Last weekend we went to a baptism.
It was for the grandaughter of Awetash, the woman who was our son's nanny for several years. When our son Ben was born we were in the thick of the fight with our daughter Jacqueline's seizure disorder, navigating this new world of sickness, cycling through pheno-barbitol, prednisone, and depakote, desperately trying to find something to stop the nearly eighty seizures a day she was having.
My wife was concerned we wouldn't be able to find a person to help care for Jacqueline while she attended to our newborn son. I came up with a solution. "What if we advertised for somebody to help with Ben? Then we could focus on Jacqueline."
Yes, it was a terrible choice to make, but also one that was ruthlessly practical, like the surgeon making decisions in a triage unit. It would be so much easier to find someone to work with a newborn than with the screaming, biting, could barely walk, constant diarrhea wreck that was our two-year-old daughter.
And then into our lives came Awetash, one of the strongest, kindest people I I have ever met. In so many ways she would remind me that the lives of others are often a struggle beyond our capacity to imagine. And yet every day we are given a choice as to how to respond to these challenges.
Awetash came from Eritrea, a country that was once part of Ethiopia. At the time she came to work for us the two countries were still in the midst of a decades-long civil war. Awetash was new to the United States when she came to interview and was accompanied by her sister who had been in the country for a few years. The sister's English was much better and I was struck by the sister's sense of quiet authority. It was only later I learned Awetash's sister had been a commander in the Eritrean rebel army.
The chaos which was our house didn't seem to trouble Awetash. She was always on-time, never complained, and appeared to consider us her number one priority. And she was learning how to make her way in this new land.
Every few weeks my wife would notice that Awetash had purchased a new necklace, a pretty blouse, a stylish pant suit. When she became aware of a city program for better housing for low-income people she applied for it and got a new place to live.
And as we got to know Awetash we learned more of her story. She had three children back home in Eritrea and was trying to get them into the United States. Previously she'd worked as a nanny in Saudia Arabia, a country which has a well-deserved reputation for mistreating their domestic workers. She eventually decided to flee from the family when they were on vacation in the United States.
Awetash was told she should make her escape at the airport as the family was getting ready to depart back to Saudi Arabia. A man she did not know would approach her and tell her it was time. She was to walk immediately out of the airport where another man in a car would be waiting. She was to ask no questions, get in, and the car would drive away.
But as much as Awetash was a rebel, she wanted to do everything right. She immediately applied for asylum in the United States and waited patiently for her paperwork to come through. And Awetash had a long-term plan. She wanted to get her children into the United States as well.
So there we were together, both of us with lost children. Awetash with hers stuck in a country wracked by civil war, and us with one right in front of us, but who had vanished into autism.
The human spirit is capable of extraordinary things. Awetash's daughter made the trek from Eritrea, across the Sudan, and finally into Egypt, where she was granted permission to enter the United States. So did one of Awetash's two sons. The third was drafted into the rebel army, served his time, and is currently awaiting his entry into our country. Druing these years Eritrea and Ethiopia settled their war and Eritrea became its own independent country.
We moved to a different city and although Awetash wanted to continue to work for us it just wasn't practicable. She got a job working in the cafeteria of a local university, a much better position for her as it came with benefits. But we stayed in touch over the years.
And so it came to pass that Awetash's daughter had a baby and my wife took a day to go over and visit with them. Imagine my wife's surprise when she saw a copy of "The Vaccine Book" by Dr. Bob Sears next to the baby's changing table. Awetash's daughter was well-versed in the vaccine controversy and had decided on a VERY delayed vaccine schedule.
The party for an Eritrean baptism is much different than the ones with which I am familiar. There is loud African music, the woman were dancing, their hair and makeup having taken hours, and although they were wearing mostly western clothes, they also wore a white shawl which went about their head and wrapped around most of their body. The men were dressed in suits, looking tall and proud, and within the first few minutes I was asked several times by various men if I didn't want to go to the buffet and have some of their very tasty Eritrean food.
We were there all of ten minutes because that's how long our daughter lasted, but those were precious moments for me. Because you see, when I think about the vaccine controversy I consider it nothing less than a fight for the survival of the human race. If we do not figure out what is sickening our children in ever greater numbers than the future of our species is very dark indeed.
But as I watched the Eritrean women dance to the African music, knowing they were doing their best to protect their babies, I believed there was reason to hope.
Kent Heckenlively is a Contributing Editor to Age of Autism