Wednesday, July 20, 2016


“Miracles are like meatballs, because nobody can exactly agree on what they are made of, where they come from, or how often they should appear.” --Lemony Snicket

Oliver with his best friend
Why is it that when I'm supposed to give a speech for 200 people, my kids try to kill me with one of their diseases? 

Months ago I was asked to speak on the "Miracle of Motherhood" at a fundraiser for Oliver's school. The week before the event, I hosted a virus convention in my body. Since my children are in three different schools, they each gave me a unique disease which morphed into an uber-virus, which subsequently brought me to my knees. Literally.

After a week of bronchitis, gastritis, colitis, laryngitis, and hepatitis*, my immune system went rogue and attacked my joints: arthritis. I woke up in the middle of the night and could hardly move my elbows, shoulders, hips and knees. I was in excruciating pain--so I hopped flopped into a hot bath. Mind you, it was 2 am and everyone was sleeping, so when I couldn't lift myself out of the bathtub, nobody heard my hoarse cries for help. 

I was stranded. Thankfully I'd given birth three times, so I knew that I could push through the pain. With the grace of a sea lion, I heaved myself out of the tub and crawled into bed.
"Tired" Cape Town Sea Lion.
Eric took me to the hospital an hour later. The medical staff spent the next couple days pumping me with Prednisone and anti-virals until I could walk again. 
Hospital entertainment.
Three days later I gave my speech about the Miracles of Motherhood.  I shared how each of my children was nothing what I expected, but I wouldn't trade them for the world. My voice was raspy, and my mind was buzzing from the steroids, but I pulled through.

The evening was fabulous, because I had the privilege of sharing my journey with the Jewish community who had welcomed Oliver into their school. That evening they showered me with love as well.

Last November I didn't have much hope that we'd find a school for Oliver.  We were discouraged when Eric and I met with the principal of this Jewish school. She was gracious, and I'll never forget when she said, "Well, we've never had a child with Down syndrome at our school before...but we've always wanted one!"  I burst into tears.  

She was the first school administrator in Cape Town to be excited about mainstreaming Oliver into a Kindergarten program. In turn, the staff, parents, and children at the school have warmly welcomed us. 

I couldn't have dreamed up a better situation for Oliver.

The teachers are very open with the children about Oliver's disabilities. Kids are smart--they know that Oliver is different, but I'm amazed at how, if you answer their questions honestly, they are nonchalant about Down syndrome.

Oliver has been invited to play dates and birthday parties. He loves going to school and can tell me everyone's name.  He has a full time facilitator who pushes him and keeps him on track--and he has a teacher or two who spoil him rotten.

This is why I wanted to speak at the school's PTA fundraiser.  I wanted to share how  my intellectually disabled child continues to be a conduit for divine intervention in my life. 

I mean, he's also an amazing conduit for germs too. But nobody's perfect.  

*viral hepatitis is only an inflammation of the liver.   

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?

Durban Dog

"Not my circus, not my monkeys." --Polish Proverb
Thanks Facebook for outing me. I was trying to keep our crazy under wraps, so it was UN-kind of you to tell all my friends that my dog was MIA. I reported the dog MISSING to a Facebook Lost and Found group in Cape Town, and within minutes my whole world knew, due to your stupid algorithm. 
Our new neighbors definitely knew our dog was missing, because we drove around the neighborhood shouting “Durban!” Actually that’s not true. Durban is a city in South Africa, so they probably thought we were drunk Americans. 
And yes, South Africans think that “Durban” is a stupid name—like Americans would smirk at a dog named Tacoma. I’ve tried to modify it—Durby, Durbs, Dave—but nothing sounds right, so Durban it is. I tell people the name sounds better in Zambia and then shrug my shoulders.
But we were in Cape Town now, and we'd managed to lose him in one day. To be fair, he RAN AWAY, but that's beside the point.
Since dogs don’t talk, I imagine Durban slipped out the gate, because he was worried we would leave him again. This dog, like many labradors, is sensitive, loyal, and a bit exceptionally needy. He felt deserted in Zambia. He didn’t know that he had to wait for his blood tests to be approved by the South African government before he could be loaded in a crate, shoved on a plane, and flown to a new place where he'd be locked in quarantine for 10 days. Come to think of it, I would have some trust issues as well, if my family did this to me.
When the pet courier company finally dropped him off, he was hysterical. I'm sure we wound him up a little. (Trying to upload video here...)
A few minutes later I took him to his first dog park. A dog park? Like a kid in a candy shop, it was sensory overload. The first thing he did was run to the fountain and jump into the murky water-- which is completely normal for a labrador to do. However we were now “those people” shouting “Durban” at a water fountain.
The next morning Eric took the boys and Durban on a hike ½ way up Table Mountain. This was Durban’s first. hike. ever. One of the charms of Zambia is that you can camp with wild animals, but Durban never joined us, because he'd be a leopard's lunch in no time.
As you can imagine, Durban thought Cape Town was incredible: a dog park and a hike in a day? When I took Alex to a birthday party, Durban decided that we were either abandoning him and/or doing something awesome without him, so he chased after us.
I only noticed he was gone when I got back. We were frantic. We had just endured three months of off-the-charts stress, and this was the proverbial fly buzzing around a pile of dog droppings.

