With the Family! It is Good!

I’ll get to the origin of my title in due course. First, I should note that I’ve contemplated returning to this blog many, many times over the last year and a half or so. I tried back in February. This is as far as I made it . . .

INCHING BACK TO NORMAL

This weekend I went through the roughly 4,000 emails in my inbox. I had stopped even trying to keep them in any kind of order about a year ago. The first 2,000 or so were easy. Ads from stores I’d ordered from years ago. Reminders from schools of events long past. Email digests from publications I don’t subscribe to any longer.

The next 1,500 or so were also pretty quick to manage. Reminders to check in to flights long flown. Hotel reservations. Bank statements and paid bills and other outdated administrivia.

The rest I should have been prepared for. My subconscious may have been. It may have been the force behind my epic procrastination. What awaited me in the personal emails I had accumulated was a narrative of a year I am still processing. The kids and I had returned from our five-month detour to the US. We were doing our best to make things work in Lagos. Conventional wisdom says it takes about 6 months to fully settle in at a new post. We had been in Lagos just three months when COVID first appeared in the news. When we returned from evacuation, school was virtual. Contact with people outside our immediate household was limited. Lagos was rocked by protests and unrest. I was still grieving the loss of my dad and trying to figure out how I could be any help to my mom and sister half the world away. Work for Andres, never a cakewalk in Lagos (which is known to be a challenging post), was endlessly stressful.

The details that sent Marisela and me back to the US just months later, in early 2021, and eventually led our whole family back for good are not details I’ll share here, but the essence of the story is that COVID made it very difficult to access health care our family needed in Lagos. Limited care options at the best of times were far more limited during COVID*. We reached a point at which staying in Lagos was not tenable. And then, over the course of about three months in the US, we reached a point at which it was clear that returning was not possible.

We had very carefully considered our Lagos post. Three years there would give Isaiah a chance to spend his last three years of high school in one place. We thought we may even extend further so Marisela could finish 9th grade there. The school seemed solid. We’d be close to Accra. Isaiah could take a 45-minute plane ride to visit friends there.

Every part of that plan fell apart. Isaiah made it to Accra exactly one time. When he left Lagos for Accra, I believe there had been 2 COVID cases in Ghana to-date. A few more in Lagos. Weeks after he returned borders were closing and we were preparing to evacuate. The kids never had a full school year of in-person classes at American International School of Lagos.

As we considered all that had happened during our time in Lagos so far, and considered that Marisela and I would not be allowed to return, we didn’t feel we had many choices in front of us: 1. Andres and Isaiah could stay in Lagos until Andres finished his tour and Isaiah finished high school while Marisela and I found a temporary situation in the US and hoped to be cleared for the next post. 2. Andres could request reassignment to DC. 3. Andres could curtail the Lagos assignment and try to find a “now” opening at a post where we’d all be allowed. 4. Andres could curtail the Lagos assignment and retire.

Choices 1–3 didn’t promise more stability long-term, and would provide considerably less stability short-term than choice 4 would offer. That’s how we came to live here:

“Here” is Lubbock, Texas. My mom lives here. My sister and her family live here. We’d been using Lubbock as a home base, really, since joining the foreign service. It’s an easy town to get around in, and it is the self-proclaimed “hub city,” with easy access to several places close to our hearts. In six hours driving or less we can be in Dallas, at the Oklahoma farm, in Santa Fe/Albuquerque, or in the Las Cruces/El Paso/Juarez area. One day I worked all morning, jumped on a Southwest flight to Dallas for my book club’s Christmas party, and was back at work by noon the next day. We get to have weekly dinners with the extended family. My mom alternates dinner weeks with us and with my sister’s family. We have doctors here that we’ve been seeing, in some cases, for several years.

It’s been such a logistical effort re-establishing a life in the US. Andres and Isaiah had to manage our packout from Lagos on their own. We were able to coordinate our home purchase thanks to FaceTime and immense effort and helpfulness on my sister’s part. . . .

. . . AND that’s as far as I made it with that post. [The * above, by the way, was that I did not want to imply criticism of Nigerian doctors. Routine health care at a consulate or embassy is provided at a health unit. We received amazing and supportive care from the Nigerian physician and nursing staff employed there. Getting specialist care can be tricky because it is also coordinated by the health unit and considerations such as security, compatibility with US standards of training and care, etc. are all part of the process. All of that became much, much more complicated with COVID in the mix.]

It’s been five, six months since I made that attempt.

