Very Far From Home (In Two Acts)


I am at home in Lilongwe for 48 hours between two week-long trips. I walk into the kitchen, exhausted and sunburned, to find the foster cat rolling around in a pile of dead insects.

“A massacre.” I think. The cat looks pleased. As I get closer, I see that there are no insect bodies on the floor, just their iridescent little wings, dozens and dozens, dried like beige rose petals. They are flying termites. Upon the first rains they rise from the grass and fly for a few short hours before their wings fall off and they return to the earth. I decide I like these Icarus insects, losing their wings after a few moments of flight. I sigh to myself.  In this room of bugs carcasses, I am exhausted by my own emotionalism. Why do I insist on trying to make poetry out of such banalities?

I get out the broom and sweep up these tiny propellers of flight. I’m a little worn down from the depth of need I witnessed on my trip. The inequality of the world is staggering. There is more suffering and greed and apathy than I could have possibly imagined.

“Your color means money here.” My coworker reminded me before the trip. For a second I glanced down at my dress to see what color he was referring too. Then I realized: Only a white person could forget about race.

During the trip, barefoot children come up to me and say, “Give me money! Give me money!” Young field officers say, “So you must be very rich back in the states, right?” I laugh and try to explain my student loans. But, this is a fruitless and slightly crass thing to do. My student loans are immense, but the opportunity to take out those loans existed. I’ve been on five international flights this year. I have 10,000 Kwatcha ($13) in my purse. I could go on. I’m rich.

Diminishing these differences doesn’t make them go away. Diminishing doesn’t erase these accidents of birth that enable some to so much, and more to so little.

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My dad is having heart surgery and I am doing financial audits in a hot room with no electricity.

It’s actually ideal; this tedious and manual work requires my absolute focus. Still, I can’t shake the one thought that keeps skittering across my brain: “Do the surgeons understand what they are holding in their hands?” Then my eyes well up and I hastily brush my tears away with the back of my hand. I don’t want to alarm my coworkers.

Here is the kind of dad I have: when I was five he created a story about a curious red headed girl and her pet dragon. He told me nightly installments of this story for six years. He gets obsessed with projects. One year he decided to build sheds, and then he built four on our property alone. Then he started building boats, then bird feeders. He’s read every science fiction book in our local library. He always knows when I’m lying. He tells the same jokes so often that even my friends can (and do) recite them.

I’ve been calling home every day for a few weeks to ask, “How are you feeling?” as if these words substitute for my presence. As if, “Any updates?” is the same as running errands, cooking meals, giving him a hug. “There’s nothing left to say,” He says to me, trying to relieve some of the guilt he can hear from 10,000 miles away. “We just need to get it over with.”

So now the day has come. My father is cracked open in an emergency room. My mother and brother are sitting next to each other in the waiting room. I am in a city I didn’t know existed last year,  trying not to google, “Heart Valve Replacement Surgery.” Instead, I’m googling, “Do termites have hearts?” Turns out, they do.

Exactly one million hours later, my brother sends a Facebook message, “He is doing well…nurses are all smiles with his current state. So am I.” He continues:

Ian cropped

The phone lights up. The camera turns on.

I cried.

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