Dear Desmond. My little Desmond.
My perfect little fragile boy.
It’s me. I can see me there, reflected in your eyes.
A black shadow… colour faded…
I think about you every single day.
I remember the smell of your afro hair, the sound of your giggling voice, the feel of your skinny legs wrapped around my shoulders, your hand clasping mine. That connection we had… how you depended on me, trusted me so quickly. How I felt you were my very own child.
You know, it’s been over three months now since I left. Three whole months.
I wonder how you’ve been, what’s going on in that precious little head;
if you’re happy, if you’re confused, if you will even remember me properly… if you will forgive me. For leaving.
Well, I remember you.
Of course I remember you.
I remember the first time I met you. You were so much smaller and skinnier than all the other kids. I spotted you almost immediately. I asked your name, thought you were just adorable. Desmond, you said; so tiny and precious. You had a kind of smile in your eyes as I asked you how old you were, questions about the orphanage, school and your life – I remember how you kept nodding and saying ‘yes’ to my every question, regardless if it made sense or not… You just seemed happy to be getting some attention, I think. Though you were shy, timid, not so used to this kind of softness, care;
and yet there was something about you that made me smile every time you walked by, and we made eye contact… you would just look at me. Stare. As if I had something you wanted…
I could see sorrow in your eyes. An innocence; but something was missing. Something seemed to be lost… or never had.
You are just a child. A little child… Had you ever felt the love of a mother, or a father? Had you ever felt the love that I had growing up, the love of family? The knowledge that you are valued, wanted? Have you ever felt wanted?
I felt a pain, a longing around you. You were confused. I could feel it. Your energy was so easy to read. There was something about this particular boy that stood out from the others to me. I could see straight away that you needed someone… the others all seemed to have each other, their friendship, some union. They would do everything together.
But not you.
You were always alone.
When all the other kids went out to play, wash their clothes, went to town for church, you always seemed to be inside the huge dark orphanage, alone, walking round barefoot in the dust, playing with little bits of broken toy or books donated from previous visitors – books you couldn’t even read.
I would sit on the terrace, a place where the children weren’t allowed, and I would hear your voice come through the window. “It’s me”, you would say. “It’s me”, to get my attention.
You wanted my attention, and yet it was clear to me you were scared that I would reject you, tell you off like the other adults did, tell you to go away and stop annoying me, like all the older kids did. Everyone seemed to treat you like you were a nuisance, always in the way.
It was obvious to me you were just craving attention, love.
So I would come and sit inside at one of the large tables so you didn’t feel so alone, whilst I sat and read my bible, my Humphrey Bogart biography, or sit and do some diary entries. Your little face would appear at the end of the table quite soon, tentative, unsure, but curious. I told you to come and sit on my lap, but at first you wouldn’t… you had been told not to annoy the volunteers, repeatedly, in the past…
But how could you ever annoy me?
“Jesus said, “‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.'” – Matthew. 19. 14.
As each day passed, and with every quiet moment, I would find you, standing at the end of my table, happier and happier as I accepted you with open arms; and one day that smile finally appeared.
You finally allowed yourself to trust me, this tall stranger with pale skin, who came from nowhere and suddenly sits at the big table, everyday, calls you over and reads you stories, tries to teach you some English… tries to make you smile.
That smile came easier every day…
It was hard, from then, to not let it show to the other kids how I cared for you particularly, how you were my favourite. I became your guardian, just like that.
Suddenly you were my responsibility.
Suddenly it was my job to protect you, teach you, guide you.
And what an honour.
I would come find you in the morning, make sure you ate all your breakfast, help you get dressed, find any excuse to walk past your classroom at school and give you a wave, make sure everyone knew that I knew your name, personally, and that you knew mine – that we were friends.
It gave me such joy to think of us as being connected, to see the happiness on your face. To see you shine, like every child deserves to.
To see a child shine because he knows he is loved.
I watched, day by day, as your face changed.
“This is curly hair” you would say reaching out for my hair: the words I taught you. “And this is aflo hair”, you way say, holding your own in just the most adorable voice. I couldn’t bring myself to correct you. You seemed so happy to be learning. I was so happy to be teaching you.
Eventually, everybody knew – you were by my side almost every minute of the day, sneaking onto the terrace to sit up the ‘adults table’ in the shade of the garden, so I could read to you and teach you. The other kids must have been envious, to see you breaking the rules. But you were allowed to, because I said you were. Because you were my boy.
You spoke hardly any English, which made communication hard, but somehow this made our connection even more special. So much was unspoken, uncommunicable, and yet unnecessary really…
How you would try to tell me “This is mine” when I gave you something, for you, to keep. “This is mine” with such pride. Of course, whatever I gave you was always snatched away by one of the bigger, older kids, in minutes. But it didn’t matter, I would always give you something else. You knew I would.
And they couldn’t snatch me away from you.
Dear Desmond, you are a little shining light, and you brought a love to my journey I thought I’d never encounter in all my life. You are surely a God-send.
A Star Child.
I remember the first time they said it – “Desmond’s father” – as we walked across the yard together one night, hand in hand. I always lead the way and you were always happy to follow.
I underplayed it, but inside, when I heard their words, I was the happiest man alive.
Dear Desmond, I am so proud of you.
I feel so blessed that you came into my life.
