Sitting behind a group of kids at story time in the Seward Public Library, I watched and listened while the librarian introduced the topic and books for the day: Thanksgiving.
Before reading, she explained to the children in general terms what the occasion meant and then asked each child what they were thankful for. One-by-one they listed things they own, toys, stuffed animals, etc. When she got to Porter, who was sitting in his usual spot in the front row, he simply said, “My little brother.”
With wide-eyed excitement, the librarian turned to Magnus and said, “Magnus, did you hear that?! Your brother is thankful for you!” At that point, the boys looked at each other and embraced in an emphatic hug.
In the moment I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or both. I was so happy, proud and thankful. Thankful for the life we’ve been able to provide Porter and Magnus. Thankful to spend so much time with them each and every day. Thankful to have lived and cruised on Yahtzee as a family for the vast majority of their lives, showing them what an amazing world we live in and how to enjoy it to the fullest. Thankful for our future plans to continue doing just that. And thankful for the families we grew up in, with parents who guided us and showed us that all of this is possible.
Shortly after leaving the library, my thoughts turned from us, our lives and this upcoming Thanksgiving to the past and to other people. I silently reminisced about those who are no longer with us, to things I’d seen living in Ethiopia and to a blog post I’d written prior to Thanksgiving six years ago while there (read it in bold at the bottom). I thought about what Jill and I experienced — the good and the bad — and how it all changed our perspective on many things moving forward in life. And I’m thankful now more than ever for that experience because it taught us about an incredible country and people, and set us up to be exactly where we are right now.
In the same vein, I thought about Jill’s current job as a mental health therapist and how difficult some people in my own community have it, too. Especially around the holidays. We certainly have a lot to be thankful for, but not everyone has so much. People all over Alaska, the country and world are struggling with an immense amount of issues, many of which are based on circumstances that are far beyond their, or my, control — much like people we lived near and met in Ethiopia.
Of course, Thanksgiving turns the mind gratefully towards the things and people in our own lives. But it should also be a reminder to reflect upon those who aren’t.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Enjoy your holiday, hold your family and friends close, please be safe and, as always, thank you for reading.
October 24, 2011: Kombolcha, Ethiopia —
Every life has a story. Some have happy endings, others are tragedies, many are a mix of both, and some just are.
These stories do not have a happy ending.
A man who appears to have leprosy lies on the ground, hard dirt. The day is hot and dusty. People pass by en masse. He sticks out a palm with no fingers attached, begging for money, for mercy. His other hand is the same. His feet have no toes. They’re barely feet at all, they’re stumps. I walk by.
On a different day a lady occupies the same stretch of dusty ground. She too has no fingers on either hand. She wrestles with a bag full of vegetables and other belongings, fighting to make her hands work in a way to simply gather her things. She struggles. Others walk by. A lady stops to help her. Again…I walk by.
Near Kombolcha’s main piazza is a lean-to made of wood, tarps and feedbags. This shelter houses a family of three, a mother and her two children. Each day the mother strategically places her baby and toddler at street’s edge to collect money. I want to scoop them up, to give them money to live and eat, but can’t. They look up and say “money”, they shouldn’t know what the word means. Cars, trucks and people flow past. So do I.
A lady in her 40s runs by us on a mountain path nearly six miles outside Kombolcha. On her back is a boy. He is probably 11 or so and by the expression on her face, not light. Her face also shows determination, his shows pain. Blood soaks his right ankle and foot. He needs medical attention fast. There is nothing Jill or I can do. She doesn’t even break stride. We continue hiking.
Signs of malnutrition in a small child are obvious when you know what to look for. Even if you don’t, they’re still easily recognizable. A hard distended stomach, copper-colored hair, hollow looking eyes, and blotchy discolored and wrinkled skin. Add an upper respiratory infection that sounds like the cough of a lifelong smoker and flies burrowing in the corners of the eyes, nose and mouth. I stop and talk to this 18-month-old girl, touch and rub her tummy, chase the flies from her face, and want to take her home, feed her, wash her, clothe her, and love her. I can’t. I say goodbye and keep walking.
Tears stream down his 12-year-old face. A loud cry breaks the bustling noise of an African city street. Behind him is a old blind man. They’re attached by a string, the boy pulls the old man through the streets. They are both abused. Battered by circumstance. The boy has no shoes on his feet. Today he wears a shirt, though, tattered and dirty. He should be in school. He should be playing something, anything. His haunting cry breaks my heart, my soul. A man gives the boy 5 birr (30 cents US). I sit and eat my lunch.
The hurdles these people face are more like walls. Seemingly built so tall and strong they can’t be scaled or knocked down.
“You’re going to see things that will hurt your heart. And your devastating realization will be that you can’t do anything about it.” A doctor with many years of experience working and living in Africa told me this before I moved to Ethiopia. At the time I couldn’t comprehend how right he was.
Now I know. And I’m thankful that I do, because it makes me truly understand and appreciate how much I have.