It was an accident. The ladder looked sturdy, and the kids wanted to explore our new house in Somaliland. My husband Tom sent our son Henry, then 2.5 years old, up ahead of him to the flat space on our roof. He supported our daughter Maggie, also 2.5 years old, with one hand on her back, and they started up together. Halfway to the top, the bottom slipped and the ladder fell. Tom let himself free fall while he scrambled to catch Maggie. In the split second before she hit the cement below, he managed to get one hand on her body to, oh-so-slightly, slow the drop.
I heard a crash. A thud. “Maggie!” Silence. And then a toddler screaming like only scared, injured toddlers can.
I was in the kitchen trying to figure out how to make spaghetti sauce from actual tomatoes instead of a jar of Ragu and ran out to the porch. Tom was feeling Maggie’s head, then her arms, legs, and back. Henry peeked over the roof, and Tom told him to step away from the edge. Maggie was crying, hard.
We hadn’t been in Somaliland twenty-four hours yet.
Were we going to be emergency evacuated out on our second day? Did we even know who to call to arrange something like that? Did we have a working phone?
Alhumdillalah, praise God, Maggie wasn’t seriously injured. Tom, shaken, reset the ladder and climbed up to be with Henry. I held a sobbing Maggie. Another American (her husband also taught at the University) had lived in Somaliland a few months already and was helping us transition. She had learned how to make spaghetti sauce from tomatoes and how to grind the beef herself and made us lunch. That afternoon, the only Somali I knew in the country came over to check on Maggie. Though we barely spoke a mutually intelligible word, I will never forget her visit.
Later, Tom would describe the moment he saw Maggie go down, the moment she slipped from his grasp. He let go though everything in him tried to hang on, and it was one of the worst moments of his life. He had a rock in his stomach of mingled terror and guilt. The scrambling after her to see, what have I done? The tears of relief to discover that she was scared but fine. The lingering fear as all the what ifs flooded his active imagination.
That first full day revealed something fundamental about our time in Somalia. It was fragile. Fleeting. One fall, one fever, one bullet, one car accident, one burn (all of which have sent expats we’ve known over the years home), and it would be over.
That first full day showed us how loosely we would have to hold our lives and expectations and plans here. Tom was as careful as any dad could be; we could plan well, we could hold tight, but …
Sometimes letting go happens whether we want it to or not.
October 2003. A bullet, then more bullets. Not at us but at people like us, two British teachers. Richard and Enid Eyeington. An Italian aid worker, Annalena Tonneli.
We were given two hours to get to the airport for an emergency evacuation, a flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
We lived two hours from that airport.
I took thirty minutes to pack a single suitcase, to walk the kids through the house saying goodbye, to write a note to a neighbor, and to give our would-have-been lunch (tacos) to the guard. Tom turned off the water pump and the generator. I forgot the clothes on the line and the bananas on the counter and the dirty dishes in the sink.
While we hurtled down the rocky potholed road out of town, we spoke the names of people we had come to care about. We pointed in the direction of their houses, toward the market, toward the university, toward the hospital where Annalena had been killed.
We let go, with grief and shock and anger, we let it all go and boarded the airplane with our single suitcase, our family of four in tact.
Sometimes the forced letting go is eased by focusing on gratitude.
September 2012. From Somalia we moved to Kenya, then Djibouti. After eight years in Djibouti, eight years of French schools, we felt our twins needed more than what the Djiboutian education, social, spiritual, and physical environment could give them.
They did not want to leave Africa; they did not even want to leave Djibouti. This is home now. They wanted dad to keep working at the University of Djibouti, to keep our Djiboutian residence cards, to keep their beds and books and video games and friends in Djibouti.
But we felt, and they agreed, that Djibouti couldn’t give them what they would need during their junior, high, and senior high school years. Few extra curriculars, except what mom and dad started and taught. No English, no American history. No peers who shared their faith.
And so, with wracking tears on mom’s part and excited/nervous grins on the kids’ part, they started boarding school in Kenya. The first week back in Djibouti, now a family reduced by two, I spent the nights rocking on the couch with my hands in my hair wondering how we would survive, how I would breathe.
The kids are surviving just fine. More than that, they are thriving. I am surviving, I am remembering how to breathe, though my chest aches when I think too hard about boarding school.
Sometimes letting go means making a choice that is good for the people you love and that choice cuts you to the bone.
People can disagree with our choice to send the twins to boarding school. They can call Tom a bad father for letting Maggie climb a ladder. They can say we evacuated out of fear and accuse us of running away or say we were foolish for going in the first place.
I’m okay with that, because I know better. I know boarding school is the right choice for us (and I know I have not given the decision justice in this brief essay). I know Tom is the best father I can imagine. I know we didn’t leave with fear in our hearts. Whether or not we were fools for going at all? Maybe, but not blind fools. Fools with a vision. We wanted to climb up to the roof and see what the world has to offer; we wanted to take a risk.
My letting go is not your letting go. The choices I make, or am forced into, are not yours. We have decided that we want our children to climb and to climb high. We want our children to learn and grow and experience and trust. We also want to make wise decisions when circumstances seem to tell us to go and go now.
Sometimes letting go is an accident, painful. Sometimes it is forced upon us. Sometimes it is something we choose.
Letting go is right sometimes, but it can still break your heart.
Image courtesy of Flickr.