A season gone

I’m not sure what we were expecting, really. We did discuss, we knew intellectually, that leaving Lagos might mean leaving Lagos. That we might not get back. Or that it might be a long time before we did. We chose to be hopeful, because there didn’t seem to be many other choices that would still keep us moving forward, and we needed to move forward. We needed to pack and make arrangements for a place to stay and get the right papers from the vet. We needed to get a computer ordered so Marisela could keep working on school. And figure out how to juggle computers so Andrés and I could both work remotely. There were things to manage that didn’t leave much time for pondering the imponderables.

Now we’ve been in Lubbock long enough for this little kitten . . .

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to become this little cat . . .

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For snow and sweatshirts and blankets

to give way to shorts and tank tops and thunderstorms.

For this hair . . .

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to become this hair . . .

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Isaiah has learned how to cook and how to manage his own little home.

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A field of sunflowers has grown up around us.

Restaurants and grocery stores have been built (or nearly built) from nothing.

It feels, sometimes, like all of this change goes on around us while we’re still stuck in the same, decidedly uncertain, place. But that’s not true, actually. Things have changed, some for the better. My father has recovered very well from his heart attack, for which we are very thankful. And although the Lagos airport still has yet to officially open to international travel, Andrés was able to join us for a visit, which has brought no end of joy.

We’ve managed to come to answers, of a sort, about school in the fall. Assuming we are still planning to return to Lagos, which we are, the kids will be permitted attend their international school virtually until we’re able to go back. That’s a tremendous relief, especially as Isaiah starts working toward his IB diploma this year. The prospect of asking him to start yet another Lubbock high school (the IB school this time) for an unknown length of time, with all the additional uncertainties attached to school this fall, just felt inhumane.

We still don’t know when this separation ends. For the moment, thankfully, we’re together, but later this month Andres returns to Lagos and we wait here. The stages set out by the State Department for reopening posts and bringing families back don’t seem matched well to posts like Lagos. Many of the requirements and expectations for reopening (based on these standards) are unrealistic for Nigeria in the best of times, let alone during a pandemic. So we wait while our truly excellent leaders at post work out what makes sense, balancing safety and realism, and (with any luck) help folks in Washington understand that.

I don’t think it’s unlikely that we’ll still be here to see these scorching hot Texas summer days give way to brisk air and sweatshirts again. Of course, last year we left Texas in October without once having a day below the mid-80s. So maybe not.

Andrés’ visit is giving us some fuel to keep going a bit longer. These are Isaiah’s last years at home. We’d rather not spend much more of this time with “home” divided between two continents.

Some things, it’s reassuring to see, haven’t changed dramatically since we left Lagos.

Whether the bathroom is in Lagos or in Lubbock, Lucas has no respect for the sanctity of toilet paper.

 

You haven’t written anything yet!

As I sat here trying (to no avail) to come up with a title, WordPress trolled me with a popup banner, complete with red exclamation mark: ! You haven’t written anything yet!

I was aware of that.

And actually, I had written lots of things. I had just rejected them before I actually put them onscreen. Because there’s no good thing to write in this moment. There’s nothing coherent, there’s nothing that feels true, there’s nothing that even comes close to capturing either our personal experience of this moment or my take on a wider perspective on this moment. So I thank WordPress for providing the title I needed, allowing me to go on and not know what to write in the body of this blog post.

I can’t recall another time in my life so suffused with grief: Personal grief. Familial grief. Communal grief. And I must acknowledge that I have not been personally touched by so much that has wracked the world around me. That in many ways I’m among the most fortunate right now: I am healthy. Andrés and I both have stable employment and health insurance. I grew up never having reason to doubt my safety or my family’s safety in the world outside my front door.

And still I find myself paralyzed, and WordPress has to remind me that I haven’t written anything yet.

I miss my husband. I miss my home. I miss the normal day-to-day of meals and lives shared, of neighbors and neighborhood and a whole cast of friends and acquaintances. I miss the small kinds of certainty I never even thought about, like knowing where I would be in a few months’ time, or when and where the kids would start school in the fall. Even with the frequent changes that are part of foreign service life there was a pattern that could be relied upon: there’s a one-month window for arriving at a post, a one-month window for departing. There are rules about the length of home leave, the number of R&Rs, the duration of a tour. Even that now feels like it has fallen out from under our feet.

This week has added new layers of grief. I grieve for the incomprehensible loss of over 100,000 lives in what feels like the blink of an eye. I grieve for our country and for the long years of oppression and dehumanization suffered by so many generations of my fellow citizens. I grieve for the pain of the reckoning that seems to have begun, even while hoping and praying that the pain might finally, eventually, lead to a place where justice might be done. And alongside that vast pain that stretches to all humanity this week has brought a very personal pain, as my dad, the kids’ beloved Poppa, is in the hospital having yesterday suffered a heart attack. He seems, thanks be to God, to be doing well and recovering quickly.

So here I am. Heartsick. Grief-filled. And I haven’t written anything yet.

Boy this place looks familiar

I’m sitting in a comfortable, cozily furnished room looking out (through an open window, no less) on a grassy expanse peppered with sunflower sprouts. A cotton field is just across the road. The road, which surely at one point was a sparsely traveled country road, is periodically busy with a ratio of about 3-to-1 pickup trucks to sedans. Marisela is about 8 feet overhead, playing Minecraft in her personal loft with a friend in Dallas. Isaiah is in his own casita maybe 30 meters away, doing his laundry and playing games online with his friends in Ghana. Andrés is roughly 6,800 miles away in Lagos, enjoying his first true weekend in about a month.

If it seems like we were very similarly situated not too long ago, that’s because we were. The kids and I are once again at the wonderfully non-corporate furnished rental property we discovered when we were preparing for our post-Ghana home leave. Andrés is once again in West Africa without us, doing the job he was commissioned to do, only this time under far more pressing circumstances. The lovely proprietors of this property very kindly checked in with me before renting out the big family house we called home last summer, knowing we were potentially on the verge of leaving Lagos. At the moment they checked in, however, we were in that brief and lovely stage when we had decided to stick together and wait things out in Lagos. Just a bit later, when word came down that families were encouraged to leave, the big house was rented, but two smaller places would be available, so here we are. Isaiah gets to experience a bit of autonomy and Marisela and I are roommates.

But let me back up a bit. Last I wrote there were many, many unknowns. A picture was starting to emerge, but it wasn’t yet clear. The Wednesday flight did, indeed, materialize. We were able to take Lucas (and, by lucky chance, the export certificate we had scrambled to acquire for him was set to expire the day after our flight). Flights from the east coast to Lubbock were available (though sparse, and we ended up spending a few nights in a Virginia hotel waiting for one) and our in-cabin cat was allowed on those flights as well.

