Meeting the small boy turned out to be quick and awkward, and gave no hint of the events that would unfold over the next 48 hours. On some days, I’d have missed him entirely, a little shadow in my peripheral vision, while I hurried to do some other important task.
Emmanuel shuffled by casually, a makeshift slingshot in one hand and no shoes on his dusty feet. Had Flo, NV’s social worker, not spoken to him as I locked our SUV under a lone acacia tree, he would have done what other Kenyan boys do and kept silent, hidden in his own little-child world. I’ve learned after seven years here that such things are expected of a rural one of his stature – to only look at the face of an adult and speak directly if spoken to. Because of this, and perhaps also as a result of my own blindness to the precious depth of life passing all around me, I miss out on getting truly connected here so often. But that was not happening on this day.
We had driven over from Naomi’s Village just to see him, and her, and to absorb further the pain of a rudderless family tormented by grief, by lack, and by hopelessness. Emmanuel (6), and Christine (8), the youngest of 6 orphans living in a one-room shack, had been tugging at our heartstrings. They were, after all, now our people. The matriarch of the family had been brought with them from their home area of Kinangop to this lakeside community of Naivasha, deathly ill with AIDS. Just three weeks ago, the district hospital had sent her home, unable to save her life. She died in a house, far from that Kinangop haven, leaving 7 orphans. The youngest, a bright-eyed 2-month-old boy named Sammy, had come as a surprise arrival last Monday at NV. He tied us to the rest, fatherless and lonely, a group bunched into a tight home that had now come sharply into focus.
Mary, second-born and 17, was employed as a housekeeper nearby. She had somehow managed the burial arrangements for her deceased mother. Her eyes now begged for some relief from the stress of becoming a recently deputized adult suddenly torn from her childhood. The younger ones needed a mom, but so did she, and she yearned for time, space, and permission to grieve.
Our NV criteria (age 0-8 at admission) said “yes” to Emmanuel and Christine, so we took the next step, only somewhat aware of its complexities. As we arrived in Naivasha that day and followed Emmanuel inside, the six of us barely fit in the 6×8 ft. front area with the 6 orphans, plus the husband of the firstborn and their baby, all of whom lived in the tiny place. We shared stories and pictures of Sammy, asked questions about the two young ones, and made plans. All of us noticed the gathering sadness on the faces of Jane (13), and Simon (12). News about their two younger siblings going away somewhere that they could not reach at such a terrible time must have been like tearing at a new wound, and we felt the suddenness of the moment come crashing in on all of us. Helping can hurt at times.
We all cried at one point, looking away or just holding it in until the car ride home. We hated the injustice of helping Christine and Emmanuel so much, while leaving poor Simon and Jane worse off. The thought of taking all four bubbled to the surface in each of our minds, even at points leading to sincere discussions, but we could never reconcile the matter because the two were simply too old.
Like so many other unpleasant realities, we buried our concerns in favor of focusing on the positives for the time, and began planning for the arrival of Emmanuel and Christine in 2 days. Beds were made up for them, signs to welcome them to their dorms, and a cake that would symbolize their acceptance into our family. Excitement gripped us as the Land Cruiser headed north to Naivasha that afternoon to pick up kids number 61 and 62.
Flo thought to ask for new clothes from our NV storeroom to take for Simon and Jane, as a token of love. Julie told me later that Simon grabbed the new shirt and warm-up pants and quickly hid in the back area to change. He emerged in a moment with the biggest grin, and shortly after that Jane was wearing her new colorful dress. The plan had been for only 17-year-old Mary to accompany Emmanuel and Christine on the 30-minute drive to their new home at NV, but Jane asked to be allowed to come along. Simon followed and before anyone could say a word, they were all in the vehicle.
Jane held little Christine’s hands the whole way there, and they never spoke, I was told later. When the Land Cruiser honked and charged its way down the NV driveway to stop in front of the joyful singing throng, the new kids got out dazed and unsure. Bonface, Director of Caregiving and Activities, was not there on this day to ease things, and the tension of the pending separation was palpable. Sometimes there can be no room for joy to wedge its way in to the bittersweet hold on a moment. That is the way it felt for all of us, and most especially when we made ourselves look into the eyes and hearts of Jane and Simon. Those two were falling apart inside, and we just knew it.
I kept looking for Julie’s eyes in the crowd, wanting to take the pulse of her emotions, to get her permission about something God was telling me- “BREAK THE RULES!” After the ladies and children danced and sang and ushered the new kids into the dining hall for a proper welcome and cake, I was finally put on the spot, and suddenly at that. “Uncle Bob, do you have something to say?”, the speaker asked. I motioned for Julie and alerted her that I was about to do something crazy, and needed her to agree or disagree. She listened and agreed. Flo was next, and when she heard what I wanted to do, she dissolved into sobbing.
Sometimes a situation controls your actions, and you become aware that you are being swept forward to action. I felt that way, and not as if I had a choice. I welcomed Emmanuel and Christine, and then asked Jane and Simon if they would like to live at NV too. Their faces told the story, but they quickly said yes and the room erupted in a giant cheer for them. Julie suggested more singing in their honor, they cut the cake, and we became 64 strong. A few staff ran upstairs to make two more beds while the older kids held hands with their new siblings and gave guided tours. The rest of us stood around in groups talking and shaking our heads at how it all turned out.
Doing the right thing, the just thing, was a downhill run in the end. Someone commented in my group that rules are made to be broken, and that had to be done here. We all wanted to look back on these days without regrets. Several house moms hugged Julie on her way out, thanking her for making this choice.
Today, my mind rushed back in time to my own childhood, to the Pacific shores of Okinawa, where my parents faced a similar decision in 1971, when I was only 5 and my sister Leslie was 6. Having decided to adopt a 4-year-old Korean boy named Yung Chul (Mark) from Seoul, South Korea, they were called by a Holt Orphanage representative on two separate occasions in the ensuing weeks. In each case, they were informed there had been a sibling of Mark’s found, first 3-year-old Jung Chul (David) and then a baby, Sun Hee. My parents prayed and decided to stretch, to raise three new children instead of one, to value keeping siblings together over less important concerns like money and disrupted plans. We ended up having a wonderful time, the five of us kids, growing up together in the piney woods of Tyler, Texas. I wouldn’t trade the riches of that childhood for anything now. My parents made the right call, the just call too.
So I stopped for a moment to treasure what Gene and Sheila Mendonsa taught me over 40 years back that had somehow become new the day before -when your heart and your house are big enough, there is always room for two more.
-by Bob Mendonsa