Knowing for the First Time
It was T. S. Eliot who provided one of my favourite quotes of all time:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
On any journey there are two kinds of exploration – the journey without and the one within. For our son Ater both melded into one as he returned to the place of his birth and at the same time attempted to piece together in his young mind and heart developments that were bound to drive him into a deeper place of maturity.
The picture above is of Ater seeing his grandmother for the first time in seven years. We had only just arrived when he discovered her waiting for him on the periphery of the crowd. People were all over him, but once he saw her, he began moving slowly in her direction. I started to video the moment but the look on his face was so profound that I forgot all about it and moved to be with him.
His face was as complex as a map of Africa. She moved to him, arms open wide, and enveloped him in her world again. Suddenly he wept, as did she. He told me later that the memories of her care for him following the years after his mother was shot filled him with gratitude at that moment. They embraced for a long time before she quietly pulled back to examine him. “You have a fine face,” she said in her native Dinka language. He couldn’t respond.
Later they sat on the portico of the mission where we were staying, holding hands and saying words neither could comprehend – he no longer knew Dinka and she had never known English. From watching that scene, I learned once again that love, and family, and roots, and memories possess a language that exceeds all vowels and consonants. It reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s keen observation in her Der blinde Morder: “Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.” If so, a vast array of truth was passed back and forth in those few tender moments. But if, as Mark Slouch says, “Gone is the saddest word in any language,” then surely the happiest must be the word “here.” The tenacity and endurance of love as a language was never more clear to me than in that moment when a young man embraced his past and an old women recaptured her hope.
And then suddenly she up and left, moved by deep feelings that we didn’t comprehend. And Ater just sat there, surrounded by lots of interested faces who just stared at him as tears streamed down his cheeks. My heart fluttered in that instant. I wanted to rush in and embrace him – he’s my boy, after all. But I’ve lived long enough to know that the human heart must grow willing, if not comfortable, with the complexities of profound life once it strikes us. And so, in an action that was totally counter-intuitive for me, I leaned against the wall and let him work it through in his young mind.
And then the most marvelous thing happened. He looked up, saw me, rose and rushed to me in embrace. My God, I’m so thankful I waited, for in that tremor in his bones I held a young life that was reconciling its past and its future in a quick moment of time. I pulled his face down to mine and asked if he was okay. He merely nodded and kissed me on the top of my bald pate.
Tell me: who was the caregiver at that moment? It was him, not me. He was suddenly appreciate of the wonderful gift he had just been granted and it was his way of expressing his thanks.
Look at the video below, shot later that day, and you’ll see he moved about easily in a world that was once filled with rampage, war, want and death. He had returned to a land a peace. But the grandmother he had held earlier that day had gifted him with a protected love that had transcended the deprivations of human dealings.
I watched the grandmother a couple of days later, observing from the sidelines as Ater played with his new friends, and it struck me at that moment that perhaps one of the best things about leading a good and sacrificial life is the opportunity to actually become a memory. That was all Ater had of her until that week. He suddenly looked up at her and waved and she beamed all over. I studied her face and wondered whether she was herself learning that to live in someone’s heart is to never die. She was coming to terms with the reality that she had been remembered, that a young boy had captured in his mind all those occasions where she had been there for him. She was coming to terms with the eternal nature of love.
Watch the video and you’ll smile seeing them dance together because to be truly human is to dance. Ater is no longer a boy with a past and a future, but a being with a path ahead of him. But as long as he has memory and a language that is greater than syllables, he will never be at a loss for words.