When I was ten, my twenty-two year old brother Eli went to Zimbabwe with his best friend Delia in search of a purpose. Eli didn’t have an exact plan, as he has always been one to make decisions of the fly. He went to find a sense of adventure within himself. To help people who couldn’t help themselves. To find the true meaning of his life. Just a week before he left, he and I went to the movie Charlotte’s Web. We cried. We laughed. We realized how deeply we would miss each other in the weeks, months, or even years that he may be gone… just like how Fern missed Wilbur.
The very next day, our extended family and close friends all met up at the Chicago O’Hare airport to wish Eli off. He did his best to be strong in the very bittersweet moment. He made his way down the long line of people who would miss him, getting more and more emotional with every final goodbye. My face was wet, blotchy, and stained with tears when he squatted down to me last. He gently wiped my blotchy red cheeks with his thumb, saying,
“Eva Grace. Don’t you dare cry.”
He pulled me into his warm arms and kissed my forehead. I could feel his heartbeat fast through his shirt. My fingers grasped his rough canvas backpack. Cold tears stained the shoulder of his gray tee, but he didn’t seem to mind.
“Promise me- Promise me Eva, that you’ll send letters. I love you.”
“I love you too,” I said, sobbing.
Before I knew it, Eli was long gone on a plane headed straight into southern Africa. That night after we left the airport, I went into his old bedroom, and I saw the magazine-perfect pictures of Africa completely covering all of the walls. Red string zigzagged by with push pins to show the places he would visit and the sites he would see. Twinkling Christmas lights hung where the walls met the ceiling.Scattered on the walls and dressers were pictures of him and Delia. My mom and I always speculated that they were more than just best friends. On his never-made bed, sat his blue toothbrush. Only Eli would forget that, as if he was only going away for the weekend.
I slouched in his beanbag in his bedroom for hours, contemplating what to do without him. We had always found amusement in playing in the backyard with the tire swing that we put up together long ago, or splashing in the pond on our neighbor’s property. We always had gotten into so much trouble for that.
Across from me, there was a full length mirror.I looked at myself. I had green eyes that seemed to pop against my red face, dirty blonde hair in a ponytail, and my lanky legs exposed due to my nike shorts on. My hair was disheveled, my face miserable. I turned away.
I started staring at the pictures of Africa, and suddenly, I was desperately longing to be where Eli was. I was longing to get out of cramped Chicago and into the wide open spaces of the African Savanna. For what seemed like hours, I pace through his room, looking at photographs of Africa and becoming immersed in its diverse culture. The sunsets and the landscapes with trees dotting the horizon. Elephants, zebras, and lions roaming free, without boundaries. The people, dancing and celebrating their lives, heritage, and country. That was where I wanted to be.
I let go of my massive suitcase, already sprinting into his arms. His warm, loving arms that virtually hadn’t changed since I saw him for the last time thirteen years ago back in America. He gave me the biggest bear hug, and pulled me into the air.
“Gosh, why are you so big, Eva. It’s like you’re an adult now!” He still was his same silly self.
“That’s because I am, Eli. How have you been?,” I asked, with an unrelenting smile across my tired-looking face.
“Simply amazing. I also have a surprise for you that I’ve been dying keeping from you, but that I think you’re gonna love.” His green eyes gleamed with happiness as he put his left hand in the air emphatically and waved his ring finger in front of my face. “Guess who?”
“What!? Mom is so going to kill you,” I teased, punching his arm. “How long has it been?” Tears itched at the back of my eyes. All of this seemed surreal.
“It’s been five years”, said Delia, coming up to embrace me.
She was an amazing woman, and I was so thankful that I was now finally able to call her my sister. I was loving Zimbabwe so much already.
We piled all of my belongings into the back of their dusty brown Jeep, which was covered up due to the blistering August heat. We started to make our way to the camp just a few hours outside of the capital. I looked around myself, and all I could see was diversity. So many people dancing and singing, earning money on the streets. Young children in their uniforms and carrying backpacks making their way to school. Men and women in suits and professional clothing, carrying briefcases and making their way from building to building. Food market stands filled with arrays of colorful and vibrant food, which was appeasing to my stomach which was filled with airport fast-food. Gorgeous mothers with baskets and children in their hands, gathered food, fabric, and other items that their families needed over the week.
