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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

I Change My Mind About Facebook

In 1991, when Averie was 6, Caris was 4, and Bryson was 2, Charlie and I started a little learning project with the kids. We had worked through the age-appropriate chore lists, and teachable moments with regard to saving, and now, we felt the time was right to teach them about service. Charlie and I believed in the value of some kind of service outside of our own four walls. Whether it was community service in our town, or ministerial service through our church (at the time). Now, we wanted to impart a sense of knowledge to the kids that there is a big world out there with children who were not as fortunate as they. Of course, Bry was still a little young to understand, and perhaps Caris may have been too. However, Averie had been, as with everything, precociously ready for such broad-spectrum thinking, sometimes I think, from birth.

Together, after much research, we decided to support a program called World Vision, through which we would sponsor a child in an impoverished community. At the time, it cost $21 a month. A pittance, yes, but we really had to work hard to budget that. After all, I was a stay-at-home mom who was also helping to care for my mom who was fighting cancer, and Charlie and I were living, quite literally, hand to mouth. What we thought at the time would be a lesson in service and stewardship for our children, turned out to be a lifetime lesson in the strength of the human spirit that would shake Charlie and I to our very core.

Right away, we received a packet from World Vision that contained a picture and bio of a small boy in Rwanda. He was just a year older than Averie, 7 years of age at the time, but his tiny frame made him seem so much younger. He had a big, big smile. His name was Samuel and we loved him instantly. As much as you could love a child in a picture that you had never met. For us, being the mush-hearted goofs that we are, this was easy. Charlie went and got a globe and an atlas and we began pointing out to the girls the tiny, little country in Africa where their new "brother" lived. They stared in wide-eyed wonder and asked a million questions; "Does Samuel have a Mommy and Daddy?", "Does Samuel have food tonight?", "Does Samuel have a baby brother like us?", "Can we send Samuel some of our toys?", "Can Samuel come and live with us?"

As the months passed, the girls would look forward to the little letters we would get from Samuel. The onion-skin thin stationery would bear his child-like scrawling of a few words in his native language on one side with a crayoned drawing of him playing football (soccer), and on the other side a World Vision worker would translate his letter to English. We would get a "report card" of his progress in school, his family life, and his health, and every couple of months or so, a new picture of this child that we were growing more and more fond of with every passing year. The kids would send him letters and drawings and in return, he would write, always addressing his letters directly to Charlie with the salutation; "My Dearest Father Charles" and closing his letters with; "Your Child, N. Samuel." He would always send his warm regards to each of us by name, but he respectfully addressed the head of household. His letters became a happy routine around our dinner table that would encompass lessons of geography, cultural tradition, schoolwork, stewardship, foreign language, and so much more. This small child, so far away, was an integral part of our world, and his gratitude for the part we played in his life was a lesson in humility not just for the kids, but for Charlie and I as well.

In 1994, along with the rest of the world, we watched the news in complete and utter horror when the nation of Rwanda erupted in civil war. Most Americans had never even heard of this tiny country. For us, I cannot even begin to describe how close this felt to home. The day after we'd heard the first reports, Charlie began one of many calls to the World Vision headquarters. They, of course, had no news for us.

Weeks passed and the television reports grew more and more terrifying. Millions were being murdered. We watched, slack-jawed and teary-eyed. Our hearts were breaking. A new lesson would now be taught. A lesson no parent wants to teach their child. The horror of war. How do you tell a 9 year-old, a 7 year-old, and a 5year-old that the child they have come to know as their Rwandan brother was missing? Perhaps dead? How do you explain to children that people are killing people because of their race and sometimes for no reason at all? How do you explain "ethnic genocide"? You think, living where we live, that they won't have to know of these things too soon. But now, because of our immersion into what we had hoped would be happy life lessons, we must choose our words wisely as we teach them. Some things, you just cannot bring yourself to say and it's not something they will understand at so tender an age. So you don't. Yet you know, on the other side of the world is a child that you have come to love who is now living this very real horror. What do you do?

