A Pink Dog and Snowflakes, Deep in the Heart of Rwanda

Our family spent Thanksgiving week in Rwanda. I gathered images in my journal, and now I spill them here. Because there are so many stories worth telling in this world, and I feel like we had our tank filled to overflowing. Twenty-four hours of travel, across the wide ocean, we stepped off the plane Saturday night, bleary and excited, eager to see Rebeka for the first time. She would spend the night with us until Thursday, five nights of sleepovers, sharing a bed with Alayna at the guest house, sharing meals with our team of thirty Texans. This trip wasn’t just about Rebeka, but she’s where it all started, at the airport, hugging her familiar neck.

Seeing Rebeka in the Kigali airport.

Seeing Rebeka in the Kigali airport.

It was our third time to Rwanda. We would visit all of our sponsored kids over the week, seeing some for the third time, tracing their growth through six years of pictures, delighting in small changes and slowly growing, long-distance friendships. That first night we fell into bed, and woke to Rwanda. Misty morning, bird tapping on the window, soldiers running past outside, chanting. We stumbled into the day, wide-eyed. We ate breakfast as we gazed at the capital city of Kigali, spreading down the hillside in front of us, cupped by some of the “thousand hills” Rwanda is so famous for.

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View from the back porch of the guest house.

Breakfast was warm bread and sliced bananas. We drank water from a bottle, careful not to ever drink from the tap. Then the team loaded up and took a bus an hour south down bumpy red roads to Bugesera for Sunday morning church service. As the world slipped past I saw and remembered. People walking, everywhere, hundreds of them. Crazy motorcycles, perilous traffic, and then into the country. Dusty, smiling children and lush, green hillsides.

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Mud homes with metal doors, or curtains for doors, or sometimes no door at all. Cassava drying on a blanket outside, chicken pecking at it. Small children carrying big yellow cans, fetching water. Children chasing our bus, calling “muzungu” (white person!) and waving hard.

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Women washed clothes in plastic tubs and hung laundry on bushes.

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Cows with long, dangerous horns, walked gentle down the road. A baby crawled two feet from our passing wheels, women walked with huge bundles on their heads, men pushed bikes up hills, loaded high with bananas or water cans. Clothes tied on sticks were scattered in the fields to scare birds from the maize.

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Rebeka’s sister Esperanza was at the church service in Bugesera, though we didn’t know it until after. She came, shy and curious, once it was all over (the two hours of dancing and singing and murmured prayers in a foreign tongue all around us, hands held high, two sermons, delivered passionate, translated for us).  Esperanza hugged us, smiling, and sat quietly, sharing our lunch, trying popcorn for the first time. Rebeka translated for her big sister, proud and comfortable.

Then we were in a van, bouncing down a red dirt road. We stopped to pick up two women dressed in bright church clothes and gave them a lift, three or four miles down the road. From the backseat, Rebeka said, “My dad!” pointing at a thin man walking down the road, wearing a blue shirt. We stopped and picked him up, too, and he squeezed into the front seat. He was all big smiles and shaking hands and then we were off again. Rebeka’s dad chatted with the driver, Clay told me later he had already been to the lake near their house to catch fish, walked six miles to the road to catch a ride to the capital, took an hour there and back to sell his fish, and was walking home again. It wasn’t one o’clock yet. Had he fished in the dark?

When we arrived I recognized her house from the pictures, beautiful lake shining on the right, house up a small hill on the left, and neighbor children already gathering to witness the spectacle of muzungus arriving in their van. The first thing I saw when we stepped into the house was the pink dog.

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When Rebeka first arrived in America a sweet little neighbor girl started bringing presents. Little bags with treats. The small, stuffed pink dog with giant eyes arrived on day two, and Rebeka kept it faithfully clipped to her shorts for weeks.

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Now here it was, hanging from her ceiling, along with paper snowflakes and a few other assorted toys.

