Forgive the speedy updates, but I just couldn’t leave the “Mice and Men” post hanging there, all depressing and sad, after last night. I never thought I’d be a mall walker, but yesterday was blustery cold and we’re determined to get as much walking in as we can before Rebeka’s surgery, so we headed to the mall.
After a quick dinner we set out, Clay, Rebeka, Alayna, Benji and I. After working on bending her knee on Tuesday, Rebeka’s gait has improved and she’s able to move more quickly without tiring. Coupled with all the distractions, and a fun game of tag, this walk was like no other we’ve had. This walk was FUN!
Rebeka squealed and hurried away when she was being chased. When she was “it,” she’d catch someone and yell, “You’re in!” She kept forgetting to say “it” instead of “in” but who cares. She was practically running! She kept it up for thirty minutes without stopping, all the way from California Pizza Kitchen to Sears and back. That’s incredible, friends. Before last night, the furthest she’d gone before taking a break was thirteen minutes! We were so encouraged by this progress. And convicted.
Walking here in Austin usually means a structured, “time to go outside and walk now” process. But when she gets home, walking is a way of life. Practically everybody in her village walks to get wherever they need to go. To church, school, and to get water. Back home there are tons of kids playing, lots of family around. Back home she’ll go to school with lots of other kids. Here, she has me most of the day. Boring old me. Poor Rebeka is a social little creature and she thrives on interaction. The more the merrier. She was very merry last night, chasing us and people milling all about.
And so our prayer is that this surgery is a tweak. We pray two weeks later, when they take off her cast, she will easily slide into her new AFO and pick up where she left off. We have seen so many prayers answered on this journey, and we trust God is not done with this little girl, or us.
As you can see, I’m feeling a bit dramatic this morning. So dramatic I wanted to include this verse from Burns’ poem, To A Mousein it’s original language, instead of just glibly quipping “The best laid plans of mice and men,” and then telling you about Rebeka’s surgery Tuesday.
That’s right, another surgery, next Tuesday. Oh, we had big plans. I was hopeful that in the next two weeks she’d reach that one mile goal. I have that fancy little chart, we’ve been tracking her distance and speed, you who read the last post know all this. And so you see that an unexpected surgery is not part of my grand plan.
It’s a minor surgery this time, to lengthen something on the back of her right heel (a tendon?) so that we can get the angle of her ankle to ninety degrees. This is really important, and we need to get it right before we send her home. So maybe her departure date will change. She’ll be in a cast for two weeks, and we won’t know how her foot will feel when we take it off. Will we be dealing with major foot sensitivity again? Will it take weeks before she can put pressure on it? Don’t know.
I have friends going through hard things right now. I join them in going through my own hard thing. And still the wind blows outside the window, the birds sing and the world keeps turning. Rebeka took the news in stride when we found out yesterday. After a few questions, she was eager to run down the hall and try to get the electric hospital doors to open. And I mean it, a walk so fast it definitely classifies as a run in my book. She is still big smiles. She takes each day as it comes, with whatever joy or sorrow it may bring, and once again, I’m learning from the ten-year-old. Or trying. Letting go of “promised joy” for a while, knowing grief and pain will pass.
This picture was taken on a really blustery day recently, at one of the boy’s lacrosse games. We weren’t dressed for the wind and the cold, I kept blowing into the back of Rebeka’s head to keep her warm.
Someone gave us a nice, warm blanket shortly after this picture was taken. Oh, it felt so good, that blanket. I know there are so many people, ready to throw a blanket on us right now. Grateful for you.
Rebeka has experienced a few new “firsts” in the past couple week. It takes me aback sometimes, like “You’re ten years old and you’ve never _____?” Like her first time in a box fort.
There just aren’t giant boxes in Bugesera that are at a kid’s disposal, with total freedom to create whatever they like. With some duct tape and a little saw, Benji and his cronies built a four-room house with windows, a draw bridge, and a skylight that opened and closed. It was enjoyed by all.