Months passed. We would get little updates about the mass exodus out of Rwanda and into the Congo. Refugee camps were being set up but even they were sometimes ambushed. Still, whatever small word we received, they had no report on Samuel or his family. The World Vision school he was attending was hastily disbanded. Some World Vision workers were able to escape, unfortunately, some were not. Stories coming through were so inexplicably horrible that for long periods of time, Charlie and I did not bring up the subject of Samuel with the kids. Averie, tender-hearted Averie would weep at the mention of his name. Charlie and I, in quiet moments when the kids were in bed, would do the only thing we knew how to do at the time other than making phone call after phone call. We would pray. He would tell me again and again that if we had the resources, he would do everything in his power to find that child and whatever was left of his family and bring him back to the U.S.

A year passed. We continued to support the program, our meager funds going toward whatever work was necessary through World Vision. One day, I opened the mailbox to find a letter from the organization. My hands shook. I was afraid. So many reports of so many innocent lives being slaughtered. I didn't want to open it without Charlie. So I waited until he got home. He opened it and read it while the kids and I waited. His eyes filled with tears. Had it not been for the smile, I probably would have fainted right then, thinking the worst.

"He's alive. Samuel is alive!"

We let out an almost harmonic scream, if there is such a thing. We hugged, Charlie picked up the girls, I picked up Bry. We danced around our family room and laughed. It was joyful. Our "son" was alive. But just. After the celebration, Charlie read on. Samuel's brothers and father had been killed, he had only his mother, an older sister, and a younger sister left. His mother was ill. He and his younger sister were being looked after by World Vision workers. There was another paper in this letter. The familiar onion-skin stationery, folded, and with a little note attached saying; "Please know that this has been unedited by World Vision workers. It is exactly as this child has drawn it. Please use discretion. It should not be opened in the presence of children." Charlie unfurled it carefully. As happy as we were to know he was alive, this little "note" broke our hearts. It was a drawing, quite primitive, of what this little boy had seen. War. Death. Stick bodies in blood pools, large machetes. He quickly folded it and told the kids that it was a private note to him from Samuel.

As time went on, we continued to receive letters. You could see the slow process of healing in his writing and drawing. No more "war" pictures came. He returned to writing of his school work and playing football with friends. He kept his news on a surface level. He grew, and years passed. Once he turned 13 and completed his primary studies, his sponsorship through World Vision ended and they asked us if we wanted to sponsor another child through their primary schooling. We wanted to keep in contact with Samuel, but they told us they had lost contact with him. Ultimately, despite our efforts to find him again, we lost contact with him too. That was 1996.

Last Thursday, on Christmas Eve, I heard Caris in the living room; "OH MY GOD! NO WAY!" I went to see what was going on. She was chatting with Averie on Facebook. She turned the screen of her laptop toward me to show me a picture of a young man, but she had her hand over his name so I couldn't see.

"Do you recognize this guy?"

"No. Should I?"

She removed her hand and there, above his picture was the name SAMMY

"WHAT!? Is this for real?"

Caris began to explain to me that Averie had gotten a friend request from a Sammy. There was really no message with the request other than; "Hello, it is I. Samuel." She wrote back asking if it was her "brother" Samuel from Rwanda. He responded that indeed it was and he hoped to be able to write and to contact Mr. Charles. I was stunned. We were all stunned. Caris and I looked at his few pictures. I was looking at a man, but I still saw the little boy from so long ago. When Charlie got home, Caris told him about Samuel. My dear, darling husband wept. He wept. When he was done, he went to his computer and wrote to his long-lost "son".

If for no other reason than this, I change my mind about Facebook. It has immeasureable value because it returned a loved child to our family after a 15 year absence. I'll always be grateful for that.

Postscript: A few days ago, Sammy posted this picture on his Facebook wall. It's the first picture we ever sent him in a letter almost 20 years ago. He still had it after all these years. If this picture could talk, I know it would have so much to say, but what it says to me is, despite all he was going through, that he thought as much about us, as we thought about him. That is very humbling.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Chocolate Therapy

I've been doused in chocolate lately. It's literally everywhere. There are chocolate fingerprints on fridge doors, on the washing machine, on lightswitches around the house. I try, believe me, to keep things centralized. To no avail. Thankfully, I finished the job. Eighteen dozen bon bons have been wrapped and delivered.

