That’s usually how I describe my hometown of Laguna Beach, Calif.
It’s a groovy artist’s colony and bonafide surfing town of about 22,000 souls where everybody seemingly knows everybody else and many of us don’t lock our front doors or cars. It’s a sun-drenched village on the Pacific coast, where the high school sports teams were known for years as “The Artists” (until changing it to the “Breakers,” as in a surf break, in recent years); where there is probably more macrame than there are guns per capita, and where the father of psychedelia, Timothy Leary, lived for a time before he got busted for pot possession the day after Christmas 1968 and split.
Laguna is a place where, generally speaking, it feels as if people don’t care how much money you have (although plenty of our neighbors have plenty of it), what you look like, or what you do, as long as you are kind and trying—in whatever way you can—to make the world a better place.
My husband, son, and I moved here from the suburbs of Chicago in the summer of 2009, drawn to this idyllic place—a progressive blue island in the sea of scarlet red Orange County — not just because of the weather and the vista (both beautiful), but because of the sense and kind of community it has been and is. That our son, who was in grammar school when we moved here, is a black child who was born and spent the first nine years of his life in Africa and would be among the 0.8 percent of the population in town who are black, gave us not a moment’s pause because of how we understood Laguna to be.
And when we arrived, sure enough our neighbors—the kind-hearted Hobbits of our Shire—greeted our little family with open arms.
My son wasn’t simply “tolerated” or even “accepted.” He was celebrated.
When our son left the house to ride his bike or go to the soccer pitch, or, as he got older, ventured down to the beach with his boogie or surf boards on his own, I didn’t worry. Or at least I didn’t worry in the way so many mothers of black children must worry every time they leave the house, and in some places, even when they’re still at home. I didn’t worry about my son’s physical safety, beyond a rogue wave or crossing Pacific Coast Highway barefoot to get to his favorite surf spot.
And when he became a teenager, we gave him more freedom and independence, and a few months ago when he earned his driver’s license and started driving the family car, my heart beat faster and I worried more than I had when he was little, but off he went without incident, insha’Allah, as our Muslim friends might say. We’ve taught him about keeping his hands on the wheel and in plain sight if ever he were stopped by police; how to ask permission to reach slowly for his wallet to fetch his license and registration. And when he’s not coming off the beach in town with his locks full of sand and salt water, we’ve asked him, please, not to wear his hoodie up.
It’s not fair. We know. And it shouldn’t matter. But it does. So please don’t wear it up. We’re just trying to keep you safe. It’s not you. It’s them. We don’t worry about you in Laguna because here everybody knows you. But out there …
And our son complies, without complaint. Because he is a good kid, respectful and kind, and he doesn’t want his mother to worry. Because as a tiny child, he lived alone on the streets of Blantyre, Malawi—one of the poorest cities in one of the poorest countries in the world—and he has a tremendous sense of self-preservation.
Because my son is wise beyond his years—beyond the years of most of us.
While he may be one of (statistically) perhaps nine African-American students in Laguna Beach High School’s 1,140 student body, much of the time he goes about life unmolested and unfettered, largely living the life of a typical American teenager.
And then something happens that reminds us, and not in the good way, that he is not typical. At least not here in Mayberry-by-the-Sea. At least not in the small minds of a few who have let stupidity, arrogance, entitlement, privilege, and hatred take root in their hearts.
On Dec. 27, 2016, shortly before 9 p.m., our family was just sitting down to eat dinner and watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with my brother, an Air Force pilot who had recently returned from a six-month deployment overseas fighting ISIS. This was the first chance he’d had to see his only nephew in more than a year. We watch the comedy classic together every year and laugh at all the same places. My brother wasn’t able to make it to us by Christmas, so we were a few days late and looking forward to tucking into our Thai food and watching Chevy Chase chew the scenery.
Then we heard something outside. Our front door was open, as it almost always is, and we heard shouting. It got louder and some of it sounded high-pitched. We thought perhaps someone was having a fight on the street. I worried it might have involved a woman. All of us adults began to move toward the front door. My husband got there first, just as we heard a thud, and screams that sounded like someone calling my son’s name, Vasco.
My husband, Maurice, turned in the threshold and came back into the house. “We just got punked,” he said, his face ashen. “Somebody just threw a watermelon at the house.”
“A WATERMELON?!” my brother and I said in concert. I immediately looked at my son, who sat silent in front of his Massaman curry. He wore an expression of pain and disbelief.
I called the police and took pictures of the melon shards that riddled our driveway, while my husband and brother talked to neighbors. Within 10 minutes, a police officer arrived at our home to take our statements. She was professional, apologetic, and thorough. When she left, my husband cleaned up the mess outside, while Vasco retreated to his room to write in his journal. He said he wanted to be left alone, which was unusual. He was angry in his quiet way, but he wasn’t scared. If that had been the perpetrators’ goal, they failed.
More than anything, right after the incident, my son’s heart was troubled.
“I don’t understand why anyone would hate me like that,” he said.
There were no words of explanation I could offer. I told him that I was sorry, that he was safe, and that I loved him. I wanted to scream and throw up, quaking with rage.
Not long after we put away the food—who could eat?—my husband mentioned that he thought he saw a sticker on a shard of melon. So I grabbed the fireplace tongs and dug around in the tall waste bin in the driveway until I found it. Maurice Googled the brand and discovered it was locally distributed. I phoned one of the supermarkets in town (we have three) and quickly learned that several boys from the high school (they were wearing various hoodies and other clothing bearing the Laguna Beach High School name and sports teams) had been there perhaps 15 minutes before 9 p.m. and bought a watermelon. A clerk at the store later recalled them discussing whether to buy one or two and when they settled on one, which one. They were blocking the aisle, she recalled—strapping athletes that they are—while they conferred and made their decision to go with just one melon, which one of them held aloft like a trophy.
