, she rides double with Eden, so much blond hair, thin limbs wrapped around themselves. Magdalene dances on the platform, brave and older than I remember. Over and over, children climb, jump, swing, fly. They solve problems, leap off the platform to hang on at the last minute, risk a hundred broken bones for the freedom of flight in a forest. I am jealous of their beautiful childhood.
Today we woke early, brewed coffee in a tall red thermos, packed giftbags and picnics into straw baskets. It is Magdalene’s birthday and we drive with friends across the city, still waking, to the game park. It is dry, so many browns and greens. The savannah spreads like old movies under a greyblue sky. A baby giraffe comes bounding over the grass from behind the trees, floundering towards her mother. Impala stare at as without blinking as we pass too close. Buffalo, with horns like bronze wigs, eat grass from beneath the car. When even the herds of zebra are no longer new, we park our car and lay masai blankets on the dirt by a drop off, look over the valley at a castle and a river, incongruous and enchanting. Magdalene wears a fairy crown, pulls homemade necklaces and dragonfly wands from old boxes wrapped by little sisters. We eat prosciutto and olives, fresh pineapple. The juice of passion fruit drips down our chins, makes our fingers sticky. I read a picture book about happiness growing and girls who climb mango trees. Magdalene closes her eyes to make wishes, blows out candles stuck into lemon scones. On the way home we are tired, girls lean into shoulders, close eyes. Happy BIrthday my Kenyan child, the one who makes my happiness grow. THe one who climbs mango trees.
This evening was so beautiful, so much laughter as Phil chased the girls around couches, up onto beds, tickling and capturing and tossing them into dungeons. But then after Peter Rabbit and goodnight kisses, I tell the girls that I am leaving for the evening, going to Art Cafe to write for a few hours, and Josephine’s heart shatters. She cannot let me go. I try all manner of cajoling and promises and cuddles but when my ride is waiting and nothing is working, Phil pries her from my arms and she screams and kicks and I leave, with tears in my eyes, wondering what lesson I’m trying to teach, how much my individuality is worth. I’m sorry precious fragile child.
Josephine is a tiny bird, her shoulder blades smooth reminders of wings. When she was three and missing her Kenyan home, she drew a mass of lines over and over on a small piece of paper. I asked what she was drawing. It was a nest. Her bones are light, thin. Some mornings she soars and swoops. Some evenings she huddles on the ground, afraid of first flight. I don’t know yet which bird she is. But i know she has evolved beyond my weighted limbs.
Tonight we celebrate. We sit around the dining room table, practicing spelling words- August, thrilling- and recite memory verses and then we celebrate. I distribute pieces of caramel chocolate and give a speech about J- making the strenuous trek up the hill even though she didn’t want to go to school and her back hurt, having a mostly good day when she thought it was the worst, promising to go every day this week. At each point we cheer and Phil pulls J’s hand to the air like a boxer and P laughs so hard she nearly chokes. Then we press our chocolates together and say cheers and J peels her piece in two, examining the caramel swirl inside. It feels like a great victory.
P sits at the table and draws small circles on white paper, yellow suns, signs her name PO. Then she cuts the paper into tiny pieces, stores them in her zippered bag. Begins again.
The days are cold. Grey skies. Frozen floor tiles. We pull out space heaters, socks, keep the windows closed. The girls still put on strappy sundresses, bare legs, flipflops, unwilling to change their Kenyan wardrobe for a small detail like weather.
Two men outside have pickaxes, brown pants, brown gloves. They dig the cement on the road, swing heavy tools over their shoulders, break through the unbreakable. A pile of rocks and dirt grows at their feet. Their backs don’t seem to tire.
M needs a horse. She has changed into jeans and a plaid shirt, found black boots and a cap, and now she needs a horse. The broom handle and Masai cane I offer are rejected, though they are the horses of the ages, her imagination sees differently, needs more substance. So we pull the wooden clothes rack to the yard, she covers the dowels with a brown sweater, climbs on top. Rides across the savannah.
P studies the map etched into the playground structure, talks to an imaginary class, asks for the capital city. It is Suzanne.
At night I walk down the back road, eager for the darkness, though my heart races. I forget to notice the sky, the ground under my feet, planning tomorrow’s grocery list. Then I remember to pray, breathe, speak blessings over the passing houses. I pray grace and light for sad neighbours, and when I walk past their window, lit in the night, they are laughing with a friend. Prayer answered like magic.
I am distracted from my writing by my reflection in the laptop screen. My hair is lopsided, the lines around my mouth deeper than I remember them. Behind me I see the lacy branches of a tree that I never noticed, it bounces as I type, looks like I’m in a jungle.
Baby, get her on your horse! Lap clap. She zips down the ill, pulls around to the play structure, cheers on her invisible friends. Purple flipflops, green tunic, yellow balance bike. She watches the kids on the basketball court, thinks she’s invisible.
The morning is rushed, children moving slowly, mom distracted and busy. So when it is time to leave, I pull a red hoodie over my pajamas and a grey hat over my hair. M studies me for a moment, says, “Couldn’t you at least change your pants?” And I laugh at her wondering, her already imagining the feeling of walking alongside a mom in pajamas while her friends carry backpacks and lunchboxes across the path.
