It’s a fifteen-hour flight from Addis to Toronto. I arrive to winter; the day after I land a snowstorm hits the city. The sidewalks are treacherous, still heavy with ice. I struggle with jet lag and the displacement from my life on the road, where everything is reduced to essentials. I miss the companionship and the sense of togetherness engendered by common purpose and common hardship. And, yes, common joy in a sunrise or a flight of birds or the sudden, shy smile on a child’s face. It is good to be among family, my partner, my kids and grandkids, the babies that change daily, but I feel an intruder into their lives. I am a temporary sojourner with unfinished business elsewhere. Until that is done how can I take back my life here?
All my usual haunts and habits, has an air of contingency; I feel a ghost shimmering in half presence. I am not fully there nor back there in Africa. Every night I dream that I am on the trek. It’s not the same dream, always a different event or circumstance; the mood straight-forward, matter-of-fact, as one who everyday goes to toil in the fields responding to conditions of weather and landscape as they arise.
On the third day, a Friday, my partner, Chris and I and her son, Simon, drive to Montreal. The roads are clear and we make it in good time, arriving in the early evening. My daughter and her husband and their baby have been in my apartment for a week. I am among my things that I had left some two months before. I know them, they are familiar yet they are strange, as things that I had somehow long ago given up. I can’t shake my sense of in-betweenness.
Saturday is my mother’s birthday. She lives in a suburb, a 25-minute drive away. My son has flown in that morning. My brother and his wife and sons have come up from LA and are staying with her. I haven’t spoken to any of them since I left. Our reunion goes off well, my mother, at a hundred, is a touch frailer but has lost little of her energy and anxiety. She is upset to find out that I will be returning to Africa but there is too much else going on, with family, friends, preparations, for her to focus on it. A reporter from the CBC, Canada’s national broadcaster, has written an online story about my mother. It has elicited a large and positive response.
We hold the party in the party room of my mother’s condominium tower. The caterers have done a fine job with the ornate table settings. The guests start to stream in, her friends pushing their way through with their walkers. Letters from the Queen, the Governor General and the Prime Minister are on display. The deputy mayor has come to offer the city’s congratulations. A local tv news crew arrives to film the event for the 11 o’clock news. My mother tells the reporter, pausing with just the right beat, that she feels “young and restless”. It is a well-polished line (and the title of one of her favorite soaps) that she has used before; it always has the desired effect.
Drink flows freely, there are speeches, a cake with candles to blow out. The atmosphere is as festive as we could hope it to be with a genuine sense of wonder and gaiety. Longevity is an accomplishment in and of itself; one that must be applauded and feted. Perhaps somewhere we feel that simply to be in the presence of great age an element of it might rub off on one like a good luck charm.
The day was a great success. I will be leaving the next day—to Toronto and then onto Nairobi to rejoin my other life. That night as I am about to say goodbye to my mother, she grips my hand and says, “you must do something for me before you go. It is very, very important.” I am as gripped by the urgency of her tone as I am by her hand. I feel the blood drain from my face. “What is it,” I ask her in Hungarian. She looks at me hard. “What is it? I repeat. Finally, as if assured of my constancy, she says, “I have nothing in the house. You have to go to Costco and do the shopping. I will tell you what to buy.”