This story actually begins in 1999. Some of you may be shaking your heads and wondering what event could have possibly occurred in 1999 that might have any relevance to Foreign Service life; much less an event that happened 10 years ago. Well, life has many twists and turns and sometimes those connections reveal themselves many years later. Such is the case in this story.
Some of you know that in 1999, I moved back to the U.S. after having lived the past two years in Germany. At that time the following events took place simultaneously: my marriage ended, my oldest daughter returned to college at A&M, my middle child started college in Pennsylvania, my youngest child started her third year of high school, I started college, and I was working full time trying to make ends meet. Needless to say, I was a bit stressed out. I read some physiological chart a while back that has you identify key events that cause stress in your life and after you list your "life changes" it tallies your score in the stress department. My score was so high I probably should have checked into Shoal Creek Healthcare Facility, or given it all up to eat bon bons on the sofa. I did neither, and it was at this time that I met Joan. I'm a fairly regular church goer (I remain Catholic despite all the people from my generation who gave up their religion long ago), and one Sunday Joan noticed me and came up to say hello. In all fairness to the story, Joan came up to me not only to say hello, but also something like, "Are you alright?" She said this because I had been crying. With all the changes going on in my life, I tried to be strong for everyone else, but church was the one place I allowed myself to break down and fall apart. Maybe I thought God would not mind if I showed my true feelings; feelings of despair and anxiety and fear. I think Joan saw this in me and walked over to say hello. I'm sure she got a lot more for her hello than she bargained for, but I was glad for the company. I felt totally alone at that point in my life and she reached out to me in a way that I knew at least one person noticed my struggle and cared about me. She gave me her phone number but I must confess I was too shy with all my troubles to call her. We saw each other at church and each week she asked how I was. I felt so glad for those meetings. Nine years later when I left Austin to take this job with the Foreign Service, Joan and I exchanged emails and promised to keep in touch. Eventually I gave her the address for this Blog, and she follows it faithfully--even emailing me her comments from time to time.
About a month ago, I got an email from Joan. She knew someone who was coming to Sierra Leone and she asked if it might be possible for us to meet. I said yes immediately and she gave me the email for "Erin." It turns out that Erin is the best friend of Joan's daughter, Sarah. Erin and I exchanged details and I offered to have her stay with me while she was in Freetown. She arrived Thursday evening and went upcountry (the term for "up to the primitive areas") for the next two days. On Saturday afternoon, she came to my house and we met for the first time. She was really nice and we got along great. We went running on the beach, and then came back for a shower. She said it was the first hot shower she had had in two weeks; as she had spent the past 10 days on a mission trip with Young Life in Liberia. I took her to an Embassy Happy Hour that evening and she met people from all over the world. The next morning I made waffles and fresh coffee and we sat around the table like family. Later on, I took her to the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary and she got to see the chimps and all the good work that Bala is doing. On the way home we stopped for fresh bread and she shopped for trinkets on the side of the road. We had a great time and she made me realize something very important; that this really is my home now. Seeing Freetown through Erin's tourist eyes made me understand how comfortable I have become here. I have a pretty good command of the Krio language and I can talk to the local people in their own dialect. I know how to drive in this crazy place. I know where to find the good bread. I'm not afraid to walk the streets and I can bargain shop with the best of them. I really like living here, experiencing the rich culture of Freetown and being with Erin reminded me of this. She kept thanking me for all I have done for her, but really I wanted to thank her for showing me how far I've come.
So thank you Joan for being my friend when I really needed one. (And I hope you didn't mind that I told your story here). Thank you Erin for trusting some random acquaintance of your best friends Mom (me) because it was great meeting you. Thank you God for the experience of being in Sierra Leone.
Life is what you make it. Make it good.