Our evening is unhappy, impatient, ungentle. We scrape against each other like stones, rough and unyielding. Phil takes J and P to ride bikes, both the girls with unwiped tears still sliding down their cheeks. M and I look at each other, helpless, too weak for all the unhappiness. So we pack fresh cookies into a small plastic container, hold hands, don’t talk much. At the playground M hands out cookies like birthday presents, P rides her bike over speed bumps, we make it through one more evening, tired, but okay.
It is dark outside. Friends knock at the door carrying chocolate, boxes of gin, board games. We light candles and pour drinks into silver tumblers and laugh like childhood. We play Resistance, lie to each other behind big grins, marvel at Dania’s intuition, study each others’ inflection. They leave late, dishes piled high, crickets nearly asleep, and we fall into bed feeling like we are known.
Yesterday people kept coming down our stairs, other moms, some familiar, some strange, dropping by to drop off witchdoctor salves or release young children down the sidewalk. Part of me raises barriers, grumbles at strangers’ forthrightness, meets them on the sidewalk to keep them from entering my home. And part of me admits from behind the stony walls that this is exactly what it means to be open to what god brings me, this is what it means to let love flow through my doors, to welcome the divine spark in each human god guides down the stairs. Who am I to know that the nerdy needy ones aren’t the angels? That these are the people placed gently like treasures at my doorstep if i can just have arms to receive them. When did my love become so conditional, so unwilling to sacrifice a few minutes of solitude. Since when is my home a possession to guard with avarice? Lord forgive me.
Rosemarie and Sienna invite themselves over for dinner, afraid of an evening in a Brent-empty house. They come bearing yoghurt and shredded cheese, squeeze around our porch table and mexican pizzas, drip avocado salsa down their chins.
Another roadside shopping trip, this time on the steep hill of Limuru, a tiny dirt patch beside a busy road, trucks careening, blaring horns. A woman in a cap with almost no English guides me through rows and rows of plants in black plastic bags. Exotic and familiar, a metropolis of foliage. I am picky about my beauty, the privilege of acres of green, so I scowl and shake my head and ask for more choices. Finally I decide, she carries heavy bags to the roadside, asks her son- thin and silent behind palm leaves, to help her carry heavy earth to my Land Rover. They are the caretakers of earth’s beloveds, waiting in the exhaust for their dinner.
We make guacamole for lunch- a family affair. J presses a fork into fresh green flesh, P squeezes limes. M announces that she loves days like this – dark and grey and cold, this is a day with no power in the Kenyan winter, no lights and space heaters to accommodate the finicky whims of our evolution. We gather around the table with chips and spoons, laugh at P’s dancing, curious about J’s school books. Phil drinks a Tusker, scoops his chips high with guacamole, opens the curtains to let in more grey light.
Today people keep coming down the front yard stairs, other moms, some familiar, some strange, dropping off witchdoctor salves or releasing young children down the sidewalk. Part of me raises barriers, grumbles at strangers’ forthrightness, meets them on the sidewalk to keep them from entering my home. And part of me admits from behind the stony walls that this is exactly what it means to be open to what God brings me, this is what it means to let love flow through my doors, to welcome the divine spark in each human God guides down the stairs. Who am I to know that the nerdy needy ones aren’t the angels? That these aren’t the people placed gently like treasures at my doorstep if i can just have arms to receive them.?When did my love become so conditional, so unwilling to sacrifice a few minutes of solitude? Since when is my home a possession to guard with avarice? Lord forgive me.
M, eyes still blurry in red pajamas bursts into tears over her baked oatmeal. Through tired sobs she announces that she doesn’t want to go to school, that she wants to stay home to read all day. This after only one and a half days of school. I am at a loss, my child who loves all things structured and authoritative. Of whom I’ve been bragging that she was created for school, falling to pieces at the thought of the dewy walk up the hill. J isn’t so articulate, but her actions are masterful soliloquies. Unwilling to change, to do chores, to brush her hair. Frowning with each step at my increasingly impatient attempts at directing her towards life in first grade.
After school they run to my arms, beaming and scruffy. J skips down the hill, walks imaginary tightropes, gushes about her art teacher. But memories fade fast, soon they complain again, ready to drop out of academia forever in favour of a life of playmobil and novels on the porch. Really, who can blame them.
Before bed, the girls and I cuddle on my bed, laugh about peers and kiss each other’s necks. Our limbs tangled, pushed, pulled, we analyze mean kids and debate recess. This pile of wriggling wonderful bodies that are my children.
We play tag. Redlight greenlight. The sun sets behind banana trees, Phil watches from the supper table on the porch. The girls cry when they are caught moving after the light turns red, fall to the ground when their laughter threatens to wet their pants. We shriek and dance out of reach and laugh at the freedom of backyard games with the people who love us most.
Phil reads a book about Naomi on the couch, drinks gin and bitter lemon, squeezes limes. He has no tormentors, no internal jury deeming him unworthy. His life is full and solid like the trees by water the sages promised we may some day be.