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The Thin Wire

April 6, 2019 — Leave a comment

Mtuseni huhI’ve always been enthralled with Mtuseni’s use of spoken language. I don’t know if it’s just him or is distinct to South African English. Maybe it reflects a way of thinking and translating from his native Zulu language. But in regular conversation his word choice can feel downright poetic.

I remember years ago when he was in school and was having money problems — bigger than the usual money problems he copes with. It was one of the rare times he specifically asked me for more money, in addition to the monthly allowance I gave him. In making his case, he said he was “living on a thin wire.” The phrase evoked a striking image, and was an effective way to communicate his predicament.

 

I was reminded of this image when I woke up the other day and saw his WhatsApp status on my phone:

Meter Mate status crop

Mtuseni works at Meter Mate in a dead end, low paying admin job. He hates it. He was set to have his monthly review this past week. He’d gotten several written warnings about being late for work recently. He told me that Joburg traffic was getting worse, and the rolling blackouts from the failing electric utility adds to the gridlock when traffic signals are out. After three years in the job, leaving home at 6 a.m. to make it to work on time at 8:30, suddenly he’s being hounded for being a few minutes late.

The company treats employees like children. Mtuseni has told me stories of things that management does there that would never be allowed in the US. But in an economy where people are desperate for work, you put your head down and just hope you can hold on to your crappy job. And Mtuseni finally realizes that he’s disposable; there are fifty people who would take his job in a heartbeat, and the company knows it.

Seeing his status message I immediately thought, “Uh-oh.” Surely he’d been fired. My mind went into solution mode… thinking about work alternatives and connections and how I could cover his lost salary for however long it might take him to find another job, which could be months.

And I realized then how much I live on a thin wire with Mtuseni. There’s always something to worry about with him… either a long-term risk in the background or more pressing crises that pop up on a regular basis. Something that can knock him — knock us — off the wire into the abyss.

It’s a hard way to live. It wears on me sometimes, but I only deal with it secondhand; I’m far removed from any direct consequences. I’ve seen how the struggle has affected Mtuseni; his youthful idealism has eroded into a sense of dark resignation.

I’m working on some big plans to relight that magical spark he once had. Mtuseni has always wanted more, has had higher aspirations. Like me, he wants his life to have meaning and a positive impact; that’s something I’ve loved about him from the start.

But life in poverty tends to be lived in shorter time frames, with survival as the goal.

Back to this latest episode on the high wire…

I texted Mtuseni and asked what happened at Meter Mate. There was no response for over an hour, and in that time the wheels turned in my head, thinking of how to help him find a new job, how to make sure he had enough money. Worrying about how his lost income would impact the family, and the blowback from his overstressed mom who blames everything on him. Figuring out how to put a positive spin on the situation so Mtuseni wouldn’t slide into an even darker place.

Then I heard the little WhatsApp chime and thought, “Okay, this is it.” Turns out his boss had died suddenly the night before. That’s what created the “saddest day at Meter Mate.”

His job — at least for now — was safe. But there’s no real sense of relief. Mtuseni’s still walking on the thin wire. And the wind is blowing in every direction. And as always, I’ll be there to catch him.


⇒⇒ You can also see this story — and follow all of my writing, here on Medium.

 

mtuseni photo-walletTen years ago this spring, Mtuseni’s father packed up and left. I don’t know much about the situation, and I’ve never written about him before. Truth be told, Samuel Mdletshe doesn’t figure highly in my mind.

But every now and then I think, “What kind of man does that to his son?” My response tends to be that he’s not a man at all.

For Samuel didn’t just abandon 16-year-old Mtuseni. He left his wife and two younger kids under age five. An older son, Moses, left with Samuel. I’ve seen photos of Mtuseni and Moses together as kids; they looked like typical, boisterous, happy, close brothers.

Mtuseni told me that he wanted to go with Samuel, but his father refused. Maybe he could only manage one kid. Or maybe he thought Mtuseni could help his mom with the little ones. To this day, Mtuseni doesn’t really know what happened. His parents fought a lot. One day Samuel left and took his brother, but not him. It’s rejection, pure and simple. Mtuseni doesn’t talk or think about it anymore, but I know he still hurts somewhere deep inside.

But where one door closes…

Several months after Samuel left, Mtuseni and I were introduced and began our mentoring sessions. And ten years later, he calls me dad. It’s been a decade of absolute joy — and hard work. Through every minute with him, all the highs and lows, I feel incredibly blessed and lucky.

17309850926_f42a780529_zFor Mtuseni is truly special — and I’m not someone who’s easily impressed. He’s curious, articulate, spirited, funny, caring, responsible, driven, and sweet. I adore him. I will say that my attention and support have helped Mtuseni become the fine person he is today, but much of it is just innate qualities he has, a spark he was born with.

When Mtuseni wows me with some insight on life … or talks about making a difference in the world … or cackles with his infectious laugh, I sometimes think about what Samuel is missing out on. So I circle back again to wonder… “How does a father walk away from an amazing kid like this?”

The idealist in me wants to find some way to give Samuel the benefit of the doubt. That maybe he figured his family would fare better without him. After all, I’ve been able to offer Mtuseni many beneficial experiences that were beyond his family’s reach. By comparison, Moses died a few years after he left with Samuel — hit by a car while crossing a highway, drunk and unemployed and adrift, yet another tragic South African statistic.

But Samuel couldn’t foresee the divergent paths for his sons. Their lives were not a factor in his decision. Samuel didn’t walk away to give his kids a better shot. He just walked away.

So I feel no sympathy when I have some heart-filling experience with Mtuseni. Samuel’s selfishness is his loss… and my profound gain.

