guest post by Holly Doden
I'll never forget his screams. The terror. The betrayal.
Through my convulsing sobs, I pried his tiny fingers from around my neck. I pushed him away, into her arms. The woman who would take on the role of “mama." Tears streamed down my face, washing away the dabs of mascara I had put on hours earlier. It was the only makeup I wore on my African sun kissed face, and somehow I thought it would give me the power to control the tears. I wanted to be brave and strong, I didn't want him to know how much it hurt. Because then he would know how bad it really was. How hopeless our situation had become. I whispered, over and over, "Nalingi yo," I love you. I will not forget you, I will come back. I promise. If its the last thing I do, I will come back for you.
And I walked away. One foot in front of the other, through the cutout of a door in the cinderblock wall. Across the soft dirt yard where he would play, up the steps cut into the hillside. I know the screams faded as the distance between us increased, but it didn't feel that way. To me, they grew louder. Their volume filled my being. I couldn't hear anything else, I couldn't see anything else. I was consumed with him. The boy who had become my son.
I climbed into the back of the truck. It was empty now. His little suitcase and his rubber ducky inflatable bathtub were gone. The bags of fortified milk powder I had just spent a fortune on, gone. His favorite toys and little sugary yogurt drinks, gone. But more than that, I felt the weight of his absence on my lap. There was no one stepping on me and pulling my hair trying to stick his face out of the window to see the world. There was no one smooshing my cheeks together and planting slobbery kisses on my lips. No one giggling, "mama! mama! na-lin-gi yo!!!!!"
For five months straight I fell asleep to that nightmare, the one of me leaving him. I woke every morning, lingering in the space between slumber and consciousness, imagining his little brown eyes peering into mine under the cover of the mosquito net. But he was gone. I could smell his smooth coconut oil drenched skin, but I couldn't feel it. I could hear his infectious giggle, but couldn't scoop him up in a hug or tickle his spindly toes.
So I lived with the memories. And I became desperate to get him home. I would do anything and everything suggested to me. I searched for answers. "Why couldn't I bring him home? Why were the politics and power games keeping us apart? How could poverty and bribery be so strong?" None of it made sense. I couldn't even explain to people why the child we had legally adopted and who had a US visa wasn't allowed to be with his family. I contacted every senator and representative who would listen. I wrote to news outlets and ambassadors. I may have even tweeted Ben Affleck, because hey, he has an NGO in Congo and he's a dad... maybe he would care about my heartache? But it was futile. And so I waited. For mercy to break through, for a glimmer of hope.
But this is the part of the story where a devastating parallel strikes me.
Before i walked away from this little boy, someone else did the same thing. Like me, she knew she had no option. The cruelty of outside forces made the choice for her. I will never know what transpired in the intimacy of their moment, hours after he was born. But I can only imagine what it did to her tender, young heart. The rest of this story is his to tell. But I could fill in the gaps with dozens of other stories I know from my time in Kinshasa, from talking with fellow adoptive moms, and from working with Reeds of Hope.
Mothers who don't get to live to raise their children because there is no access to maternal health care. Mothers who have been forced into prostitution and contract HIV. Mothers who think their children are going to an orphanage temporarily, just long enough to gain a few pounds and maybe go to school. Mothers who are destroyed when they find out those children have been moved or adopted out. I won't pretend to understand all the nuances of these situations, but I do believe there is a better way. There have to be options for these women, our sisters in the universal league of motherhood.
Access to maternal healthcare.
Opportunities for meaningful and gainful employment for single mothers.
Access to HIV/AIDS treatment.
Safe havens that will take in the children AND the mother.
Educational opportunities for all children.
The list goes on.
Five months later, I left Congo again. This time with my son securely in my embrace. Through the warm, balmy night, we crossed the tarmac and climbed the steps to the jet that would carry us home. And I wept, this time silent tears fell down my cheeks as he wiped them away. "s'okay mama. s'okay." He was right, it was okay. For us, it was okay. It was amazing, we got our chance. Our chance to live and thrive. Our chance to breathe. The same air, together, at the same time. We got something so many mothers and sons will never find in Congo.
That night my feet left Kinshasa, but my heart didn't. A piece of it is buried with the woman who gave my son life. A piece of it lives with the woman who cared for Jephté at the orphanage, with the woman who taught me how to say, "i love you" in his native language, with the woman who received his broken little self when I left. And a piece of it belongs to the women I don't know. The women I pray will get to keep their babies because of the work Reeds of Hope is doing. The women who will never say goodbye, who will drop their children off at school and pick them up each afternoon. The woman who will go to work with her head held high, bringing home nothing but food and clothing for her children. The woman who will slather her baby in coconut oil at night and wake to his chocolate eyes staring at her each morning. Everyday, I think of her.
Will you stand with us? Will you make the space for that mercy to break through? Will you be that glimmer of hope for a young mother? That reed of hope that might just change her life. Together, Reeds of Hope, leaving no mother behind.
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