I had been in Rwanda for a month, tracing the footsteps of the genocide in the ten thousand hills. This was my last morning, alone in the genocide museum near Kigali. The perfect place to reflect on all I had seen. At the end of the hall there was an alcove room lit only by a smattering of sunlight. I stopped short, met by the smack of larger than life, black-and-white photos on the walls.
A boy with wild curls sat in front of a sandbox, waving a red shovel. “Look at me!” he demands. I imagined his father standing on the other side of the lens, laughing and encouraging his precocious son. My chest ached with a sick knowing, even before my gaze dropped to the epitaph:
Patrick, age 5
Best friend: Alaine, his sister
Favorite food: chips
Favorite thing to do: Make people laugh
Cause of death: Whacked by a machete
I was alone, or so I thought. The low hum of conversation in the garden outside floated through the window, like a chant. A hymn that held the whisper of a question. A question that had been haunting me for 43 years, since before I had the words to speak it.
Tears slid down my cheeks, images of the past month clicking through my mind. The church with bullet holes in the ceiling, a blood-stained Mother Mary on the wall. The pristine Virunga Mountains where I had played with young gorillas who were likely to be shot by poachers before reaching adulthood. A shantytown where a young mother with blank eyes told me that she still believed in God but not justice. She wanted to forgive, but could never forget.
A young woman who I will always think of as a girl stepped out of the shadows; or perhaps she had been standing behind me, following me, for a long time. I recognized her from earlier: jeans and a striped t-shirt, she could have been any African teenager. She had smiled shyly at me in the garden, and I took note of her old-soul brown eyes. She was, in a way, ageless. Now, she was looking at me, waiting, as if she had already asked a question.
“Madame,” she said, her voice high but strong, “will you be my mother?”
The question was a jolt to my system. I fumbled in my purse for something—anything. I couldn’t answer, look at the girl or the photos on the wall.
Yes, of course. This is what I wanted to answer. But there was too much in the way. My mom’s shaky voice admitting that after my older sister Susie died, when I was too young to remember, she couldn’t love her remaining three children. She couldn’t love me. The shouts of a therapist who had held me an emotional hostage for two years, bullying me into thinking of her as my surrogate mother. Tough love, that’s what she had called it. The knowledge that I was scared, nearly to death, that I would pass down a legacy of depression to my two sons, Justin and Drew.
Eight years later, that moment when I turned away a girl who was, most likely, simply looking for some comfort, still haunts me. In my mind, I answer yes. I imagine how that small breath of compassion might have connected me with a stranger; changed me. Changed her. Eight years later, I’m still trying, not always successfully, to answer yes.