Saturday, March 30, 2013


Sometimes on my way to Warwick, I will drive by the Lincoln Park Cemetery. Every time I pass by, I look over the guard rail at the tombstones and think to myself, "One of those is Heather's." Sometimes, I'll actually try to lean over and read the names as if in that nano-second the cemetery is in view, I'll find her name.

It's been nearly a year since her death and I still find myself thinking about her periodically. The odd thing is that it's not like we had a close friendship. We met at a new moms support group and got together a few times after the group disolved. Once or twice a year, we'd call each other to catch up, maybe trade some baby stuff as we would announce to each other that another one was on the way. We kept in touch even less frequently when she moved overseas.

When I heard through the grapevine she was back stateside, I told myself I had to call her, but I procrastinated on that. And then I heard the horrible news she had taken her own life. At her funeral, I mourned her loss and the fact I had not tried harder to stay in contact with her. But now, a year later, as I once again drive by the cemetery looking for her, it strikes me the impact she had on my life however brief her presence in it might have been.

Many people would like to be creative, impulsive or to think outside the box, but I think Heather truly did. The few times we got together, I really enjoyed hearing her stories or her latest ideas or what her next adventure was going to be. She taught me that tofu could taste really good if I dredged it in brewer's yeast; "an old hippie trick" she said. She taught me that a safe home birth was possible. She helped me set up a babysitting co-op. She introduced me to women who are friends to this day. She showed me it was ok to step outside your comfort zone.

There were so many people at Heather's funeral, sharing their fond memories of her. I think it was because she impacted a lot of people, in small ways maybe, but significant enough that we wanted to be at her funeral to acknowledge the loss of a remarkable woman. And it broke my heart wondering if she knew just how many people she had touched.

This is what I want you to hear: you might go through life and meet people and not think too much of it. You might go through what you think is your mundane day, wishing you could have a greater impact on the world. But you are making an impact. Whether you know it or not, whether you ever become aware of it or not. In some small way, someone is probably really glad they talked to you today, and you might never know how your small act made a large difference.

Friday, March 01, 2013

America Again

Part 11: For a third time, Arlene decided to go for the adventure and move to Massachusetts. There was more to this decision this time however, including a spouse and two young children. While she had concerns about her family's safety staying in South Africa, moving half way around the world with a young family was going to prove to be the a greater challenge.

    When I interviewed for the therapist position with the South Bay Mental Health recruiter in 2002, I was one of a group of about nine South Africans who were selected. We were told by the recruiters we could make up to $40,000 a year. Prior to leaving for the US, Richard and I had worked through some numbers for food and rent and it seemed doable. I figured I could earn even more if I worked extra hours. Add to that what Richard could potentially earn, we could be making more money in the US than we could back home. We thought we would have enough money to visit South Africa, but live in the US where I wouldn't fear for my family's safety. And I'd also have the opportunity to chase an incredible career opportunity.
    We were in for a shock from day one.

    Unlike my arrival in NYC where Ian and I were greeted with a limousine and taken to a high-end hotel, Richard and I arrived at Boston's Logan Airport with two cranky kids late afternoon on a cold November day. It took us a while to get through customs and immigration. In the arrivals area, we were met by one of my South Bay co-workers. She was warm and friendly and I was grateful that she’d waited so long for us. We drove from Boston to South Attleboro, to a little two bedroom apartment rented to us by another South Bay co-worker. It was a surreal experience for me, that drive. I was excited to be back in America and at the same time anxious because I didn't know what to expect. Richard and I spent a long time planning this move and now the reality of it was here. I was feeling exhausted and scared and excited and sad (about my family back in South Africa) all at once.

    We arrived at our new home and I remember carrying the sleeping boys from the car straight into their beds. Even though I had not met them yet, my new office mates furnished the apartment with beds, furniture, kitchen items and even some food in the cupboards and toothbrushes in the bathroom. We would have been sunk had they not helped us out. We don't have winters in South Africa like you do here in New England so we didn't even have winter coats or snow boots when we arrived. Just our luck, we arrived in the middle of one of New England's coldest winters. I remember walking to the strip mall across the street from our apartment to buy boots for everyone. And I was one of the lucky ones. There were others who had, like me, accepted a position in the US who ended up in hotels with terrible hardship stories. One man in our group had a wife and a couple of kids, but she and the kids ended up going back to South Africa because they couldn't afford to all live in the US. At least when we arrived, we had a furnished place to go to. To this day, I will forever be grateful to my office director who inspired her staff to set things up for us the way they did.

    While I was grateful for my office mates' help, I was also surprised. When I was accepted for the AFS program, my host family sent me a picture of my American home and I had weeks to envision myself in their large gracious North Carolina home. This time, I was not sent pictures of our South Attleboro home so I didn't know what to expect. It turned out that the apartment was a lot smaller than our house back in South Africa and on busy commercial street. I was caught between feeling grateful that my young family and I had a furnished house to go to, and the shock that the living conditions were a step down for us. I consoled myself with the thought that this apartment was a temporary space.

