This Is What It’s Like
Knock, knock! I rolled my eyes and sighed at the all-too constant knock on my bedroom door. Is there really nowhere I can escape to be alone just for five minutes?! I thought to myself. The door opened without me answering.
“Mama Kate?” Nokwanda came in the room without an invitation.
“What, Nokwanda?” I said with a blatant hint of agitation in my voice.
“I wanted to give these to you earlier, but you weren’t home yet,” she lifted up a handful of semi-wilted flowers.
Immediately, her thoughtfulness melted away my annoyance and a smile spread across my face. “They’re beautiful, Nokwanda!” I exclaimed, and her own face lit up.
“Really? I’ll get you better ones next time,” she smiled and left the room.
I put the flowers in an empty toilet paper roll on my dresser and just stared at the lovely purple and wilted green. Though they were wilted, the scent was still wonderfully potent. As I breathed in the scent of beauty I thought, This is what love smells like.
“Go, Sibussa!” The girls cheered on their sister as she ran around the soccer field during a practice game. Kiley, Rachel, and I had brought all the girls to the soccer practice because there was a basketball court nearby and we wanted the girls to run around and use up some of their seemingly unending energy. It was nearing the end of practice, so we all left the court and gathered at the top of the hill to watch the soccer players below. The girls yelled and laughed, sang and talked. Little Benny, who had also been getting his fill of running around, wandered over to me and wrapped his arms around my leg.
“Getting tired, Benny?” I asked.
He gazed up at me with his coffee-colored brown eyes and asked, “Tata? Tata?” (Take me, take me.) I scooped him up onto my hip and he set his head on my shoulder. I shifted him around so he could snuggle up to my neck. Within minutes, even amidst all the noise around us, he fell asleep in the comfort of my arms and I smiled, This is what love feels like.
“Sawubona Make!” I answered my phone, knowing my mom was calling from Skype.
“Sawubona! Unjani?” she greeted back in a voice too excited for an ordinary phone call.
I could hear my sister and my dad yelling hello from the background as well. Then an adorable little voice came on, “Hi, Kate!” Unable to identify the voice, Mom told me it was my niece Edessa.
“Oh my goodness!” I exclaimed! “She’s getting so old already!” A jab of pain shot through my gut, knowing that I was missing out on my niece and three nephews growing up. But the news that followed momentarily washed out the ache.
“Your dad has something to tell you,” my Mom could hardly speak without squealing. I held my breath, hoping that our prayers (Ayanda, Nonhlanhla, and Sindi prayed with me) about my dad coming to Swazi would come true.
“I’ll be seeing you in January,” Dad replied nonchalantly.
“Did you hear that?” Mom squealed. “I didn’t even have to push him! I just told him I was going to buy my ticket so I asked, ‘Are you coming or not?’ And he said yes!”
I ran into Ayanda’s room and announced the good news. “Mkhulu (grandpa) is coming in January!” I exclaimed. Ayanda, who was lying down in her bed, screamed and jumped up to her feet, balancing on her mattress.
“Ah! I knew it! I knew it!” she screamed again in contagious delight. Knowing how much it means for my girls to meet my dad, I giggled in uncontained joy and thought, This is what love sounds like.
The smell of intestines hit me in the face as I opened the kitchen door. “Ugh,” I groaned, realizing that the dinner menu for the night consisted of rice and cow intestines. Annoyed, I walked out of the kitchen and escaped to my room to vent for a few minutes. I was getting so sick of the same meals over and over, but somehow the beans always tasted so nice, especially when compared to the intestines and tuna fish the girls would sometimes cook. I had already been having a bad day, and I just wanted the regular beans for dinner so I didn’t have to gag at the smell of the intestines. A knock at the door interrupted my self-pity party. “Dinner!” Elena called. When I got to the dining room we all prayed and then sat down to eat. Elena handed me a special plate.
On my plate was a heaping scoop was delicious smelling scrambled eggs, mixed with onions and tomatoes.
“Wow, thank you!” I hugged her. As I took a bite of eggs, I thought, This is what love tastes like.
“Ahhhhh!” a shrill, two-year old scream came from the dining room. I darted into the room, wondering what had happened to Lucia. Upon seeing me, she pointed at the ground where she was standing and screamed again. A big beetle bug was moving around near her feet. She swiftly grabbed a nearby shoe and let the bug have her wrath. After giggling uncontrollably at the sight of my almost-three-year-old reenacting my reaction to bugs, I gave her a high five for disposing of the beetle, “Atta girl!” She marched proudly out of the room. This is what role-modeling looks like.
One of my girls handed me a letter one night, and this is what she wrote: “I am so happy for everything that you doing for me, you made my day, yah you always do but today you made me more happy. I am so glad that you trust me I always needed for someone to trust me. I know I cannot be good at everything but I hate disappointing people, so I don’t want to disappoint you. … I never had the love of a mother but am getting it now and I thank Lord that He gave me you and calling you my mother you are playing the role of mother to me. … Thanks for your encouragement it really changed me. And so far you are my role model. I am not writing this letter to search your love but I am writing it to thank the love that God gave you to spread it on us and I truly need your love. We do Mama Kate.” I stared at the words in surprise and awe, as a wave of warmth engulfed me. This is what purpose feels like.
Knock, knock. It was nine-thirty and I had just crawled into bed. I hadn’t been able to sleep soundly for the past week and I was coming down with a cold, so all I wanted was to close my eyes and disappear into a dream. Knock, knock. I squeezed my eyes shut and pretended to be asleep. But that didn’t stop the person at the door. The door squeaked open and the girl entered and asked, “Mama Kate? Are you sleeping?”
I didn’t want to answer, I wanted to pretend I was already asleep, but something in her voice made me lift my head. “Almost,” I groaned.
“Can I tell you a story?” She sat on the bottom bunk as I cocked my head in question.
“Yeah, you can lie back down and even close your eyes. But I want to tell you a story.”
I shrugged, “Okay, maybe you’ll put me to sleep then.”
She started her story, “Once there was this girl…” and I thought it was going to be a nice bedtime story to put me to sleep. But it turned into a horror story about a girl being raped by a neighbor boy her age, a boy whom no one would expect would do such a thing. The girl screamed, but no one could hear her. After she escaped from the boy, she suffered in silence because she was afraid no one would believe her.
When she finished the story, my heart was pounding and tears were forming in my eyes. Is she telling me about herself? I wondered. She was one of the very few girls with no “recorded” past of sexual abuse. Was she now sharing something she’s kept hidden?
“Mama Kate? Are you still awake?” she asked quietly.
I sat up and peered over the rail of the upper bunk to see her back was turned towards me. “Is this a true story?” I asked without really wanting to know the answer, without wanting to believe that this girl was raped only a little over a year ago and never reported it. “Who is this girl?”
Without turning to face me, the girl’s face dropped into her hands and she answered, “Me.”
I climbed down from my bunk and put my arm around her as her tears poured onto the floor. I didn’t know what to do or what to say. She had never told anyone about this rape, not a single person until today. Another volunteer had shared her story with the girls and encouraged them to refuse to be silent and to share their stories and pain, too. So this girl was the first to come forward and finally refuse her silence anymore.
There were only a few words I could muster up. “I can’t take away this pain. I can’t save you from it, no matter how much I wish I could. But I want you to know I’m here to walk you through it.”
She shook her head in acknowledgement and we both cried together.
This is what life is like.