• Insight Stones

    “Insight Stones” – from Nathaniel Dunigan’s Journal

    Escorted through private offices and past a back corner conference table, I emerged into the Congressional Hearing Room via the non-public entrance at the top. From there, I was able to quickly survey the space from the viewpoint of the Members of Congress who would soon be hearing my testimony. I looked down to the witness table. My name on a placard, a special place card for this tiny course served at one of history’s tables.

    I had been invited to be among four on a panel of “experts” presenting statements at this hearing on “AIDS Orphans and Vulnerable Children in Africa”.

    It was amazing to me that after 19 short months on the job in Uganda, I was in a position to express my thoughts and opinions to significant persons of authority in the United States.

    I’ll admit that my first impressions were not as noble as I would like. In fact, they were more nerdy than statesmanlike, actually expressed through simple verbiage like “Neat!” or even a goofy “Cool!”.

    Oh well.

    Soon, the witnesses were introduced. I was second on my panel. It was so gratifying to look into thoughtful eyes and attentive spirits. It went well.

    Phew.

    Good questions and discussions followed. Some exciting developments. There was a lot to indicate long-term effects beyond a “thank-you-for-testifying, see-you-later” pat on the back. This felt significant and worthwhile.

    Before I knew it, the hearing was over. As I scooted the chair away from the table, and stood to receive questions and greetings from different individuals present that day, I felt a surreality I have sensed before. I was reminded not of the greatness of humankind or of its expressions of influence, but rather of the power of goodness and compassion. They motor our vessels down straits of difficulty, through omni-important lagoons of peaceful perfection, and in rivers of daily life, until we are surrounded–suddenly, occasionally, briefly–by a pool that beckons us to cast our insight-stone. To make a ripple. Leave a wake.

    To say something.

    Yet, my “neat” and “cool” sentiments were humbled. I keenly knew that I was only a wee part of hundreds, even thousands, of this year’s governmental sessions. Hearing ears for my voice were gratifying, but for me, it was all quite absolutely drowned-out by the continuously falling flood of child-tears. Their echoes, their voices, call me to action every day. They create their own critical pool around me.

    And today would be no different.

    I did my post-hearing briefings. I met Members of Congress. I made plans to implement good ideas.

    To follow-up.

    And I went back to work.

    For my kids.

    More info about the hearing–and the transcript of Nathaniel’s testimony–can be found at www.house.gov/international_relations/duni0417.htm.

  • Special Beyond The Word

    “Special Beyond The Word” – from Nathaniel Dunigan’s Journal

    Thank you for coming to be with us, I said. “Webale okujja.”

    My newest little boy, Joel (10), looked up at me as I welcomed him. His first day. So cute.

    I saw again that a child’s face forever whispers his heart-secrets. Hers.

    Usually there is a breath of innocence. A viva voce of the beauty found only in life’s springtime. A spicy tongue of mischief. And, on my babies’ faces, tragedy always reminds us that he has taken what wasn’t his.

    “Kali,” he said. You’re welcome.

    A smile. A big smile.

    Oh, he’s going to be fine, I thought to myself. Just fine.

    “Please wait a second,” I said to the nurse–who was about to escort Joel from the office up to the house. He had been here before. Already had a tour. Now he was actually stepping into his new role as one of our kids. A son. A brother.

    “I want to give him a welcome gift.”

    I went to the storeroom, and found the perfect item. A little suburban with a trailer.

    I would have loved this. He’ll be so excited.

    I stepped back into the office.

    “Jangu wano,” I said. Come here.

    Again he looked at me. Another rich communication of countenance. But this time the message was of realization of change–and the unknown. He was afraid.

    “Baanbi, tofayo.” Don’t worry, precious.

    It was one of those moments which, from a distance, would frighten me with a challenge beyond my capacity. Even desire.

    But reality and actuality somehow wisely direct the actors on their stage.

    I took Joel’s little hand. He was trembling. We went to sit on our little wicker sofa.

    He cried.

    His heart now rippling. Cascading. Another of the roles of our face in the expression of our soul.

    I exhausted my Luganda as I searched for the perfect comfort. I was still holding his hand. He was holding mine.

