Monday, August 29, 2011
Saturday, August 13, 2011
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
I slip on my blue cotton scrubs. A soft breeze billows underneath the fold of thin fabric and I smile. Scrubs are so much more comfortable than falling conga skirts.
I walk outside and admire everyone in our group wearing their own baby blue scrubs.
There are three dentists: Doctor Harris Done, Doctor Jerry Michels (my grandpa), Doctor Garth Holyoak, his wife, Kathleen and my Uncle Steve Michels, the dental hygienist. My family and I play the part of the dental assistants.
When we eventually, finally, thank heavens, arrived in Kenya and bussed into the village, Doctor Harris clapped his hands and pulled out the dental equipment.
In under an hour, we set up the wooden lawn chairs on the porch, arranged the dental equipment of cotton gauze, syringes and more on the tables, and set up the lamps over the three dentists’ stations.
Now, we are in business.
My mom is rushing to and fro, like one of the squawking chickens that Kyle is currently trying to catch.
Nearby, my dad is pretending to be a wolf. With the plastic dentures, he is chomping the air and howling at the sky until the children squeal and laugh, then run away.
Melissa is hovering over one of the dentist's stations. She is scrunching her brows and I can tell she is just twitching to do something medical.
Sheila is sauntering around the porch with a baby coddled in her arms. She sees me lift up my camera and starts cooing at the baby with a picture-perfect side smile.
I am dawdling around the site with my camera. When my mom finds me, in a moment of peace, she pushes me onto Doctor Harris as his new dental assistant.
As soon as I face his dental chair, my hands feel clammy. My throat feels a bit thick.
I am scared.
Imagine, if I use one of the sharp instruments and it slips in my hand. I could wound or maim some poor Kenyan soul with one of those torturous looking instruments. (I really need to work on my confidence).
But Doctor Harris places a suction wand in my hand. I stare miserably at the instrument and then at my patient. My first victim sidles back into her seat and looks just as unsure as I do.
The patient opens her mouth wide and I stare at the two rows of white, cloistered teeth, tucked into pink and brown gums. Doctor Harris peers down, his glasses prim on the edge of his nose. He delicately taps a molar that is filled with a ribbon of black tartar.
As Doctor Harris carefully shifts the tooth back and forth, blood trickles in the woman’s open mouth. I lick my lips and move in with the suction wand. The instrument sputters and hisses as I sink it deep in the ruby red liquid. Too scared to go far into the mouth, I suction around the woman's lips as Doctor Harris continues to pull the tooth. My suction tool leans too close and I gaff as her brown, soft lip sucks up into the wand.
“I’m sorry!” I say, anxiously. I pull out the wand quickly and blood dribbles onto my pants.
“Oops,” I say.
By the end of the first day, I like to think I improved as a dental assistant. I peer into yet another mouth and stare at rows of white, brown and popcorn-colored teeth. I have never fully studied the inside of a mouth before, I realize. Some have teeth like the nibbles of white corn. Others open their mouths and reveal teeth like white coral reefs: gnarled and grounded ivory stones, tucked into their soft, brown gums. If anything, I have come to appreciate the human mouth and all its cavernous complexities.
Costume Jewelry and Plush Hugs
I feel more at home today. Today, we are at Sean’s school to pick up the children and take them back to the dental clinic. My mom rushed around all morning, declaring that if Anthony could not fix the bus, she would just walk to the school. She wants, more than anything, to see “her children.” Finally, the bus chugged to life and now we are in the school yard, waiting for the SMS students to come back from the secondary school.
Down the muddy slope, our children stubble to their boarding school. Jumaa staggers toward us. Kanga smiles beautifully and holds out her one arm for a hug. And Jamaima, the schoolteacher, pushes Beja in his wheelchair.
I stand up and rush towards them. We all do. For a moment, we are just a crazy, laughing group holding and hugging one another.
In the next moment, Kathy pulls out her gifts.
The children huddle closer as Kathy pulls out and passes around the gift bags. The children’s eyes go big and wide as the open each one up, carefully pulling out the treasures. Like queens and kings, they push fat, plastic diamonds on their fingers and adorn themselves with blue and pink sequined necklaces. They fill their cheeks and blow on plastic whistles, giggling at the high-pitched squeaky shrill noise. They giggle, delighted, as we hold out the stuffed animals and grumble animal noises for monkeys and bunnies then tuck the creatures into their arms.
