What do these things have in common?
- A park-dwelling giraffe
- Two dental crowns, an iron infusion, and an upper endoscopy
- A rum distillery
- Mormon standup comedy
In no particular order, these represent just a few of the wildly varied events of our home leave, during which we attempted to catch up with friends, family, and medical care after two years away. I had been back in the U.S., of course, for my medevac, but my time was not entirely my own during that adventure, and the kids and Andres were not with me. The kids hadn’t seen their stateside friends and family for two years, and while we had received routine medical and dental care throughout our time in Ghana, we had put off anything substantial for home leave.
Our home leave home base was Lubbock, a town we’ve never actually lived in, but family makes it feel as close to home as anything we have. Andres couldn’t leave Ghana until August, but the there was little reason for the kids and I to linger after school was out and our belongings packed for Lagos, so in late June we said our goodbyes. Arriving exhausted from Accra (32 hours door to door), we found Nonnie and Poppa’s house a refuge and a comfort. Isaiah was even able to start right away on one of his summer goals: learning to cook. Poppa and Isaiah made pancakes for breakfast and it already felt a bit like we’d never left.
I’m not sure at this point I could reconstruct a blow-by-blow account of the summer, even with my photos to jog my memory. It was a lot. A lot of joy in visiting people we’d missed. A lot of bittersweet moments as we said goodbye again after the merest of hellos. A lot of loss felt as we experienced, day to day, the reality of everything we miss as we live our lives an ocean away.
After we caught our breath we struck out on the first of many road trips. Isaiah and I headed to Ciudad Juárez, foreign service post #1 and still home to beloved friends and beloved taquerías. We righted the wrong of never having visited Modesto, the giraffe who lives in Parque Central. We ate more tacos in the stretch of 48 hours than I think is generally advisable. We tried to visit our old neighborhood, only to be turned away by the security guards (who were doing their jobs well). And of course once we were on our way from Juárez to Santa Fe, the next stop on our journey, we stopped for green chile cheeseburgers in Hatch.
Isaiah and I met up with my sister, Lisa, her kids, and Marisela in Santa Fe. We spent a blissful week enjoying the dramatic beauty of my home state, assembling puzzles, watching Wimbledon, getting some quality grandparent time in. Fourth of July brought not only fireworks but also a very patriotic (and very Marisela) breakfast: Krispy Kreme donuts.
As if to keep Ghana fresh in my mind (because it was feeling more distant every day) I kept running in to reminders of it in the most unlikely places. Baskets seen at the Santa Fe farmer’s market, nearly identical to the baskets sold by a street vendor I walked by every time I went to Osu to do my shopping:
Skirts at Ross at the De Vargas Mall (or whatever it’s called now). Ross! In New Mexico! Sure, the skirt was actually made in India, but the cloth is unmistakably inspired by Ghanaian kente.
After Santa Fe we had another Lubbock pit stop. For me, the days were packed with appointments and obligations. They were also packed with increasingly distressing news about my Grandma Dyche’s health. Our plans for the summer were tightly choreographed. Visits had been planned around friends’ travel schedules, their kids’ camp and summer activity schedules, and our need to be certain places at certain times, like at the family farm for our annual reunion, which we’d missed the year before. It was hard to know how much or whether to alter those plans. And Grandma had taken bad turns before, only to reverse course and come raring back. At 97 she seemed invincible. In her telling of it, a life of hard work and home-grown veggies were the secret to her longevity, and she’d held on to life through decades of toil and challenges. It was hard to imagine she would ever let go. My sister took our parents to see Grandma, but I chose to stick with my original plans, which would bring me to the farm in about a week’s time. I hoped it would be soon enough.