You have made me the richest man in the world…
And then it came…
Of course it came… I was a fool to somehow think it wouldn’t catch up with us.
Time. My last week at the orphanage.
I had to go home.
“Can’t you renew your visa, stay a little longer?” asked Mawusi, the founder and caretaker at the orphanage. “The kids like having you around, and you’re so good with Desmond. I don’t have time to walk around and pick him up like you do. I think it’s good for him.”
But I couldn’t, I just couldn’t, not this time. It would mean cancelling flights, travelling back down to the capital, more money and more time than I had.
Of course I had to tell you.
You would have to know sooner or later that I had to leave.
So I told you one morning, using one of the older kids to translate from English to Ewe, that I would be leaving in a few days, heading back to Europe.
It was very difficult to ascertain how you felt. You had such an odd relationship with the other kids. They had little time for you as you were so ‘annoying’ to them. So their translation was brief. All I could do was hope you understood… I still hope, everyday, you understand.
I kept trying to talk with you, as the days went by, tell you again that I had to leave in a few days, ask you how you felt… but it was impossible know. You just didn’t understand me.
But I did notice something changed in your face… you still smiled. Sometimes. When we played. But you started to frown too. As if you were angry with me, or confused. And yet I had no idea how you felt, if you really were angry, if you understood me when I said I would come back again, that it wasn’t goodbye forever.
I think eventually you accepted it. I hope you did.
Although I’m not sure I ever accepted it…
I made more effort to spend every moment I could with you, in the last days, and savoured each and every precious chance. I would make sure I was by your classroom at the end of each school day so that you could sit on my lap in the taxi home. I would make sure you had a pencil of your own while we sat all together, and I taught all the kids how to draw and write. I would make sure the other kids didn’t take your food, you poor skinny thing. I noticed you gave your food obligingly when the bigger kids asked, even if you were still hungry, to gain their friendship. You broke my heart, kid…
I remember with such joy how you would spot me at the end of the long corridor in the orphanage and run as fast as you could, and how I would lift you and throw you high in the air so you could touch the ceiling, and then catch you; your little skinny chest firm in my bare hands. I would rather lose my arm than drop you.
I would hang you upside down sometimes, and relish in your smiling face looking up at me.
You trusted me, and that meant the world.
You loved my camera, and my cowboy hat. How you loved to pose! I like to think you take after me somehow. You loved running down the hill so I could take pictures of you, your beautiful little smiling face.
I gave my camera to the other kids and taught you how to pose…
Like father like son.
I’m sitting and writing this now and feel so happy to remember the joy we shared, which gives me hope for the future, and helps me cushion my memories of the end.
Desmond, saying goodbye to you was the single hardest thing I have ever done.
You utterly broke my heart, and even now, I can barely see for the brimming tears.
My pain was for you, for your confusion, for the void I knew I would leave in your life.
I don’t know why it had to be that way, so hard, but it was.
But my pain was also for me, because I love you, with every inch of me.
You are my son, I so very quickly got use to the roles, and I have found it hard to get back to just ‘me’ since.
The day that man came to pick me up from the Orphanage I felt a death, inside, a rotting, cankerous death, leaving you behind, as I said goodbye, promised my returned, as you said nothing but just stood by the front door of the orphanage as I crossed the road and waited for my taxi. I waved over to you many times during that twenty minutes waiting for a taxi to come by, felt more like hours and hours, and you didn’t wave back, not even once.
All you did was stare, and watch me go out of your life.
Your mother has been ill ever since you were born, and I have never heard anybody mention your real father… and I don’t really want to know.
I cried all the way home on the airplane, watching movie after movie as that great metal bird moved across continents and I saw night and day rise and fall around me. You were all I could see, all I could hear.
Your giggle, your smile. Your tiny, delicate hand in mine…
We fit together like a kind of puzzle.
I soon as I was back in the UK I realised I’d made a mistake, or at least, I needed to act before I did make one. I sat for hours scrolling through the net, trying to find if I could adopt you, how I would do it.
But how could I?
A single, twenty-five-year-old, with no permanent home, address or job?
That was never meant to be.
Still, I sent a message to Mawusi to send to your mother, to see if she would ever even consider it if I could find a way…
At first she said no. You were all the hope she had, and if she ever recovered, you would be all she had to recover for… And I could never take you away from her under those circumstances. The thought that somebody, even if they couldn’t act on it, did care for and want you, made things easier for a time….
Then I got a message a few weeks later.
From your mother again.
Apparently you keep talking about me, ‘calling’ me were the words used.
You kept asking for ‘yovo’ meaning white… Meaning me.
I’m not sure what that means and I don’t really want to consider it fully because, right now, my heart simply cannot take it, and I wouldn’t be able to function.
But, your Mother, whose health gets worse everyday, said if there is ever a way, that she would indeed allow you to be my son fully, that I could adopt you after all, because she believes I would give you a better life.
My dear boy, I do believe you are the real reason I have been ill these past three months… I’ve been so ill. Yet, somehow, God has brought us together, and you have become a part of my healing, and me a part of yours. This is a story I don’t fully understand yet. But I know it’s not over.
For you are the golden page in my diary.
You are my son.
I love you so much,
And will fight, everyday, to make your life and your world a brighter place.
p.s. my flights are all booked back to West Africa for the end of May, starting with a whole month in Ghana, at the orphanage, with you! You can believe me when I say I am counting down every single day…