Embers

Embers

Say yes and I'll tell you a story.

Back when my father was the Canadian linguist in an African village, I used to wait behind Chokwe hunters to have my dreams told. Dreams are sleek civet cats, small and slippery, and just when you think you're staring them right in the eye, they glide through your fingers and are gone. By the time I got my father's attention my dream had vanished - purling shoulders to ringed tail. All I remembered was a sense of weightlessness and drift.

The hunter was a monolith of pure culture and language, I was a fluid mix – three quarter striped copper, black, tan - part Canadian prairie, part African savanna, part American School of Kinshasa student. I could not hope to hold my father's attention, to be the voice he recorded, his microphone trained on the purest sounds of Chokwe and Lunda, tapes twirling big as dinner plates. I found my mother at the clinic dressing burns, dispensing drugs to women coughing blood, babies sneezing intestinal worms. These people in their wretchedness perfectly deserved my mother's care. She bowed with them, freckled hand on spongy curls, offered up a prayer for healing. She was their guardian, called away from family - days, nights, weekends. If only I could do something to earn her touch...

During grass fire season, when the orphans burned their front lawn, I lined up with the brashest of them to run through live embers. Blue-orange flame defined the edges of the burn, orange hot spots glowed, white ash wafted into a black night. Cicadas called and responded. It doesn't hurt if you call on good spirits, said one orphan. I can walk through slowly, see, said a boy who'd been at the mission orphanage all his life.
Across the road Mom and Dad sat in chiffon lantern light, reading language books, medical journals. I dared my parents to look up and stop me as I raced across sharp, scorching grass spears, pain shrilling up my spine, echoing off my ear drums.

"Aiyee, kachia!" - hot - I cried, jumping up and down in the cool white sand on the moonlit road. I sat under reflected light and examined my singed feet. I had raised blisters, but no good excuse for them. Too embarrassed to show Mom, I crept past her on screaming feet, chased cockroaches from the bathroom sink and filled it from the rain barrel. Carefully, tenderly, I soaped and rinsed my own feet, swaddled them dry in bath towels and slipped into bed.

Because I could not distract my parents from their missionary service, I shadowed them. Their work became mine; their calling so big it dwarfed any puny need of my own. I understood when my father left the dinner table to greet this teacher or that pastor, that I would have to share my parents. I cringe at my continuing need to feel significant to them, my need to earn degrees, win prizes and contracts. Sometimes I feel obsessed, as though I possess a deep reservoir for attention that requires constant filling.

Even as an adult, on a rare visit to my retired parents in Canada, I'm jealous when my father leaves our conversation and rushes to the door to greet my theology-student cousin. I'm jealous even though I deliberately rejected theology or nursing and gave myself to writing.

By age eight, I had shuttled between the Belgian Congo, Canada, and several US cities, where Dad earned graduate degrees. The day we returned to Congo in June 1963, I followed the village mamans to the river like a hatchling. Infected by the rhythm of the village, I learned to fill chitinous gourds from underground springs bubbling through white sand. I learned to wrap a wire grass head pad and carry water on my head, no hands, swaying with the slosh a mile up hill.

In January 1964 I was sent to school at another mission, and within two weeks the Simba revolution broke out around us. Three Belgian priests were hacked to death, eight kilometers away, their hands taken as trophies. It was a brutality learned from colonizing soldiers. Rescue planes arrived over a burning countryside, the pilot reporting spears and guns bristling from elephant grass around the airstrip. We squeezed nine into a four-passenger plane and lumbered down the airstrip, and lifted off, barely clearing bush and deep ravine. Beneath the engine hum, my head crooked against the ceiling, I wondered if my parents and sisters were safe. Stiff-necked, unmarred, disjointed, I climbed out of the plane at Kikwit. When we reached the Mennonite Brethren guest house, my sister Hope came running across the yard, arms wide. "You're alive!" she said.

Sometimes, in our isolated lives, all we had was each other. Sometimes all we didn't have was each other. We hardly quarreled or argued in our perfect family. Where would we go if a serious rift opened? There were no valves, no relatives, few permanent friends to run to.