In the meantime, there were other things to take care of. Turns out I was anemic, so I got to spend a morning receiving an iron infusion. That same day – the day before we were leaving for the next road trip – we had some crucial all-American teenager business to take care of: Isaiah had finished enough of his online course and I had scrambled to complete enough paperwork to allow him to apply for his driver’s permit. We got the true, classic DMV experience (well, in Texas it’s the DPS, but you know what I mean). Hours and hours of waiting. Unsympathetic bureaucrats suspicious of our documents and our odd situation (side note: although foreign service officers are commissioned officers serving overseas on government orders almost none of the exceptions routinely made for members of the military – like exceptions to having to prove residency when getting a driver’s permit, for example – are extended to foreign service families). It was a slog. There were tears shed and swear words uttered and cleansing breaths taken. But in the end, he got it. He was a verifiable American teenager and could have then commenced to being a danger to all on the road if he were that kind of kid. Lucky for all of us, he is not that kind of kid.
The next interlude was Glen Rose, TX and Chez LaMure. Isaiah grew up in Oak Cliff with Vivian LaMure.
Marisela grew up with Lillian. Dana and I spent hours sipping tea, sipping wine, talking about books and God and our love of pie and all things delicious and homemade, reading to our kids, strolling at the zoo and the arboretum and the aquarium, and generally being moms together. Dana then outpaced me by having Iggy, and though I didn’t match her with another kiddo we all showered love on “Baby ‘Natius,” as Marisela called him. The LaMures are our non-blood-related family and we were delighted to spend time with them again.
Our arrival was overshadowed, for me, by more news of Grandma’s decline. I ducked out of our celebratory dinner that afternoon, surrounded by not just the LaMures but also our dear Clinton Avenue pals Ish and Kathi, and Kathi’s delightful mother, to take calls from my sister with updates on Grandma’s health. With Lisa’s help I talked to Grandma a bit on the phone. I tried to enjoy the reunion with our friends. I tried to not feel split in two. Should I let go of this chance to be with friends so dear to my heart for the possibility of seeing my grandmother one more time? Would she know I was there? Would I feel like I was truly seeing my grandmother, the spirited, force-to-be-reckoned-with grandmother I remembered with such love? I stayed, banking on the hope that she would hang on until we arrived at the weekend. Later that week, en route to a “throwback Thursday” showing of Jurassic Park with Dana and all the kids, I got a call from Lisa that Grandma had died.
Dana and I spent the next day shopping. Isaiah was honored with the duty of being a pallbearer and we had no appropriate clothing with us. At my best I’m inept with shopping and choosing correct attire, so I was more than thankful for my friend’s calm demeanor, no-nonsense attitude, and on-point fashion sense. Isaiah didn’t even complain about the many trips to the fitting room, a testament to his great affection for “Miss Dana.” Looking back on our week in Glen Rose, of course it is overlaid with the painful memories of my Grandma’s last days and the pain of knowing I might be missing my last chance to see her. But it’s also filled with love and gratitude for our friends’ warmth and kindness, and joy for the sheer volume of fun we somehow salvaged.
From Glen Rose we headed to Oklahoma. We were all gathering anyway for our annual reunion. This year we kicked it off with my grandmother’s funeral. It’s hard for me to imagine she wasn’t aware of the fact that we were all making our way there. Getting to northwestern Oklahoma from Glen Rose was easy. Getting there from Ghana or Nigeria would have been a lot more complicated. We were all able to share our grief as we said goodbye to Grandma. My cousin Brad had us both laughing and crying during his homily. We saw extended family we hadn’t seen in years and years and I showed the kids the little church where I’d both attended and taught vacation Bible school many years back, and where I’d sometimes play my violin during a Sunday service. I played at my Grandma’s funeral, and then again as she was lowered into the ground at the Waynoka Cemetery. She had requested that I play Home on the Range, and so I did, and it was somehow a comfort to see cows gathered nearby, seeming to listen appreciatively.
It was tremendously hard for me to be away from Andres during all of this, and I know it was miserable for him to feel distant and helpless as he finished his service in Ghana. I knew his thoughts were with us, though, and appreciated it. And my uncle, my cousins and their families, my parents, my sister, brother-in-law, niece, nephew, and kids and I were together at the farm house, a place entirely suffused with her memory. We grieved together and also did all we could to fully enjoy the place that she – and we all – loved so much.