    My other hand on his little chest, I could feel his heart beating; his tears falling in quantities too large to be called drops.

    But soon, the precious face I was getting to know, Joel, was peaceful again. Hope was staking her claim there.

    We smiled.

    He stood up. Cleared his throat. Took the nurse’s hand, and let go of mine; stepping bravely into a positive, though still scary, future.

    As they left, I realized that my hand was wet. With his tears.

    Another message. So powerful. From the heart. Conveyed through the marvelous simplicity of countenance. And soul.

    I now know that once your hands are dampened by tears drawn from a child’s darkest well–from what shouldn’t be–you break somewhere inside.

    And your hands never dry.

    But–because tragedy crumbles at the beholding of compassion’s lovely face–the brokenness becomes quite special.

    Special beyond the word. Beautiful beyond hope. Good beyond best. And real beyond truth.

    Joel,

    Webale okujja.

  • Treasure At My Gate

    “Treasure At My Gate” – from Nathaniel Dunigan’s Journal

    I have had five new boys come to live with me in the last three weeks. Undoubtedly, what I enjoy most about my life is that Christmas comes so often; treasures such as these given to me–entrusted to me–all the time.

    The twins, Kato and Wasswa, are nine years old. Such fun and precious boys. They are the only surviving members of their immediate and extended families. They were found fending for themselves in a tiny hut, deep in the village. (How many more must there be!) All my kids had such stories. These boys.

    The others, too.

    Now that they have all been here at least one week, I am once again amazed at the hope-petals that so eagerly bloom in wilting hearts. When love is tenderly poured upon them, joy always sprouts.

    Something that Mother Teresa once said came to my heart last night as I considered this reality. She said,

    “There is hunger for ordinary bread, and (then) there is hunger for love, for kindness, for thoughtfulness; and this is the great poverty that makes people suffer so much… A smile must always be on our lips for any child to whom we offer help, for any to whom we give companionship or medicine. It would be very wrong to offer only our cures; we must offer to all our heart. ”

    Such truth is forever unmistakable.

    Last night, as I kissed my kids goodnight, I remembered my first “tuck-in time” with my very first kids. All in one big bedroom. Then I remembered stepping from one room into a second during the darkness of early night. Then three rooms. Then four. “Tuck-in time” takes awhile now.

    The girls all said to me last night, “We want a girl,” reminding me that the boys outnumber them nearly 4 to 1. “Daddy, Daddy, please bring us a girl next.” As if such decisions were mine.

    I never know when.

    Or who.

    What their story will be.

    What their eyes will say.

    Or exactly what will be their distressing disguise.

    Always I wonder: who will be the next treasure at my gate?

    “Suffering, if it is accepted together, borne together, is joy.” –Mother Teresa

  • Daddy, I Have A Story For You

    “Daddy, I Have A Story For You” – from Nathaniel Dunigan’s Journal

    “Daddy, I have a story for you,” said Kasumba (pronounced: “kuh-SOOM-buh”).

    “Let’s hear it.” I realized how accustomed I am to engaging in such a dialogue with one child while at least seven (or ten or twenty) others hover around me and on top of me with their own points of attention. Stories and songs seem particularly popular at the moment. Joel had just finished a tune for me that went “BOMM-sock-oh-tay, BOMM-sock-oh-tay”. And his dance was perfectly choreographed, especially on the BOMM-part.

    So Kasumba began his tale. It was about a man and his dog in America. The long-and-short of it is that they made a trip in an “aeroplane-EEE” all the way to our village here in Africa where “the children-EEE were very HAPPY!” (I think it is his not-so-subtle hint that he wants a dog.)

    Later, at Tuck-In-Time, I made the rounds for more songs and stories.

    Njuba’s (pronounced: “in-JEW-buh”) story was simply that he hates to be sick. (Don’t we all? But he especially does.) And he kept drawing my hand to the crevasse of his neck so that I would feel his fever.

    “Oh, beloved sick, how doubly dear you are to me when you personify (the Divine), and what a privilege is mine to be allowed to tend you.” –Mother Teresa

    Ivan, one of my newest, was practicing his English; unfamiliar on his tongue. “Daddy,” he said eagerly, looking for the next word in his rehearsed commentary. It was failing him, so he tried the ole start-over trick.