Rebeka and friend Kate explored the new digs.
This past week, I can claim it was the first time Rebeka fluidly read a book. Those of you who have helped a child learn to read know the patience it takes, before the light bulb comes on and they start picking up patterns. It’s even harder since Rebeka is learning English at the same time. Many of the words she’s sounding out are words she doesn’t know. Once she began to see the patterns, she no longer had to sound out every single word every single time. If she’d read it on the previous page, she remembered it. Once she learned an ending, like “et”, she could apply it to “wet” and “get” and “set” . . . I was there for that moment this week, when the light bulb clicked. Reading got a whole lot easier. I’m telling you, I almost cried.
And then there was this.
Her first footprint, right foot. I took her to the lake one day while the kids were at school. She pines for the lake, we all do, and we finally had a free day to play. The water was cold but she didn’t care. She donned a swimsuit and plopped down, to collect shells and brave the boat wakes and feel little fish nibbling her toes.
Each day we are seeing huge progress as she walks farther, and faster. For those of you who are into charts and numbers, here’s a snapshot of our past couple week’s walks. Keep in mind that when she walks without an AFO (a brace) she goes much slower, and for shorter distances. She’s still improving, but it’s tough going. Just recently she’s begun walking with no braces and no walker, a big step. She’s rocking the walks with the braces on, increasing distance and diminishing time with every walk. She rarely uses her walker anymore when she’s wearing braces, and we haven’t used the wheelchair in weeks!
Distance (each marker =1/10 of a mile
With or without AFO
And for those of you who aren’t numbers people, here’s a picture of her taking a little break. That “look at me ma’” smile says it all.
We follow her in a jog stroller and every tenth of a mile she sits and takes a quick rest before carrying on. This is a big shout out to all of you who have honked, cheered, and walked with us, whether literally or figuratively. You can see from our chart that we still have a ways to go, but we are heading in the right direction and it gets a little easier each day. I close this post with two pictures I’ve been dying to share, ever since the day she arrived. The first was taken in Rwanda last year, and the second was taken Monday, April 22, 2013. Praising God for miracles.
There is a Korean service medal sitting on our kitchen counter.
For days we’ve left it there, keeping our distance, a little afraid to touch it. In awe of all it represents. Nate interviewed Huey, a veteran of the Korean War, for a school project. We first heard Huey speak at Clay’s grandfather’s funeral, and were mesmerized by the stories he told. During Nate’s interview, his story of surviving two years in a Korean POW camp was the kind of story that could change the way a fourteen-year-old boy thinks and lives. Huey said he hasn’t had a bad day since he was rescued in 1953. Wow. Not a single bad day. Nate sent him a thank you note, and a copy of the report he wrote. Huey replied with congratulations for Nate’s good grade, and his Korean Service Medal, signed “Your friend, Huey.” And so, somehow, we feel part of that story now. What a gift.
I seem to be immersed in story this week. I’m participating in a writing workshop led by the talented Sara Zarr this weekend, held at The Writing Barn. Twenty of us bravely submitted our stories, and are getting feedback on how to be better storytellers.
The Writing Barn in Austin, Texas, where people go to “Retreat, Create and Celebrate.”
And my ears are still ringing with the quiet, confident voice of a Rwandan young man named John Bosco. When he was eight years old his mother died and he had to quit school to try and earn money to help feed his family. He told one of those crazy, walked-uphill-in-the snow-both-ways kind of stories. He took ten long trips a day to his village’s water source, delivering fifteen gallons of water each trip, to families willing to pay for the service. In return he received enough money to buy a small handful of rice. Dark to dark days, and that was just the beginning. Years later, at age fifteen, he longed to go back to school, and miraculously a sponsor stepped forward through ANLM.
In two years John taught himself English at a French-speaking public school, and studied so hard he won first place in the country on his exams. At age seventeen he entered seventh grade at New Life Christian Academy and continues to excel. He is hard-working, humble, and a big dreamer.
