Monday, June 29, 2009
During the 4 years, there were many good-byes. Once I was older and at boarding school, we would pack the car to the hilt and head to school where it was good-bye to Mom and Dad. At the end of the trimester, it was good-bye to friends as we scattered to various African countries for vacation. If it was summer vacation, that meant one class was graduating, the students (and often my best friends) departing for all parts of the world. Graduations were always exciting celebrations, yet celebration mixed with tears.
Aside from graduations, friends were in and out of school because of different furlough schedules. The Dillingers and my family were never on the same schedule, so the good-byes to my "sisters" for the year were always especially tough. Additionally, there were always those families who were moved to another mission field or returned back to the States permanently for one reason or another.
The Dillingers were one of these latter families. For medical reasons, they returned to the U.S. my Freshman year in high school. We were on furlough when we received the phone call. I remember talking to Sarah on the phone, though only briefly because these were the days when phone calls were so expensive. Although I spent the rest of my high school years without my "sisters", I suppose it may have been for the good; I always allowed Dawn and Sarah to overshadow me, so perhaps I was able to come out of my shell more because they were no longer there.
Aside from good-byes I was forced to say in Africa, there were also the good-byes that had to be said in the States. Furloughs were tough. I had the good fortune of being able to attend the same school my 5th grade year and my 9th grade year, so there were a few familiar faces when I returned the second time; however, my best friend from 5th grade was no longer there, so I had to, in effect, start over with friends. With just a year in the States, it seemed that friendships were really beginning to meld, and it was time to go home to Africa again. Back to old friends but good-bye to new friends.
I imagine all of the good-byes of an MK's life are very similar to those in the life of any military family. And what effect does this part of MK life have on my life now? Well, it's kind of had a polar effect. There have been times in my life when I have completely pushed people away and made little effort to form anything but a shallow relationship to those around for the simple fact that I anticipated a good-bye and did not want to experience the hurt of the parting. On the other hand, knowing so well the inevitable good-byes that come with life has also driven me to delve deeply into friendships. And, well, some Americans get that and embrace it; others don't.
Honestly, though, now that I have a family, the sting of good-byes has been greatly alleviated. I know my family isn't going anywhere. And of course it helps that my husband completely gets all of this as well. All of the advances in technology now too have sure made the world smaller.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Contrary to popular belief--at least from what I've gathered from questions I've fielded over the years is "popular"--not all missionaries in Africa live in a hut. Some do, I imagine, and in fact, Mark spent some of his growing up years more in the "bush" than I did. His first house was smack in the middle of a village, but it was a house nonetheless. I too lived in a house, a house situated at the north-central end of the Hôpital Batiste mission compound. By any standards, it was just a normal looking house; however, construction in Africa is a bit different from that in the US where home structures are made of wood. If a home's skeleton were made of wood in Africa, the house would be dust in a New York minute. Termites were certainly a problem, and there weren't that many combative measures taken. So our house was built concrete brick by concrete brick with a tin roof laid on top. And though a tin roof baking in the hot African sun doesn't seem like the most logical idea, the sound of a rainstorm drumming on such a tin roof completely makes up for any insulation problems that could arise.
Ours was one of the smallest houses on the mission compound, but then, it housed one of the smallest families, so it made perfect sense. We were comfortable in our 2-bedroom, 1 bath house with its small den, living room, eating area and kitchen, and large screened in porch. As for the workings of the house and of all of the homes on the compound, yes, we did have indoor plumbing. And electricity and running water. Most of the time anyway. When the city water shut off, we had a back-up plan which just meant someone had to turn a valve on the water tower that stood between our house and the Dwight Slater's house. And when the city electricity buzzed to a stop, which it often did, there was a generator.
I can't say with any certainty whether the mission would have been provided a generator if it weren't for the hospital. The hospital after all was the reason any of the missionaries were there, and it had to keep running, power or no power. You couldn't miss the hospital when you drove on to the mission station, not only because it was the biggest building within the walls, but also because of its ugly, aquamarine color; I think at one point in its history, it may even have been a horrendous Pepto-Bismol pink. The main building of the hospital initially housed it all: the OR, the pharmacy, the lab, and the offices. Years later, another building was erected for the lab and the offices. Other smaller buildings surrounding the back grounds of the hospital served as recovery rooms.
