And So It Goes

He’s waiting for us dressed in a pressed shirt and slacks and the first thing I notice about him is the urgency in his eyes. He blinks rapidly, face turned upward, and my heart is pierced by his expression of extreme yearning.

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He makes nervous gestures to ensure that we feel welcome and comfortable, arranging chairs into a circle under a tree that tempers the blazing Ugandan sun. He brings out a tray of tea and fresh grilled corn cut from the stalks that his wife tended. His wife, she who “flew away” recently despite the many expert hands that tried to save her from the devastating clutches of postpartum hemorrhaging. He watched her fade away, this woman he so loved and with whom he created his family of four precious little girls.

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Postpartum hemorrhaging (PPH) is the leading cause of maternal deaths globally. Each day, approximately 800 women die from PPH, a staggering statistic given the very simple remedy that could save these women. And so it goes that we live in a world that fails the most vulnerable, a woman giving birth to a new life.

There are many reasons why a mother dies from PPH: lack of skilled medical staff, inability of a woman to reach a hospital or for her family to pay for services, expired drugs, lack of syringes, poor education, and timing when she reaches care. Any or a combination of these scenarios can lead to death, swiftly and with little warning. Every day, women perish, avoidably, leaving behind a chaotic set of issues for her children, her family and the community spanning years of affect. And more often than not, she leaves a man in despair, his tears flowing at any mention or reminder of this woman he chose as his life partner.

Her memory lives on in this house of papa and his girls. He has kept her things (shoes, dresses, hair ribbons) in open baskets and keeps referring to “mama’s chickens, mama’s corn”.

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The eldest daughter shows us “mama’s bed”, where she and her younger sister now sleep so they are comforted by the remnants of her spirit by night. The twins she recently bore are in a loving care center until papa can get more organized and find his wise perspective on his newly shattered life. He visits them several times a week, cherishing her last gift to him.

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He is proud of his home, and leads us inside so we can see the rugs she wove and the pink bathroom he made for her out of their old chicken coop to enable her comfort while she nursed twin girls. As he shows us each room, his girls are right by his side, feeling his love as he strokes their hair and wipes their noses and looks at them with assured intention of how he will be there for them the rest of his life.

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Many African men often get mischaracterized by those who commit transgressions against women, marginalizing the men who express devotion to their wives and children. This man epitomizes love in its most tender form: being willing to care for his “band of girls”, ensuring their clothes are clean, playing with them, holding them when they ask for mama.

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There are many organizations that grieve these concerns and are working as fast as they can to eradicate these issues. Working tirelessly, they study challenges, assist with lack of resources, and work with the World Health Organization to build awareness and responses to the far reaching and devastating effects of PPH. And so it goes that we live in a world that is capable of rallying around the most vulnerable.

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No mother should face death from obstetrical concerns. No young girl should fear for her life as she gives life. And no husband deserves this kind of heartbreak.

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At the end of our visit, this profoundly affected man shakes our hand and says goodbye with a strained voice. Emotions run deep within him and frequently surface, and as they do, he reaches down to stroke his daughters’ heads in silence while each little girl raises her tiny hand to find his. Together they stand, facing us with hearts open wide. And a hope for better maternal healthcare for all.

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Father’s Day Musings

This Sunday, fathers of all monumental and diminutive sizes and backgrounds and mindsets will be celebrating Father’s Day. Some will have their children in tow, perhaps golfing together or throwing a line into some river in hopes of snagging The Big One. Some will be confused, frantically trying to find something at the last minute to do that will take away the sting of picking up their kids from the ex-wife they are still in love with. Perhaps he will take them to dinner at some diner, with ice cream afterwards, and this will suffice as he nobly tries to mask heartbreak and regret in front of his children on this, His Day.

Some of the celebrants will be mothers, deliberating how they can best celebrate this day, when no papa is in sight. Some will be old men, their children long moved away focusing on children of their own. Some will be “kinda dads”, as my daughter calls step-dads.

This is a tribute to all Fathers out there. Those who love well. Those who try their best. Those who feel shame because they can’t pay child support. And yes, even to deadbeat dads, because deep down, we all know you love those children you fathered, even in your cowardly ways. I occasionally see you, sitting at some event, eyes flickering more rapidly, your body braced slightly backward toward the exit as you look at someone’s family photos that have been brought out before you.