I felt so significant on the plane ride over. I had a major in anthropology and a minor in bilingual education. I could speak fluently in twenty languages, and earned money by working part time at a elementary school specifically for children from all different ethnicities. My life was exceptional, and I’ve worked so hard to get to this point. I felt so bold and confident coming here. Now, looking around me, I was so humbled and in awe of how the world really was. People living, functioning and going about their daily lives, completely unaware of each other's background and history. I was a piece of a puzzle... a part of something much bigger than myself.
The Jeep kept on chugging along, moving from paved roads to gravel ones… from buildings closely set, to areas clustered with huts and shelters. People began to look more tired than they did before, working harder than those in the cities. Children made their way to run-down schools, not nearly as nice as those closer to the capital. People collected their own fruit and food from bushes and tree groves, rather than fresh from the markets. Some men and older boys were even carrying loads of meat, fresh from a hunt.
Eventually, the dense huts and villages became even further spread out, and the large and visible villages became sparse. The people gawked as I came into view, for they had never see me before. I was so pale in comparison to my brother and his wife - tan from the sweltering sun they had endured for eleven years. We pulled into the makeshift gravel driveway of the white mission-base building, and many people who work with Eli and Delia came out to greet me in a mad fury.
Strangers generously took all my luggage indoors, and welcomed me by saying,
“We’ve heard so much about you!,” and “Welcome to Zimbabwe!”
Delia took my arm and led me inside the building and away from all the chaos. She took me to the room that I would share with two other women- Natalie and Grace. They too, greeted me with warm smiles and hugs.
After the frantic hustle and bustle of meeting many new people, I was finally alone in the room to unpack. There were two wooden bunk beds on either side of the room, both messy, which I assumed was due to the busy lifestyle at the camp. I took a pile of unwashed sheets on one bed and moved then to the other side of the room. From what I could see of them, walls were white. Otherwise, they were covered with pictures of missions trips to all parts of Zimbabwe, reminding me of the walls I begged my mother to keep the same, in Eli’s bedroom long ago. But instead of pictures of Eli and Delia among ones of magazine documented Africa, there were picture of Natalie and Grace posing with small children, wildlife, and men and women, all smiling so brightly. There were two desks, one of which was strewn about with piles of paperwork and portfolios, as well as coffee mugs, water bottles, and plates with half eaten food… as if this was a kitchen and not a bedroom. Across the floor, there were clothes that needed washing and ironing, in piles seemingly left alone for days. I however, put my clothes in neat piles in my sectioned off area of the closet. I set my laptop up for facetime calls from my boyfriend Parker up on the other less-used desk that I cleaned off as best as I could. My areas seemed night and day compared to what Natalie and Grace’s were like.
I sat on the top bunk of the seemingly unclaimed bunk bed and looked out the small window that this bed offered. In the distance, I could see children of all ages laying on the ground or playing soccer with a makeshift ball of string The children were then called away for lunchtime meals by their mothers or older sisters, except for one little girl. She sat beneath the one small tree looking around innocently as if her life was completely fine. The closer I looked at her, the more guilty I became. She was a sickly, skinny girl, with twigs for arms and legs, a sunken in chest, and stringy short hair. Her face was blank, her expression emotionless. The little girl looked about four. She only had one long yellow shirt on, with small rips in multiple places, and that was all. She was holding onto a hope bigger than herself, somehow willing herself to want to survive every single day, while I had no trouble performing the task that I daily took for granted.
At that very moment, Eli walked in and said, “Hey, Eva, how are you doing?”
I don’t break my transfixed gaze off the little girl as I say, “Pretty good. But look at this girl… come here.”
Before I know it, he’s at my side, looking out the window, his normally contented face masked with worry.
“That’s Issa. We’ve all tried our best to talk to her, but she hasn’t said a word. Maybe you could work your magic.”
“Alright, I’ll give it a shot,” I replied, getting up to go.