I hemmed and hawed about making anything at all this year. I talked myself in and out of it many times. I had many reasons not to. Since I'm not working, my household budget has been cut. I figured making Christmas goodies was the first "luxury" that should be eliminated. We'd already agreed with everyone in the family that there would be no gifts this year. Money is tight all around. The kids were really okay with it. We worked out a deal that under our own little roof, the five of us would just do stockings. For the first time ever, ABC would pool together and fill Charlie's and my stockings, and we would, as always, do theirs. I loved that idea. No big gifts and no lists to fret over. So when it came time to think about doing the annual goody baking and such, I thought I would let that go by the wayside as well. That did not happen. Charlie actually asked if I was ready to go to the store and get supplies. Wow.

Truthfully, this year was different than years past. It wasn't a drudgery. I actually loved doing it. I thought I'd "simplify". I'd do the thing that would provide the most product in the least amount of time, take up the least amount of space, and be the most cost-effective. I THOUGHT that would be bon-bons. Okay, so I'm not a marketing strategist. I didn't say I'd do the thing that was the least labor intensive. I THOUGHT that's how it would be. It obviously didn't turn out that way. I doubled the recipe on my bon-bons and ended up with more coconut filling than I'd ever seen. I'm literally insane. Last year, I would have cried over my folly. This year, I sat happily at the table and got to work. At the end of the day, I looked at the trays and trays of bon-bons everywhere and smiled.

I finished dipping on Monday. On Tuesday morning, I packaged and delivered. I thought, on Monday, when I and my house were covered in chocolate, that THAT was my therapy. I giggled through it, with Caris and Bry watching over my progress on and off throughout the day. But really, the therapy was yet to come.

Over the years, because I have been working, I usually had the kids help me deliver the packages to friends and neighbors. It was the method I used to stay within my time budget. If I delivered them, it usually meant I would have to stay and chat awhile. I just didn't have the time for that. If the kids delivered them, there would be happy smiles and the obligatory "Tell your Mom thanks!", but the kids wouldn't be expected to stay around and visit. This year, because I am not working and the kids ARE, I took on the job of Herself the Elf.

Tuesday morning, I carefully packed the boxes of chocolates into thermal cold bags. The weather was mild, in the high 60's, low 70's, but I knew that in the car, the chocolates would be at risk, so I wanted to be safe. It turned out to be the smartest decision I made all week. At my very first stop, what I envisioned would be a quick drop-off, ended up being a 2-1/2 hour visit.

I went to the home of one of the Grommet's friends. His Mom was my recovery nurse after my gall-bladder surgery in March and she took such good care of me after the fiasco I'd been through. Of course, we'd been friends before then because of the boys, and I adored her. Even though I told her that I had a bunch of other deliveries to make and I had chocolates in the car, she begged me to come in if only for a few moments. How could I say no? She instantly opened her candy box and bit right into a bon-bon. We talked. Well, she talked, I listened. In the last year, her husband had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's and was now on disability. She'd gotten laid off in the summer. Their eldest son, Bry's friend, had come home from college away to help his mom. She still had kids at home, the youngest was 13. A difficult year indeed. Before I knew it, the bon-bons were gone and nearly three hours had passed. It was pretty obvious that she had needed to talk. I enjoyed the visit and was in no hurry to leave. I knew the candies in my car were fine. If she needed a shoulder, I was gonna provide it. It wasn't until SHE noticed the time and said.."Oh Gosh, Pua! I should let you go!" that I made the attempt to leave. I couldn't help feeling that whatever burden I thought I had was so incredibly light.

My next stop was Bry's other friend who is home recuperating. I knitted him a beanie and scarf which I hoped he could use until he gets "fuzzy" again. I packaged that with a book of oddities. The kind of book a 20-year old who is stuck at home would find amusing. And of course, the chocolates. I knew that he probably wouldn't be eating much while going through chemo, but his parents might like them. I left the package on their porch because I didn't want to intrude. Within 15 minutes, on my way to my next stop, Grommet was calling me to tell me that his friend had sent him about six texts in a row about the package and how awesome it was. "Tell your Mom the chocolates are da bomb!"