There was never a shortage of patients. Most other healthcare options were government hospitals run with as much corruption as the police force. Patient care was minimal and certainly not gracious. And to get such minimal attention at all, a patient must sometimes resort to bribery. At the Hôpital Batiste, patients were treated kindly, and if a patient did not have money for services, often a family member or the recovered patient himself would do odd jobs around the compound grounds to "pay" for his treatment. And always patients were told about Christ's love; the missionaries and some of the African pastors were on a rotating schedule to preach gospel messages daily under the over-sized paillote in the outside common area near recovery. Sometimes such a message was delivered in the outside waiting area as well.
Clearly, my parent's lives revolved around the work of the hospital. Portions of mine did as well. As the pharmacist, my dad had two rooms in the main building for which he was responsible. In one room, he worked with an African pharmacist and several assistants. This room had shallow built-in shelves which conveniently held bottles and bottles of medications. A window at the back of the room was the communication between the patient in the outdoor waiting hangar and my dad. The ailment would be discussed or a prescription handed through the window and exchanged for the necessary drug.
An adjoining room stored all of the bulk medicines my dad was able to procure through various discount drug outlets and charitable organizations throughout the world. Floor to ceiling, handmade shelves held bottles and boxes of medical aids. A couple of work tables gave him room to mix medicines that needed it and to count out correct doses of pills. I often helped him with the pill counting, and even now, when I see one of those universal plastic pill counting tablets with the transparent tube at one end, I am taken back to that room. One reason I enjoyed this room was on account of the air conditioning, which was necessary because bottles of pills melted in the heat do no one any good.
I also loved this room because I spent many hours there with my mom opening packages. Although I don't think it happens as much as it used to, back then churches across the US formed mission societies: groups usually made up of ladies with a heart for missions. These wonderful ladies would pack hundreds of packages a year with anything they thought would be helpful for the hospital...and every once in awhile something they thought would delight any young missionary children who happened to be about. Such was the benefit of being the daughter of the lady responsible for opening these packages!
It would take a good afternoon to open the huge pile of packages that filled the bin by the door at least once a month. Many of the packages would be filled with nothing but empty pill bottles. But others had quilt squares to piece or maybe some other treat like a box of Jell-O. Usually I could tell by shaking--or sometimes just by looking--what packages had only pill bottles. At some point in the afternoon, I would load my mom up with these packages--so as not to miss anything--and sneak out to the clearing beside the waiting area. In this clearing there was always one or more women cooking over an open flame, their pots holding either deep fried yams or plantains. I would get a plateful for less than 50 francs and head back in, hoping Mom had finished with the boring packages.
Often while Mom and I were opening packages, lives hung in the balance in the OR. I got to play a role in this room as well; granted, only as an observer, but the OR proved to be a wonderful lifelong science lesson for me. My first science lesson came in the form of surgery on a broken leg. As you can imagine, it wasn't very riveting. So I graduated to hernia repairs, which were almost equally as boring. My favorite times in the OR were welcoming new babies to the world. I witnessed my first vaginal birth around the age of 7 or 8. There were plenty of c-sections as well. I was always in awe as the doctor reached in almost up to his shoulders--at least seemingly in my recollection--and pulled out a perfect baby.
Two other amazing surgeries stand out in my mind. The first was an operation on a man who had a bowel obstruction. When the doctor pulled his intestine out to work on it, it resembled a balloon. I had to excuse myself, however, when they let the air out of it! The second memorable surgery was on the man who had elephantitisis of the scrotum. No government hospital would take the man's case, so it was up to Dr. Dillinger. I didn't remain for the whole surgery, which took hours, but I remember seeing Dr. Dillinger working with a reference book within easy reach. Apparently there had been another such case documented for the medical records. I can't imagine another like this, though. After the operation was successfully completed, the discarded mass weighed in at around 80 kilos! How fortunate that this young, 20-something man was given back his future through the skillful hands of Dr. Dillinger.
Because we called adults "aunt" and "uncle", I knew Dr. Dillinger as Uncle Steve. Uncle Steve and Aunt Lee had four daughters, two of whom were my age. Since I had no sisters, Dawn and Sarah filled that role in my life. There were other families on the compound as well. The two brothers, Uncle John and Uncle Dwight, were the Drs. Slaters, and their homes were on either side of ours. Uncle John and Aunt Marion's youngest daughter Lisa was also my age. Various nurses, short and long-term, ministered to many a patient at the hospital; and a bookkeeper, secretary, and maintenance man helped make things run smoothly at the hospital and for the missionaries.
