Remembering three boys I never knew

A year ago today, thirty minutes from now, three boys died. I hit them with my car, and they all died. I know it wasn’t my fault, most days. I was in the wrong place at the worst possible time. But there are still those moments when an undercurrent of guilt won’t fully submit to logic.

I think about them a lot, although not as much as what might be considered normal. Not because I am callous or unaffected by it. That’s not it at all. I just had to implement an emotional amputation of sorts; this was only one of a series of events that was so unbelievably heartbreaking, distancing myself from it mentally and emotionally was simply what I had to do for survival purposes.

But I think about them, especially on holidays. I think about their families trying to just get them over with. I picture the empty spot at the dinner table they pretend to ignore and the memories that must haunt them when they think about what they were doing this time last year. I think about what I was doing this time last year, which was sitting alone on a balcony in Arlington, Texas, just trying to get it over with, wondering why it was me who lived and not them and kind of wishing it was the other way around.

But this isn’t about me. It’s about three boys who had their whole lives ahead of them. It’s to send out love to them (wherever their souls reside) and their families and friends who miss them terribly. It’s to say that I truly know the pain of having to wake up every morning the first year without them and think about what you were doing that same day last year…when they were still alive…. when they still had their whole lives ahead of them.

It’s to say that I fully feel the weight of it all today, that it breaks my heart, and that I’m so very grateful that it wasn’t me and I still have my life ahead of me.

… but what I wouldn’t give to know that this Thursday there were three less empty spots at the dinner table.

Original Post: The accident (warning: it’s graphic in some parts)

Advertisements

What happens when you stay up past your bedtime… and you can’t speak Swahili

In keeping with my mission to make you laugh, I thought reaching back into the past might be a better strategy for now.

As many of you know, I spent 6 months in the DRC working at a chimpanzee sanctuary (read more at Congo Adventure). It was an adventure, to say the very least, offering endless opportunities to get myself in some extremely awkward situations. Or, as the following demonstrates, just making a complete ass of myself.

So for your entertainment (and god willing, at least a giggle or two), below is one such scenario…

IMG_0990

Saving Lwiro

I was only one month in to my 6-month stint in the Lwiro, DRC. Despite the fact that everything I was seeing and doing on a daily basis was on the verge of surreal, I was confined to a very small area (given the whole ‘conflict/tail end of civil war’ thing) and my daily routine was already getting a bit monotonous.

Although I am an introvert through and through, my only options for companionship were my limited encounters with the chimps, awkward charade-like exchanges with the staff (French/Swahili speakers) and way too much time spent with my cantankerous Spanish-speaking boss. I was becoming increasingly desperate for civil, grammatically-correct, ‘I can actually crack a joke’ conversation.

I seriously started considering my exit strategy when I found out two women were coming to volunteer for a month. The thought of late-night talks, belly laughs and an occasional sounding board for said cantankerous boss quickly overrode all introverted tendencies, and I began counting the days. Not surprisingly, we were all close in age and cut from the same cloth (it’s a rare breed that decides up and moving to the Congo to save the chimps seems like a good idea), and it was immediately apparent that getting ourselves into trouble was not going to be a problem.

DSC_1008

Me, Susan, Mama Bea and ‘the boys’

Typically, our work day started at 6:30am and ended around 4:30pm. Dinner was served at 5, and we had all usually ‘showered’ (see pic below) and eaten by 5:30. Since we weren’t supposed to leave our house after dinner, this left a good chunk of time to entertain ourselves with very limited options; there was no electricity, we were usually too exhausted to read by candlelight, and going to bed before 8pm was simply torture. So most evenings were spent sitting around a candle on the porch, chatting, sipping beer or tea and periodically challenging each other to guess how much longer we had until our self-imposed bedtime of 8:30…because come on, who goes to bed before 8:30?

This brings us to the ‘present moment’.

It was 8:30 on the dot. We had just blown out the candle and headed inside to get ready for bed. The girls went to their room, then immediately came running back out saying there was a fire outside their window. They jetted outside while I fumbled around in the dark trying to find my lantern, which had conveniently disappeared… yet again

By the time I emerged, the girls were nowhere to be seen. I proceeded to run up the stairs to the gate and ran into Valentine, one of the night staff. Usually when I’m in panic mode, the only thing that comes out of my mouth is English (Spanish on a good day). But this time, the words flew out effortlessly, thanks to the trusty French podcast I listened to daily while preparing the chimps’ breakfast.

Tu sens ca? il y a un feu! (Do you smell that? There’s a fire!)

His eyes widened and he threw open the gate, taking off in a sprint. I paused long enough to celebrate my mastery of the French language, translating his urgent response and subsequent actions to: Yes, Natalie, I do smell a fire. We should go immediately and put it out!

And with that, I was off to save Lwiro from its fiery fate.

women.fire

Everything up to this point seemed completely logical; there was a fire and we were running towards it to put it out… until the moment we arrived at the fire, Valentine stops abruptly, takes a sharp turn to the left and leaps into the forest. So I did what any insane ‘white woman in the heart of Africa’ would do.

I dove in after him.

This is a good time to point out that I had seen Valentine on a daily basis since my arrival. He was a sweet, soft-spoken older man who always had a smile on his face.  And although our conversation never progressed beyond the usual ‘ca va?, Oui, ca va bien’, he was one of my favorites.

