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Going Through the Motions

by Deb Dawson
Duk - Christmas 2013

For me, though 2013 was marked by personal and professional successes, betrayal and loss and sorrow shadowed the first six months. I’m fairly good at going through the motions. It helps that I can put on a smile—a real smile—the kind of smile that eventually makes you realize that every day offers a new opportunity, a new beginning—whatever it might be.

I spent much of January in South Sudan that year, returning in early February aglow with the growth of the student population in our school, the construction of new buildings, and the improvement in our students English conversational skills.

Just after I returned, an anonymous text message I received on Valentine’s Day made it clear that my 21-year-marriage was over. The obligatory annual Valentine’s gift of chocolate-covered cherries with my morning coffee was a ruse. Five days later I was living alone. With the cats. The only time I have ever lived alone was the second semester of my first year of college. I had a single room in a dorm. I shared my first apartment with a roommate. After that it was a husband, then children, then a six-year-stint as a divorced parent with three minor children, and then another husband, and then just as we got the last one out of the house, we adopted two teenage Russian girls. It has been a rare day that I slept alone in my own house or ate dinner alone in forty years.

The losses kept coming. In March, my beloved mentor and friend, Natasha, died. She was well-prepared for her inevitable death and had planned for family and friends (me included) to scatter her ashes in the ocean. I met her on my honeymoon in Maui 21 years earlier—doing Tai Chi on the beach. As recently as November 2012, again in Maui, I took her to Tai Chi each Monday morning. She participated while seated in her walker, her breathing assisted by a portable oxygen tank.

In April, Jef Foss, a friend since childhood and ASAH architect and board member, passed away suddenly, unexpectedly, and peacefully, with his dog on his lap. Only 61 years old, he was to return to South Sudan with me on what would have been his fourth trip. Instead, his wife and son traveled in his place. In the gathering space he’d designed in the center of our dormitory buildings, we held a memorial service attended by many leaders and members of the community.

On May 17, the day we left for Africa, my great aunt Tollie passed away. At 106, she lived independently in a retirement home in Bismarck, ND. At 105, she was still playing bridge in three different clubs. One club, the Mother’s Club, she joined in 1933 after she had her first son. She outlived both her sons and her husband by more than thirty years. Then in June, my mother’s younger brother, Bruce, died at age 80. Now both my parents and their siblings are gone.

My sleep had been disturbed for months. My GI system was a mess. I thought it was stress. When I finally went to the doctor, I learned I’d picked up a parasite on my travels—the first time in nine trips with more than 20 weeks spent in Africa over the past few years. Heads up: GI systems don’t automatically reset when the parasite is defeated. Stress and foods also play a part. I’m better, but not 100%.

As I reorganized my condo as “mine”, I decided to make life easier on my now-18-year-old cat, Sniff. She’s a timid thing who has lived in the shadow of Kiska (“kitten” in Russian) since we acquired her thirteen years earlier for one of my daughters. Since Sveta now lives in an apartment that allows pets, she was happy to have her cat back. Instead of terrorizing Sniff, now Kiska attacks knitting needles and balls of yarn. When I travel to Africa, my daughter Vika cares for Sniff to spare her Kiska’s intimidation. Vika has a cat, too, but Sniff and Kitty tolerate each other.

And then there’s everything else that I’ve mastered that I haven’t often had to concern myself with in the past 21 years. Light bulbs? Check. Oh, except for the fixture that required an electrician. Two visits to my house—fixture taken to the shop. Three weeks. Still waiting. He’s coming tomorrow. It’s an important fixture, because it is the main lighting source for putting on my make-up in the morning. It’s like putting on makeup inside a tukul (adobe thatched hut) using a flashlight and a small magnifying mirror. Yes, I do wear makeup in Duk Payuel, and I do bring a tiny blow dryer and flat iron!