Many of the other questions still remain. State Department’s worldwide authorized departure order expires mid-May, but the order was issued with the possibility of month-at-a-time extensions. It’s hard to believe an extension won’t be announced sometime soon. Even as some European cities are beginning to open back up, or to discuss opening up in May, Lagos is only just now seeing cases rocket skyward. When we left there were about 250 confirmed cases in Nigeria. There are now (just over two weeks later) more than a thousand, and about 3/4 of those are in Lagos. Lagos, the city of 20 million people. With many, many residents for whom staying home and social distancing are near impossibilities. Lagos is likely only at the very beginning of the pain this virus is going to inflict. I hope I’m wrong. I truly do. It might be quite a while before we can return.

That’s the rundown of the current situation for us. Here are the minute details, for those who might like them:

We left Lagos on Wednesday, April 8, with Lucas in tow. The Lagos airport, usually packed, was virtually empty. Andrés was at the consulate that day but his colleagues helped us, along with about 300 other citizens (only a handful of whom were associated with the consulate), get checked in, screened, and onboard an Ethiopian Airlines flight specially arranged to take us back to the US.

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The flight was an adventure. We departed around 4:00 pm and were scheduled to arrive at Dulles around 10:00 pm. In theory, it seemed like decent timing. We’d get settled, eat dinner, maybe watch a movie, and then maybe nap a bit before arriving, and then get to our hotel in time for a solid night’s rest. Our original schedule had us back at Dulles around 4:45 am to check in for a flight to DFW and on to Lubbock, but we already knew that Lubbock flight had been cancelled. We were scheduled instead to fly out of National the following day. Really, about as forgiving a schedule as we could hope for.

About 45 minutes in, all hope of a restful flight vanished. We hit the worst turbulence I’ve ever encountered in my many years of flying. After a few intense but run-of-the-mill bumps it felt like we plummeted, not once but twice in succession. Marisela’s Kindle flew out of her lap. I felt strangely like my organs were somehow untethered and floating in midair. I’m sure that in reality the drops were small, especially in the context of the altitude at which we were flying by that point. But they didn’t feel small. And we were not the only ones alarmed. Most of our fellow passengers were US citizens of Nigerian origin who had been visiting family when the airport closed with only a few days’ warning. Religious expression in West Africa, in our experience, is vigorous and voluble. As soon as the turbulence hit, the airplane cabin erupted in prayer, hymn-singing, and calls upon the Almighty. The grandmotherly woman seated immediately behind us was rocking back and forth, eyes closed, intoning, “Blood of Jesus! Blood of Jesus! Blood of Jesus!” There’s a definite culture gap here: what our flight companions surely found reassuring we found an alarming, inescapable reminder that things were not OK.

Of course things really were OK. They didn’t feel OK, though, and that feeling stayed with the kids throughout the flight. They had never even experienced a seriously bumpy flight, so this was truly alarming for them. We had stretches of reasonably clear flying, but they were interspersed with bumpy patches for the whole 11-hour flight. No more dramatic drops, but plenty of jolts and jumps. Through all of this sweet little Lucas uttered not a single meow. It was one of many mercies this trip afforded. But Marisela could not settle. Every bump renewed high-alert status. Her terror was real, and it was infectious. Isaiah hardly slept. I slept not a wink, except possibly in patches of self-preserving micro sleep. My presence was needed to keep fears as far at bay as possible, which is to say not very far. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier for a flight to end.

You might wonder what kinds of controls were in place when we arrived on an international flight to an area of the US where infections were rising dramatically. The surprising answer: almost none. We had filled out travel history and contact-tracing forms on the plane, which included indicating where on the plane we were seated. Nobody ever collected them. There was no hand sanitizer offered anywhere in the airport. There were no temperature checks. Although there were signs posted and stickers on the floor indicating the need for six-foot distancing, there was no enforcement taking place and lines for customs did not always allow that amount of space. Granted, we were coming directly from a country with a much lower confirmed case count, and we had been checked for body temperature and asked about symptoms and any known contact with the virus as we left Lagos. Still, it was a bit of a shock to experience so little vigilance (OK, no vigilance) taking place at Dulles.

By the time we collected our luggage, found the shuttle site we needed, and arrived at our hotel it was nearly midnight. We set up a temporary litter box and food and water bowls for our feline companion and were ready to crash. Except for Marisela, of course, who had a new wave of energy. She had to check out the coffee maker and have a decaf (??) before settling in for the night (for the record, this is something she has never had or expressed a desire to have in the past). I did not have the energy or presence of mind to muster enough parental authority to stop her.

We slept, eventually. Lucas slept, burrowed under every layer of blanket on our bed. We spent about 30 hours ensconced in this little pocket universe of hotel bizarroworld. Corridors were empty. The staff was a skeleton crew. Food had to be ordered in person in the restaurant for takeout to the rooms (I think they didn’t have enough staff on hand to take call-in orders?). There was no housekeeping service except between guests. A restaurant employee told me the hotel had cut staff in half in recent weeks. Things had certainly begun to change in Lagos by the time we left, but this felt different. We little to no interest in a “normal” hotel experience, though, and were able to get what we needed: sleep and some time to breathe and recover from our harrowing journey.

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Friday we were on our way again. Our original flights had been out of Dulles, but the rescheduling left us flying out of Reagan National, so we had to load ourselves, the cat, and our six bags into an Uber XL with the help of a driver who clearly would rather not be working in the midst of a pandemic (and I cannot blame him at all; we wore our masks and tipped generously). The flights were fine. The kids were champs. So was the cat. Nobody was thrilled to be back on planes, but everybody just did what had to be done. We were quite thankful for Marisela’s thoughtful selection of a cat carrier with zip-out panels to make more room during layovers. Lucas enjoyed (well, that might be a bit strong of a word . . . maybe tolerated better) the airport time with the extra space. Through all of this, he would periodically let us know he was still there and not 100% on board with what was happening, but he was a true angel kitty: never protested loudly enough for anyone other than us to hear, and never messed his carrier. It was one of the great reliefs/surprises of the journey: having him along was actually not burdensome, and the comfort he brought made the trip easier.

By the time we touched down in Lubbock and retrieved our suitcases Isaiah with his sizable head had busted the elastic straps on his two masks (sewn by Marisela, by the way), but we were *almost* at the end of our journey, and would be driving our own car from the Lubbock airport to our home-for-now. That’s thanks to my sister and her family. They met us at the airport with our car, which was loaded with welcome decorations, some essential groceries, kitty litter, kettle bells, and delicious home-cooked food we’d enjoy over the next several days. We greeted each other from an appropriate distance, thanked them, and hightailed it to Cozy Homes.

