Dearest Halima

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  When our Episcopal priest in Raleigh, NC strongly suggested that we sponsor a child from World Vision, I hesitated. I had heard that some of these organizations do not really get aid directly to the children, and other reports that were not favorable. I also knew that we really did not have any “extra” money each month to donate on an ongoing basis.  I did go to the parish hall after the service that Sunday because we were going to put together dried meals as part of the “Stop Hunger Now” efforts.   When we got to the parish hall, our priest again gave a talk about how completely he trusted the folks at World Vision and that he would in fact, “give them his last dollar” because he knew the director and felt this was imperative for all who possibly could, to sponsor a child. He related to us that he had several of his own,  and that his daughters managed to cram all sorts of things into the six by nine inch envelope that was permitted to be sent to a sponsored child.  He insisted that it was deeply rewarding to do this and it sounded like this was a major WWJD action to take.  Still, I hesitated.   Nevertheless, I left my station of pouring dried corn kernels into plastic bags for a moment, and perused the sea of children’s faces on the two tables in the back of the room.  The majority of the children were dark skinned and had names that were foreign to most. Neither of those things were deterrents to me, but, rather, they made this all the more appealing. Some of the older Southern women were put off by the names and tried pronouncing them unsuccessfully.   As it turned out, one table was all boys, and one all girls.  Both looked alike since it seemed that most girls’ heads were shaved as were the boys. But, in all fairness, I am the mother of six sons, five of whom are living and there has been enough testosterone in my life to get me pole-vaulting into my grave when the time comes. So, of course, I browsed the table of girls. It seemed that there were literally hundreds of children and it was overwhelming to the point of simply walking away. But then, something odd happened. There was this one face that leaped off of the table and caught my attention.  I could not take my eyes off this little girl named, Halima. While most of the children had big smiles on their faces, screaming, “Take me, choose me, I am happy, you will be happy,” Halima did not smile at all. She looked angry and determined and somewhat sullen.  It looked like a “photographer” had said, “Smile” and she had said, “No way!”  She had on a little printed dress, some earrings, and a small beaded necklace around her neck.  I was stunned. She was my girl and I could not walk away from her. Being only eight years old at the time was not so appealing to me, since I knew I would want to write and hear back from my sponsored child, but there was no denying, that this girl had drawn me in. In some ways, I believe she reminded me of myself at her age. I was sullen and struggling with the chaos and sadness in my home that was buried in mental illness. I fought through the years of my childhood, simply learning to survive and acting like all was well when amongst my friends. Halima on the other hand, seemed to have pushed that aside and allowed her struggles to show on her face. And so began our relationship, where I would write (never often enough) in English, through World Vision, and they would in turn, translate into French for little Halima. In the profile sent to me, I came to understand that her parents were both farmers and that she had one brother. Her parents struggle to meet their family’s needs in this poor, rural community where homes are made of clay and mud. Halima was in primary school and enjoyed drawing, so you know that my six by nine inch envelopes were regularly filled with colored pencils, papers and small notebooks. I once managed to smush a pair of rubber flip flops in as well.   Although I heard from Halima infrequently, I came to love her and feel that indeed I had a part of a daughter. I imagined that someday, I might come to visit her, yet, when I saw pictures of her school with nothing but dry dust and dirt, I also imagined this would not be easy. I really believed that there was no way I could truly envison what life is like in Niger and what made for a “good day” or a “bad day” or if perhaps, one was simply the same as another. I also accepted the fact that I did not probably grasp the Muslim beliefs in this culture and I looked forward to Halima getting older so that she could share these ideas with me.   World Vision sent a lot of mail. Often, it was advertising and often, I discarded their mail or set it aside.  It is now March, 2014 and in cleaning out a file of mail, I found a letter from World Vision from September, 2013.  I am glad I opened it, because in it was a recent photo of Halima, about to turn 11 years old on February 19, 2014.  She had changed some and although, she was still not smiling, she was also not scowling quite like she had been.  She had made a little drawing for me, said she loved me and that she wanted to be a nurse and most importantly, she was in good health. Somehow, I had missed her birthday, so I began putting together the packs of stickers and papers I had bought to mail the next day, as she would turn 11.   But, before I got to the mail, instead, I received a letter from World Vision saying that Halima had flu-like symptoms, had been taken to a hospital and had died.  As I read these words I had trouble taking a breath and kept yelling for my husband, Shep. “Oh God, Oh God,” I said, “How has this happened?” I stared and stared at Halima’s latest photo and how healthy she looked and I just could not fully absorb this news.  Halima had died 11 days before she turned 11. She would never know 12 or being a teenager or a woman or a mother or any of the other joys that might have been waiting for her. I am filled with the logical questions like, “Why?  How?  Flu? Cholera? Antibiotics? Rehydration? Why, why, why?” And yet, I know that none of this really matters much at all.   So, mostly I don’t get how I came to choose this child. That is my selfish perspective of wondering how one so traumatized as I am by the loss of a child, would be put in any position of remote closeness to this. I lost my child to drowning when he was two years old and though I am mentally healthy and functioning, in many ways, I have never recovered.  It is not in my best interests (again, selfish) to be close to this at any time. So, I have spun around for a week now, wondering what exactly God had in mind for me here. Perhaps, it is as simple as me being the one who knows this secret club in hell, that no one wants to be a member of.  I know it well enough, to have already written a letter to Halima’s mother and yes, I will keep writing my English letters Google translates into French.  I know and she knows, that there are “no words” but I write some nonetheless.

