Archives For stress

Doctor Dad

October 9, 2013 — 5 Comments

sickSince taking on the surrogate father role with Mtuseni, I’ve had to wear many hats: coach, cheerleader, task master, advocate, therapist, researcher, consoler, educator, employment agent — the list keeps growing. But I never expected to be his personal epidemiologist.

Since I’ve known him, Mtuseni has often been sick. Fever, flu, cold sores, nausea, cramps, diarrhea, congestion. Since I brought him some multivitamins last year — and continue to keep him stocked — he’s had far fewer bouts of cold and flu. But I’ll still get anguished reports of periodic stomach problems from him, told in his drama-queen style. (He can be a big baby when sick.) But some people (thankfully not me) are more prone to stomach bugs so I didn’t give it much thought, just waited for “I’m weak and dying” texts to switch to “I’m fine now.”

But when Mtuseni was here in Boston this summer, a small incident opened a new perspective for me on his tummy troubles. One night after supper he cleaned up the kitchen while I did some work. I came in later to put a few things back in their usual spot, and noticed the leftover rotisserie chicken wasn’t in the fridge. I looked in the cabinets and the trash but couldn’t find it. When I asked Mtuseni, he said “I put it in the oven” and, sure enough, there was the unwrapped bird sitting in the microwave. I chuckled incredulously and told him that stuff like this needs to go in the refrigerator. He was watching TV and only half-listened.

But this got me thinking… Is this how Mtuseni would normally store leftover food at home? The image of cooked meat sitting on a shelf overnight in his stifling shack haunted me.

So this past Monday he is “super sick” with cramps and vomiting. I ask if anyone else in school or the community is sick and he says only him and mom. With symptoms isolated to just the family, it sounds like food poisoning to me — and I think about the unwrapped roasted chicken. And then I think about the lack of running water. And handling raw meat. And mom’s pen of goats in the yard. And the outhouses. And the barely cool glass of Coke mom served me from their gas-powered refrigerator.

When I first asked Mtuseni to look for vitamins and explained how beneficial they are, he asked, “What are these magic pills?” If he didn’t know about vitamins (despite taking science and life skills classes in his public high school) then safe food handling practices were certainly not familiar to him. I quickly gathered some info and tips online — trying to tamp down my worry after reading about the effects of salmonella and E. coli —  and sent them to Mtuseni. He said he’d look at them and do the best he could, but the fridge is too “weak” to keep things cold in the heat (and it’s barely spring there now). I just hope this is one time he fully listens to my advice and acts on it; I’m more aware now of the risks. Perhaps food-related illness is part of the reason why some people in the community “just get sick and die” — some families don’t have any refrigeration.

Some people who hear about my experience with Mtuseni don’t fully grasp the level of stress I carry sometimes. I’ll hear “Oh, my teenager is the same way: never listens.” But their kid doesn’t struggle to sleep in a cinder block hotbox on a summer night, or have no escape from the cold when temps dip into the 30s. They’re not ruining their eyes studying for exams by candle light or tarring their lungs with the smoke from kerosene lanterns. And they’re not going to spend three days weak and vomiting from a plate of leftover pap and stew.


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The Great Pivot

September 30, 2013 — Leave a comment

In about six weeks Mtuseni will be taking final exams for his final semester of classes. Aside from doing a 100-hour internship, the hard work is done. Thinking back to how much he struggled — and how unhappy he was — in his first semester, it’s amazing how far he’s come. Not only does he have more knowledge, he’s more confident, outgoing and independent. Mtuseni doesn’t need the daily handholding I provided in our first few years. As a friend recently said, that means I did my job.

It took me a little while to mourn the loss of that constant connection, a virtual version of empty nest syndrome. But then it dawned on me that now I have time to focus on my life. I put it on the back burner to parent a kid living in a slow-motion culture 8,000 miles away — and it looks and feels a little ragged, though I have zero regrets.

But as Mtuseni turns toward new directions in his life, I now pivot back to my own. He posted a picture on WhatsApp this weekend from his big 21st birthday bash. In it he’s wearing a casual button-down shirt that I sent him last year. It’s a beautiful shirt, and I debated for days about keeping it for myself — before finally relenting and tossing it into his care package of clothes and cookies. I still want that shirt!

Meanwhile, every day, in every season, I open my closet and bureau and am bored stiff by my own wardrobe, which has not seen one new item since Mtuseni started school — and the South African bills started piling up. I can never claim deprivation compared to the way Mtuseni and his family live. But still, a little self-care does a body and soul good. And now that Mtuseni is on cruise control, the see-saw can use a bit of rebalancing.

I stopped marking my birthday a few years ago. Passing the half-century mark was a bit of a mind-fuck, so I smashed the odometer and don’t think about the numbers anymore. Still, growing up and living in New England, I’ve always felt lucky to have an October birthday. It falls just when peak foliage arrives in Boston — as if the world sets off fireworks in my honor. So to bring some equilibrium back to my Libran scales, I’ve decided that this October will be “31 Days of Me”…

Perhaps I’ll buy myself a nice shirt one day. Visit a museum that’s been on my must-see list for years. Have a drink at one of the city’s priciest restaurants. Cook something daring from my mountain of exotic recipes. Take the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. Skype with an old friend. Or maybe just take five deep breaths in a row. The details aren’t important, and every day doesn’t need to be a mind-blowing indulgence. But for once in a long time — maybe ever — this month will be all about me. It will make me a happier, calmer, better person — and a better dad.

