I am not a risk-taker by nature. Most people would say that’s a ludicrous statement. I am, after all, living in Senegal, Africa, on a one-year family sabbatical. I agreed, reluctantly, to accompany my husband, a self-taught architect, to a country where there are no building codes so he can construct an earth architecture house with no constraints.
Though he has researched this alternative building method with passion and aplomb, I realized early on in his presentation to us that this was really about a basic need to play with dirt, which appealed wildly to our two small children. He has always tended to color outside the lines, which to him were blurry to begin with, however, this particular divergence seemed to be the manifestation of a mid-life crisis, albeit an admirable one. Relieved that it hadn’t involved a size two, twenty-two year old blond (my antithesis) or a long unquenched desire to play electric guitar (my nemesis), I agreed to support him. I heard the adventurer that I long to be say, "Sure, honey, that sounds exciting. Let’s do it." What I was really thinking was, "over my dead body." And that’s exactly what I envisioned: my malaria-stricken form, sweaty and prostrate on the bed, surrounded by my teary children reaching out to touch me one last time, their small fingers widening the holes of our faulty mosquito net. These macabre visions are unfortunately nothing new.
Where my husband sees the beauty and potential in the open flow of living something unknown, I imagine the thickness, the dark what-ifs that we may not have control over. I can’t help it. As hard as I try to dive into life the way he does, I am more likely to be waiting at the side with an outstretched fluffy towel when he resurfaces. But I trust him, his instincts and talents, and so I almost always acquiesce to the bigger decisions in our lives, like moving to Africa. I credit myself with at least recognizing the value of being led out of my comfort zone from time to time. It’s the smaller, seemingly insignificant choices that always pose the bigger problem for me, the ones that are my decision alone, that don’t effect anyone else. I tend to be the one who sits on the sidelines and watches, who stays behind (because someone has to), or if I do go, to be the slightly resentful designated driver.
For this particular adventure, I volunteered to pack for everyone, not out of kindness, but because I was terrified of what might be forgotten should anyone else do it. My knowledge of Africa had been limited to insurmountable images of sick, skeletal children, flies buzzing at their sticky eyes, razed, burned villages, women in dire need of a sympathetic god. But my husband assured me that Senegal is a diverse, democratic and stable country where we would be welcomed, a country of progress and equality. Don’t get me wrong. Everyone there is less fortunate by our standards, but tragedies are managed, and gorillas (both Pongidae and human) tend to exist in the more tropical regions of Africa, far from our arid and peaceful destination. Nonetheless, I wanted to be prepared. So into the suitcases went insect repellent, anti-malarial, anti-itch, anti-nausea, anti-diarrheal, sunscreen, vitamins, toilet paper (you never know), clothes, flashlight, candles, matches, enough peanut butter for a year, and several Burpee seed packets of our favorite fruits and vegetables in case I felt like gardening. All of this preparedness and reinforcements against the unknown gave me comfort.
But despite turning all the possible scenarios over in my head, there was nothing in that suitcase to help me deal with the news that came on the night of my 44th birthday. Three weeks after we arrived in Senegal, in January of 2009, I received a phone call that one of my closest friends had died suddenly of a coronary emballism. She was 43. The tentacles of grief reached all the way across the Atlantic Ocean and I felt impossibly far away in my loss. It wasn’t as if I could call all our mutual friends and say, "please tell me it isn’t true," and cry on the phone with them. So I booked a ticket to return to the states for her funeral. I had to say goodbye, be with those friends and our memories of this wonderful friend that was taken so early from us.
My friend had been a Life Coach by profession and was the one person I always called when I doubted myself, which was a lot of phone calls. Our friendship had spanned almost 30 years and many trials and errors on my part. She had a way of taking my insecurities, dissecting them and holding them up for me to see as opportunities to learn and grown. She had been instrumental in showing me all the possibilities and advantages of moving to Africa, something for which I will always be thankful. During our last (and unbeknownst to me, final) phone conversation, I had made her a promise. For years, I had spoken about my dream of wanting to write, a dream that I had always put off, telling myself (and her) that I would commit to it when I had the time, perhaps when my children went to college (they are 4 & 5!). But she had had enough. In her kind and supportive manner, she told me it was time to get up off my butt, or rather sit down on it, and write! She told me that life was short and dreams were meant to be lived, not sit on some proverbial shelf gathering dust, waiting to be taken down and looked at from time to time. I thought of all the reasons why I couldn’t possibly take time to write—kids and a husband to take care of, packing for our move to Africa—the list was endless. But in the end, I did promise that I would start writing . . . sometime soon. When she died several weeks after that last conversation, her words came rushing back. "Life is short." At her funeral, I promised again, and this time I really meant it, that I would write. And I have kept true to my words. I write almost every day and it’s as if her spirit guides me. The words don’t always come easily, but when I am stuck, I hear her say, "well, you can’t just give up!" and so I don’t. She is always with me in this way. What a wonderful parting gift she has given me, the courage to do what I have only dreamed of. Her gift has seeped into many areas of my life. I am less fearful, more optimistic. I life for the present.
A few weeks after I returned to Senegal from her funeral, we decided to take a short trip with six French friends to the Sine-Saloum Delta, Senegal’s only functioning area of protected waterways. After surviving a four hour drive along the hot sand route to avoid traffic and vertebrae crushing potholes, I sat outside our hut reading and taking in the views while my husband and children napped. I heard laughter echoing from the river basin down below and decided to explore. Our friends had all changed into their bathing suits and were splashing in the river. Because it was low tide, there was an area of open shallow water and then a large part of basin lay exposed. I watched as they swam across the river to the delta and began to walk among the birds and close to a large cluster of dense mangroves.
Their distant voices called to each other and traveled up the slope, reaching me long after their words had dissipated. On a whim, I ran back to our hut, stripped and searched for my bathing suit. I would join them. Exhilarated, I pulled out all the clothes and reached the bottom of the bag and then searched through the second small duffle which I already knew held mostly food reserves. I sat down hard on the floor as the realization came: I had forgotten my bathing suit. I heard my friend’s voice rise from within: "so what, don’t let that stop you." Donning matching underwear and bra and a large beachtowel, I ran down the path, descended the rickety stairs and came to a halt. By the time I got there, my friends had already swum back and were lying on the beach, panting out their enthusiasm. "SOU PEAR" one said as he passes me on the stairs. "C’etait incroyable", it was incredible, another rasped, wiping droplets from his flushed cheeks before bounding up the stairs with the others. Oh, I thought to myself, I missed it. Maybe next time. As their voices faded, Africa and I were alone for the first time. I let the towel go and walked into the river to wet my feet. I couldn’t see the bottom. The air was starting to chill and I was tired. (Dangerous, perhaps.) My book was waiting. It’s just as well, I thought. Still, I couldn’t help but take one last look across to the wide expanse on the other side. Was the shore near or was it far? The flat bottom of the river bubbled up visibly in the distance, birds hovered, some picking their way along the massive flats, mangroves swaying at the edge of the shore, waving to me. I looked back down at my feet in the water, inched in a little further. Sun descending. A small current swirling and chirping. Something darting between my ankles. Feet in the water isn’t much, I thought. A small shiver. And I dove.