Before Hailey and I left for Malawi one of the hardest things to do was saying goodbye to my grandma. Before my uncle drove her away she said, “you know, you were always my favorite kids.” Really she loves my sister, two cousins and I equally. Grandma is just madly in love with my wife.
Grandma doesn’t have much of a filter on what she says and, though it can be a nuisance at times, sometimes it is downright hilarious. Without warning she’ll tell someone if they’ve put on weight (regardless if they have or not) or make an inappropriate comment about a complete stranger. In the last year or so she has grown particularly fond of cappuccino and she’s not afraid to tell anyone about her new found obsession. She no longer drinks regular coffee. Yes, grandma is a 94 year old coffee snob.
I’m not sure what Hailey did to gain such adoration from grandma, but whatever it was has had a lasting effect. She constantly tells me I need to be careful with my wife, that I need to treat her well and the first words out of her mouthwhen we see one another are “where’s Hailey?” She can do no wrong in grandma’s eyes. I know I “married up,” but grandma will never let me forget it.
For weeks I fought to hold the tears back. I started saying, “see ya later” instead of “bye” because it was easier and seemed less permanent. I shed a couple tears at my ordination service and a few more while leading worship at LJPC one last time. The flood gates opened briefly the saturday before our departure when I realized I didn’t say bye to my grandma with Alzheimer’s (my dad tried to comfort me, saying she wouldn’t know anyway but it didn’t matter-the tears still stung). To be honest I was surprised I was able to hold them back as well as I did through all of the goodbyes. And then Sunday night came.
It really started after dinner, when my other grandmother told my uncle she was ready to go home. Hailey and I helped her to my uncle’s car. She made jokes that she would probably die before we got back, but she’s been saying things like that for the last ten years and she’s almost 94 now. We hugged her, helped her into her seat and, as she looked up at me, the reality that I may be starring into the eyes of the matriarch of my family for the last time hit me. I lost it. As grandma and Uncle Dave drove off, two of my best friends arrived with their 8 month old daughter. I sat with Brady in the garage and tried to compose myself before going back to everyone inside, but couldn’t and he held me in his arms as I balled on his shoulder. Fortunately his adorable daughter cheered me up enough to go back in-thanks Atley. The hiatus from tears was short. It was time for my nieces, sister and brother-in-law to leave. I was doing okay till Becca (3 years old) jumped in my arms, squeezed tight and made a fish face–the same face I make every time I kiss her. She kissed me, I balled. Even as I write, in an airplane somewhere over the middle of the US, I can’t think about it without getting teary eyed. I’ve been close to them since the day they were born. Even though they are not my own children, I love them as much as a person can love another. Being away from them for this long may be the hardest part of this Malawi adventure.
I was exhausted by the time Hailey’s brother, parents and the rest of our friends left. More tears were shed, but it was mostly hugs and smiles. We finished packing and finally fell asleep only to be awoken a few hours later by our morning alarm. My parents dropped us off at the airport. More tears. It’s a hard thing to shed tears of sadness in the midst of such an amazing opportunity. I know I am not the one in control and that we will be taken care of, but leaving the people we love has never been harder.
It was late July 2007 and I found myself lying in a bed in a foreign place. A constant daze brought on by a high fever lingered in the air of my adopted room. My wife or father would come in every few hours to check on my condition, and then join the rest of our team. We weren’t sure how I got sick. Was it something I ate? Breathed in? Maybe drank? Did an odd bug bite me? After a few days rest, and a dose of strong drugs, I was myself again; ready to continue my first Malawian adventure.
About a year later, in 2008, I found myself in a similar position—this time without my wife and father. Something about my first trip to the country compelled me to come again. I was sure I wouldn’t get sick this time, but then the all-too-familiar late night sweats and nausea returned. Yet it was different this time, a little less foreign and a lot more comfortable.
Though the times I spent being sick in Malawi were far from the highlights of my time in the beautiful country, you can imagine that when 2009 came around and my church decided to invite our Malawian mission partners to the U.S. instead of sending a team there, I was quite relieved. Well sort of. Despite the miserable sick days and nights, there was a tiny part of me that longed to return to the place where the church loves with deep passion, serves with fervor and is thirsty for growth. Maybe I would someday, but not in the near future—I had other plans.
When Vasco, Davidson, Amos and Louis visited L.J.P.C. and other Y-Malawi? churches and American partners in March of 2009, all who were involved got to experience a small part of Malawi. Our friends preached with power, spoke with grace and loved their American brethren in a way that is largely unknown in the western world. On the last day of their adventure to the U.S. Vasco and Davidson mentioned that they had the perfect church for me in Malawi. I laughed. Knowing I would be graduating from Fuller Seminary the following June, they persisted. I continued to laugh. Thoughts of night sweats and nausea blotted out their continued efforts.
It was easy to say no. I had zero desire to live in another country, let alone in Africa. My plans involved being a pastor in an American church, having a couple kids and enjoying life—Yes, that was the map of my future. I graduated from seminary and emails came from Malawi. I interviewed with churches in the PCUSA, not finding the right fit, the emails continued to come. Hailey mentioned the church in Malawi and I still said no. I got bogged down in the depths of unemployment. My plan was failing. Pictures of a church in Malawi lingered in the back of my head. I saw smiles, people in need and a challenge that I could never take on with my abilities alone. I began to listen.
