Tag Archives: Motherhood

Love and Struggle With Carrie Underwood and Mister Rogers

Leaving Uganda is always bittersweet. I know how fortunate I am to feel at home in two such distinctly different places in the world, I know what a rare gift that is. This trip has been unlike any other, all of our projects going smoothly or taking unexpected turns for the better. My husband likes to remind me that it’s ok, good even, that things went so smoothly.

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For me the biggest challenge has been balancing being a mother, being a daughter, and being true to the beliefs we hold dear within Vigilante Kindness. It was a tightrope walk for me. My prayers were often petitions for grace and wisdom and strength and understanding. My actual prayers were not that eloquent. They were more like, “I’m out of ideas here, God. Can you let me in on the plan?” Or “God, remind me to be kind. Help me understand.” I prayed that one a lot. But do you want to know the prayer I prayed the most? I hope you find this as funny as I do. I’m not even a country music fan, yet over and over again I prayed-and I wish I were making this up-I prayed, “Jesus, take the wheel.” I’m embarrassed to admit it, but it’s true.

There were times on this trip where I was bad at being a mom, bad at being a daughter, or bad at figuring out where to go next with VK. Sometimes I was bad at all three at once and I’d take a quiet moment, most times while I was washing my clothes in the shower, because there’s something about water that makes me think, and I’d say out loud, “Jesus, take the wheel.” Then I’d throw my soapy hands up in the air like I was releasing a steering wheel. No joke.

I’m new to this mothering thing and this year I got to know my boys better, got to see some of their less desirable qualities. They also got to know me better and I’m sure saw some of my less desirable qualities, too. Mix that in a bowl with my shortcomings as a daughter and two cultures that often operate in opposite directions than one another and you’ve got a big lump of mess.

A big beautiful mess.

But over and over again we chose to love each other, to navigate our differences, our disagreements, to build bridges across the chasms created by our cultures.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a quote from Mister Rogers about how the verb love is an active verb, like the verb struggle. Love is a choice we make over and over again. And to love someone as they are in this very moment, perhaps in an ugly mess of a moment, when love is the last thing you want to speak, and yet you dislodge loving words from your throat and speak them anyway, that is love.

I don’t know about you, but isn’t that great news, that in the throes of difficulty we can choose to love? Better yet, in tantrums of our own worst selves, we have people who choose the struggle, choose to love us. Best of all, God chooses every day to love our imperfect, praying in the shower selves.

Moms out there, I don’t know how you do it. I really don’t. This motherhood thing isn’t for sissies. Maybe you’re like me, and you and your kid are unveiling the vulnerable and sometimes messy sides of yourselves. Maybe you aren’t bridging the cultural gaps we’re traversing, but maybe your kid is residing in the very foreign land of Teenager and you aren’t finding common ground. You’re not alone.

In the moments when you’re on empty, borrow Mister Rogers’ words. Choose to struggle for love, choose to struggle in love, choose love. And in the moments when all you can do is throw up your soapy hands and give up the wheel, Carrie Underwood and I are here for you, too.

Less than Nothing, More than Pork

Calvin unpacks his story of being a street kid beggar and I watch as my son, Opiyo Martin, seated next to Calvin, folds into himself, making himself small and aling, quiet. I see his eyes flash back to the time when he, too, was a street kid picking through the garbage to find food to eat, stealing to buy food when the garbage cans availed no sustenance.

I would give anything to take that part of his life away, to erase those years and rewrite his history, to allow him to be born to a mother and father who chose to love him, chose to keep him, chose him.
I’d rewrite those years if I could, even though it would mean he never would’ve become mine. He never would’ve given me my Acholi name. I never would’ve watched joy fill his face as he ate pork, his absolute favorite thing, second only to God. I never would’ve laughed until I cried when he first said to me, “Mum, I love you more than I love pork.”

Even still, I would remove those early pages of his life.

Seeing him fold in on himself as Calvin speaks, is more than I can take. I don’t know how to extricate myself from this conversation, how to take Martin with me. Instead I catch and hold his gaze and move the toe of my shoe until it’s touching the toe of his shoe, the one with the rainbow laces that remind me he’s still a kid. It’s a small gesture and I find myself wishing for the millionth time that I was better at being his mom.


In Uganda, dogs are the lowest of all animals, pesky nuisances, always begging for food, not worth throwing a bone to. The dogs here are all skin and bones, notched rib cages visible through thin layers of matted fur. There’s an Acholi saying, Adoko gwok, meaning “I’ve become a dog.” It’s a term for the destitute, meaning I’ve become less than nothing, a person unable to provide even my own food.

