It was the paper that caught my eye. I’d thought it was stationary, had assumed it was store-bought, sheets packaged 100 to a box. Scattered on laminate countertop, the stationary’s intricate floral pattern held my gaze. I bent closer to look, picked up the sheet and held it up to my face. And that’s when I saw: the paper was not store-bought.
She has no Hallmark, no Target, no aisles stocked with vibrant papers and elegant designs. She has no fancy felt-tipped colored markers, no Sharpies, no 164-box of Crayola crayons. She’d drawn the blossoms by hand, petals penciled meticulously onto plain white sheets like magnolia blossoms on snow.
She’d drawn them just for us. A gift. And I almost didn’t notice.
I struggle to write letters to our girls in Africa. I dread it, in fact, because the gulf between Nebraska and Africa gapes so wide. And I don’t simply mean in miles.
What to write to girls who have so little? That we just returned from palm-lined beaches for our Christmas trip? That we are taking our young son and his five friends bowling for his birthday party? That we recently repainted our older son’s bedroom, bought him new curtains and a new comforter to replace the ones that were not-so-worn?
“Dear my lovely parents,” she writes in elaborate script. And my heart bleeds. I can’t even get through the greeting without eyes blurring.
She tells us about her studies and preparation for upcoming exams: “I hope to do wonders!” she writes, and I nod as I read through the blur. She shares a bit of good news: she’s been elected prefect of sports and games at her school, “a dream come true.” And always, always, she prays and loves us from afar.
"I always pray to God to give you a long life in this world and to help you with your daily activities," she writes. "And I pray to help my youngers in their studies." Her friends are praying too, and her siblings. They all pray for us – the ones who have virtually nothing pray for the ones who have so much.
I feel a sick pit in my gut.
By the time I finish the letter, fold it in half and in half again and slip it back into the wrinkled envelope, I’m wrecked. I’ve read the letter aloud to Brad, Noah and Rowan. The kids don’t get it. They half-listen, interrupt with inane questions, quickly move on to Legos and dominoes after I’m done reading. They simply don’t get it – they can’t possibly understand how little Neema and Mary have.
And then, the realization hits: I don’t get it either.
I can’t possibly relate to their lack, their loss, their lives. I can’t possibly understand the daily hardships they face. I can’t possibly relate to the depths of their faith and hope. I’m no better than my kids. I don’t see it either. I read the letter; tears spring to my eyes; I feel the guilt pang.
And then what?
I move on. I forget. I tuck their letters into the manila folder labeled “Neema and Mary.” I file the folder in the proper drawer and then shut the cabinet tight.
And so today I pray that God will open the eyes of my heart. I pray that he will give me eyes to see beyond paper and ink. I pray that he will give me a heart that feels more than the passing pang. And I pray that he gives me the courage to remember my daughters in Africa, and not just in the moments before I slide the file cabinet shut tight.
I pray that he engraves their stories, their very existence, forever on my heart.
“You show that you are a letter from Christ…written not in ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:3)