All of this, we later discovered, was captured on store surveillance video, as was the boys getting into the pick-up truck outside the grocery store. A different security camera caught the truck pulling up outside our home not long after. It takes approximately seven minutes to drive from the store to our front door. They came straight here.
Police continued their investigation with vigor, led by a detective who is the first African-American police officer in the history of the Laguna Beach Police Department. They asked us to keep the incident quiet over the school break—it was the holidays, some folks were out of town, school wasn’t in session and school officials would need to be involved, too—until classes resumed. Then, the police could speak to all five of the boys identified via the video tapes at the same time. We told only a few close family members and friends who we trust to keep a secret, even a terrible one. And to his credit, so did our 17-year-old son, demonstrating the almost preternatural self-control, discipline, and character he has had from the moment we met him by the side of a dusty road in African nearly a decade ago.
On Jan. 9, police and school officials interviewed all five of the boys, some of whom we know, some not. And all five of the boys made statements implicating themselves, police and school officials told us. Through the boys’ statements, we learned more details of the racist incident.
Earlier on the night of Dec. 27, the five boys who are, just like our son, students and athletes at Laguna Beach High School, ate dinner together at a local restaurant and planned their evening. They drove to that grocery store where the video cameras captured them purchasing a watermelon and other items — including toilet paper, eggs, and an eggplant — to be used in their acts of vandalism and hate. They chanted our son’s name in unison as they drove up the hill and down the street to our house, where they stopped and called Vasco’s name in an apparent attempt to lure him outside. Then one of them hurled the watermelon across our driveway where it smashed into pieces and landed inches from our open front door.
You could see our Christmas tree clearly from the street where they stopped their car near the lip of our driveway long enough to hurl the heavy fruit and at least one expletive and racial epithet—“F— you, n—-er!”— before careening back up the hill back into the night like the cowards they are.
So much for Mayberry-by-the-Sea.
This is the part where I am supposed to say I was surprised by the attack on our home. But I can’t.
Shocked? Yes. Surprised? Sadly, no.
That’s not meant to be a commentary on the particular community where we live. Rather it reflects an awareness of both the current zeitgeist in our nation and its troubled and troubling history with race and racism.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time Vasco was targeted in a racist incident. It was the second. The first happened last spring in a classroom at the high school where three students made remarks to our son that were, he and we felt, racist. Words were exchanged. Video clips from Django Unchained and Captain Phillips were thrust in his face in a classroom where a substitute teacher had lost control. When that happened, we were outraged. The school handled it swiftly. Parents were notified and punishment was doled out internally.
We knew one of the boys—he and Vasco had been friends when they were in grade school but, as children do, had drifted apart when they hit adolescence. The other two were unfamiliar names and faces. We never heard from any of the parents offering apologies or anything else, which we thought was odd at the time. But life moved on quickly and so did we, figuring we had learned some hard lessons from the incident and so had the boys.
Sadly, we appear to have been wrong. Two of the boys from the incident last year also were involved in the incident on Dec. 27 at our home. And let me just call it what it was: A racist attack.
It also was an escalation from last year, when only words were exchanged. This time, the incident took place off campus. The boys planned, conspired, targeted, and came to our HOME. They lobbed a heavy object—with its obvious racial connotations—at the door, after unsuccessfully trying to lure our son outside. One of the boys involved in last year’s incident is the thug who yelled, “F — you, n —!” as they drove away like an elite suburban lynch mob.
History tells us that if left unchecked, this kind of behavior tends to continue to escalate. And while our son is physically unharmed, there are plenty of children in this country who look like him who are not — who have been harmed, who have been killed, who have been physically harassed, and beaten; who have been shot. And we want to do whatever we can to nip that kind of progression in the bud, name it for what it is, call it out, and try to stop it.
Some of the boys involved in carrying out those acts in December we know, and we know their parents. The parents we do know are not frothing-at-the-mouth bigots. We can’t imagine their sons learned racist ideas at home.
But they learned them somewhere.
Racists and bullies aren’t born. They are made.
I’m not going to lay the blame at the feet of any particular celebrity or public figure, candidate or politician, although the President-Elect’s public speech and actions are not doing a single thing to model the kind of behavior most of us would want our children to emulate. I agree wholeheartedly with Meryl Streep when she said in her Golden Globes speech the night before police interviewed the five boys in Laguna:
“This instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kinda gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.”
With our children in particular—even if you have people at home saying to them, “That is not how we behave; that’s wrong”—such blatant disrespect, incivility, and hatefulness permeates the air like sarin gas. We all breathe it.
We are blessed to live in a community where the prevailing culture says racist attitudes and behavior are neither acceptable nor tolerated. Despite what happened two days after Christmas, we still believe this to be true. The scores of neighbors who have reached out to us directly or indirectly and spoken out publicly to express support for our son and condemnation of the behavior of the five perpetrators are a testament to the prevalence of “higher angels” here.
But here’s the thing about racism that makes it so dangerous: It hides. It secretes itself behind wealth and privilege. Behind gates and reputations and influence. Behind bullies of all ages and threats spoken and unspoken.
The racism that lives here is the most pernicious kind.
I was born and reared in Connecticut, the granddaughter of immigrants from Ireland and Italy, the child of educators (my father spent nearly 50 years of his life teaching in one of the most prestigious public high schools in the nation.) Our family was solidly middle-class then as mine is today, but I always have been well acquainted with the rich and powerful. They were neighbors and friends. They still are.
