The following essay was published in Chatelaine’s April 2015 issue.
A number of years ago I came to believe — I suspect after a period of binge-reading self-help books — that if you follow your heart, you cannot go wrong. That if you pursue your true passion, unseen, benevolent forces will propel you toward your goal, all the while holding you up on impossibly solid, puffy clouds.
So, in early 2009, my husband, Craig, and I gave up secure and well-paying jobs as Globe and Mail editors, sold our Hamilton, Ont., house (which we had spent three years and a lot of money renovating), stored its contents and moved to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. We intended to honour our respective pent-up passions: his to work as a full-time pilot, mine to write a long-planned novel.
This was not a carefully considered, calculated risk — it was the kind of risk that takes your breath away. We had no jobs waiting for us, no medical insurance, no relatives who would meet us at the airport and nowhere to live. Holding our daughters, Mia, 3, and Lily, 9 months, in our arms, we closed our eyes and leapt.
Almost immediately we were in free fall.
In late 2008, a few months before we set off on this journey, the global economy took a nosedive. The Tanzania-based safari outfits where my husband planned to work were hit hard, and he had little prospect of finding a job with them. But I had already taken a buyout package from the Globe and Mail; Craig had spent more than a year upgrading his pilot’s licence; our house was on the market. We felt powerless to stop the momentum.
Upon arrival we found an affordable hotel (which, in less charitable moods, I refer to as a dive) in a broken-down suburb of Dar es Salaam called Kariako. Mia, homesick and bored, graced us with three temper tantrums a day, and Lily woke four times a night, every night. My husband and I were exhausted and constantly snapping at each other. And we were hemorrhaging money.
Three weeks later, just as we were contemplating heading home, Craig found a job co-piloting a plane for a group of executives based in Dar es Salaam. It paid very, very little, but we were prepared to live on our savings so that Craig could accumulate hours as a pilot.
Within a few days we moved into a furnished two-bedroom apartment in Masaki, a suburb popular among expats. We rented a car and bought a desk and a crib from a roadside carpenter. The railing on one side of the crib folded down so that you could reach in to lift out the baby easily. A small latch held the railing in place. To my untrained eyes, the crib was well built, if not exactly CSA-approved.
A week later, Craig flew his bosses to Zambia. For the first time since moving to Africa, I was alone with the girls. As it does every evening in Dar es Salaam, the sun set shortly after 6 p.m. Lily was in the crib, standing against the railing. Mia asked to join her. I lifted her in and went to use the bathroom. I could see the girls through the open door. I turned my back to wash my hands. They were out of my sight for 15 seconds.
I heard a smack and emerged from the bathroom to see Lily lying face down on the concrete floor, screaming. I picked her up, frantically searching her face for signs of injury. The moment I noticed her forehead beginning to swell, she threw up.
“What happened?” I demanded, noticing for the first time that the crib railing was folded down.
“I opened it,” Mia said, pointing to the latch.
“Why?” I screamed. Lily’s forehead and right eyelid were rapidly changing colour. “Why would you do that?”
I didn’t know if there was a 911 service. I was not yet comfortable driving on the left side of the road and had never driven at night.
“Why?” I shouted again and again. I didn’t stop, even as Lily, wailing, threw up a second time, covering both of us in vomit, and Mia picked up her beloved stuffed monkey from the floor. “What were you thinking? How could you?”
I paused to catch my breath.
“I wanted to get Monkey,” Mia said softly, clutching him against her chest. A reasonable response, as though it were something I deserved. As though I weren’t insane.
I apologized to Mia. I explained I was frightened, that Lily’s fall wasn’t her fault. But I will never be able to take back my initial rage. And I’ll always wonder which version of her mother she believed.
The blame was not directed at her, anyway. It was, as blame tends to be in these instances, intended for me.
What have I done? What was I thinking?
I watched as Lily became listless and her eye swelled shut. I packed the girls into their car seats and drove into the night in search of a hospital I was vaguely certain I’d seen in the daytime. I knew, from earlier research, that the hospitals in Dar es Salaam had no facilities to handle neurosurgery. If Lily had a brain injury, we would have to medevac her out of the country, to Nairobi or Johannesburg. Both destinations were perilously far. This, too, I knew.
In Canada, I lived minutes from world-class hospitals.
What have I done? What was I thinking?
Africa is important to me. Like my father before me, I was born in a small town in southwestern Uganda. I took my first steps on its red earth and spoke my first words in its languages. In 1972, when I was three, dictator Idi Amin conducted an ethnic cleansing. South Asians, many of us from families that had lived there for generations, were given 90 days to leave Uganda. We had our homes confiscated, our bank accounts frozen.