Halima

 

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St. Patrick’s Day at The Wellington Nursing Home

I do this every year.  I am not sure if it is ritual, guilt, honoring memories, or the little sad part in my heart that yearns at least once a year, to bear witness.  But, on this day I go to the Wellington Nursing Home in Knightdale, NC.  It was here that my father took residence in a then, unfinished building that didn’t even have its Certificate of Occupancy yet.  He was the only resident with a bevy of nurses around him, feeding him “some good southern food ma’am” as the aide told me on the phone. It was 1993 and I was still in New York, doing my best to move my whole family to North Carolina as soon as possible.

My father was in fairly poor condition at that point with dementia and Parkinson’s Disease, yet he lingered for another four years there and finally drew his last breath on St. Patrick’s Day afternoon in 1997. Always the considerate, self sacrificing type, he politely waited until two whole years after the death of my youngest son, knowing there was no way I could survive another loss even one moment sooner.

So, each year I go to visit the Wellington and wander around from room to room, hallway to hallway, greeting residents, holding their hands, looking into their eyes and having a conversation about whatever comes up. More often than not, there is little dialogue and sometimes, what there is, makes little sense. The eyes haunt me though for weeks after. They are blank or they are piercing, with little in between. I am deeply drawn to older, black women and I am not sure why.  Maybe I feel that on some level, they seem to be more well-adjusted and less complaining. Maybe they often have a deeply imbedded spiritual side that speaks to my heart and helps them endure.  I am just not sure and yet it didn’t even occur to me until I was leaving, that four of five conversations I had today, were with black women.

I had to work in the pediatric office today, which ate up my morning.  Then, my tire warning light went on and I spent two hours in the tire store negotiating prices which by far, is not one of my favorite pastimes.  It was a cold, nasty atypical March day in North Carolina with “wintery mix” warnings. I had to pick up two of my sons from school at 2:30. Suffice to say, I found many legitimate excuses to skip this yearly ritual. And yet, I thought about that woman who waits for me each year by the door on St. Patrick’s Day, and how she must have been disappointed that Walter’s daughter didn’t show up last year on this day. I was sick then, and promised myself I would go another day.  I never did.  What was her name?

So, with the new tires on my car, off I went to Knightdale.  It is always a curious trip for me because nothing looks the least bit familiar.  When we moved here, I would go with all four kids in the car and hope to find something to treat them with. We visited my father almost weekly most of the time. There was not a single restaurant or sign of life anywhere along the way.  Now, it is a super busy corridor with subdivisions everywhere, Walmarts, Targets and all the rest.  I am never sure of where I am because it all looks completely different. But, when I arrive in the Wellington parking lot, it all comes back to me. The cars in the lot are a motley bunch with dents and rust and nothing too fine looking.  This is not a surprise, because although these are probably some of the hardest working employees anywhere, you can be sure they are paid a most meager, unfair wage.

