Bites and Pieces

There isn’t a photo today, unless my mantra-cup, “Bless This Hot Mess” can be my actual mantra. There is a meal, a beautiful meal that New York Times Cooking thinks a regular person can make in forty-five minutes. A meal that involves chopping then roasting cashews, skinning then mincing fresh ginger, garlic, chopping a bell pepper into bits, washing rice, slicing two-inch sections of green onions, and preparing cilantro. Also cutting and cooking chicken before the oven part. I don’t have a photo of my youngest and my husband and me, making a mess of this kitchen before I cleaned it, trying to make this meal in forty-five minutes between the three of us.

I just have this. This meal to eat while we listen to and argue about Bruce Springsteen (The BOSS) and discuss our days.

Oh, our days. Bruce was under pressure to change a card (a card as big as a board game and twice as heavy), Rio was under pressure to meet her social and familial weekend obligations, me under the pressure of society to not tell a student’s caseworkers that her foster mother isn’t good enough because.

Because there are no more foster mothers available. Because it isn’t horrible enough that her mother was murdered by the Taliban, and that she’s living in a home that doesn’t recognize or celebrate her culture or speak her language, because she may never see her brothers and father and baby sister again.

It isn’t enough. It is never enough. The crying, the screaming, the desire to be perfect, the accusations, the pain that seeps through every word, the trauma that breathes through every breath.

I wish I could just change a too-heavy card, or balance my sleepover with my obligation to my grandparents, or just be a kid or just be a human who doesn’t have to carry the weight of all these humans.

But I can’t. I can’t cook this meal in forty-five minutes, NYT Cooking, and you should stop lying to people. You can’t bring your mother back, and you should stop lying to people. You shouldn’t make false accusations, and you should stop lying to people.

People who could lose their jobs, their lives, and all the love they’ve given in twenty years of carrying the weight of these kids. People who put on a musical rehearsal of Beauty and the Beast just so my poor kids could see it. People who spend half of their summer taking your kids to every place they could ever imagine because they couldn’t see those places otherwise. People who love your kids as fiercely as you do and for some reason you can’t see it,

You can’t see me.

What does it mean to be a teacher in the twenty-first century? It carries a weight that you can’t imagine carrying because nothing, nothing is more enticing than a 24/7 entertainment device that every kid carries in their pocket. Nothing is more enduring than teenage love or parental defense. Nothing matters more than a grade. Nothing compares to the TikTok video or Instagram caption–not a cultural connection, a passion for language, or a pile of free clothes.

It is like this meal. Sticky rice coconut chicken. It has everything: cilantro, ginger, coconut milk, basmati rice, a yellow bell pepper, garlic minced to perfection, chicken broth, scallions, hot sauce, a dutch oven pan that fits into the best-ever toaster oven, a bubbling bite with perfect spice… Everything.

But it’s a lie. It’s not a Wednesday night meal. It does not take forty-five minutes to prepare.

It takes years, twenty years of patience and a pinch of forgiveness to make this possible.

And you can taste it in every bite. Every bite that you put in your mouth and every bite that bites you back.

Taste it. The creamy coconut, the sriracha, the beauty of the world swirling in the rice.

And bite back.

After the Funeral

After the funeral, we stand on the side of the road, the airport train bulleting past as January exposes itself in its bitter, beautiful glory: soft flakes fall from the silent sky, casting a quiet shadow on the muffled wails of all the mourners.

After the funeral, I hug a few former students and a few current ones. I praise one for his brief eulogy, ask him what he’s doing now. “Working, Miss, always working.” My current student scans the crowd for the other teacher who came here today, searching for a hug, for a morsel of hope.

After the funeral, I drive across slick streets to my parents’ house which is halfway between the mortuary and my home. We sit for hours discussing everything from senseless acts of violence to my children’s future to an upcoming family vacation.

After the funeral, I come home to my husband, fresh off his on-call work, and hear about his morning of installing and repairing fiber optics. My girls are all gone, one at college, one at work, one at her boyfriend’s house. The house, looking out on the snow that keeps falling from the sky but won’t cover the streets with its quiet beauty, feels empty, lonely, and just. Wrong.

But… I still have my life after the funeral. I still have all three girls. My husband. My country. My culture. My home. My place in this world.

I didn’t travel across half of Africa and then all the way across the world to save my family from a civil war so that they could have a better life, only to lose my eldest child to American violence years later. I didn’t leave behind my ailing mother, my grandparents, my religious practices, my native foods, the soil under the house I built.

And today, the snow seems hopeless. It doesn’t bring me the renewal that it usually brings. It doesn’t feel like a new beginning when a family so close at hand has been stripped of every new beginning.

A young man. A student. A basketball player. A brother. A son. A grandchild. A caregiver.

They were only allotted two hours in the mortuary. The line of people never stopped for the duration. The door never closed. With every seat taken, bodies had to line up and down every aisle, along the back of the room, along the front of the room, blocking the windows, next to the casket, sitting on the floor, holding small children in laps, comforting babies, comforting wailing women, trying to find comfort.

All four surviving siblings spoke, their voices cracked with a painful mixture of grief, anger, and remorse. And then they opened the mic, and we all stood as one after another human–former teammates, church leaders, cultural elders, friends, classmates, aunties, uncles, cousins–got up to repeat the same message: Giving. Kind-hearted. Generous. “Give you the shirt off his back.” Loving. “My best friend.” Funny. Down-to-earth. Direct.

All the qualities you’d want in a person, a friend, a son, a brother.

We could have stood there for eight hours, but the time was limited, the mic dropped, and the wailing women crept their way out into the snow.

After the funeral, for as long as I live, I will carry her guttural clench of despair in my ears, my heart, my memory. The sound of a mother, bent over her son’s open coffin, crying out to God and all of South Sudan and all of America and all of us: “Why? Why must I bury my son?” Heard not in words but in sounds, deep, unearthly sounds escaping from the depths of the hell that she is living in right now.

After this funeral, I will never be the same.

I have spent most of my adult life trying to welcome these immigrants into a country that robs them of everything. Even life.

After the funeral, no matter how horrible I feel about the hopelessness that is America, I will never, ever feel the loss that she feels: so profound, so innate, so impossible to overcome.

So impossible to overcome.