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Two Sides of 50

January 19, 2014 — 2 Comments
Michelle+Obama+birithday+AARP

Source: whitehouse.gov

An ongoing item in the news this month has been Michelle Obama’s birthday — noteworthy because she turns 50. She celebrated with an extra week of me-time in Hawaii after Christmas when Barack and the kids left. And she had a posh cocktail-and-dessert party in the White House. Happy, sad, or scary — it’s a milestone; might as well celebrate in style if you can.

I saw an article about celebrities turning 50 this year. It’s weird to think of people who in your mind are frozen in a certain younger time hitting the half-century mark. If they’re that old, how old am I? Rob Lowe is turning 50. I hated his smarmy character and Peter Pan pretty-boy face in St. Elmo’s Fire — and I still hate him. Sandra Bullock is gonna be 50. Wasn’t she just a young ingenue driving an out-of-control bus a couple months ago with Keanu Reeves (also 50 this year)? Add to the list Courteney Cox, Matt Dillon, Melissa Gilbert (isn’t she still in pigtails running across the prairie?!). Even Brad Pitt is hitting the Big 5-0 this year. Lately I’ve noticed his face looks as lined and tired as mine — and I’m four years older. Sweet!!

And in all this birthday talk of celebrities — and us regular people, too — is the idea that 50 is the new 30. It’s just the beginning of a wonderful new chapter in our amazing, privileged American lives, and we have decades ahead of us to fulfill dreams and create new ones. Hell, some guy in California just went skydiving for the first time on his 100 birthday! Maybe 50 is the new 15!

Mtuseni's FamilySomeone else turned 50 this month — Mtuseni’s mom, Nester. She’s a pretty, petite, gracious woman. I can’t wait to spend more time with her on my next visit to Johannesburg. She has probably asked god to bless me 10,000 times for all I’ve done for Mtuseni; she could not offer him the same on her meager salary. She has a hard life, raising three kids alone in a brick shack with no electricity or plumbing. Her oldest son Moses was killed by a car a few years ago. She’s had a few health scares lately — I think from stress and exhaustion — but there’s little money for doctors and certainly none for regular checkups. And of course the first 30 years of her life were spent under apartheid.

If 50 is the new 30 in the US, the calculus is a little different in South Africa. The average life span for a black woman in South Africa is 49. Does this mean Nester is living on borrowed time now, at age 50? When I pass the US male life expectancy of 77, I’m sure it’ll feel like the rest are lucky bonus years. How many bonus years does Nester have left? The number of people in Mtuseni’s community and circles who have died in the four years I’ve known him is shocking — and I haven’t heard about everyone, I’m sure.

So in addition to worrying about Mtuseni getting an internship, getting a job, and staying healthy — there’s always a small knot in the back of my mind worrying about Nester’s health. Because that precious family depends on her — and 50 has a different meaning in their corner of the world.


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Source: New York Times

I hate carnival rides. I’ve always said that my life keeps me off balance enough without having to pay for the privilege. So I haven’t been to a theme park in 25 years. Instead, I do things like mentoring a teenager living in abject poverty in a society that often seems determined to drag its feet on the path to progress. Disney and Six Flags ain’t got nothin’ on the hair-raising turns and dizzying drops in this ride.

Take the current loop… Mtuseni told me today that he got a job as a campus assistant at school. This is another high-profile gig that likely was made possible by his good work on the student committee this past year. (And it pays!)

When I went to Boston Media House in January, a group of campus assistants were helping new registrants, and one brought me in for my meeting with the school administrator. Back then I thought to myself, “Mtuseni’s gotta get one of these jobs.” A year later, mission accomplished. He said it’s for January and February, so he “still has to hustle for December,” as he put it. It’s good to see that he’s pressing to get work. Plus, the campus job is another feather in his cap, for his CV and for his LinkedIn profile. And he did this all on his own. I didn’t even know interviews were coming up!

So that’s the easy, breezy, giddy part of the carnival ride this week — but it’s only a flicker of light in what’s been a dark, unsettling tunnel…

Because Nester, Mtuseni’s mom, has been in hospital for a week. She was taken by ambulance from work last Wednesday. All Mtuseni told me is that she feels weak and is vomiting. He doesn’t seem to know much more; he hasn’t been aggressive in talking with the doctors. I think it’s partly a cultural thing, partly his own issues with authority. And fear and mistrust of doctors. Regardless, being in hospital days on end is never good — and it’s really not good in South Africa, where the system doesn’t roll out the red carpet for the poor. It makes me nervous that something’s really wrong. Nester’s had a rough year healthwise since June, and she’s at the age of average mortality for a woman in South Africa — and living near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

I try not to think about worst case scenarios, but it’s in the back of my mind this week. When I told Mtuseni he needs to be more proactive getting information from the doctors so he can plan, he snapped, “Plan what? Ain’t nobody dyin never, not my mom.” I had never mentioned the idea of death — only meant planning child care and finances for the week — but Mtuseni’s response clearly shows that it’s somewhere in his mind too.

A sweet campus ambassador gig.
Mom in hospital for a week, with no answers.
Up. Down. Around and around.

But I’m super proud of Mtuseni today, and how far my boy has come in three years. I’ll keep my mind focused on that for now… and pray for more light and love on this epic ride.


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Mtuseni is always stressing about school. One reason is because his perspective is that he’s in college for the whole family. He wants to get a good job and move his sister Bongeka and brother Musa out of the destructive influences of the settlement. He’s especially concerned about nine-year-old Bongeka. He said something last month that shocked me, partly because he doesn’t speak too often about larger family challenges…

It’s a bad thing growing in townships for a girl. Teenage pregnancy, rape, emotional abuse, environment. Just limits your thinkin’. It’s decaying when u got friends and people that think of u in a box.

My stomach and my heart both took a hit when he said this. What an awful perspective to carry about your little sister. When I met Bongeka in January, I immediately fell in love with her. She is so sweet and pretty. My hope is that once Mtuseni finishes school — and the Long-Distance Dad book about our experience is a best seller — I can provide support and  opportunities for Bongeka… and Musa… and other kids like them.

But Bongeka’s story is shared by millions of other girls around the world who face challenges that limit their opportunities. On October 11, 2012, the United Nations marks its first International Day of the Girl. The nonprofit 10×10 is one of many organizations embarking on a global campaign to educate and empower girls. Explore their site and learn more about how you or your organization can help girls like Bongeka realize a better life! We will all be richer for it.


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