Opiyo Martin always feeds the stray dogs, coos soothing words to them, feeds them the best pieces of pork from his plate. He does this because he remembers feeling like he was adoko gwok, remembers feeling as if he was worth less than nothing.

When Calvin pauses in his story, Martin explains that he’s sorry, but he has to ride his bicycle back to his uncle’s house before it gets too dark. I jump up and walk him to his bike.

“Are you okay? I know it’s hard for you to think about your past,” I put my hand on his back, rub small circles like my mom used to do when I was sick.

“Yeah, Mom, I’m okay. I’m just thinking about how far God has brought me.”

My voice catches in my throat and I nod, blinking back tears. There aren’t words for the vastness of his statement.

Earlier in the evening, we’d been talking to each other about difficult situations we each find ourselves in, seeking advice from each other. It’s one of the many times, I’m grateful to have been his teacher and friend before I became his mother. How lucky am I that my kid is also my friend?

“Mom, I wanted to pray for you and your situation. Can I do that?”

“Yes, and let me pray for you and your situation, too.” I grab his hand and standing by his bicycle we pray. We finish and I hug him tight.

“Amari, latina,” I love you, my child.

“Amari, mamana,” I love you, Mom.

“More than you love pork?” I tease.

“At least as much as I love pork,” he teases back. 

He swings a leg over his bike and I watch his rainbow shoelaces flutter in circles as he pedals away from me.

Later that night I lay under the cover of my mosquito net and hear the street dogs commence their nightly howling serenade. I wonder if they’ve found enough scraps to eat. I think of the children who are huddling in doorways and I hope that their bellies are full. I say a prayer of thanks that Calvin and Martin are no longer among them. My eyelids are heavy and I fall into a dream world where there are no longer hungry children or skin and bones dogs, a world where nobody feels adoko gwok.

Love Has Come

I ugly cried in church last Sunday.

I’m not a big crier.  Crying in front of someone or worse yet, lots of someones, is my #1 Top Most Embarrassing Thing Ever.

And yet there I was absolutely weeping.  Mascara dripping, nose running, shoulder shaking, flat-out sobbing.  I blame Jeremy Riddle and his song God of the Redeemed.  Go ahead, take a listen.

I didn’t even make it through the first verse.  “Love has come.  We’re orphans no longer.”  At that point it was all over.  I didn’t have time to swallow the lump rising in my throat before the tears started streaming.

By the time it got to, “Hallelujah, to You, the God of the redeemed,” I was a complete wreck.  All I could do was stand there, lift my face and cry.  The tears dripped down my cheeks and into my ears, so many tears that my ears filled up and overflowed down my neck.

I cried in joy because I’ll see my boys and all my other Ugandan kids in a few short days.

I cried for my boys who were orphans.

I cried because I’m overcome that they’ve chosen me as their mother.

I cried for my son who used to think he was nothing.

I cried out of gratitude for a school that in tangible ways shows my boys they’re worthy of redemption.

I cried the tears of a thousand hallelujahs.

And when I ran out of tears, I stood in silence doing nothing, not singing a word, barely uttering even a breath.  And in my quiet, in my stark nothingness, I stood and didn’t care how many people saw me cry.  In that moment everything else ceased to matter.

I’d been looking for a gift to give my boys, something to remind them that they’re not orphans anymore, that we have claimed each other as mother and sons.  I looked and looked, but nothing was right.  And then I saw them.

love rings

Simple rings, one for me and three for them, reminders that love has come and that the best love often comes in unexpected ways.  Meeting the love of my life when I was fifteen and filthy dirty from helping build a church in Mexico.  Finding my sons 9,049 miles away.  The baby in a manger who redeemed us all.

Love has come and it leaves me in such awe that it’s all I can do to whisper hallelujah.

Lanyero Mama

“Mum, ask me a question.”  Martin doodles on his notebook.  We are seated side by side, so close that our hips touch.

“Let me think of one.”

“You always ask me challenging questions that make me think.”  He smiles at me, pausing in his drawing.

“I’m sorry, son, I can’t think of one today.  My brain is too sad to think of a question.”

“My brain is sad, too, Mum.”

“I’m going to miss you.”

“Me, too, but African men don’t cry.  When we’re sad we just feel out of place.”

“That makes sense to me.  I feel out of place, but I’ll probably cry a little tomorrow.”

“Don’t cry, Mum.”