At this point I was starting to feel a little beaten down. We had hit the ground running and hadn’t yet slowed down. There was plenty of joy along with the sadness, but there was precious little calm and quiet, and I was longing for both. But it wasn’t quite time for that still. We had one more road trip to go: Dallas. Both kids were born there and it’s the closest thing we have to a mutual, family-wide hometown. Living in Oak Cliff we had a strong community of friends and neighbors we still love and miss, and going back is always an emotional experience.
As always, our schedule in Dallas was packed to bursting. It’s a good thing to have friends and to feel loved. It’s a humbling and beautiful thing to find that, even after nearly five years of absence, those loving friends are still willing to make time for us. We had a wonderful week. I played tennis at Kidd Springs Park with my nearly-lifelong friend, Susan, something I used to do almost every weekday morning. I got coffee each morning at Davis Street Espresso, and remembered the humble beginnings of our neighbors’ coffee business so many years ago. We went to church and even on a reading camp outing to the library (for an African dance show!) with the good people of Christ Episcopal. Isaiah and I checked another stuff we should have done while we lived there item off the list, attending a movie at the Texas Theater, one of Oak Cliff’s more notorious locales, with Susan and her husband and father-in-law. Isaiah spent nights and mornings and afternoons and every second he could with the friends he’d known since before he remembered. They walked the neighborhood, got ice cream, swam, talked, got more ice cream, and said yet another round of painful goodbyes. Marisela was young enough when we left Dallas that her connections aren’t as strong, but she enjoyed the week nonetheless, and forged new connections for a new era. Susan and her family made Marisela feel so welcome she spent most of her time hanging out with them – and rekindling a friendship with their daughter. We also were able to spend an afternoon with our longtime babysitter, Lily, who’s practically an adopted big sister.
We tacked an extra day on to our trip to reclaim some less-distracted time with the LaMures on the way back to Lubbock. As ready as I was to settle in and stay put for a while, I needed at least 24 hours to be fully present in Glen Rose. From there we drove our last long stretch of home leave, back to Lubbock and to our “cozy home” – a rental we’d lucked in to finding and lining up while we were still in Ghana: a non-corporate, family-run complex of temporary housing that caters largely to traveling nurses, oilfield and wind farm workers, and now one foreign service family.
It felt good to finally settle somewhere. My parents were more than gracious hosts. Friends and family alike had opened their homes to us, and we’d lucked in to a perfectly-located AirBnB for our week in Dallas. That was all fantastic, but the first night we slept at the rental it was pure joy knowing we’d be sleeping there every night until we left for Lagos. Finally, I thought, I’d get some quiet and calm.
It didn’t really work out that way. Spoiler alert: I never did get quiet and calm. At this moment, as I write this, I’ve finally achieved some small measure of it here in Lagos, at least in patches, just a little over three months since we arrived back in Lubbock from our road trip odyssey. Five months since we left Ghana. Maybe six since were really engulfed in move preparations. It feels like about time.
We entered a new phase in our home leave: it was back-to-school time! It would be a week and a half before school started in Lubbock. We had shopping to do, registration and open houses to attend, traffic patterns to study, and all of it knowing we would be exiting about six weeks into the school year. We were also preparing for something truly exciting: Andres would be joining us just after school started. He’d be leaving Ghana, making a quick dash to visit a buddy in western New York, spending a week in D.C., and then – finally – arriving in Lubbock for his home leave to begin.
We made the most of our time before school started. We hung out with cousins and grandparents and family pets. We hosted and attended big family dinner get-togethers. We went to ice cream parlors and the library and did the things people do during summer vacation. And then it was time for school. Isaiah and Marisela walked into schools they’d never attended, in a city they’d never lived in, among kids they’d never met (well, one among the 2,000 students at Isaiah’s school was his cousin, Haylee, but they didn’t have a single class together). They knew they’d only be there for six weeks. Such an in-between time. Too long to just be observers but too short to ever feel truly a part of things. But they did it, and then they did it again when we got to Lagos. Just like they did in D.C. and in Mexico and in Ghana. There is so much we all gain from this life, and I am proud of Andrés’ service, but there is also so much that just feels too hard and too unfair. I appreciate all they do and all they go through and I’m glad that we’re on the other side of all the change for a while.
