the path not taken: a mother and her aid worker daughter

by nikki meredith

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, 

And sorry I could not travel both…

 Robert Frost

“Mom, please tell me….if it’s going to be too hard on you, I won’t go.”

Caitlin and I were sitting outside at Emporio Rulli, our neighborhood Italian Bakery drinking tea on a shimmering fall day. She was scheduled to leave soon for Darfur where she’d be working as an epidemiologist with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The news from the region was dreadful.  In a pitched battled against settled farmers, an armed militia group known as the Janjaweed were on a rampage, burning down villages, killing men, raping women. Children were starving.  The year she was scheduled to go, the fighting had reached a peak and the conflict was then considered one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world.  I got a knot in my gut every time I thought of her embarking on that particular journey but there was more to the story.

I couldn’t imagine telling her that she shouldn’t go help out in a humanitarian crisis of disastrous proportions so I could sleep undisturbed on my pillow-top mattress with high thread count sheets.  On the other hand, if I could stop her from going and didn’t and something bad happened to her, how could I forgive myself?

I realized, though, that underneath that fairly convoluted (some uncharitable person might even say neurotic) maternal dilemma lurked another problem.  In spite of the danger, I wanted her to go but I didn’t exactly understand why. I told her I needed to think more about it before I answered her.

That night as I tossed, turned and tangled with the aforementioned sheets, I tried to untangle my feelings.  Most parents realize that part of the fun and, at times, the misery, of having children is the opportunity to relive aspects of your own life. If you loved high school, you’ll get to love it all over again. If you didn’t love it, maybe you can help your kid avoid mistakes you made so he can love it. But that night in bed I realized that raising children also provides an opportunity to live, vicariously, a totally different life. To experience the path you didn’t take; to live the choices you didn’t make.

When I was in college the future I imagined for myself  – these days, I suppose, you’d call it a personal mission statement – was to live not only the length of my life but the breadth of it. I pictured a Gulliver-like procession with each step covering as much territory experientially and geographically as possible. By that I didn’t mean Hemingwayesque adventures. I didn’t want to scale Mount Kilimanjaro, or dodge elephants on African Safaris, or hang out with writers at Deux Magots in Paris.  What I did want is such a threadbare cliché I can barely write it without blushing: I wanted to help people. I wanted to help people in remote parts of the third world, people who would otherwise not have access to such help.

That was the fantasy. The reality: I got married at 20; had my first kid at 25; got a graduate degree at 26; a divorce at 27.  At 30 I acquired a second husband and a mortgage. At 32 a second kid.  All of it in the state where I was born.  I don’t regret a minute of my conventional life but it has, at times, seemed like a little life. A larger one would have included doing something that directly and measurably changed people’s lives.   I’m not saying I’ve been a total slacker.   I worked in a so-called helping profession and then, as a journalist, I covered, among other things, issues of social justice. But if I hadn’t treated those families, they would have found other therapists. If I had not written about police brutality, someone else would have and, in fact, did.

When I think about my criteria – doing something that measurably changed the course of someone’s life, doing something that wouldn’t have happened had I not done it, I can only come up with one thing: I arranged a date between our disability insurance salesman and my husband’s secretary and they got married and they are still married 25 years later. Because of the cloistered lives each led at the time, I don’t think either one of them would have ended up with a partner. I am proud of that but it barely registers when I compare it to Caitlin’s list.

I want to tell you about just one entry on her list. I’m fuzzy on some of the details — for example I don’t remember exactly how many babies were involved – more than six, less than 12 – but I’m afraid if I ask her, she might tell me not to write about this. My justification for writing about it without her permission is that it’s part of my life story too, albeit indirectly. Indirect is the point. I’m talking about the road not taken, the road I didn’t take and she did.  I’m talking about why, for selfish reasons, it was hard for me to tell her not to go to Darfur.

Her first job after getting her MPH was working with an NGO on some sort of AIDs project at a hospital outside Nairobi. One day she opened an unmarked door to a hospital room and discovered a nursery full of babies, babies who had been abandoned by mothers either too sick or too poor or both to care for them. They did have a roof over their heads but the understaffed and overburdened hospital staff wasn’t able to do much more.  They were fed and their diapers changed but no one held them.  No played peek-a-boo. No one rocked them or sang lullabies. No one whispered that they were special.  Some of the babies were crying; some were spookily silent – neglected too long to bother crying.

Caitlin started arriving early for her job and staying late so she could spend time with the babies. But she only had two arms and there were many babies. She started recruiting people to go to the hospital and hold the babies. She got her driver to go and hold the babies. She found staff who weren’t overburdened to come and hold the babies.  I’m not sure how many people she eventually shanghaied or exactly where a mzungu (Swahili for white person) found so many recruits but she did.

That experience alone would have qualified for my criteria but there’s more. By the end of her stay in Nairobi she had arranged placement for every one of those little ones. It wasn’t easy. There were many obstacles – questions to answer, suspicions to satisfy, a raging river of regulations to ford, court appearances to make — but she managed. (Early in the process I told her I wanted to come to Kenya, bundle-up a baby or two to bring home to Larkspur. Caitlin informed me that the Kenyan government did not allow American mzungu’s to take their babies away. Apparently restrictions on American adoptions have been loosened up somewhat since then.)

I may have a few details wrong but I do know this: There are Kenyan children, less than 12, more than six, whose lives were unalterably changed because Caitlin opened an unmarked door in a hospital. That’s what I mean by a not-so-little life.

So how did I answer her? I didn’t say I wanted her to go to Darfur in order to take the road I hadn’t taken, to live the life I didn’t live.  I said that I wanted her to do what she needed to do and if I had some sleepless nights, so be it. That’s why God invented Ambien.