When your sister calls from Johannesburg and says, “I’m in the hospital,” say, “Hold on a sec,” then point to your phone and mouth important to the hostess, whose jeans are too tight and lipstick too bright for a five-year-old’s birthday. Glance over at your kids, who are intensely focused on the artwork they are creating, little jewelry boxes covered with paints and beads and baubles and rustly bits of tissue paper. The little one will be poking out her tongue like she always does, gluing, cutting. They won’t miss you. Step outside.
[img_assist|nid=6109|title=2nd Bank Fresco by Thomas Johnson © 2010|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=225|height=150] Pay attention to the daffodils. Were you really waiting so long for a sign of spring this year, or does winter always feel this way? Say, “What happened?” Say, “Are you okay?” Remember to breathe—in out in out, yes that’s it. She will say she is okay, but you will know immediately that she is not. She will say she was attacked. She will say the word you don’t want to hear. You will feel like crying. Don’t. Wait.
Don’t be scared that you don’t know who she is for a second, that she sounds like she’s completely out of it; she is, it’s only the drugs they gave her so she can rest, get some sleep. The good news is she won’t need surgery. The guard came in time, before they could do whatever else they could have done with the rope, the knives. Breathe—that’s it, breathe. Say, “Do you want me to come get you, come be with you?” Say this even though you have no intention of getting on a plane, no intention of leaving your kids long enough to make a trip like that. Say it anyway. Say, “Who are you with? When are you coming home?” Make sure she is safe. Make sure she has someone with her. Say, “I love you.” Say, “I’m here for you.” Let her hang up first.
Stay outside for a minute, even though the skies have burst open, engorged clouds exploding like the leaking breasts of a new mother. Get wet. Feel the rain. See the daffodils—yellow, green, white. Go back in, to glitter and bright latex and hands and lips that are stained with chocolate and princess-pink frosting. Don’t think, yet, that anything can happen to these lips, these bodies, these little-girl hands. Even though your sister said, “It could have happened anywhere,” pretend for a moment like it can never happen here.
[img_assist|nid=6076|title=Back Bay by Anna Marie Zabielski © 2010|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=225|height=162] Say yes to a slice of cake. Eat it all, even though it turns to sand in your mouth. Thank the hostess. Schedule a playdate. Buckle the girls in—one, two, three. The third isn’t yours but sometimes it feels like she is, she’s with you so much. You like her. She has a tiny body and a big voice. She sizzles with way too much life for that little body. She’s fun, usually, to have around. Once, when you dropped them off at school, she asked you for a kiss good-bye; now you always kiss her, too. She will be staying for dinner, so pick up an extra pizza. If you cooked tonight nothing would taste like it’s supposed to.
Put on a DVD. Tell them if they don’t agree on which one, they can’t watch anything; they’ll agree. DVDs are a big deal since they usually aren’t allowed. Go in the bathroom and close the door. Call your husband.
Tell him what happened. You can probably cry now, but you won’t. Love him for offering to go find them and kill them, even though deep down you know that’s really just a stupid thing to say. Love him even more for offering to go get her, too. Love him when you realize he’s pulled over, on the side of the road with hazards blinking, in as much shock as you. Love him the most when he knows without saying that you won’t be having sex with him tonight, even though he picked up a bottle of wine and the hottest peppers he can find to make the nachos, even though wine and sex and snacks is what you do on Saturday nights since you had the kids.
Wait. Wait and wait and wait. She calls you from Tanzania, then Malawi. Ethiopia. She is staying with friends. You want her to come home, but she won’t. “Home is here,” she says. “This is home now.” Worry about her, constantly. Feel relieved that she is still far away, that you don’t have to deal with it. Feel relieved that she doesn’t want you to come. Feel relieved that her job is giving her a year of paid leave so she can cope. Wonder if her job feels guilty for only paying for guards at night when it was already too late anyway.
Try to remember what you learned when you worked the rape crisis hotline ten years ago. Remember what it was like to walk in to the ER with core-shattered women. Remember how different they all were. Some calm, some hysterical. Not one of them would ever be the same. Hate yourself for a moment for thinking you were doing something to help. Hate yourself for whatever it is that you said to their families, to them. Forgive yourself for thinking it’s all bullshit. Most days, bullshit is better than nothing.
Be careful who you tell.
