The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: adoption

Who Knew?

Twins (1)

Achan and Abuk a few moments after meeting one another – 2005

They were violently wrenched apart at only four months of age.  Too young to understand what happened, they likely were terrified by the sound of gunshots and their mother covered in blood.  One was immediately ushered away while the other lay in a tangle of bodies, nestling in the arms of her dead mother.

For years they both lived separate lives, aware that the other had once existed, but believing that death had taken the other.  They were informed they had once had an identical twin but that life and war had conspired to separate them forever.  The one lived and thrived in Canada, aware of her loneliness but surrounded by everything wonderful.  The other fought for life in Darfur, also aware of loneliness but with nothing present that could ease the feeling of alienation and fear.

On a single day in 2005 they bumped into one another beside an airplane on a dirt airstrip in South Sudan.  They looked at each other, fascinated by the resemblance, but too young to understand what was happening.  To the amazement of all, they later grasped hands and walked away from the crowd, holding on to a soccer ball.  Time stood still.  The earth stopped rotating. Destiny was in the making.

It was later that day that the identical twins learned that other had, in fact, survived but half a world apart.  While they kicked the soccer ball in the dirt, forces at play on two continents had already begun to reunite them in Canada. This was Abuk and Achan, our twin girls, and an ever-present reminder that not only do miracles yet occur, but they mature over the years to the amazement of those willing to see.  Today, they become teenagers.  At thirteen years of age they have defied the odds and brought honour to their two mothers – one dead, the other preciously alive.  To this day, they look individually in the mirror and see the other.  They look at each other and see themselves.

For those around them there has been the discovery that there are two things for which we are never fully prepared – twins.  They stand as one of the unique unfoldings of creation and humanity.  They remind all of us that every once in a while two people come into life together, sharing possibilities as they once shared a womb.  And they are an eternal reminder that they share an African mother that lost her life in her pursuit of their freedom and in that reality they will ever be bound to a remarkable woman leaving them with an inspiring legacy.

But there is more.  They share another mother, a Canadian woman, who also risked her life for their freedom.  Only this Mom they get to keep – and what a keeper she is.  In so many ways she is younger in spirit than they are, more capable of spontaneous joy than anyone else in our family.  And as they mature they will ever be captured by the memory and knowledge that this mother lives every waking moment treating the rest of humanity like she treats these precious girls.

I ask you, what were the odds that they would be together for their teenage birthdays?  The war, the famine, death of their mother, in remotest Africa, disease, lack of water, noticed by only a few people in their village willing to care for them – such things conspire to wipe out lives and possibilities.

But not for these two.  They live and are as different as identical twins usually are.  Yet they are the living embodiment of Louisa May Alcott’s observation – “We’re twins, and so we love each other more than other people.”

This is a day of possibilities, of reminders that should we but enter into the pains of humanity we might yet rescue people from their circumstances and unleash their marvelous humanity in our generation – and theirs.

There is a custom in South Sudan that tells of how a mother who has died but whose twins remain separated hovers over the earth in her efforts to reunite them.  If unsuccessful she takes them to heaven to be with her.  If successful, and they come together on earth, she is free.  The village sacrificed a bull in honour of the twins and as they looked on with Jane they could hardly have understood what this meant to the Sudanese.  One mother from Canada had one last slave to free – a weary Sudanese mother of twins attempting to bring them together.  In that one act they were united before the entire village and their African mother could cease from her labours.  Go, then, Sudanese Mom, and rest.  They live.  They thrive.  They love.  And they will ever be reminded that you sacrificed your all so that they might have a shot at living.  If you could only see them now.  It was a sacrifice worth making in every sense of the word.  We thank God for every thought of you – a towering woman.  Just think, your twin girls are thirteen today.  Who knew?

Knowing for the First Time

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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.

 

Home, But Not Alone

IMG_2548On Saturday we leave for our big excursion to the Republic of South Sudan.  We take a team of 16 other Canadians with us and there will be lots of challenges.  My health will be an issue since it wasn’t too long ago that I came out of major surgery, but we trust it will hold up.

But this year one special traveller will be journeying with us and for him the next few weeks promise to take him through an emotional roller coaster.  Our son, Ater, is 15, and this will be his first trip back to Sudan since he came to us six years ago.  Then he was just a small boy who, with his sister Achan, had suffered through the loss of their mother and were orphaned at a young age.  Their arrival in Canada proved to be a pivotal moment in their development and they have flourished beyond what we even imagined.

But always – always – Jane and I have known that he was a gift we were meant to nurture.  We have seen enough travail in the world, some of it brutal, to know that adoption is but one of the great redemptive acts by which we help to heal the tragedy of a broken world.  Deep down, it is the troubling acknowledgement that the world is indeed in need of recovery – and compassion.

