My father sat in the pew of a church in Philadelphia with a slip of paper in his hands. The cold encamped outside was a far cry from the mosquito hot shores of South Africa. Three years. He had brought his young family Stateside for three years to add a Masters of Divinity to his medical degree. Before Internet, cell phones, or frequent fliers, three years was a full time commitment.
We lived in 13 different houses in the first year alone. My brother, Joshua, was born in the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. I experienced Kindergarten, Fourth of July, and the cold, frosted beauty of snow angels. We drove on the wrong side of the road and loved everything.
One missions Sunday at church the pastor proposed a practical exercise in praying outside the familiar. Everyone in the congregation of hundreds placed their name on a slip of paper and into a collection bin. The sermon followed and then everyone dug deep and took back a different slip with a different name.
My dad thrilled at the idea of a name from a far-flung land he could invest in and go to battle over in prayer. He tells me often and often about his profound disappointment when he opened the small slip of crumpled paper and recognized my mother’s name.
In that sea of hundreds of people her name had drifted back to him. And all he felt at the time was let down.
Three years in Zululand and then three years in Pennsylvania. I was six when we returned to the land of thatch roof houses, blood gold sunsets and the hadeda. My mom was the center of the loud music, poems, literature, and youth group I grew up in. And one Friday night I was called out of the hot core of my teenage self and into the dark car where my father tried to tell my brothers and I that the world was about to change.
We listened with eyes streaming in the moonlight and one-by-one climbed out of our seatbelts and into his lap. And then the praying began in earnest.
We clutched at her name as it began to slip through our fingers. We traveled hours to spend time with that name and always, after each visit, begged just one more day with that name. We got 18 months. Which brought my total to 18 years and one week.
Eighteen years and half my life. I turned thirty six last week.
I feel the heavy line like black tar painted across my existence. Starting tomorrow she will have been gone for more of my life than she was with me. September 2nd and a lifetime. But I can choose to keep count from here on out in my own way, can’t I? There is always a choice for those willing to look for it. I can take the math of the memories and bend them into my own theorem. Because I believe in an infinite truth.
And so I keep count from September 2nd but not because it was the day she died. But because it was the day my first born, heir to her name, was due. According to my calculations, we have had five years of life now.
Five years of loud, drumming, stamping, wrestling, reciting, laughing, hugging, high-fiving life.
And it has been beyond beautiful.