The adjustment to our new life is ongoing. Grief still sneaks up on me. Grief for my dad when we sing a favorite hymn at church and I wish he were there to enjoy it. Or when we gather to celebrate high school graduations he would have been so proud to see. Grief for how badly wrong so many things went in Lagos when I read Isaiah’s college application essay and see written out so plainly that he had five different roofs over his head as he tried to finish high school once COVID hit. I knew that. But reading it still felt like a punch to the gut. Grief for a lost home when photos flash on my screensaver showing my precious Lagos balcony. Or gatherings with friends in our apartment. Or idyllic Sunday mornings at the Consul General’s residence. Grief for a lost way of life when I hear stories of bidding and packouts and arriving at new posts. Foreign service life was hard. It could be crushing. It could be exhilarating. It was transformative.

Now back to the title. One weekend morning in Accra, Andres hatched the great idea that we should all ride our bikes to Cafe Mondo, a pastry and coffee place about a mile from our house. Biking could be treacherous on Accra streets, but on weekends our neighborhood felt like a sleepy little town. We rode in a line and as we rode we passed a man who exclaimed loudly and joyously in our direction: “With the family! It is good!”

Those words came to me a few nights ago as I thought about where we’ve landed. The kids made it through the school year. Isaiah graduated and is on to Kalamazoo, MI for college in just over a month. Marisela has officially survived middle school and starts high school in weeks. We are so proud of them. So sorry that it turned out to be such a monumental task, but also so proud of how they managed it. Family helped a lot, in tangible and intangible ways. We have a rootedness and a sense of support we struggled to find over the last few years. We are always thankful for our foreign service family – for the friends who became stand-ins for aunties and uncles and cousins. For the people we shared holiday and birthday meals with and who understood the good, the bad, and the beautiful of the life we all shared. But it was an ever-shifting cast, with so many goodbyes and hellos.

With the healing and restoration we need now, “with the family” truly is good.

New era, new title

More details to follow, as well as perhaps a story or two of our adventures along the way to this new stage of our lives. For now let this suffice: as of tomorrow Marisela and I take up residence in our new home in Lubbock, Texas. On Thursday Andres and Lucas will complete their transatlantic sojourn and join us. A month later, Isaiah (having finished out the school year staying with neighbors in Lagos) will arrive.

Our new life will see me working full-time for Hartman Publishing, Andres retired after 20 years of federal service, and the kids finishing up middle school and high school in Lubbock. We will be close to family, far closer to a wide array of loved ones, and in a position to have quick and consistent access to the full spectrum of resources to promote physical and emotional well-being. It was not an easy decision to make this change, but it’s one we know is right for us at this point in our family life.

We envision many adventures still ahead. They may be a little harder to come by, but we will seek them out nonetheless!

Pocket of wild

Lagos is a massive city. Its official population is about 14 million, but estimates of the actual number hover around 20 million. We only see a bare sliver of it, and move among the most privileged of its inhabitants. There’s incredible wealth here, of course alongside crippling poverty. There’s also explosive creativity and energy. The streets are coursing with traffic: cars, motorcycles, bicycles, pushcarts, pedestrians. Joggers share the sidewalks (often verging into the road) with hawkers of plantain chips, cold drinks, pastries, and fruits, ready to capitalize on red lights and traffic snarls. Driving in steamy, congested Lagos can be a thirsty, hungry enterprise.

I love the vibrancy of a city, something Lagos has in abundance. I find beauty here. It’s not the stately, orderly beauty of a city like Prague or the natural, cozy beauty of Santa Fe, to name a few widely-admired former home cities of mine, but it’s a beauty of its own and I find it compelling every time I encounter it.

Our apartment is, to my great joy, surrounded by greenery (the office building peeking up above a canopy of trees, pictured above, is taken from one of our balconies). So there is some reminder even in our immediate vicinity that Lagos was, at one point, carved out of a beautiful, verdant wilderness. The Lekki Conservation Center is an escape into that wilderness. It’s an urban nature preserve, just under 200 acres managed by the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, featuring a 400-meter canopy walkway, educational exhibits, and facilities for picnics, meetings, and events. It’s disorienting, almost, to drive in (never having left the city) and be swallowed by the forest. It’s hard to remember that just meters away, across a six-lane highway, is the massive Chevron corporate compound. On the highest platforms between stretches of the canopy walk the rooftops and silhouettes of the Lagos skyline can be seen, incongruously, in the (not-so-distant) distance.