Certain homes on the mission compound were and still remain in my memory attached to specific families, like the Dillinger's home and the Slater's homes. Other homes, however, changed residents at various periods. Hideaway Corner, for example, was once the Boese's home before they moved into town. It also housed Nurse Clela, whom we borrowed from the Christian Missionary Alliance. At other times, it served as a guest house. Another guest house, Baby Bungalow, is where Mark spent the first few days of his life. And it was our first, temporary home when we moved to Ferké from Switzerland.
No matter who occupied each home, no matter whether each home held revolving residents or permanent, the concrete, barbed-wire topped walls of the mission compound held within it the lives of many with a heart for God, with a desire to touch the unreached. With a common love and goal, it was a close-knit community. This closeness, coupled with the unique setting meant there was never a shortage of imaginative adventures on which to embark.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
I didn't go straight from my hospital bassinet labeled "Baby Girl" to the Dark Continent, though. We were six months in California before we said good-bye and began one of several cross-country roadtrips. Unlike subsequent trips, however, this one veered a little, or rather, a lot north; our destination was Quebec where my parents began their French language study. Their next step after Quebec was Switzerland, though I'm not sure why they couldn't just have completed their studies all in one place. I certainly wasn't asking any questions; I was just along for the ride.
At this point, I had already left my little baby footprints in three countries, and I was about to set a tiny foot on to the soil of another: Ivory Coast. I was two when we arrived in Ferkessedougou and filed it under the H for Home tab of our address book. And here's a little Town Education: dougou is like ville. Imagine the absurdity of a South Carolinian telling you he is from "Green", or a Texan claiming "Brown" as his hometown. But it wasn't absurd for the occupants of this overgrown village to shorten it to Ferké.
Ferké sits on the north end of the West African country of Ivory Coast whose name has officially been changed to the French Côte d'Ivoire. Should you enter Ferké from the south, your first impression would be much more positive than if you were to approach it from the dusty, arid north. If you were to, say, make the 2 1/2 hour trip from Bouaké in the heart of the country to Ferké, the first thing you would notice as you neared the outskirts of town are the lush, green fields. They seem to stretch on forever. And, boy, are they even more beautiful contrasted against the dark skies of an African storm on the horizon! These lush fields are sugar cane, and as a kid, I often got to explore rows upon rows of the sugary stalks, helping myself to the sweet, juicy, stringy, raw treat.
Just beyond that and over the hill is the town itself, sprawled out in such a way that it seems bigger than it really is. The first notable building you pass is on the left: the Hôtel Reserve. This was one of two European hotel establishments in the town. I say "was" because the Relais Hotel lost its luster long, long ago and was, from my understanding, abandoned at some point during my childhood. The Hôtel Reserve, however, was a favorite hangout. The pool was generally sparkling blue, and even when it went uncleaned so long that you could barely see the bottom through the murky, green, watery gunk, we still swam in it. In fact, I learned to swim in this pool. And one of my best memories here were Monday nights when we would swim all afternoon and into the evening and then enjoy delicious, poolside pizza cooked in the outdoors wood-burning stove. Now I often let my kids swim after dark because, for reasons I can't remember, I know what a special treat night swimming is to kids.
Continuing through town, the red dust is everywhere--on both sides. If you were to drive through Ferké back in the early and mid '70s, it would not have been a smooth ride. The main road had yet to be paved, and the only word to describe it is washboard. You know that sound you make if you open your mouth and hum while someone is pounding you on the back? A strange comparison to be sure, but that is sort of what you would sound like if you were trying to hold a conversation while bouncing your way through Ferké. And you would be sharing the washboard road with pedestrians, mopeds, taxis, buses, goats, and sheep. Yes, it would be slow going.
Through this dust you see various buildings--some homes, some little shanty restaurants, some magasins (stores), maybe even some huts mixed in. But nothing descript or notable. After you cross the bridge, though, the small town comes alive. There is a store on the left. Why can I not remember its name? I'm thinking perhaps Avion, which means "plane" and therefore does not make much sense, but that is what I recollect. Directly across from that is the open market where you can buy fresh vegetables, cloth, cheap jewelry, grain, and meat.