The town where our family lived throughout my teen and college years, just a few miles away from Newtown, is fairly Norman Rockwellian in terms of New England ideals. And yet, when I was a junior in high school, just as my son is now, a neighbor in our quaint Connecticut town, became the “imperial wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan—the “top klansman” in the nation.
It was a fact so incongruous to the values and culture in which my brother and I grew up, that I thought it might be an apocryphal memory. It’s not. While his racist wizarding days have come and gone, contrary to my memory that he was “run out of town” when neighbors discovered his bigoted proclivities, the guy, now in his 80s, still lives in my childhood home town.
I guess that story telegraphs the most important point I’m trying to make in writing this: Racism is perhaps most dangerous, pernicious, and destructive where people assume it doesn’t abide.
I learned long ago that racism doesn’t stop on the southern side of the Mason-Dixon line. It doesn’t seem to care whether the company it keeps has a billion dollars or two cents, a PhD or a GED, a white collar, blue collar, or no collar at all. It’s alive and well on the East and West Coasts, just as it is in big cities and tiny villages all across these United States.
To think that it is not is to do a disservice to ourselves and, most importantly, to our children.
In the nearly three weeks since the racist incident at our home, a line from the little-seen Roland Joffé film There Be Dragons has run through my mind when I’ve considered the five boys and why they chose to do what they did:
“In a child’s heart many seeds are planted. You never know quite what will grow.”
All of us must be vigilant. When racism or any other kind of hatred rear their ugly heads, we must call them out, name them and shame them publicly. We must do our best to prevent their seeds from taking root and bearing ugly, horrifyingly strange fruit.
We have heard that a few of the boys involved in the watermelon incident are trying to parse their culpability. They were “just passengers.” They were “uncomfortable.” They “felt terrible” immediately afterward—and yet didn’t step up to admit what they’d done until confronted by very unhappy police detectives, school administrators, and coaches.
I have a lot of things I’d like to say to all the boys, but to those who believe they were somehow “less involved,” let me remind them of the words of British philosopher John Stuart Mill in his 1867 inaugural address at the University of St. Andrew’s:
“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”
“Don’t forget, Vash, you have to stand in your power and use your voice—only you can do that.”
That’s what the woman who takes great joy (as do we) in referring to herself as “Vasco’s Jewish grandmother” told him by phone from her home in Whitefish, Mont., last week.
A week or so before the watermelon landed on our doorstep, Ina Albert and Allen Secher (her husband, a rabbi, who is our son’s joy-filled “adopted Jewish grandfather”) became the targets of alt-right neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic hate groups who posted their names, likenesses, and contact information online. They were harassed, threatened, and called the most awful names.
Because they are Jewish.
Because they have spent a lifetime standing up for what is right, decent, and just. Because they insisted that in their very beautiful, very white, very privileged town in Montana love will always trump hate.
In 1962, as a young rabbi just out of seminary, Allen joined the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a Freedom Rider in Georgia. He was arrested in Albany, Georgia. Two years later in 1964, Dr. King called on rabbis to join him for a march in St. Augustine, Fla. Allen and 16 other rabbis headed to Florida, where, the day before he arrived, a protestor had been shot and killed. Allen ended up leading the march, hand-in-hand with a young black woman singing freedom songs.
Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day…
I wish everyone I love could have listened in on that phone call between my son and his chosen grandparents, encouraging each other to be brave and courageous, to stand up for what’s right because it’s not just about them. It’s about all of us. And if we don’t, who will?
While we all are angered and disgusted by what happened, and by some of the excuses still being offered privately by some of the perpetrators, we are not interested in retribution. We don’t want revenge.We are Christians who try daily not to horrify Jesus while we fulfill our duty as the hands and feet and voices and faces of God’s love in the world.
We would like to see the boys who did this held accountable for their actions. Moreover, we’d like to see hearts changed and lives transformed by the miracle of truth-and-reconciliation that our vicar, the Rev. Lester MacKenzie of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Laguna Beach—who, when he was the same age as our son, lived as a black person under the apartheid system in South Africa—has taught us so much about. Father MacKenzie is walking closely with Vasco and reminds us that, no matter how quickly many of us would like to rush to kumbaya, we can’t get to real reconciliation until we first have truth.
This is a teachable moment and we don’t want it to be squandered. So we are working closely with school and community leaders to make sure what happened isn’t swept under the rug. Again. We have heard from dozens of neighbors, parents, and students that this kind of thing happens here in Mayberry-by-the-Sea a lot more often than any of us would like to imagine or believe.
You probably would like to know, as so many people of good will and faith have asked in recent days, how Vasco has handled all of this?
Remarkably well. In fact, I’d like to be more like my son when I grow up.
Vasco has deep reserves of peace and calmness that are rare in any human, no matter age or life experience. He’s not perfect. He’s a kid. But he has navigated these fraught waters with characteristic grace and thoughtfulness.
He would like to have the chance to sit down with the five boys and ask them about the choices they made. “I want to know why they decided to do what they did, and why to me,” Vasco’s told us. “I want to understand what they were thinking.”
I don’t believe Vasco or any of us ever truly will “understand” the thought or lack thereof that fuels such horrendous behavior. While he may not get the answers to his questions now or ever, our son is fine. He is brave and mighty, as our prayer and blessing for him has been each day that he’s been our son and long before that.
I am so very proud of and grateful for Vasco’s heart. Being his mother is the greatest honor and privilege of my life.
Every day, though even more acutely on the day we celebrate the life of a man who gave his life so that—generations later—my son could enjoy freedoms he never got to see his own four children experience, Vasco gives me hope for our collective future.
