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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.

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For the past year or so, I’ve felt the need for a change. Make that changes, plural. Big changes. I added new quotes to the wall in my office: “Your detours may lead to your destiny.” and “A comfort zone is a nice place, but nothing ever grows there.” As they say, be careful what you wish for.

While exploring new career paths, I’d planned to stay put in my place for one more year and write my book. After all, it’s comfortable and familiar. And it’s where my entire experience with Mtuseni has happened. But the universe has decided to light a fire under my comfortable butt, so I need to move by June.

Eager for change but not sure yet how that will look — and not wanting to set down long-term roots in a month — I’m storing most of my things and looking to get a summer sublet when all of Boston’s students take off. I’ve realized that all I really need is my phone, laptop, and coffee maker to function.

Seeing neatly labeled boxes stacked up in a storage locker gives me little frissons of excitement. It’s triggering sense memories of other times I’ve made big moves linked to life-changing decisions. True, part of me thinks, “Shit, this sucks. Now what?” But another part of me grins inside and says, “Okay, universe. Point taken. Now stand back and be amazed.”

But something else hit me after piling a few carloads into my square, corrugated metal locker with the sliding garage door — ubiquitous in a country where people have so much stuff they don’t know what to do with it. I realized that the Mdletshe’s shack is not much bigger than the locker. Mtuseni’s mom Nester lives in it with Bongeka and Musa, 14 and 12. Mtuseni used to sleep there as well, but moved into a drafty, ramshackle, wallboard-and-asbestos-tile addition with a dirt floor. Years ago, Mtuseni’s father Samuel and older brother Moses also lived in that windowless, tin-roofed, brick-and-block shack.

Annex room

My books, tax forms, mementos, prints and other stuff are now “living” in the same conditions as Mtuseni’s family — and millions of others in South Africa. The same nondescript box that holds the non-essentials of my life is home to a family preparing now for the arrival of winter.

I know that wherever I end up in June — and beyond — the place will be comfortable and spacious. It will have windows. A bathroom. An oven. A fridge. Running water and heat and electricity.

One thing I’ve learned from my time with Mtuseni is that I have no right to complain about things in my life. It’s good to have that perspective. But I’d much prefer that he, his brother and sister, and his mom had a safe, comfortable home. Someday…. if the universe is listening and willing to work with me…

Mirror, Mirror

March 28, 2018 — Leave a comment

IMG_6220Wow, where did the time go? The past year was pocked with potholes and speed bumps — both in South Africa and at home. All of it was unexpected. But perhaps the biggest, and most unsettling, surprise was Mtuseni’s emotional downturn.

Last fall, he started saying that he was tired a lot. He said he was getting old. I chided him and insisted that 25-year-olds don’t get tired. At that age I had a full-time job and a grueling after-work gig swilling beer and smoking dope. And I was never tired. I’d kill for half of that energy now.

Then his fatigue expanded into chats tinged with sour, hopeless thoughts. He’d been unhappy in his job for some time, but it had turned to bitter resignation. He was now halfway through his 20s and he was still living with mom and the kids in the shack. Still counting pennies. Nowhere near what his expectations were when he was in college. He spent the Christmas Festive Season home alone, because he had no money to visit cousins at the shore in Durban. Instead he cleaned his room, tossing out clothes the rats had eaten. And he slept. Tired. Always tired.

Early on I was concerned that he might be sick. His home environment and diet are always wreaking havoc on his immune system. But eventually I recognized the problem. Mtuseni was depressed.

I called him more often — and made sure that I talked less and listened more. He’s always been a tough nut to crack, with a complex set of defenses. But they’ve softened over the years, at least with me. He trusts me. He would feel better after venting, and I gave him words of encouragement. But it didn’t change his circumstances.

He’s in an almost impossible situation. The dire economic statistics, lack of resources, logistical challenges, and other hurdles to success in South Africa have me stumped. After being Mtuseni’s “magician” for so long, my powers feel depleted.

It’s hard to hear my usually happy boy feeling so down. I realized that when your kid hurts, you hurt.

It seems weird that it took me all these years to recognize this. But from the first day we met, Mtuseni has always been a pretty happy, goofy, idealistic kid. Yeah, he’s had his moody, grumpy, sullen moments, but they didn’t last long. He’d always bounce back with that warm heart, determined optimism, and special sparkle that makes me adore him. I’d never experienced him being in emotional distress for so long, and I was surprised by how much it brought me down. Just as I mirror his joy, I also mirror his pain.

Huh. Another facet of the parent experience. Strange that I never saw that coming. And surprising how much his pain hurts me. But a few months ago this magician still managed to find a rabbit in his hat. We are waiting on what I hope will be very exciting news any day now. And I cannot wait to celebrate and share his joy! Fingers crossed…

 

 

Father’s Day

June 18, 2017 — Leave a comment

Over the years I’ve received some pretty amazing, heartfelt Father’s Day messages from Mtuseni. This is the first year I’ve been in direct contact with Bongeka since starting her in private school last year and getting her a tablet. We don’t chat a heck of a lot — what 13-year-old talks much to any adult, never mind one who’s half a world away? So I was happily surprised to receive this WhatsApp greeting from her this morning.

Funny… after pressing hard on her last week to complete another scholarship application — and a few weeks earlier for not joining after-school activities — Bongeka still comes back with a dose of sweetness. I guess that means she’s starting to understand what I’m doing. And that I’m doing a good job.

Sometimes the stress of helping to raise these kids in South Africa really gets to me. In so many ways I’m powerless; there are so many obstacles confronting Bongeka and Mtuseni. But a silly crown and a few words and emoticons sweep it all away for a while.

Indeed… I’m lucky.


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