“Bud a bump, bud a bump,” Devin says and laces a hopping bunny, with long, dangling arms around a little girl's neck.
The girl sits on his lap and just laughs and laughs, when Devin shakes his legs and she jumbles over, on her own unmoving legs.
I look around and notice a few of the new students. Admittedly, I shudder when I look over and see a boy, a teenager, with one arm extending from elbow into, not a hand, but just one long finger. His brown skin is taunt and tight around the one extending, apparent bone. When he bends the arm, I can’t help but imagine a bird’s wing, tucked inside a child’s yellow button-up shirt.
Sheila is cradling the teacher’s baby tenderly in her arms. Melissa tickles Kanga and pushes the plump, fake diamond rings onto the little girls’ fingers. Kyle talks to Kerasi like they are old school mates. The dentists, new to our school, do not hesitate. They each reach out and hold the children in the arms.
I am in charge of taking pictures, so for the moment, I resist holding Beja in my arms. Instead, I whip out my camera, my new prized camera, my "baby," and take a thousand pictures of his smile.
“Beja, Beja, look at me,” I practically sing. Beja devilishly grins at me then reaches for the strap of my new camera and drags my head down to his level. He pushes the buttons and the screen flashes instructions, new features and cautions. But I don’t pull away. I can’t resist Beja.
“Ok, ok” I say and laugh nervously at my new beloved bit of technology in his hands. “Press this button.”
Beja presses the big button up top and the lens clicks together like insect wings. He smiles at the sound then admires the picture on the screen.
Then, he takes a thousand more pictures of the sky.
A Day at the Zoo
Doctor Holyoak and Kathy work quietly, efficiently at the end of the row. I do not think they have stopped working since we started. My grandpa is carefully peering down into a child’s gapping mouth and getting ready to pull another tooth. Doctor Harris is complimenting a patient on her pretty dress and promises her he will take care of her chipped tooth.
They are busy. They have been busy, all morning long.
But my mom, sisters and I still plan to leave. We have to.
Our children have to go to the zoo.
It was my mom’s idea to take the children on a field trip. We fixed the children’s teeth, but what mother simply takes their children to the dentist for fun?
No, our children need to go to the zoo.
I hold onto Beja and walk around the dental clinic. Afraid I would eventually impale some poor patient with the suction wand, I gave up being a dental assistant and took up sterilizing the equipment. Thankfully, my new job allows me to slip away every so often while the pressure cooker is simmering, and play with the kids.
My arms absolutely ache from holding Beja. He is getting so big. I try to readjust his dusty, ashy legs around my hips as he tucks his head near my chin.
I squeeze him tight, willing him to forgive me for holding him down while he got his cavity filled.
The Kenyan dentist had to help Beja, who cried and tussled around too much, for our dentists to even get a shot in his mouth. But the Kenyan dentist pried opened Beja’s mouth as I cradled him in my arms.
“It’s OK, Beja,” I cooed and then watched horror-struck, as the Kenyan dentist jabbed his gloved fingers around Beja’s lips and stuck the shot into his gums. The mosquito-like needle poked into his cheek and a trickle of blood slid down Beja’s chin as he cried and tossed in my arms.
But the cavity is now filled and Beja glumly, exhausted, stays in my arms. Occasionally, he looks up with big, brown puppy-dog eyes and mutters something in Swahili.
“You need to spit?” I ask, anxiously.
He nods glumly and I rush over to the garbage, where Beja spits more blood into the barrel and the saliva dribbles, white and foamy on his pouted lip.
Yes, our children need a break. They need to go to the zoo. With our minds made up and the plans already made, the school bus arrives with the SMS children already inside and the rest who had been at the clinic, go aboard. We wave at the dentists below, who continue to work feverishly.
Then, the bus purrs to life. It wheezes and shudders then bumps and jostles over the riddled earth, to leave the village. Many of the children press their faces against the window; anxious to see the world beyond the mud hut homes they only know.
After several choruses of “It’s Time for Africa," a few thousand croaky renditions of “Jambo,” and a shaky demonstration by myself of "The Itsy Bitsy Spider," we arrive at the zoo. My mom nearly pries open the bus doors to rush and go buy the tickets. She is determined her children will have the most memorable day of their lives.
Out come the wheelchairs and crutches. Our children shuffle out and blink in the sunlight, then look around at the jungle-like forest, made by the zoo to entertain thoughts of a tropical oasis. Other, bigger school groups walk around the zoo’s entrance. These school groups have matching, crisp uniforms. The children wear buckled and laced shoes with socks. The teachers stand in front hollering orders in Swahili, while the children giggle and point at the monkeys up above, jumping from tree to tree.