And a child shall lead them…
FULL TRANSCRIPT OF THE INTERVIEW BETWEEN CATHLEEN FALSANI AND MAURICE POSSLEY
WITH TWO LOCAL REPORTERS IN LAGUNA BEACH, CALIF.,
REGARDING THE RACIST INCIDENT AT THEIR HOME ON 12/27/2016:
(The interview transpired between Cathleen, Maurice and two reporters from Laguna Beach media outlets in the parish offices of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and in the presence of the Rev. Lester MacKenzie, St. Mary’s priest in charge. The transcript is complete but the reporter’s names have been removed for the sake of privacy. The interview began with Maurice reading his statement, copies of the statement were given to them [and can be found HERE].
Then the conversation opened up to questions from the reporters.)
Reporter 1: “How has the school responded?”
Maurice Possley: “Without characterizing or without being specific, they are responding, I think, in a very appropriate manner, given that this did not happen on school property and on a break. There are measures that will and are being taken. But as you know, these are juveniles, although we know who they are. The disciplinary or what will become the disciplinary actions are something we will be aware of on a confidential basis because these are juveniles.
Reporter 1: “So the administrators have said there will be some punishment?”
Cathleen Falsani: “They are working through the repercussions.”
Maurice: “Let me just back up and say something about last spring.”
Cathleen: “OK. There are two boys who are involved in this who also were involved in an incident in a classroom with our son racially harassing him.”
Reporter 1: “Also reported?”
Cathleen: “Yes. Not to the police, but to the school [Laguna Beach High School]. And the school dealt with it in what we felt was an appropriate and swift manner. The two boys clearly did not learn much from that incident. Our son has had almost no contact with either one of them since. I mean, it’s a small high school. You see people. One of the boys was, when the boys were little —so in grammar school—they were very friendly. But I’m not friends with my fifth-grade best friend either. Kids grow apart. There was never a big falling out or anything. They move in different social circles, they play different sports.
Reporter 1: “OK.”
Cathleen: “So, that was very distressing to us to learn that those two boys were involved in this again. And, in fact, the one who threw the racial epithet was one of the two boys.”
Maurice: “And just to make it clear, the other of the two boys knew where we live. It’s not difficult to find out where people live, but when you see what the video [time stamp from video at the grocery store] says and they are up at our house before 9 o’clock”
Cathleen: “It takes seven minutes to drive from that grocery store to our front door. They came directly to our house.”
Maurice: “They didn’t waste any time.”
Reporter 2: “So it was premeditated, what they were going to do.”
Cathleen: “It is my understanding that the other boy who was involved in the incident last year, told the boy where our house was because he had spent time at our house a number of times before. So the fact that it was an escalation for at least two of these boys from what happened last year on school property words and some actions, though nothing physical—”
Reporter 2: “You’re talking about the previous incident? It was just verbal?”
Cathleen: “Largely, yes. [To go from last year’s incident] to coming to our home, premeditated, deciding who they were going to target, how they were going to target him, what kind of fruit to throw—and obviously there is a racial component to picking a watermelon that was not lost on them—that is an escalation that is troubling and is also a reason why we are speaking out publicly the way we are. Because history tells us that if left unchecked, these kinds of things tend to continue to escalate. And while our son is physically fine and unharmed, there are plenty of children in this country who look like him who are not—who have been harmed, who have been killed, who have been physically harassed, and beaten; who have been shot. And we want to do whatever we can to nip that kind of progression in the bud, name it for what it is, and call it out, and try to stop it.
“The fact that this happened in Laguna was, to me, shocking because that is not the quality of the character of this town. That has not been the experience we’ve had living here. We arrived with Vasco 7 ½ years ago only a few months after he arrived in this country.
Reporter 2: “And how old was he at the time?”
Cathleen: “He as nine.”
Reporter 2: “And today?”
Cathleen: “He is 17 today. The story of how we came to adopt him is well-documented. You can find lots of information and I can send you links online if that would be helpful. But he is a very special person. And when we arrived here in this very beautiful and very white place—and I grew up in Connecticut—
Reporter 2: “Equally white—
Cathleen: “Equally white although perhaps slightly less so in the part of Connecticut that I’m from, but still. He wasn’t—nobody wants to be ‘tolerated.’ I mean, you tolerate a bad had cold, you tolerate a boil on your butt. As a human you don’t want to be tolerated, you want to be loved. And this town embraced him and celebrated his arrival, and our family. And that has been, by and large, our experience the entire time we’ve lived here. So to have something like this happen was shocking.
Reporter 2: “Can you speculate to the reason, timing-wise? Is it because they’ve become teenagers? Or is it the political climate?”
Cathleen: “We have no idea, but we are all aware of whatever is happening in the zeitgeist right now. It’s a fairly dark moment for us, and we’re afraid that because people in power and in the public eye who are in positions where they are meant to be respected for whatever reason, whether they’re political or cultural or other reasons, have, of late especially, have been using a lot of language that is mocking, is hateful, is disrespectful. And I think with our children in particular, even if you have people at home saying to them, ‘That is not how we behave; that’s wrong,’ it’s in the air like sarin gas. We all breath it.
“And so who knows? With some of the boys who were involved in this, we know them and we know their parents. And I think it’s fair enough to say that for at least a few of the ones we know, that they would learn this at home?—I can’t fathom that. But we can’t control all the influences on our children’s lives, or what they consume in terms of traditional media, social media. We know there’s a problem with bullying in this country. We know there’s a problem with bullying at this his school. There’s a problem with bullying in most high schools.
