Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Invitations to the Unknown

We all have those friends who regardless of how much time passes, just simply "get" what we need when we share the things that have us twisted or upside down. Over the past eight years, I have learned to say "yes" to these kinds of friends when they invite me into experiences or adventures, regardless of the details. There's a certain level of trust there that what they have in mind isn't going to kill me or hurt me, though there have been times where following my friend, Deb, has led me to the gym and suspension thingy's and a few days of not being able to lift my arms above my head, but for the most part, I have some pretty great people around me that challenge me into new experiences.

Last week, when I shared with my friend, Cathy, about the passing our friend, Cynthia, I knew that she would feel the loss much the way I do. Cathy and Cynthia were pen pals before they had ever met. Cathy and I were co-workers for a few years when I first went to Zambia. When I returned, I had told her about Cynthia and how I had stayed in her home with her and the girls and just felt like she and Cathy had some kindred spirit kind of thing going on across the globe. Cathy sent a letter for Cynthia along with me on one of my next trips and I became the postmaster for two unlikely pen pals who lived oceans apart.

In 2012, when our family went to Africa for a few months, Cathy joined us in our adventure for a few weeks in Zambia and met her friend, Cynthia, face to face. It was an ordained meeting, I am sure of that.  Fast friendship, laughter and chatter that crossed the language barrier, I watched two friends cement their friendship. Cynthia always asked about Cathy when I came to Zambia and I know that she held the photos and letters from Cathy very close. Cathy would catch up with me when I'd return from a trip and find out how her friend was doing.

Messaging Cathy with the news of Cynthia's passing was hard and we were both sort of at a loss as to how to grieve long distance for this friend. We passed a few photos and memories back and forth and then Cathy invited me to her workplace today for something called "Feast for the Dead", mentioning we could sit and remember Cynthia together.

I'm not sure why, but I agreed, even though a "Feast for the Dead" sounded vague and ominous and not at all like something I would enjoy. Yet, I just agreed because that's what I do when Cathy asks me to join her in something. I agree. She's never led me too far astray. So, I showed up today at AIDS Saskatoon and came in through the back door to the kitchen in search of Cathy. She was piling apples onto a platter and sort of figuring out the details of this event as they unfolded. We threw my coat in her office, along with the belated birthday gift I'd brought her, and set to work making tea, piling fruit, and organizing some of the last minute things to get ready for the feast. I still reallllly didn't know what I'd signed on for but at this point, I was pretty comfortable. The kitchen smelled amazing...moose stew and bannock...and I can make pots of tea if that is what is required.

Slowly, it became clear that this was a sort of memorial feast for those who'd passed away in the last year. A sort of celebration of life - group style. It wasn't lost on me that the people who were gathering in the front room were grieving too, even if they weren't displaying it or wore no visible signs of their sadness. I watched several people make small triangular flags with the names of their friends who had passed away and I read the messages around the room as we waited for the Elder to arrive who was going to perform the blessing and start the feast. "I miss you kid" was the message that got me. It was that kind of intimate nickname that said more than any formal epitaph could.
I could feel the endearment as if it were spoken out loud, just from the way it was written on the small flag above the coffee urn.

AIDS Saskatoon is a pretty nondescript building, much the same as any sort of non-profit that scrambles for funding. The "living room" or drop in centre is basically a collection of random couches and bookshelves, coffee tables and desks, decorated a la mode of most overused and underfunded agencies in this realm of work. If you closed your eyes to the messages on Hep C and the admonitions that it's not okay to fix any time on the premises...you could be in any one of a number of agencies across the world that scramble to do their best by those they serve on a shoestring - a shoestring that often gets stepped on and shortened according to who is leading the dance around the budgetary ball.  There's the resident coffee urn and newspapers for people to peruse while hanging out, out of the snow and the wind that decided today was winter's arrival in our city. I keep busy photocopying the word search and crosswords for a couple of guys that are looking for something to do while we wait.

The room is filling and the First Nations Elder arrives and begins to settle into his position, ready to begin the ceremony. He looks like a salt of the earth kind of guy, jeans and a ball cap, glasses and hands that have worked hard. There's no ceremony about him but he takes his duties seriously and begins to speak in a low voice explaining how the ceremony will take place. His voice is low and surprises me.  In a room that was minutes before full of the chatter of those who live alone and seek conversation here as well as the accompanying noise of winter coats being shed, the wood floor complaining under the wet boots and melting snow, and the clatter of the kitchen presenting the food for the blessing, it is suddenly quiet and he speaks his low instructions and even throws in a joke.
He begins the blessing ceremony and a group of men serve each of us a large plate of food. As his voice quietly covers the room, it becomes sacred space.  Oranges and apples, cookies and candies, moose soup and bannock become elements of something important and necessary.  It's beautiful and it's generous. We sit quietly until everyone is served. Some women slip to the floor to sit, as is the custom in this sort of ceremony. I sit quietly in my chair and think it is much like communion being served, a tradition I don't comprehend in its entirety. It is such an intimate gesture to be served by someone in this way, particularly when you don't know them.  I'm looking at the food on the platter in front of me and I'm thinking about the words of the Elder who is passing around a bucket. Each person takes a small portion of everything on his plate and puts it in the bucket as an offering to those who have passed away. In my faith, I can't think of anything cultural equal to this that we hold on to but in my mind, I'm thinking of the Old Testament sacrifices as well as all sorts of parallels in modern day of homages we pay to those in memorium. As I break apart the bannock and the apple and the orange on my plate, my eyes fill with tears as I think that Cynthia, who has struggled for so long in a community with no food security, now has nothing to worry about in terms of nourishment. I honestly felt that I was sharing food with Cynthia in a non-mystical, not to be misinterpreted kind of way, but in a way that acknowledged that her struggle for food and to feed her family was over. I was incredibly grateful for that for her and I held on to that gratitude for the entire afternoon.