Our summer vacation went something like this: we needed to get FBI background checks, chest x-rays and notarized copies of every official document known to man, so the whole family could zip down to the South African embassy in Los Angeles and submit our visa application in person. Go figure--my x-ray came back abnormal, which meant more tests for me.* 

Then we had annual doctor's appointments for everyone. I got my first mammogram, which turned out abnormal. That meant more testing and a biopsy which led to surgery to remove a benign tumor. 

Everyone had eye appointments and got new glasses, which Oliver managed to lose between Seattle and Cape Town. 

I did three 100-mile (Century) bike races, and despite being in the best shape of my life, was diagnosed with high blood pressure. My family does not have high blood pressure, so I had to get scans of my kidneys. Again, more doctors appointments to get that under control. 
Oliver had a scheduled tonsillectomy, but he needed an "all-clear" from his cardiologist before the anesthesiologist would knock him out. This meant more tests and doctors visits before heading to the hospital. This surgery is an outpatient procedure for typical kids, but Oliver is an overachiever and needed a three-day stint in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.
Between appointments we spent time with our loved ones, which let's be honest, always includes a good dose of drama.
After returning to Zambia we had ten days to pack up our house and move to Cape Town. 
Once arriving in Cape Town we had a ton more work to do: get bank accounts set up, buy a car, find insurance, get kids in school, find a school for Oliver, and move into a house. To make things interesting, South Africa doesn't let you get a cell phone contract until you can provide proof of address. To rent a house you need to have a bank account. To have a bank account you need a miracle from God. 
God came through for us, but by the time Durban arrived at our temporary housing, we were fragile, frayed, and on edge. To think our beloved Durban could be dead on the highway was unbearable. 
Someone suggested we post his photo and information on a Cape Town Petfinders group on Facebook, so I did.
Within the hour, a woman connected us to the people who had found our dog. When Durban tried to cross four lanes of traffic, two cars nearly hit him. A third car stopped, coaxed him into their car, and took him home. They fed him a yummy ostrich lunch and gave him lots of love. Then they took his photo and posted it to Facebook.
Why did my dog cross this road?
When we picked him up, the people actually invited us in for dinner. We declined, because, well, the afternoon had been a bit much already. 
So thanks Facebook for helping us find our dog. I forgive you for letting my secret out, because you've forced me face the truth. I cannot deny it any longer.
This is my circus, and these are my monkeys. 

*I am fine. Turns out that the growth in my lung is probably scar tissue from asthma.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Oliver Says No to Homeschool

Pick me!
"We are supposed to accept children with special needs, but as you can see, our school doesn't have a ramp for your child." -- Anonymous school from today
The school administrator's excuses are getting more ridiculous by the day. Other responses include, 
  • "You are just applying now [for January 2016]? Normally our parents register when they are pregnant with their child.
  • "There's just not enough space in Cape Town schools for the children who want to go to school."
  •  "Priority will be given to children who have been baptized in the Catholic Church."
These were quotes from the public schools we visited*.

The private schools are very friendly, and will even give me an application. However, each school has told me that they have already made their decisions for next year. Best of luck.

