- Barbour Publishing, Incorporated
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.32(w) x 9.33(h) x 1.05(d)
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I thought I'd misunderstood the voice on the other end of the telephone. "What did you say?" I asked.
"It's true! The hospital nurse overheard them talking. She heard the father say that he was actually planning to kill their newborn baby!"
The hair on the back of my neck stood up as my mind tried to grasp the horror of such an act of violence.
The telephone call was from my friend, Margaret Fleming. Margaret is the director of Adopt Link, an adoption agency in Chicago that specializes in adoptions of African-American and biracial babies and children.
"Oh, Patty," Margaret continued, "this is a travesty!" Then as she explained I began to understand the story more clearly. A baby boy was born without lower arms and legs. The baby had a few other medical concerns as well, but otherwise appeared to be a strong and healthy little guy.
The baby's parents were Nigerian and had won the Nigerian national lottery, so that's why they were in the United States. While in America the mother learned that she was pregnant and so the baby was born in a Chicago hospital.
However, after the baby was born and the parents learned about his severe limb impairments, they became overwhelmed with grief. They knew that they would be expected to follow their cultural practices, and if they did, it would require a most difficult decision on their part.
That's when the nurse overheard the father order his wife to get dressed so thatthey could leave the hospital.
"But she can't leave now," the nurse explained. "Your wife has had a very difficult breech birthshe must stay until we make sure that her bleeding has stopped, at least overnight."
"No," the man said bluntly, "we must leave at once. It is the custom."
"Custom?" the nurse asked.
"When a baby is born like this, with deformities, it is an evil omen. The child must not be allowed to live."
"Uhwhat exactly do you mean?" the nurse asked him. Astonished, she could hardly believe such a thing could happen in this day in America. "When you say that your baby must not be allowed to live, do you mean you are going to kill him?"
"Yes, it is a part of our culture," the man replied in a matter-of-fact way.
"But you can't do that in our country! That's murder! It's against the laws of our land," the nurse told him excitedly.
The couple seemed confused by the information, but the husband was quite firm in the decision to take his wife and the baby and leave the hospital. The baby's father left the room and left the ordeal of decision up to the mother (whose Nigerian name I later learned was Iyapo). Iyapo was crying, almost as if it was clear that she did not want to be a part of the cultural decision to end the baby's life but must have felt that she had no choice.
When the nurse told her supervisor, a quick call was made to the Social Services agency and they quickly intervened. A welfare worker met with the Nigerian couple and explained U.S. laws and told the parents that they could not harm the baby in any way. After some dialogue, a compromise was worked outthe couple could leave, but without the baby. They surrendered the child to the adoption agency and gave up all their parental rights to their newborn son.
Those were the bizarre events that had preceded my urgent telephone call from Margaret. As she was telling me the story, my thoughts flashed back many years to my own time in Africa. I had gone as a girl with my parents who were medical missionaries to (what is now) the Republic of Congo. I knew it was the custom of many African tribes to sacrifice a baby born with severe birth defects. It is considered an evil omenand it's always said to be the fault of the mother. Sometimes it is even thought that an evil spirit impregnated the mother in the first place. In any event, the baby is killed and the mother mutilates herself as part of the grieving process. It seemed strange to hear of such a thing happening in a modern city like Chicago, though.
"Patty, do you have any families on your list that might be willing to consider adopting this special-needs baby?" Margaret was asking as my mind came back from its mental detour to Africa.
I was surprised at the first words out of my mouth. "Margaret," I said, "of course I know of someone who will take this baby. You're talking about my son! We'll take him."
My husband Harold walked into the room just then and I put my hand over the phone and said to him, "Honey, our baby boy has just been born in Chicago."
Harold looked at me with a slightly odd expression, then smiled. "Really?" he said with a bemused expression that seemed to say, "Here we go again!"