Changing all the clocks. March. Check. November. Check. Smoke alarm batteries. Check. Check. Needed a neighbor’s help the first time. Two floors. Requires a tall ladder. I carry the ladder from the second floor in the elevator and up and down my two stories. Hot tub: emptied and refilled twice. Chemicals balanced. Moto-massage replaced by technician. Nine years old, it wasn’t ‘moto-ing’ the way it should.

I cleaned all the bottom filters of the dishwasher. I’ve always been the one to do that. It’s always a nasty job. I struggled to get the fake Christmas tree apart and down. Alone. My daughters helped put it up, but... this also requires a tall ladder, good balance, and strength. Got it in the box—requires a sense of spatial relationships, imagination, and strength. After the first try, I took the prickly pieces out and tried again. And so on. Hired a window washer—spring and fall—for the two stories of windows off the balcony, plus two interior glass areas that require an extension ladder to reach. Those interior windows hadn’t been washed in eight years. I’m not willing to do things that involve falling from more than four or five feet off the ground. I Phoebe (1 of 1) don’t wash my own car though it isn’t risky, and it’s the size of a bicycle. People like me keep places like Don’s Car Wash in business. Clean inside and out in a jiffy, and I don’t get wet or dirty.

Granddaughter Phoebe

On the plus side for 2013, I’ve spent more time with both local and distant adult children and grandchildren. This is an important and wonderful part of my life—especially the grandchildren.

And then there’s the miracle of my oldest son who offered to take care of a dog when I travel if I wanted to get another one. My beloved Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Destiny died in August 2012. This past August, I got a Cavalier male—black and tan, and named him Duk, (pronounced “duke”) for Duk Payuel, the place I work in South Sudan. Duk is a manly name for a “pretty boy” and every time I say his name, it reminds me of the wonderful people and students I work with. It also causes me slips of the tongue because my nearly three-year-old grandson is named Drake. I have been known to call the dog “Drake” and the child, “Duk.” Neither seems to mind.

Sniff has adjusted to Duk. She is sitting on my lap, and he is sitting next to us—chewing. Hmmm. Just checked his mouth—he was chewing on small plastic top for a pump face cream. I pulled it out of his mouth and told him to get the toy. He ran up the stairs and brought me the bottle. I also see two leather gloves on the floor beside me which I think he took off a chair. All as I compose this on my iPad.

I’ve come full circle as I approach Valentine’s Day. the anniversary of this tremendous change in my life. I’m healthy. My brain works. (You may disagree if you know me and know I know you, but I still can’t remember your name, or if I missed something with you because it wasn’t on my calendar, or I didn’t do something because there are both too many and not enough hours in the day, and because I AM stressed.) However, I’ve been tested—and I’m fine—way above average, apparently, with no signs of Alzheimer’s, the disease that hit both my parents. Because my mother had the early-onset variety, it has been a worry for me.

February sixth I return to Africa because there is work to do. I’m traveling with Jessica Wunderlich, a filmmaker who traveled with me last May and June. We’re working on a documentary about the relationship of educating women to reducing poverty and conflict, like the recent attacks in South Sudan.

It is not yet confirmed that we will visit Duk Payuel. Much depends on the willingness of AIM Air (Africa Inland Mission pilots) to fly there. ASAH has eight students in boarding schools in Kenya, so we will visit them. From there we will visit Kakuma refugee camp. We have three former students there, and there are many incoming refugees. There is a secondary school for girls that just opened at the camp, so we will visit that as well. And then we’ll go to South Sudan. To Juba, and, I hope, to Duk Payuel.

2014—I’m ready for you.

About the Author

Deb DawsonDeb Dawson

Deb Dawson is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, businesswoman, teacher, humanitarian, and philanthropist. She holds a B.S. Ed. in Education and English, and an MFA in Creative Writing. Her role as mother to biological, step, and internationally adopted children led her to write When Love is Not Enough, a memoir about the way mothers and daughters forge relationships in the face of tremendous obstacles.


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