After hearing this from a dozen schools, I am discouraged. Not one person has asked specific questions about Oliver. They see a face with Down syndrome and assume that he needs a ramp to get into the school.

To be fair, he hasn't mastered riding up stairs on his bicycle yet. Perhaps his physical therapist can work on that this week.

This is just one of those rare occasions when Down syndrome kicks me in the gut. Most of life with Oliver is normal. Some days are phenomenal. Then there are those rare days when I pray for his disabilities to disappear, in the Name of Jesus! 

We are praying this week. Oliver's delays shouldn't be deal breakers. We will pay for a private facilitator to help him through the school day. We will continue his speech and occupational therapies. And at home we will work hard to help him close the gap.

We just need a great partner school to take a chance on us. Anyone?

* I can't imagine the situation in low-income parts of town. A psychologist told me Sunday that 38% of the Cape Town population is addicted to meth. But that is a blog post for a different time...

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Next Chapter

Goodbye Gift from Eric's Team at World Vision
"And the danger is that in this move toward new horizons and far directions, that I may lose what I have now, and not find anything except loneliness.”--Sylvia Plath

Wow. If I spend one more minute with my family in confined spaces, I am going to lose it. I almost had a panic attack on the top of the Ferris wheel in Cape Town the other night. Isaac had been eyeing it since our arrival last Sunday, so I made him a deal: figure out how much it would cost for our whole famly to go on it if we had a 20% discount.

So that's how I found myself trapped in a small cabin with everyone. We were told the ride would last 12 minutes--4 times around total. It lasted 30 minutes, because we spent half of the time suspended 40 meters in the air (over 3 stories high), and I think they added several more rotations to make up for the delay. We were begging to get off of the thing by the time we were done.

That Ferris wheel represents my life in so many ways.
Last spring Eric found out that his contract in Zambia wouldn't be renewed in January. He was encouraged to pursue some other opportunities as soon as possible, because the region had some budget cuts.

The stress was tremendous. We had our home-leave back to Seattle scheduled for July, and now we were in crisis mode. World Vision offered Eric generous opportunities both in Seattle and in other countries, and we suddenly had big choices. Choices which led to epic arguments. Epic arguments which earned Eric an amazing knick-knack.*
The knick knack: Actual size is 60 cm x 91 cm
Then a good friend offered Eric a job at World Bicycle Relief (WBR), a partner with World Vision. It's all about getting bikes to people so they can get where they need to go: school, the market, the clinic. When you are out in the bush, the nearest clinic can take hours to walk to--which is a bummer if you are critically ill.

So now we are in Cape Town, South Africa starting a new life. So far, so good, except it takes time to find friends and community. Loneliness is the hardest part about being an ex-pat, so saying goodbye to the friends we made during the last four years is awful:

  • Our home church "Crazy Church" made up of parents raising kids with disabilities  
  • Suzen, our blessed housekeeper and her son Daniel who was Oliver's best friend 
  • The insane ex-pats who choose to live in Zambia, because they want the country to flourish.
  • Our Zambian friends, from prisoners to organic farmers to artists to government officials and especially Eric's colleagues at World Vision, who welcomed us. I will miss you. Goodbye and thank you for giving us the honor of living in your country. I pray that the electricity comes back soon, my friends.

*All about the Knick Knack: This tradition started in our marriage 13 years ago after a terrible fight. Eric hates trinkets, so I bought him an atrocious one and displayed it on our mantle. This was therapeutic for both of us: the little piece of ugliness reminded us of why we should never, ever fight. Perhaps one day he will learn...

Monday, March 9, 2015

Teaching in Prison

Katherine:  The Teacher's Pet
He who opens a school door closes a prison.  --Victor Hugo
Mr. Hugo, I am not so na├»ve to think that education alone would eliminate crime.  But having taught literacy to a handful of women in an African prison, I wonder if my students had had the chance to go to school, perhaps things would have turned out differently for them.

Take Katherine* for example.  She is a mother and a grandmother, and when I met her in September, she didn't know her ABCs or how to write her name.  Although I am not allowed to ask why women are in prison, she told me.  She was sentenced to a year in jail for selling marijuana.

