Remember back in October when I went to New York for the premiere of Finding Strong?
The week was a whirlwind. I visited the satellite offices of Runner’s World, picked up a generous donation for the team from Saucony, watched Captain Phillips in an actual movie theater, ran the 5k through Central Park, used the Port-a-Potty right next to Shalane Flannagan. I shopped for something decent to wear, felt completely overwhelmed by culture shock on Halloween in Times Square (um, naked guitar-playing cowgirl and a girl dressed up as a penis aren’t things I see often in Djibouti), went to a Runner’s World/Saucony party, drank buckets of coffee, and reveled in the leaves changing color. I met with my agent. I went to Target. I acted like a tourist. And of course, I watched the movie.
It was an emotional week filled the things I love. My collegues from Djibouti, writing, running, travel, good food. But did I ever tell you all of my siblings were there?
There are four of us, I’m the second. My younger sister lives in Oregon and had work meetings in Boston that week and she planned to take the bus to New York City so we could catch seventeen hours together. When our older sister, who lives in North Carolina, heard we would both be in New York, she booked a ticket for herself and her newly adopted baby for the weekend. When our brother, the youngest, heard we would all three be together, he booked a ticket from Minneapolis.
Here comes my big confession.
At first, I didn’t want this. I didn’t want all my siblings in New York. I was there for work, sort of. I had to think about my book proposal, connecting with people I admired, networking on behalf of the team, simply trying to stay awake. And all the tickets were booked in a whirlwind, without time to talk about hotels or schedules or plans, everyone flying or busing to a different location on a different day.
My family is not about quiet or private or small. We talk fast, have strong opinions while always reserving the right to change them, laugh loud, and love deep. I knew that and I knew it would be such a short trip my brain might explode.
All of them were at the movie premiere. The movie was absolutely stunning. Next there was a chance to look at, and purchase, photos Brian Vernor had taken during the filming process.
My siblings listened to endless stories about the girls in the pictures. They met the two women who had come with from Djibouti, Lorraine and Cintia. My older sister asked which photo I liked best and I pointed at one Brian had labeled “Grace.”
It was a close-up shot of Nadia at her house. She wore a blue headscarf and stood in front of a sky blue wall the same shade as the scarf. She is half-smiling and beads of sweat are gathered on her forehead. A frayed thread from her scarf dangles down at cheek level. She stares straight at the camera. The photo is so clear it seems 3D, textured, as though I could reach out and brush the sweat, tuck the thread in.
I pointed at Nadia’s photo because of the title. Brian interviewed Nadia, and her mother, through translation, but he didn’t know her story, not deeply and not what happened after he left last summer. He didn’t know about her history, her family, her dreams. But I did. There had been such heights and such depths in our relationship with Nadia, there were tears and there was anger and there was delight. And it was all “Grace.”
My older sister and brother returned to the hotel while my younger sister and I finished talking and then walked back on a chilly New York evening, enjoying being outside, enjoying the remaining few hours before she had to catch the bus back to Boston.
At the hotel I headed for the elevators, completely exhausted, but she saw the others sitting in big, cushy chairs near the front windows. A square box sat on the table between them.
“Oh good,” I said. “They got a pizza. I’m so hungry.”
We sat down and my brother slid the box toward me.
“Are you guys hungry, too?” I asked.
“Open it,” my older sister said.
I lifted off the top cover and inside there was no pizza.
There was Grace. Nadia, staring straight at me out of the box, out of her blue scarf and blue wall. They had bought the photo for me.
I started crying, the kind of crying where you can’t talk and you can’t explain why and the moment is so rich, so full, so want-to-remember-this-forever that the only response is tears.
The three of them sat in their chairs and watched me cry and listened as I shared why this picture meant so much. I blubbered some more and eventually we moved to other topics but while we laughed and talked about important, life-changing things, Nadia’s picture stayed in the middle of the table.
I was so wrong to think it would be too much to have a running, writing, and family weekend in New York. I had been afraid I would explode, burst at the seams, but I hadn’t considered how love keeps a person together. I hadn’t thought about how my siblings would watch the movie and see it as people who loved someone who loved the girls in it with everything in me, and that this would make them love the girls, too.
I hadn’t thought about how beautiful it is to look in an elevator mirror and see four noses that belong in the same family or about how musical it is when we laugh together at something that isn’t funny to anyone but us. I hadn’t thought about how profoundly I miss the sense of belonging, of knowing beyond a doubt that I fit here, with these people or about how I feel that with my siblings, down to the corest core of my being.
We walk alike, Cintia said so later. We gesture alike. We all knew we had to stop at the Pie restaurant on the corner and take a photo for our dad because that’s what he would do and would bombard us with photos in our inboxes so big it would take minutes to download them. I had been selfish and wrapped up so tightly in loneliness that I couldn’t even see how badly I needed to be loved the way my siblings loved me that weekend.
I’ve gotten too used to living in isolation from people who love me like this, gotten too used to living away from people I love like this. Oh, people in Djibouti love me and I love them, but not with blood or genes.
I don’t know that I ever felt so loved by my family, or so broken about the challenges our runners face, or so held together as I did when I opened the box of Grace. I’m crying right now, I have to lean back so the tears don’t drip onto the computer. That’s not the kind of love that makes a person explode. It is the kind of love that holds a person together when all around things explode.
Nadia now sits on the corner of my desk, watching me write about her, about the team. Every time I look up from the computer, her eyes meet mine and I am embraced by grace.
*image courtesy of Soul Brother
So glad you got to be wrapped in the love and bond of family. Thank you for sharing the impact of your siblings and of “Grace” on your heart. I miss my sister too (who also lives in MN), our common features and expressions, and those moments when ONLY WE can understand each other.
Thanks Shannon. So many great people in Minnesota! A well-loved state.
I have tears in my eyes too, Rachel. You are incredibly blessed to have such a wonderful family and the relationships that you share. I love you all.
This resonated so strongly. I do voluntary work in the Middle East and have been there 19 years. Just coming to the end of my time back in New Zealand where I have been 3 loud, bossy, fun-loving sisters – all copy/paste of me. Crying as I write this thinking about how I’m not going to see them for 2 years.
It is hard to be away, some people think it will get easier but I find it gets harder. Or at least deeper. Wishing you comfort across the miles.
I just left a long comment on facebook about how much this piece resonated with me…oh, and, by the way, TOTALLY made me cry! But just wanted to add here that I totally agree with your comment about how living far away from family doesn’t get easier with time…it gets harder. Yes, definitely.
I get this… “I’ve gotten too used to living in isolation from people who love me like this, gotten too used to living away from people I love like this.” This piece was beautifully written – so much so that it portrayed the grace, love, and beauty of family and the surprises we get from them after being away for so long.
Thanks MaDonna. I’ve heard from all my family now and successfully made us all cry. In the best possible way.
[…] I have done nothing to be who I am and I have no reason to take pride in anything I have done. My life has grace written all over it. I have learned what it feels like to be nothing but a number in a city with millions of people. I […]
Oh I did not catch this post the first time. LOVE IT! I so understand what you say. I feel myself tense up when in the US as I am brought out of isolation, but then to release and be loved by those who know your history and still love you. That is grace too.