This weekend we celebrate the birthdays of our twin girls Abuk and Achan. I just can’t let that day go by without thinking of another day, in another continent, celebrating another miracle.
We had touched down on the dirt airstrip in Malualkon, South Sudan. It was packed with people wanting to see the little girl. We had adopted Abuk four years earlier and had brought her back to this village from which she departed. Cheering erupted the moment she stepped through the door of the small plane.
I don’t quite remember too much after that, for there on the ground was a little girl playing in the dirt and preoccupied with something she was drawing. Suddenly she looked up directly into my eyes and my world shifted on its axis.
By accident I had stumbled upon Achan, Abuk’s identical twin sister, whom we had been told had been killed in a raid along with the mother and an older brother. The girls had been four months old at the time. Later that day a little boy was brought to us who happened to be Ater – the brother who had been caring for Achan since their mother was killed.
So long ago now (2005) and yet the sight of Achan’s eyes are seared into my brain, likely embedded there forever. I choke up now even thinking about it and you can’t blame me – or Jane for that matter. It was a moment of profound revelation and the ultimate recognition that we had been humbled by the greatness of life in the midst of countless deaths from civil war. We were parents suddenly aware we would never be as great as our children in that moment. They had survived and developed inner strength through hardship and loss.
Suddenly we went from parents of one to triple that in an instant. Over a year later we brought Achan and Ater to Canada to be with their sister they had once believed was in heaven. Well, they were right. Of all the countries they could have arrived in, they landed in a country mighty in spirit, majestic in nature, and meaningful in the way its people choose to carry out their lives.
How to you bring up children like this? The basics were all there – discipline, love, instruction, patience, joy, endurance, endless work that is only exceeded by infinite compassion. To this day they come home from school carrying sticks that they lay on the porch. Why? Because in those brutal years in Darfur they journeyed far and wide for firewood and they still instinctively gather the twigs even though they’re not required. To this day they beam with smiles and a joy that only comes from staring at death when you’re too young to understand it and embrace life in a way that is old before your time. To this day they play together, even with Ater being three years older, because they are a family baptized into a grand narrative that has become the brand new nation of South Sudan. To this day they pray for their “African Mommy” in heaven – aware that her bolt for freedom which ended in such tragic loss nevertheless propelled them into a chance at life. To this day they embrace Jane and I with such vigour, knowing that we scramble every day in our hearts and minds to live up to the honour granted to us of guiding miracles into maturity.
These three children, products of brutal war, are now byproducts of a gentle peace. They’ve come to the best country and by a fate that can only prompt my religious faith, they have latched on to a mother who is a match for their birth mother – proud, majestic in humility, magnificent in service, and joyful in a prolonged youth.
And me? How can I measure up to four such outstanding human beings? It’s simple; I can’t. But I don’t regret it. To be dwarfed by humanity in the form of these remarkable people is to learn humility – not by my failures, of which there are many, but by the miracle of abiding with such marvellous gifts that I neither deserve nor warrant.
The picture above is of Abuk (with the ball) holding Achan just two hours after they discovered one another. With little food over the years, Achan is all that much smaller. But those are the eyes that staggered my soul with their experience. To this day I am a man blessed by the ability to never lose the wonder of it all. In a few hours they turn 12. And in that same span of time I will have turned my face towards the world’s oppressed. After all, if I hadn’t chosen that path in life, I wouldn’t have discovered any member of this remarkable family. A lot of you understand what I’m saying because you love your kids just as much. It’s just that Achan, Abuk and Ater have survived so much and I want to guide them aright, and to learn from them what majestic souls really look like. Happy birthday girls and thank you, God – for all of it.