THE LAST GOOD-BYE
My Mom insisted that she drive me to the airport…alone. It was difficult for me saying “Good-By” each time I had to return to Africa. How do I know that this was my last time that I would see my Mom alive? I am sure it was difficult for her too, but she did have ten other children! In the lineup of siblings, I was the fourth oldest, second oldest son. We did have a close relationship over the years. I was her chosen son to be a priest, and all that went with it in dealing with my other siblings on such an unsolicited bestowal. She never did consult me, since it was just taken for granted at my birth. Besides, Mom had six other sons who would eventually marry and produce over thirty grandchildren!
She had a little bright red Toyota that never failed her and got great gas mileage. She always let me use it when I came home, even for long distance trips, which were few. I tried to spend as much time with her as I could, since I got a home visit only once every two years, sometimes three! I never realized how much it would cost me in the long run. Not only did my young nephews and nieces grow up by inches and feet between each visit, and crossing from Grade School to High School to College to Marriage while I wasn’t there, my parents also went from Elderly to Old to Death.
They both died when I was in Africa, and I had decided before hand whether or not to come home for the funeral. The reason was not just because it cost so much, but I knew that they both had lived a wonderful and full life, that in the end, I realized that funerals were really for the living. And when Dad died, he decided to be cremated and my sister saved his ashes in her living room until I came home again. At least the family had another celebration of his life as we interred his ashes in the National Cemetery in Dayton, Ohio, since he was a WWII veteran in the Pacific Theater. That had worked out better than I had though.
As I looked at my Mom that day outside the airport, with so many memories flooding my mind, I knew that unless a left now, I would be bawling like a baby and maybe miss my plane. I knew she was in good hands, since my brothers and sisters would take good care of her, like they did both of them when Dad was still alive. Seeing my Mom now, so fragile and still able to drive not only amazed me, but also made me realize how much she clung on to life until my next hone visit.
On the plane trip back to Africa, I found myself reflecting on why I had decided to be a missionary in a foreign land so far away in the first place. I recall that it all really started in the novitiate, when the thought of being a missionary seemed like a great way to serve the Lord. Like all great thoughts and ideas, the reality is far different. I thought I would be saving pagan babies, and at the height of my fame I would be baptizing villages of Africans. The reality was that I would be living with young Catholic men teaching them the fundamentals of religious life and starting over with a new group year after year, for sixteen years. These young men came from a Catholic Church that began over a century before I arrived! And I realized that some of the other brothers were here in Africa for thirty or forty years!
What I didn’t realize was that I would also be teaching them the basic fundamentals of community life; like how to use western toilets, since they were only familiar with up-country squatters. We had to teach them to turn off the light switches when they left the rooms, to turn off the water faucets when finished, how to do laundry, cook, English, and the list was endless. For example, on my way to the classroom one day, where I taught several classes each day, I heard the shower running. After many years in Africa, one questions everything and anything. “I’m counting heads, and everyone is here. Who is using the shower?” I asked.
“No, one,” they all answered.
“If no one is using the shower, why is the shower running,” I had to be very basic here.
“The shower is broken,” one novice said.
“If the shower is broken, why did no one reported it?” I asked. I knew where this question and answer routine is going, since saving face in Africa is more important than saving one’s life. No one admitted that they broke something! They would always say, “It broke.” And I always asked, “So, it broke itself?” until I learned the pattern by rote. So I skipped the questions and ran to the shower to stop the flow of water which would eventually drain our water tanks and then there would be no water and they would just go about life as though there never was water available, just like in the village at their homes. I often wondered what they would do if they ran out of toilet paper? And that is why one would find newspaper in the commode, and maybe a dirty sock. (Don’t ask about the sock, and don’t touch it? I won’t tell you what happens with very large crowds!)
Anyway, the faucet, which they call taps in Zambia, had been completely unscrewed out of the wall! So I simply screwed it back in. So simple, yet it can be so baffling to someone whom never encountered a faucet tap in their life…I keep telling myself.
It would be so easy to just get on a plane and head back home to a normal life of technical familiarity and sanity. And yet I stay, year after year, because I love it here working with these young men. That is the simple truth! I love it so much working with young brothers interested in living religious life that I am always surprised that someone would want to join us.
In African culture, to be a religious is a very big step that any young adult could make, male or female. Despite all the positive excitement of living the life in the early years, it does eventually wear off, especially when things get difficult, or when life gets especially better, like when has a degree. A whole new life opens before him which wasn’t available until he joined religious life! How easy it is for him or her to just leave and get married; and they do…about 90%. Or sometimes their mother wants her name to live on forever in a child and offers a woman to her son (who is a religious brother or priest, which doesn’t seem to matter to the mother) to produce a child for her. “It’s OK,” she says, “I’ll raise it myself.”
I have to now seriously ask myself why I stay. The reason I joined may not even hold anymore. But basically, I love religious life for what it has done for me and for what it is doing for me now. What religious life has done for me is to strengthen my relationship with the Lord first through a strong and supportive prayer life and community life. At least for me, I can’t have one without the other, both prayer and community. And I have realized over the years that a brother who is going to leave religious life usually leaves their prayer life first, then community. One of the brothers that I worked with always states, “Unless you love Jesus, then you will not persevere in religious life. In fact, you don’t belong in religious life!” It always seemed harsh, but he has been proven true over the years, at least for our African brothers.
I joined religious life to do just that, to strengthen my life and my journey with the Lord. That is what religious life is doing for me now. If that ever fails, then religious life has failed me. That is why it is better for the brother to leave if he feels unable to support other through his active participation in prayer and community life. And that is why Africa has always been and will always be a blessing for me. Not because of the young men who have left over the years, but because of the older brothers who have stayed and shared their religious life with me in prayer and community over the years. For this I have been blessed and for this it was worth leaving my Mom on the curb of the airport saying our last Good Bye!