“Good luck… I believe in you,” Eli said, as he walked out of the room.
I threw on my old running shorts, a t-shirt, and my Nikes and ran out the back door to go and meet Issa. I ran across the open field, about halfway to her and then slowed to a walk when I said,
“Mirira, ndinogona kutaura newe?”,
Which was Shona for -Wait, can I speak with you?
The meek Issa sat back down shyly and waited patiently for me to come over.
I sat down next to her underneath the cool shade of the tree. Her face was absolutely stunning… she had such full cheeks despite malnourishment, and soft, round lips like a peach. Her eyes held the universe, so blue and bright, with flecks of silver and gold near the edges. Her legs were crossed and she had placed her small hands in the small bowl she had made. She was the most stunning toddler I had ever seen.
“Mhoro,” Hello, I said, with a feeling she knew Shona.
Issa looked at me, smiled, and did the gesture for hello in sign language, and said, “Mhoro.”
I asked her “Une mhuri?” Do you have any family?
Issa shook her head no.
“Une makore mangani?” How old are you?
Issa put up three fingers.
“Unogara kupi?” Where do you live?
She pointed a finger at the ground she was sitting on. Little Issa was alone, no family, no home. How did she manage to survive? I wondered, feeling so much compassion for her.
As I continued to ask her questions, I felt something stir within me. Tears were beginning to form, but I couldn’t become a mess in front of her. I had to do something for her, because I was leaving Africa in a year to fulfil an esteemed teaching job back in the States, and I knew I would feel guilty if I did nothing to help her until then.
I stood up and motioned for little smiling Issa to come into my arms. She shakily stood and lifted her hands for me to pick her up. I gently lifted her into my arms, resting her on my hip, and began walking back to the mission base. Issa kept her head forward for most of the short journey, but once she looked at me. She smiles her great big smile, probably the happiest she has been her entire life, so I smile back and let her head rest on my shoulder.
Once we got back to the base, Eli came out to meet us. His face was filled with disbelief that I had performed such a miracle for this little, lonely girl. I smiled at him and said “Magic,” as I made my way to my room. Everyone Issa and I passed stared in awe of me. It was like they never have seen a little African girl. Many women tried to follow me to help with her, but I only allowed Delia to join me, because I was afraid too much attention would scare Issa.
Delia motioned for me to join her in her room, because it was much cleaner than the one I had been assigned to. I sat down with Issa on the bed, and looked at Issa. She was so fragile and dainty, looking scared and frightened. I put my free hand on her back, rubbing it ever so slightly as Delia gathered some new clothes for her to wear. She brought out a bow of children’s clothes and placed them on the ground, pulling out piles, trying to find the right size. She pulled out a yellow shirt, a pair of grey shorts, and the smallest size pull-up available. While Delia dressed Issa, we became aware of the severity of her starvation.
Her ribs were showing, not one hidden from view. Her arms seemed much thinner than I thought before, as were her feeble legs. I had no idea how she had survived this long all alone. She could hardly support herself standing, so Delia and I both helped hold her up. Issa smiled so brightly, despite her condition. It was like this little girl lived in the swanky Upper-East side of Manhattan.
Issa’s smile radiated love, hope, and lightheartedness, even though her life was lonely and disastrous. She was a beautiful mess.
Once she was all dressed and somewhat cleaned, I said, “Issa, ungada zvokudya?” Would you like some food?, motioning my hand to my mouth as a gesture, in case she needed more help understanding.
Issa nodded sheepishly and put her arms up for me to pick her up, and so I did, carrying her to the kitchen area, with Delia following.
The commons area was virtually empty, everyone probably gone on daily missions to help others, so the three of us all had the kitchen to ourselves. I sat down with Issa on a wooden barstool, my arms around her frail little body.
Delia went to the pantry and grabbed a box of rice, specifically formulated and produced for treating starvation and hunger by replenishing nutrients. She boiled the contaminated water and placed the contents of the box in the water, stirring occasionally.
“Eva, what will we do with her? We can’t just let this be. She has no family… we've already asked everyone in the nearby villages that were supporting. The one nearest said that she was found as a baby in a basket under that tree.”