We arrived in Lubbock on Good Friday. From Lagos I had ordered cat supplies and set up a curbside grocery pickup for Saturday. I was determined to truly make Easter feel like Easter and to make a meal worthy of the most celebratory day of the Christian calendar. Unfortunately, the ham I had ordered was out of stock by the time the groceries were assembled, as were a few other key ingredients. Thankfully Instacart delivery and Sprouts came through for me and we ended up with a massive ham we will probably be working to finish throughout our evacuation. The rolls, by the way, were made with flour I’d brought from Nigeria: white flour from the supermarket and whole wheat ground from the wheat we’d purchased from John’s Farm and put in our consumables shipment. That was some well-traveled bread.

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The National Cathedral in Washington has incredible online services. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon, followed by a tear-jerkingly beautiful Zoom choir/orchestra rendition of The Strife is O’er, The Battle Won made it truly feel like Easter was still Easter. I was also able to join my cousin Brad’s Easter service in St. Luke’s Episcopal in Stephenville, TX. For all the disconnection this virus has caused, it has also drawn me closer, in some ways, to people I love around the world as we are all now socializing and connecting online.

It’s been nearly two weeks since we enjoyed that feast. There was more than a touch of sadness in making such a meal just for the three of us, when we would far rather be sharing it with Andrés and many others. But it was the best we had and we made the most of it. We took my parents some ham and scalloped potatoes and cherry pie, depositing our offerings on a chair in their garage and returning to their driveway so we’d be far away when they retrieved them. Over the last few weeks we’ve refined and perfected this routine, finding ways to be together at a significant distance. Walking my parents’ dog, Lizzie, has been a highlight for all of us. We’ve also enjoyed virtual board game sessions with my sister’s family and are hoping for more of that this weekend.

One bit of excitement we hadn’t anticipated: snow! It wasn’t much, but it was the first snow the kids have seen since Mexico. And the only cold weather they’ve felt since, I’m guessing, March or so of 2017. It made for a cozy morning. Marisela still has the little snowball stored in our freezer.

Our home routines are taking shape now. We’ve each carved out spaces and schedules that work reasonably well. Lucas seems perpetually amazed by the wide-open spaces he sees out the windows (and the birds he can imagine stalking). He quickly mastered the ladder/stairs up to Marisela’s loft, and he alternates between Isaiah’s casita and our apartment. He’s comfortable in both spaces now and while I can’t say he enjoys being poked into his carrier to transfer from one to the other, he does seem to appreciate having time with all of us. Dinner tradition is to eat together wherever Lucas is living at the moment and then to spend the post-dinner hour wearing him out in the hope of helping his host(s) enjoy a full night of sleep.

I cannot complain about the fact that I still have a job, and that it’s kept me busy lately. In the midst of all of this upheaval we’ve finalized the textbook I was working on, got it sent off for printing, and in the two weeks I’ve been in Lubbock I’ve written the lesson plans for the instructor’s guide. This coming week I’ll finalize the teaching tools that make up the instructor’s guide appendices, and before long I will be holding the book in my hands. Oddly enough, I started work on this book at Cozy Homes last summer, and I will finish it just across the property from where my work began. Then (most likely) I’ll be starting another new book that will, I am hoping, be finished in Lagos.

The kids have been working hard, too. Online school is no joke, and I know the kids’ teachers are doing everything they can to make it the best experience it can be. The uncertainty of our life right before leaving Lagos made it tough to stay up with classes, and the vast number of messages, videos, and other communication attached to each assignment really can pile up after just a short amount of time. Marisela, in particular, found the transition challenging but has been working hard to catch up again. It’s been a strange, strange school year.

The kids will continue with this online version of AISL until early June. In theory their classes are supposed to take about four hours each day. In practice, they’re both online from 8:00 am until 2:00 or 3:00 pm, and Isaiah has yet to have a weekend free of homework. While that’s no more time, hour by hour, than in-person school required, it’s a more draining experience for them, and it leaves us all with less down-time than we’d like. Most of our days are pretty tightly scheduled, but at least I can say we are finding time to get exercise, enjoy family (from a distance), talk to Andrés, and have meals together.

Speaking of Andrés, he’s still doing what needs to be done, working hard and enjoying the company of his consulate colleagues who remained at post. There was one “last” repatriation flight over this last weekend, bringing the total of Americans for whom the consulate has arranged repatriation to nearly 1400. The airport remains closed, though, and there are still people who have expressed interest in leaving but who have yet to leave, and so there may well be more flights in the future. Andrés and the rest of the consulate crew are keeping spirits up and doing all they can. We all miss him (and our home and neighbors) terribly.

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Right now I’m enjoying a weekend of true rest and recuperation. No big meals planned. No curbside pickups to get our new homes set up (very thankful to have the resources to set up, yet again, from scratch, but a little bit tired of doing this given that we had home leave setup last August, Lagos setup in October, and now we’re here all over again). A few kitchen projects with Marisela. Probably some yoga and walks. Sitting by the pond here at Cozy Homes. I might even manage to read again. It’s been a while. Things are beginning to feel as normal as they’re going to feel.

Many thanks to all of our friends and family for the love and encouragement. We love everyone right back, and we could not do what we do without our worldwide emotional safety net. Thank you and we wish everyone peace and safety.

Limbo lower now . . .

Yep. It’s limbo both ways. We’re stuck in a weird in-between. And it seems to be getting more challenging with each round.

We were supposed to be flying out tomorrow. Not happening. Things are a bit clearer now than they were when our day began (at which time I was aware of no planned flights . . . just that everyone was still working ceaselessly to get something figured out). I now know we are scheduled to fly on Wednesday, and word is that we can probably take Lucas with us. Just having that much to go on is a huge improvement, because as of last night this was the list of things we did not know:

  • When flights would be scheduled to take consulate families and other US citizens from Lagos to the USA
  • Whether we would be able to take our cat with us
  • How long we’ll be in the US (and away from Andrés)
  • When and, to be entirely honest, whether, we’ll be able to return to Lagos (depends a lot on the next point)
  • How things will unfold in Nigeria as covid-19 spreads (we’re now up around 200 confirmed cases, four deaths, but it’s very hard to trust numbers here, not for lack of effort on the part of the Nigerian CDC but for lack of resources)
  • What things will be like the US when we arrive and – if our departure from Nigeria is sufficiently delayed – whether it will be feasible to get from the east coast to Texas with a cat in tow

Just having a hope of a flight now, and particularly of one that will accommodate our Lucasito, makes a big difference. I am not frightened to stay here. Had it not been for guidance that families should leave I think we would have stuck with our plan to hang tight together here in our home. But knowing that we’re supposed to leave, and knowing that the situation in the US is worsening daily, I want to go sooner rather than later. The uncertainty of the wait is hard.