As the Elder spoke the blessing over the meal, in his language, I felt very fortunate to be in the company I was in. Around me, no one stirred. In a room of people mostly of First Nations descent, there is an incredible beauty to the respect they have for their elders and for the ceremonies of their culture. I have often felt this way when in the presence of other cultures, that there is something we've missed in our own, that deep reverence for things past and the desire to keep them alive in tradition and to hold them with such respect. In recent days, with so much talk in the media about assimilating cultures and new Canadians needing to blend into our culture, I realize we have little culture to offer them. I'm as proud of a Canadian as I think you'd find but while I love hockey and maple syrup and poutine, I think that the beauty of our country is what I was surrounded by this afternoon. Culture doesn't need to be feared or suppressed, it also doesn't water down our own beliefs or culture to acknowledge that of another. I learned more about my own faith and my own beliefs today being part of this ceremony that I would have imagined.

After we ate and the remnants of lunch were packed up and dispersed to everyone to take home, Cathy and I grabbed a few minutes to just chat and catch up a little. She opened her birthday gift that I had brought along...a glass bottle of Grape Fanta. It was a shared memory from our time in Zambia and she responded exactly as I knew she would. I love that about her.  I grabbed my jacket and scarf and began to reassemble the outdoor gear needed to go back out in the snow. The tracks we'd left coming in had been all but obliterated, just faint indentations in the white landscape ahead.

 I felt that I had been able to say goodbye to my friend, Cynthia, over the miles, appropriately. There was a release in that. It was a small celebratory funeral in its way...to sit with Cathy and chat about Cynthia and what we remembered of our times together. It was what I exactly what I needed and I'm thankful for friends like Cathy who know what to suggest. It's not lost on me that Cathy accepted my invitation to the unknown when she jumped into the opportunity to come to Zambia. I think that is what makes for strong friendships, trusting one another with the adventure or answers the other sees for you, when you can't see it or articulate it for yourself.  I walked back to my snow covered vehicle and sat for a moment, isolated by the white out of the windows, and just allowed the grief to lift and the gratitude to settle. I wiped the tears away in time with the windshield wipers sweeping away the snow and through blurry eyes and windows, I headed home, leaving the tracks of this day to be filled in behind me.
Cathy and Cynthia in 2012. Two halves of a great friendship!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

On Losing a Friend

Cynthia, just as I remember her...smiling and full of mischief. <3

What a loss. Our dear friend, Cynthia, passed away. She lived amazingly well, which is not easy to say of someone who lived in an urban slum, had been abandoned by her husband, had her best friend murdered and many other very difficult situations that would have broken many. It made her strong and compassionate and selfless. She served the kids in her community with such love and affection. 
I've slept in her home, shared meals, laughed and cried, sang and danced and walked miles with this woman....and I am so proud to have been called her friend. It's been an incredible privilege to share our lives over the past 6 years. Heaven just received a very feisty saint. And we just lost one. 
Our love goes out to Olantah Mwape, Benedette, and our Little Cynthia. We love you girls.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Risking Freedom and the Wisdom of Silence

Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.

Just a few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with one of my dearest friends. We had just met up in Zambia and she was telling me how one of the weird fears that kept haunting her as she planned to come for the first time, was the fear of cold sores. She went to the pharmacist and got some strong medication just in case one came on. She also called her friend, a naturopath, who gave her some advice on what to use and avoid, but who also told her that sometimes cold sores manifest when people hold their words.

I'm not sure why, but that has just stuck with me over the past few weeks. I don't know if there is any science to it but it did make me think a lot about words and holding back and maybe why I've never had a cold sore.

In light of the recent terror attacks in Beirut and in Paris, I have been trying to hold my tongue. Or should I say my fingers from flying across the keyboard. I'll tell you what, no cold sores but I have had a burning, nauseous feeling in my gut for the past two nights. It may be unrelated but I am heartsick (and heart burn'ed?) about the fear based, racist comments I see coming from people in all walks of life. I can almost see the glow of the torches and the reflections of the pitchforks and shovels as people rally to the cry of "Close our borders!" to those who have suffered the most at the hands of militant extremists. I hear the stories of mosques being burnt in our country and people keeping their children home from school in neighbouring ones, so afraid of repercussions based on the ideas that someone with an explosive belt represents their religion and they should all be "exterminated".

There are videos circulating old footage and fearful images of waves of refugee crowds that only include military aged men and don't represent the millions of families who have been walking since before anyone really allowed the news to enter their mindset. It's only when our own freedoms and safety are "threatened" that suddenly we have strong opinions on what the refugee policy should be in our country.

Our reactions to these days are very telling of what we value. It's not lost on me that I watched a documentary the other night in which Gino Bartoli and indeed, an amazing number of Italians, opened their country, their homes, their villages and saved thousands of Jews from death at the hands of the Nazis. They risked their own personal freedoms, their safety and that of their families because they had in front of them - a group of people who, while of a different religion and ethnic background, were human and valuable and worth risking it for. We call those Italians heroes.

We live in a time in history where we love heroics. We just look for them in places like Hollywood and in stories on youtube in 30 second sound bites where it costs nothing. We've cheapened heroism. And humanity. We've become detached from the cost of it. And more so from the cost of doing nothing. We watch movies like Hotel Rwanda and Schindler's List and are inspired and say "Never again" and then...nothing. We don't really mean it and we're on to the next thing before the dvd player cools.

Terrorists win when they cause confusion and chaos and fear. They also win when they cause good people to fear doing the right thing. I'm not advocating for opening the floodgates all willy nilly as my Granny B would have said, but I am for keeping our borders open so that those who were the first and continuously affected victims of ISIS terrorists have somewhere safe to lay their heads. They've been running long before we face booked it. They've been living with the rumours of it for years, the first early assertions of these radicals, and the rising tide of terror since before we heard about it on the evening news, squashed between the leadership race of a country that won't vote for another year and the latest Kardashian to be swept off her feet by yet another soon to be ex spouse.

