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What Have I Done to My Children?


My family's front porch in Liberia faced the ocean. A dirt road and a lagoon separated our house from where the sand began and the waves crashed, but it was enough of a beach house that the fridge rusted and my mom had to mop the salt off the floors every day.

Many hours would find me on the hammock on that front porch, one of the few places where my introverted tween awkwardness felt at home. It was a rough rope hammock, and I would sit sideways on it like a swing, my legs pushing against the cement railing on the porch. Liberian sunsets on that ocean, complete with silhouetted coconut palms, were as post-cardish as any honeymooner could ask for, but my clearest memories are of the rain.

Liberian rain was never some mamsy-pamsy sprinkling; it was a waterfall from the sky. The smell of that rain would engulf me, full of sea salt and warmth and growing things. And I would swing on my hammock, dreaming my young-girl dreams, and watch the lightning crack out of a dark sky and strike the expanse of my ocean.

We often miss the beauty of our childhoods while we are in the midst of it, much too focused on interpreting those best-friend-comments and science-project-scores to pay much attention, but the rain and the lightning and the swinging hammock was such a large, enveloping beauty that even in my twelve-year-old self-centeredness, I was able to feel something like awe.

Across that dirt road, in a house that was even closer to the ocean, lived friends. Their kids were around the same ages as my brother and I, and we spent many an afternoon canoeing on the swamp or trying to make a clubhouse in their attic, but it was so hot we could only each spend a few minutes in there at a time before we climbed down, gasping for breath. I practiced piano in their house every day, since they had a piano and we didn't, and one at a time, we borrowed all of their Asterix and Tin Tin comics. "Bock, Bock!" I would holler at their screen door, because that's what you said in Liberia when you came to someone's door. They would always let me in.

We made a teepee out of palm branches and their daughter and me created fantasy lands for our Barbie dolls in the sand and the swamp and the forest around our homes. They were from Arizona, so at Christmas they introduced us to the tradition of paper bag lanterns--luminarias--which filled the humid night air with magic.

My third-culture-kid childhood was filled with so much beauty--both in the land itself, and in so many people who loved me and became like family, because that's what happens when you find yourself thrust into a land with other foreigners who, like you, have no idea what they are doing.

I always wanted my own children to have a childhood like that.

Remarkably, they have. They already have more stamps in their passports than most people get in a lifetime. They've stood in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro and visited the Apartheid Museum in South Africa. They've fed giraffes in Kenya and watched baby sea turtles hatch and spent hundreds of hours in warm tropical oceans. And they have been deeply loved by Zimbabweans and Brits and Americans and Tanzanians who have enriched their lives with accents and cultures and family-bonds.

But as I dreamed that life for my kids, I failed to remember the grief.

It is easy to remember all the great stuff but naively think I would be able to protect my kids from all the hard stuff. Changing schools and relationships and countries and cultures several times in the course of a childhood--as extraordinary as it all sounds--is also excruciating.

Grace came home with a large drawing board in a plastic artist's folder last week.

"It's from my art teacher," she said proudly. "He's starting me on advanced art. He says that he's going to give me a head's start for IGCSE Art in 9th grade. I mean, if I'm here in 9th grade."

If I'm here. Because we don't know.

We had lunch with friends the other day, the ones who have felt like family for ten years. But they are leaving Tanzania this summer, and their daughter and Grace are an unbeatable duo--truly a sight to behold--on their basketball team. "You've got to come move near us and go to my school, and we can play basketball together!" she pleaded with Grace. Because it's unthinkable to imagine living apart.

That same day we got more news: Another family we know and love will be leaving even sooner. I told the kids in the car; I didn't want to look them in the eyes. Everyone was silent.

They are getting used to this.

And I wonder, What have I done to my children?

I remember how I wept when I found out that we wouldn't be able to return to Liberia; wept for the loss of my home, wept for the country that was being destroyed by war. That family who lived on the other side of the road--after two years of water balloon fights and piano practices and luminarias and sharing every part of life--we separated into different worlds and we never saw them again.

I look into my children's stony faces, steeling themselves against another loss; I hear the if I'm here in their voices and I remember my own childhood--the part I don't like to remember. "I wouldn't trade it for anything," I'll say without a moment's hesitation. But is it fair to impose on them the pain that goes with it? Do I have the right to say to them, "This is going to hurt a whole lot, but it will be worth it?"

I guess that's the thing about parenting--we make all these choices for these small people under our care, and they don't get any say in it. We choose where they will live, how they will be educated, how many siblings they will have, who they will be friends with. None of this seems like a big deal when they are little and an extension of us, but then they get bigger and smarter and they start to realize that some of the choices we made for them have difficult repercussions. Our enthusiastic, It will be worth it! starts to sound more hollow, to them and to us, because the truth is, we really don't know if it will be.

I'm realizing that as much as I want (and try) to write my kids' stories for them, I really only get to make the basic outline. I can create the setting and even write in a bunch of the characters, but they control the perspective, which is really what makes or breaks a story. And ultimately, I must trust that there's an Author who's a whole lot bigger than I am, and who loves them a whole lot more than I do, who is doing most of the writing behind the scenes.

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