Love: Versions and Time

When you sit down and think about where you’ve been, it may come as a surprise to realize how many versions of you there have been.

I miss being in high school in Kenya, where the only things that mattered were that letter from an admirer at a neighboring boy’s school, Drama Club competitions, and those moments spent with friends laughing in little dorm rooms made for 8 but sleeping 10. That version of me was very naive and I realize now that that was the purest form of me in existence. Pure meaning untainted by life, heartbreak and chaos.

I miss Zig-Zag nights, when the black-and-white and white-and-black decor of the place zoomed by in a blur and we punched the air in time to the Lost Boyz in rotation by DJ Ben. That version of me was introduced to love for the first time. And heartbreak.

I miss Jungle club, my first ever party – no alcohol, only Fanta, and watching my friend, Michelle, dance to Aaliyah and we met DJ NiJo there and partied till the sun came up and we stalked up the hill to sleep over at Michelle’s because nobody in their right mind would venture home to explain to my mother why I was out and not at my job at ECK all night. That version of me realized what was important to me in terms of family and friends. That version formed the base of who I would become, thinking back now. Dance, music, writing were at my core more than ever.

I miss the boyfriends at that young age. It was not about sex but more about relational intimacy, holding hands and sneaking glances at each other, writing love letters and dedicating whole pages of written-down lyrics (a lot of Boyz II Men songs). Calls were made, not on mobile phones, but via phone booths. You stood in town and waited in line to dial your girlfriend’s house with coins or if you knew how to ‘tap’ the phone…you sequestered yourself in the red phone booth, dipped your voice low and made plans to meet at Carnivore or JayKay’s or wherever. That version of me realized how much I love my hand being held, and how I adore those sweet kisses on the side of my neck that melted me. That version of me defined romantic love for me. One lied to me and broke my heart, and the other would have done anything for me and I broke his heart by getting on a plane and leaving.

I miss the very first time I boarded a plane. It was an El-Nino night, Nairobi was getting pounded by rain and Kuka’s car got stuck in traffic. My parents, my cousin and I were in his car, and our luggage for America was in another car. We ran up the escalators, late, but running alongside the pilots for our plane. We made it to America. This version of me was filled with excitement and I still knew no fear.

I miss being a freshman, not knowing how anything worked. Seeing vending machines for the very first time, and trying to figure out why that lady told me I couldn’t go into biomedical research because ‘there was no funding for black girls’ – I did not even know I was Black. On all my school intake forms, I marked ‘other’ for race because I did not see ‘African’ as an option. That version of me began to understand that my skin color mattered in this new place, in my new reality. I never strived, however, to change how I talked…my accent. But the reality of being Black in America started to forge this version of me. This is the version that went to Liberia, saw ‘real’ poverty and system break down first hand, learned to surf in Monrovia and discovered that I was stronger than I thought.

I miss those parties we used to go to in California. Still no alcohol, and 100% there to dance and stare at the cute guys. We made some friends then who are also now fathers and mothers to little ones. We meet sometimes, during summer bunny season, during rugby times and we reminisce. ‘Remember Leo Faya’s old Volvo?’ or ‘Remember days of “Le Tusker” or “Masandukuni”  for the heng?’ – the latter was an after party spot, somewhere near Pico and Olympic or some place there. We would pull up in a rolling entourage, hazard lights flaring, alight and then tap our heels to this closed storefront. You had to rap at the door and this guy slid open a small opening in the door at eye level. The password was ‘masandukuni‘ – inside the box, basically. This was my party version – we had a fantastic time. We were young, carefree and could party like we were back in Kenya and reminisce. This version was firmly plastered in America but my soul was still thumping to that Kenyan beat circa 1996. Shout out to Lost Boyz, Tupac and Tevin Campbell amongst others, and this version fell in love with reggae and soul (Kenyan house music from the 80’s and 90’s).

I miss traveling around America on a whim. I would whip out my carry-on bag, jet to Boston, to Dallas, to Maryland to visit friends. I stayed in Worcester, Ma with Michelle, from my Zig-Zag and Jungle days. We were in high school together, one of my oldest friends, and this version of me was held up completely by such connections. Friends who became sisters in a new world where, without this family, one would be so very alone.

I miss my ER nights with my team of people who saved lives then turned around and pranked each other so we could keep going, past the sadness, past the crying mother whose child just breathed their last, past the drunk in the hallway who is really a homeless vet strung out on drugs and numbing himself with the strongest whiskey he could find at the corner store. This version of me found my strongest voice, in the face of watching death knock every day and seeing my colleagues rally. We became a family and that version of me thrived in that setting. I met some more sisters there, Toni, Becky, Serena and Gloriane. They lifted me up at different times in different ways but that version of me received enough love from these sisters that it breathed life into me and lit a fire for me to move forward. Moving forward with school, travel and a dip into public health in rural areas.