“I might.  But I did think of a question.”

“What is it?”

“My question is ‘What have you been thinking about today?’.”

“What have you been thinking about today?”  Martin bats the question back to me with a familiar twinkle in his eye.

“I asked you first.  So you have to answer first.”  I nudge him with my elbow.

“Give me another question.”

“Okay, how about this.  My boda driver asked me if any of the students had given me an Acholi name yet.  I told him no.  He said I should be named Aber Alicia because ‘aber’ means good and he says I’m good to everyone.  Do you think that’s a good name for me?”

“No, it’s no good.  Your name is Lanyero.  Lanyero Alicia is what you should be called.”

“What does it mean?”

“Lanyero means laughter, joyous, happy.  It also means comforter.”  He meets my eyes and mine well up with tears.  He looks down at his sketches.

“I love it.  Did you know that Alicia means ‘truthful one’?”

“No, I didn’t know it.”

“So Lanyero Alicia means ‘one who takes joy in telling the truth’.”

“Mum, I’m really going to miss you.”

“Me, too.  I feel like my heart is in my throat.”

Martin shoots me a puzzled look.

“That means I’m really sad.  I’m having a hard time swallowing my sadness back down.”

“You’ve taught me something new, Mum.  My heart is on my throat, too.”

I feel a smile slip through my lips as I picture his heart on his throat.

“You can cry if you want to, Mum.  African women cry very loudly.”

“I’m not African, Martin.”

“Yes, you are.  I just named you so.  Lanyero Alicia.  But I won’t call you that.”

“You won’t? Why not?”

“I’ll call you Lanyero Mama.”

“That’s my favorite name.”  I put my arm around him and squeeze this boy who named me, this son who has claimed me as his unlikely mother.

Martin & I

My First Ugandan Son

Before leaving home for Uganda, I promised Terry I wouldn’t return with an orphaned baby.  Frankly, the motherhood gene skipped me completely so it was an easy promise to make.

Until I met Opiyo Martin.  I call him Martin for short, but nine times out of ten, I call him son.

He’s a smart boy, loving and warm.  Oh, and he’s 19 years old-way past the drooling baby stage.  Thank God.

photo courtesy of Colin Higbee

One day I was hen-pecking Martin about something, like taking time to eat or straightening his tie, and in his best teenage boy voice he replied, “Okay, Mum.”  “You’re a good son, Martin.” I smiled.  And that was it, I was a goner.

As so many unexpectedly sweet things do, it felt natural and right, like I’d been calling him son all his life, like this child was born out of my heart, if not my womb.

He greets me every morning with a “Hi, Mum.” and a hug.  He finds me during lunch time to make sure I have food, often times offering me his food if I have yet to get mine.  This act may not sound like a big deal, but if Martin gave me his food, it would mean he wouldn’t eat lunch that day.  And yet he offers, knowing full well that his offer comes with sacrifice.  At the end of the day if Martin knows I’m leaving, I get another hug and an escort to the gate.

Martin devours literature.  He sings all of the time and I can’t help but giggle when he sings the wrong words, kind of like someone else I know.  Ahem.  He writes songs, raps, poetry and anything else he can think to scrawl on a piece of paper.  He wants to be a writer or a pastor when he grows up.

He is so obviously my son.

Martin has his own family here in Uganda.  Two of his younger cousins attend the academy with him.  His uncle teaches literature.  He has an older sister who is already married and a nine-year old brother still in primary school.  As with so many students here, he is impoverished of his parents, but rich in non-traditional family members and I’m blessed to be folded into his family.

Today I had the pleasure of working one on one with Martin on the story he’s penning for our book.  Earlier in the week, Martin mentioned that he wanted my help in writing, so when it came time for us to work, I didn’t hold back.  I asked question after question about details he’d left unanswered.  He answered each one, painting in gritty details that cut to the heart of who he is.

In the face of evil that threatened to end his life, Martin, my beautiful son, chose to forgive.  Typing that word ‘forgive’, it’s the only time I’ve ever felt the word doesn’t adequately describe the depth of forgiveness.  Martin didn’t just forgive, but he forgave with utter absolution that I can only begin to fathom.

I’m not writing his story here for many reasons, but the chief reason is that his story pierces such a raw place in my spirit that I physically cannot type it through my tears.  I’m profoundly proud of him, proud to know him, proud to be called Mum, proud to call him son.

In this surprising and wonderful mother-son relationship, I’m teaching my son to write with heart while he teaches me to live with heart.