Was God really calling me to Africa? Malawi, really? It didn’t fit in my plan! I might get sick. I might be uncomfortable. I might…the thoughts consumed me. And as they overpowered my small brain it hit me: I have always lived my life safe, comfortable and full of worry. Everything I had read and studied had called followers of Christ to lay down their will in order that God’s will would be done. I’d said it in conversation, preached it many times, but never done it. As Christians most of us pray, “thy will be done,” but live seeking my will. Well, at least I know I have. And, it’s time for me to listen. Malawi.
I hadn’t been there for years. Ten years prior I had spent a night there in passing on the way to my sister’s college graduation. I grew up knowing that my familial roots were tied to Munster but had always rebelled against the idea that the Midwest was in my blood. I was born in San Diego but my sister was born in Indiana and returned to go to Purdue, the same university my parent’s went to years before. Both my mom and dad’s parents lived there until moving west to be close to the grandkids. And my dad’s aunts, the uncle I’d never met, my grandfather’s grave and some of my parent’s best friends…all in Indiana.
I have fond memories of visiting my mom’s parents. I remember visiting and playing in the basement of their house with one of those weight loss machines that has a rubber band that wraps around your gut and jiggles. I’m sure it wasn’t exactly safe for a young kid, but I always looked forward to taking a ride on the shaking machine. I remember watching Bozo the Clown or the Cubs games on t.v. with my grandpa. He was a quiet man who didn’t get riled up about much. Once, after taking me to a toy store to get an action figure of some sort, he left a window cracked at a car wash. We sat in the viewing area helpless as the car moved passed us on the tracks. He didn’t say a word the entire ride home; it was the angriest I ever saw him and one of two times I saw him show any emotion (the other was when he cried at his 76th birthday, knowing it would be his last).
My mom’s best friend lives in the house that her husband grew up in, which is a few hundred feet from her childhood house. Hailey and I were visiting for a friend’s wedding in Chicago and thought it would be fun to come early and experience Indiana. My parents were there for a different wedding, so the trip quickly became, for me, an exploration into what could have been. One night I went for a run; the first mile or so Hailey and my dad came along and then I went off on my own for a bit. I couldn’t help to think about what it would have been like had General Dynamics not hired my dad and brought our family to San Diego. I ran by the high school I would have gone to. The possibilities seemed endless. What would my hobbies have been? Who would I have hung out with? Would I have gone to Purdue? Would I be obsessed with the Indy 500? I definitely wouldn’t have surfed or fallen in love with the beach. Maybe I wouldn’t be as scared to leave the comforts of Southern California had I grown up in a place not spoiled and cursed by a never changing climate and year around beauty. Life would have been so different.
Dusk gave way to the blackness of night and I kept running. I ran by the high school I probably would have gone to and began singing the only fight song I knew for it, “Munster Mustangs we hate you, you’re gonna fight, you’re gonna lose tonight!” My dad went to my mom’s rival high school and always sang that song when we were growing up. On the way back I slowed in front of my grandparent’s house and pondered knocking on the door to ask if I could go on a ride on the weight loss machine but then I snapped out of my nostalgic trance and realized how awkward that conversation would’ve been.
My parents drove us around town, showing us significant houses of their childhood. Separated by the main freeway, their neighborhoods didn’t seem to be too different. We drove, heard stories and then I asked my dad if we could go see it—his dad’s grave. My grandfather died before I was born and my dad doesn’t talk much about him. His parents divorced when he was sixteen and because they both remarried I only knew my paternal step-grandfather, Bill, as my grandpa. I loved Bill as a grandfather and am grateful to be his grandson (he passed away a few years ago, it was an honor to lead the internment service).
We drove to the cemetery and my dad got out to check with the attendant to find the location of the grave. My dad said that he hadn’t been to the grave in a long long time. Wandering around a cemetery in the cold of November in Indiana was quite an experience. We spread out and walked through the wet grass. It’s odd to feel an emotion for a man that you not only never met but also know caused plenty of pain in your family. So much of what I had been told about my dad’s real dad made me appreciate Bill even more. Yet I also knew that, for some reason, my parents chose my middle name (Kiff) after the man for whom I was searching.
I saw “Rohde” on a head stone and walked over wishing I would feel something profound, but there was nothing of the sort. The head stone was clean, but the grave marker next to it was covered with grass. We began cleaning it with our feet and then it came. I am a sucker for seeing my parents get weepy. I got teary eyed as I watched Hailey hug my dad. I glanced down at the name, “Kiff” and felt thankful for the man he had helped my dad become. I didn’t sense a feeling of closure, nor was it one of a new beginning. Maybe it was just an affirmation of my heritage or a bizarre thank you to the family I never met. Either way the thoughts of “what could have been” were replaced by the realness of what was right in front of me and I think I learned, just a little bit more, how to acknowledge and respect the past while moving forward with those I love in the present.