    A deep breath, and then “Daddy, My story…” (okay, this seemed to be working).

    “Daddy,” (uh-oh, we’re starting over again).

    “My story: I love you soooo…”

    Then, while I was crouched at his lower bunk, I noticed that his eyes were not focused on mine, but above my head. Instinctively, I looked back–at the upper bunk behind me–and found Deus mouthing the words for which Ivan was so desperately searching.

    “Daddy, My story: I love you soooooo MUSSSHHH!!!” His story climaxed with a smile and a hug that were truly bigger than life.

    “Nange, bambi. Nange.” Me, too, dear. Me too.

    In the girl’s room, Rita (10) insisted that I sit on her bed for a minute. (She always does.) Then she handed me a little note that will forever stay in my heart–and somewhere in the wells of my eyes–its reflection drawing tears up from my soul. Tears that don’t feel like sorrow, pain or grief. But neither do they really feel like joy.

    Her note, written in big block letters on half a piece of notebook paper, says:

    Daddy, I love you, and you love me.

    I was sick and sick and sick [meaning extremely sick].

    And (they) brought me here, and you took me (in).

    And I will always remember.

    Always.

    Daddy, you are my true father.

    I love you.

    And that’s the end of my story.

    Signed, Rita.

    I love you, too, Rita.

    And Njuba.

    And Ivan.

    And Kasumba.

    And Deus.

    And Joel.

    And my dozens of other precious babies.

    I love you, too.

    And that’s the end of my story.

    Signed,

    Daddy.

  • The Great Thirst

    “The Great Thirst” – from Nathaniel Dunigan’s Journal

    Without exception, my kids arrive at our home like a lost wanderer at the oasis. Relief and happiness–I must imagine–are somewhere inside. But all-consuming is their thirst.

    For life. For love. For hope.

    This most desperate yearning has parched their hearts. Arid now. Scorched. Barren.

    But never gone. The heart of a child is the most resilient living thing I have ever encountered. When love showers upon it as rain, the awakening is more immediate than springtime.

    More rewarding than harvest-time.

    And more festive than party-time.

    It is as the Divine miracle of creation.

    They simply need love, I have always known. Forever taught my staff. Reminded myself.

    This journal has heard every one of these initial thoughts, listening to my heart after I have kissed each child for the first time (a few entries below):

    • “Julius: Another tiny body for a precious soul. You remind me of a radiant flower in a pot that has been broken–nearly destroyed. Let me help you find your magnificent garden.”
    • “Ronald: Your ‘Auntie’ cried when she left today. (She was the first temporary guardian to ever cry when leaving a child here.) Your swollen ears dominate your appearance, but I have a feeling that love has and ever shall dominate your life.”
    • “Prisca: You are drenched in invisible tears. I do not yet know if they are from a weeping of sorrow, or of pain, or of loneliness—or even if they are your own tears. Did they come from another? But I do know that I will not rest until they are wiped away and replaced with a countenance of joy, and a heart at peace.”
    • “Toby: We really searched for you today. Our directions to your village were not very clear, but our mission was like crystal: Rescue Toby. When I saw you, I became desperate about your condition. But when my eyes and soul met yours, I realized that my desperate search had actually been an urgent treasure hunt—and that I had found the end of the rainbow.”

    As I revisit these pages, these thoughts, these moments, I try to imagine what my children might have written in their own journal on those days.

    What did they inscribe on the pages of their hearts after a first kiss? Perhaps the first ever. From me. From my staff.

    I am thinking specifically of Njuba’s first day. That morning, he was sitting bravely in the office as Tony (my assistant) processed his paperwork.

    That same thirsty countenance.

    I offered my hand. Quickly, without a smile, he wrapped his wee fingers around the tips of mine. I led him to the swings, and showed him around a bit. Over and again, saying, Welcome, Thanks for coming, and I am so happy to have you here.

    After our walk, he told me he had to go to the bathroom. I escorted him to the room’s door, then waited outside.

    He finished quickly, closed the door, and immediately took my hand again. (Without washing, I knew, but it couldn’t matter.)

    That evening (as every evening since) Njuba insisted on sitting between my legs as we shared a space on the floor during TV Time.