He wouldn't be surprised. After all, this was certainly not the first child we'd be taking into our home. Harold and I are the parents of fifteen childrenseven biological children and eight adopted kids. So there's always room for one more.
Our family is sort of a mini-United Nationswith youngsters who are American, Hispanic, Indian, African, and African-American. In between having our own children and adopting, we were also foster parents to more children than I can rememberat least several dozenincluding a number of medically challenged, drug-exposed, fragile babies, and special-needs children.
My own preparation for caring for children began as a young girl. I was the second oldest daughter born to missionary parents. My dad, Dr. Richard Pelham, was the pastor of several churches in the East while he put himself through medical school. During that time my father was pastor for churches in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Flint, Michigan, which I remember as our first "real" home. Then Daddy took our family to Africa as medical missionaries in the 1960s.
Dad was a hardworking, goal-driven man who felt he was making a real difference in Africa. As a surgeon for the American Baptist mission hospital, he always had a full schedule of work in his operating room. And in the rare times he wasn't operating, he was likely to be preaching in an African village church. As a result, he wasn't always available when I wanted or needed him.
Mother was absolutely devoted to God, as well as to her husband and family, almost to the point that she had no identity of her own. She was a missionary, wife of Dr. Pelham, and mother to Amy, Patty, Becca, and Stephen. Mother was the most unselfish person I have ever known and she greatly influenced my own values and beliefs.
I was nine years old when I understood the gospel message and asked Jesus Christ to come into my heart. I was fortified with the reality of this new birth as our family arrived in Africa, and I prayed that God would show me how even a nine-year-old could serve Him.
However, this vast country and its strange, often mysterious culture overwhelmed me. My sister, Amy, was two years older and adapted more quickly than I did. When we were sent off to the boarding school for missionary kids, Amy made friends quickly and easily. By then I was about ten years old and not used to being away from home. I grew homesick right away.
To make matters worse, those were years of puberty for me and no one was there to explain what was happening to me when I had my first menstrual period. The transition from our small close-knit family in America to a far-flung household spread between hospital, home, and boarding school (with so many other people) was difficult.
The Tasok Boarding School began as a missionary educational institution and later became an international school, yet it still mostly served children of career missionaries. We lived in the Baptist hostel with forty-five other Baptist missionary kids. There were also quite a few other denominationsMethodists, Presbyterians, and Christian and Missionary Alliance. Each denomination had its own hostel, with up to about fifty kids from each of these denominations enrolled in the Tasok school.
In our hostel there was a girls' hall and a boys' hall. An unmarried woman supervised the girls and a married couple supervised the boys, as well as managed the Baptist hostel. I remember being afraid and lonely those first weeks. It was good having Amy at the school for reassurance, but I rarely saw her. She had volunteered to be "big sister" to the really young children of seven and eight years old. They, like me, were having a tough time being away from their parents. With Amy away in the "little kids' hall" I was always homesick and lonely.
Fortunately, there were a lot of fun activities to help take my mind off my loneliness. Every Tuesday we were taken to the statue overlooking the Congo Riverdepicting the journalist Henry Stanley (whose search found the famous missionary David Livingston). The children would climb on the statue and after running, games, and other fun we'd have a picnic.
On Saturdays our group was taken to the river to swim. It was always a lot of fun and even today I miss those experiences.
Despite the fun, however, the school itself was hard for me. In addition to my loneliness and homesickness, I had great difficulty learning. School was a struggle. While the other kids seemed to be able to read with ease, I stumbled over what seemed to me an incomprehensible puzzleseeing words on the page that were out of place. I had trouble distinguishing "bad" from "dab," or similar pairings of words. My teachers told me I was not paying attention. My IQ tests had shown I was bright, so they reasoned that I must not have been applying myself. It was so frustratingI knew something was wrong, but I couldn't figure out why I was having so much trouble trying to read. (This has also since helped me to understand my own children's learning disabilities.)