    Then there was the issue of transportation. When we first arrived, I able to drive a car which my mentor at South Bay was going to sell to me. Unfortunately, on Christmas Eve, about a month after our arrival, I had a pretty bad accident and totaled the car. So we had to purchase another car. Now our relocation costs were not covered by my new employer in the US so we didn't have a whole lot of money when we arrived. As a result, the down payment I used to buy our first car was a loan from South Bay and the payments on this loan were taken directly out of my paycheck. This made my small paycheck even smaller. I also didn't realize that buying a car in a foreign country would be so difficult. I had no credit history in the US, so I ended up having to pay 18% interest on a car loan for an old Ford Windstar. Between the down payment loan from South Bay and the bank loan for the balance, the payments on that car were just ridiculous. Not to mention the insurance on the car was very high again because of my lack of credit history.

    Until we settled in, my landlord had graciously reduced the rent to $375 a month for the first few months, but with little in assets, a large car payment and rent that would be doubling in a few months, I was very worried. Especially when the truth about my income came to light. When I was interviewed in South Africa, I was told I could make "up to $40,000" a year. What was not communicated to us was that this amount was based on a “fee for service” model, not a salary number. That meant that I only got paid for the actual time I spent with clients at their homes, or "billable hours". We were not paid for the time spent traveling to and from their homes which were scattered all over southern New England. No shows and cancellations were also not paid for. So during my first weeks on the job, while working at least 35-40 hours per week, I only got paid for the small handful of clients I saw. This was a very difficult. I had expected to be seeing clients in an office, not be driving around. So a 40 hour work week never amounted to that much in pay. I also had to maintain a certain average of billable hours every week before I qualified for leave and health insurance benefits.

    My learning curve was steep. I was basically given a map book, a list of clients, a stack of paperwork and off I went. I was driving on the wrong side of the road (in my opinion), in the snow, covering a large area of southern Massachusetts. I frequently got so lost, I’d end up in tears in my car! Thankfully, I had a wonderful mentor, a friend to this day, who showed me the ropes the first few weeks. Also my supervisor, who was the same woman who arranged our furnished apartment, was incredibly supportive. Truly it was my colleagues that carried me through those grueling first months on the job.

    We also learned early on that Richard's visa did not permit him to work in the US like we had hoped. We were told about taking jobs "under the table" but we were scared to take work that way as we didn't want to jeopardize my work visa. Thoughts of making enough money to move out of our small apartment and make visits back home were crushed under the reality of what we could really earn.
     I cried a lot in those early weeks. I would come home after a day of driving all over the place, curl up on our bed and cry. Richard at one point said we still have return tickets we can use. But that seemed even crazier. We had sold everything we had in preparation for moving to the US. If we went back to South Africa, we would have nothing. I figured, we're here now, we just have to make this work.

    My first time in the US, I was hosted by gracious family in North Carolina. My second time in the US, I was a diplomat's wife with an expense account. This experience in the US was turning out to be a whole different reality. This time seemed like a step backwards in many ways. We were living in a smaller house. Because I wasn't making the money we were led to believe, because Richard couldn't work, we ended up having to get food from the food pantries. We also didn't have health insurance through my job. We were able to cover our children through the Massachusetts state health insurance plan, but because we were aliens, Richard and I remained uninsured. I actually had a meeting with Congressman James McGovern in Attleboro at one point, imploring him to consider our case. He later called me from Washington, DC to offer an apology for not being able to help. Back in South Africa, my master's degree in psychology afforded me a certain level of professional respect and affluence. Here in the US, I felt like I was living worse than some of my clients. As I drove through beautiful suburban areas on my way to a client's house, I could only dream of a day a house would be possible for us.

    What kept me going through all this struggle was the work. In South Africa, I was doing one-time interviews and psych assessments for large companies. But here in the US, I was working with people one-on-one to improve their lives and I loved it. I worked very hard and quickly learned that I was good at it. My clients liked me and my colleagues respected me. Yet I knew I had to be intrinsically motivated by the reward of helping others because if I was doing this purely for the money, I’d be miserable and should probably change careers. Being able to make a difference in people's lives kept me thinking that things in general, in my own life, would get better. My co-workers at South Bay were great people, even helping to furnish my apartment. While they thought I was a little nuts for packing up my family and moving half way around the world, they embraced me, and I them and this made living in the US this time bearable.

    The other thing that helped us in those early days was the church we started attending. A coworker at South Bay suggested I attend this church she went to. Richard and I needed to make friends and develop a community for ourselves. I think it really helped us keep our bearings those first few months. I felt like we were spiritually replanting ourselves.

    Unable to work legitimately, Richard essentially became a stay at home dad, taking care of our two boys who were three years old and 22 months when we arrived in the US. He periodically found odd jobs, but without a green card, he couldn't work for any significant pay. Despite our hardships, I never heard him complain. I know life here was very difficult for him too. Prior to leaving South Africa, Richard and I had come up with a five year plan for our US adventure. At this point, we felt like we had worked so hard to scratch out a life here in the US, that we were not going to go back to South Africa until we had achieved a critical part of our plan: acquiring a US "green card". A US green card is authorization by the US government for a non-US citizen to permanently work and live in the US. Most people in the US don't realize what a sought after document a US green card is. To legally live and work in the US opens up a lot of options. So given that my work visa would expire in two years, we decided to pursue getting green cards.