As we sat on either side of a small coffee table, and the translator helped us talk to each other, my eyes kept straying to the ceiling. That dog, those snowflakes, they told so much about this family. I have never been in a sponsored kid’s home that was decorated this way. There may be a calendar picture tacked to the wall, maybe a faded picture of the sponsor family, sent across the ocean, but this was special. This spoke of a mother who gave freedom to her children to express themselves. It was a reach beyond fetching water, washing clothes, cooking meals, and all the basic survival tasks that occupy their days. It spoke of creativity and imagination and the desire to make things pretty no matter what the raw materials. I hope if I had a small house made of mud in Rwanda, there would be snowflakes hanging from the ceiling.

We would spend seven full days in Rwanda, seven days worth of stories we encountered on those red, dirt streets, but I wanted to start with this one. This hastily sketched picture of what it looks like, what it feels like, to be in this country. And what it was like that first day, meeting Rebeka’s family and seeing that little pink dog.

Rebeka's family, three younger sisters, a brother, and mom and dad. Her older sisters aren't pictured here.

Rebeka’s family, three younger sisters, a brother, and mom and dad. Her older sisters aren’t pictured here.

The Bear/Moose

The last time I wrote a post, we were saying goodbye to Rebeka. Since then we’ve received a few pictures of her back home. My favorite so far is this one.

We feed on these photos like parasites, noticing every details. Her hair is braided! She's wearing that Dora dress she loved! She's wearing the socks Kate gave her!

We feed on these photos, noticing every detail. Her hair is braided! She’s wearing that Dora dress she loved! She’s wearing the socks Kate gave her!

Clay asked us when we thought a day would go by that we wouldn’t think about Rebeka. It certainly hasn’t happened yet, things remind us of her all the time. There are pictures of her around the house, an unfinished craft she was doing with a friend, some picture books I read to her the last night, still unshelved . . . there are pieces of her everywhere.

From all reports, she is happy with her family and will soon be attending a boarding school a few hours from her home. She will miss her family, but they can visit once a month, and she will be getting the benefits of attending one of the best schools in the country. She will also be able to keep up her English, an excellent skill that can take her far. We are hoping to visit her and her family in November, but until then photos and videos sent back from friends on the ground or mission teams are the only way we stay posted. The rest, all those details and stories I wonder about, are left up to my imagination.

Kind of like the bear/moose Clay and I encountered yesterday. We’re in Aspen, celebrating our 20th anniversary a little belatedly, and yesterday we did a fun hike up to Crater Lake and then down and around a Scenic Loop Trail.

At the start of the trail.

At the start of the trail.

At the last part of the trail, we walked past this big bush and heard the HEAVY BREATHING and SNORTING of some sort of BEAST. I’m serious, it scared the pee out of me. I turned around and grabbed Clay’s shirt, and then, in classic fear mode, I side-stepped him and got away from the heavy breathing.

They told us on the bus they’d seen bear and moose in the area. We’d been hopefully watching for them, but had pretty much decided we wouldn’t see one, when we heard the breathing. There was nobody around. Clay tried to peer into the bush while I perched on a tall rock a safe distance away, camera at the ready. Clay tossed a rock into the middle of the bush. Every once in a while we’d hear the breathing again. SOMETHING was in there, something big, I am certain. It sounded wuffly to me, surely sign of a bear. Clay wasn’t so sure. Eventually I hiked back past the breathing to join Clay and we walked slowly away, glancing over our shoulders.

A little ways on, there was a rocky place leading to a dry creek bed. Clay decided to walk back down, pushing through some tangled branches, to see if he could see something from the other side of the large bush. I took the camera and found another rock to perch on. He returned a little later, saying he’d found where the animal had pushed into the thick bush, there was a sort of tunnel he could have gone into, but, kudos to Clay for self-restraint, he thought there was a possibility that he could die if it was an angry moose or bear and he was blocking the animal’s only way out, so he retreated without actually seeing the animal.