For months we were thrown together in a UN refugee camp in the airless Congo basin. To steel myself against having nothing, I squandered whole hours in real time, pretending I was someone else - the guard in paratroop boots at the gate or Claudia at the American school who had 24 colors of Crayola pencil crayons. I wanted just five -flaming orange, magenta, lilac, indigo and black - to paint the evening sky.
That fall, Hope and I were sent to the mission dorm, five hundred miles from home, no telephone or bus lines connecting us. Our letters were censored for spelling and complaints. We stopped writing our true feelings, we stopped knowing them.
At boarding school our lives were catered and regulated by rising and dinner bells. Dad said we could erase the miles with letters and prayer. We could even erase the Atlantic Ocean and surround ourselves with grandmas and cousins. On one level, it was futile to produce our family in this way. On another, the illusion wove Canada into Africa and gave us a sense of connection, though the real soil I dug my toes into was African.

At home, during school vacations, I carried a basin with soap and water and washed the rat-chewed feet of Mom's Hansen's disease (leprosy) patients. One woman slept in her hut on a bare bamboo bed with a stout stick at her side, but she could not feel the rats until their teeth sank into live nerves, good flesh. Then she flailed her stick with numb, claw-hands, her fingers receding, her body reabsorbing knuckle bones. It was this woman's feet I was washing when Mom noticed the dirty water pouring into leaky rubber gloves, an open sore on my hand. She rushed me to the clinic and anointed my hands with hydrogen peroxide. She put me on a secret leper cure and made me promise not to tell. I wasn't permitted to mention the thumb-sized Dapsone tablet I choke-swallowed for six months every Sunday night. There was something familiar in hiding who I was, something reminiscent about being an outsider looking on, an observer trying to blend in. I proposed a biology paper on Hansen's Disease that permitted me to visit L'hopital de la rive, where Hansen's Disease patients sat on railroad ties above the Congo River and wove baskets as physical therapy. Sometimes their fingers were already so numb, they used their teeth to tighten raffia strips. I visited the leprology surgeon in Kimpese who restored finger tendons, hammer toes and sunken profiles so patients could walk openly in the market again.

During my first eighteen years, our family moved eighteen times, crisscrossing the Atlantic, the dream always on the other side. Not raised under one flag, unfamiliar with moving in one direction, not schooled with students who proceeded as a class, towards college and graduate school, I grew up not knowing what I would be. I felt the pressure to fit in, to find meaning in my parents' work, but there was a constant tearing inside, a sense of detachment, of not belonging. I was gradually rejecting a life of service, seeing it alternately as exhausting or imperial. Mom snipped off a gangrenous toe at the leprosarium and I saw pain in the man's eyes. She hadn't asked him if he wanted to live without his toe.

Only once as an adult did I experience what my parents might term "a call to service." It was a moment of false clarity during a bus trip through the Alleghenies in 1973. Behind a Greyhound depot, the sunset flashing through an apple orchard, I saw myself in a white lab coat, adjusting a microscope lens, watching bacilli squirm, discovering a vaccine for leprosy. The moment and the call passed.

I know from experience that the least satisfying farewells are the ones denied. Melancholia builds up over unresolved grief, over losses we failed to, or cannot, mourn. "Let's not say good-bye," several well-meaning friends said on graduation night in Congo, and I understood their sense of the impossible. To cope with parting, I intellectualized my emotions and submerged my grief. Weeks later I'd get memory jags that paralyzed me for hours. I'd be playing soccer again on the high field at school, a tropical storm at my back as I dribbled the ball up the left field, looking for Peanut at right forward. But my teammates vanished just I passed the ball. They were insubstantial, gone. Peanut and I would reunite in Boston again twenty years later, and find our lives amazingly parallel. Our eldest sons were both three and our time in Boston was limited as we put our husbands through doctorates and post-doctorates. The four of us mothers and sons were constant playmates for three surreal years. We healed scars we'd barely admitted having as we reminisced about our lives in Congo. When we had to part again it was a different kind of letting go. Our good-byes came from a place of better knowing; we promised ourselves a closer distance.

Recently my parents buy airline tickets and come to visit us at our overgrown cottage under Florida pines. When I meet them at the airport, my silver-haired Dad limps on numb feet behind my mother's wheel chair. She's canted to the right, favoring her un-paralyzed side, but greets me in full voice. Dad was crippled by the electric light generator upcountry, his vertebra nearly severed as he cranked it up, so we could go on reading after dark. Mom has had a stroke, her blood pressure always high after the kidney infection that nearly killed her during our first term in Congo. The tropical heat was always a trial afterwards; her feet overflowed her shoes. She never complained, but only in Canada did her ankles shrink back to their normal size and fit her shoes.

