I like it when things get wrapped up in a neat little bow at the end of a story. When we walked into the examination room Wednesday and found a table all decorated, a celebration of Rebeka and all she’s been through the past ten months, I knew we were beginning to start the closure part of this story.
There were cookies and punch and candy and little pink necklaces, all laid out by the kind people who have checked us in, taken Rebeka’s temperature, changed her casts, scheduled her appointments, chronicled each turn of the foot with pictures, and the doctor who said “yes” all those many months ago. “Yes, let’s give it a go. Let’s see what happens. We’ll start with a couple casts, and we’ll just see.” These are our unsung heroes, the lovable secondary characters that make every story so rich and real and interesting.
This story has also come full circle, like so many good stories do. When Rebeka first got here, we were living out at the lake. And now, we’re back. We’re walking a different mile route, more hills, less street lights, different friends. Last time we were here, she was walking on the tops of her feet, barely able to make it seven doors down before she needed to be carried. Now she’s walking on the bottoms of those feet, and we’re walking a mile and more.
We have less than three weeks with our girl before we kiss her cheeks one last time and send her through security with the sweet family who will be taking her back to Rwanda. We’ve got a few more walks to take. A quick trip to the coast to fish for red fish. A few more physical therapy appointments and one last appointment with her doctor.
A good story is never really over. It sticks to your ribs, and you find other people who’ve read it so you can talk about it. We have lots of people who have followed along on this journey. There are years worth of stories to tell and re-tell, a lifetime of them. And someday we’ll go to Rwanda and our family will meet Rebeka’s family. There’s a sequel in our future, for sure.
At 9:15 Tuesday night, May 21, 2013, Rebeka Uwitonze crossed our self-imposed finish line in front of Kate’s house. She did it. She walked one mile!
I had a vision of how it would be. First, we’d know it was going to happen. She’d have gone .8 the day before, so we’d know she was ready to go the whole way. It would be daylight, way better for pictures. I’d have alerted neighbors and friends so they could all be there cheering for her at the finish line and it would be this glorious, teary-eyed moment. Kind of like when you get flowers and present them to your girl when she finishes her big dance performance of the year.
After dinner last night when we got out of the car and I told Rebeka to wait on the sidewalk so we could get a quick walk in before bedtime, I had no idea it was going to be THE day. She started off strong, walking fast, and smiling. It was cool outside. Alayna caught up to us and decided to try and “lunge it,” a new strategy in which we, too, get a workout by lunging along Rebeka’s slow stride. I said something like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we went all the way to Kate’s house and rung her doorbell and surprised her?” and Rebeka was all, “Let’s do it!”
We were still at .1 and I wasn’t sure if the enthusiasm or energy would last. Before last night the farthest she’d gone was .7, and that about did her in, sweating with shaky legs. Plus now she had a cast, and the farthest she’d gone was .4. Still, I was game to try if she was. I told Alayna we were going a mile and challenged her if she could lunge all the way to Kate’s house, I’d give her $100.
The lunges slowed Alayna down considerably, so slow Rebeka could catch her, give her a swat on the booty, and then pass her up. This game of chase motivated Rebeka like no other. Leaving Alayna in her dust, so far back on the sidewalk we had to yell to be heard, was exhilarating, and Rebeka didn’t stop for her first rest until .3. She was going strong, and by .5 I was beginning to think she could really do it. She was sweating pretty hard by .6, and it was full-on dark, but she was determined and so were we. Alayna gave up efforts at a one mile lunge all the way back at .2, but every time Rebeka stopped to rest, Alayna would start lunging again to get ahead, and we’d give chase.
It occurred to me that Kate’s family may be getting ready for bed, and we better call Clay because he’d definitely want to be part of all this. I began to wonder if we’d done this all wrong. It was too dark for good pictures and there were not nearly enough cheering fans for such a momentous occasion. Alayna called Clay and he hoofed it with the boys in my car so they could see her walk the final .2. We called The Allen’s and Kate showed up on her bike to cheer. Rebeka rested a couple times. She was breathing hard, sweating, and her legs were shaky, but once we were just a couple houses away she gave it a final burst of energy. Alayna whispered something to Kate who went running into her house while the rest of us lined up on either side of the sidewalk and cheered and clapped.
Kate came back with a long line of toilet paper, we stretched it across the street, and Rebeka broke through, victorious. We swarmed her. And it was a glorious, teary-eyed moment, despite the lack of more cheering fans or better cameras or daylight. It was just right after all. I’ll include a video on Facebook, but here are some dark-ish pictures.