This trip has come at a time when Ater’s world is full of possibility.  He has a remarkable ability to work with those who suffer – far greater than mine – and yet he is trapped in the years of youth when he still has to work things out.  Two weeks ago he started working at a McDonald’s near to us and life has been good.

What will he think now, as he returns to his ancestral home and revisits the pain he endured as a boy caring for his younger sister following the loss of their mother?  He will see some remarkable changes due to the realities of a peace that has only recently come, and an altered landscape as a result of climate change.  Villages are disappearing as the Sahara encroaches and the rains come weeks late, or not at all.  It was a world he only knew instinctively – its threats, the endless search for food and water, death, love, the endless gnawing of living in a world on the edge of extremes.  Shortly he will view it as an outsider, more objectively, and perhaps with a little alarm.

But inevitably, imperceptibly at first, emotions will come creeping back into his conscience.  This was once his world – the depravity and horror of it, the devotion of a mother’s love, the courage of a remarkable people, the shuddering reality of relentless war, the ongoing responsibility of caring for a young sibling in a world with few resources.

He had been in Canada about six months when he suddenly started screaming in the night. What was it we wondered? We held and affirmed him, feeling totally incapable in the process.  It was only later that he recounted to us of the nightmares he endured at the sight of seeing his mother shot in brutal fashion.  He even remembered the colour of dress she was wearing and how blood suddenly soaked through it.  Will those thoughts come flooding back?  Will he seek to put such things away or embrace them in the relentless tug of the enduring love his mother once gave him?  He lives because she scooped up her children and fled for safety in a war zone. Surely he comprehends what kind of bravery that would take, but will he seek to get to know her better through memory and the surroundings of his homeland?

He will be a rock star over there – the one who escaped to Canada and now even has an iPhone.  He will be healthy and educated and his home community will marvel at the change.  But he is still Sudanese and being back with his people once more will surely reintroduce realities to his young heart that might have lain dormant for a time. We can only pray this his two worlds can begin the process of reconciliation in his wonderful mind.

And what of Jane and me?  Will we handle it well, being there when the questions inevitably arise?  We can only hope so.  As he helps us provide clean water, give goats and sheep to returning exiles and former slaves, and even helps make bricks for the secondary school we are constructing – the only one in the region – will he suddenly see himself in the massive needs of the people around him?  If so, we must be there for him.

Jane will surely come to terms with the reality that this special boy grew in her heart the way he once grew in his Sudanese mother’s womb, and there will be a sense of wonder in that.  And we will watch him together, reflecting on the words of Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant:

“There,” she said. She rocked him back and forth. “There, you foolish, beautiful boy who wants to change the world. There, there. And who could keep from loving you? Who could keep from loving a boy so brave and true?”

Brave and true he is, but he is still a boy and he is about to see the world as it once was for him.  Think of him, if you can.  Pray for him even.  For he will be a young man returning home who will hopefully understand he will never be alone again.

For All Of It

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.

Overcome By History

I was unprepared for the emotion of it.

In 2005 I wrote a book titled A Path Between Two Mothers – the story of our daughter Abuk and how she survived slavery, civil war, and the death of her mother during some terrible years in Sudan. It was just meant for her personal memories and I never intended it to go any farther.

Then some gifted musicians got together and decided to turn it into a musical. I was surprised and delighted. Last night was the first of three performances of Abuk: The Musical and I found myself overcome. Abuk (11 years old) had done a couple of media interviews in advance, but even she was fully captured by the story.

I remember when she first encountered her identical twin sister on a dirt airstrip in south Sudan. They had been separated at four months of age when their mother was shot and each believed the other was dead. Seeing one another for the first time, they both burst into tears – not because they recognized one another but because what are the chances that you would fly half a world away and find someone identical to yourself?

And now here she was watching a moving production of her life. No wonder she felt somewhat overwhelmed, so enraptured and hesitant at the same time. Her life in Sudan had been brutal. In Canada it has been wonderful. In between stands a gamut of emotions that no young girl should ever have to face … and endure. But this is Abuk – wonderful, radiant, strong, shy, and above all, a remarkable overcomer who in her very survival placed life in perspective for all of us.

But she is not alone in her conflicted emotions. Her mother and I felt all of the hardship of that year trying to find her in the civil war come flooding back to us. It was an exhausting journey that eventually saw us involved in our own child’s survival on the very threshold of impossibility. Thanks to Jane’s determination we all prevailed, Abuk above all. These are the journeys of the human heart, often at the extreme. I stood spent at the very spectacle of it last night – a player in a drama more moving and hopeful than any fictional movie. This is my life. It’s my daughter. It’s my dauntless wife. I am enriched as a man surrounded by intrepid women. How did I ever get to be so fortunate? I thank God for this gift every day of my life. It’s true.

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