“Are you going, Aunt?”
“Are you going, Cousin?”
“Are you going, Yasa?”
Half a dozen little voices called out to me from the schoolhouse, as little heads pressed and pushed to get up higher than the others or closer to the window. Their teacher didn’t call them back.
“Yes, I’m going.” I answered.
“Oh, that’s sad.” They said. “When are you coming back?”
“Next June we will come back,” I said, stepping closer the side of the schoolhouse to look up into their faces. “We will think of you a lot.”
There are many times, in our work, when we feel like people just want us here for what they can get out of us. But as I walked down the hill to the boat that was tied up and waiting to take us to the airstrip, the voices of the schoolkids rang in my head and warmed my heart. As I saw their little faces pressed against the torn screen and chicken wire of the schoolhouse, I envisioned the faces of their mothers, also. And in that moment I felt like we have friends here, who will think of us while we are gone and welcome us when we get back. Of course they will want to know if we brought beads or fishhooks or anything else for them, too. But the warmth of the children’s words prevailed in my heart, and I was glad, so glad, to assure them that we will be back.
I felt that way again, while we were waiting at the airstrip. People gradually appeared in little groups, walking slowly down the airstrip from the bigger bunch of communal houses on one end of it, or up from the one house on the other end, or up the steep river bank from the boats that were tied at the bottom. Most of them appeared quietly, without drawing attention to themselves, and gathered in the shade of the little airstrip shed or of the trees on the side. I never saw when Jevon’s adopted mother appeared. But at some point I glanced over and saw her sitting on the bench under the aluminum overhang of the shed. I went over to greet her, and she caught my hand with one of hers and my lower arm with her other hand. She hung on and didn’t let go. I hung on, too.
“We won’t forget you,” I said, using the suffix that means it can’t happen. It’s impossible. “We can’t forget. We will talk to God about you.”
I became aware that my other hand, my free hand, was slapping against the side of my leg. And I realized that I was slapping my leg because I was holding back tears. I felt self-conscious and wondered if anyone else had noticed, but I didn’t stop my hand, didn’t know if I could, didn’t know if I wanted to. “Since when do I slap my leg when I am sad?” I wondered. “It must be something I picked up from them.” In my mind’s eye I saw old women hitting their thighs and crying a death wail, a death song. But the cry in my heart was not like that one. The song in my heart was not like that one. It was sad, yes, but glad, too. It was the sadness of a goodbye, and the gladness of having someone dear enough to miss, and the hope of seeing that one again.
Jevon was busy weighing things and talking to the men. But when he came close enough for me to catch him with my free hand without letting go of his indigenous mother in the other hand, I touched his shoulder and brought him over to her. He bent down right away and put his strong face and blonde head near her wrinkled, sagging cheeks and black, greying hair. She let go of my hand now, and hung on to him. After they said their goodbyes, I took Jevon’s cell phone from him and took a picture of him and the dear woman together.
The plane had unloaded its cargo and the pilot was getting seats ready before I saw her granddaughter walking down the airstrip in the hot sun. She was coming with the other teenagers, who had been in school until then. As soon as I saw her I slipped around piles of baggage and people to go greet her. But she pretended not to see me and went quickly to hide behind the airstrip shed. She never does that. Especially not when the baby is with me – which she was. So I followed her behind the shed and found her with her back to me, her face pressed against the wall. She wouldn’t look at me at first, and when she did, she was pushing back tears from her eyes. “That’s why she’s hiding,” I thought. I gave her a hug and she started pulling a bracelet off her wrist and pushing it onto mine. It was a nice bracelet, woven in the traditional design that they paint on themselves, and made with the tiny beads that are hard to get here. Nobody’s ever given me one like that, before. I’ve never seen them give away one like that to any of us “nawa” – foreigners. I wished I had something to put on her. I wished I had my maple leaf necklace. But I had looked for it last night and when I found it, I remembered that the chain was broken. So I had nothing with me at the airstrip to give her. Then my eyes fell on my wristwatch. It was practically new. I took it off of me and strapped it on her. Then I walked away before we could both start crying. I went out into the bright sun and blinked at the airplane, gleaming red and white on the grass, with people crowded around it.
I wasn’t sad to be getting on the plane. I can’t wait to see my family in the States. I can’t wait to see my mom. I can’t wait to worship with our home church and in our own language. I am really tired; I feel like I have nothing left to give and no brains leftover to learn anything new anymore. It feels like it really is time for a break from language and culture learning. I am gladder than I would like anyone to know, and I especially don’t want the people we are leaving to know. But I am sad to be leaving them behind. And glad…so enormously glad, to know that we are going to be back.
Some people will always only want us for what they can get out of us. And some of them aren’t waiting for the day when what we can give them is the most precious gift of all – the teaching of God’s Word in their own language. Some people just want to know why we can’t bring them all new cell phones and cameras from the States when we come back. But a few are waiting for God’s Word. A few love us because of Him – what little they know of Him. These will have their reward in heaven. And some who don’t know yet what – I mean Who – is the Greatest Treasure of All, will someday know. Some people who only want stuff right now will have their eyes opened and want Him.
Until then, we are theirs. We belong to them. And we’ll be back.