I bought myself a polo shirt today. No, not a capital-P, trademarked man-on-horse-logo Polo shirt. It’s a generic, lowercase-p, no-logo polo shirt. It was on sale. Plus I had a register tape coupon. And I used my Target card for an extra 5 percent off. I think it cost me a total of 9 bucks. It’s the first article of clothing I’ve bought for myself in over two years. I was so excited.
It’s been a rough haul these past couple years. Ever the contrarian, only I would offer to pay a kid’s college tuition and expenses at the height of a global financial meltdown. Tack on the loss of a major client due to a changing of the corporate guard, and I’ve been pinching pennies so hard I have Abe’s face embossed on my thumb.
And I clearly was naive thinking I could just be there for Mtuseni and tick off waves of successes with only a couple of bumps and hiccups along the way. (I blame too many Hallmark Hall of Fame movies as a kid.) Making things happen in South Africa takes an extraordinary and frustrating amount of effort compared to here in the US… due to culture and Mtuseni’s particular circumstances.
It’s exhausting. I’ve seen photos of myself from the past year and I look like a character out of Dorothea Lange’s Dust Bowl photos. I’m out of shape. Tired. Stretched and stressed. My clothes are fraying and boring me to tears. My kitchen cupboards look like the Grinch came through. I need a haircut and my car needs… a laundry list of things. My credit cards are maxed; my savings are wiped. If Mtuseni gets a visa to visit here this summer — and I am praying to every entity that he does — I will make that trip happen somehow, some way.
I talked with Mtuseni’s school administrator the other day. About visa logistics and some stubborn challenges in dealing with my stubborn young friend. She’s been a welcome sounding board, offering insights into the culture that I can’t grasp from half a world away. She summed up what I had taken on with Mtuseni, both financially and psychologically, and she said not many people would have done it. She didn’t think she would have.
There’s times when Mtuseni drives me insane — or South African good-enough culture makes me want to scream — that I think “Why on earth did I do this? Am I nuts? An idiot? A soft touch? My life’s been on hold for three years. What was I thinking when I offered Mtuseni this arrangement? Why didn’t I just say goodbye and wish him well when the organization that matched us pulled out?”
And for some reason, today I looked at the other side of that coin for the first time. Mtuseni was just starting his high school matric exams when our nonprofit connection ended. I would have wished him luck. I’d promise to keep in touch — which I know now would have been impossible. And I would have gone on in my life. Less monster hits to my bank accounts. More time to focus on me. New clothes. Trips abroad. Untold adventures and unrealized experiences.
And Mtuseni would have soldiered on as best he could. Even if he passed his matrics and qualified for college, there’s no way a mother earning $240 a month could pay for it. He didn’t even know where the college was without my help. So this bright, funny, shy, anxious, immature, idealistic, insecure kid would have gotten a job with mom at the airport… maybe. Earning a few bucks a day. He’d live out his days in the settlement, watching over his little brother and sister as he watched his hopes for better things fade away.
And that’s what would have happened if I hadn’t been a soft-touch idiot and committed myself to this kid, my buddy, my long-distance son.
A couple weeks ago, Mtuseni was prepping to go to the freshman dance at a Joburg club, in his role as vice-president of the student committee and a soon-to-graduate senior. Referring to the box of name-brand jeans, shirts, vitamins and home-made oatmeal cookies I sent him, he texted me, “it feels gud to be all new clothes LOL. I still salute you for keeping this soul happy and courageous. I love you, bud.”
There’ll always be new clothes I can buy for myself. And hot new resturants to try. And Europe will still be waiting patiently for me. When I count the things I get back in return from this experience with Mtuseni, I have to invent a new Dr. Seuss number, like bazookatrillion. And for right now, I’ll take that text message over a new wardrobe or vacation any day.
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