• The Hand of My Celebrity

    Emotions churn.

    Passion does his dance.

    Anger billows.

    Joy with her contagious laugh.

    I cry.  I dance.  I scream.  I laugh.

                Again.

                       And.

                              Again.

    I awoke this morning to sunny skies.  They have replaced the mist-filled valley.  For now.  Our special home is perched on a small rise.  Near the hill’s brow.  Below are many farms.  A small eucalyptus plantation.  Bananas.  A swamp.

    The kids skip and run down the hill to school.  Then comes Isaac, a little slower with his arthritis.  Last is my sweet Balikuddembe.  Very weak.  But eager.

    On his way.

    People are starting to ask me, “Which of the children is your favorite?”

    My gut would say, “I love them all the same.”  But then my conscience challenges the response.  My heart moves through a slideshow of their faces.  “What about Ojos?” I’m asked.  She was my baby.  My baby girl.  For so long.  “Or Abraham?”  My baby now.  “Or Janat?”  The youngest girl.  “Or Patrick?”  My oldest.

    One by one, I see their faces.  I hear their giggles, laughs and sweet voices.  My mind’s eye zooms in to their little smiles.

    “Each is my favorite,” I decide.

    Again, I am challenged to truth.  “Surely one must stand out?”

    “Yes.”

    Milo does.  Did.  He’s gone now.  He was my favorite.

    Then Ivan was.

    Then Mzee.

    Prisca.

    Isaac.

    Nasaka.

    All have passed through my arms.

    On.

    My babies.

    My favorites.

    Whoever is weakest,” I admit, “is my favorite.

    Not because they are pitiful and sad.  Not because of despair and its call for sympathy.

    But because of this great sense that they are superior beings who are carefully treading through that gloriously arduous zone of passage.

    To forever.

    To the Divine.

    To what’s next.

    I want to be close to them.  To listen for a whisper.  Search for a sign.  Catch a glimpse.

    And they seem to need courage.  A courage we can give.  By kissing their forehead at night.  Singing a lullaby.  Greeting with a smile.  Patting a shoulder.  Or by holding a hand.

    The thought answers the question.

    This is the hand of my celebrity.  My encounter with Greatness.

    This is my favorite.

  • Like Flowers on an African Stoop

    Yesterday, we had another beautiful African morning.  It started like every other—with the sounds of birds playing on the tin roof, followed shortly by a knock on my front door—a friend over to spend the day.  We had a full schedule, including a drive into the village for food at the outdoor market.

    As we stepped out my front door and off the step, I made a casual remark about wanting to try to find some potted plants for the space.  Realizing what a task that would be in my rural village, I put the thought out of my mind, and we headed out on our drive.  In the evening, we had a small dinner party with friends.  When I closed the door behind the last guest, I remember feeling that I had closed the door on a perfect day.  I couldn’t help singing a new favorite Luganda song as I prepared my bed under the mosquito net.  This move to Africa really was the right thing for me.

    Today, I awoke early, again to the sounds of the bird-dance above.  Anxious to see what this day would hold, I went to open the front door — a sign of welcome to passersby.  As it swung open, what I saw made me gasp in the laughing-sort-of-way that is becoming commonplace for me.  A dozen pots filled with flowers were now adorning my front step.  My friend had obviously heard my simple wish, and had been up early to do something about it. 

    I have no idea where he managed to find the pots, but I do know that, though I am thousands of miles from my birthplace, I have come home — for I have never before seen such simple, unmasked loving-kindness.

    Maybe it sounds silly, but to me the flowers are a perfect expression of the kind of love that gives life its breath.  A love that sees even the simple desires of our heart, quietly places their answers in our lives like flowers on a stoop, and then hides in the bushes until we wake up and open the door to them.

    I would like to think of myself as such an example of loving-kindness, but I know that I am not.

    At least not yet.

    But I shall keep trying. 

    Perhaps Africa will teach me to respond not only to a person’s most obvious needs, but to the seemingly trivial longings of their heart as well.  It just might be the day they come home.

    I’d like that.

    Other early  entries from Nathaniel’s African Journal:

  • Life Just Needs Honey Sometimes

    (From the early pages of Nathaniel’s African Journal.)

    S
    o my little Janat (age 3) is convinced that true survival requires a constant intake of nourishment.  Yes, she loves to eat.  Always.  I could swear this was a genetic hand-me-down from Daddy.  Oh the pleasure of happy taste buds!