Over the past few days, as I've read some incredibly racist and bigoted remarks, sweeping generalizations and downright ignorant statements, I will say this: I'm going to protect the rights of those who have none. I'm going to speak for those who though they march in the millions, have no voice. I'm going to find ways to finance and be part of bringing refugees to my city. I just am.
You can decide now what you will do. I ask that you assess where you get your news, who you listen to and how it shapes you. Then ask yourself who you want to be and if the characteristics you're exhibiting are getting you there. We live out the values we truly hold when we're pressed. I value freedom. I value safety. I just don't value it at the cost of someone else's basic human rights to the same.

Friday, November 13, 2015

My Italian Secret

It's Friday night. So, maybe there's a movie in your weekend plans?

My Italian Secret.  The story of Gino Bartali, and the secret underground network he worked with, stands in for the stories of thousands of Italians who risked their own lives to save others from capture and death. As almost the entire continent was engulfed in a genocide, which took the lives of most Jews in Nazi occupied Europe (nearly 6 million people), more than 80% of Italys Jews survived.

 I can't even begin to tell you how motivated I am by this movie. It's partially subtitled but you can't look away anyway. It's beautiful in it's simplicity and storytelling. It's compelling because we live in a world where we continue to say things like "never again" and "we would never stand by and let that happen" and yet...Syria. Burundi. Missing and Murdered Indiginous Women in our very own country. Central African Republic. South Sudan. What do I do when faced with such evil when I hear of it? Shamefully, as quoted in Hotel Rwanda, "change the channel and go back to our dinner." often describes what I do. Or don't do.

We need heroes in our time. Not the brand of heroes that Hollywood throws at us or the shallow self congratulatory heroism of our day in which we celebrate small kindnesses that should be the markers of humanity, not the elevation of it.

It's Friday night. I watched this last night and haven't thought of anything else much since. It's going to be a long weekend indeed.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Ups and Downs of Being Sick Abroad

 Many of you have asked how our Easton is doing since we've returned. Thank you for the concern you've shown for him and all your prayers and good thoughts...he's back to his "normal" self. He lost about 10 lbs off his already *ahem* "lean" frame so he needs a little fattening up but he's well on his way, having downed an A&W burger in Toronto airport as a test meal and it seemed to have stuck. If you don't want all the details, feel free to skip down ... there's lots of photos of Easton doing well on the trip. : )

As bad as it was to be sick overseas, it wasn't all sickness and sleeping. We actually had an amazing 10 days in Zimbabwe. We spent four days in Sukubva and then headed up to the Honde Valley for four days. It was an amazing week with so much packed into it, we were exhausted and yet so satisfied by our time in Zimbabwe. Spending time with our Zimbabwean family and friends was amazing and it was great to pick up where we'd left off nearly four years ago. Thankfully,  Easton was feeling great right until the day we drove to Harare to catch our late night flight.

Easton started feeling kinda grim on the road trip up to Harare (and it wasn't my driving, I promise...).
We dropped our stuff at a guest house where Dawson and Bill were going to be staying for the next couple of nights, and then headed out to a game park. On the way there though, Easton started vomiting and then things went downhill. We returned to the guest house, commandeered the bathroom and a bed in the guys' room and hunkered down for a bit, hoping it would pass. Easton and I didn't take a room because we were due to fly out at 2 am to Zambia in time to meet up with my friend Charlene when she arrived from Canada. But, you know what they say about best laid plans....

As evening wore on, Easton grew sicker and was in a lot of pain in his stomach. He had no fever though so we were hopeful that perhaps he would improve after eating...but alas, he couldn't even keep water or Sprite down. By around 10:30 pm, I took a room just on the hopes that he would feel relieved of the pressure of having to fly out but I was still secretly (or not so secretly) hoping we could go. By 11 pm, I was feeling increasingly nauseated myself and we made the decision to take Easton to a nearby emergency clinic.  Talk about relying on prayer and good thoughts....we thankfully were two of just a few patients at that  point and were able to see the Dr. right away. She was lovely and very thorough but adamant that we were not flying out that night. She ordered some meds for both of us and an IV for Easton who was dehydrated by that point and sent us to the treatment room where things got real. For those of you who know me, you know I have a "no one barfs alone" policy that I strictly adhere to. At one point, Easton and I were "sharing" one of those tiny kidney shaped dishes and trying not to barf on one another, laugh or cry.  We didn't cry but failed miserably at the other two objectives. So, now, we're in our travelling clothes that we've been in all day, splattered in each other's vomit. Mother/son bonding at its best. Easton was told to lay on a bed near the window, which was open and unscreened. I'm not sure that the bedding was clean but at that point, I thought perhaps we were beyond that given the state of us. I pulled a chair up next to the bed and then we met Nurse Ratchet. She was an assertive nurse who, while I'm sure she's good at her job, scared both Easton and I to death. She was abrupt and must have chosen to forgo the classes on bedside manner and calming patients. She jabbed a needle in my arm before I could even ask what it was. Thankfully, it was an anti nauseant but I do admit, I did not see where that needle came from or what was in it. By the time I got my head in the game, she was heading for Easton. I stopped her and asked her several basic questions to which she gave me the "I-don't-have-time-for-you-Mama-Bear" look but I insisted. I asked her to open the needle from a sealed package in front of me and I looked at the label on the meds before she injected Easton. She may have wanted to stab me in the eye with the needle when I took a photo of the bottle on my phone. I was in full protective mama mode but to be honest, I was no match in my state. She prepared the IV in front of me and I thanked her but she shrugged me off. She told Easton to lay still and that it would "hurt like hell". I rubbed his feet and told him it wouldn't hurt too bad and she CORRECTED me! She said, "Oh, it hurts. Lay still." I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Clearly, she wasn't going to be proven wrong and Easton's face told me she was right, it hurt.
Sadly, it hurt and MISSED the vein which meant she was going to have to take another run at it. I told her she had one more shot at it and that was it. She looked at me like, "Um, do you see any other nurses around here?" and I realized she was our only shot...pardon the pun.  Thankfully she made it into a vein and taped him up and left us alone. We closed the half hanging curtain so Easton could have a little privacy and hopefully sleep a little but we were in the only treatment room and so there was a constant wave of patients in and out, including a very large gentleman who need my accompaniment in his vomiting. So, I joined him. I'm accommodating like that. I think he felt comforted by my company. I took responsibility for cleaning up after myself but I left that guy on his own in that regard. I'm not sure he ever got cleaned up or if he just took the bucket with him. I was trying not to notice.