I am not eager to leave Andrés, knowing that our separation is open-ended. I am proud of him, and of all the State Department employees throughout the world working to meet the needs of US citizens. Andrés has helped families with emergency visa and passport services so they can stay united as they work to get home. He and his colleagues have kept the consulate running 24 hours a day to take calls from US citizens in need of assistance. He is there right now, at 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday, to inform people about the upcoming flights and assist them with reserving their seats aboard. I know he will continue to make a difference, and that he knew when he became a foreign service officer that hardship situations are part of the deal. We all knew it. It’s still hard.

When I awoke this morning it was from a fitful night’s sleep, riddled with doubt and uncertainty. As the day has passed I’ve spent time with the kids, I’ve pet the cat, I’ve talked to my parents, I’ve just kept living my little life and I’m feeling better now. Part of it is certainly the new flight plans. Part of it is just being with the people I love. As I lay in bed, awake and dozing and awake again, I get lost in myself. Connection is what draws me back to some sense of peace, and I’m thankful to have that.

It does sometimes feel like things just get trickier and trickier. Like that bar keeps getting harder and harder to squeeze under. There are so many hard moments. This will pass, though, both on our small family scale and on a global scale. It won’t pass without loss and without grief, but it will pass, and we will all live that loss and grief together. In that shared experience we’ll find the way forward into what will almost certainly be a changed world. I am trying very hard not to be thrown by what in the larger view are the small uncertainties of my individual life. I pray the same for us all.

And Now for Something Completely Different . . .

Well, it lasted a week, our bold decision to stay put. In keeping with the general way of the world in 2020, the week that’s passed since my last post has seen the ground shift beneath us sufficiently that things don’t look the same anymore.

So far all is quiet here. Eerily quiet. These photos were taken about a week apart, the first on the day Lagos seemed to really grasp the seriousness of what’s starting to happen here and the second two after several days of “limit unnecessary movement” messaging:

This is not a quiet, orderly city. Lagos out-New-Yorks New York. It’s truly a city that never sleeps. It’s crowded, creative, noisy, unruly, electric. Empty streets feel ominous in a place like this. It’s a good sign, I know, but a strange one. Even the waterways, usually criss-crossed with nonstop ferry traffic, are quiet now.

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When Andres and I saw the empty streets and empty lagoon, and saw measures like this at a grocery store, we were encouraged.

We’ve been receiving texts from the Nigerian CDC on our Nigerian-carrier cell phones. Public spaces are prominently displaying public health messages.

These were the sights Andres and I saw as we made an early-morning grocery run over the weekend. We bolstered our supplies, buying fruits and veggies of staggered levels of ripeness, focusing on root veggies and apples and things that will keep a while. We came home and did our usual produce-cleaning routine (this is not new for us after several years in West Africa, but feels even more worthwhile now).

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All in all, the weekend left us feeling encouraged. Cases are rising (though testing is certainly not widespread), but (known) deaths so far very few. A feeling of relative calm had settled in and public health messages seemed to be effectively communicated.

But yesterday morning there was a new tone among our community. Nobody anywhere in the world knows how this is going to play out. I’m not sure the word unprecedented has ever seen as much use as it’s seen in 2020. Concerns are rising over the number of unknowns here in Lagos. It’s a massive city: 20 million people, give or take (how can anyone even really know?). Huge swaths of those 20 million exist hand-to-mouth on an informal economy that relies on crowded markets and on automobile traffic at intersections and on people stopping by a particular corner on the way to work to buy the breakfast specialty someone prepares over a charcoal fire. Nobody knows what will happen as first stay-home orders and then the disruption of many, many more people becoming ill take a toll on this system. Attempts are ongoing to bolster the healthcare infrastructure but that’s a tall order, given the likely crush of patients. Conditions in many parts of Lagos make the concept of “social distancing” an impossibility.

We knew all of this. But somehow collectively I think we were choosing to believe, for Lagos and for ourselves, in the best possible outcomes. And now the time for considering the whole range of possibilities, and really considering them, has come. How can the consul general be expected to maintain safety not only for the key consulate personnel who will stay no matter what, but for families and for people whose jobs at this point – with all normal visa operations suspended – can be done from any computer anywhere in the world? So yesterday word went out that all families and all nonessential personnel are strongly encouraged to leave, and that doing so would be the best way for us to serve this mission. Staying and being a potential excess burden of responsibility is not helpful.

So a week ago I said “For now, we stay” and today I say “It’s time for us to leave.” The kids and I will be on a plane at some point in the next several days, possibly with and possibly without our precious kitten. Andres is on the essential staff list, and if a pet-friendly flight cannot be arranged, Lucas will be an essential cat.

Our evacuation will last at least 60 days (default minimum for this event) and can be extended for 30-day periods subsequently. If, after 180 days it’s still not considered safe to return the post is then considered “unaccompanied.” I wish I could confidently leave our home knowing I’ll be back, and relatively soon. I can’t. And so I’ll leave with sadness, of course, for being separated from Andres, but also for being separated from our home and from friends I’d only started to know. So much to mourn, but I know my loss is by no means unique or even particularly significant in the scheme of what many are experiencing right now.

We will be in Texas, near but not with my parents, near but not with my sister and her family. We will be in Lagos, in our hearts. We will be with the heart of the world, waiting and waiting. Hoping.

 

Should I Stay or Should I Go

I confess that I can’t claim any kind of originality on that title, not even in its application to our current situation. It’s borrowed from a thread on a Facebook group for foreign service families, and it’s the story of our collective life over the last few weeks.

As of about 10 days ago the State Department announced authorized departure for all posts worldwide. Essentially anyone who wanted to leave any post could do so. Some posts have been on ordered departure (you must leave) for quite a while (those posted in China, for instance). Of course as people made their decisions factors other than just Do we want to stay here or go back to the US came into play. Borders were closing. Flights were being cancelled. Quarantines were being instituted. I have friends across the globe who have opted to leave posts and friends who have opted to stay where they are. In our own little community we’ve said goodbye to some, and not even had the chance to say goodbye to others as they dash to catch a last-chance flight, and have been working with those who remain (the majority, actually, by a significant amount) to keep our spirits high and our risks as low as possible.