I have had my share of relationship difficulties along the way, with some situations brought about by my own hand. I too have regrets regarding my own behaviors, especially toward the father of my three children. We still remain strongly bonded, together, for our kiddos, continuously seeking better ways to parent them, looking for ideas regarding how to support all three of them now that they are in college, and wondering if the worry will ever end. I love this man like no other, and have learned so much from him, still do, even though we parted as marriage partners many years ago. I still photograph him, in the same t-shirt, flipping pancakes every Christmas morning. Haven’t missed a December 25 morning in twenty-five years. Some of my new relationships could not accept this. Those faded away.

Last month, I encountered a young boy crossing the park as I was photographing subjects in my outdoor studio during a street photography event. I saw his downtrodden face, and normally I never seek out someone to photograph who appears down and out, but something drew me to him, and since I’ve long ago learned to act on my instincts, I started talking with him.

He told me that he was homeless, has had significant troubles in his twenty-something years of his life, and was just, well, he was just wandering. No where to go, really.

He then told me about his quest to see his son again one day. It has been many years since he last saw him. He pulled out a battered and frayed photo of a child that looked to be around six months old.

“He’s about four years now. Bet he’s walkin’ and talkin’ by now. Maybe one day she will let me see him again,” he said through a mouth full of broken teeth.

I gave him my card and offered a free photo session in my studio if he ever does get to see his child. I doubt I will get that call.

This boy still haunts me.

I started writing these musings because today is the start of a little miracle journey. Three years ago, as I sat on my couch with my boyfriend from high school days and his then girlfriend, we looked at the images I recently brought home from Ethiopia. Many faces peered up at us, each one with a more loving look than the other, with a depth of eye contact we rarely see here in the USA. Cecil and Sonya looked at each other and asked the question, “Should we adopt a child one day?”.

That was then, and today is now, as they board a plane to Ethiopia this morning, as husband and wife, to go meet their new nine-year-old son. They will meet each other for the first time this weekend, on Father’s Day. This story is a miracle because Cecil was instrumental in his teenage days in pulling me out of the depths of an insanely abusive household to stay with his family on their farm twenty miles away so I could find my way to a happier life. And ultimately to secure a family role model that I count on to this day as I parent my children.

Ah, the cycles of this life!

Cecil’s father, who I considered to be my own fatherly role model since my father could not perform his, died last Fall, a mere few months after his wife of over 50 years passed away.

Ahh, the cycles of this life.

We are human. We make mistakes, as parents, friends, siblings, co-workers and in every attempted role. I like to think we try to do our very best, each day. And maybe that is just enough. I have a theory that, upon knowing we are at our last breath, we all will hastily look back and say “WAIT! My life wasn’t so bad! I want one more minute of it!”

This Father’s Day, I will think about this little Ethiopian boy who has waited for nine years to be united with his family. I will celebrate my ex-boyfriend and my ex-husband as they live their new lives with their lovely new families.

I will think about my father, who never started out thinking he would create a lot of harm in his path, but he did, and he is still my papa.

I will give thanks to Cecil’s father, who steered me well with words such as “As soon as you learn to make strawberry jam, Joni, move on to something else. Don’t rest your laurels on past accomplishments. Just stay steady and curious.” I imagine he had a hand in steering his son from afar to adopt a child from the place I finally feel is my true home.

I will revere all of those fathers who struggle hard to put food and water in front of their children each day, all over the world.

I will think of my good friend Daniy in Ethiopia, who at twenty-three years old is capable of being a father to his father.

I will think about the fathers who never had a child, but always wanted one.

And I will wonder about my sons. What kind of fathers will they be, biological or pseudo?

Happy Fathers Day, to all fathers of all flavors and kinds. I bet you are loved far more than you realize.

Ahh, the cycles of this life.

 

Cecil and I, photo taken by Cecil while we were in high school

 

My two sons, Aaron and Ben, with their papa, Marty in jammies I bought for them

 

Marty, flipping pancakes, December 2011

 

A Malagasy father, caring for his chlidren

 

An Ethiopian boy, around the same age as Cecil’s new son

 

An artifact representing a young father’s quest to see his son again

 

My papa, during the Korean War, before alcohol took him down

 

Cecil, Sonya and Addisu

Sonia, Addisu & Cecil in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (November 2012)

 

 

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