[I wrote this in the airport after leaving the orphanage two weeks ago and am just now posting it.]
The last week has been a blur of activity and movement. Everything happened so fast that it was difficult to process each event as they took place.
It’s currently Monday, and I am sitting in the airport in Johannesburg, watching planes roll across the tarmac and trying to understand how I got here. None of it seems real.
But it was.
Earlier in the week, I began talking to the children about our immediate departure. I started class every day with the topic. I told the kindergarteners that I was leaving on Saturday.
I told them that I love them very much, and that I will always love them. I told them that I would pray for them, and that I would see pictures and read stories about them and watch them grow up.
I told them I would get on a bus that would take me to Lusaka, and then an airplane that would take me to America. They know where America is on the map as a result of our social studies lessons from the summer. They indentified Africa and Zambia and watched as I traced my finger across the Atlantic to Texas. I told them it was very, very far.
They didn’t get it. Henry’s first response was, “You will come back.”
It was not a question. It was a statement, and he expected me to confirm his hopes. I sat there in stunned silence for far too long. I so wanted to lie to him, to say “Yes, of course,” or “maybe” or even “I don’t know.”
Instead I told the truth. “No, Henry. I don’t think so. I’m not coming back.”
I’m not coming back. I still haven’t quite wrapped my mind around that. It doesn’t seem real.
The questions continued throughout the week as we continued to talk about it.
“When you leave, who will stay with us?”
“When you leave, who will teach us?”
“When you leave, who will read to us?”
I don’t know, baby. Not me. Not anymore.
I painted their hands different colors, laid them on white paper, and wrote their names as a keepsake to take home with me. But the bright blue and yellow and pink hands that will hang on my wall are not real.
On Saturday morning I said goodbye. Starting with the babies, I made my way to each child, holding them, kissing them, telling them I loved them. I left the kinders for last.
Jennifer, thinking we were continuing the tickle fight that had taken place earlier, scurried away from me and I had to catch her and swing her in my arms to give her a goodbye hug.
Moriah buried her head in my shoulder and held on tight, the way she always does.
Janet was reluctant to walk over to me when I called her but lifted her arms expectantly. She didn’t smile or laugh. She was the same silent child I found in my classroom on the first day of school. I think she knew better than the others.
Beauty gave me one of her huge, wonderful smiles and kissed my cheek. Such a beautiful smile. Such a beautiful girl.
Sandra chattered the entire time I said goodbye, as if she couldn’t hear the words I was saying to her – “Be good. Pay attention. Listen to your aunties. Talk to God. I love you. I love you, Sandra. I love you.”
Henry was the last. I was descending the steps into the courtyard when he ran into my arms, just like he does every time he sees me, even if my arms are full and even if I don’t feel like a hug at the moment. This time, however, I caught him and lifted him in the air, then held him tight. None of the other goodbyes had made me cry. It was Henry who made my throat close up, and I found I couldn’t talk. So I just held him for a while. Finally I set him down.
“Listen to me, Henry.” My voice wavered dangerously, and there seemed to be something in my eyes. “Are you listening?” He nodded solemnly. “I’m leaving, Henry. I want you to grow up and be a good boy, okay? You are so smart, Henry. Sometimes you do things that are bad. I don’t want you to do bad things. They make God sad. But Henry, I love you no matter what, okay? So does God. I love you Henry.”
“I love you,” he whispered. Then he bounded away.
In reality, my kids are resilient. Reality forces them to be. They will forget me, or the memory will fade and they will not think of me. And as much as that hurts to know, I love them too much to deny them that. I would rather them forget me, or store me in the back of their minds as yet another white teacher who came through and left, than have them experience loss and longing on the scale they felt on Friday and Saturday, when Chola wept with Emily and Henry begged me to take him with me.
“I wish, honey,” I answered every time he ran into my arms and chirped in his hoarse voice, “I want to go with you.”
It didn’t feel real as we walked out of the orphanage and down the hill to the Boma. It didn’t feel real as we boarded the bus and waved goodbye to our friends.
It didn’t feel real at 6 a.m. the next morning when I opened my eyes, saw the dawn breaking over Lusaka, and realized that I will never see Henry again. I will never see any of them again.
I can’t seem to understand that. It doesn’t seem real.