The hours ticked by and we sent Farai back to the guesthouse to get some sleep. He returned after midnight and was told we wouldn't be out until Easton's IV was empty. Apparently it was in the smallest vein possible thanks to Nurse Ratchet so now our exit time was past our flight time. Around 3 am, we were finally released and we headed back to the room to sleep. We were both incredibly happy to sink into the beds and just go to sleep.

The next morning, we were awake early as the guest house wanted to bring us breakfast...thanks but no thanks, and the housekeeper wanted to clean our room...again...thanks but no thanks. I was feeling much better but tired and shaky. Easton was still feeling very ill but not in as much pain, thankfully. Most of the day, we laid in our beds and dozed off and on, only venturing out to beg the Holiday Inn Harare staff across the street to make us a plain, white bread and cheese sandwich, which they did. At $10 US per sandwich, we didn't care...it was money well spent as it was the first thing we'd kept down in a day.

Farai took the guys out to the game park and I spent the afternoon on the phone with travel insurance and our airline, trying to rebook ourselves out of Zimbabwe. Finally, we had our arrangements set and when Farai returned, he dropped the guys off and needed to head back to Mutare. Farai was meeting us in Zambia in just a few days so it wasn't so hard to say goodbye but we were sad to see him leave just the same.

When we got to the airport at 12 am for our 2:40 am flight, all the power was off and the ticketing agents at the desk were trying to make boarding passes by hand. Of course, they had no record of our tickets, having been changed or rebooked, and they asked us to come back. I refused and ended up risking the hand over of $360 USD cash and our passports to a Kenyan airlines rep who finally figured out how to get us on the half full flight. Unfortunately, his efforts didn't include our luggage and we arrived in Ndola without it. At that point, Easton was perking up and we hoped the worst was behind us.

We met up with Charlene who had braved her first night alone in Africa with the help of our friend, Lisa Dalley, who picked her up, brought her back to the farm at Kachele where they live, and sorted her out for a meal and some groceries.  It wasn't the way we'd planned but thankfully our Hands at Work family are a soft place to land and they made Charlene as comfortable as a first night on a new continent can be when the person who talked you into the whole adventure stands you up at the airport.

By the next morning, Easton was feeling much better and chattering away and ready to go into Mulenga. We spent the day with the care workers there and it was a great first day. Easton saw his sweet little friend, Peggy, who he had been longing to see. We giggled at Pegs because she remembered Easton's name and totally forgot mine! I couldn't even be insulted because she was so enamoured to see Easton, it was adorable. When I asked her my name, you could see her just draw a blank and put her hands over her face. Then she asked, "Kristal?" and I laughed...close enough! When I told her, she laughed and hugged my head. That sassy kid seriously owns us. She just gets funnier and sassier as she grows up surrounded by the love of the care workers and her friends. It's amazing to witness.

We had a good day and headed back to the farm that night.  At dinner, I pulled out one of our 2 "emergency" boxes of Kraft dinner. Easton was excited but half way through his first bowl, he started to fade. Thankfully there were a few Canadians around willing to share the last of the box and so Easton headed for an early bedtime. In the morning, we could tell he still wasn't well but he just wanted to rest, so Char and I headed into Mulenga ourselves, leaving him to rest at the farm.

By the time we returned later that afternoon, he wasn't feeling so good and so we continued to keep a close eye on him. He perked up for awhile and then would feel rough again. The next morning, again, he was not well and wanted to stay behind. I could tell it was hard on him...he loves being in Mulenga and the kids there were asking for him...but he just didn't have the energy or the strength. Char and I decided to skip our overnight in the community that night and come back at lunch time to see how he was faring. It turned out to be the right decision although cutting our time short in Mulenga was painful for me. I always feel like our time there is short but this time, it was excruciatingly so. However, because we knew that it could be cut short if Easton wasn't well, we made the most of it and we had an incredible time with our friends there. As always, it felt like no time had passed and our conversations were easy and meaningful as well. We spoke openly about some of the challenges and issues facing them in the past year and we prayed together and sang and danced as always, if only in an abbreviated version. Watching Charlene as the care workers began to sing was like watching my own reaction years ago. I remember how incredibly moving it was to hear the voices of these women and men ring out. It still moves me today but seeing Charlene's eyes spring up with tears reminded me that it's not only me that feels so completely moved by it all.

We had to make a decision on whether or not to go to the clinic that afternoon, which we did. Levy called his doctor and we were in the clinic by 3 pm, with Easton on an IV by 3:30. Again, we pumped him full of antibiotics but added an anti microbial for some additional coverage. By 8 pm that night, Easton was feeling better, tired but not as sore. Unfortunately, he had to keep the port in his arm and return the next morning for another round of IV fluids and antibiotics/antimicrobials. And...so went our time in Zambia. Up and down. By the end of the second day, we decided to cancel our time out at McBrides' camp and stay near the farm at Kafakumba in a small rental house. We moved over there and had a good evening, grilled cheese again...and Easton was feeling a bit better. The next day, we decided to take a small trip out to a local "zoo" and see how Easton fared. He did fine and we could tell as the day wore on that he was again, feeling better. So, we pushed our luck, accepted Charlotte McBride's invitation to join them anytime and booked our way out for the next day. I knew that Easton would be comfortable out there, it would just be the drive there and back that may be rough. He did fine on the way out and we arrived in time to jump into the safari jeep and head out about a km from camp where nine female lions were laying in the dusk, waiting to hunt at the watering hole. Looking at Easton at this point, I was sure we'd made a good decision. He was excited and animated even after a long day of driving. That night, we crawled into our beds in our hut and listened to all the animals and birds settling in around us or coming to life on the fields in front of our verandah and I was incredibly grateful we had made it. We woke early in the mornings at McBrides and went on the river or out for game walks, having Chris and Charlotte virtually to ourselves as we were the only guests in camp, though there were others camping nearby who dropped in. Chris and Charlotte have become dear friends over the years and they were so invested in Easton, it made me want to weep that someone would love my boy so lavishly right from the start. Chris and Easton had incredible conversations about the bush and the animals, Sherlock Holmes and all sorts of other things that I wasn't privy to. I do know that they conspired against me several times to try and invoke what Chris refers to as my "maternal glare". He and Easton hatched plans in which Easton would fetch Chris' rifle and come in sporting it over his shoulder nonchalantly as though he were perfectly at home with a firearm on his back. He is American but still...it was pretty natural looking. Chris gave Easton a radio and they communicated with intensity and a camaraderie that included elaborate radio handles and inside jokes.  It was fun to see Chris' playful side come out and Easton just eating it up.