Friends in the US have asked what shaped our decision. Here are some of the highlights:

  1. Home. We haven’t been here terribly long, but our apartment feels like home and it’s the only home we have. We don’t have a house in the US. We would never even think about staying with our older, vulnerable family members. There are family-associated homes . . . the farm in Oklahoma, my parents’ townhouse in Santa Fe . . . but as treasured as those places are, they are not *our* home. This is.
  2. Health. Back when Nigeria had two confirmed cases (this was just a week ago), the consulate health unit set up appointments for families to discuss their options. While Andrés and I are at slightly elevated risk due to middle age, in general the risk that we will require intensive treatment is not high. And although we all have some chronic medical concerns, we also have ample supplies of medications and nothing likely to precipitate an emergency. I’ve always worked from home and the kids’ school moved to online instruction. Andrés is currently working from home most of the time (schedules are staggered so only a few people are in each section any given day). We have next to no contact with the outside world at this point, and are doing our best to play our part in slowing spread. The doctor agreed that, given our mindset and our health records, staying put was a viable decision.
  3. Community. We live in an apartment complex/compound of consulate staff and we all support each other. We’re in the “family” compound, so there are other kids here. Not that we are doing playdates anymore, or hanging out together, but we are here in solidarity and we can encourage and cheer each other. We can walk the grounds. Swim in the compound pool (keeping a safe distance if there are other swimmers out). We can wave from balcony to balcony. I’ve chatted with a singer about the possibility of playing my violin on my balcony while he sings in the courtyard below (he’s from another compound . . . part of our extended community). I’ve chatted with the community liaison officer about hosting a tortilla-making workshop via video chat.
  4. Consumables. Lagos is a consumables post, meaning that when we came here we were able to ship up to 2500 pounds of nonperishable foods, pet supplies, art/craft supplies, etc. Stuff that can be consumed. We didn’t ship our full allowance worth, but we do have a pantry full of wheat to grind, dried beans, rice, flour, masa harina, salsas and marinades . . . the list goes on. And knowing we planned to adopt a cat here we stocked up on litter and food. In addition to our consumables we’ve been slowly but steadily putting meat in the freezer, UHT milk in the cupboards, and canned goods and water on our “safe haven” shelves. We also have a distiller in our kitchen and the apartment complex has its own well. If we leave for the US, we leave with a single suitcase each. We’d start from scratch on food. Having seen the images of empty shelves in the US, that didn’t much appeal.
  5. Mission. I don’t for a second judge anyone who has opted for authorized departure, either here or elsewhere. But given the current situation in Lagos and all of the other factors I’m listing here, it seems like the right choice for us for Andrés to continue doing the important work he does at the consulate. Visa operations are almost entirely shut down, of course, but he is still working on adoption cases and of course it’s all hands on deck for American Citizen Services, providing aid to US citizens in Nigeria during a time of skyrocketing anxiety and desperation. This is what he signed up to do and he’s doing it, and for the moment we are all at peace with the decision to continue. (I stress, though, that while this was the right decision for our family, I completely understand why others have chosen differently.)
  6. Lucas. Of course there may come a point at which our newly-adopted kitten cannot be part of our decision matrix, but for now he is. We are doing all we can to ensure that, should conditions change and an ordered departure occur, we can take Lucas to the US with us. But there is no guarantee that whatever method of transportation becomes available to us in those circumstances will allow for him to join us. We are thankful that members of the consulate staff who are deemed essential have offered to foster other people’s pets if an evacuation is ordered. But as we are opting for the family to stay together as long as possible, we are counting Lucas as part of the family.

Things can change quickly, as we’ve all learned over the last several months. We all knew the “two cases” here would mushroom into dozens and then hundreds, and surely to thousands. Right now we’re at 40. There are unknowns here: what will become of this massive, wonderful, densely packed, electric, chaotic city when the numbers rise? For the moment, despite a ban on international commercial flights, medevac and other emergency flights are possible (not easily managed, but possible). If that changes, we’ll go on ordered departure. If the consul general decides at any point that she can’t ensure the safety of consulate personnel, we’ll go on ordered departure. Where is that tipping point? Will we see it coming? Of course we don’t know. But neither does anyone anywhere right now.

As long as I can remember I have had a sense of all humanity as one family. My faith feeds that sense. My years at United World College heightened it. My experiences living in several different countries underlined it. But nothing has more profoundly cut to my heart like the unity we share now. Nobody is immune to this. Nobody is immune to the virus and nobody is immune to the fear, the grief, the uncertainty, the trauma it brings. I can only pray that out of this communal experience of vulnerability and suffering we can grow in love for one another and in understanding.

So we stay. For now, we stay.

 

House Arrest

I titled this entry a few weeks ago, back before recent developments made it likely to be relevant in a whole new way. I just hadn’t gotten around to finishing it (or even starting it, actually). The irony is that the overall theme of the piece was going to be that our first several months here had felt like house arrest due to wave after wave of viral contagion and related asthma difficulties, but that we were finally emerging. And of course now it looks as if we have more cocooning in our future.

I’ll back up now. Last I actually wrote about Lagos we’d only been here a few weeks. Now we’ve been here about 5 1/2 months, and I can’t say I’m a whole lot more knowledgeable about our surroundings. Not long after we arrived Marisela got the flu, and that was the first of a long string of respiratory viruses that kicked her previously very mild and very occasional asthmatic cough into overdrive. At the worst we had three nights in a row during which she was coughing so unrelentingly that she did not sleep. There must have been microsleep moments and she’d fall asleep for an hour here or an hour there during the day, but those nights just wiped her out. We’d arrived with the very minimal medications she had been prescribed based on her previous experience of maybe one cough flare-up a year or less. Thanks to the health unit at the consulate we were able to get her some breathing treatments and take a nebulizer home for a while. They made an asthma management plan for her, gave her a peak flow meter, and got her started on medications to keep everything under control. We’re well-stocked now and have our own nebulizer at home, which I hope we never need.

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That was the worst of it, but it wasn’t the end. I’m thankful that the asthmatic cough has been vanquished for several months now, but the viral backlash has gone on. Every time Marisela would go back to school, she’d catch something new. About half the time I’d catch it, too, and both of us ended up depleted and exhausted. Marisela wasn’t able to receive first-semester grades from her school because they had so little information by which to evaluate her performance. Even as winter break ended she was struggling to stay healthy. She seemed capable of catching a bug just by looking out the window at someone sneezing.