Delia was genuinely concerned. I assumed before that this was how she always was- a woman with such a compassionate heart. But this seemed different than other times.
She continued, “Listen, Eli and I came here to help. This is our lives now. But I have never come across a child with no family whatsoever. This is unprecedented. Fate? That you came and she clings to you? I think so.”
I looked at Issa’s innocent, angelic face. I was all this little girl had, and despite the short time we had known each other, I would never leave her. Delia set the rice meal down on the table and began to get her to eat. Issa turned and put her head on my shoulder, refusing Delia’s help. Instead, I tried, and she willingly took a spoonful in her mouth. Her eyes lit up, filled with excitement. I knew at that moment that I would do everything in my power to save my little Issa.
Today marks my two month stay in Zimbabwe. Two months I have known Issa, and in two months so much has happened.
I have been teaching Issa to speak, both in Shona and in English. Simple words like “More”, “Please”, “Thank You”, and “Sorry.” She has also grown so much. We have gradually fed her more and more foods, expanding her stomach and making her fuller and healthier. Survival was once something she battled with, and scavenging for foods was once her daily routine. Now, little Issa runs around outside with me, playing tag and smiling. I have taken her on every trip we have taken… she has never left my side since I’ve met her. It’s crazy to think about her becoming my family soon.
We have visited every nearby village in search of more answers to her origin, but none have surfaced. Now, Delia and I are going to the capital with Issa to see if there is any possible chance I can adopt. Issa sits in my lap, the same small hands holding mine, and her bright blue eyes looking up at me, reminding me of waves crashing on a beach at daybreak.
“What if we can’t adopt? What will we do then? I’m planned to leave soon, and she couldn’t cope without me,” I said to Delia, my mind spinning with what-ifs.
“Eva, I have never gone through this, but I know that we will get Issa, I just know it,” she assured me, so confident in what she was doing.
We pulled up to the parking lot of the Zimbabwe National Adoption Agency Center, and walked up to the door with Issa between us. Inside the building was people, all filling out paperwork upon paperwork. We made our way past the tired looking men and women, and asked the receptionist at the front desk to speak to a representative. She led us with a gentle smile down a small hallway to a room where a smart-looking Zimbabwean man was sitting at his desk.
“Please, have a seat,” the man said as he motioned to two chairs in front of his desk, “How can I help you?”
“Issa, here, lived alone under a tree until I met her when I came as a missionary to help. Ever since, I have asked everyone in nearby villages, and nobody knows her and where she is from. I have taken good care of her, and because she has no family at all, I was really hoping to adopt her, so that when I leave to fulfil a teaching job back home, she can come with me. I have a small home, adequate for a small family, and my boyfriend Parker and I are thinking about getting married soon after my return.”
I could sense the begging in my voice, so I refrained from speaking any longer.
“Well, I don’t see any logical reason not to let you adopt this precious girl, but the money is the only problem. Between the legal fees and the international fees, it would cost you up to 15,000 American dollars,” he warned, obviously concerned for my financial well-being, “The other problem will be finding this girl in our databases and going through all of this with the American government.”
“I can make that work. With Parker and I’s savings, and my new job I plan to take in the US paying a good salary, we can do it.”
I knew Parker would be on board with this. He would be here right now if it wasn’t for his work commitments.
“Well if this serious-boyfriend Parker can come down here as soon as possible, then we can commence the adoption. I assume that he will be a legal guardian until you two are married?”
“Of course,” I answered, looking up at Delia, who had been silent this entire time.
Her face was now beaming, and I could see tears pooling up in the bottom of her eyes, and a smile from ear to ear.
“Well, here is the paperwork that needs to be filled out with Parker as well. It may seem like a lot, but I assure you, it’s worth it.”
The man smiled genuinely, as he slid a glorious mound of paper over the desk. “Please bring this back within two weeks, or the adoption will not go through.”
We thaked the kind man profusely, and made our way back to the car. Nobody said a word on the ride home, but tears and smiles and laughter had made up for it.