Sadly, the last day in camp, Easton began his downward spiral and began to feel sick again. We had cruised up river to the Fly Camp where we had a really nice outdoor brunch and relaxed in the new surroundings. The heat was incredible and so finally, I convinced Easton to crawl into one of the tents and nap for a while. Keeping him hydrated was a priority and thankfully he was able to drink a lot and keep it down. By the time we headed back around 2:30, Easton was feeling pretty tired and worn out. He sat up in time to see a large male lion we had spotted on the river bank but other than that, most of the two hour boat ride, he laid down and rested. The air changed halfway back and we encountered some of the first rains of the season, which rejuvenated all of us after a very long hot day. We pulled into camp at around 4:30 and went to rest and shower and change for dinner that evening. Easton made it to dinner but not through dinner, heading back to the room with a guide in the dark. He had the radio so we stayed up at the living area and had dinner and watched Chris entice a small genet to the steps with some leftover meat.

By the time we got back to the hut, Easton was sound asleep. The next morning, we woke and packed up the rest of our belongings for the long ride back. Easton had little for breakfast other than juice and water, and our friend, Stephen, began driving us back. We said our goodbyes and Chris gave Easton a well loved copy of stories of Sherlock Holmes to take with him, which Easton felt very honoured to have. By the time we were halfway to Kabwe, Easton was vomiting again on the side of the road. We were supposed to take the bus from Kabwe to Luyansha (about a 2 hour ride) but with Easton in this state, we asked Stephen to take us which he generously did, easing both our minds and Easton's stomach.

We got back just past dinner time and decided that we should see if the doctor would meet us at the clinic. Because we were staying at Kafakumba, down the road about 1 km, and Charlene would be on her own, Lisa offered to feed Charlene and make a bed for her in their little house. That taken care of, Levy and I took Easton to the clinic where we were met again by Dr. B. He was so good and put an iv in again himself with little discomfort for E. He told us that if we wanted to fly out the next day as scheduled, we'd have to stay the night in the clinic. He would lock us in and come back in a few hours to change out the IV bag. We had little choice at that point so we agreed. Levy arranged with Prag for her to come and stay for awhile with us so around 10 pm, Pragcidence showed up with a bag of fruit, some water and a sleeping bag and pillow for her and I. She hunkered down on the floor outside our room, I took the wooden exam table next to the window and Easton slept in the only bed. I slept hard for the first few hours and woke to the security guard bringing us some juice and settling in for a chat. He was clearly in the middle of his "day" and lonely but Easton and I were fully asleep and groggy. I mouthed to Easton just to roll over and go back to sleep while I tried to be polite and yet still encourage him to come back in the morning. He finally got to the heart of why he wanted to speak to me and it resulted in a long explanation of international adoption procedures and reasons why he couldn't just "write a note" to have his children brought to Canada. Although it was the middle of the night, I couldn't help but hear him out as he voiced his concerns about the state of his country and the limited options for his children in a falling economy. When he left, I had a hard time falling back to sleep, overwhelmed as I was by the choices I had in caring for Easton while this man was struggling to care for his own children. I laid there for a long time until I finally fell asleep again, but it wasn't restful, my mind churning over all that I'd heard.

The next morning, I startled the poor morning nurse who had no idea that we were there. I came out of the ward room and she jumped about 3 feet and stumbled behind the desk. I apologized profusely and explained that we'd been admitted the night before. She'd thought the door was opened by the security guard and hadn't heard me in the other room. I thought I was going to have to give CPR to the nurse who was supposed to be tending to Easton. Thankfully, she recovered well, took a few minutes and regrouped. She set up a third drip and told us that when it was done, the doctor had left instructions that we could go.

While we watched our time in Zambia drip away, our dear friends James and Sukai came and sat with us. They brought their son, Cornelius, as well and it was fun to see how he and Easton had both grown so tall over the past few years. Cornie is the sweetest kid you'll meet and he leaned down and hugged Easton in the bed and the two of them caught up. Sukai and James and I had a good but short visit but regardless of the circumstances, it's always encouraging to be in a room with them and hear the way they take on life and faith and parenting. I always learn something from them and this time was no exception. When it came down to the end of the visit, Easton's drip was nearly done and we were ready to bust out of the clinic. Saying goodbye to James and Sukai and Cornelius is never easy, especially when the time has been so short.  They left and shortly after, the nurse took out Easton's port and we were sprung too. We headed back to the farm to pick up Charlene and then to head over to Kafakumba to grab a quick shower and repack our bags for the return trip home. We were just about to get in the vehicle to head over to our little rental house, that we'd only spent one night in...when Farai came running around the corner, worried that we were heading for the airport without having seen him. We assured him we'd be back and he checked Easton out for himself and made sure his boy was good to go. We promised we'd be back within the hour and we'd find him to say goodbye.