That said, Clay thinks it was just a mule deer. I am sticking to my bear/moose story, and I’m almost glad the BEAST never came out of hiding, because I can go on believing our encounter with a bear/moose really happened. There is something to be said for not seeing every piece of a puzzle, for leaving some bits of it up to imagination. I think this holds true whether it’s Rebeka, a creature in the forest, or even my stories. I know readers bring all of their experience and imagination to the words on the page, and the story becomes much bigger than it ever could have been on its own. 

Happy trails to you, and may a few of your questions go unanswered, may some of your stories go unfinished, and may your imaginations fill in the blanks.

The Aspen trees here are beautiful, their leaves all shimmery when the wind blows, and the white trunks like slender white columns, lining our path.

The Aspen trees here are beautiful, their leaves all shimmery when the wind blows, and the white trunks like slender white columns, lining our path.

And She’s Off . . .

We took Rebeka to the airport in the wee hours of the morning. She is traveling back to Rwanda with a family that is moving there this same morning, with their three young children, their eleven checked bags, and a container that is somewhere in the middle of the ocean right now, on its way to their new home. We added two very  large, very overstuffed suitcases to the total. There were tears.

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It was hard to say goodbye, even though we know we’ll see her again. Even though we know her family is eagerly awaiting her return, and she’ll be walking to them on the bottoms of her pretty little feet.

It was hard because there is now a great big Rebeka-sized hole in our family. Only five of us sat around the table at Kerbey Lane later this morning, nibbling comfort food and laughing over Rebeka stories. We had a good last few days. We swam in the lake, and she learned how to swim with just floaties around her arms. Friends came and gave last hugs and jibbets for her croc shoes and sweet cards and other small gifts.

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We went to the coast and sat on the edge of a pier, fishing, with the brilliant blue evening sky all around.

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She had a last long walk down Manana, and tons of neighbors came to cheer her on and celebrate her victory when she crossed our toilet paper finish line.  We took a last boat ride, and a last tube ride.

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Last night we had cake.

We sang "We love you Rebeka" to the tune of Happy Birthday.

We sang “We love you Rebeka” to the tune of Happy Birthday.

We gave her some charms for her new charm bracelet. I read her picture books one last time. We set up sleeping bags in the living room and had a big sleepover, and we giggled and Rebeka “doopity-doopity’d” the lights dark (with some help from a remote).

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Waking up this morning at 4:15, the world dark outside, the last day had finally come. We sat on the suitcases so we could zip them shut, then opened them again to squeeze in “one last thing.” We played one last game of UNO because miraculously, we were ready to leave early.

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We drove to the airport, and I wondered what was going through Rebeka’s head as she stared out the window. We took a few last pictures, wanting to hold on to our family of six just a little longer.

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Then there were tears. Whispers in her ear, promises that we love her, and her family is waiting for her, and we’ll come visit soon. Later, we went to Kerbey Lane and toasted our time with Rebeka with coffee cups and glasses of juice. The house is quiet now. Napping quiet, broken only by the ding of my phone as texts come in. “Praying for you,” “Love you,” “Give her a kiss from us.”

She never was a big kisser . . .

She never was a big kisser . . .

But that didn't stop us from trying!

But that didn’t stop us from trying!

The friendships we’ve made, and the support we’ve received, these past eleven months has changed us just as surely as our time with Rebeka. It’s all part of the same beautiful story. We are so glad you’ve come along for the ride. Here’s a picture of “our girl,” taken after our last boat ride last night. We will never forget this smile. Blessings to you all.

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And So the Story Goes

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.

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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.

These are the women we see first as we walk through the specialty care center. They cheered the first time Rebeka walked in without a cast or wheelchair, and they baked us yummy cookies.

These are the women we see first as we walk through the specialty care center. They cheered the first time Rebeka walked in without a cast or wheelchair, and they baked us yummy cookies.