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But then, at some point in January, she made it a week at school without getting sick. And then another week only missing a single day with a cold Isaiah had passed along to her. (Only missing one day was unprecedented! Cause for celebration!) Then a few more weeks without missing. From the end of January through the end of February things were normalizing. I was getting back to the gym. Feeling healthy and energetic. Marisela finally celebrated her birthday by organizing a charity bake sale that earned $200 for a local environmental group. We got out and hunted down a pet supply store (more on that shortly) and sewing notions shop. I found a church to attend. There have been some hiccups. A week of mostly-missed days a few weeks back. But it’s been an upward trend.

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And now, after these few blissful months of starting to venture out and explore and live our lives, it seems we’ll be turning inward again. Social distancing feels like second nature to us already, so I guess there’s that. And we have extra company at home these days, in the form of baby Lucas . . . the one-time tree-dwelling kitten we adopted thanks to the efforts of another consulate employee who rescued an orphaned litter from the grounds of a popular pizzeria. Lucas has been a comfort and a loyal friend to both of the kids through what’s been a fairly bumpy transition. He’s about six months old now, and no longer a tiny baby, but definitely still a kitten in energy and demeanor.

Through all of the health challenges with Marisela the rest of us have also coped with substantial headwinds of our own. After all of us believing it would be quick and easy for Isaiah to visit his heart’s home in Ghana, we met with one roadblock after another. First we had to submit our diplomatic passports to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Abuja so our diplomatic credentials could be established. Those passports hold our re-entry visas, so we were essentially grounded. And there was apparently no rush to get them back to us. We offered Isaiah a trip to Ghana for his 16th birthday in November, naively hoping he could travel over Thanksgiving or Christmas. Thanksgiving came and went. Christmas break came and went . . . no passports.

Further passport complication: we had started the process of renewing Isaiah’s tourist passport when we realized that Ghana only allows visitors to enter if they have at least six months of passport validity. Isaiah’s was slated to expire in April. We got the diplomatic passport back but then were stuck waiting for the tourist passport . . . a series of errors that were completely out of our control meant we had to start over not once but twice in that process.

By the time we had both passports in hand Isaiah had missed fall break, Christmas break, and a long weekend in January. But we saw our opportunity: a four-day weekend in mid-February. Finally he’d be able to travel. We got his visa lined up. We bought the tickets. We got him to the airport. And his flight was cancelled. As was the flight he was scheduled to take the next morning. As were, as it turned out, all flights to Accra that weekend. Harmattan, the season of billowing Saharan dust, was in full swing and visibility at the airport (and throughout the city) was horrible. Add to that the failure of some crucial instruments designed to guide pilots in times of poor visibility and you have one bitterly disappointed teenager here and several more in Accra.

I’m pleased to report that last weekend Isaiah got to Accra. He spent four nights there, each at a different friend’s house, and the friends all followed along in a roving sleepover. Our friends welcomed him and treated him to wonderful hospitality and made it hard for him to say goodbye.

It was easier, though, knowing that he’d be seeing them again soon. Spring break was just a month away and he’d be back for a week. Except. You can probably guess. Just since last week things have changed enough (first confirmed covid-19 cases in Ghana; schools closed in Ghana; the kids’ school here at a new alert level with plans to close after spring break) that we’ve reluctantly cancelled our spring break plans. Isaiah’s visa is for multiple entries over the course of a year and we will definitely try again. But sadly some of his very close friends there will have moved on by the next time we get a chance. It’s not an easy setback to accept.

I won’t go into too much detail regarding Andres’ challenges here, except to say that they are many. Ever since Andres started this new career I’ve remarked that it’s like the intellectual equivalent of being in military special forces. It is an intense job that never lets up, and every day the course of people’s lives changes based on decisions Andres and his team make. And along with that intensity is the intensity of knowing that the implications are not just personal. They’re being made in the name of our country, and they reflect us as a nation to the host country’s citizens. It’s both an enormous honor and a heavy burden. And it’s definitely not been any easier here than it has been at other posts.

I’m amazed at what Andres has accomplished in the relatively short time we’ve been here. He’s grateful to have an incredible, motivated team of US officers and local staff, and together they really have moved mountains. They’ve cleared backlogs, they’ve set up systems, they’ve dealt with every chaotic development that’s hit (including the so-called “travel ban” affecting immigrant visas in Nigeria . . . Andres is immigrant visa chief, so it’s been a wild ride). We don’t know what new chaos is coming with work now. Some embassies and consulates have ceased non-emergency visa operations. Some have moved to shift work to limit the number of people in a facility at any one time. So far none of that has happened here (only two confirmed covid-19 cases in Nigeria, though I’m guessing there are many more), but surely there are more changes ahead.

As the household management specialist I’ve just tried to keep food on the table and some semblance of normalcy in place through all of this. I’ve also somehow managed to  put together a textbook for phlebotomy technicians, an occupation I knew next to nothing about nine months ago. That this project has run on schedule in spite of all that’s happened seems nothing short of miraculous to me.

Also miraculous when I really think about it: the number of wonderful things we’ve managed to do even with all of this chaos swirling. We’ve celebrated our usual spate of fall birthdays. We’ve entertained company visiting from Ghana, and shared our Christmas feast with an officer brand new to Lagos. We’ve visited and enjoyed some truly fine restaurants (Lagos has a lot going for it in terms of food and culture). We’ve thrown an Old and New Mexico fiesta thanking Andres’ amazing crew of officers for the tremendous work they’ve been doing (carnitas tacos with fresh corn tortillas and green chile cheeseburgers . . . thank goodness for the jars of green chile and bags of Maseca in our consumables shipment). We’ve spent a decadent day with friends and colleagues chilling at a beach.

We have three years left here, more or less, if we opt to stay until Marisela finishes 9th grade. I don’t know what the coming months will bring. The only certainty is that they’ll be a new kind of challenge, a new kind of experience. We’ve had some practice with hunkering down, and now it might be the real thing. One thing we’ve had to learn through our foreign service adventures so far is that we do best when we remember that we have each other, and see that for the gift it is. We thrive on the adventures and excitement and novelty and thrill of encountering new places and people. But we miss the familiar places and people and some days novelty and adventures and excitement just feel exhausting. Our little bubble of the familiar here within our home is a balm in those moments. All of us in this apartment know the crazy mixture of joy and pain, privilege and sacrifice, connection and separation inherent in our nomadic life. House arrest isn’t so bad in good company.

Two years in three months

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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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We were just a few days in to school when this guy showed up:

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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.

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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.

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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 . . .

 

From Lubbock to Lagos

A week ago today we piled an excessive* amount of luggage into a very Texas Uber XL (F-150 with a full backseat and a hard cover on the truck bed) and headed to Preston Smith International Airport in Lubbock. I’m not sure which international destinations can be reached from the Lubbock airport, but Lagos is not among them. Our journey first hopped us over to Dallas, then to New York, and finally to Lagos, where we were warmly welcomed by our US Embassy Accra buddy Jeff, now an officer here in Lagos and our across-the-hall neighbor.