My mom occasionally bought beef from the open market but rarely any other kind of meat. We had our own chickens for meat. And the "Pork Guy" often came by on his mobylette to see if we wanted to buy the pork shoulder he had strapped to the back of his bike. Sometimes the "Frog Leg Man" would stop by too. He was crippled, so we always bought from him, if nothing else, to help him out. More than that, though, his visits were rare, so frog legs became a treat. We used to raise rabbits as well for meat, but once I began naming them and playing with them on a daily basis, we stopped killing them and just enjoyed their company. They taste like chicken anyway, and we had plenty of those.
As the market continues, across from it on the left is where the old post office sits. It was the post office for most of my life, so I barely remember where the new one is. Beyond the old post office are various other stores: Saci; a lebanese store whose owner, Fouzi, always gave me M&M-like candies when we paid a visit; various gas stations like the Agip whose logo is a black, 6-legged dog who looks like Toto (with a couple extra appendages). All along the way, the road is crowded; throngs of people walk the streets: women with huge loads on their heads and babies on their backs, men pushing carts full of drinks or ice cream bars called Sporty Pipos in them. The occasional mangy, stray mutt darts in to the road.
Way down on the left is where the Hotel Relais still stands, though vacant. And down the road that runs beside the hotel is the bakery where we sometimes ventured in the middle of the night to watch them make fresh French bread for the morning. Then we would sample it straight from the oven; even in the middle of the night, there is nothing more delicious than a fresh French baguette...unless perhaps you have some Nutella to go on top.
Beyond the bakery and Fouzi's house on the right is a large clearing. In my earliest recollection, I remember this clearing outlined by huge Kapok trees whose pods, when shed, looked as if they were filled with cotton. In later years, these trees were taken down for whatever reason. The missing trees took away some of the charm of the clearing in which stands a red and white statue, memorializing fallen soldiers from a past skirmish. It is a statue that a mixture of the dust and the hot African sun has faded to a subtle pinkish and dirty white. Behind this statue is a fenced and gated mini-compound which encloses a house and an office building. I believe the founders of the mission hospital first lived here, but I knew it as the Boese's house. Uncle Glen was the lab tech at the hospital, and his daughter Misty was one of my childhood friends.
Just beyond the clearing and the Boese's house is the road that leads to the Eglise. I am not entirely sure of the politics of the situation, but some time in my very later years, the church moved down the street. For me, however, this will always be the Ferké church. Church in this building was never a very delightful experience for me. The benches were uncomfortable, it was hot, and there was no English spoken. Especially torturous were the services that were translated into three different languages!
Back out on the main road on the right is where all of the blacksmiths do their work, saudering and hammering away at tools and pots and pans. Just beyond this is another bridge. You might see Africans working down below in the rice paddies. At least this is how I remember it. I think in later years, these dried up. It could have been partly due to the odd motel someone's bright idea concocted there on the right. Reminiscent of a very seedy American motel or truck stop, I never saw a single customer there, and from my last visit, I seem to remember weeds taking over the grounds and creeping over the threshholds of each tiny dwelling.
Beyond the strange little truck stop is the Prefecture on the right. The Prefect, I suppose, is equal to that of a mayor. And I guess the prefecture as a whole would be, in effect, sort of like the Police, though, like every other government entity in Africa, not nearly so honest as most Americans. I highly doubt their motto is To Protect and To Serve. There were also the gendarmes who served somewhat as police do. They were just as corrupt.
Directly across from the Prefecture is a village made up of an eclectic mixture of huts with thatched roofs and small, crude, concrete buildings with tin roofs. It's a neighborhood, really, and at dinner time delightful scents may waft through the air, scents mixed with the smoky smell of any number of fires burning here and there throughout the village. And sometimes even an unpleasant smell may rattle your senses for a moment, for there are not sophistated sewage systems here or garbage trucks that rumble down village paths every week.
The noises that emanate from this neighborhood, they too are just as much of a generous mix as the smells. If there is electricity, an African song may blare from a radio or a French commercial from a small TV set. Dogs are barking, and sheep are bleating as they bed down for the night. The delightful sound of children's voices mingle as much as their bodies during their soccer game. It is a quick, pick-up game that takes place in the waning light on a field with no boundaries set up in a very small clearing between a dirty, white building and an oversized hut. If there is a celebration--or a lunar eclipse--the somewhat cacophonous melody of balafones, drums, and handmade stringed instruments will echo a couple of miles down the road. Celebrations last all night long, and cacophony is welcomed in the event of an eclipse for it is the only way to frighten away the black cat before it completely devours the moon.
