After the Cinderella party we had a short time before it was time to go to the final culmination of our time, the big 'Presidential Dinner' put on for all the COTN staff to honor Chris and Debbie Clark.
On the schedule, this afternoon time was actually written in as 'personal time' - time for the team members to do whatever we felt like we needed to do - rest, pack, journal, spend time with someone. I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
I went back down to the children's village to hang out with T. and his friends.
I didn't take my camera. While I loved getting pictures - and had a goal to take as many as possible on the trip, it also was a HUGE distraction. The kids ALL want their picture taken - and they ALL want to see each and every picture, crowding around the little screen and giggling. I thought it would be easier to just leave it back in my room this time so I could just be... a person. Not a person with a camera...
It was already starting to get dark by the time I got there. But there was enough light to see the people I wanted to see. I found Mama Josephine. This sweet woman cares for Tejan and 9 other boys in House #5. I wanted her to know how much I appreciate her. And I wanted her to know I would be praying for her every day. I can't begin to describe how connected I feel to this woman - and I know she felt it as well. There is a bond - two women who have been given the opportunity to be a mother to Tejan - it's really quite a remarkable thing - and something I did not expect - this sisterhood with this beautiful African woman. I held her tight and said with deep conviction in her ear "God bless you."
I wanted to smooch on a few of the kids I had connected with - Eddie and Massah, who were in our home while Tejan was with us - in the States for the annual COTN fundraising benefits... Pastore - while he didn't speak english, I felt the need to give him a high five and dance with him one more time... Little JK - John Kamera - who followed me from house to house the whole time I was in the children's village and always sought me out at big events... these sweet children who are so giving of their affection and whose hearts are so open and hopeful. So many of them whose names I did not learn, but whose smiles are with me always. I cannot wait to go back and know them better... my heart is there in those homes.
And of course, Tejan. I knew he would be coming to the Presidential Dinner with Gee, a young man who has been mentoring him and who is working with T. and a couple of other boys on their spelling. T. is a fierce speller - and along with these two boys, is on a team that Gee plans to take to a regional spelling competition. They were coming to the dinner to show off their skills and raise some money for new clothes to wear to the competition. So I knew I would see him there... I didn't want to start 'the goodbye' yet. So we just sat together on the steps of his house, surrounded by other kids, talking and laughing. It was a sweet evening. I couldn't quite swallow the lump in my throat, but I was determined to hold myself together and I cherished this one last chance to be a part of the life and love in that little village of homes. Children running from house to house, playing games, singing... it is such a vibrant place and even in the dim light of the setting sun, I was able to etch every detail clearly into my mind.
We left to go back up the hill to the dinner. Back to the veranda. Back to the 'high table.' They pulled out all the stops - with sparkling cider, stemware, tablecloths and the fanciest attire I had seen yet. Sierra Leoneans LOVE to dress up. We were served a huge spread of food and treated to a program of jokes, music, speeches and other 'contributions.'
After Tejan was done with his spelling competition he came over to see me at the table. I had finished eating and because I wasn't sure if we would see each other in the morning, I got up and walked with him. We held hands and went far enough away from the veranda do escape the noise and hide away from the bright lights. As soon as we stopped, he was in my arms.
And we were both in tears. Deep, sobbing, body shaking tears.
Oh, how I love that boy.
Saying goodbye was no easier the second time around. If anything, it was harder, because we are even more closely connected, having now shared his home, as well as mine.
It's difficult to put words to the privilege I feel - being mom to him - and yet the heartache is just as difficult to describe. It sits deep in my heart - a quiet and constant longing... a heart torn between this new place I now knew and the home I belong to.
I know he wrestles with the same dichotomy. I felt it in his arms wrapped around me. And I think it explains the bond we share. Who else in the world understands?
I tried to be the wise one - to share words that would encourage him to be a good boy even through his sadness - to build him up and say all the thoughtful and sage things mothers say - but I don't clearly recall what came out of my mouth. What I do clearly remember is clinging to him... freely crying with him... loving him as deeply and permanently as I could through that embrace.
The rest of the evening is a blur. I was overwhelmed as I made my way back to the high table... and sat for quite some time through the remainder of the program with tears flowing freely down my face, shoulders shaking with silent sobs. I was overwhelmed and exhausted. It was my last night in Banta, and I felt deluged and engulfed by the reality of leaving.
God met me there. I went to bed that night drained of all personal strength, weary and worn, but held up by a gracious and compassionate God.
I embraced the bare-ness I felt.
It was just another blessed part of this incredible journey.