You aren’t surprised to see Rebeka making lemonade days after her lemon of an unexpected surgery, are you? She and Kate raked in an impressive profit on a hot afternoon. I’m thinking their cute smiles garnered a few generous tips as well!
We weren’t sure how long it would take Rebeka to be up and walking again after her most recent surgery on May 7th. The answer is six days. We were hanging out on the football field behind our house, throwing a Frisbee with the neighbors. The grass was heavenly, soft and cool and pristine, in preparation for running feet and sweaty bodies as spring football begins. Something about that grass felt like hope.
Rebeka rolled around a while, chasing down a big pink ball, and then decided it would be quicker and easier to just get up and walk. She wasn’t officially cleared to walk until her cast change the next day, but we figured one day couldn’t hurt, and it was so good to see her up on two feet again!
We are surrounded by lots of hope these days, mostly in the form of babies. Clay came racing in one night to ask if we wanted to see some baby owls he and a neighbor had discovered. We hurried outside and coo’d over the sweet owl, sitting on a branch, waiting for his mama to bring him another lizard to eat.
He made a sound kind of like a cicada. There were four babies, spaced out among several trees, and the mama would swoop in and feed them while our neighbor’s little boys tried to supplement their diet with geckos they’d caught by houselights. That night, being out after dark with the stars and the sliver-moon, gawking at baby owls, it signaled the start of something new. The twist of the screw. The change of a season. School will be out soon. Rebeka will be gone soon. All the casts, the surgeries, the walking, they are bearing fruit. Tiny babies of what is still to come, when she’s racing her sisters back home, or able to keep up with her friends on the way to school.
Those owls weren’t the only babies in our path the last few weeks.
We found this little guy in the jaws of our dog, Molly. Clay brought it in to Rebeka’s room and we all held it a while before putting it back in its rabbit hole and locking the dogs in until the next morning.
At the lake, we saw the dogs chasing a mother deer in the backyard and assumed a baby couldn’t be far. Alayna found this little fawn tucked into the bushes. The first fawn of the season is such a herald of things to come. The promise of long summer days and staying up late into summer nights, laughing with neighbors on the back porch, s’more’s and toes in the water and a kitchen full of kids.
There is much to look forward to in the coming weeks. The end of school, the move to the lake for the summer, and reconnecting with the neighbors out there. And even though Rebeka’s departure also looms at the end of June, a little over five weeks away, the time between now and then will be full. Full of more walking and recovering. Full of more trips to Dell for PT and getting her current cast off, June 5th. And full of all the fun we can stuff into the time we have left with her. The kids are in “cram mode” for school as they prepare for finals. Our family is in “cram mode” with Rebeka. It is bringing us together in a beautiful way, as we savor family dinners and slow walks in the evening, still pushing towards our one-mile goal.
Five years ago, May 15, we came back from our big nine and a half month trip around the world. Here we are, five years later, finishing up another long trip. Both of the journeys brought our family closer to each other. We’ve also grown closer to some pretty amazing friends, both new and old, who we know will be in our lives forevermore. That is a promise and hope for the future we never anticipated when we took that first step ten months ago.
As I type this email, our sweet friends are dealing with the loss of a husband and father. We grieve for them. None of us knows what’s up ahead on the path, whether it’s hard or easy. So we take this promise of hope when we are given it, hoping we can pass it along to those we love when they need it most.
Forgive the speedy updates, but I just couldn’t leave the “Mice and Men” post hanging there, all depressing and sad, after last night. I never thought I’d be a mall walker, but yesterday was blustery cold and we’re determined to get as much walking in as we can before Rebeka’s surgery, so we headed to the mall.
After a quick dinner we set out, Clay, Rebeka, Alayna, Benji and I. After working on bending her knee on Tuesday, Rebeka’s gait has improved and she’s able to move more quickly without tiring. Coupled with all the distractions, and a fun game of tag, this walk was like no other we’ve had. This walk was FUN!
Rebeka squealed and hurried away when she was being chased. When she was “it,” she’d catch someone and yell, “You’re in!” She kept forgetting to say “it” instead of “in” but who cares. She was practically running! She kept it up for thirty minutes without stopping, all the way from California Pizza Kitchen to Sears and back. That’s incredible, friends. Before last night, the furthest she’d gone before taking a break was thirteen minutes! We were so encouraged by this progress. And convicted.