In that village is an oversized shack that, during the day, offers fresh baked French bread. And, though not quite as good as Nutella, a close second: Choconut. Whenever my cravings hit me, I would walk to this little shack-magasin and purchase my tub of Choconut, the little plastic cup of chocolate goo that came with its own mini-spoon. And maybe I'd buy a loaf of bread too and tuck it under my arm as I made my way home. Usually I wouldn't quite have the opportunity to scrape out every last bit of the chocolate delicacy with my mini-spoon during my stroll home...because home was just across the street.
Ultimately, the woman followed through on the single most sacrificial choice a mother can make: Giving up a part of herself to make life better for her child. Adoption. The woman knew she could not care for the little girl as well as someone else; after all, the woman was a foreigner in a country whose citizens had just ended a bitter, hard fought war with her country. Yes, she knew that was the best decision. And so it was that 4 days later on February 26, a man and a woman who would become Mom and Dad took me home and gave me the name of Kathleen Ruth. This was the beginning of this journey.
If I could have changed a thing, I wouldn’t have. I’m forever grateful to this woman for her decision. Some have questioned my feelings about my adoption: Do I feel rejected, unwanted, abandoned? I even had someone ask me if I’ve ever sought counseling because of my adoption. I can think of some things for which I may need counseling, but none of those reasons involves my adoption. I have never tried to find my biological mother or father; however, when I became pregnant with Alex, I began a short-lived quest to uncover my medical history. It does, after all, become a touch boring to have to pencil in “Unknown” under "Family Medical History" on those endless forms in the doctor’s office. Plus, I really wanted to know specifics about the gene pool into which my children would be dipping their feet.
My quest was a difficult one because the hospital in which I was born is no longer, so it took several phone calls before I finally ended up talking to some bureaucrat in Sacramento. I was able to request the information, but because it was a tightly closed adoption, I would only receive non-identifying information. And they weren’t joking. The papers I received had many items blotted out, and even held up to bright fluorescent lights, not much was revealed. Not that the non-identifying information wasn’t interesting. It was, although medically speaking, not very informative. My father was 50-something and my mother 38 when I was born. My father had “sparse, white hair” (sorry, boys, since that comes from my side!) and was confined to a wheelchair. Polio I think it was, which explains why my parents were so careful to have me vaccinated when I was a child. Even though Polio is a dead disease and not a hereditary one, I suppose that concern was a knee-jerk reaction to what little knowledge they had of my father.
The papers were not clear about whether my mother and father were married, but they do note that their relationship was a short one—3 months, I think—and that, in fact, my father denied that I was his. He had a long marriage already under his belt, and somewhere in this world I have a half-brother and two half-sisters. They were, respectively, 17, 22, and 26 when I was born. “Metrologist” is noted under my father’s occupation, and I assume it is supposed to say “meteorologist.” My mother was working as a secretary at the time of my birth.
All of these details are interesting but not of that much consequence to me. In fact, I have misplaced those non-descript papers I received in 1999, so I am unable to even verify the details I’ve provided here. My adoption was never hidden as those papers now are; my parents were always very open about it. They must have told me at a very young age about my adoption because I don’t remember not knowing, nor do I remember the moment they broke the news. Additionally, they always made me feel very special, telling me they got to choose me. Of course, now that I’m older and wiser, I’m completely aware of the trials of adoptions and of the fact that, when you’re adopting, you take the baby “they” will give you because it is normally such a very difficult process.
I have no doubt, however, that I was chosen. But not by my parents. The choice was made even before I was knit in the womb of the Vietnamese woman in California, made by the One who never makes a wrong choice. I said before that this journey began on February 26, 1973. Some would argue that it began 4 days earlier when I was that nameless baby lying in a hospital nursery, and, yes, that is when my journey began. But this journey, this journey began when a woman made a choice. Because what I didn’t know at the time was that on the very day I was born, a little boy in Africa was celebrating his 3rd birthday. And what I didn’t know was that, because of the woman’s choice, my world and that little birthday boy’s world would collide in a town called Ferkessedougou.