For Ornella (TJ), Yanick, and Bolingo
It all starts with a marriage. My boyfriend wanted me to join him at the wedding of his friends and I wanted desperately not to go.
We were a new couple and our relationship was a bit scandalous. I dated his friend before I dated him, and the Congolese community in Vancouver is small, tight and held together primarily by talk. Our arrival would be the start of a great story.
I went. We entered and I felt like all eyes were upon us – and of course, most were not. One woman, a tall, thin, elegant woman with cheekbones that could slice cheese, looked at me and said something in Lingala to her friend.
Unfortunately for both of us, I understood enough to be mortified by her measurement of the size of my behind. It was not the sweetest of starts. Clearly, Adela Etibako was not going to be rolling out the community welcome mat for this big-assed white girl.
A year and a half later, there was another community celebration. This time the Congolese community was welcoming a newborn baby: mine.
I had agreed to hold this party while in a sleep-deprived, hormonal haze. Now, I was a mess. There was a house to clean, food to cook, chairs to borrow, tables to lay – all while nursing a baby girl who had less than thirty days of life to her name.
The day of the party, a miracle occurred. Three women showed up at my door, unannounced, with tinfoil-wrapped gifts of love and welcome: food for the party. They laid out the buffet table so that it was end-to-end with appetizers and entrees, told me to go get my hair done, and left.
One of the women was Mama Adela – the woman from the wedding. This woman, who likely did not even like me, who had six children, two jobs and never-ending financial worries, had spent her money and a day of her time cooking traditional African dishes for a party to welcome my child – our child – into the Congolese community and the world.
I was astonished. I never said thank you.
A year later, it was time for me to go to work and for my daughter to go to daycare. Mama Adela watched children during the day. Several women in the Congolese community recommended her to me and told me she would love to care for my little one.
Adela’s no-nonsense manner and frank opinions may have intimidated me, but her most personal choices told tales of a tender heart. After all, she named two of her own babies “Benedicta” and “Bolingo”. Every time her lips formed around the names of her children – even in anger or warning – she was making the sweetest wishes for them and the world. Blessing and Love.
Then there was her reputation. There may have been tall tales about her struggling teenagers, but the only gossip I ever heard about Adela herself was the story of how this overburdened mother of five welcomed and adopted a sixth child, a child orphaned by AIDS, into her heart and her family.
I do not know if this story is true, but I believe it.
Thinking about these things, and of Mama Adela’s magnanimous welcome of my own child into the world, I knew that my daughter would be loved.
Still, a very quiet voice inside me said “no”. I told my daughter’s father, “I don’t feel comfortable taking our child to Mama Adela’s house. One day there is going to be a drive-by shooting and it will be the innocent who die.” I transformed the humble truth of my mother’s instinct into a gossipy, brassy, self-righteous judgment.
2006. Mother’s day. I celebrated with my two-year-old baby in my arms and one growing in my belly. After an underpaid, eighty hour work week, Mama Adela celebrated Mother’s day by taking her children to church and cooking for a church luncheon. She and her younger children continued on to a Mother’s Day dinner party and were having such a good time that their friends asked them to spend the night. But no, it was a school night. Adela took her children home and tucked them into bed. It had been a long, busy, happy Mother’s day.
It was the last day of her life.
In the smallest hours of the morning, while the family slept, a teenager with a grudge against Adela’s son set fire to their townhouse. The blaze traveled up the gas line and triggered an explosion. Bolingo woke up with his body in flames and jumped out a third story window. Stephane, Edita, and Benedicta pressed themselves against a third floor window, screaming, while neighbours outside begged them to jump. One by one, the children went silent and dropped out of sight. The floor had collapsed beneath them.
I do not believe that all things happen for a reason, that tragedy was destined. I do not believe that we attract calamitous events into our lives with negative thoughts or energy. Awful, horrific, inexplicable things happen to beautiful people. Joyous children and loving mothers die screaming and there is no sense in any of it. The only thing those of us left behind can do is learn from the lives of those who have lost them. And remember.
On this mother’s day, I am happy to be alive and in love with my daughters, Sophie (“wisdom” in Greek) and Lola (“heaven” in Lingala). When I named them, I named my dreams for them, for myself, and for everyone: wisdom and heaven.
Mama Adela owned and shared the softest, strongest wisdom: she knew how to welcome the child. I wish heaven for her and her dancing children, especially the ones she left behind.