Our children look up, almost dazed. Kerasi, on his one foot, then grins happily and turns to Kyle. He hobbles forward, tucks a crutch under his arm, and motions us forward.
Jamaima laughs and teases the children about their slow pace, then grabs on child’s hand and moves forward.
Melissa looks around and finds a child’s hand, grasps it warmly, then teasingly tickles Kanga.
Devin lifts one of the little girls in his arms and lays her gently on a wheelchair.
Then my mom comes and we are ready to find an adventure at the zoo.
We spend the day laughing, together. We gape up at the monkeys dangling and jumping above us in the trees. Smothering giggles and little shrieks , we admire the snakes in the reptile house (of course, this is where Keresai excitedly shares his story about the snakebite that took his leg). We each tease Riziki about an unseen snake tickling her ear until she blushes crimson.
Together, we walk the park, by crocodile infested waters, past the bare, blue-butted baboons, and around the grazing, overgrown tortoise.
I cannot stop taking pictures. My camera is always to my face now. So much so that I worry the children may think I lost an eye and the doctors in America now gave me some black, technical protrusion. But I am in charge of photos and so I take my job seriously, determined not to miss one flash of pearly whites (this is a dental trip, after all).
In the reptile house, as the children giggle at the squiggling, slithering serpents, I feel a small hand tap my leg. I look down at Mudzo, who is usually so quiet, so proud and so confident, look up at me. I always thought of him as a young little warrior. He juts his jaw out at anyone who stares at him, as if daring them to coddle him. But now, he points to the camera dangling around my neck.
“Pic-chure?” he says hopefully.
I resist the urge to throw my arms around him and crush him with a hug. Instead, I swallow hard, burning with a quiet determination to make Mudzo smile.
Mudzo stands behind a fake stone turtle, then smiles. The flash on my camera blooms and bursts a light beam a thousand times over before I am done.
I wonder if our children notice, the way others notice them. We walk into the hippo exhibit and American tourists back up as we stumble forward. A blond-haired girl looks terrified. Her eyes go as wide as a bush-baby's when she stares at our assembly of amputees and hunchbacks.
Beside the crocodiles and the baboons, our school stood, for the world to gawk at and throw popcorn at. Surprisingly, I do not feel angry at those who stare.
People looked at Sean that way, too.
On the way home, we stopped at the beach just so the children can see the ocean. We hustle out of the bus and the children stare goggle-eyed at the lapping waves and smell the salty, brine air.
Then with ice-cream treats for everyone, we shuffle back onto the bus. I rush around the front of the bus, putting my camera away, insisting I do not need an ice cream until my mom forces an almond flavor ice cream cup into my hands.
I look in the back for a seat as the bus jostles forward, out of the parking lot, and Kanga moves over a bit over and pats the spot next to her and Riziki. The two girls have been waiting for me to come back and hold onto their melting ice cream, waiting to eat it until I join them.
I stick the wooden spoon in the soft cream and, together, we smile and lick our fingers as the melting treat trickles on our fingers, smelling of warm caramel and fuzzy, white cream.
But our return journey turns out to be a long drive home. An hour into the Mombasa city traffic, after the sing-a-long sings die out and the ice cream melts away, a few of the children feel, for the first time, the uneasy, queasy sensation of being car sick.
I look over at Bahati. Bahati always reminds me of a little regal queen. Whenever I look at her and smile, she blinks her large almond eyes and smiles shyly back. But now, she sits glumly next to Melissa. Despite Melissa’s best efforts to tease a smile from her, Bahati just stares forward.
In the next moment, she leans forward and throws up by Melissa's shoes. The sickly smell of digested cream and spit waft in the bus. The smell starts the domino moving. A boy one row away leans forward and, he, too, bends down and throws up. Then another retching, gargling sound comes from the back.
My mom looks back and seems close to tears. Her imagined, perfect day is crumbling. Our field trip is ending with the children cradling their heads and spluttering up their treat.
Everyone rushes to the side of the sick. My mom finds blankets and Jemima finds plastic bags for future upheavals.
Miserably, the bus continues to chug along the road.
I think about the time Melissa gave Seany a bath after one of his particularly disastrous diapers. She wiped back the tears burning in her eyes from the ferocious smell, playfully taped a pink baggie over her nose and mouth (for ventilation purposes), and then washed Seany until his skin turned supple like peach skin.