    I was tired. The soul-joy and heart-weight of a new child always seem to delightfully exhaust me. Like a long hike to a summit’s glorious vista.

    I laid my back to the floor. The moment’s rest would have to equip me for the evening ahead.

    Njuba also reclined.

    His eyes still on the TV, he reached his little arm above his head to my chest, feeling for my hand. Finding it. Embracing it. Holding it.

    Again.

    What would be his first journal entry?

    Perhaps the same as mine, for it seems that all my children reach out to us as much as we do to them. Not only to receive love, but to offer it.

    Yes, together our journals might whisper:

    While the heart longs to be loved,

    its great thirst is…

    to love another.

  • Delight’s Definition

    “Delight’s Definition” – from Nathaniel Dunigan’s Journal

    “Nathanny” [nuh-THAAN-ie]. That’s what my grandma called me as a kid.

    And I have often used a proverb to describe who she is:

    “It is always springtime in the heart that loves God.”

    Devout and in-love, Grandma lives each day—and calls every name—with energy akin to the Power that triggers the bloom of the lily and the fall of the rain.

    Springtime’s joy.

    No matter her desperate circumstances. Embraced or abandoned. Perfect of forlorn. Her heart celebrates as if it were in a new season of hope.

    And she always finds a way to add “ie” to the end of the name of anyone she loves.

    It’s summer here at AIDchild—south of the Equator. Our slightly chillier rainy season is drying up, and it’s getting warm.

    My thoughts turn towards the springtime-Christmas I am starting to accept as my own. Yes, with sunny days, green grass, and iced tea in the afternoon, I really do feel that it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

    Missing my family back home, I sense another kinship with my kids. These holidays will be spent with our new family. Precious. Wonderful. Special.

    Missing those who are not with us.

    Celebrating those who are.

    “Nathanny.”

    Your spirit hears so much more than your name when it is spoken from the heart of one who loves you; someone who has chosen to harvest joy’s garden—even when from the seeds they have sown in sorrow’s depths.

    Exceeding great joy. This is what the spirit feels.

    The people of Uganda—my new home—speak in a way very similar to Grandma’s. The sound “ie” is often added to words and names. They speak of my “children-IE”. They say they’re going to “town-IE”. They call each other, “Ivan-IE”, “Ronald-IE”, and “David-IE.”

    And I always, always think of my grandma.

    Such joy.

    When another heart claims yours as their own. Their grandson. Their daughter. Their brother. Their lover.

    This is delight’s definition.

    Exceeding great joy.

    Several friends have come for a few weeks at a time to volunteer with me here at AIDchild. The kids instinctively feel their overwhelming love, and assign my friends the new titles: “Mommy” or “Uncle”. (Always saving “Daddy” for me. I like that.)

    I’m not sure you can imagine the bond that this creates. The heart-party thrown after these christenings is indescribably precious. The spirit reaping such bounty, again, from joy’s seemingly unfathomable garden. Because another heart not only cares, but embraces you. Desires to be with you. Chooses you.

    And loves—so sweetly loves—you.

    Yes.

    This is.

    Exceeding.

    Great.

    Joy

  • Sing For Me

    “Sing For Me” – from Nathaniel Dunigan’s Journal

    “Daddy, I sing for you? Daddy, Daddy, I sing for you?”

    I get this question all the time.

    “Daddy, please may I sing a song for you?”

    An excited countenance. An expectant spirit.

    A hopeful heart.

    My children—eager to sing.

    Kids are so sweet. Not afraid of vulnerability. Never attempting to mask attention’s plea. Just heart-excited to share a new skill, story.

    Or song.

    In heaven, we’re told, the Divine’s wonder pales everything precious. So much so that the likes of gold are used simply to pave streets.

    I wonder if a similar phenomenon occurs here, too. If treasure is so common that I fail to notice it—even below my feet.

    Does the extraordinary get lost in the ordinary? Or am I the one who scrambles to block realization in her grand entrance? Fear overriding my longing for comprehension.

    Do I lower the stage curtain on reality’s tragedy?

    My kids’ stories are not merely dark scripts of fiction. Each is a horribly, horribly real tome.

    An account I’m afraid to audience.

    And yet.