We quickly showered, ate a little, drank a little and then we were packing the van with our luggage and headed back to the farm. We tried to be discreet but when a whole community of people have been praying for your son and they want to greet him and see that he's well, it's not an in and out affair. We were so overwhelmed by all those who wished him well and had been praying...it was actually incredibly lovely and encouraging. We made our way to where everyone was meeting, and sought out our friends to say our goodbyes. I did very well until it came to saying goodbye to our friend, Florence, from Zimbabwe. My time with her is always very special. She's one of the most courageous women I know and I know that this past few months in her life have been very challenging and extremely lonely. Walking with her and spending time with her in Zim had really impacted me again that I need to continue to pray for her and check on her. She is working in a new community and is on her own, away from her own children, caring for the desperate needs of others. I can't imagine how hard it has been and yet she remains faithful and carries on. When we went to say goodbye, I choked on my words ~ how do you tell someone how incredibly proud you are of the work they are doing when you know it's costing her everything to do it. At that point, all bets were off and the tears started and then it was really just time to get out while I could still see. Farai, Blessings, Prag, Esnart...one by one we said our goodbyes and it was difficult to even say the words. I  admit, I felt a bit gypped of time with them and yet, the time we had was so amazingly good. I felt greedy for wanting more of it but I did. I always have a hard time leaving our friends in Zambia...and this was not any better for feeling like our time was too short.

We headed to the van and somewhere along the line, someone handed me some tissue and I pulled it together. Even typing this brings me to tears, that choking lump in my throat resuming its grip. I hate the distance between us and yet I know that it doesn't diminish the relationships we've built.

Somewhere on the way to the airport, my thoughts returned to the task at hand...making sure we made our flights, getting our luggage on the flight and keeping Easton hydrated and mobile. He was feeling okay at this point but the heat and the crowded airport were taking its toll. By the time he sunk into the seat ahead of me, he fell asleep pretty quickly. I was seated a few rows back and I only woke to ensure he ordered extra water and juice from the flight attendant, which he did, and then I fell into a deep sleep, waking only on arrival in Addis. Getting off the flight, I could tell right away he was feeling grim again. Into the terminal and he was cramping up and searching for a washroom, and I was trying to find my Ethiopian contact numbers in my phone. I was seriously considering sending Charlene ahead on the flight to Toronto and hunkering down with Easton in yet another clinic in yet another country. At least I knew a good guesthouse and some good people I could rely on for rides. Just then, around the corner, came Deb Northcott. I've travelled with Deb several times to Ethiopia and her husband is an ER doctor. Knowing Dr. Northcott was on the flight was enough assurance for me to get Easton on the flight and on our way home. Once we finally boarded, it was a 13 hour flight, most of which Easton slept with his head on my lap. When he woke, somewhere near Dublin, he was feeling better again and as time passed, he improved dramatically. Thankfully, by the time we arrived in Toronto 13 hours later, the kid was craving poutine and looking for a Coke.

He's back to school and feeling good again, though his friends pointed out that he looks disgustingly thin. He's working on eating regular meals and has finished his meds so hopefully the worst is behind us. I can't even tell you how strong this kid was in the face of this. I would have crumpled into tears more than once along the way if I'd felt like he had for as long as he had. However, Easton was really good about it all. Of course he was in pain and sad to miss out on some of the time in Mulenga, but he really didn't complain or whine or get frustrated. He only exerted a small stubborn streak when it came down to me trying to force him to please eat anything...he refused and as long as he was staying hydrated, I tried to back off and let him call the shots. I did nix the idea of poutine as his first meal back but I'm not sure I won that battle when he came sauntering back with a teen burger....but alas, he kept it down so it's not worth revisiting.

All in all, I think he had a great time in Zimbabwe. He ran hard. Played hard. Walked long distances and sat through long and difficult home visits with others in our group. We never actually went on a home visit together, not by design, but I was proud when I heard how well he had done and the kinds of questions and comments he asked and made, showing his compassionate side.

Even after all the illness and downtime, I realize he was deeply impacted by one of the home visits he had made in Zimbabwe. High in mountains on the border of Mozambique, he had visited the home of a family who was so far behind in their rent, that they were due to be evicted. Their landlord had given them until the first rains came to find a new place. However, even as the arrival of the rain loomed imminently, they had no place to go, no place to plant their crops, no real hope for a solution.

Days later, sitting on the Kafue River, a country away and far from that community, the first rains began to drop on the river and cool us off. We celebrated being part of the arrival of the rains and then Easton remembered that this signified the eviction of that family he had visited the week before. Suddenly sobered, he reminded me of them and then lay back down to sleep. I know that there are those who would believe that taking your kids overseas opens them up to heartaches and sickness and all sorts of detrimental things that may scar them. I'm telling you that in that moment, I knew that he had experienced heartache and sickness and he was in the midst of both colliding...but I also could see the compassionate person he is growing to be because he has seen and known and experienced it. I'll never regret taking my boys into the communities and into the homes of those who share their stories with such heart wrenching truth. Does it change them? Of course it does...growth hurts. And this is growth...of their knowledge, their world view and their compassion for those who share this world with us. There's not an ounce of regret in that.

Easton playing with the kids in Sukubva

Easton, Florence and Sam ride back from the community in the back of the bakkie.
When in Africa....

Easton and Sam, the field coordinator in Mutare, really enjoyed each others' company. Lots of laughter
between these two for the whole time they were together. 

Uncle Chips and Easton recreating a photo from 2012...next time Easton will be
supporting Farai on his shoulders!

Easton, completely at home in the community we stayed in for four nights. It was like watching him
just find his place and his role in the work that we're so privileged to be part of. 
Easton, Shamah, Patience and Marley....we shared a house with this beautiful
family in 2012. They've all grown and yet remained friends...picking right back up where
we left off nearly four years ago.

Easton and the Gunhe kids play the game of Trouble we brought...it's universal.
Small Fry (Farai Jr), Easton, Shamah, Patience and Marley.
We were just missing Rumbizai who is away at school. 

Mama Mildred says goodbye to our Easton

Dude, there's a zebra behind you. 

When he was feeling good, he did his homework. Thankfully, he got it
all done before we returned...without nagging on my part!

Sporting a safari hat at McBrides' Camp

Following Charlotte and Fidalius as we tracked lions. Why were we doing that again?

Easton, feeling pretty good this day, on the Kafue River

"Velvet Thunder" calling "Your Worship"
Easton and Chris McBride has some unusual radio handles.
The last day at McBrides' found Easton feeling pretty grim again. 