“At the time I was in high school (and I’m in my 40s) we’ve done a lot as a society to combat bullying. We’re aware of it. Kids are trained early that it’s not acceptable. We talk about it. We didn’t talk about it [when I was in high school] apart from saying so-and-so is a bully. But it’s still there and it’s corrosive.
“So I don’t know. I don’t know why they did this or why they decided two days after Christmas was the right time for them to do this.”
Reporter 1: “But Cathleen, it’s more than this is bullying. It’s racial.”
Cathleen: “Oh no, make no mistake: this is a racially-motivated hate crime.”
Reporter 1: “The police have yet to say that. They will not say that.”
Cathleen: “No, they probably won’t until—“
Maurice: “I think what we can say is that it is a police matter and I believe—they’re limited because it’s still ongoing and they’re juveniles—but I expect that this will be referred to the district attorney’s office.”
Reporter 1: “They all are. The cops don’t prosecute.”
Maurice: “Well, police can make a decision not to send it over—“
Cathleen: “Or how to send it.”
Reporter 1: “There is a prosecutor who specializes in hate crimes. Has he been referred?”
Maurice: “I don’t know. The boys were just interviewed on Monday. If you take into account that before any kind of referral could be made, you’d have to do paperwork. So I don’t know the timing, but I’m very confident that it will be referred if not hand-walked [to the district attorney’s office.]
Reporter 2: “So they waited until the school year started on Monday?”
Maurice: “They asked us to keep it as quiet as possible because what they wanted to do was to get together with school officials when school was back in session. They knew, because we had told them, of the prior incident (and by ‘they’ I mean the prior bullies.) And people were on vacation. So they wanted to get together with school officials to coordinate it.”
Reporter 1: “What was the discipline of [the boys] in the first incident?”
Cathleen: We actually don’t know. They cannot tell us.
Reporter 1: “Was there discipline?”
Maurice: “We believe there was. This is my speculation: is that it was in-school suspension. But we don’t know that for sure.”
Reporter 1: “Alright. That’s the question.”
Cathleen: “The school district can’t tell us.”
Reporter 1: “Well, ya know, some of that, those suspensions, they does show up in the school board agenda, when there’s an expulsion or when there is a long suspension. They do become public records. They’re never identified.”
Cathleen: “But honestly, we don’t know.”
Reporter 1: “So you don’t know for sure whether that there was discipline?”
Cathleen: “We were told there was disciplinary action taken. We don’t know what it was.”
Reporter 1: “OK. So you were told this by [the LBHS vice principal]?”
Maurice: “It might have been [the vice principal]. If it wasn’t [the vice principal] maybe it was Vasco’s teacher or another administrator, but I’m not sure.”
Cathleen: “I’m fairly sure it was [the vice principal.]
Reporter 2: “Was they told to apologize or was there an attempt to apologize at that point?”
Cathleen: “Last year? I think it was—I mean they were told to stay away from him. But I recall that at least one of the boys asked if it would be OK for him to apologize and we said yes and he did. The other two didn’t, as far as we recall.
Reporter 1: “So there were three kids involved first incident?”
Cathleen: “Yes. And the boy who apologized last year was not involved in this incident this year. We also never heard from any of the parents, last year.”
Reporter 2: “Really? That stuns me.”
Cathleen: “This year, because, like I said, we know some of the parents, we have asked the police and the school to tell them [the parents] to please wait until we say it’s OK for them to approach us about anything. It’s just too soon. While we appreciate that there are people who immediately want to apologize and to ty to make amends, we’re self-caring for our family. This is not ‘We’re angry and we don’t want to talk to you,’ but sometimes when people come to apologize they need more from you than you need from them. And we just don’t have a whole lot of reserves to give to anybody else right now. We will.
We’re meeting in the offices of the church where we worship. We are people of faith. We are Christians (or at least we try to be Christians) and reconciliation and redemption are idea of our faith. As you can see the way we’re talking right now, we’re not spitting angry. Are we angry? You bet. But we’re not looking for revenge, we’re not looking for retribution, we’re not looking for the boys’ lives to be ruined in some fashion, we’re hoping, just as Maury said when he read [his statement], that this is a teachable moment, a learning moment for all of us. But some of these lessons are very painful. This has not been easy for our family. This has been painful for my child.
Reporter 2: “How is he doing?”
Cathleen: “Remarkably well. He is—I said to somebody yesterday, I’d like to be more like my son when I grow up. He has these deep reserves of peace and calmness and wisdom that are not only well beyond his years, they’re rare in any human. He’s not perfect. He’s a kid. But he has handled this with such grace and thoughtfulness.
Reporter 2: “What was your immediate reaction when it happened?”
Cathleen: “I called the police. Maury mentioned my brother, who is an Air Force pilot, was sitting in the living room. We had just ordered a curry and were sitting own to watch ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’ because we watch it every year and my brother hadn’t been here in time for Christmas. We have a sunken living room and we were sitting down there. And the front door is open because it’s always open. And Maury is the one who got up and went to the door just as the watermelon landed. He turned around and said, ‘We just got punked. Somebody through a watermelon.” And my brother and I immediately said, ‘A WATERMELON?!’ I immediately went for the phone. My brother immediately went outside to take a look at what had happened. Vasco was just sort of stunned. He knew that a watermelon meant something different than a roll of toilet paper being thrown at the house.
“He spent the first nine years of his life in Africa, so there are some thing—well, in fact there are many things about racism in this country that he didn’t absorb, thank God—so at some point later we had to explain to him the nuances of the racial connotation of the watermelon. That was heartbreaking.
“But he is—the night it happened, he went down to his room and wanted to be left alone, which is unusual. But he was writing in his journal. A little while later I went to check on him again and said, ‘Are you OK? Can I make you a hot chocolate? I’m so sorry, honey. Is there anything I can do?’ And he said, ‘I just don’t understand why anyone would hate me like this.’ Words a mother never wants to hear her kid say.