We were just a few days in to school when this guy showed up:
And – of course – things got awesome. There were still a few non-awesome events, like the upper endoscopy I needed to make sure the anti-malarial medications I’d been taking for two years hadn’t put holes in my esophagus (no holes! Yay!) But for the most part it was pure good times. Home leave exists to ensure that diplomats stay connected with their home country and with the people they represent abroad. We definitely immersed ourselves in Americana. We were in Texas, so of course there was football. Lots of football. We went to a Texas Tech game and sat sizzling in full sun. We went to a Monterey High School game and cheered Haylee and the band on. We watched Cowboys games and cooked out and drank beer. Isaiah made artery-clogging buffalo chicken dip. Real red, white, and blue good times.
And since when we were planning home leave we weren’t sure what our transportation arrangements might be, Andres had booked a trip to Dallas on Greyhound. He had doctors to visit and friends to hang out with, so Marisela and I dropped him at the bus stop in downtown Lubbock and he trekked across Texas in the company of a couple dozen fellow Americans. He was impressed by the companionable spirit and easy community feel among the bus passengers and was glad to have had the chance to journey across Texas in their company. It felt like the perfect, reconnecting way to travel during home leave.
Lubbock, Texas features as the butt of many jokes in the parts of the world where it’s known at all. I believe there’s even a country song along the lines of “Happiness is Lubbock in the Rearview Mirror.” I have been guilty myself of denigrating the Hub City, but those are cheap and easy shots. True, it’s not the most scenic of towns. True, that wind can really blow. True, it’s not the most exciting place to visit. But we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in Lubbock, and found it has a lot more to offer than the jokes would lead one to believe.
Among the cultural and culinary highlights of our time in Lubbock: a visit to a distillery where Texas-grown sugar and corn are turned into rum; dinner at a local brewery followed by a songwriters’ showcase at an historic theater in Lubbock’s arts district, sponsored by nonprofit dedicated to keeping Buddy Holly’s musical legacy alive (he – perhaps now alongside Patrick Mahomes – features prominently as Lubbock’s favorite son); lunch at Cooks’ Garage, an establishment marked by dozens of gas station signs from a bygone era and housing a custom body shop, a music venue, and a tasty restaurant; several (I think three??) trips to the Big Texan, tourist trap extraordinaire in Amarillo (home of the FREE 72-oz. steak . . . if you can eat it, and all its accompaniments, in an hour); pan dulce and tacos from some pretty authentic Mexican joints; Lubbock’s finest thespians performing a farcical comedy at the Lubbock Community Theater; and an evening of truly funny standup comedy that didn’t have a single word or joke in even the PG-13 category – performed by a traveling band of Mormon comics. We definitely found plenty to do in “boring” Lubbock.
And through it all the good family times kept rolling. We were delighted for the chance to have Haylee stay with us while my sister and brother-in-law took our nephew, Ethan, to start his first semester at the University of Arizona Honors College. We even got to stand in for her parents at family band night and learn the complexities of marching. Well, at least get a little taste of it (and thankfully we didn’t have to do it out on a field in long-sleeved uniforms under the Texas sun – don’t know how those kids do it). We had the chance to visit with my cousin Steve – the fabulous Cuncle Steve – and his wonderful wife, Emilia, whom we hadn’t seen since their wedding in Poland more than a year before. Just as I was during my medevac, we were welcomed and embraced as family by the congregation at my parents’ church, St. Christopher’s. It was at St. Christopher’s that we posed for the pictures below in our Ghanaian batik – made by a Ghanaian colleague of Andres’ in Accra and adorned with the Consular Affairs logo and adinkra symbols related to the consular section’s values. At that point we were nearing the end of our time in Lubbock. It was going altogether too quickly.