Mtuseni was a boy when his father left. Today, he’s a better man than his father. That’s one thing that I do understand.

Mtu Fathers Day-rev-crop

 

 

On Being “Always” Happy

January 27, 2019 — 9 Comments

Last year will not go down in the history books as one of my favorites. Marked by unplanned upheaval and seemingly nonstop distress… it sucked, plain and simple. Admittedly, I had been wanting to get out of my comfort zone and make some changes in my life. I just didn’t think when it happened it would be so, well, uncomfortable!

I’m a sucker for inspirational quotes — the pithier the better. One of my favorites is “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.” Thankfully, after taking some time to get my bearings, the first shoots of growth and change are beginning for me, and momentum is building.

In October, Mtuseni sent me a lovely birthday note outlining the qualities associated with my name. I’m always touched by how loving he is and how lucky I am to have him in my life. At the time, I’d been exiled to a hotel for a month after my neighborhood was rocked by gas explosions (just part of the upheaval and distress theme). I posted the note on the wall, savoring the sentiment and basking in the many positive attributes of “Michael.”

Last week I made a point to read it again, and this line jumped out at me…

“I hope you reach a level one day where you are always happy.”

“I hope you are happy.” Sounds pretty straightforward. But what caught my eye this time was the word “always.” Indeed, I’m striving for more happiness in my life across the board. I want to craft my ideal, multifaceted career. Find the perfect husband. Live in an area that nurtures and inspires me. Have friends and community that “get” me and feed my soul.

mtuseni photo-walletYet even if all those boxes were checked, it wouldn’t be enough. Because that word “always” made me realize that I’ll never be fully happy until Mtuseni is safe, secure, and thriving. Until that megawatt smile and inner spark I fell in love with almost a decade ago returns to its full brightness — and stays that way. I may have had a tough year, but even my worst day is a luxury compared to his life in a South African shack.

I heard someone say recently that having a kid is like taking a piece of your heart out and letting it walk around on its own in the world. Funny, for decades I always thought that getting the perfect career, mate, and home would bring me total joy and contentment. But the equation has changed. For me to be “always happy” … my best boy, that piece of my heart, has to be happy.

I made a promise early on to Mtuseni — and to myself — that he would live a much better life, one that reflected his dreams and aspirations. That promise was already built into my plans as I emerge from the muck of last year. But it’s an eye opener to realize just how much my happiness and life satisfaction are linked to his.

I guess that’s what happens when someone finishes your birthday note with “I love you Dad.”

 

 

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Actually, in Mtuseni’s case I should say that adults never listen. One thing that made guiding him in the early years easy and enjoyable was that he listened dutifully to everything I said and (usually) acted accordingly. Perhaps this came from the respect and deference that South African kids give to their parents.

As he got older, that changed. In his last year of college, we went through a belated period of rebellion — like he was 21 going on 15. It was jarring for me. I wasn’t used to pushback from him. Or outright rudeness. But I realized that he was just establishing his own independent identity. And at the same time testing me to see if I’d desert him. Like any boy who’s been abandoned by his birth father, Mtuseni has tried countless times to push me away to see if I’ll stick around. I have — and he knows now that I’m not going anywhere.

But in his newly and rightfully formed independence, Mtuseni picks and chooses what guidance to accept from me. One longstanding issue has been his nutrition and health. When he started college, he was always getting sick. He gets sick a lot in general. Knowing that his food intake is limited — and when he does eat, it often isn’t nutritiously dense — I told him to buy some vitamins. He said those “magic pills” are expensive, so on my first visit I brought him a couple of jars. Sure enough, he rarely got sick. When he came to visit me, he went home with more. And I always sent him a jar in his care packages. But once he started working, I stopped. If he was an adult earning a salary, he could buy his own vitamins.

He didn’t, and he’s been sick a lot lately. I’ve told him over and over to buy vitamins, but he doesn’t listen. And I’m not paying overnight secure shipping and duty fees and hassling with the inept and corrupt South African postal service for weeks to send him a couple jars of vitamins. He’s a big boy now. He can live with the consequences of his action. Or lack of it.

Bu now he’s been depressed for months. While much of it is situational, I recently read about the role of Vitamin B12 deficiency in depression. We naturally get B12 from meat, eggs, and dairy. As Mtuseni has told me many times, meat isn’t often in the family budget. And the lack of a fridge means they don’t have milk. Meals are usually veggies with pap or rice. Filling, but not nutritionally complete. Sometimes at work he’ll buy a hot dog for lunch, but often it’s just a bag of chips. I don’t know how he manages to stand upright sometimes.

So now, a simple multivitamin would improve his physical health during the cold Johannesburg winter in his unheated shack. And the B12 might alleviate his depression a bit. (Getting a better job and out of the settlement would do more for his mental state, but every little bit helps.) It breaks my heart to hear him so deflated and defeated. He’s always had a grouchy streak, but he never lacked overall optimism and idealism. That energy and spark is what made me love him from the first day.

So the next time we talk, I’ll mention the vitamins again. He’ll make excuses or vague promises. But he won’t get them. One thing I’ve always admired in Mtuseni is his stubbornness. He was always adamant that he would get out of the ‘hood and create a better life for himself. But that stubborn attitude can sometimes work against him. Whether he’s testing me again, or waiting for me to send vitamins across the world, or they just don’t fit into his razor-thin budget… I don’t know.

What I do know is that I miss those days when I told him to jump and he did so without question. And saw the benefits. I had the rare kid who listened. Now I have an adult who doesn’t. And the situation makes me want to get some Vitamin B12 for myself.