[*They were literally excessive. We had to pay overweight fees on two of them, despite having weighed them all in advance with a—perhaps not so trustworthy—luggage scale.]

There are many, many stories to write (I’ll spare you most of them) about the months between our departure from Accra and our arrival in Lagos, but those will have to wait. For now I’m just going to free-associate on the topics of departures, arrivals, and my thus-far incredibly narrow view into life in Nigeria.

Departure was rough. It’s easy to get used to the comforts of home, even though we don’t really have one anymore. Well, strike that. We do have one, and cliche as this sounds, it’s everywhere we have friends and family who love us and welcome us. So we don’t have a home. We have many. On our last night in Lubbock my mom and sister prepared a Dyche family dinner classic and we enjoyed an evening of family conviviality (hate that my sister, who did so much for us during our home leave, isn’t in this picture – because she’s taking it).

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About 36 hours after that photo was taken we were here:

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First impressions of Lagos were that it wasn’t unfamiliar after two years in Accra. But then we came to this part of our journey:

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Whereas Accra sits on the coast, Lagos extends into it. Bridges span lagoons and marshy expanses, connecting the mainland to a series of islands. Although I have yet to personally experience this, the bridges are home to frequent and, from what I hear, maddening and unpredictable traffic jams.

Our home is more luxurious than I would personally prefer. It’s in an apartment complex inhabited entirely by other consulate employees, and located on one of the most exclusive islands in the city.

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I will complain, as an American used to capacious appliances, that the oven is very, very small, but it’s hardly my place to whine. We have an oven. And clean water. And a home that could theoretically provide shelter to many more than the four people who live here. But I’ll still post a picture of my tiny oven.

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Nestled in that oven are some delicious samosas provided by our wonderful across-the-hall neighbors, who are doing a very thorough job of making us feel welcome (our social sponsors in Ghana, the Woods family, lived in the housing area known as Holland Compound; these fantastic neighbors, when we all lived in Ghana, lived in Holland Compound . . . that compound was home to some very hospitable people). On our first night, they fed us pizza and suya, a tasty Nigerian spiced meat specialty. On our first weekend they invited us out for a welcome meal and a birthday party (Marisela’s friend was turning 11) at a restaurant and video arcade right on the coast. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed the sound of the ocean. Marisela had missed snuggling with this little cutie:

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I will make only passing mention of the fact that they also invited us to watch the Packers/Cowboys game on replay Monday evening. The Cowboys were clearly suffering from our inability to root for them in real time.

Though I hadn’t missed the humidity I’ve now returned to, I had missed the lush green. Right now it’s not particularly hot. It’s raining frequently, with highs in the low 80s. Although the 90% or so humidity makes even those temps a bit steamy, it’s entirely tolerable. And desert-born Kristin cannot get enough of sights like this:

There’s just green everywhere – exploding up fences on the roadside and reaching up outside my kitchen window.

So far I’ve been to the airport, the restaurant, a few grocery stores, and the kids’ school (which, while certainly different from Lincoln, their school in Ghana, has a familiar feel to it). We visited the day after our arrival to get the kids’ schedules and have a tour, and as it turned out the school was celebrating Nigerian Culture Day. It was the best and worst possible day for new student orientation. Nothing was really accomplished in a practical sense. It was nearly impossible to find the people we needed to find and there was no way to get a feel for what a normal school day would be like. But it was undoubtedly an exciting introduction to the school and to Nigeria.

Life here is different from life at either of our previous posts due to security concerns. I love to explore new places by walking to run errands, but despite the close proximity of a few stores, walking solo is not advised. We don’t have our car yet, so once Andres started work and kids started school this week my routine became

  1. Breakfast for all.
  2. Andres to the consulate shuttle (he takes a van and then a boat to get to work).
  3. Kids to the school shuttle (they take a van to school and van/boat home to avoid some of that bridge traffic as it builds in the afternoons).
  4. Gym (here at the apartments).
  5. Work, on my balcony if the internet reaches (sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t).
  6. Kids home.
  7. Housework/goofing off/making dinner.

I’m looking forward to having the ability to get out a bit, but for the time being I don’t mind this. There wasn’t a lot of being-in-one-place time during home leave. Even once we were “settled” in Lubbock there were appointments and errands and stuff that needed to get assembled for our shipments and USA-centric fun to be squeezed in while we had the chance. Being still and staying in one spot for a bit won’t hurt me one bit.

I’m slowly readjusting to the small irritations of life here that are really only irritations for people accustomed to an incredibly comfortable and nuisance-free existence. They’re irritations I’m privileged to have, because they mostly relate to relative luxuries. The electricity goes off probably a dozen times a day or more, but so far only briefly. We have one breaker that consistently flips off every night – and it’s the breaker that controls our fridge, the WiFi router, and (oddly) the outlet my bedside table clock is plugged in to.  We’re back to non-potable tap water and the need to bleach produce (I’m spoiled – but I really do miss those big boxes of salad I can buy and just *eat*).

Driving looks like it’s going to be an adventure, even more so than it was in Ghana. In both Ghana and Mexico I’d been warned that driving was crazy. In both places, it didn’t take me too long to adjust. Hoping the same is true here, but honestly I have my doubts. It does feel like a whole new level of lawlessness. But maybe that’s just because I’m fresh out of Lubbock, where drivers are almost mind-blowingly polite and deferential (I think of mornings at Marisela’s school, where cars coming from two different streets took turns – without being directed to do so – turning into the drop-off lane). I’m guessing it will feel normal soon enough, and then Lubbock driving will be a shocking adjustment.

I have great hope and enthusiasm for our time here. I’m looking forward to figuring out how to feel as much at home here, where our life is so much more proscribed, as I did in Ghana. I’m looking forward to finding ways to encounter the people and culture here, as separate as our security measures require us to be. This gilded cage life is exactly the life I disdained in my younger years. If I’m honest with myself, I’m still not comfortable with it, but I will make my peace with it and make the most of our time here. Thankfully we have each other and we have very good friends here, with more, I’m sure, yet to come.

 

 

The End is Nigh

Back to my title-stealing ways, I’ve borrowed this entry’s title from a video game Isaiah has been playing lately. He and I agree it’s an apt phrase for us at the moment, and it hovers in back of everything we do now, like a refrain to every verse. The kids and I have about 2 1/2 weeks left in Ghana and we’ve started checking off the “lasts” . . . yesterday we had our last dinner party. This morning I had my last walk with my friend Jenny. Tomorrow is the kids’ last day of school. (The end is nigh.)