“So he, more than ‘What’s going to happen to them? What are the police doing? Are they going to be punished?’ —more than anything what we’ve heard him says is, “At some point I would like to speak to these boys and ask them why they did it.’ He doesn’t understand the thought processes that went behind the choices they made that night.
Maurice: “One of the things we’ve talked to him about is, What is a victim? And what we stressed is that he was a target, not a victim”
Cathleen: “He’s not a victim. Because a victim is something that you can almost absorb into your identity, and he’s not that.”
Maurice: “It can become like a cloak.”
Cathleen: “There is a fear that can come attached to that word that we don’t want him to feel. And we don’t think he does. He is a pretty brave boy. I know [Reporter 1] knows more about his story than [Repoter 2] does, but just the two-cent version: He was born in Malawi. Both of his biological parents died, we believe, by the time he was about five or six. He spent a considerable portion of his life living on the street as an orphan. And he was also born with a congenital heart defect and he was in very poor health for most of his life; and when we met him in 2007 when we happened to be traveling in Africa as journalists, he was dying. It’s a long story and I can send you some clips if you want to know more, but the fact that he survived long enough to make the trip to Chicago, where we lived before we moved here, to have heart surgery is a miracle. His doctors have all said he is an incredibly strong person physically. Even when he had the lung capacity of an end-stage emphysema patient he could still—I remember our son-in-law teaching him how to hit a baseball, and the second time he did (and this was before he had the heart surgery) he hit the ball over the roof of our garage in Chicago. He is a strong human being, and deeply, deeply kind.
“If you ask any of his friends at the high school, any of his friends, anyone who knows him here in Laguna beach, or who has known him throughout his life, one of the first things people say about my son—and I’m not just saying this because he’s my precious baby angel and he is—is that he is incredibly kind. And he’s not going to lash out in anger. And he thinks about things very deeply. He’s not a loud person. He’s got a great sense of humor, but he’s not the class clown. He’s not the one who’s going to be the loudest in the classroom. But he’s been even quieter than usual lately because he’s thinking.
Maurice: “For us, he’s lived with us for almost eight years, but we still learn things about him. It was interesting to see when the police came to the house with the video from the [grocery store] to ask him if he could identify any of the boys, and he was able to identify four of the five. And the detective said, as we were kind of hanging back, he asked [to Vasco]: ‘What do you want to happen?’ I kind of involuntarily twitched and my first reaction was thinking that it was kind of an unfair question and pressure. But to his credit, [Vasco] said: ‘I’m still processing this. It’s too early to talk about that.”
Reporter 1: “Hmm. That’s a very mature answer.”
Cathleen: “It was. And this was maybe two days after [the incident] happened. We didn’t coached him to say anything.”
Maurice: “The way it unfolded, he we were there but we were hanging back. We’d talked to him about what happened, obviously, but didn’t tell him what he should say or feel.”
Cathleen: “And because we wanted the cops to be able to do their jobs, we had to ask him and ourselves to not talk to people about it. So he went all of Christmas vacation as a 17-year-old boy and didn’t manage to blab to anybody about what happened. Toward the very end, he did tell his two closest friends, but not about the police. Just about what had happened. So he’s exhibited a herculean amount of self-control, far more than his mother has. He is an extraordinary person.
“We’re blessed to have a community of friends and chosen family for him, many of whom live here in town. He’s got two godfathers who live here in town and are wonderfully supportive. One of them has two boys who have come through the high school and are just a few years older [than Vasco.] [Father] Lester [MacKenzie] has been a great gift to our family and I would say a great gift to this town and he’s been remarkable in talking with Vasco. For many years we worshiped at Little Church by the Sea and [Pastor] Jeff Tacklind there is a dear, dear family friend and he’s been wonderful. And the friends we do have in town who know and who are starting to hear [about what happened], the support is—there aren’t quite words for how heartening and affirming it is, of many things but also of the quality and character of this town, which was a big part of why we moved here—to live in a town where people know each other’s names and care about each other. It feels like a community.
“Growing up outside New York City in Connecticut, I really didn’t have that. Living for years in Chicago I might have known one or two neighbors’ names. But living in a small town now, where, for better and for worse, we know each other’s names and business, has been, until just recently, has been a beautiful experience.
Maurice: “Can I just say that, if you don’t know much about my background, I couldn’t be characterized as a lifelong died-in-the-wool supporter of police. I work on and write about wrongful convictions and that often takes you into the territory of police who make mistakes, some intention and some not. I’ve never had any dealings with the police department here [before]. But the response to this has been not just reassuring. Detective Cornelius Ashton and his partner have been fantastic. I don’t know if you know you much about him but he is the first black police officer on the Laguna Beach Police Department. Ever. And he has been, just dealing with Vasco, superb.
Cathleen: “Both he and his partner have been amazing. I don’t think he’ll mind me saying this, but the first time Cornelius came to our house to talk to Vasco, I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. We’ve never done this before, so our living room is to levels—they sat up above and I sat down below listening. Cornelius was there for about 40 minutes and spent 99 percent of that time talking to Vasco about Vasco’s character and reputation in town, and what Cornelius knew of it when he started asking people questions about it and what he learned, and how, as a young African-American man how proud it made Cornelius to know that Vasco has that kind of character and reputation. Cornelius is a person of faith as are we, and he talked about God’s hand and call and essentially purpose in life, and what trials such as these can do to your character, and how they can be used as opportunities to make the world a better place, help the people around you. And none of this was putting any pressure on Vasco. He was encouraging him in a way that I couldn’t believe it was a cop talking to him. It was so far beyond the call of duty, and I mean that in the very best of ways. His primary concern, and we’ve talked with Cornelius now many times, is always for Vasco’s safety and wellbeing, holistically. How is he doing? How is he feeling? If he needs anything, any time, if he just wants to talk. ‘Think of me as a big brother.’ It’s been just beautiful.
