Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Reflection from the Congo: Part 2


As we rode in the taxi on our way home, I shared with Mom the details of my trip, explaining that the last hour of the more than 28-hour-long trip had been the longest, because by then, I had been so ready to see her. I also told her that I had been working on a memoir which tells the story of our family. I chatted excitedly about the project and how much I was looking forward to sharing the manuscript with her. I told her that the memoir’s title was, “Remember for Me,” and how I felt that the project had helped me understand her and the entire family better. Mom smiled and nodded in contentment, happy that I had remembered her request.

The next day, three of my four sisters and I gathered in Mom’s bedroom, forming a circle around Mom as she reclined on the bed. (Mom was often lying down as we spoke as she can no longer sit for long periods of time.) I turned on my iPad, showing Mom the glowing screen that held the manuscript of the memoir, and I began to read aloud as Mom and my sisters listened intently.

As I recounted memories of scenes from my childhood, describing Mom’s words and actions, I saw her spirit come to life. In Mom’s eyes, I saw the energy of the woman I have known all my life return. When I arrived at the chapter where Mom tells a story by the fire, Mom’s smile widened even more.

I started to read Mom’s story of the Eagle, Rabbit and Frog, but before I could finish, my sisters began to jump in, each supplying a different part of the story, emulating the same energy and animation that Mom used when she would tell it. Suddenly, my mother’s bedroom had become a theater and my sisters and I bent over with laughter as we each gave our best imitation of Mom. Mom’s small frame also shook with laughter from her spot on the bed as she watched her daughters become her.

As she laughed, she said, “One day you will miss me, oh you will surely miss me, but don’t forget the message of my stories….always remember the message.”

“We remember Mom, we remember!” my sisters and I cried as we continued to laugh.

Each of us then decided to tell our favorite story from the many that Mom had told us as children. One by one, we shared our stories with much animation and exaggeration as Mom watched us from her bed, laughing hard, her eyes filled with joy.

When Chikombu, the youngest of us girls had finished her story, Mom decided that she would add one more to our repertoire. In her soft, weak voice, hoarse from laughter, she said, “Daughters, I give you this story, hold on to it and remember it always….” Instantly, I was transported back to my childhood. I was once more a little girl, anxious to hear one of Mom’s stories.

“One day, as the dry season was approaching, Turtle overheard the town council planning a seasonal hunting party. The hunters talked about how they would burn part of the forest to trap and catch the animals that would sustain them. Turtle thought to herself, oh no! What will I do? I can’t run fast. Even if I start my journey now, I will never be able to outrun the hunters’ fire. Then turtle noticed, her two friends, the eagles. “Ahh, Eagles! I am so glad to see you! I need to ask you for a favor! The hunters are going to burn the forest. Will you help me escape to the town south of here near the river where I may find refuge?” The eagles felt sorry for Turtle and agreed that they would help her.

Sure enough, when the time came, and Turtle had just begun to smell the smoke, the eagles came for Turtle. Each eagle held the end of a branch in their beaks. “Turtle, you must bite down on the branch and hold on very tightly. We will fly with you away from here and transport you safely from the fire. But we must also warn you, as we fly through the villages, many people will see you flying, and they may ridicule you. They might say things that will provoke you…but under no circumstances, should you open your mouth and let go of the branch. Keep your eyes looking forward and focus on your final destination. Whatever you do, don’t let go of the branch.”

Turtle nodded eagerly. Of course, she wouldn’t let go. She chomped down on hard the branch and resolved not to open her mouth until her journey was over. The eagles took off from the ground then, with Turtle dangling from the branch between them. And sure enough, as they flew from village to village, people pointed, yelling and laughing, ridiculing the flying turtle. Turtle felt hurt and wanted to rebuke the rude audience, but just as she was about to say something, she remembered her friends council to hold on tightly to the branch, ignore all the noise around her, and stay focused on her destination. And, through her resolve, Turtle made it safely to her new home.

As Mom’s voice dwindled, we knew that she had reached the end of her story. My sisters and I thanked Mom for the new story, each of us quietly reflecting on what message the story held for us. As I looked at my sisters’ thoughtful faces, and my Mom now gently dozing on the bed, I felt so grateful for that afternoon, for the opportunity to have shared such a powerful moment with my siblings, wrapped together in our mother’s love. But even more so, I felt grateful that Mom had had the opportunity to see and hear her story as told by her daughters.

In my search for my mother through the memoir, I am discovering that, by understanding the woman Mom was, the woman she became, and the woman she is today, I am uncovering a reflection of her that lives on in me. I feel so grateful to have rediscovered the beautiful and humble soul of my mother and to know now that it has been set free to live on in the world.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Memoir Update and a Reflection From the Congo: Part 1

Greetings friends!

Spring is upon us, and I am happy to say that we are progressing well with the memoir project. This past winter has held many changes for me including a new job position. In my new role, I am serving as Director of Development for an amazing organization called Digital Divide Data. I will share more about this opportunity in the future.

Although I am still very much involved with First Step Initiative as the organization’s founder, this past year we instigated a new grant-based model, which means more of the donations will go directly to women in the Congo, and additionally, I am no longer serving as Executive Director.

As part of the shift with First Step Initiative, I made a trip to the Congo last September. It has taken me until now to fully process my thoughts, but now as we near completion of the memoir, I wanted to share with you my experience visiting my family. My reflection is lengthy, so I will share it with you in two parts. Here is the first part of my story.

After the long journey from Minnesota, I had finally landed Lubumbashi. Disembarking from the small South African Airways commuter plane, I walked down a concrete path toward the arrival center. I was filled with anticipation and excitement at the thought of seeing my family again, especially my mom and dad. At the time, my dad had been ill while my mom's health remained the same.

Two years earlier, Mom had had a stroke. Although she miraculously recovered, gaining back the majority of her faculties and functions, she has never again been the same woman she once was. Mom’s stroke turned my world upside down; for the first time our roles were reserved. My siblings and I quickly discovered what it meant to become caregivers for our parents—trying to find that delicate balance between honoring their independence and making hard decisions on their behalf.

It was during this time that I started writing what has now become the memoir. Initially, I saw my writing as an escape from the pain and loneliness of losing a part of Mom, but I see now that it was more so a search—a search in which I was trying to find my mother again, the strong and independent woman who filled my earliest memories of childhood, a friend in whom my siblings and I had confided our dreams and hope, and a grandmother whom my nieces and nephews knew simply as "Mom." It was this woman I was searching for as I spent hours revisiting my childhood in the Congo. I could no longer quite find Mom in this world, but I could still find her in my memories as I remembered our lives together.

As I made my way with the other passengers toward the arrival center on that hot, sunny day last September, one hand clutching the luggage handle, the other shading my eyes from the blazing African sun, I searched intently for my mother’s familiar face in a sea of those waiting to greet their loved ones.

As my eyes scanned the crowd, I caught sight of my younger sister Chikombu, carrying her six-month-old daughter, Aminata Kamun, named after my mother. Next to Chikombu, stood Mom. Leaning against my little sister, as if to prop herself up, her frame was small and frail. I looked at Mom, clapping her hands, tears of joy on her sunken cheeks, and I saw for the first time how fragile she had become. In an instant, I was hit with an overwhelming awareness of the fragility of life. And in that moment, as joy and longing and despair bled into one another, I felt a deep desire to cherish every moment I had with my parents.

As my mother reached out to me and held my hands, I leaned in close to hear her soft voice whisper, here you are my daughter, here you are.

To which I responded, I am here Mom, I am here.