We had tried a few times before to get to Lekki. Trips there are a popular activity organized by the consulate’s community liaison office, and we signed up for one not long after our arrival late in 2019. Rainy season was intense that year, though, stretching beyond its usual summer domain, and the center was closed to visitors due to swampy canals overflowing the footpaths. We tried again, not long after returning from our long stay in the US, but so did many others; outings are precious right now and attendance carefully limited to allow adequate spacing on the buses. A lottery system decides who gets to go, and on our first attempt, we weren’t among the lucky winners. But we tried again. And made it. So we masked up and headed out.

We had a guide who described the area to us and told us about the variety of wildlife we probably would not encounter (creatures are pretty good at hiding from the large numbers of people tramping through this little scrap of nature) and the wildlife we probably would encounter (opportunistic mona monkeys). We did get to see some endearing animals before we even left the parking area, though: two tortoises, utterly unconcerned about the crowds, have a nest right at the edge of the blacktop.

Our walk through the park was a true escape from the city. We crossed swampy expanses on raised bridges, our progress followed eagerly by monkeys who, according to our guide, have learned that snacks are likely to be found in the distinctive yellow and red bags from Shoprite, a popular supermarket chain (we all obediently secured any food before setting out). We saw plenty of monkeys and also, thanks to our attentive guide, were able to spy a very still, thankfully quite small, crocodile lurking near one of the bridges.

After a few hundred meters of marsh walk we got to the main attraction at Lekki: the canopy walkway. We had all experienced a canopy walkway before, at Kakum National Park in Ghana. There seems to be some amount of dispute and rivalry over which walkway is better or longer, but I think I can say with certainty that at least one member of our family found those questions irrelevant. Any canopy walkway is just one thing: terrifying. But we all did it, we were all very brave about it, and (as she did in Ghana) Marisela always led the way.

The walkway is punctuated by platforms that allow (according to one’s feelings on canopy walkways) a rest and refuge from the fearful wobbling walk, a chance to take some time to truly take in the incredible view, or a bit of both. Though it appears more distant in photos than it did in person, the highest platforms had a clear view of the city, reminding us that we were actually still in the midst of a teeming metropolis. 

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We had the good fortune of visiting Lekki on an overcast, drizzly day. It was (unsurprisingly) oppressively humid, but at least the clouds kept the worst of the heat at bay. Just as we emerged from the forest walk the skies opened and we took cover under one of the picnic pagodas. Once the rain died down we made our way back the buses, stopping long enough for a refreshing beverage. Unlike Accra, Lagos (at least the parts of Lagos we live and work in) does not have a brisk trade in fresh coconut water served roadside, so this was a delightful treat. We took advantage of the elegant efficiency of the conservation center’s foot-pedal-powered touch-free handwashing stations before heading out. Who needs infrared sensors?

Our outing came just a few days before my birthday and could not have been a better gift. As much as I love the city, it was enchanting to escape for a few hours (even if the “escape” was a bit of an illusion). Entering this different world was restorative. It had been a challenging year. Many joys, to be sure, but also so much loss and so much grief. It just now hits me that throughout this post I’ve talked as if our hours at Lekki were something removed from our life in Lagos. Like we had briefly entered a separate, different, illusory world and then had to go back the real one. Just a few sentences back I threw around the words escape and illusion. When I think about our outing in the context of our year, though, I begin to see it differently. The forest, the city, the joy, the grief: hard as it is to reconcile, they are all parts of a whole. We walk between their contrasts, their opposition, as we walk through each day. One sets the other in greater relief; one does not make the other less real. Each day is filled with pockets of wild.

All it needs is a little green chile (loosely connected thoughts on missing my dad)

My original intent was to write a single, coherent entry about the facts and feelings connected with my father’s death back in August. Instead I just came up with these scraps:

GRIEF FOG

I find myself sitting here with the odd thought that grief is feline.

When Isaiah was small he was puzzled by the ways of our cat, Destino. Isaiah wanted Destino to come when called. To play on demand. To sit in particular places at particular times. But there was no more reasoning with Destino than there is with any cat. His whims were many and they were inscrutable and the only explanation we could offer our earnest preschooler was, “Destino is his own creature.”

Grief, simultaneously so universal and so personal, is also its own creature. Many-whimmed and inscrutable and so very capable of sneaking up unheard, unexpected.

Of course losing my father was a surprise. It’s the grief, though, that sneaks up on its little cat feet, brushes up against me. Its fog surrounds me, engulfs me briefly, moves on. It catches me at the oddest times. It lingers for seconds or for hours. It quietly leaves. Or maybe it swipes, leaving a thin but stinging mark.