“I was a reporter in Chicago, too. I dealt with police too, though not as often as my husband did. I’ve never had bad experiences, but I wouldn’t necessarily have considered myself a fan until now. They’ve been just fantastic. From start to finished.
Reporter 2: “You mentioned that knew four out of the five boys have been identified.”
Maurice and Cathleen: “No, he only recognized four out of the five boys from the videotape.”
Cathleen: “The fifth boy’s identity we learned on Monday and that’s when we realized it was one who had been involved in the incident last year and that was very upsetting. We had to tell Vasco who the fifth boy was.”
Reporter 1: “What about your description that they had gone out to eat together? Where did that information come from?”
Maurice: “We were given that information and that information emerged—“
Cathleen: “From interviews with police and school officials.”
Reporter 1: So the interviews with the police and school administrators? OK.
Maurice: “Yes. That’s the story that has emerged. Part of the story is so there’s a label on the watermelon and I Googled it and it’s a local farm. So who would buy from a local? …
Cathleen: “I called and talked to the [grocery store] night manager (because this happened close to 9 p.m.) and asked if they carried that brand of watermelon. Yes they did. Strange question, but does anyone remember anybody buying one today? Yes. In fact a group of boys had bought what not long before. And we shared that information with police and that’s how they got the video, inside and outside. And it’s very clear images.
Reporter 2: “Could you see, were they laughing and joking?”
Cathleen: “Yes. And carrying it above their heads. And it was from the video that we were able to identify and police saw and were able to identify that they all were wearing various items of athletic team [spirit wear] from the high school.
Reporter 1: “So what, did you think they had just come from a practice?”
Maurice: “No, no. They were wearing sweatshirts and shirts—I mean how bad of a criminal can you be if you’re basically advertising where you’re from?”
Reporter 1: All the LBHS spirit wear stuff? So they weren’t exactly hiding?
Cathleen: “No. But clearly unaware that they were being videotaped.”
Reporter 2: And clearly not thinking that what they were about to do was terrible or worth worrying about.
Maurice: That’s the question. I think they knew exactly what they were doing. They bought a watermelon and they threw it at the black kid’s house. They bought other stuff, which we believe, we don’t know, probably was used elsewhere, because no toilet paper was thrown at us or no eggs or no eggplant. So that’s concerning, but it’s not part of what we’re aware of. So when you take the trouble to do that, and you come straight to the [our] house, and you use the ‘n’ word and an obscenity, and two of them were previously involved in a racially-motivated incident on school grounds—there’s no doubt in my mind what the intent was. Now, they might not have thought it was in league with burning a cross, but it’s an act of hate based on race.”
Reporter 2: “It’s sad that they didn’t realize what they were doing was—“
Cathleen: “It’s shocking that they didn’t realize what they were doing was as bad as it was. So there are differing degrees of who was driving and who threw the thing and who said what.
“But a word about some of the passengers, if I might. You know, there’s culpability, legally and otherwise, on different levels. What keeps sticking in mind, knowing some of the boys, is that none of them stopped and said let me out of the car or said ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do this,’ or ‘This is a terrible idea’ or ‘I feel sick’ or make an excuse.”
Reporter 1: “How do you know that? How do you know that didn’t occur some place along the way?”
Maurice: “We assume that didn’t happens some place along the way because the story is they were all there.”
Reporter 1: “They were all there.”
Maurice: “The story is they were chanting his name as they drove up the hill.”
Cathleen: “And as they drove away.”
Reporter 1: “And how do you know that?”
Cathleen: “We were told that from police and school officials.”
Maurice: “What we have and what we’re telling you is based on what we’ve learned through our conversations with the police and school officials.
Reporter 1 or 2 (hard to tell which because there was cross-talk): I mean chanting his name as they drove toward your house.
Cathleen: What got our attention, because we live in a particularly quiet spot, and it was evening and the front door was open and we’re all talking—who got the Massaman curry?—and the movie is about to start and where is my papadam? And I said, ‘Is that someone yelling?’ It sounded as if someone was having a fight. And one of the voices, I remember, sounded kind of high pitched, which put me on alert—is a woman in trouble? — and that’s when [Maury] started to walk toward the door.
Maurice: I heard Vasco’s name called…
Cathleen (interrupting): And I didn’t hear Vasco’s name. My brother did. Vasco did hear his name called at some point. I just heard the yelling and that’s what brought us out there.
Maurice: “But it was stillt he tenor of ‘VASCOOOOO’, trying to call him out.
Cathleen: But louder and taunting to call him out. So but what we learned after police and school officials talked to all five boys, this is what was reported to them, they were chanting his name—‘VASCO! VASCO! VASCO! VASCO!’—as they drove up the hill, down our street, and then as they pulled away, which is when one of the boys yelled what he yelled, which we didn’t hear.
Reporter 2: “That gives me chills.”
Reporter 2: “I mean, that’s like a …”
Cathleen: “Lynch mob?”
Reporter 2: “There you go. I was going to say The Klan.”
Cathleen: “In a pick-up truck, too.”
Maurice: “It’s a mob mentality, too.”
