Sunday Morning ~ Forty Years From Malawi to Maine
Caona mwana tola; ukulu nkuona kako. ~ What the child has seen, pick it up. Being mature is to find your own.
~ Chewa proverb
May 24, 2020
My oldest turned forty this week. Yikes. I have a child who is forty years old. Remember when being forty seemed really old? I’m having a hard time getting my head around this. I remember turning thirty thinking, yikes, in ten years I’ll be forty. And now I have a kid who’s forty. When that decade turned for me I still felt twenty. Except for the fact that I had a SEVENTEEN year old child plus four others. Holy smokes.
I was always a big planner and mapped out all my milestones when I was a kid. Looking at a National Geographic magazine made me decide turning forty was to be done in Venice. Oh the romance! The markets, the canals, the art! When I made that plan it seemed I might as well be tuning one hundred. Turning forty was eons away. A lifetime away! More than a lifetime away. The next ice age or something. But there it was, coming at me and I had to make good on my plan. Yes, I always felt once the plan was made it must be executed. I spent many hours as a visiting nurse sitting with those at the end of their life. They often said, “I wish I’d (fill in the blank) when I had the chance.” I vowed over and over not to die like that. I did not want to be an old woman filled with regrets and unfulfilled longing which seemed to me a cancer in itself. So off to Venice to fulfill the scripture! My mother, bless her to the stars and back, came to stay with our five teenagers so we could board a flight to Italy, leaving her with a hundred miles a day to drive the kids to all their activities. Our paltry contribution to her good deed was bringing in a television to preserve her sanity. God. I hope I made that up to her.
The attempt to retrieve romance, fall in love with each other again, shake off the stress of having five teenagers, and forget about work, was all secondary to turing forty in Venice. The swarms of tourists didn’t bother me. The polluted canals didn’t bother me. It was all an ecstasy of art, engineering, and history. We meandered, got lost a lot (something that drove Joe mad), argued about that, (“What is the problem? You have a meeting to get to or something?”), and walked a million miles sucking up all the mind boggling architecture. We ate gorgeous lunches and snacked on olives for suppers. Joe gave me diamond earrings which, kind as it was, was a bit of a disappointment since I had asked for a ring. Not having gotten an engagement ring, I asked for one for my birthday but for some reason, getting me what I wanted was not in my husband’s scope of practice. That would have shown weakness or something. So he got me diamond earrings and I pretended (not very well) that I liked them. I was in Venice. That was the important thing. I vowed to make each decade better than the last and buy my own birthday presents.
Now I have a child who is forty and it makes me feel like I’m moving to a new stage of life; like he’s moving into middle age so I must be moving into senescence. My mother seemed old when I was forty. Well, she was a lot older than me when she had kids, so I guess I shouldn’t compare, but I have been walking around this week thinking more about my joints.
He was born at 6:12 a.m. after a long labor. This week, forty years after that day, I woke early and wrote to him, sending it at the exact minute he was born. Amazing how we can do that, isn’t it? We talked and he told me I was very brave and slightly crazy to have had a child so young so far away from home. What was I thinking? he asked rather accusingly. I said, “Women do have babies all over the world, you know.” but his tone did echo several other family members’ at the time.
I never worried about having a baby in Malawi; I felt safer there than I did in our medical system. I worried about the world we were bringing him into. The Russians had invaded Afghanistan, Reagan was about to be elected, Mount Saint Helen just blew it’s top off, and John Lennon had been shot. I was terrified the world was ending. I thought not only would we be raising a child but we’d have to fix the world too! Came up a little short on that last one.
He was ten months old when we left Malawi. We weepingly said goodbye to our village and dog, got into a rickety boat that rowed us out to the Ilala, the lake steamer that would take us south. In 1981 the road south was still a dirt trail up an escarpment and was impassable in the rainy season. There was no dock in Karonga where we lived, so we had to pile into a small boat that took us out to the steamer. There we handed up the cargo and children to the deckhands and climbed aboard. It took three days to get to Lilongwe where we ended our Peace Corps service, a process much simpler then than now. Now it’s like a week long process. Then, they handed you your passport and some money and said goodbye.
At that time, British Airways let you stop anywhere along your route for free as long as you didn’t venture more than five hundred miles off the course, so we looked at the flight route from Malawi to Boston and picked all the places we wanted to stop along the way. We decided to spend two months traveling, arriving home just before Matt’s first birthday. It seems astounding to me now that British Airways allowed you to treat it like a hop on hop off bus but that’s how it was. I laugh now just to think of it. So we stopped in Kenya for a week just to see Nairobi and it’s environs, admitting to ourselves that climbing Kilimanjaro with a baby was probably not a good idea. From there we went to Sudan for a few days seeing Juba then staying in Khartoum to see where the Blue and White Niles meet. There was no war in Sudan back then. Imagine. Then it was to Egypt for a fascinating week in and around Cairo, then to Athens to see the major sights. Rome for Easter seemed a good idea, and we’d met a seminarian in Malawi who set us up with a place to stay and Easter dinner at the seminary near the Vatican. It was before the Pieta was smashed by a crazy person, so on Good Friday we stood in the front of a huge crowd, feeding Matt oreos to keep him quiet, waiting for Pope John Paul II’s Friday audience. Being so close to this holy man as he processed past Michelangelo’s Pieta is still one of the most spiritually moving moments of my life. He was so close to us. Joe held Matt out toward the procession and the pope looked straight at my child, smiled, and made a graceful sweeping sign of the cross. Call it wishful thinking, but deep in my bones I believed that blessing would protect my child forever. Maybe it has.
Love to all,