    To me, getting our green cards felt like the turning point. With green cards, I could look for work outside of South Bay Mental Health. And Richard could finally find decent paying work too. With the boys older and in school, both Richard and I working, things looked like they were finally turning around. I was really enjoying my work and I felt like we were getting back on our feet financially.

    After five years in our tiny "temporary" apartment, we were able to move to a larger place. It wasn't a house like we had back in South Africa, but it was the first step in a long time that didn't feel we were going backwards. Also, I left South Bay for a salaried position working with clients at a drug and alcohol rehab facility. Unfortunately, at the same time, my personal life was in a shambles, my relationship with Richard didn't work out and now we are separated.

    The past 10 years have been an enormous struggle on so many levels. Good things happened amidst the difficulties and the whole experience has taught me to not take anything for granted. We have managed to raise two inspiring children. I think there are more opportunities for my boys here in the US. They will always be South African but they're Americans too now.

    People ask me why I still stay in the US. South Africa is such a beautiful country. I love the wild animals, mountains and oceans and her people who are like nowhere else on earth. More importantly, my whole family still resides in South Africa. They have beautiful homes and great lives over there and I miss them dearly. Yet, I still can't get past the crime and economic issues. My sisters often tell me I overstate things, that I worry too much, but every time I see the gates in front of the houses or the electrified fences, I can't help but feel nervous. Yet despite our different opinions, they support me, and encourage me to do what is right for me and my family. It’s often a very deep dilemma for me; I have established a good and fulfilling career here, I've made dear friends, my children are doing well in a secure environment, but I've left behind my family and a country I love. I have frequently asked myself, has it all been worth it?

    So here I am. I have managed to start my own private counseling practice. My boys are enjoying their lives here. I periodically think about moving back to South Africa, but with Richard being here, I can't see separating the boys from their father. I would love the opportunity to spend some time teaching in South Africa and perhaps once I have my US citizenship, I will be able to move more freely between both countries. But in the meantime, I feel somewhat settled; I have made a life in the US and put down roots as they say. I think the wanderer in me that felt compelled to cross the Atlantic three times has settled a bit. A least for now.

Postscript from Dawn:


It's finished.

I had the idea for his writing project some nine years ago when I first met Arlene. Three years ago I decided to start it thinking I'd be done in a year or so. Heh.

Though it took longer than I thought, Arlene and I stuck to it. I'm not sure what the plans are from here for this story. I'd love to publish it so there's a print copy to hold. I will probably be the last person on earth to convert to a Kindle. But that goal is for another day.

While this is not a printed book, I would still like to include dedications and acknowledgements from Arlene and myself so here goes.

Arlene's Dedications :

To my family mom (RIP), my dad, and my two sisters who have supported me and loved me unconditionally through it ALL. I love you with all my heart. I still struggle at times to make sense of my decisions to be away from you, it has come at a high price at times. But I thank you for never judging me, for always being there.

And to my incredible sons, Yorke and Alex who journey with me like two brave knights. To their dad, Richard...may your life be forever blessed.

Thanks to many beautiful friends all over the world who have made this journey so meaningful!

South Africa: land of my birth, where a huge part of my soul will always reside.

Last but not least...Dawn, thanks for this opportunity. You are a brilliant writer and woman with more energy than the Hoover Dam!

Dawn's Acknowledgements:

First and foremost, a huge thank you to Arlene. You have been so gracious in cooperating in this endeavor. It’s a brave thing to look back over one’s life and it’s even braver to let someone write it down for public consumption. I am so grateful for your help in making this idea a reality.

Thanks also to Firoozeh Dumas. She wrote “Funny in Farsi” and “Laughing Without an Accent.” Right about the time I was contemplating starting this project, she stumbled across my blog. She actually took the time to contact me and tell me she liked what she read. She also said that I should keep writing. Receiving a compliment from a published author made my week, and was like the shot I needed to get working.

I dedicated this work to my mother who had an experience similar to Arlene; leaving one’s country in hopes of providing a better future for your family. She left behind her family and all that was familiar to her to live in the US in the days before email and Skype. I remember my first day of homework for first grade, I was asked to write three sentences about what I did over the summer. I was beside myself. I bitterly complained to my mother that three sentences was just too much to ask, that I can’t think of three things to write, only one and what was the need for three sentences anyway if you can get your point across in one?

Well, I don’t know how many sentences I wrote in all these blog posts, but I'm pretty sure it’s more than three. So to my mother, I’m sorry for whining at you about those three sentences. And I’m very grateful now for all those trips to the library you took us on.

To my husband, there is nothing I could write that would adequately express my love and gratitude to you.

Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.