As I drove away and headed to my next stop, I thought to myself how wonderful chocolate is. That's probably not the thing most people would think first thing, but it's what I was thinking. I wasn't going to do this. I wasn't going to make any attempt to make or bake this year. Therapy comes in all forms. Some of it is more expensive than others. Sometimes, it's theraputic to be the shoulder, or the listener, or the bon-bon roller and dipper.

This morning, I saw the chocolate fingerprints all over my kitchen and I smiled.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Important Things

The last couple of weeks have been pretty busy. This is a blessing that I cannot put enough emphasis on. Busy means that I don't sweat the small stuff. Busy means that my mind doesn't dwell on situations that I cannot control. Busy is my new mantra, which, if you think about it, could make me sound very much like a bee. Go ahead, try it. Linger on the "s".

I have fallen into a comfortable routine now that there is no shop to go to. I have my coffee, then Ellie, having been patient while I drink it, begins to do a little dance. The "Walk Me" dance. It's entertaining and makes me smile. As we walk through the neighborhood and into the park, I find myself really studying the small things around me; the way Ellie trots when she's happy, the croquet players in the park, the fallen pinecones, the squirrels, the sun, the air. I savor the joyful feeling.

The house is, for the first time in five years, clean for more than two days in a row. Laundry is done regularly. Meals are prepared. I putter around my little house. This house I used to think was too small, too old, not fixed-up enough, not fancy enough, blah, blah, blah. I now look around and think that it IS enough. I don't really have anything I need to prove to anyone. This is our home. There has been much life here. It has many problems; old plumbing, old kitchen, old floors. We have no money to fix these things and that is nothing new to us. It is home and I am grateful. When Charlie or the kids walk through the door of this home at the end of the day, I savor the joyful feeling.

The prep for Thanksgiving was a whirlwind. It was, for the most part, wonderful. The house was full of family, laughter, and warmth. I have come to concentrate on the positives, because I must. The very harsh realities of life can really mess you up if you give them too much of your brain space. I cannot afford that. And yet, sometimes it is unavoidable.

Just minutes before my nephew and his family arrived on Thanksgiving, we got some pretty horrific news. Someone dear to us, someone who means the world to my son, someone, in fact, who is one of the Grommet's best friends has been very ill. So ill that he nearly died and had been in the hospital a full month before anyone outside of his family knew. Bry came home and fell apart in my arms. Right in the middle of basting the turkey. I haven't seen my son like this since last summer when he lost another beloved friend. He was devastated. For a full ten minutes, before I even knew what the trouble was, he just cried in my arms. So lost was he in his sadness, that he could not even form the words to speak them. I held him, I tried to soothe him, everything motherly that I had, I channeled to him. I cried with him. A turkey can wait. My son could not. Charlie came in and took over. He held his son and listened while Bry told us the details. My heart now ached for his friend's parents. The helpless feeling of battling a disease that wants to take your child from you. Your child. I cannot fathom this. It just should not be.

We pull ourselves together and put on our smiles. Family has arrived. I give my son credit...no one was the wiser except the five of us. He mustered his strength, gathered his courage, and he made his visiting cousins laugh. Once dinner was over and good time was spent visiting and playing some games, he asked if he could excuse himself and go to the hospital. Charlie and I send our good thoughts with him and ask him to give them to his friend's mom and dad.

Important things are not measured in dollar signs, material wealth, or what you have. Important things are the love of family and friends, a home to come to, and the overwhelming comfort of good health. None of these things are lost on me and I savor the gratitude. I am grateful for these important things. Everything else is so far from my mind. I cannot dwell on the unimportant while a mother's son fights for his life.

This morning, the rain is falling and there will be no walk for Ellie. I drink my coffee and look at the beautiful Christmas tree. Ellie cuddles up next to me on the couch and sighs contentedly. I lay my hand on her and feel her soft breathing. It's quiet and there is much to do. But right now, I savor this minute and remember the important things.