I grew up, a seemingly ordinary child in southern Ontario, with a sense not merely that something had been lost but that something had been stolen from me. Unlike my parents and older relatives, I didn’t even have memories to cherish. I ached, for things tangible and intangible.
A writer by calling, I decided I would connect to a purloined past by writing a novel about it. I would create my own memories. I would write my own history.
So, in my 30s, and after many false starts, I organized my life to support my writing. I lived in a compact apartment in downtown Toronto, armed with a master’s degree in English literature, a writing nook and an evening job as a copy editor to pay the bills. But everything I produced in that writing nook rang false. It was as though I were an extraterrestrial trying to guess what humans felt. I dumped hundreds of thousands of words into my computer’s trash and began to taste a bitterness that poisoned more and more of my life. I needed to write this novel and I had no idea how to do it.
The births of my first and then my second child did nothing to temper the bitterness. Instead, my precious daughters introduced fear and desperation into my work. I could feel myself consumed by their constant needs. East Africa came to represent the missing piece of my life.
For Craig, East Africa afforded the opportunity to build flying hours with safari companies, all of whom use small planes. Uganda wasn’t an option because it has relatively few large safari outfits. But Tanzania, and the vast Serengeti Plain, offered many.
I could work on my novel and find myself while Craig flew airplanes over the savannah. The life I pictured was beautiful and absurdly romanticized. It was somewhere between Out of Africa and The English Patient: literary, poignant and sort of sepia-toned.
The reality, I would quickly learn, was messy and terrifying and bruising.
I found a hospital the night Lily fell. It was clean but looked more like a low-end office building than a medical facility. Nevertheless, after paying a fee of approximately $7, Lily and I were ushered in to see a doctor. He was young, African, his English impeccable. He explained that Lily appeared to have hit her forehead (fortunately, a well-protected part of her head) and that she likely vomited from the emotional distress. He told me to keep a lookout for signs of serious injury, but he strongly suspected she was all right.
She was. By the time Craig returned home five days later, Lily’s eye had opened again and the dark-purple skin had become pale yellow. The following week she showed no signs of having experienced any injury.
But I felt beaten up. Life wasn’t becoming easier. We had no friends or family for emotional support. Our bank account was emptying at an alarming rate. Everything — from buying groceries to fighting the overwhelming and chaotic traffic — was a challenge that left us physically and emotionally drained.
Despite the challenges, I forged a rhythm to the days. We enrolled Mia in a nursery school and hired a housekeeper to watch Lily. For four hours each morning in a roadside café, where I could plug in my laptop and drink spiced tea, I wrote.
Not long after Lily’s accident, Craig was riding his motorcycle home from the airplane hangar and was hit by a bus. He phoned to tell me about the accident and to assure me he was okay. A few hours later, I stood at the window and watched him negotiate the steps to our building, my chest heaving at the sight of his heavily bandaged foot, his crutches. It was a minor injury, but like Lily’s, it reminded me we didn’t have to be here. It didn’t have to be this hard.
One night, Craig and I had a terrible argument. I don’t know why I was directing my anger at him; he was doing the best he could. I walked out the door, down three flights of stairs and sat outside. I didn’t know what else to do. The night guard, standing at his post next to the gate, unabashedly watched me cry.
When I went back upstairs I offered my husband platitudes. I was so disgusted with myself that I could give him nothing more. I was now a lousy wife as well as a lousy mother.
The next day, though exhausted from the argument, I did what I did every morning: I wrote my novel. My life’s disorienting chaos had cracked something open inside me. Freed from a fear of failure because I had failed by every imaginable measure, I wrote with a power and authenticity I never had before. The story was flowing, the characters as real to me as I was to myself.
That afternoon, Mia cheered as Lily took her first, unsteady steps on the red, forgiving earth.
After 10 months, our money was mostly gone. I had written the book I wanted to write. It was time to return home. Back in Canada, I sold my manuscript. Where the Air Is Sweet was published last summer. Craig has returned to journalism, while flying part-time. The girls are settled in school. I am at work on a second novel.
I gave up every safety net I had. I put my family in unnecessary danger. I placed my marriage in a crucible. Yet despite falling and failing, I didn’t crash. I didn’t break into pieces.
I learned in those 10 months that falling is okay. And that failing is merely a matter of opinion. I noticed that in the space between my Hollywood-movie fantasies and my terror of hitting the ground, I was living.
Craig flew us in his company’s plane from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi once. About halfway through the flight, my pilot husband looked back at me and pointed to the window. Directly outside was Mount Kilimanjaro. From my seat in the clouds, I could see its summit.