One thing I failed to mention was that during the Dallas stop I received some very flattering news: the company I’ve done freelance work for over the last 18 or so years offered to make me a regular employee. I happily accepted the offer, and once we were back in Lubbock I started in earnest to work on my latest project: developing a textbook for phlebotomy technicians. My boss (who also happens to be my dear friend Susan of Kidd Springs tennis fame) had the brilliant idea of coordinating a photo shoot during my time in the U.S. I hustled to scrape together a list of photos I thought we’d need. Susan made magic happen in Dallas, arranging a site and securing the modeling services of phlebotomists and “patients” and lining up a technical consultant and photographer. About a week and a half before I left the U.S. I flew to Dallas for a day and a half, spent a few hours having blood drawn for the camera, a few hours enjoying good food and beverages with Susan and other neighborhood friends, and a lovely (but sweaty) afternoon walking the arboretum with Dana before flying home.
Once I got back to Lubbock we really had to get serious about getting out of there. We had been collecting nonperishable food and booze and toiletries for our consumables shipment, and many things we knew we’d need over the next three years for a supplemental household goods shipment. My company had bought me a computer, now that I’m official, and that had to be shipped. And to the kids’ absolute insane delight, we told them that we would agree to adopting a cat once we settled in Lagos, so of course we had supplies to buy and ship. By the day the movers came our cozy home was extra cozy, since a large portion of the space was taken up by our shipment items.
There was medical business to wrap up, as well. We had seen a dentist in Accra, but x-rays were not part of the standard routine there, and the Lubbock dentists, with their fancy machines, revealed the Isaiah needed some fillings and I (gulp) needed TWO crowns to replace fillings I’d known for years were on borrowed time. My crowns were tapped into place less than a week before we flew out. Thankfully they seem to be working out just fine.
There’s never an easy way to say goodbye in this life. There’s never an exit that feels anything other than strangely anticlimactic. After all the buildup and the hours spent coordinating registration and the frenzied supply shopping and the attempts to at least sort of become part of their school communities we just picked the kids up one last time on an otherwise ordinary Tuesday afternoon. Hutchinson Middle School and Monterey High School were a fixture of our everyday lives, and then they weren’t. We went to dinner that night at Mom and Dad’s house and ate my mom’s iconic stuffed pork chops with them and with my sister and her husband and our niece and we had a great time like many of the great times we’d had all summer long. It felt comfortable and almost routine, like we could count on it. And then we couldn’t. We left my parents’ home that evening and, of course, haven’t been back since. The next morning we hauled our overstuffed bags into that beast of an Uber pickup truck and home leave was over.
We’ve been in Lagos for six weeks now. That’s how long the kids attended school in Lubbock. It’s a touch longer than Andrés’ entire home leave. A lot has happened in six weeks: Andrés has already been back to the U.S. for a whirlwind training session, and has hosted a delegation of visitors from Washington. He’s built great rapport with his team and they’ve already accomplished incredible things. I’ve put together four new chapters for the phlebotomy book. Isaiah has created an eerily frightening video game for a Halloween game design contest – and won! Marisela has started learning the guitar, and has produced some beautiful oil paintings. We’ve even adopted Lucas, a starving street kitten scooped from a tree by a kind-hearted consulate employee! (A neighbor is generously keeping him for us while we wait for our things to arrive.) We’ve received and mostly put away the vast majority of our belongings (of course the cat stuff has yet to come . . . poor kids!) We’ve celebrated the Marine Corps’ 244th birthday and Isaiah’s 16th birthday and are poised to celebrate Marisela’s 12th (well, and also my [mumbly-mumble]th). On the unfortunate side, we’ve weathered at least three rounds of illness in the house, one of them influenza. Immune systems shored up, we’re now (knocking on my desk here) feeling great.
To quote the title of one of Isaiah’s favorite books, the days are just packed.
Until next time . . .