Walking here in Austin usually means a structured, “time to go outside and walk now” process. But when she gets home, walking is a way of life. Practically everybody in her village walks to get wherever they need to go. To church, school, and to get water. Back home there are tons of kids playing, lots of family around. Back home she’ll go to school with lots of other kids. Here, she has me most of the day. Boring old me. Poor Rebeka is a social little creature and she thrives on interaction. The more the merrier. She was very merry last night, chasing us and people milling all about.
And so our prayer is that this surgery is a tweak. We pray two weeks later, when they take off her cast, she will easily slide into her new AFO and pick up where she left off. We have seen so many prayers answered on this journey, and we trust God is not done with this little girl, or us.
As you can see, I’m feeling a bit dramatic this morning. So dramatic I wanted to include this verse from Burns’ poem, To A Mousein it’s original language, instead of just glibly quipping “The best laid plans of mice and men,” and then telling you about Rebeka’s surgery Tuesday.
That’s right, another surgery, next Tuesday. Oh, we had big plans. I was hopeful that in the next two weeks she’d reach that one mile goal. I have that fancy little chart, we’ve been tracking her distance and speed, you who read the last post know all this. And so you see that an unexpected surgery is not part of my grand plan.
It’s a minor surgery this time, to lengthen something on the back of her right heel (a tendon?) so that we can get the angle of her ankle to ninety degrees. This is really important, and we need to get it right before we send her home. So maybe her departure date will change. She’ll be in a cast for two weeks, and we won’t know how her foot will feel when we take it off. Will we be dealing with major foot sensitivity again? Will it take weeks before she can put pressure on it? Don’t know.
I have friends going through hard things right now. I join them in going through my own hard thing. And still the wind blows outside the window, the birds sing and the world keeps turning. Rebeka took the news in stride when we found out yesterday. After a few questions, she was eager to run down the hall and try to get the electric hospital doors to open. And I mean it, a walk so fast it definitely classifies as a run in my book. She is still big smiles. She takes each day as it comes, with whatever joy or sorrow it may bring, and once again, I’m learning from the ten-year-old. Or trying. Letting go of “promised joy” for a while, knowing grief and pain will pass.
This picture was taken on a really blustery day recently, at one of the boy’s lacrosse games. We weren’t dressed for the wind and the cold, I kept blowing into the back of Rebeka’s head to keep her warm.
Someone gave us a nice, warm blanket shortly after this picture was taken. Oh, it felt so good, that blanket. I know there are so many people, ready to throw a blanket on us right now. Grateful for you.
Rebeka has experienced a few new “firsts” in the past couple week. It takes me aback sometimes, like “You’re ten years old and you’ve never _____?” Like her first time in a box fort.
There just aren’t giant boxes in Bugesera that are at a kid’s disposal, with total freedom to create whatever they like. With some duct tape and a little saw, Benji and his cronies built a four-room house with windows, a draw bridge, and a skylight that opened and closed. It was enjoyed by all.
This past week, I can claim it was the first time Rebeka fluidly read a book. Those of you who have helped a child learn to read know the patience it takes, before the light bulb comes on and they start picking up patterns. It’s even harder since Rebeka is learning English at the same time. Many of the words she’s sounding out are words she doesn’t know. Once she began to see the patterns, she no longer had to sound out every single word every single time. If she’d read it on the previous page, she remembered it. Once she learned an ending, like “et”, she could apply it to “wet” and “get” and “set” . . . I was there for that moment this week, when the light bulb clicked. Reading got a whole lot easier. I’m telling you, I almost cried.
And then there was this.
Her first footprint, right foot. I took her to the lake one day while the kids were at school. She pines for the lake, we all do, and we finally had a free day to play. The water was cold but she didn’t care. She donned a swimsuit and plopped down, to collect shells and brave the boat wakes and feel little fish nibbling her toes.
Each day we are seeing huge progress as she walks farther, and faster. For those of you who are into charts and numbers, here’s a snapshot of our past couple week’s walks. Keep in mind that when she walks without an AFO (a brace) she goes much slower, and for shorter distances. She’s still improving, but it’s tough going. Just recently she’s begun walking with no braces and no walker, a big step. She’s rocking the walks with the braces on, increasing distance and diminishing time with every walk. She rarely uses her walker anymore when she’s wearing braces, and we haven’t used the wheelchair in weeks!
Distance (each marker =1/10 of a mile
With or without AFO
And for those of you who aren’t numbers people, here’s a picture of her taking a little break. That “look at me ma’” smile says it all.