I went straight to the Director of Nursing office to ask about my friend who waits for me and who was not there.  I described her at length but the D.O.N.  just looked at me blankly.  “I have only been here one month,” she said. “Does your friend have grey hair and glasses and in a wheelchair?”  I laughed and said, “Well now, they describes every resident you have!”  She sent me to the Admitting Office, where I met Troy. When I asked him about my nameless friend, he politely replied that he was a “temp” and only there, for the day. Finally, I met the Social worker who had worked at the Wellington for the last 3 ½ years.  He knew who I meant right away and replied, “Oh, Freda!  Yes, she left here about two years ago when her daughter moved to another state and she followed.”  Aha – I felt guilty for a whole year, without cause!

An ambulance had arrived and was loading up some man, which no one was the least bit fazed by, nor was anyone paying any attention.  Outside every exit, there seemed to be a cluster of aides smoking cigarettes. Sigh.  I peered into my father’s old room, but there was only one sleeping woman there.  I began talking with a woman in one of those high back wheelchairs.  She had only a few wisps of hair left and about as many teeth to match.  On her wall was a huge painting of what seemed like it might have been her and a fine looking man. I asked, “Is that you?”  “Yes, she said, and my beautiful son. He is very successful and wonderful. I am so proud of him being the director of Human Resources for Duke University. He is named after his daddy.”   “Oh you sure should be!” I said.  “He’s divorced” she said. “My son is too, but that’s okay. So much else to be proud of” I said.  Miss Lillie Mae had lots of green on so I wished her a Happy St. Patrick’s Day and went on my way.

Next I went into the last room on the end hall where a frail, emaciated, very dry looking, tiny black woman sat in her wheelchair.  “Hi, how are you?” I asked. “Oh I’m a little better today, but not much.” “What’s wrong?” I asked. “My stomach ain’t been doing too good” she said.  I asked if anyone came to visit her and she said there was no one ever. I said that she looked so dry and better be drinking and she nodded staring into my eyes just like some of the newborns I work with. It is that look of “Please help me.  Can I trust you?  Who are you? Do you know how to help? What will happen to me?” It struck me as so the same – the alpha and the omega.  With that, she looked up at me, turned her head and vomited all over the floor!  I alerted an aide and continued onward. Oh dear.

Finally, I met Lulu in the hallway, also, an elderly, black woman with a very short covering of gray hair on her head.  She had one eye opened and one shut.  “I’m so tired” she said to me. “Why are you so tired?  Busy day?”  “I don’t know” she said, “but I just can’t wait to get into that bed of mine for some quiet down time, you know?”  “What do you think makes you tired,?” I asked.  “Well” Aileen said, “You see my one good eye? That woman in there, sharing my room—well she is crazy, really, really crazy. So, I got to keep my one good eye opened all night long to watch her and see what she does. Only my bad eye is shut resting, but not my good eye, so I’m tired. Now, when she is out of my room, I can sleep my good eye.”  “Wow” I said, “that is tiring.  No wonder you are so tired. My name is Ann”  “Oh” she said, “that’s my daughter’s name. You got an “e” on the end?”  “No” I said, just A-N-N”  “Oh that ain’t the right way to spell it” Aileen said with a smile. And speaking of smiles, she had ONE tooth on the bottom gum, off to her right side.  Tell me please, WHAT makes that one tooth decide to stay?  How did the other 31 take leave? Were they pulled or did they just plop out one day? “God bless you and your entire family” Aileen said. “I have seven children” she said, “How about you?  You got any?” “Six” I said, “Well God bless every single one then.”

I stopped into Bella’s room because she was staring at the wall.  On the wall was what looked like a recent picture of a wedding, where she was the center of attraction, in a lovely pink suit, in her wheelchair with bride, groom, and big family surrounding her.  “Who got married?” I asked. “Why I have no idea.”  “You look so pretty in that picture” I said. “Why I cannot imagine why I was there” she said.  And then, she smiled, rubbed her ashen face and closed her eyes, so I left.