My mom used to make little patterned fabrics, ones with cartoon puppies and dinosaurs. When Sean needed a cloth to wipe away a little spit, we used these colorful cloths.
Of course, Sean deserved the best.
So I don't mind. I truly don't mind, holding car sick SMS children.
After hugs and promises to return again, we leave the village. For the remaining weekend, we go look for an adventure at the Masi Mara.
My dad always finds the strange seashells, the odd, spindly crabs and the most beautiful, smooth faced pebbles when we go for walks. But, this morning, the last morning of a safari drive, he comes back to the tents with a moth.
Kyle rushes to find me.
“Kimbersnot!, Kimbersnot!,” he says.
I grimace at Kyle's nickname for me. I walk out of the tent, wearing a Maasi necklace that is dripping blue beads down the front of my shirt - not at all looking like a woman named, "Kimbersnot."
“Kimbersnot, look what Dad found in the water,” Kyle says and then grabs my hand. He pulls me to a polyester chair, to the side of a twitching bug.
“It’s a butterfly!” Kyle says excitedly.
I look down at the russet brown insect and correct him.
“No, a moth,” I say.
Kyle frowns a bit.
It's hard to please a child with what many appraise as a dusty version of a butterfly.
I bend down, while my mom snaps a thousand pictures of the little creature.
“Kimberly, look,” she says and brushes the bug's soft fuzz back. I touch the fur, too. It's like a little turtleneck sweater under the bug’s twitching antennas.
I admire the moth’s wings. Swirls of russet red and vivid, mango orange loop and adorn the creature’s wide brimmed sleeves. On each side, two dark circles parallel each other and look like a leopard’s eyes, peeking out from a moth masquerade.
“He will never fly again,” my mom says.
Gently, I cup the moth in my hands.
Then, I will hold you, I silently tell the trembling creature.
Returning to Kenya
I am getting old. I suppose when I am ninety years old and tucked in a homemade wool sweater, lamenting my puckering wrinkles, and finishing life up with daily doses of tapioca, I will truly feel ancient. But, right now, I do feel old.
I suppose turning twenty took its toll on me.
When my teachers threaten impending test dates or my roommates bicker until I could cry, I just look out the window and, like a child, I day dream about running away.
My family and I used to go to the zoo, together. Our favorite zoo was a drive-through animal park at Six Flags, where the animals could just saunter right up to your car. The baboons waddled up atop our suburban. The giraffes poked their purple tongues into our windows, while the three little girls and their brother giggled and shrieked in the back seat.
We never imagined we would one day see these animals in the wild.
We never imagined the little boy in the car seat would not come with us.
Now as a college student, in my Holden Caulfield stage, I dream about staying at the zoo in Kenya.
At the zoo, I carry Beja and hold Jumaa’s hand.
I hold onto them and they hold onto me.
Admittedly, I need to hold onto them, more than they need to hold onto me.
Together, we play hide and seek in the reptile house. We brush our fingertips in the coy pond until the fish pucker their lips. We beckon to the baboons and tease the tortoises.
But my favorite exhibit is the moth exhibit.
In the moth exhibit, we stretch our fingers to touch the hovering creatures. We dance under the flying insects and purposefully find the insects with damaged wings. These fly so much closer to the ground.
We point and admire the leopard's eyes painted on their tattered tapestry wings.
When they see us looking, these moths beat their wings harder and harder.
Then, they fall.
The moths fall like autumn leaves.
When they reach the ground, they continue their struggle. Their bodies shake. Their wings quiver.
I wish the world could see the beauty of these damaged, dusty butterflies.
It has been eight years since we laid our little Sean down to rest and not a single day has past that I haven’t thought about his sweet smile and deep belly laugh. I marvel at the lives he touched while here and how in his short six years he changed my life forever. For the past four years, when my mind reflects on our son, it turns to Sean’s legacy and the children that now love his name.
We began the Sean Michels School back in 2008 along with our dear friends, Potters and Murphy’s. The school has become a home for twenty-five special children that lead a difficult life in Kenya. Our family tries to visit once a year and have developed a love for “our children” that reaches beyond. When I hold or even think about our children my mind goes back to the golden years when our little Sean would scoot around and smile with his big blue eyes.
To continue his legacy, we would like to start this blog. Here, we would like to share the stories, adventures and hopes for Seany's school.
First, here is a look at our past visits to the school in 2008 and then in 2010.