Katherine's letter after 3 months of class.
I show up twice a week and teach, so women like Katherine have a chance to learn. Christine, my side-kick joins me. Our class meets outside on picnic tables.

There isn't much to the prison:  the cell block, the restrooms, and the muddy/dusty courtyard.  There is now a one-room preschool for children and a sewing room for the tailoring program.

There is a whole lot of life happening here:
  • Women cooking maize porridge on charcoal burners and scrubbing laundry in tubs.
  • A group of toddlers climbing on a pile of 15 meter long re-bar and chasing each other with sticks.
  • A woman butchering a chicken a few meters from my class.
  • Thousands of flies swarming everything.
  • Women in my literacy class learning to write their ABCs.
During Christmas I hauled in an African Christmas tree and we made decorations.  I asked people to write something they were thankful about on a tag, and hang it on a branch.

African Christmas Tree
Then Alex and Isaac's school did a Christmas fundraiser for me. We were able to buy three iSchool androids.  They cost about $200 each and they contain the entire Zambian curriculum in multiple languages for grade 1-7.   These magic tablets make my job easier, because I don't have to lesson plan for a revolving door of students at different levels.

iSchool Tablets
The other day I met Katherine as she was released from prison.  I dropped her off at the bus station, (where I took her photo) and she headed off to re-start her life.  She was my most eager and faithful student, so it was bittersweet to see her leave.

Katherine tells me prison changed her.  She found God in a place "that I hate."

It won't be an easy journey, but who am I kidding?  These women that I meet each week are tough--tougher than I could hope to ever be.

All I can do is pray they understand that they can learn to read, no matter how old they are.

They we just need to give to give them a chance.

*Name is changed

Saturday, December 13, 2014


"Never go on trips with anyone you do not love."--Ernest Hemingway

A crab...and a coconut crab.  Sorry, I couldn't help it.
"Shawn and I almost got divorced at the airport," Rachelle told me once we'd arrived at the beach house.

I know, I know.  I shouldn't gossip, but this is a good story, so I've modified their names.

Rachelle and Shawn were happily married with four darling children under the age of six.  They lived in Africa too, so we arranged to meet them in Zanzibar for a vacation extravaganza.  For fun we invited my parents and Eric's sister Lo Lo to join in the chaos (seven kids!).  But back to Rachelle's story...

It was nearly midnight when they were checking in for their flights.  For those of you who haven't traveled internationally with small children at midnight, let me tell you, it is miserable.  There isn't any contraption that enables you to safely transport four passed-out kids and their luggage through the airport and immigration.

At the ticket counter Rachelle found out that Shawn made a huge mistake when he booked the tickets. She was on the midnight flight with the three boys, and he was scheduled to travel with their little girl on another day.  That's when  Rachelle, who is nearly unflappable, lost her mind. Fortunately the ticket agent, sensing an emergency, was able to squeeze the entire family on the same flight that night.  Thanks be to God.
Zanzibar Red Colobus Monkey
Oddly enough our family managed to scrape up some drama as well.

We arrived at the Lusaka airport, checked in, and waited to board our plane.  When the gate agent asked for our tickets and passports, he also demanded our yellow fever vaccination cards.  We totally had those--only they were at home, and it was too late to get them.

"I'm sorry.  Tanzania won't let people in who are from countries with yellow fever."

"Ah, but we are Americans," I pleaded, "and we've been vaccinated, I promise!"

"How long have you been in Zambia?" he asked.

"3 years..." I said.

"Absolutely not."

Alex and Isaac were devastated.  The next flight out wasn't for a few days.

But, again, I've lived here for three years.  I know that when a door closes, a window can be pried open for a few hundred dollars.

"These are good for 10 years," the gate agent told us and handed us our duplicate yellow fever cards.

But we made it to Zanzibar, and the island didn't disappoint us.  Most residents are Muslim, and we arrived at the very end of Ramadan.  The streets were packed with men and women buying food and fancy clothing for Eid al-Fitr, the big party celebrating the end of fasting.
Mr. Clean selling stuff at the market 
When Auntie Lo Lo arrived, she looked frazzled.  She'd made it all the way from Oregon to Zanzibar, but her luggage was lost somewhere in between.  "Don't worry, we'll deliver your bags to your lodge," the airline assured her.  Lo Lo rolled her eyes.