I miss my grad school adventures. Some of them were heartbreaking, like having to bury someone you thought you would marry and have a team of children with, with his velvety chocolate skin, eyes of liquid bronze amber and witty temperament. Some of them were exhilarating, like second lining for the first time, watching the Saints throw down in the Superdome, catching Capleton on Frenchmen Street and finally understanding that the drive within this version of me, this desire to help others, to work in health, though not research like I wanted, was public health. This version of me was broken by a sudden death, rebuilt by the jazz, open container drinks allowed, freak-flag flying New Orleans. New Orleans introduced me to Hendricks, my gin of choice, introduced me to my beloved sister, Amanda and her James, who both showed me that love did not have to fit into a neat little box and throwing all the rules by the wayside sometimes leads to the best love two people can ever experience. This version of me allowed me to take a chance and plant myself in the middle of nowhere in Ethiopia. This version of me is what helped me stand up to a work bully, and what fired me up to get up every day to be in the trenches with the local community members, for pregnant mothers struggling to labor and deliver at home, for children so stricken with malnutrition, I could see their ribs plus their pulse under the thin skin stretched over their skull. This version survived what can be termed as a hair raising adventure, public health cars stuck in the mud over a long drop and facing a person who took every moment to remind you that you were less than her because of which continent you were born in. This version reared up my regal African crown, and stood proud for my people and for my own achievements – paying my own way through undergrad and grad, working overnight ER shifts and knowing what I wanted to do when I got that degree in hand.

I miss relocation-to-Kenya times, even when I cursed the no-water-having-days, Zuku-internet-slowdowns, weird fluctuations in electricity token charges and traveling for work across East Africa, and seeing my little one grow, thrive and speak with a Kenyan accent. This version of me strengthened, without any force, a connection with my cousin, Faith, who became one of my support blocks especially with my son. I also connected so closely and wonderfully with an old acquaintance turned friend turned sister, Nancy, and her husband and beautiful son. Striving to thrive as the sole supporter of my child, dipped in doubt sometimes, sometimes fear that I had not made the right move, this version of me was held up by the kids’ laughter as they crawled around at first with each other then later ran after each other as we, the parents watched in amazement. This version was buoyed and surrounded by their love and complete acceptance and support, a love that let Kiptoo smile so hard when my son began to call him ‘Daddy’ because that is what he heard their son call him when they were around. With one of the sweetest, kindest nannies around in Betty, this version watched my baby grow surrounded by warmth, laughter, fun neighborhood walks, love from an unnamed neighborhood dog that we named Mzee (old man) for the grey in his whiskers, and constant positive attention from our neighbors (they let him hang out when they washed the car, feeding and catering his young love for cars – I mean, his first attempt at words? Vroom Vroom…). Looking back, this time was challenging as a new, first time mother trying to find my fit in a world that I had left almost 20 years earlier but had changed so drastically and dramatically that sometimes I thought I was lost and would never find my way home. Nancy and Kiptoo helped me realize that home is anywhere that your heart and loved ones are, and the best version of home is the one you choose to live and love every day. It is not the space you occupy but the love that lives within you and is reflected back at you from those who genuinely have your back. This has come to be my walking stick as I venture out daily in these streets. From grad school era friends like Talubezie who have helped me navigate and find my self to old friends who pop up every so often with a smile and a kind word, to some who simply note that they send me prayers, my walking stick has become stronger and firmer, propping up this version of myself.

Sometimes looking back is not a negative. Seeing and recognizing the different versions of myself over the years, hardened sometimes by heartbreak of all kinds, softened sometimes by the sweetest love is enough to make me appreciate the version of me that shows up today to fight for what I believe in. The sweetest version of me today is fired by the love of this beautiful, doe-eyed child looking up at you, growing into a toddler who hugs your neck so tight and says, ‘You are my family…’ so earnestly. This version of me laughs at a toddler who drops ten excuses for not going to bed, asking for his trucks, or for some ice cold milk (very specific), or that nyang’au, the night monster, will get him so he needs for Mommy to come and lie down in bed with him. This version of me now who shows up to fight every day for love, public health and life is a culmination of all these versions from the past. To know where you have come from is to know what you will or will not stand for.

To all those friends who became sisters, to those friends to come, to my son, and to the man who loves me now as I am and whose name I plan on taking on as my own, the versions will keep on coming but, at the end of time, so long as I can, I will stand on love and always strive to be the best, most kindest, most loving version of me that I can be.

 

 

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