Some years later I was told that my learning disability is called dyslexia. Kids nowadays who are diagnosed with dyslexia are helped and don't have to feel guilty about being unable to learn. But in Africa in the 1960s (and America, too, for that matter) youngsters with dyslexia were just told to put forth more effort.
The Tasok Boarding School was a time of growing independence and self-reliance despite the loneliness and low self-esteem from my learning disorder. I had mastered ways to compensate for my lack of reading skills by finding other avenues for knowledge and assertion. I learned that I had a gift for drama and other creative pastimes. Although I was shy when I first came to Tasok, the fun and social activities helped me to fit in.
I still missed my parents terribly, but Ken and Dorothy, my dorm parents, were wonderful people who loved all the kids and went out of their way to help us through the difficult times. However, after that first year, they left the school and another couple took their place.
Uncle Joe and Aunt Min were nothing like the loving couple that had preceded them. They seemed to resent their placement at the school and were gloomy most of the time. Sometimes they were even mean and abusive. I never recall either of them saying a kind or loving word to me. Uncle Joe seemed to believe that missionary kids should always be serious and never be the laughing, fun-loving, outgoing kids that we were. He often scolded me for "having too much personality" and being "frivolous."
I remember one night after dinner I was standing by the window looking out at the stars. We had study hall in the evenings and I was supposed to be doing my homework. But an unusual feeling of homesickness had overwhelmed me and I went to the window to get a breath of fresh air.
Outside, it was already dark and I could hear the tree frogs chirping across the compound. I breathed in the moist fragrance of the tropical flowers growing outside and looked up at the stars that were already shining in the skies above the school. Without the "pollution" of city lights the stars were always a dazzling display against a black sky.
As I gazed at the stars a sudden thought came to meI wonder if Mother and Daddy can see the same stars that I see. And I wonder if they're looking at them now. It was somehow reassuring to me to think that looking at the same stars might link us across the hundreds of miles that separated us.
Suddenly a man's scolding voice interrupted my reverie. "Why aren't you doing your homework?" Uncle Joe called out to me.
Instead of answering I asked, "Do you think that my mother and dad can see the same stars that I see? Wouldn't it be great if they could? Whenever I see the wishing star I wish I could see my parents."
"Young lady, I asked you why you weren't doing your homework. Answer me," commanded Uncle Joe.
"I have been doing my schoolwork," I told him. "But I got to feeling homesick so I went to the window to look for the wishing star. Then I began to think about my mother and dad and how much I miss"
"Come here," he snapped, grabbing my arm and pulling me back to my chair. "If you can't keep busy with your homework, I'll give you another lesson. I don't ever want to catch you looking at those stars again when you're supposed to be doing your homework! Do you hear me? Your parents are missionaries, serving God. You're here to study and learn, not to mope around whining and thinking about your parents when you have work to do! Don't you know you'd be a great disappointment to your parents if they knew what you were doing? You're here to study; so forget about them!"
"You don't want me to think about my parents?" I asked him quizzically, positive that I had misunderstood him.
"You heard me! And to help you remember, I'm assigning you a five-hundred-word theme on why you should not be stargazing and wishing to go home. This is your home. Other kids don't mope and whine for their mommies and daddies!"
Uncle Joe told me that I had to write the theme and give it to him before I went to bed that night. When he left the room, I felt like crying. I couldn't think of a single word to write! How could I write on never wishing to see my folks againsuch a thought was repugnant and a lie.
After an hour or two of nothing but a blank paper before me I decided that I had to write something, so I wrote what I thought he wanted me to say. It was nearly midnight when I finisheda terribly late hour for a small girl used to being in bed before nine o'clock. By the time that I completed those pages I was physically exhausted and emotionally wrung out.
I took the pages of the theme paper and walked down the hall to the dorm parents' apartment and knocked on the door. Uncle Joe was sitting at his desk waiting for me.