MESSY

A few nights ago a messy kitchen brought me to tears and ice cream made it worse. Marisela and I tag-teamed Sunday dinner dessert: she was baking miniature apple pies. I was making ice cream to accompany them. I walked in to start dinner and found flour everywhere. Dishes and bowls and knives and rubber spatulas arrayed across every countertop. Apple peels on the floor. The tears hit before I could piece together why they were there: it was a mess worthy of Marisela’s own Poppa Dyche, who was as gifted in the kitchen as he was uninterested in cleaning up after himself.

The ice cream maker I was about to use was handed down to us by Poppa during our Lubbock months this year, on the condition that with each batch we would bring him a portion of the yield. We brought it home with us and I can’t use it now without thinking of him. The delight we all took in dessert that night sat, for me, alongside the sadness of missing my dad.

Most of my emotions come primarily in the mixed variety now. I’m thrilled to be home and especially thrilled that our family is not separated any longer. There are those deep sources of happiness and there are also the smaller homecoming happinesses: being reunited with my wheat grinder and my cast iron griddle. Sitting out on my balcony surrounded by the gorgeous lush green of Lagos. Wearing the clothes I didn’t take to Lubbock with me. Working at my desk.

But the sadnesses come in all sizes, too: from the jagged, unwieldy absence of my father from this world to the acknowledgement that extended family game nights (wonderful as they are) are not the same over Zoom to the spoiled-brat longing for a cheap and easy boxed salad, reliably stocked and fresh. It was also a lot easier to be helpful and supportive to my mom in tangible, practical ways when I wasn’t an ocean away. Being home in Lagos is lovely and joyful. It’s also sad and difficult. It’s a messy kitchen.

WHAT TO MAKE OF THE “WHAT-IFS”?

Near-misses pump up emotion, though I guess from a strictly logical point of view they really shouldn’t. It’s hard, though, not to think of the proximity of meaningful things as meaningful in itself. Andrés left Lubbock for Lagos on a Monday. We were to follow him on Saturday, first spending the night in the DC area before flying home on Sunday. The weekend before Andrés’ flight we left Marisela with my parents and Isaiah with a freezer full of pizzas and spent a delightful time in Canyon, TX. We visited Palo Duro State Park. We went to a panhandle plains history museum. We ate delicious food (I would still, at some point, love to learn how it came to be that Canyon, Texas, of all places, has FOUR Thai restaurants, at least two of which I can now personally recommend).

Everyone enjoyed the weekend. Andrés left as scheduled on Monday. We packed and prepared and got the cat certified for travel. We had movers coming Friday to pack up our excess air baggage shipment. That night we would have a farewell takeout meal with my parents and my sister, brother-in-law, and niece.

But Thursday morning my father died. Andrés had only just arrived home and was still deep in jet lag and post-travel quarantine. We had been 48 hours away from leaving the US on a chartered flight to a country that had yet to lift restrictions on commercial air travel. Had we left there would have been no way to return. Had we never left Nigeria for the COVID evacuation back in April we would not have been able to get out. There are so many what-ifs it makes my head spin.

I’m not sure it’s helpful to think about these things. What IS, is that we were there. And we’d had hours and hours with my dad we would not have had otherwise. And as hard as it was to go through it all without Andrés we had been with Andrés three weeks longer than we had anticipated, and we were cleared to return to Lagos, so we knew we would be reunited sooner rather than later. That was greater certainty than we’d had for the first few months of our evacuation.

Back to mixed feelings, though. And to how messy and sneaky and complicated grief can be. We had been moving toward some kind of order. We had been living in such doubt for so long. When would we be allowed back to Lagos? Had we made a mistake in evacuating? How long would we have to live on two continents? Those questions were resolving. We were going to be home again. And then we weren’t. And not only were we not returning yet, my dad was gone and everything felt impossibly upside down.

So I guess the what-ifs are significant. Assuming they are not is assuming that the emotional burden they impart isn’t real or isn’t important. And I guess it is as real and as important as anything. The practical circumstances are resolved now. They’re done. Our feelings about them remain.

THE KEY TO EVERYTHING

Aside from the bulletin and prayer leaflet from my dad’s funeral the only memento I brought back to Lagos for myself is a t-shirt of my dad’s commemorating the Hatch Green Chile Festival. When my sister and I were first experimenting in the kitchen, my dad always enthusiastically ate whatever we created, but he also invariably had a single suggestion: “All it needs is a little green chile.” In my overblown recollection he said this even about desserts. The reality was probably not so extreme, but it was definitely a common refrain.