I don't interpret dreams, I have no healing touch. Yet my parents need me. In a moment of vulnerability Dad tells me of his disappointments and I want to put my arms around him. But we have avoided emotional closeness because of physical distance, because of God's will. We have been separated too many years by too many miles to risk it. Ever since I buckled myself into a single-prop plane to fly to boarding school, we have protected ourselves so that the rip-tear of bruised flesh won't sting so badly. We have avoided touch for more than thirty years.

My Australian shepherd nuzzles between us and I bury my fingers in his thick scruff, eking the same soft comfort I did from guard dogs at the dorm. The dogs in my life, expert sensors of emotion, have always been better at getting strokes than Dad or I will ever be. We didn't demand closeness of each other. We couldn't without betraying our pledge to put God first, ourselves last.

When next I visit Mom in Canada, she says, "That's the last time I'm coming to Florida." She has stopped traveling and that can mean only one thing. I have to move closer to this woman I have known so distantly all my life. I want to accommodate a relationship I've held too lightly, a woman I've known too fleetingly. If there's anything my nomadic life has taught me it's that, in the end, some people are more significant than others.

I search and apply for jobs in ice-bound Winnipeg, admitting my need, but also hesitating. I'm afraid I'll get too close, that I'll have to express and resolve conflicts we've avoided for decades. I'm afraid I'll have to tell Mom about the senseless blisters on a child's feet. I'm afraid she'll see my tears, or I'll see hers.

Manitoba threatens to stifle and contain me. It's a fixed place that augurs conversations I'd rather not start. It presents the tension between found self in achievement and lost self in community. The freedom of the nomad is the loneliness of disconnection.

On my recent trip home I make this diary entry: The community against the individual is puffed and tentacled and will engulf you, suck you dry, leave you no energy for reading, no time for thinking on your own - surrounded by blue spruce, observed by snowy owl. It exhausts with its demands, truncates your dreams until they seem stubby, mangled, impossible. You cave in to the needs of others, unable to complete the projects you start, to realize the visions and waking visions you guard.

I'm afraid of losing myself in community, have become deaf to the sacrificial code of yielded freedom and achievement. The nomad me recognizes that I've come dangerously close to sending roots too deeply into sandy Florida soil, soil that doesn't hold the weight of relationships as do the rich harrow rows of Manitoba. Yet the prairie furrows might hold me too fast, stifle the outsider that I guard so gingerly within. Letting go of freedom would be yet another loss to mourn.

We escape our Christmas nostalgia this year by camping in the Everglades. Alone together as a family, we wander a hardwood hammock, a coastal forest that has floated from the West Indies or the Yucatan Peninsula. I am amazed to touch a traveling tree, an immigrant gumbo-limbo, it's trunk red and peeling, so that West Indians have named it a "tourist tree." What appeals to me is its solidity despite its long journey. We walk further into the woods, assailed by a pungent skunk tree, riveted by an aerial garden of bromeliads, stopped dead in our tracks by a resurrection tree. Its roots ripped out of the moist Everglades soil by hurricane, the resilient tree sends one spiky root straight up through the forest canopy, where it branches and leafs thickly, and the other right back into rich earth. Such possibility despite drift, hurricane, uprooting and depression, buoys me.

On Christmas Eve we shove aluminum canoes into mangrove swamps watching for obsidian eyes above dark water, looking out for alligators or rare American crocodiles. I jump into the stern but can't seem to steer a distinct path through the meandering river. Just when I think I've cleared the edges, I slam into stalks of walking roots that clatter like extended wooden fingers.

As we paddle back to shore, exhausted, I nearly collide with a tourist boat. Perhaps I have not rooted long enough to ache or weep with people, to feel trauma or pain. I have not felt their need close enough to me or mine close enough to them. I write to create emotional bonds I've denied myself. I yearn for thick gumbo limbo roots but recognize myself as the mangrove, simultaneously rooting and branching as I go, more devoted to freedom than to permanence.

We pull silver canoes ashore, a damp decay clinging to us. There have been no lurking crocodiles, no alligators - only clattering mangrove fingers catching us, holding us briefly along the river's edge. We gather up yellow paddles, orange life vests, and head towards camp. Across a vast sea of grass, white egrets lift off towards Africa where they once wintered on our front yard. A fiery sun settles into the Everglades, burning grassy spears to embers.

Written by Faith Eidse, An alumnus of the Mennonite hostel in Kinchasa, Congo
This article was published in "Rhubarb"