It’s been a busy month for us. We haven’t been doing our usual traveling on the weekends, in large part due to an abundance of social events and other activities keeping us tied to Accra. May seems to be the birthday month of 90% of Marisela’s friends, and it took careful planning to maximize her ability to celebrate with each of the girls. May was also the month of PYP (Primary Years Program) Exhibition. This is a weeks-long process during which the fifth graders at Lincoln developed collaborative research projects and presentations using the learning and critical thinking skills they’ve built over the course of elementary school. Marisela and her good friend Anjali really rocked their project, which centered on working toward greater gender equality in scientific fields. Between the parties and exhibition, Marisela and her classmates were all pretty wiped out and it was no surprise when a nasty virus made the rounds right after everything was done. Fortunately Mari recovered just in time to participate in an overnight fifth grade lock-in at school. And somehow got enough sleep that she didn’t relapse. (The end is nigh.)

Isaiah has had a packed schedule, as well. He hit some high school milestones, attending prom (open to all high schoolers at Lincoln), completing his first-ever comprehensive high school final exams, and acting with drama program classmates in a play they wrote and directed themselves.

Another May highlight was the “bringing it home” event with Isaiah’s Krakow Journey travel companions. Students displayed their journals and also presented personal projects they had created as they worked through their reactions to the experience and considered what they wanted to share. Isaiah programmed a “virtual museum” with an interactive activity for each day of the trip. (The end is nigh.)

With my big year-long work project finished and the next book still in very early stages I was able to spend some time exploring Accra with Andrés, hitting the spots we’d intended to see and just hadn’t seen yet. We visited the mausoleum and memorial site of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president and a fascinating figure in the pan-Africanist intellectual and political movements. We took a tour with “Miss Taxi,” an extremely knowledgeable and personable tour guide. We’d already been to many of the sites she usually covers, but it was great to have her expert narration, and she took us to a coffin maker’s workshop, which is something we hadn’t yet done. Ghanaian coffins are world-renowned for their whimsical artistry. I wouldn’t mind being laid to rest in the giant flour bag coffin. (The end is nigh – although following these last few sentences I feel I should emphasize that I refer to the end of our time in Ghana.)

Memorial Day weekend was marked by reunions and departures, and really ushered in the firm realization that our days here are numbered. Our former next door neighbors, whom we said goodbye to nearly a year ago, came back for a visit. Marisela and Eve very quickly rekindled their friendship, and we had the old tween girl compound gang back together again for a sleepover filled with laughter, waffles, and Minecraft. Of course as joyful as that reunion was, the pain of saying goodbye again was huge. And yet if this life has taught us anything, it’s that there is usually another hello around the corner. Also that the goodbyes that hurt the most are the friendships that have touched us most deeply, and there’s gratitude to be found there. (The end is nigh.)

That same weekend we squeezed in a dinner with two other consular section families poised to leave, the Palmers and the Birschbachs. Andrés, Jeff, and Palmer have spent most of their tours together here, and we actually stand a chance of serving with both families in Lagos. Jeff and his family are assigned to Lagos for their next post (although they’re in the midst of some bureaucratic complications that might change that), and Palmer is hoping for Lagos after he spends the next two years in Japan, which will mean we’d overlap for a year or so. He and his wife have loved West Africa and would like to return. It was tough saying goodbye to these friends, but that promise of meeting again soon took some of the sting away. (The end is nigh.)

Andrés’ work didn’t let up in May, either, though as always the consular crew did its best to play, as well. There was a section-wide goodbye party for Andrés, Jeff, and Palmer, complete with the presentation of custom-made Ghanaian drums and custom-designed consular-themed batik cloth to each officer. Andrés’ drum, in addition to the Ghanaian flag and the consular affairs logo, is adorned with martini glasses. His bartending skills have been in high demand here. Earlier that same day Andrés had run an information session for Ghanaian students who had been admitted to U.S. universities. Even on party days he puts in a full effort. Which is, I’m sure, part of why he received a Meritorious Honor Award a few weeks ago – the highest award given at the embassy level. (The end is nigh.)

May truly just didn’t let up, and the last day was one of the most packed for me, but also one of the most fun. For months my Latina friends (who count me as an honorary Latina by marriage and linguistic semi-ability) have been hatching a plan to do a Latin-themed happy hour on the commissary grounds. Friday was the culmination of all those plans. At our first meeting I was asked if I could make enough corn tortillas to do taco plates for 60 people. 180 tortillas . . . a lot, but manageable. A week later I was at a school event for Isaiah when I got a text asking Cuantas tortillas puede hacer? How many tortillas can I make? I wasn’t sure, really, so I asked Cuantas necesitan? They needed 450. I did some quick math and decided that yes, I could do it, if I could find enough masa harina. The stars aligned, I found a family leaving post who had accidentally ordered way too large a bag of masa, and the day before the event I had 450 little balls of dough ready. All I had to do the next day was attend Marisela’s moving up ceremony (at which she spoke for her class), press and griddle those 450 balls of dough (big thanks to my friend Tess for helping me with that!), and then serve tacos at the happy hour. Every single tortilla disappeared and we had to turn a few sad latecomers away. I have yet to hear the official numbers, but there must have been more than 150 meal tickets sold. (The end is nigh.)

The frantic pace has kept me from thinking too much about leaving, kept me distracted enough to mostly brush off that sad refrain. These words and photos capture the big events, but there were also smaller events, too – book club at our house, various kid sleepovers hosted and attended, neighborhood happy hours. But as soon as I wrap this up I’ll be heading outside to share a drink with neighbors who are leaving tomorrow and neighbors who are leaving Wednesday. A week from tomorrow the movers come to start our pack out. Today I finalized registration for the kids at the schools they’ll briefly attend in Lubbock, and sent an itinerary to the friends and family members we’ll be seeing in Texas, New Mexico, Mexico, and Oklahoma during home leave. (The end is nigh.) 

In between these events, big and small, I’ve spent a lot of time just feeling paralyzed. It’s so much to process, and there is never a lack of things to do but the less immediate, less tangible things have been hard to keep my mind on. Everything is getting more immediate and more tangible, though. The stuff I didn’t want to do too far before the movers’ arrival is stuff that must get done this week, or not at all (and somehow, I’ve found, our stuff gets moved either way). The goodbyes are coming faster and faster. Time has to be managed so the kids get the most they can out of their remaining days and weeks with their Ghana friends. The time for paralysis is coming to an end. The end truly is nigh.