Blinking back tears, I handed the theme to him. He roughly took the pages from me and, without reading a word, ripped them in half, half again, then into smaller piecestearing them up into a handful of large confetti. Then he threw the pieces into my face and barked, "Let that be a lesson to you to not `wish upon a star' to see your parents! I hope that this lesson will get that nonsense out of your system."
In later years I've concluded that he was probably trying to teach me that I had no "right" to miss my parents or to be homesick. In his warped sense of missionary self-sacrifice, he was punishing me for being too "selfish."
I ran back to my room crying and threw myself on my bed. I "flipped out" from the physical and emotional toll of the "lesson" and could not stop crying. I sobbed hysterically until I began to hyperventilate. When I had trouble breathing, I was frightened. My roommate panicked when she saw me curled up on the bed, rigid, sobbing loudly, and unable to breathe. She ran to get the dorm housemother, who called for Uncle Joe and Aunt Min to come.
I was still crying when they ordered me to stop and get control of myself, but I couldn'tso a doctor was called. When he came he sedated me and went across the room to talk in whispers with Uncle Joe.
My sister Amy was also called to come and try to calm me. That experience frightened her, and it became a bad time for both of us. Finally the sedative took over and I fell into a deep sleep.
The next day my parents were called and told that I was having an emotional breakdown and to come right away. My dad drove the mission car for the four-hour trip to the boarding school.
When Uncle Joe came to tell me that my father was coming to take me out of school for a few weeks to rest, he added, "If you tell anyone about what happened last night, things will be a lot harder for you when you come back to school!"
I was thoroughly afraid of him so I never told my dad, and neither Daddy nor Mother ever asked what caused me to break down. I never even confided in Amy what had happened until many years later.
On the four-hour trip back to my parents' home at the mission station I was quiet. Although they never asked me about the problem, I wondered if my parents had any idea of what it was like for me at the school.
For the couple of weeks that I rested at home, I was enormously happy. I followed my dad when he made hospital rounds and watched him as he cared for the sick and wounded. It was especially wonderful to go with him into the maternity ward where I saw all the newborn babies. I was even allowed to hold some of them. As I held these beautiful African babies in my arms, I was overcome with a strange feeling. There was something "right" about loving these babies and caring for themas if I had discovered my calling. A seed of an idea began to grow in my mindone day I'd open an orphanage in Africa and take care of all the unwanted children.
When I got back to school I decided to concentrate on my studies and not go out of my way to anger my dorm parents. Education was important to my father. He had made something of his own life by going to schoolfirst to college, then seminary, and finally medical school. I was keenly conscious of not wanting to disappoint him in my own studies. However, I also felt confused and conflicted as I tried to fit in with the expectations of Uncle Joe and his wife. Although Uncle Joe never mentioned the incident that had triggered my having to go home, it was always an underlying part of our awkward and difficult relationship.
There was another episode involving Uncle Joe that is still vivid in my memory after all these years. During the school vacation my father had taken out my tonsils and adenoids at the mission hospital. An African assistant helped my father with the operation. When my father was done operating, the assistant finished by packing gauze into my nose and throat after surgery to help control the bleeding.
When the anesthesia wore off, the assistant took out the gauze packing. Unknown to him, when he had packed the gauze into my nasal cavities, the robber tip of a small operating instrument fell into the material. However, when he took the packing out, the rubber tip stayed inside my nasal cavity, stuck in the back of my throat.
For the next eighteen months I was unable to breathe through my nose, was frequently sick, and no one knew why. It was often chalked up as the flu or some African "bug" that was hard to track down. I also developed bad, lingering halitosis caused by the rubber item (now unknowingly rotting inside of me).
It was my bad breath that caused the run-in with Uncle Joe that humiliated me and all but smothered what little self-esteem I had left. One day he came up to me and said bluntly, "You stink! Go brush your teeth."
"But I just did," I told him.
"Then do it again because you still stink."