As I was departing, having given up looking for my father’s plaque that adorned the walls for years but vanished in the last few, I noticed at least 10 wheelchairs in the foyer as if poised for wheelchair basketball.  “Hey is there a party going on here?” I asked, “Or are you all waiting for someone?”  Some smiled, some just stared, some growled.  But, Joann looked young and carried an entire litre of Diet Coke in her arm as she tooled around.  I asked, “Why the Diet Coke? What’s going on with that? That’s no good for you?”  “Oh yes it is” she said, “it gives you energy and water don’t.”  She noticed my boots and said, “You look real cute in those. They are some mighty fine boots.”  “Thanks Joann,” I said.  “I come here every St. Patrick’s Day because my dad was the first resident here and he was very Irish.”  “He here now,” she said. “He looking around seeing all the things that have changed. You need to come here not just on St. Patrick’s Day but, on a lot of days. And I know you right about the water, but I can’t drink the water here. It smells and tastes just like Clorox.”  Suddenly, I got it, completely got it. There are few things in this world more vile than Coke, to me, but hey, “I’m with ya’ sistah! I’d be downing Coke as well!”

The large woman in green shirt in wheelchair says, “We didn’t even get no Irish lunch” and for some reason, I find myself apologizing to her as if it was my job to bring pureed corned beef, cabbage and a beer to all in attendance!  The nurses are entering chart info on huge screens on the corridor walls with touch screen choices in big, bold blocks. Could this possibly be HIPPA approved?

I sit in my car, just as I did everytime I left my dad there, thinking, wondering, asking, questioning why it has to be this way and how wrong this place is in every way.  And yet, even St. Patrick probably doesn’t have a clue of what to suggest.  I miss you Daddy, but I am glad you made it out of there to someplace that has to be better.  “May the sun shine warm upon your face, the rain fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.”

Beigeland

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The Stager came and said we have waaaaaaay too much color in our home.  I love color. Shep loves color.  We thought other people did too, in fact, we know other people do!  The Stager says our home needs to be a “blank canvas” in order to sell. The Crayola Blue Green walls in the hallway and stairs must go.  The Lime Green in my lactation office has already morphed into a corrugated cardboard beige.  The dark pumpkin vanities turn into  Sherwin Williams Nomadic Desert.  The peach hallway upstairs – yep, Kilim Beige.  The pickled pine Pergo flooring in living room is gone and being replaced by off white/beige carpeting, that will be matchy/matchy with all the carpeting upstairs.  Today and tomorrow, the stuff gets carried in, nailed down and emit its toxic fumes.  I am huddled in my office.  The red felted, oversized pool table in the bonus room – off with its head and out the door (all 700 pounds of it!).   Poof – the forest green leather recliner and the red leather curved chair – banished to the garage!  Our beloved Periwinkle blue fireplace mantle, window trim and book case – will turn white tomorrow.

Oddly, every time Shep and I have fallen in love with a home that we might want to buy – it is screaming with color.  The house that we felt madly in love with at the onset of this home switching project, was in fact, predominantly a dark rose color on walls with blue washed wood flooring and royal blue bathrooms!    We were outbid on that adorable downtown home and have grieved ever since.  We still aim to move downtown into a small, easier to manage, home.  If it is devoid of color, you can be sure it will be our first priority.

So, today, the carpet installers are here with hundreds of yards of innocuous beige carpeting.  The smell of it makes me ill.  I am not a carpet girl by any means, so this is a huge stretch for me and a gamble that after it is in place,  I can get out of here asap!  Tomorrow, the painter comes and will remove any semblance of individuality or creativity, by turning all walls into Kilim Beige, some accents of Latte, and the rest all white!  According to Sherwin Williams, Kilim Beige is their best selling color! Really?  Why?  I will be living in a generic home for the first time in a very long time.  Oddly, everyone who ever came here seemed to love the color and the creativity, but as the stager said, “Yes but, they didn’t buy your home, did they?”

So, here we go into Beige-osity… creating that blank canvas that I have been convinced is the ticket to a quick sale.  I hope it is very soon, so we can begin to pick out some wild colors for our new abode.

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