    And yet.

    Our life-theater now rings with great laughter and spirit-applause. Childhood’s innocence.

    And this recurring scene of charming figures who look up at me from the woe of their past to express hope’s anthem: “Daddy, may I sing for you?”

    Could any phrase be more articulate in goodness’ celebration of evil’s impossible transformation to joy? A wounded spirit now so eager to sing must certainly be the miracle of miracles. Wonder beyond the mind’s comprehension, but somehow never more potently rational. The clearest sky on the darkest of nights. Beautiful. And perfect.

    “Daddy, may I sing a song for you?”

    “Yes, my child,” I say on cue. “Sing for me.”

    And then, to myself, I say, “Look down.

    “Look down. Surely we tread upon gold.”

    “Si no hubiera rocas en su lecho, el rio no cantaria.”

    [If there were not rocks in its bed, the river would not sing.]

    —unknown

  • Let’s Take Her

    “Let’s Take Her” – from Nathaniel Dunigan’s Journal

    “Let’s take her!” our Peace Corps Nurse said to me. Michelle’s eyes were so compassionate. Heart-excited. Justine a tiny bundle in her arms. “I have never seen a baby so wasted or malnourished,” she said. Then added, “But we can help her.”

    What she didn’t know is that I was saying all the same things in my heart.

    Yes, I was rushing around, trying to get ready for our quarterly AIDchild Community Advisory Board meeting. Big wigs arriving any minute.

    And I was worrying about some of the practicalities of the blood drive we were hosting at our site. And wondering if I had enough energy to donate also. (I did.)

    And I was considering our latest budget challenges.

    And I was nursing a nasty cold.

    And I am still trying to recover from my sprained ankle. (A word to the wise: Don’t try to slip your shoes on while rushing out the door, down steps, with kids all around. Just not a good idea.)

    I’m such a baby. How I HATE to be sick! Honestly, I think this is what so drove me to start AIDchild. When I saw so many orphans here in Africa. Suffering. Unnecessarily. And considered how I hate to “suffer” through a cold or sprain. Well, I had to act. That I know.

    As I looked at this sweet, tiny baby, there was so much I didn’t know. I didn’t yet know if we could get proper paperwork for her. I didn’t even who had brought her. I didn’t know if she had been immunized, or if she could potentially be carrying something like African measles or chicken pox. (A major concern with dozens of other immune-suppressed kids.)

    But I did know two things. 1) Of course we would take her, and 2) We can help her. SO MUCH!

    This is such an exciting place. I can barely think of going to sleep tonight.

    A new baby!

    Hope.

    Light.

    Less suffering.

    I love it!

    Thanks to my wonderful staff and to your generous support, we CAN help. Tragedy gets erased. Tears are wiped away. And life–precious life–springs forth.

    Thank you so much for standing with us.

    –Nathaniel, kids & staff

  • An Average Day

    “An Average Day” – from Nathaniel Dunigan’s Journal

    I am often asked what an average day is like for me. Below are three days’ pages from one week last year. Special days. Average days. Perhaps they’ll be of interest. As always, thank you so much for your compassion and care, –Nathaniel, kids and staff

    ************

    Thursday

    “What is the fuel that keeps you going?” she asked me. The American Ambassador’s wife was seated in her residence in Kampala; her chair possessing the two qualities that immediately reveal themselves in this important woman as well: understated elegance, and immediate comfort. “I like her,” I kept thinking. “I really do.”

    I had been invited to this special place to tell her about Aidchild. She was eager for all the details. Her eyes seemed to suggest not only genuine interest, but absolute compassion as well.

    An attendant brought coffee. Lovely china bearing the seal of the United States of America. Home.

    A plate of cookies.

    A soft breeze whispered through the opened balcony doors of the upstairs sitting room; presumably from Lake Victoria whose shores were nestled atop the room’s beautiful view.

    But I couldn’t, for the life of me, answer her question. What does fuel me?

    She invited me to come back later in the day for lunch.

    “Sounds good,” I said. (“Neat,” I was thinking.)

    Not far from her home, a policeman stopped me for running a red light. I hadn’t. He wanted a bribe. We argued. I called a friend for help.