We follow her in a jog stroller and every tenth of a mile she sits and takes a quick rest before carrying on. This is a big shout out to all of you who have honked, cheered, and walked with us, whether literally or figuratively. You can see from our chart that we still have a ways to go, but we are heading in the right direction and it gets a little easier each day. I close this post with two pictures I’ve been dying to share, ever since the day she arrived. The first was taken in Rwanda last year, and the second was taken Monday, April 22, 2013. Praising God for miracles.
There is a Korean service medal sitting on our kitchen counter.
For days we’ve left it there, keeping our distance, a little afraid to touch it. In awe of all it represents. Nate interviewed Huey, a veteran of the Korean War, for a school project. We first heard Huey speak at Clay’s grandfather’s funeral, and were mesmerized by the stories he told. During Nate’s interview, his story of surviving two years in a Korean POW camp was the kind of story that could change the way a fourteen-year-old boy thinks and lives. Huey said he hasn’t had a bad day since he was rescued in 1953. Wow. Not a single bad day. Nate sent him a thank you note, and a copy of the report he wrote. Huey replied with congratulations for Nate’s good grade, and his Korean Service Medal, signed “Your friend, Huey.” And so, somehow, we feel part of that story now. What a gift.
I seem to be immersed in story this week. I’m participating in a writing workshop led by the talented Sara Zarr this weekend, held at The Writing Barn. Twenty of us bravely submitted our stories, and are getting feedback on how to be better storytellers.
And my ears are still ringing with the quiet, confident voice of a Rwandan young man named John Bosco. When he was eight years old his mother died and he had to quit school to try and earn money to help feed his family. He told one of those crazy, walked-uphill-in-the snow-both-ways kind of stories. He took ten long trips a day to his village’s water source, delivering fifteen gallons of water each trip, to families willing to pay for the service. In return he received enough money to buy a small handful of rice. Dark to dark days, and that was just the beginning. Years later, at age fifteen, he longed to go back to school, and miraculously a sponsor stepped forward through ANLM.
In two years John taught himself English at a French-speaking public school, and studied so hard he won first place in the country on his exams. At age seventeen he entered seventh grade at New Life Christian Academy and continues to excel. He is hard-working, humble, and a big dreamer.
Huey and John Bosco have reached the ends of their particular stories and are living out others. The piece I submitted for the workshop is still in the beginnings. And Rebeka, she’s about three quarters of the way through her walking story. I’ve been sharing her story here, but I want her to be able to tell her own story. I’ve begun talking to her in the vocabulary of story, as in “What’s your story?” She has a hard time pulling back the lens to see the scope all that’s happened in the past eight months. Where will she start? There is the big story of leaving her family, flying to America, where she spoke no English, to wear forty different casts and have painful surgeries to correct her twisted feet. We are still finding out the ending to that story, as she struggles to learn to walk again. Some days if we pull the lens back too far we can get discouraged, so we keep it tight and celebrate small victories.
We aren’t the only ones. Cars stop as she slowly makes her way down our street, and friends cheer. Our family is creating a new habit of taking walks together, the boys weaving up and down the curb on bikes or scooters, doubling back to encourage Rebeka as she slowly, slowly makes her way. Today, during a break at the writing workshop, I got a text from Clay with this picture.
Underneath it read .3 in 34:40! No walker. Held my hand the whole time. And in the midst of all those wonderful stories I’d been reading, in the midst of all the stories I’d heard this past week, that was the best one yet. Three tenths of a mile may not seem like much, but we’ve watched her wince as she takes her steps. We’ve watched her legs tremble and sweat sheen her face at two tenths of a mile. Clay and I have stayed up late at night, worrying about worst case scenarios and steeling ourselves to be “the villains” of the story for the next two months as we bend her toes and ankles, enforce daily exercises, push her to walk farther, sometimes with no braces or making her let go of her walker. We are still smack dab in the middle of it all, and sometimes it’s just as hard for us to see the scope of this story as it is for Rebeka.
And so I come here. I post pictures. I go back and read from August and September. I read your comments, and I am encouraged. And like that service medal, there are tokens of her story everywhere. Artwork taped to windows. The remnants of a plaster cast that we use as a bookend. And most recently, a hand drawn map to Kate’s house, ten markers on the mile-long path. Our hope is that by the end of June, the whole route will be highlighted, marking her success. There is suspense in this story. There are tears, and triumph, conflict and climax. For now, stay tuned, to be continued . . .