And we're back...an early morning visit for a second day of IV
Still smiling but not having the best time...

Our last night in Zambia. Locked in the local clinic...Easton and I spent the night.
Our friend, Pragcidence, joined us. Sleeping on the floor because she didn't want us to
be alone in the clinic. 3 IV's later that night and Easton was again, well enough to travel.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Of Miracles and Mountains

First things first...it's good to be at home. It's definitely a luxury to have somewhere to return to that you love so much from somewhere that you've visited that you love just as deeply. I've always thought that from the first moment I stepped into Mulenga, that my definition of home expanded to include it. I am still surprised at it myself, knowing how fearfully and reluctantly I had made that first trip. And yet, when you step into the right place at the right time, it all seems to make sense, regardless of the details.

Many of you know that Easton was very sick on this trip. There are a million things it could have been and he wasn't the only one to get sick, but it did hit him incredibly hard and knocked him down for the better of 10 days. Incredibly, as we were greeted by our friendly Canada Customs agent, she asked him about his time away and asked if he would go back and he said, without missing a beat, "Definitely." He's feeling better and I'll elaborate at some point about all that he went through...we definitely experienced a lot on this trip.

The first part of our trip we spent with two great guys, Dawson and Bill, both from the Saskatoon area, who joined us in Zimbabwe. We flew to Harare and were met by our dear friend, Farai. It was amazing to see him again and it was as if no time had passed. Farai and his family hosted us for a month in 2012, sharing their home with us and inviting us into their family. The boys called Farai "Uncle Chips" and the nickname stuck and so at the airport, we greeted our dear Uncle Chips and he drove us back to Mutare.  We settled in at a small and comfortable guest house in Mutare after a few hours drive and were happily ready for bed very early that evening.

We spent our first few days in the community of Sukubva. Sukubva was originally built for railway workers to come and lodge in the city while working. Now, it is a densely populated and poverty stricken community with little to no infrastructure. We arrived at the care point and the children lined the gate to greet us. It was amazing to see the progress the care workers have made in building a care point and establishing a preschool program here. The children were in their lesson groups and it was so encouraging to see children learning and singing and having a safe place to be kids in the midst of this community. Soon it was time for morning porridge so the children went across the field to the kitchen area and lined up to wash their hands and get a plate of porridge. The care workers were so lovely and welcoming to each of us. We were happy to see our friends again, like Chipo and Rhoda, Pricscilla and Sarah, Longina and Christian. Barbara and her little son, Sibusiso were there and it is great to hear how they have remained so committed to the work that they started over 3 years ago now.

We travelled up to the Honde Valley and spent four nights in the community of Pimaii there. It is honestly one of the most achingly beautiful places I've ever seen. It is a mountainous area with a huge valley cutting through it, with rural agricultural communities dotting the landscape. Incredible rock faces that would render most rock climbers speechless remain untouched and undisturbed above the villages and communities below. In the rainy season, they spray waterfalls into the valleys below but at this time of year, they are dry and windswept, the falls a distant memory and a future hope.

Pimaii is an agricultural community and the children come to the care point down goat tracks and narrow paths weaving along the mountainside. Homes sit on level perches and crops are planted along terraced plateaus built onto the hillsides. Everywhere is an uphill climb from the care point and yet the care workers here go out daily to visit the homes of the children they care for. The days we are there the temperatures are reportedly into the high 40's. All we know is that when the Zimbabweans are complaining of the heat, that it's hot. We go through our store bought water quickly and rely on the belief that Zimbabwean water is safe to drink. We have to remain hydrated and walking the miles that we do in the heat, there's little choice but to drink and drink some more. Easton and I visited Pimaii in 2012 and we were so astonished at the commitment of the care workers in this particular community. They moulded and fired every brick from the mud around them to build the care centre. Every. Single. Brick. By. Hand.  Can you imagine it? Daily, these beautiful people came and built brick by brick by brick the care centre that now provides meals and education and a safe place to play for the children of this community. I can't think of an example of such commitment as huge as this one. They built it by hand and they use it for others.

We were met by George and Tyler from South Africa, as well as our friend David Bentley's parents - John and Leslie. We were joined in Pimaii by several church leaders from Mutare and from the surrounding area in Honde Valley. We walked together with the care workers through Pimaii, in an effort to show the leaders how volunteers were living out the kind of religion that James 1:27 speaks of ~true religion is this, caring for widows and orphans in their distress.  The pastors and leaders were visibly touched by the example of these care workers and motivated to support the work by using their leadership to inspire more volunteers to get involved from their local churches. It was incredible to watch the transformation from observer to participant in these leaders and I'm sure that they will be instrumental in bringing the news of this work to their churches.

We visited a new community, up in the mountains about 10 km from Pimaii, along the Mozambique border. It was high in the mountains and remote, the road was more of a dry riverbed than a passable road and this was the dry season. Care workers from this area walk 2.5 hours to reach Pimaii where they can buy supplies or visit the care point there for encouragement and training. High on the mountainside, we arrived at the care point being established by the new volunteers. We were greeted by singing and dancing, the care workers clearly excited to have visitors for the first time. It was an incredible reception. The land where they feed the children is the home of one of the care workers who knew that they needed to provide a safe place for the children to come and eat, play and learn. The place where they had been meeting was exposed to the road and didn't protect the children from those passing by who would identify them as vulnerable. The generosity and vision of this care worker to provide her own home as a base for these children to come is just another example of how selflessly these care workers are in serving their community, even from the start.

The home visits in this community were difficult. The drought of this past growing season left many without crops to sell or to consume. That meant that the already short season of plenty was virtually non-existent and the hungry season of September/October was excruciatingly long. The rains usually come the beginning of November and people were working hard to prepare their ground for planting though they were working on empty stomachs and diminished optimism. One grandmother we visited  had just rusted out pots and a bent kettle, discarded beside a tree and an empty water canister. It didn't matter that the cooking utensils were wasting away because there wasn't a single thing to cook anyway. Not. One. Thing. The children were receiving daily meals at the care point but the grandmother was only eating bananas and other seasonal fruit to survive. She was grateful that she didn't have to worry about feeding the children because there was no way she could have.  Her small plot of land was tilled and ready for seeding when the rains begin but the harvest is a far off promise and there are hungry days ahead of her. My heart was aching to hear her words translated but it was the way she spoke, with such a heavy burden to care for these grandchildren, that communicated clearly how desperate her situation is and will continue to be.