Once back at the mission base, I put Issa to bed, grabbed some coffee, curled up in a blanket and Skyped Parker. He answered immediately with his familiar “Hello, darling,” and smile. Parker was the kind of person that no matter what the situation, could always make you smile, which deemed him infamous for his gleaming teeth and sweet dimples. He has a perfectly shaped face, and eyes that could show so much emotion despite being hidden behind his square-framed glasses. His hair was always a mess, but I found that quite okay.
“I have amazing news. A big surprise- and somewhat crazy, but I think you’re gonna absolutely love it,” I taunted, knowing that he was already intrigued beyond measure at anything that came out of my mouth.
“Please tell me, Eva, I need to know,” he said in his voice that I could listen to all day long.
He did the sweet thing where he messed with his hair when he got nervous. Why did he always do that?
“So today I went to the adoption center in town… and asked about adopting Issa.”
He smiled and kissed the screen of his laptop, which made me giggle just like back in highschool.
“The one crazy part is that I might’ve mentioned that we’re planning on getting married, and that you will be another guardian when I come back…”
His smile stayed the same, which was one of the many reasons why I loved him.
“So what do I need to help with, E?,” he said, as he folded his hands and put them up to his chin.
He was so eager to help, which baffled me and made me so desperately want to go home.
“I need you to come down here and help with the legalizing of the whole process. Is the school year over yet?” I was nervous. If he couldn’t do this, my life would be over, and I couldn’t do any more to help Issa.
“You’re forgetting that I’ve saved up all of my vacation days for something special to come up. And guess what? I’ll fly down to see you when I can book a flight and arrange the fine details.” He was on the verge of tears, and so was I. Life couldn’t possibly get any better.
“Oh my goodness. Well I have to get to doing all of this paperwork, and I bet you have to make arrangements to leave?” He nodded his head as I wiped my tears. “I’ll call you later, okay?” Parker nodded his head with the biggest smile, sniffling and blowing kisses at me from 8,447 miles away.
I stood on the cold tile floor with Issa holding my right hand, and my purse slung over my left shoulder. Parker told me that he was wearing a green north face, and I had told Issa to look for the color “girinhi.” It had been four days since he told me that he could come, and now I was more excited than I’ve ever been in my entire life.
I looked up and saw someone moving fast, through the crowds in the small airport. There he was. Issa looked at me and smiled, for she had spoken to and seen him through the screen. I started in a slow jog, because I couldn’t run too fast with Issa. Soon enough, Parker was right in front of us, and dropped his luggage to give me a hug. He lifted me into the air and said,
“You have no clue how much I missed you.” His arms and this embrace reminded me of when I first got to Zimbabwe.
Then, he pulled Issa into our hug. She willingly accepted, and put her arms around our legs. I looked down at her brightly smiling face, just as Parker looked at me with and expression of pure delight. He then picked up Issa who had never looked happier.
We took Parker’s bags and walked out to Delia and Eli’s Jeep that I had borrowed for the afternoon. He loaded the bags into the back and sat in the passenger seat, while I buckled up Issa in the back. He handed me the keys and so I started the car and sat down in the front.
Parker looked back at Issa and said, “Are you excited to come to America soon?”
Issa nodded vigorously, which slightly rocked her car seat.
As we drove home, Parker occupied himself with his ranting about the flight, and the people aboard. He went on and on about how hard he was gonna work on getting the paperwork done and never ceased to let himself take a break. Issa was out like a light about 30 minutes into the car ride. I couldn't blame her. Parker could sometimes be tedious.
Once we had gotten to the base, I led Parker to the other room that he would be staying in. Next, we got started on the paperwork. I had done my part and most of what I could do alone, but there was still so much left to be done. I flipped through channels put a cartoon on for Issa and got straight to work. We only had a little over a week to finish everything.
Occasionally, we would take a break to get a meal or a snack or to rest our worn out fingers, but despite that, we worked for a solid four hours with no interruptions because everyone was on a big trip a few hours south.
Issa spent her time playing with toy trains and bouncy balls, as we wrote away. Eventually, I put her to bed, and laid down myself, exhausted from staring at papers upon papers.