As a budding chef I found my dad’s comments irritating and interpreted them as overly critical. But I had yet to fully appreciate green chile at that point in my life. I have now embraced his approach. Like so much parental advice, it fell on immature ears not yet ready to receive true wisdom.

INBOX

Less than 24 hours before my dad died he sent me an email. Periodically he would send me Nigeria security alerts he’d received from BBC news. Usually they related to areas of Nigeria we never travel to, or to situations far removed from our daily life. For whatever reason, this time I took a little extra time explaining the security measures taken for consulate personnel. I tried to communicate just how very insulated we are from the wider world here, which is not always something I love, but is something that makes our daily lives safer. I knew my dad would appreciate that.

His response is still sitting in my inbox, where I guess it will stay forever (I keep trying to print it and keep getting the size or the margins or one thing or another wrong). My dad told me how much he appreciated my reassurances. How proud he is of the work Andrés does. How he admires that we value a “big picture” view of the world for our family. He concluded with words that echo in my mind every day now:

“It is just hard to turn loose of you!”

It certainly is.

Where the wind comes sweeping down the plains

There is so very much to write at this point that the prospect of starting has overwhelmed me. Until today. Actually I think I’m still just as overwhelmed. I don’t have any muscular phrases or brave quips to punctuate my decision to get back into this. More than anything, I feared that if I didn’t start back soon I’d never start back. And when I considered if that’s what I truly want, I found that it isn’t. So here I am. One trick I played on myself was to allow for a quick, frivolous post, a frolicsome post that harks back to a sunny memory. It’s an easier place to start.

Way back over the summer during Andres’ visit to Lubbock we took a family vacation. It had been some time since we’d done that, and COVID-19 circumstances precluded visits to true tourist destinations. Instead we drove to the Dyche family farmstead in northwestern Oklahoma. There was a bittersweet tinge to our visit, given that a usual summer farm trip involves cousins and aunts and uncles and group merriment the likes of which is a bit of dim memory at this point. (Hugging! Laughing! Shouting, even! Eating and drinking and enjoying togetherness with abandon . . . the kind of scene that now makes pre-COVID tv and movies look odd and quaint.) Still, despite missing the reunion joy we made a true vacation of it. Lucas even joined us for our road trip. He was surprisingly accommodating, all things considered. For a creature who started life in a bush outside a Lagos restaurant he’s now quite well traveled.

Our time in Oklahoma was delightful. We enjoyed sitting on the front porch nursing morning coffee. We took walks in the evenings and sat out in the shade chatting. We fished and kayaked. We visited state parks (which were pretty much entirely empty) and had a takeout picnic from our favorite Waynoka restaurant.

Farm visits always bring the possibility of wildlife viewing. This year’s sightings were of the creepy-crawly variety, which is fine by me. Oh! And – for Lucas – there was some excellent birdwatching. And puzzle-sitting (a newfound hobby of his . . . so helpful).

Even at the time we knew this little pocket of peace and relaxation was special. We had been separated for months. We knew Andrés’ R&R was ending but didn’t know how or when he would get back to Lagos. We didn’t know whether, when, or how the kids and I would get back. For a few days it didn’t matter. Neither did COVID or the outside world in general. Those were glorious days.

Jumping ahead, we did eventually get back to Lagos, all of us. Andrés was stuck in Lubbock an extra three weeks while he scrambled to find a way to fly in to a city closed to international commercial air travel. None of us minded having that extra time together, especially since (at first) we still didn’t know when we’d all be home. We established new routines: I worked at the apartment we shared with Marisela. Andrés went over and worked at Isaiah’s casita, managing his team from a couch in Lubbock while his team worked from Lagos and various points in the US. Afternoons, the kids and I would go visit my parents. Weekends, we might have field games and ice cream with the cousins. By the time Andres left, we were booked on a flight home less than a week later. It looked like things were going to move toward normal again. Which, of course, everyone knows – in 2020 – is a good indication you’re about to get slugged in the gut.

[NOTE: I did not intend this to be a cliffhanger. I just took such a dang long time writing this tiny scrap that I ran out of time to continue for today. I think the only people who read this know me, and so you know that what happened next was that my father passed away unexpectedly the day after Andrés landed back home in Lagos. And the kids and I ended up staying another month in Lubbock with my mother. All of that is why I haven’t been blogging or, to be completely honest, particularly communicative at all recently. But I will write more soon.]

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.