 The children in this community have to walk long distances to reach the government schools, if they are among the few who are fortunate enough to be able to afford school fees and uniforms. Many children in this area don't attend schools because they are unable to pay the fees.

We walked with several groups of children en route home from school and they were fascinated that we were visiting their community. Few spoke any English save for  greeting us and saying their names but we walked together until a few would veer off onto a track or into a yard, smiling and waving goodbye.

I'm sure we were the topic of conversation around their homes that night. I wonder at the reasons they imagined to explain our presence in their remote community.

We passed a group of small children learning together in the shade of a large tree. They began to sing for us as we passed by which was super sweet. We clapped and continued on to our next home visit on the hill above. When we returned, they began to sing again and dance, their teacher proudly leading them. We applauded and soon were joined by the children as they were dismissed for the day to return home.

Again, we were accompanied down the road by smiling, staring children who were a little timid at first but became bolder as one by one we learned their names.  As we neared the care point, some of the children came in with us and were part of the program, greeting the care workers by name and surprised to find us following along. We watched as they stowed their bags, washed their hands and lined up politely for their meal, smallest to tallest, with no fuss. Sitting around the ground, they grew quiet as they began to eat the only meal they would have that day. Sadza and beans and greens...all without comment or complaint. Older siblings sharing with younger ones, making sure that they ate well and finished their food before running off to play again. We ate with the care workers and were served enormous, hot portions of food - each of us struggling to find someone to share the plate with, our appetites diminished in the stifling heat of the day.

We were invited to hear the stories from several care workers of the children they care for and it was really moving to hear how well they knew their children, even after only a short time of starting the program. One care worker relayed the story of *Stella, a small girl of about 5, who she had discovered in the home of one of her neighbours. Stella was small and unable to walk, laying prone most of the day in the dirt, unable to communicate her needs. Her care worker, *Francine, had begun to pray for her and visit her, and showed an interest in helping her develop her strength. In just a short time, Stella responded to the care by beginning to walk and make eye contact. While Francine relayed her story, Stella tottered around the seated children and planted kisses on their heads and sought the hands of her friends. Incredible changes for a small girl who had been left to fade away. These are the miracles that selfless love is bringing about in desperate places.

As we drove back down the mountainside that evening, our vehicle was quieter than the chatter filled ride up earlier that day.  Tired and thoughtful, each of us were mulling the things we had seen. The desperation and the hunger but also the hope and the joy of small miracles like Stella in the midst of it.  It's difficult even now to think of the gogos and children there, still awaiting the rain, while we've travelled so far and to such incredible wealth of food, shelter and clothing that we can hardly choose for the plethora of options. It's never easy to return to so much when you've seen how little there is in the lives of others. It's easy to forget that they are still living that existence while we return to hot showers, cold water and fridges filled with food. There's a delicate balance in remembering and retelling so that others will know what we've seen and be compelled to be part of the solution. I felt my heart break in a familiar yet unique way yet again in the Honde Valley and I'll be a repeating record of what I've seen until I see evidence that the situation has improved. Consider yourself warned...the stories we were privy to weigh heavily and we can't carry it alone, nor are we meant to.

*Names have been changed to protect our kids and care workers
**There are ways to support the care workers in this particular community. If you haven't yet, consider donating to www.handsatwork.org here in Canada. You can designate the money to our community partners in Sukubva or in Pimaii. If you'd like the name of the new community we visited so that you can support them, please email me. I'm not comfortable publishing the name of that community yet until they are firmly established and able to ensure the kids there aren't made more vulnerable by people knowing of their plight.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Goodbye October.

Goodbye October...we're back. Zimbabwe. Zambia. Then right back in my bed. Did it even happen? Sometimes jet lag is the only evidence that this whole thing wasn't a dream. That and the dirt encrusted feet that would make a pedicurist cry.

I apologize for the lack of updates other than on Facebook but the power situation is incredibly difficult in both Zambia and Zimbabwe these days. If we had power, we had no wi-fi. And to be honest, I'm not one to search for it because I don't want to be distracted from what is around me.

So, we're home. Easton is ten pounds lighter and weighing in at an incredible 100 lbs of just skin and bones. I told him he could go out as a skeleton last night, no costume needed. He was incredible. Not just because he was amazing in the communities or with the 47 degree heat or the nights in hospital hooked up to IV....he just was so inspiring to watch. 14 and he's teaching me so much. This kid is in between retching up bile and clenched in pain and he looks at me and says, "It's not about me..."
And I can't even explain how brave he was despite the sketchy situations we found ourselves making decisions about. The boy grew up this trip and in it, he helped me grow too.

I have grey hairs...not the sporadic, once in a blue moon kind I've noticed creeping up over the past year or so. These are not the grey hairs you pull in a moment of vanity when at you glimpse them glimmering in the rear view mirror at a stop light. These were earned. They're staying.

My head is swimming. My heart is raw. I'm weepy and I'm so bloody content. I was stretched by the people I met and by those I call family in Zimbabwe and in Zambia. I know how loved I am. I know how loved my son is. That is a gift.  I'm frustrated at how short our time with those we love is and I'm incredibly thankful to have each of those minutes.

Devastatingly poor.
Incredibly optimistic.
Hopeful in despair.
Patient in affliction.
Calm in the chaos.

It's all rattling around in my head, it wafts from the suitcase, it enters the home where there are no ants in the water and no need for malaria pills and mosquito nets. It's there in the chill in the air and it's in the warmth of the shower. Every simplicity amplifies how difficult this one was and yet it may be the best trip yet.

When the words come, I'll put them here. Until then...