“Parker, I'm going to go to bed, are you going to stay up?”
“Yes, I think I am, but only for about half an hour more,” he answered, smiling at me as I walked down the hallway.
Another week had passed and all of the paperwork had finally been completed, and the rest of the crew had finally gotten back. In the meantime, Issa, Parker, and I had played outside, took trips to the city for the adoption process and sightseeing, and made crafts from unused items around the base. Everything was leading up to this moment. The moment we would sign the adoption papers once and for all, and Issa would not be an orphan, but a child in a loving family.
We walked up to the adoption center’s front door, our faces looking giddy when I saw our reflections in the glass windows. Parker pulled the door open for Issa and I, and I could see his hand holding the papers was shaking. I too, was a shaky, stressed mess. This had been such a rollercoaster of sleepless nights and financial calls. From preparing emotionally for having a child of my own, yet still trying to hide my excitement.
We walked to the front desk, probably looking like idiots with smiles plastered on our faces. The same receptionist led us to the same room, and I was struggling to contain my emotions. My peripheral vision was blinded, and my eyes set focus on getting to the life changing room immediately.
Once inside, we sat in the same chairs, placed the messy pile of paperwork on the table. Issa sat on my lap, and Parker was now holding my hand after he shook the same kind man’s hand from before.
“Are you two ready?,” The officiator said, his voice sounding somewhat distant despite him being so close to us.
All three of us nodded our heads confidently, and Parker’s hand squeezed mine harder.
Issa said “Yes, sir,”in response.
The man, looking impressed, said “What a sweet, sweet girl.”
He slid forward a single paper, seeming like absolutely nothing in comparison to the loads Parker and I had to fill out and organize and turn into him a minute earlier. He handed us two pens, and asked us both to sign on two dotted lines. Parker went first, his signature, Parker J. Harrison, signed sloppily like always, with harsh lines. You couldn’t tell what his name was simply by his signature.
I signed next, my hand shaking and excitement flowing through my veins. I wrote on the dotted line in my bubbly letters, swooping over the line and beneath it. I finished, crossing the t’s of my last name, Bennett. I couldn’t hear much but the sound of Issa clapping, her attitude better than ever, even though she was almost always a happy girl. Parker hugged me, shook the hand of the man behind the desk, and sat down again.
I hadn’t noticed the man’s name, and had never thought of looking at his name card until now. Mr. Hope. Ironic.
He grinned, and said “Congratulations, she’s all yours.”
I stood up to shake Mr. Hope’s hand, as Issa said “Wazviita” Thank you.
“Unogamuchirwa,” You’re welcome, he said to Issa, who smiled in return.
I could not possibly be happier. My life was wonderful, and it just had gotten so much better.
We carried our immense amount of luggage into the airport with Delia and Eli. It was now February, and I was not excited about bracing the cold, windy weather back home. Parker was holding Issa’s hand, and I was holding passports, tickets, and paperwork that would get us on the plane and through security.
We stopped at the waiting area with Delia and Eli, both of them with tears staining the edges of their shirts from wiping their eyes. We set our bags down, and gave them each big hugs. Parker shook Eli’s hand and then hugged him, and then Delia.
“Thank you for your hospitality, I’ll miss you,” he said, choking on his words.
Issa ran to them both with a grin, and threw her arms around them and said, “Ndichaenda ndakusuwa,” meaning I’ll miss you.
Next, it was my turn. Tears fell and the hitching sobs came. Eli smiled through his own tears and told me to come visit with Issa and Parker eventually. I obliged, already counting down the days in my head. Eli pulled me into a tighter hug, and Delia joined, followed by Parker and Issa.
I was ending a chapter in my life. The chapter where I didn’t know exactly who I was, what I was doing, and who to keep near my side. As I looked around myself with clouded vision, I knew for a fact that this was where I belonged. Surrounded by the people who love me and call me family. I was meant to be with Issa, meant to take care of the orphaned girl I met on my first day here. When Parker, Issa, and I eventually grabbed our bags and made our way to the security checkpoint, waving to Eli and Delia, I was beginning a new chapter in my life. One that I hoped would stay the same forever.