When you finally see her, be extra kind. Meet her at the airport with an ice-cold Snapple, her favorite, something that she can’t get over there, something refreshing after her long flight. Laugh with her about the care packages you sent even though she always told you not to because they never made it to her intact; the only thing she got last time was an empty box filled with cookie crumbs, not even the popsicle-stick picture frame was left. Laugh about some postman in South Africa enjoying your cookies and People magazines. Have dinner already made, at home, and make the table with linen and china and flowers. Move the little one’s bed into your room so she can have her own space. Don’t panic that she trembles constantly. It’s just the meds, she says, the meds that help her sleep, get through the day. Don’t panic that you can still see the scar on her neck, deep, whitish on the inside, pink all around it. Don’t think that is where they pressed the knife. Don’t think you need a better explanation when she tells your friend that she fell on the plane on the way over. Who falls on a plane? And if you did fall on a plane, how could it cut you like that? Don’t panic that she looks like she is fifty years old and so skinny that your five-year-old could snap her in two. When she tells you she is seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist, believe her. Trust. She is smart. She is resilient. She’s a doctor, for god’s sake. She knows what to do, where to get help.
Try to do the normal things. Go see the Sex and the City movie even though you saw it already. Get butter on the popcorn even though you hate butter. Go to Target. Take long walks. Say, “I’m here for you.” Tell your daughters, “She’s sick. She got sick in Africa.” They will be confused: Why is she sleeping all the time? Why doesn’t she play with us anymore? Try to convince her to stay, but in a respectful way so she doesn’t feel like you think you know better than she does, even though you know you do. Feel sick and sad but relieved when she goes back anyway.
Pray. Even if you never have before. Sometimes it’s the only thing you can do, the only thing that helps you finally get to sleep at night, when you lay smooshed between your husband and your daughter who comes in every night around midnight, when you lay with your heart beating in your stomach and your throat on fire and know for sure more than at any other time that we are all completely powerless and there is nothing anyone can ever do.
Agree. When she calls and says, “I’m coming home. Nothing good can ever happen in Africa,” agree. You have lived in Africa, too, and you know the good things that can happen there and the good things that can happen here are totally different kinds of good things, and you weren’t even working with people who were dead and dying, like she does. Invite her to stay with you; she won’t. The kids are too much. Invite her anyway. [img_assist|nid=6077|title=Unhealthy Obsession by Colleen D. Gjefle © 2010|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=175|height=223]
Go see her. Leave the kids with your mother-in-law for once. One weekend of high fructose corn syrup and non-stop TV won’t kill them. Practice your speech the whole way there. The speech about how you’re worried for her, she needs to be in treatment, she needs help, she’s not recovering from this on her own. How you would want her to say this to you, if the situation were reversed. The words will freeze on your tongue, melt into your throat the minute you see her, angry, pacing. When she snaps, “I had a bad day,” listen. She is looking for work, now, depressed. Her life can’t possibly have meaning unless she is living it right on the edge. Don’t tell her that children in New York or Miami or San Antonio need help just as much as the children over there. Don’t tell her that she needs to help herself first, even though you want to say this more than anything. Listen. Just listen. Be there. Eat spicy samosas and savory lamb korma and go to the mall. Buy sheets of stickers with flowers and kittens for your girls, a small bag of peppermints for your mother-in-law. Help her pick out a blouse. Don’t say that she looks like your eighty-three-year-old grandmom from behind, all skin and shoulders. Say, “It’s nice. That color looks good on you.” Plan another visit; she’ll come see you this time.
Don’t be surprised that she doesn’t. When she calls you from the airport, say okay. Don’t be surprised. She’s going back. Of course she’s going back. You already knew that, she already knew that, it was just a matter of when. “There are lots of doctors here,” she says. “And hardly any there.” Say, “I understand.” Say, “Whatever you need to do.” Say, “I’m here for you.” You don’t know what that means, how to be here, or where here even is. Say it anyway. Say, “I love you.” Say it. That’s all.
Kathleen Furin is a social worker, childbirth educator, and the co-founder of the Maternal Wellness Center, www.maternalwellness.org She was a regular contributor to The Mother magazine from 2005 to 2007. Her work has also been published in Literary Mama, The Mother’s Movement Online, Midwifery Today, the anthology Operation Homecoming, and other journals.