John Bosco on left, with John Africa, headmaster for New Life Christian Academy in Kayonza, Rwanda.
Huey and John Bosco have reached the ends of their particular stories and are living out others. The piece I submitted for the workshop is still in the beginnings. And Rebeka, she’s about three quarters of the way through her walking story. I’ve been sharing her story here, but I want her to be able to tell her own story. I’ve begun talking to her in the vocabulary of story, as in “What’s your story?” She has a hard time pulling back the lens to see the scope all that’s happened in the past eight months. Where will she start? There is the big story of leaving her family, flying to America, where she spoke no English, to wear forty different casts and have painful surgeries to correct her twisted feet. We are still finding out the ending to that story, as she struggles to learn to walk again. Some days if we pull the lens back too far we can get discouraged, so we keep it tight and celebrate small victories.
We aren’t the only ones. Cars stop as she slowly makes her way down our street, and friends cheer. Our family is creating a new habit of taking walks together, the boys weaving up and down the curb on bikes or scooters, doubling back to encourage Rebeka as she slowly, slowly makes her way. Today, during a break at the writing workshop, I got a text from Clay with this picture.
Underneath it read .3 in 34:40! No walker. Held my hand the whole time. And in the midst of all those wonderful stories I’d been reading, in the midst of all the stories I’d heard this past week, that was the best one yet. Three tenths of a mile may not seem like much, but we’ve watched her wince as she takes her steps. We’ve watched her legs tremble and sweat sheen her face at two tenths of a mile. Clay and I have stayed up late at night, worrying about worst case scenarios and steeling ourselves to be “the villains” of the story for the next two months as we bend her toes and ankles, enforce daily exercises, push her to walk farther, sometimes with no braces or making her let go of her walker. We are still smack dab in the middle of it all, and sometimes it’s just as hard for us to see the scope of this story as it is for Rebeka.
And so I come here. I post pictures. I go back and read from August and September. I read your comments, and I am encouraged. And like that service medal, there are tokens of her story everywhere. Artwork taped to windows. The remnants of a plaster cast that we use as a bookend. And most recently, a hand drawn map to Kate’s house, ten markers on the mile-long path. Our hope is that by the end of June, the whole route will be highlighted, marking her success. There is suspense in this story. There are tears, and triumph, conflict and climax. For now, stay tuned, to be continued . . .
When Rebeka first came here, we had a lot of goals for her. We wanted her hair to get long enough to put a bow in with no headband. Check.
We wanted her to learn English. Check. We wanted her to eat a vegetable. No check. Of course we wanted her surgeries to be successful, and for her to learn to walk on the bottoms of her feet. At PT yesterday, she walked 640 feet with her walker, her longest distance yet. She can stand without her walker for a long time, and she’s practicing standing on bare feet, still clinging to the walker or our hands because this is a hard one.
Our biggest goal is to send her home able to walk on her feet without her walker. And yes, included in that goal is the phrase, “send her home.” We’ve always known that was part of the deal. People ask me all the time how hard it will be to say goodbye. Hard. But so far I’ve been able to stave off the reality of saying goodbye. We’re busy learning to read and walk and do math. We’re busy running to PT appointments twice a week, getting fitted for the brace for her right foot, busy achieving goals and making new ones.
Every morning we get out our calendar, put a sticker on the day, sing our “days of the week” and “months of the year” song, and look ahead to what’s coming up. We looked forward to Halloween, then Christmas, then Easter. We knew when school and PT and surgeries would happen, but until recently, there was no departure date circled. It was just out there somewhere. We knew it was coming, but it seemed like a long time away.
It wasn’t until I wrote her departure date on her calendar that it began to feel real.