So as ludicrous as it sounds, I never questioned my safety when diving into the depths of the jungle to follow Valentine. I did, however, question my sanity when I realized that I was sprinting through the depths of the jungle with no lantern and no clue as to where we were going or why… and all I could think about was the millions of hungry, venomous predators that I had to be summoning as I stumbled about at an alarming pace, shouting out every profanity I knew in English, Spanish and French.

spider.forrest

Before I knew it, Valentine was long gone, and I could see nothing other than thick, green vegetation closing in around me. The reality of being lost in the jungles of Congo with an extremely challenged sense of direction jolted me into survival mode, and I screamed out at the top of my lungs… at the very moment I ran smack into Valentine.

Completely disoriented and beyond traumatized, it took me a few seconds to gather myself and realize that we were both staring straight at Susan… who was standing on my back porch.

She, of course, immediately burst out laughing, Where the hell did you come from? We have been looking for you for the past fifteen minutes!  

Wait, what? Fifteen minutes?! I don’t know what the hell you two have been doing, but Valentine and I have been chasing someone for hours…although I’m not sure who or why…and by the way, did anyone manage to put out the fucking fire?

The light of day…

First of all, there was no ‘fire’. The neighbors were burning trash like they did almost every day. Although in our defense, we had never seen them do it at night, and it in no way resembled a harmless ‘we are just burning trash’ fire.

It also turned out that my flawless execution of French was all for not. Most of the older workers communicate mainly in Swahili and know very little French, if any. Valentine most likely saw the panicked white woman flailing about, pointing towards the forest and assumed that I had seen some dangerous intruder.

And as for my near brush with death in the bush? I was actually in my own back yard, no further than a quarter of a mile from our back porch.

saving.lwiro

My ‘back yard’

Lessons learned

Not a terrible idea to learn a few ‘could save your life’ phrases in the local language

Flashlight/lantern should be attached to you person at all times

No going out past bedtime

Bukavu.girls 015

The ‘Guards’

IMG_1005

The ‘Shower’

Surrender

79721caa3b4637b111404009a1cad439--l-art-paper-design

I think it’s time.

‘It’s easier to leave than be left, isn’t it?’

You know it is. You always leave first

               …. you just do it standing still.

                                   * illustration by Rebecca Dautremer

 

Good Intentions

boy.girl.heart

* Rebecca Dautremer

He took it from her, studying it closely.

“I think it’s broken”.

It is, she said.

“I can try to fix it”.

They tried, she responded.

“Well, I haven’t”.

No, you haven’t, she hoped.

Redemption Revisited (published in Thought Catalog)

The previous post, Redemption, was inspired by a writing competition I entered for Thought Catalog. I wasn’t expecting for it to be published so soon. So although not a ton of variety this week, here is a slightly altered version of my take on fall. Fingers crossed….

Fall Reminds Me That Everything Can Come Back To Life

I also wanted to share Brandewijn’s enchanting poem, Autumn’s Fall, that he so eloquently brought to life to also pay homage to our harvest Queen.

jakob-owens-172511

Redemption

Some closing remarks to balance out my previous post, I tried, but it’s raining …. not funny, per se, but hopefully a more celebratory approach to my favorite season.
The rain didn’t last much longer, as is usually the case here. But it did drag on long enough to make the days that have followed seem even more magical.
Yes, ‘death and loss’ are all around in theory. Trees are losing their leaves, flowers are no longer blooming, and my futile effort to rescue the bees struggling to take flight continues.
But these things still don’t represent Fall to me. Fall, for me, is perfect days when the air is crisp, but the sun still provides enough warmth to keep me craving to be outside. It’s watching the leaves slowly transform into a stunning display of colors, making their previous shades of green seem dull and ordinary. It’s mums and pumpkin spice, warm sweaters and crisp apples, hot soup and fuzzy slippers.
And it’s not summer.
Truly, the only thing I think is tragic about Fall is that it’s departure always comes too soon. I suppose that is what makes it all the more beautiful. I know these things I love are fleeting. I hear the crunch of the leaves that have already made their descent under my feet. I add more and more layers as the sun provides less and less warmth. And although there is an undercurrent of melancholy that threatens to undermine the beauty of the present moment, it’s kept at bay because each day the colors of my favorite tree are more brilliant than the day before.
So is this death, loss? Or is it perhaps redemption?
The season that came before is something I so desperately want to leave behind. No matter how beautiful the summer was, for me it was hell. Each day bled into the next, all the same, all filled with a sense of dread for the next to arrive. Because I knew I would feel as terrible as the day before.
Until that first morning when I walked outside and felt a subtle chill in the air, and with it, a tinge of something that had seemed to evaporate with the heat of summer. Hope. I felt some semblance of Hope. Change was inevitable. And summer was over.
This year, the arrival of Fall was swift. Temperatures dropped and the leaves took their cue, transforming into colors like I’ve never seen. I had no choice but to finally look up, the convergence of seasons revealing the gifts that I simply couldn’t see in the absence of perspective- the warmth of the sun on my skin, the changing colors of the leaves that will soon be gone, the fragrance of summer flowers still lingering as I walk by. Finally, a brief and welcomed reminder that this pain is fleeting and will eventually be replaced with something beautiful… if I choose to see it as such.
Redemption? I can’t say for sure just yet. But I do know this: you will never see colors as brilliant as the first ones you see when you emerge from the dark.
tree.crush

I hate you because I love you (published in Elephant Journal)

I hate to inundate you with hate here, but I had no idea this was published in Elephant Journal back in August. I hate you because I love you

Promise, no more hating after this!!! (And god, the picture is a bit dramatic… no say in that department!)

love