    From there, I picked up several friends and went to collect some items which had been donated to Aidchild. Then for some city-shopping, and back to lunch at the Ambassador’s home. (I didn’t know then that I would be back many times. A welcoming place.)

    More china.

    More questions.

    Two thoughts never left my mind:

    What is the fuel that keeps me going? and

    • • I just never know what a day will bring!

    *******

    Friday

    With his left hand, he pours the water from a pale blue plastic mug. Into his right. Then to his face. The process itself cleaning his fingers.

    Now the plate. Next his doorstep. Everything done while crouched.

    He is alone.

    Why does it surprise me that people who eat alone must also wash their hands?

    I see him from my window everyday—when I’m seated at my desk. Right now. Early morning. Or late at night when his paraffin lamp glows through the cracks around the shudders.

    Always alone.

    One day he was seated in the shade on a huge piece of cardboard. He was trying to work something out. To study something. His perch doubling as a scratchpad.

    Periodically he wanders from his little hut into the larger, abandoned house in front. I don’t know why. I have been there several times to say hello. But never seem to find him at home. Except when I see him from here. From too far.

    Yesterday, the man who is always alone, had visitors for the very first time. Two of them. He fixed them something to drink. Crouched. The pale blue cup. And another. They were seated on two homemade wooden stools I had never seen before. Did he make them especially for his invited guests? Excited with anticipation of company.

    Or did he not know they were coming? Interrupted?

    Solitary more than lonely?

    ************

    Saturday

    Her husband is blind. Her son is five.

    They all have AIDS.

    She wants to give me her son.

    What should I do?

    When one of our counselors asked her why—why she wanted to give up her son—she said, “Because my husband has no one else.”

    Adding, “I just can’t take care of both. We have no money. My husband is blind. And dying. And so am I. At least I could visit my son here.”

    “At least,” she said. “At least.”

    And so our counselor now asks me, “What do you want to do? What do we tell her?”

    My reaction: “But he needs his mother. His father.”

    I know they’re all sick—and aren’t getting treatment—but.

    But.

    But what?

    Is this really how far humanity has gone? Is this the end of three perfect life-gifts? Left with at-leasts which seem less than least?

    With desperation we would like to think to be unequaled. But it’s not. This is one case. Just one.

    What should I do?

    I am twenty-eight years old.

  • A Cute Orange Pencil

    “A Cute Orange Pencil” – from Nathaniel Dunigan’s Journal

    It’s no big secret that a daughter has very special powers over her father.

    “Daddy?” Diana (age 4) said to me this morning. And that was it.

    Oh.

    My.

    Goodness.

    How can that word (which I have heard literally thousands of times in the last few years) melt me so?

    *****

    All my kids are getting older. For the guys, this means that I am now often “Dad”—not “Daddy”. And, honestly, I adore this new y-less name just as much as the other—but in a different way. My pride rejoices when I hear, “Hi, Dad.” Or, “Please, Dad, may I go into town?” (I’ll rejoice less, perhaps, when that request includes a petition for the car keys—but let me do this in baby steps. I have two more years before the driving issue settles in.)

    But this mysterious power of “Daddy?” spoken from the perfect mouth of one of my girls—well—I hardly know where to start!

    *****

    “Daddy?”

    (Do you know how much self-control it takes to prevent me from saying, “Name it. I’ll do it”?)

    Instead, though, I say, “Wangi, Baanbi?” (meaning: Yes, dear?)

    Today, Diana gave me her perfect smile and then implored me with deep, precious eyes, and said simply, “Njagala pincido.” (I would like a pencil.)

    “Done!” I said. “Let’s go look for one in the closet.” There we found a cute orange pencil.

    I handed it to her.

    She received it with both hands (as we do in Uganda when we want to show respect and love), and said, “Thank you, Daddy!”

    And then scurried off happily. (Her scurry is quite crooked from an inoperable birth condition, but she scurries nonetheless.)

    *****

    And, I must say, it is good that she hurried off, because I was only two beats away from saying, “You’re welcome! Would you like TWO pencils?”

    Seriously, the bond created from language’s intimacy when it reflects the heart is perhaps my life’s most wonderful lesson to-date.

    And I love it.

    *****

    “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.” –Helen Keller