My halitosis grew worse and I was sick more frequently. Finally the dorm parents called a doctor who, after examining me, called my dad, who came at once. When X-rays showed that a foreign object was lodged in my nasal cavity, he arranged to use the city hospital to remove it.
By now the object had petrified and was hard as rock. Tissue had grown around it and it was impossibly lodged. My father tried four different procedures to get it out, but in the end had to use surgery. The operation was painful, but not nearly as traumatic as the abusive words of Uncle Joe.
That distress was brought painfully to mind once again several years ago at a reunion of former missionary personnel who had served in Africa. Harold and I were in a buffet line when I caught sight of Uncle Joe and Aunt Min in line. Even after more than thirty years I shuddered with apprehension when I saw the couple. However, I tried to be friendly. "Hello," I said, "it's been many years since I've seen you. I don't think you've met my husband, Harold."
Looking down at my name tag to be sure he had recognized me, Uncle Joe said rather loudly, and with his usual bluntness, "We heard you got a divorce." I blushed with embarrassment.
Turning to Harold, Uncle Joe said, "Did she ever tell you how bad her breath was when she was a kid?"
Aunt Min added quickly, "Oh, she was so bad that nobody wanted to be near her!"
Back at our table, Harold (who knew nothing about the missionary couple) remarked to me, "Boy, those people are weird!" It was true. I hadn't seen them in some thirty-five years and Uncle Joe was still trying to assassinate my self-esteem. (I learned that they were still missionaries but had finally been transferred from the boarding school to an assignment where I hope they will do little damage to the lives of other children.)
God has truly helped me as I struggle with forgiving this couple for the anxiety and difficulty that I suffered while living under their care.
While Amy and I were at the Tasok Boarding School in Africa, my mother had homeschooled my younger sister and brother during their early years. I think that she became overly concerned about sending two more little children away to boarding school. Mother's stress took expression in severe asthma attacks. Meanwhile, my dad was often crippled by migraine headaches and was taking painkilling medications. In 1969 he decided to bring the family back to the United States where he went into private practice in Flushing, Michigan, and did part-time preaching.
Coming back to America during the height of the Vietnam War and protests was quite different for me. I was a high school student but could hardly remember my years in America. Africa seemed more like home to me. I missed being in the Congo (then called Zaire and since renamed the Republic of Congo).
My first day as a teenager in an American high school was a bit overwhelming. I wore an African muumuu dress, long and loose with no belt. I had no makeup or nylons and earned all kinds of stares from the other kids. There was no mistaking who the "missionary kid" was. I felt real peer pressure that day! I went back to school the next day but I had changed my appearance in order to "fit in" more with the other kids. I made a genuine effort to make new friends.
I had a flair for drama, music, and social activities and I guess that I did fit inwell enough to get a lead in school plays and run for homecoming queen. Yet I felt as though I was going through a "cultural identity crisis" because I really didn't feel that I belonged in America. When I protested the war in Vietnam I was out of step with a lot of traditionalists, even though my rebellion was more typically a part of growing up rather than political. For that reason, I didn't really fit in with the "hippie" crowd either.
There was no assurance of belonging to any group. I knew intellectually that I "belonged" to my family, but since I had spent my formative, "growing-up" years at a boarding school, I recalled that for much of my life it didn't seem that I belonged to my family. Also, since I didn't grow up with the other kids of Flushing High School, I didn't have much of a sense of belonging there either.
My heart and roots were in Africa and the only culture that I knew was in Africayet no one that I knew (aside from my family) understood that culture. I was growing homesick for Africa and my thoughts would often go back to the vision of that little missionary kid in her father's maternity ward, holding African babies and dreaming of one day running her own orphanage in Africa.
Although I did not realize it, God had been preparing me for my mission in life through these painful experiences. He knew that I would need to understand the feelings of abandonment, loneliness, fear, and the sense of not belongingthe same feelings that children from abusive, dysfunctional, and broken homes feel. But still more struggles awaited me as an adult.
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