Odette left her girls in Rwanda in the care of her brother Innocent four years ago to follow her dreams toward a bright and shiney life in America. Promises were made. Risks were taken. There was trust and hope in that decision. But Odette was deceived and things didn't work out as she had planned. No one knew four years would stretch this relationship between a mother and her daughters. But they held on to hope.
It was Sunday, our first full day in Tanzania. Our safari driver pulled off the long stretch of road on our way back to Arusha from Ngorongoro Crater. One the seats in his vehicle had broken at the frame, so in an effort to keep us comfortable for the remainder of the trip, he swiftly identified a group of mechanics in an open-air station to weld it back into place.
We had no idea where we were or how long we'd stay, but we quickly became engaged with a group of young children kicking a make-shift ball around a dusty open space just beyond the mechanics at work. Without hesitation, our friend AJ inserted himself into the game, while eight-year-old Carter moved tentatively toward these children. It was his first opportunity to communicate with African children and he wanted so much to do just that. Flipping through pages in his book of Swahili words, he selected and struggled to pronounce a few. But it was awkward. And frustrating. He didn't have the words, yet his desire to connect was so genuine and strong. I felt for that sweet boy. But he didn't give up. Putting the book down, he ran back to the vehicle... returning with a grin on his face and candy in his hands.
I feel fine, she told me, as we watched her ten year old walk and then run along side the length of the fence bordering the dirt road. She had turned to the car without saying goodbye, not looking back on a decision made long ago to give him the best education she could afford, even if it meant leaving him. Even if she would have to turn her face as he ran alongside the car up on the hill until we turned out of sight.
We learn how to miss each other, the shopgirl told me days later, when I was standing in the airport, staring at overpriced crafts, wondering how I would ever get on the plane and put ten thousand miles between me and the ones I love. We each have our reasons, the salesman argued, when I claimed I did not want to go, even though it was long past time.
You will come back soon, the woman working security said, running through the pages of my passport, taking note of my face, long and pained.
I am learning again and again how little I know of what life requires. Don't you know this is life, Alex told me on the phone the morning I packed and left, to say goodbye to those we love?
I didn't know, I wanted to say, but I am learning. I didn't know there was a grace and miracle to be had in letting go.
This is how I know you. Comfortable... talking on the phone, making plans in a language I still can't manage to understand. Arms length from your whistle that still calls the cows home no matter what city we are in, no matter how far.
You are always mythic in my mind. I forget you are real. Then I see you again and you ask me to come sit beside you and listen while you play the music you learned as a boy herding the cows in the wide open plains of Uganda. I go over the stories in my mind and try to imagine what it could possibly mean to be seven or eight or nine and possess nothing but this whistle and the confidence that comes from knowing undeniable love in the face of unimaginable suffering.
To be together is to erase a thousand sorrows, you tell me. And I know from the whistle, it's true.
You pull out a neon orange mouthpiece you sawed off a recorder I brought to Rwanda so many months ago. See? you gesture as you attach the plastic to the crude black plastic tube. I listen, but it's not the same.
How can anything improve on what you already possess? How could anything compare to the secret of everything, the power of together being all you've ever known?
One morning you're standing in line waiting for water and the next you're standing in a shoe store, trying to decide on sandals that cost more money than a ten kilo bag of rice or a truckload of green bananas. No one will ask you how you feel or explain exactly what's happening and you won't complain.
You aren't afraid exactly, but you're not exactly sure either. Over and over again, I will find your eyes on me, waiting for the download of love from my heart to yours. Over and over again, I will give it, because I can't help myself but love you. In all this, you never dare once to question or to ask.
Someday when we share the same language and the same hometown, I will tell you how brave you were, how calm and how patient. Someday you will tell me what my eyes said that kept you going, and we'll go shopping for shoes together and laugh.