Every once in awhile, I’ll post something from my manuscript. Today, these words are from my memoir and will be linked in a synchroblog for the new book Inciting Incidents - won’t you take a look around their website?
They say every story begins with a shattering. There were moments where at the time I felt as if I experienced a porcelain-like fall. For ten years I claimed my trip to Haiti after high school was where I “lost my innocence” and in a few ways, this is true. I re-entered society that summer different – the American dream essentially ruined.
But I wasn’t shattered.
I had my heart broken in college by a boy who I thought I’d marry. He wrapped me tight around his finger and dragged me along for about another year after we broke up, and I think I cried more tears that year than my whole twenty-two years combined. But I found my anger for a brief moment that November, and tore through my dorm room throwing away everything his hands touched. I went to bed that night reeling, praying for God to make me new.
I woke up the next morning restored. My feelings for this boy who’d been my world just short of three years were gone. It’s hard to believe and even now I shake my head with wonder at the putting back together that happened overnight. Two months later, I found myself in the middle of the most healing relationship with one of my closest guy friends. He’d later ask me to marry him – twice, and I’d say yes – both times.
There’s smaller moments :: my husband planning a surprise party in which no one wished me a happy birthday or spoke to me, my principal yelling at me in front of my students, my husband losing his job, us ringing in the New Year crying on our living room floor because of a betrayal…
…but all of these didn’t break us in a way where who we were changed irrevocably.
For me, the fissures in my heart began to shake in March of 2010, when my husband and I found ourselves in the middle of a high school ministry for inner-city youth in Austin, Texas.
We stumbled into involvement – having promised ourselves we’d try and stay away from anything youth related for awhile after serving as sunday school teachers for middle school and high school at our local church before we moved to Austin. But, like it usually happens for us, God sort of picked us up and planted us regardless of what our plans were before.
As a member of our church’s story team, my first assignment was to cover the story of twelve inner city kids and (maybe, hopefully, prayerfully) begin a writing mentorship with them in storytelling. The plot :: a local teacher was taking a few of her students to the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. They held weekly meetings, students were required to find a mentor, and Jesus was spoken of often. I was practically giddy with excitement when I pulled up and parked next to the barbed wire fence of a nearby home on the east side – where their meetings took place.
I saw him as soon as I walked into the living room and found a seat in the corner. His headphones were in and he was writing furiously in a notebook. His head nodding with the beat, his hands moving in miniature tutting choreography, he was completely oblivious to the craziness around him. Two girls next to him were fighting over the length of their cheerleading skirts. One of them, motioning with her hand the length of her skirt vs. the length she wanted her skirt ended up bumping his arm. He looked up – if only for a moment – and shook his head before returning to his writing.
I smiled. I liked this kid. Focused. Calm. Intense. There were deep paradoxes visible just beneath the surface of his eyes.
I wanted to hear his story.
One boy hollered at me from the other side of the kitchen, his hands raised above his head – the local sign of acknowledgment. I turned and gave him a head nod and a smile and then returned my gaze back to this boy completely immersed in his words. I recognized him from the video I watched before coming over. I remembered his name – Devonte – and remembered he performed a spoken word that gave me chills for a solid five minutes after I finished the video. I didn’t even hesitate in immediately showing his words to all of my classes the next day.
“See this kid? Hear his words? His pain? This is vulnerability in writing. This is courage.”
I think I knew then. I think I knew the moment I saw him this was my son.
From that meeting, two things happened: Russ and I suddenly found ourselves signed up on this trip to Africa, and I began mentoring Devonte and another student – the boy who hollered at me across the living room – in writing. We’d meet weekly for both – team meetings and coffee shop tutorial sessions. Here, I developed a relationship with Devonte, learning his affinity toward dance and spoken word. I pulled him outside after a session and taped his spoken word “listen” – going home and adding in some music and posting it on youtube. Even then, the pride I felt in watching him do something he loved moved me in a way I wasn’t anticipating. So when I found out that a family tragedy pushed him into some decisions that prevented him from going to Africa, I was heartbroken. Slowly, he stopped showing up to tutorials and for a brief moment I thought I’d never see him again.
I knew better though. This 17 year old had positioned himself nice and cozy in a corner of my heart and there wouldn’t be any movement for awhile.
God never let me forget.
We ended up moving into that house where I met him. It was on the east side, closer to the ministry we found ourselves somehow leading with these kids. The moment we moved into this house was the precise moment I felt as if my life was on a trajectory of adventure. Late night tejano beats, roosters crowing in the morning, old recliners on porches for lounging in the summer sun – I loved it there. I felt home there. And these kids – these teenagers I traveled the world with just a few weeks prior – they were my home too. We shopped more for groceries those first few months than ever before, and for good reason :: having about ten teenagers in and out of your kitchen and pantry at least three times a week will do something to your steady food supply. We hosted game nights, movie nights, prayer nights and the weekly gathering of about thirty-seventy (and sometimes more) high schoolers complete with hip-hop, freestyle and hoops. Those nights the kids never left without hearing they were loved, we believed in them, and they better not screw up because baby, you’re better than that.
Throughout the summer, what was normally a simple burden for their well-being became a little heavier than I expected when I thought of Devonte. The closer we got to school starting, the more God would bring him to mind – so I did the only thing I knew – I prayed.
I prayed and left comments on his Facebook – making sure he knew I hadn’t forgotten about him. I wanted him to know I was still willing to listen. I told him we missed him, I told him I’d applied at his school to teach English, I told him I wanted to hear more of his writing…and I listened. I listened when I ran into him at two-a-days and he told me I was one of the only people he would listen to when it came to writing. I listened when he mentioned he wanted to talk to me about something. I listened when he gave me a side hug and whispered just low enough his buddies wouldn’t hear, “miss you guys.”
The first week of school, I felt like my heart collided with a freight train. Random students of mine, living in a completely different city, would ask about him off hand – remembering the video I showed them the previous year of his spoken word. And then, on a Sunday afternoon, my husband and I saw him walking down the street. Before, he lived fifteen minutes away. Now, he was meandering down the main thoroughfare by our house. Nothing – but everything – made sense. It was like I couldn’t get away.
This is how God works with me. I call it the faucet effect. Jon Mark McMillan mentions it as sinking in an ocean of grace. Whatever it is, everywhere I turned, Devonte stood waiting. It was only a matter of time before those fissures in my heart would crack and I would be undone.
It happened Labor Day Weekend.
He asked with little fanfare – more of a statement. A wish.
“Elora, I want you to be my mom.”
I sat there, my eyes bent in confusion. I waited for a few seconds, processing this boy sitting next to me on the stairs. I looked around my living room, the very spot I met him six months before. I thought of my life – how I’d gotten here - in this moment. This second. With a teenage boy sitting next to me asking me to be his mother.
“Your…mom?” I asked.
A smile played on his lips and he fidgeted with his phone. “….yeah. I don’t have a mom. She left me.” He looked at me then – square in the eyes. “I want you to be my mom.”
Something inside me shifted. I couldn’t ignore it. I stared at the side of his face – waiting to see if he’d turn to look at me again, but his gaze stayed locked on his phone. Eye-contact never lasted long with these kids, and when it happened, you took it and locked it away somewhere safe.
“I’ll be your mom, Devonte.”
At that moment, I’m absolutely certain you could hear the crash of the remnants of my heart falling all around me.