    Abraham (age 2) also shares our food-fetish.  If these two see me eating, they feel it is quietly emergent that they join me, that we must conquer the raging plate together.

    So far, Abraham is winning in the packing-it-on department.  His big belly really works for him.  Still I worry about the tottery-ness of his unbalanced physique at times.

    But then, he is a toddler.

    Anyway, the other day, I was feeling a bit eleven-o’clock-ish (as Winnie the Pooh would say), so I decided to sit down for a quick piece of toast. With peanut butter (for its essential protein content, of course).  And honey.  (Because life just needs honey sometimes.)

    Upon commencement, I carefully surveyed the area.  No sign of my taste-buddies.  Today, I would be alone as the man-of-devour.

    I was up to the task.

    But then out of nowhere came my little demolition team.  “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.”

    It was amazing.  They didn’t even need help up to my lap.  They quite naturally and fluidly climbed into place.  A little elbowing, but not much.

    And…begin!

    Janat dropped her first piece.  Never mind, I could see her think, I’ll get to that later.  I made my own mental note to get to it first, and to dispose of it.  Three-years-old or not, our gluttony-gang must have standards.

    We proceeded with tenacity and satisfaction.  Very nice indeed.

    At the table with us was a visiting friend.  Later she commented that Abe and Janat must have considered it such a treat to sit on Daddy’s lap and eat.

    Little does she know, I thought.  This is our modus operandi. 

    With that, I went for the dropped-piece.  And guess what!  Janat had beaten me to it.  I pretended to be frustrated, but was really quite impressed.  Girlfriend’s fast!

    “A treat?” I said. “I think they’d be used to it by now.  I feel like our life-clock is forever set on dine-time.”

    My friend smiled.  Then she said something quite simple and precious: “No matter how often, I think it must always be a treat,” she said, “to sit on Daddy’s lap.” 

    Other early  entries from Nathaniel’s African Journal:

  • In the Shadow

    Below is another early entry from Nathaniel’s African journal.  It very much relates to the first we offered here a few days ago, called: “Pray for Bob, Daddy.”  Perhaps you would like to read the former before reading the below…if you have not already done so.

    ——–
    T
    he car window framed an evolving portrait of Ugandan life.  Leafy banana fields and papyrus-filled swamps waned into the bustling city streets of Kampala.  They, in turn, faded into sugarcane plantations, and the soft, rolling hills of the tropics.  A bridge crossed the River Nile.  On any other day, this masterpiece that is Africa captures my being’s heart and soul; presenting a unique gift of inspiration, peace and nourishment.  Today, I barely noticed the beautiful canvas outside because of what I was feeling inside; because the pickup ahead of me held my little Ivan.  Or what had been Ivan.  His spirit, now in a new home, was with us in a different form as we traveled to lay to rest his former vessel—near his parents’.

    He had died a peaceful death. At nine years old, he had lived longer than most children with AIDS in Africa.  Longer than hoped.  Longer than he would have outside my home.  For that I was grateful. 

    And one day, Eternity will reunite us, and we will dance together again—like we always used to.  And his steps will be freer and more beautiful than ever before. And what music!

    Until then, though, there is a season of mourning—and a season of fighting. We will keep going.  We will continue to help children to live longer, to suffer less, and to be at peace.

    The pickup pulled off the village road.  My taxi followed.  I stepped out.

    “This is Bob,” someone said to me. 

    “He asked for you just two weeks ago,” I’m amazed. “We didn’t know where to find you.”

    I guess Bob to be about seven years old.  He sat next to me throughout the funeral.  He wanted to hold my hand.  I wanted to hold his.

    As we left our seats and moved towards the grave, little Bob squeezed my hand and spoke my name.  I looked down into his eyes.  Ivan’s eyes.  His tears. “Thank you for treating Ivan,” he said simply.  “You are my friend. My real friend.”

    We went together to say goodbye.

    The grave was nicely prepared.  This hasn’t always been true for my other children who have died—children who had no one.  But it was so disturbing.  So small.  Tiny in fact. 

    Surely graves were never meant to be so little.

    We sprinkled flower petals on top of the simple casket.  Some men from the village sealed the grave.  Bob took my hand again, and we walked back towards the small village hut.  The family’s land was filled with graves.  We carefully stepped over them. Around them.  Many of the sepulcher mounds too small.  All of them, I had a sense, had been dug too soon.

    As usual, people crowded around me after the service.  Many to say thank you.  Others to get a closer look at my fair skin.  Most came with desperate questions about their own HIV situation.  Their children.  Their orphaned grandchildren.