June 24th she’ll be traveling home with an American family that’s moving to Rwanda for a few years. They have three young kids, and we’ve got play dates and dinner dates on the calendar so Rebeka will know them well before she leaves. They are kind and sweet and absolutely capable of caring well for Rebeka. She will be in good hands. And she is traveling home to her family, her mom and dad and sisters and a brother, who all miss her and can’t wait to see her.
That’s what I say. And then I think, when she’s gone I’ll have lots more time to write, workout, and volunteer at school. I can spend more time with my kids. Clay and I will take some trips. Our family won’t have to whisper in the morning because Rebeka is still sleeping. No more wheelchair tearing up the back of my car, and a lot less Uno. And then . . . and then . . . that’s how my heart stays far from that June 24th date. It’s all okay because . . . because . . . And honestly, life has been harder, yes. But life has been sweeter and richer, too, and my heart knows it. I have been stretched. I have learned new things about myself. Some of them aren’t pretty, but some of them are pleasant surprises. I can do what I never thought I could. And I can say goodbye to this girl we all love. Yes, there will be a big old hole in our family pictures, once Rebeka leaves.
Easter morning, and look, no wheelchair and no walker.
But we will choose joy on that day, even if our hearts are heavy. She has worked so hard, been through so much, and she will walk. Our goal is for her to be able to walk two miles by then. That’s how far it is to walk to her school in Bugesera, and interestingly enough, that’s how far it is to walk to her friend Kate’s house here. It’s going to be hard, and she has a lot of work to do. That 640 feet we’re so proud of is less than a quarter of a mile, and she did it all with a walker. We’re determined, her physical therapist and doctors are determined, and she’s determined that she can do it with enough hard work. We’re convinced it will take more than that, and we’d love prayers for her, prayers that she’ll walk those two miles.
It’s a date, Rebeka Uwitonze. June 24th all of us will do one of the hardest things we’ve had to do in the eleven months that you’ve been with us. We’ll say goodbye. But until then, we’ve got some work to do, so let’s get busy.
We had an appointment yesterday to take Rebeka’s old cast off, and put a new one on. We were told it could be on for two to four weeks. Rebeka was kind of bummed because she envisioned herself being able to walk by Easter, so she could do an Easter egg hunt on her own two feet. I tried to cheer her up as I put her in the car to go to our appointment, telling her, “The cast you get today will probably be your last one.” We were all a little nervous about taking her cast off. We all remembered how bad it hurt last time.
When we went in, the doctor said if Rebeka wasn’t too sensitive when we took her cast off, he wouldn’t put another cast on. What? Really? My heart started beating double time. There were already some tears on Rebeka’s cheeks before the technician ever touched the foot, she was scared. But when Clay and I heard “no cast” we were pumped. We just had to get Rebeka through the hard part. The technician was ever so gentle. He stopped ever now and then from unwrapping to let her rest and regain composure.
And when it was all off, and we saw that beautiful foot, she reached down and touched it through her tears. And then she touched it some more. This was HUGE as she wouldn’t even set her heel down when we took the cast off her left foot. The nurse brought in some wipies and Rebeka cleaned her foot well, exploring all the new scars and wiping off dead skin. She even got between her toes. It was a deal, no more casts! (And no more autographs, sorry guys! Rebeka’s graffiti leg is done.)
And so, presenting Rebeka’s two new flat feet:
She is eager to begin trying to walk with her walker. She has a boot she’ll wear for the next three weeks on her right foot, while we wait for the swelling to go down. Then she’ll get an AFO (brace) like the one she wears on her left foot. The doctor said we should let Rebeka be barefoot more often, feeling the world on her toes, and becoming less sensitive. We are so thrilled, so blessed, and so ready for that Easter egg hunt!
For our last day we decided to visit the Aquarium of the Pacific. We saw all sorts of crazy stuff: eels, a shark with a saw for a nose, jellyfish, and giant lobsters. Rebeka has now joined the ranks of those who have touched the back of a stingray, watched sharks being fed, and laughed at sea otters playing and penguins diving. She even had a couple Lorikeets perch on her as she offered them nectar.