Let the record show that Eric and I told her the bags would come...and come they did.  Sure, some of her valuables were missing, but at least she had a change of underwear and her toothbrush.

One-stop shopping at the market
We snorkeled. We toured spice farms.  We played in the soft white sand.   It was all fun-and-games until my mother's elbow swelled up to the size of a soft ball.  Zanzibar is exotic, but not the place to be if your body goes into septic shock.  

Shawn, the same guy who nearly abandoned his wife and three boys at the airport, called his surgeon father.  "Get some Tetracycline, and she should feel better in a day."

Small problem:  there are no pharmacies in rural Zanzibar.   We asked the cook at our house to ask around the village for the antibiotics.  Sure enough, within the hour, there was a guy with a bag of prescription drugs.  My mom got what she needed, and as I write this post, she is alive and well.

Spice tour finds

Obligatory cow-on-city-street photo

"Nice racks, beautiful butt & smoking hot legs." Thanks Tennessee for your inappropriate shirts.
Carved door frame in Stone Town
On our last day, we took a soap-making class in Stone Town.  Again, great fun until Oliver creamed his shorts. Thankfully the shop had a small bathroom, so he and I scurried off to clean up.

Best soap ever.
The bathroom had a toilet, but lacked running water, soap, and a garbage bin. This may be TMI*...but let's just say that I wasn't going to be taking his undies home with us, so I folded them and hid them under the sink. Yes, I feel a little bad about this, but you'd probably do the same thing.

I then sent Eric on a mission to find some antibiotics.  Fortunately Stone Town has a pharmacy.

Imagine.  Oliver can't swallow a pill, so we needed to crush the meds, mix with juice, pour into a syringe, and shoot the concoction down his gullet.  The problem was my hands were far from clean, and with the lack of soap and water I was hesitant to mix the drugs. 

Then I remembered something:  We were taking a soap-making class!  I plunged my hand into the soap mixture, scrubbed furiously and rinsed with bottled water.  

As I write this post, Oliver, too, is alive and well.  

But, in closing, I'd like to reflect on why Ernest Hemingway would say to only travel with people you love.  It's obvious:   It's because nobody has to die.  The end.

Mama collecting seaweed

*Too much information

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sunday Snot Suckers

"Love is like a booger, you pick and pick at it. Then when you get it, you wonder how to get rid of it." --Mae West
Oliver woke me up last night with one swollen cheek and a gooey green nose.  Fantastic, I thought. There's nothing I like better than going to the hospital on the weekend.

Eric and I took small child to ONE OF THE BEST HOSPITALS in Lusaka. That is key to this story. (If you are a worry wart, please chill.  We have great medical evacuation insurance.)

Before we even saw the doctor, Eric snapped this photo of the wall in the waiting room hallway.
Ok, super sleuths...what's missing?
Then I found this poster in the restroom.  My favorite is the last illustration of how NOT to use the toilet. This means someone has actually done this.
Don't worry.  Oliver has never vomited IN the toilet at this hospital.  
The doctor poked and prodded Oliver's mouth to see what the problem was.  Then he prescribed antibiotics.  Oliver didn't say much during the whole examination except, "Fox."  Which was kind of awkward, because he still can't say the "s" sound.  I assured the doctor that Oliver just LOVES "Fantastic Mr. Fox", but I don't think he believed me.

The doctor told us to keep an eye on the infection.  Then he added, "One of you needs to suck the mucus out his nose."

Eric turned to me and asked, "We DO have one of those nose suckers, don't we?"

"Yes," I assured him.  Finding it may be a challenge.

"Actually," the doctor interjected, "The best way to clean it is for you to suck his nose with your mouth."

"Ha, your joking, right?"  Eric asked.

"No, seriously.  That way you can feel when you've got it all out."

I gagged and thought, Oliver's nose can fall off before I'm sticking my mouth there. Do you have any idea how toxic that small child is?

Don't worry, Oliver's nose will be fine.  Right now Eric is scouring Lusaka for an industrial vacuum cleaner.