These are her physical therapists. They know just how hard to push Rebeka, and they make hard work seem fun.

These are her physical therapists. They know just how hard to push Rebeka, and they make hard work seem fun.

Gina was there from the very beginning, taking pictures of Rebeka's foot and helping us navigate schedules and checking in on us after surgeries to make sure we were okay. She is an excellent cheerleader.

Gina was there from the very beginning, taking pictures of Rebeka’s foot and helping us navigate schedules and checking in on us after surgeries to make sure we were okay. She is an excellent cheerleader.

Dr. Dehne does really hard things, things that can hurt like torquing a foot, but he does it because he knows it is the only way to make that child better. He is a fast-moving teddy bear of a man who will do what it takes to help a child. We will miss him, all of the Dell team, so very much.

Dr. Dehne does really hard things, things that can hurt like torquing a foot, but he does it because he knows it is the only way to make that child better. He is a fast-moving teddy bear of a man who will do what it takes to help a child. We will miss him, all of the Dell team, so very much.

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.

The other day Rebeka’s friend, Gayle took Rebeka to Sea World and she got a bubble gun, just like the one we got (and broke) from Disney. She took it on our walk.

The other day Rebeka’s friend, Gayle took Rebeka to Sea World and she got a bubble gun, just like the one we got (and broke) from Disney. She took it on our walk.

It was a little like a fairy tale, walking down this enchanted green street with a trail of bubbles in our wake.

It was a little like a fairy tale, walking down this enchanted green street with a trail of bubbles in our wake.

There is a little girl down the street who runs to meet us when I text her mom to tell her we’ve started our walk. She is a perfect companion, finding baby turtles and telling us her stories as we make our way.

There is a little girl down the street who runs to meet us when I text her mom to tell her we’ve started our walk. She is a perfect companion, finding baby turtles and telling us her stories as we make our way.

There are friends who help chase around minnows and plop them in the baby pool on the beach where the little fishies endure closer scrutiny.

There are friends who help chase around minnows and plop them in the baby pool on the beach where the little fishies endure closer scrutiny.

 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.

This is not The End, but the To Be Continued . . .

This is not The End, but the To Be Continued . . .

 

She Did It

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.

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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.

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She Walks

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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.

"Feed me!"

“Feed me!”

This is our neighbor trying to climb up and give the hungry baby owl a gecko he caught.

This is our neighbor trying to climb up and give the hungry baby owl a gecko he caught.

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.

The whole baby bunny fit in her hand!

The whole baby bunny fit in her hand!

 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.

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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.

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Mall Walking

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.

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Of Mice and Men

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men 

Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promis’d joy!

 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 Mouse in 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.

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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.

First Times

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.

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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.

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Rebeka and friend Kate explored the new digs.

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.

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And then there was this.

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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.

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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

Time

Date

With or without AFO

Marker 1

13:23

4/13

with

Marker 2

26:00

4/15

with

Marker 2

25:57

4/17

with

Marker 1

35:30

4/18

without

Marker 3

34:40

4/20

with

Marker 1

26:30

4/21

without

Marker 3

32:50

4/22

with

Marker 2

51:23

4/23

without

Marker 4

28:15

4/24

with

Marker 5

40:18

4/25

with

Marker 2

45:17

4/27

without

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.

photo 4

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.

IMG_0079

 

photo 1

Story Time

 

There is a Korean service medal sitting on our kitchen counter.

photo

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.

writing barn

The Writing Barn in Austin, Texas, where people go to “Retreat, Create and Celebrate.”

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.

John Bosco on left, with John Africa, headmaster for New Life Christian Academy in Kayonza, Rwanda.

John Bosco on left, with John Africa, headmaster for New Life Christian Academy in Kayonza, Rwanda.

 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.

IMG_0508

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 . . .

A map to Kate's house, almost exactly one mile.

A map to Kate’s house, almost exactly one mile.