We ask her how she’ll ever explain sharks or highways or rollers coasters to her sisters. She just shrugs. When running water and electricity are novel, the rest is just crazy. I imagine her, spinning these tall American tales around the fire back home. And the funny thing is, some of the things we’ve seen when we go to Rwanda seem like tall tales back here. Fifty kids in a first grade classroom and they’re all rapt with attention, eager to learn. Bundles of sticks larger than the woman carrying them, balanced on her head. A six-year-old girl with her infant sibling strapped to her back, tasked with caring for him while her parents work.
Oh I wish I could be there, to see the looks on their faces, when she tells them about riding around in a plastic clam to see the Little Mermaid.
Or how she took pictures with superheroes.
Or gazed at water that goes on as far as the eye can see.
This great big world is full of true tall tales, no matter what side of the ocean you live on. And I guess that makes it . . . wait for it . . . wait for it . . . a small world after all.
It’s a small world after all, it’s a small world after all, it’s a small world after all, it’s a small, small world . . .
The moment we wheeled Rebeka through the Disney gates, the Disney staff called her “princess.” “Have a great day, princess,” or “step this way princess.” Our second day at Disney started out with a trip to the “Royal Faire” where Rebeka was decked out in a super fluffy, glittery Cinderella dress so she could look the part. After changing, she settled onto the floor with dozens of others princesses to watch a Tangled play.
We hunted down almost all the Disney princesses throughout the course of the day to get their signatures and some pictures. Of course, Cinderella was a favorite.
We rode the carousel again. The boys have been real troopers, riding the Little Mermaid ride twice and gamely enduring the more tame rides, though they’ve had a chance to sneak off for the thrill rides as well. By the end of the day, all of us were dusted with Rebeka’s princess glitter. Her dress left a trail of sparkles wherever she went. She looked like a beautiful night sky, her dark skin and all that glitter like twinkly stars. But, when it was all said and done, Rebeka is still our silly, goofy Rebeka.
In addition to seeing the ocean and going to Disneyland, we had another item to scratch off Rebeka’s bucket list: snow. We drove over two hours out of L.A. to Big Bear Lake, and headed straight to a tubing hill we’d read about. It was super warm, mid-60’s, but there was still snow on the ground and we couldn’t wait for her to experience this new thrill. Unfortunately, after just one slide down the hill, the staff apologetically told us that anyone wearing a cast who has had surgery can’t tube. I guess we should have known that. It would have been really bad if Rebeka went flying off her tube and hurt herself. Rebeka had fun on her inaugural slide, but she honestly didn’t seem too disappointed, and Clay was a little relieved. He said the hill was dicey, and he could easily see how an accident could happen.
Undaunted, we traveled a little further down the road and hung out at the base of a ski area.
We did another costume change, but this time instead of a princess dress she was donning waterproof riding pants (thank you Daehlers!), and a plastic bag for her cast. Eventually she also put on mittens, a hat, and a heavy coat she brought from Bugesera. She arrived in Austin last August with three coats and a couple of heavy sweatshirts, and she was finally getting to use some of them! She was eager to try a snow angel:
And of course we had to make a snowman.
Our family usually goes skiing/boarding at Spring Break, so being around snow seemed right. As we watched people coasting down the hill, we all got a little itchy, wishing we could take just one run down. Alas, the day was getting late and it wasn’t worth the hassle and cost for just a couple of runs. So, we hopped back in the car and headed back to L.A. This has been a weird trip in a lot of ways. It’s strange not having Alayna with us (she’s on her junior trip in Europe). Our car trip has a totally different dynamic. Little “super-dee-duper-dee-doo’s” resonate from the backseat. The wheelchair rattles and clangs around in the back. But the mountains are beautiful, and the family picture is still very sweet.