    I lingered.  I answered all the questions I could.

    Finally, I had to go.

     

    The next morning, my little Mzee died.  Also nine years old.

    The process repeated itself.  Another tiny grave.  Another suffering body put to unmatchable peace.  And rest.

    Two days later, Prisca died.  Also nine years old. 

    The next day, I gathered all my children and my staff in our backyard.  In the shadow cast by our house.  And by our sorrow.

    Again, the masterpiece that is Africa framed each of us as we took a turn to stand and talk about our precious sons and brothers.  Our Prisca.  Our Ivan.  Our Mzee.  We cried. And we laughed.  We shared secrets.  We shared tears.

    I had prepared a basket filled with flower petals taken from blossoms from the yard.  Our yard. 

    “Let’s form a circle,” I said.  From the inside of the circle, I presented the basket to each staff member, each child, one-by-one.  “Take a handful,” I quietly instructed.

    “These flower petals,” I began, not sure what I would say next, “though now in a different shape than they were when on the stem, remain beautiful.”  Still inside the circle, I slowly turned and looked into the eyes, the souls, encircling mine.  “Even more beautiful, some may say. Though their form is different, though they are no longer ‘living’ in the way that we normally recognize, they are still with us. And they are wonderful.”  Every eye, each soul, was looking back at me, at mine, in understanding.

    “Ivan, Mzee and Prisca are a lot like these precious flower petals. Their form is now different, but they are still beautiful, still lovely.  Still precious.  And they are with us.”

    We then took our handfuls and lofted them into the heavens—and said farewell. “Until we meet again.”

    The gate’s buzzer used its startling voice to join the moment.

    The gatekeeper excused himself from the circle.  He ran to the gate.  There, he found a small child.  Another soul.  Another opportunity to make a difference.  Another chance to make last days more comfortable, life more precious and hope more real.  

    And so it goes. 

  • That She Might Dance

    (Another early entry from Nathaniel’s African Journal, circa 2002.)

    Kids.

    Everywhere.

    Perched on the arms of the sofa, spinning on the desk chair, sprawled on the floor, and just generally dangling about.  We were all in my sitting room watching a video.  Some have it memorized.  Others laugh and play in a distinct little world mysteriously inserted into this one.

    Suddenly, Maria walks up and pops Deus a good one.  He instantly retaliates. Daddy moves in.

    There’s an apprehension.

    I pick up my little girl.  In my mind, that dreaded parental thought: What is the most appropriate response?

    While I consider my options, I carry her to the porch and sit down.  Still in my arms, she begins to cry.

    I know instantly, somehow, that this is not an expression of anger.  These aren’t her infamous faux-tears.  And she doesn’t want me to put her down.

    Something about the dearness of her cry shows me that my little girl is healing.

    Too young for a heart-to-heart.  Too tender for therapy.  No girl-talk.

    Just Daddy’s arms.

    She cried.  Not loudly.  Not passionately.

    A precious weeping-balm of the heart.  For the heart.

    I held her.  I used my voice to communicate a sense of peace.  I’m not sure I was successful.

    She cried.

    And cried.

    “Do you want down, Baby?”

    “No.”  Nearly voiceless.

    More tears.

    Absorbed by my shoulder.

    I hope.

    This person has been through so much.  Mommy and Daddy saying goodbye to her, to this life, forever.  No aunts.  No uncles.  Just her six-year-old brother and her three-year-old sister.  While a woman in their village took them in, she had eight children of her own, and a husband who resented my little ones because they were consuming his resources.  He knew that they were living with AIDS, and wrongly assumed that they wouldn’t survive to care for him in his old age.  His resentment revealed itself in physical violence.  Abuse.  Burns.  Punches.

    And pain.

    Little Maria has been here for awhile now.  She is processing, I think, all that her short days have seen.  She’s getting older.  She is trying to…

    To what?

    To get over it?

    I don’t think so.

    To survive?

    No, more than that, I think.

    She has been surviving.  So how is this different than yesterday?

    I see that her heart is finally ready to replace sorrow with joy.  But inside she is frustrated.  She knows that her scabs must first become forgotten scars.

    It is as if her spirit has heard the faint sound of a perfect melody drifting in from the next room.  She presses her ear to the wall.  She must hear all the notes.  Every one.  Her heart-feet finally slip into their toe shoes.  At last, she will know harmony.  Tears are the precious yield of her labor to weep-open a passage to the music.

    That she might dance.