Because this doesn’t mean letting up on the gas with Mtuseni. He already knows that October for him will be the month of drafting responses to a pile of interview questions and doing mock sessions. And I’ve learned from early missteps that we need to talk through the rationale and hidden agendas behind every sample question from his list before he answers them. Per usual, he’s balked at this activity for the more than a year, despite my nagging, but the preparation he did for the visa interview showed him what can be achieved if you do your homework. But as the two of us discuss why “fun” might not be the best single word to describe himself on the Y-FM internship application, I’ll be making sure that I inject more fun into my own life. Because to borrow from an old commercial: “I’m worth it.”


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MtuseniA few weeks have passed since the happy news that Mtuseni had received a visitor visa. Since then I was buried in a gnarly work project that consumed my life and threatened my sanity. And of course there was the usual roller coaster ride with my son. Less than 24 hours after celebrating his visa, Mtuseni dropped his phone out of a taxi, which then ran over it. So I had to shell out $250 for a new phone because that’s our lifeline. I told him it’s an early birthday present (though given the cultural significance of turning 21 in South Africa, it will likely be hard for me not to mark his day with something come September).

Now that the trip is finally happening, I’ve shifted into my default worry mode. Getting my beloved knucklehead to fly 8,000 miles into New York — when he’s never flown alone and forgets details and seems to lose something every other week — definitely cranks up the stress. I won’t breathe easy until he texts me from the plane … so long as he doesn’t leave his phone on the Gautrain to the airport! Last week I wrote him a five-page set of instructions on everything from packing and getting through immigration at JFK to dealing with turbulence. Our flights between Joburg and Cape Town last year were perfectly smooth, but on a 16-hour flight Mtuseni will definitely hit some bumps; the turbulence over Cape Verde on my South Africa flights was intense. Scary stuff if you’re flying alone the first time!

But Mtuseni likes roller coasters and was completely enthralled with flying on our trip last year, so perhaps he’ll take turbulence all in stride. He told me that he’ll be “in space for 16 hours and you can’t get better than that!” It will be interesting to see if he still adores flying after this long haul. A 90-minute hop to Cape Town is nothing, but Joburg to New York is one of the longest flights in the world. I wanted a parachute after ten hours!

As I obsess over logistics, every so often it hits me to stop and look at this trip from Mtuseni’s perspective. Imagine being a 20-year-old college kid from Africa traveling halfway around the world for the first time, and to realize his dream of seeing the US. How excited he must be! Of course, I’m excited too. I’ll just be happy and relieved when he’s here in my house, because I’ve learned from experience that there are always surprises and speed bumps when dealing with South Africa.

Mtusnei, like me, can be a worry wart — and that holds true for the trip. But logistics don’t worry him. He’s come to have almost blind faith and trust in my ability to cover every angle of a situation and make things happen for him. (Earning this trust and following through on it has been one of my proudest accomplishments parenting him.) However, he has his own unique set of worries…

For some reason Mtuseni has not been telling people about his trip. We joked about it, but I really didn’t understand why. When I asked him yesterday he said, “there’s certain elements in society I’m avoiding, e.g., witchcraft and jealousy.” He doesn’t talk too much about the more traditional aspects of his culture, but I do know that the goats his mom raises aren’t used to make chevre for restaurants, but are sold for traditional Zulu rituals. (Mtuseni hates “those crazy goats.”) He said that people in his community will be filled with jealousy and hatred over his trip — enough to put a spell on him “to get on the grave.”

I know Mtuseni doesn’t put too much stock in this stuff, but like me he’s doing everything to make sure the trip comes off. Still… witchcraft. Wow. It’s an indicator of the difference in culture and perspective I’ll have in my house for two weeks. Maybe I’ll take him up to Salem and we’ll get a Northeast white witch’s potion to counteract the black witches’ spells at home.

I have a feeling this is gonna be a crazy trip!

MTuseni trip countdown


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Pressure Point

May 9, 2013 — Leave a comment

Mtu visa chatWhen Mtuseni popped onto WhatsApp today and I asked how he was doing, his response was “I’m not sure.” Lines like that always get my head and heart racing. Is his mom sick again? Is he sick? Did he fail his exams last week? Did he break his laptop again? I’ve learned that life with Mtuseni can be fraught with perils. So when I asked what that meant, he said there’s a lot of work and “the visa thing alone is pressure.”

It’s that time of year again: our annual attempt to get Mtuseni a B2 visa to come visit Boston during his winter break in July. We’ve been down this road three times before, and despite all our efforts and letters of support from congressmen and senators, it always ends in disappointment. I’ve tweaked the strategy a bit this time — but in the end it always comes down to his being able to convince some DMV-style clerk at the consulate that he has enough “strong ties” that he’ll return to South Africa. We’re betting that his being one term from finishing school –and his tuition being paid up for the year — will be enough to prove his case.

It’s so frustrating. If he was a white South African college student, he’d be approved in 60 seconds. John Kerry’s staff person who is helping me said a black girl in his exact circumstances would have a better chance. As a young, poor, black male, he just fits the profile of someone who’ll come into the US under false pretenses and disappear, driving a gypsy cab in the Bronx.

Mtuseni dreads the visa interview process and is intimidated by the heavy security to enter the US consulate in Johannesburg. And the rejection always hurts, though after the first couple times he’s tried to act stoic. It hurts me, too. But we keep trying. I have to.

It bothers me to see him so stressed about it. I sent him a long file of interview tips and detailed responses to review last week. And he has a mock interview on Tuesday to practice being “respectfully assertive.” This new balls-out preparation — along with his nervousness when “put on the spot” — is cranking up the pressure on him. I feel bad, but hopefully it will all be worth it when he’s here in late June, for his first trip to America.

I did get him calmed down and laughing by the end of our chat today. (And I have to take some credit for his Boston-style sarcastic wit, which I adore. He cracks me up.)

Send good energy his way next Thursday the 16th at 10 AM South Africa time (4 AM Eastern US time). I hope to wake up to a happy message from him that day. And then call my travel agent…


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