We look forward to trading stories with Alayna once we’re all back home again. Thinking of her reminds me of the many costume changes she made as she decided which clothes she would take and how they would all fit in the one carry-on-size suitcase she could bring. She must have tried on dozens of outfits and combinations to find just the right ones.
We have just one more day in California, and I think we’re done with “costume changes.” No Cinderella dress or snow pants required for the aquarium or the bird sanctuary. Then maybe we’ll go in search of the Hollywood sign, or Sunset Blvd., or revisit the beach . . . so many choices, so little time.
Rebeka has a new refrain. She wakes up saying, “super-dee-duper-tee” and she goes to sleep saying it just one more time, “super-dee-duper-tee.” We think she’s excited.
Our first day at Disney was a blast. We decided to splurge and get a VIP guide who can get us to the end of every fast pass line at any time, cutting out wait times waaaay down. This way we can do both parks in two days, and see everything we want to see. We found out just minutes after meeting our guide that she has been to Rwanda. TWICE! It was a match made in heaven, we love Courtney.
Rebeka’s desire? A princess dress. The only souvenir she asked for? A bubble “gun” that blows bubbles when you pull the trigger. Her favorite ride? The carousel. She was game to try almost every ride, even Space Mountain, but she’s not a fan of super-dee-duper fast, or scary. She loved the parade,and our “VIP” status meant we got a primo viewing spot. The princesses took special note of her, it seemed, blowing her kisses and waving. She was all smiles.Here are some of our fave pictures.
This was by far her favorite, we rode it twice.
This was a super tame ride, but it started by riding our little boat through the jaws of a whale’s open mouth-Rebeka DID NOT want to go in that mouth!
Once we were in the whale’s mouth, she was still a little scared.
This was our first princess signature. Merida from Brave took lots of time making Rebeka feel special.
I thought it would be fun to share some pictures of our Spring Break trip to California with Rebeka. Day one was mostly travel, with a very early morning wake-up call and lots of time on the plane. When Rebeka traveled to America, her first time on a plane, she never got a window seat. We made sure that was remedied.
She was so excited, making silly faces when we took off and she felt it in her belly.
We went straight to Hunington Beach after landing in L.A. where we saw amazing kites, a very cool pelican, a couple of dolphins, and some “swell” surfers.
We got right up close to this guy, and watched as he crouched and then dove for a fish.
Isn’t he gorgeous?
This is Rebeka’s first time to be at the seashore and see the ocean. When we asked her what she thought, she said, “It’s good.” We’re working on more descriptive adjectives.
We walked on a long pier out to a cute little diner for a 2:30PM lunch, then went to the beach.
Another “foot in the street” for those familiar with our first blog. It’s no longer innocent of honest to goodness beach sand.
Clay insisted that we would ALL put our toes in the water. Rebeka said, very seriously, that she would NOT put her toes in the water. Clay had other plans for her. And, of course, after screaming came giggling.
She loved it. She also loved playing in the sand, burying Nate’s feet.
Did we mention she’s flexible?
I loved watching them all. It was fun to watch Benji run like a puppy. Shirt-less is his natural state, he loves the water and he isn’t afraid of a little cold.
Ultimately he ended up face down in the ocean, but he didn’t care. Nothing a little sunshine and a towel wouldn’t fix. Day One, ocean, check. Today we’ll do our first Disney Day, so stay tuned for more pictures. I think what we’re all most excited about is seeing Rebeka’s face when we walk through those gates. She told us she thought when we landed in L.A., we would walk out into Disney. The L.A. airport was a big disappointment! No matter how we try and explain what Disney is really like, or show her pictures, they just can’t live up to the real deal. I don’t know . . . I think the ocean runs a close second to Cinderella.
I love sharing stories like Rebeka’s in Her Own Two Feet. That’s what this blog is all about. My stories. Other people’s stories. Writing stories for children. Once upon a time I told the story of our family traveling around the world for nine and a half months. You can find those here at Faces in the Street.