Cathleen: “I mean it’s gross. All of it is gross. And as we’ve said, this was awful and jarring and shouldn’t have happened, but we are keenly aware that our son is safe and whole and at the high school right now, but there are a lot of parents in this country and elsewhere whose children aren’t, because they have been physically attacked, harassed, killed, because of the color of their skin.”
Maurice: “Again, to stress, we are sitting here now because we didn’t want this to become the subject of over-the-fence, back-alley, gossip and misinformation. I hate to say it but in a growing time of fake news, we didn’t want this to come out in dribs and drabs and in forms of misinformation. So we are here to say this is what happened, please be aware of it. Let’s do something to stop it.”
Cathleen: “Everyone needs to be vigilant.”
Maurice: “I believe—we’re both journalists. We believe sunshine is a great curer of ills if you feel that you’re subject to scrutiny.”
Cathleen: “But also know, you are the only media we’re talking to. I could have flipped a switch and had the entire media establishment descend on this town. We’re not interested in that.”
Reporter 2: Don’t you think it’s going to happen anyway?
Cathleen: “It might.”
Maurice: “And if it does, we will respond. But our instinct was—“
Cathleen: “But this is OUR town. And YOU’RE the media here. If you hadn’t called we probably wouldn’t had called to say hey let’s talk.”
Maurice: “If people are reaching out and it doesn’t take long for word to spread—“
Cathleen: “I mean, how long did it take? Half an afternoon before people started sending you emails about what they’d heard? So there we are.
Reporter 1: “So I mean, as much as you want this to be a teachable moment, don’t you also expect the backlash? You’re calling out five kids as racists.”
Cathleen: “Well, five kids drove up the street chanting my son’s name and threw a fucking watermelon at the front door of my house, excuse my French. I’m not calling them racists.”
Maurice: “They engaged a racist act. We’re not saying these kids are racists. They committed an act of hatred based on race.”
Cathleen: “Vasco has an uncle who lives abroad and is a very wise man. He sent him a note the other day talking about hating the act, abhorring the act, not forgiving or forgetting the act, but the perpetrator—at some point you have to get to forgving them. They’re not monsters. They’re 16-, 17-year-old boys who did something stupid. But it wasn’t just stupid. It was hateful.
“Maury and I are not afraid of standing up and saying this is what happen. The police and the district attorney’s office and the school district can call or categorize it or label it in whatever way they do. This is what happened. Labels don’t do much for me unless it’s a can of beans or an explosive device. I mean, for humans labels are whatever.
“What they did, in my mind, was clearly racist. Are they racist? I don’t think the answer to that question is particularly helpful. They’re boys.
In terms of people’s backlash? We’re not afraid of that and we’re not expecting that. There are always a few people who do not act as their best and highest selves. There are people who are going to be fearful. And make no mistake: there are racists in this town, there are racists everywhere. There are people who are motivated by fear and hate everywhere.
But we can’t let that dictate what we do when we know something is right. And to hide this, to slink away, to allow ourselves or our son to be intimidated, would be the wrongest lesson. And we couldn’t do that.
This wasn’t a decision we made lightly, by the way. How are we going to talk about this? Are we going to talk about this? What are we going to do?
Maurice: “The thing is, we didn’t choose this. We were targeted. And we decided we are going to respond.”
Cathleen: “And this was not a falling out at a party. It wasn’t a fisticuffs in a locker room after a game. This wasn’t somebody was dating somebody’s girlfriend. No. This was seemingly out of nowhere and they came to our home, two days after Christmas, and this is what they did. And you know, people reading this, make of it what you will, but this is what happened.
Reporter 2: It wasn’t at a party. This is more invasive.
Cathleen: Yes. When what happened at school last year happened, we were not happy. And that was the first time anything ‘racial’ had happened with Vasco. And as a white mother of a black child, I knew—I’m an eternal optimist, but I knew—at some point, something was going to happen. And in some ways I think we were really lucky that it took this long. I mean, it could have happened when he was 10 or 12 or 13. Anytime. He’s becoming a man now.
Reporter 2: I thought, how did those kids even know about the watermelon thing?
Cathleen: Isn’t that interesting? It’s kind of an old-timey thing. But I had a conversation with I won’t say whom, but with a friend as is my right in the privacy of her home, and her younger son overheard some of it and said, ‘Oh, I know all about watermelons.” His mom said, ‘You do?’ His mother grew up in the south and she said, ‘But we’ve never talked about it.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s all over social media lately about how all African Americans love watermelon.’ So I don’t know which social media that is or where that comes from.
Reporter 2: There have been some memes about President Obama and watermelon. I wouldn’t be surprised if those have gone viral.
Cathleen: “Lovely. So this young boy who has grown up in Laguna and, whose parents certainly wouldn’t teach him anything about that, says, ‘Oh I know all about that.’ He didn’t know why or what the connotations are, but he said it was ‘all over social media’ that ‘All African Americans are “addicted” to watermelon.’
Reporter 2: And that’s the watered-down version of it.
Cathleen: “Oh believe me, I know. We had to explain the nuances of it to Vasco a little later on.”
Reporter 2: “I was wondering what the origin of that depiction was.”
Cathleen: “One would hope it wasn’t something that any of the children learned at home. One would hope.”
[small section redacted for privacy of outside parties]
Reporter 1: “Would you be surprised to hear about racial incidents at the high school previously, not involving your son?”
Cathleen: “No. We’ve heard from some Laguna Beach High School graduates about incidents that we had not been aware of.
Maurice: “In all honesty, that played into our decision to not stay quiet about this. We have to speak out.”
Cathleen: [One young man] “urged us to do so. ‘You have to,” he said. ‘It’s been swept under the rug for far too long,’ he said. It’s not an epidemic but it has happened and he was aware of it.
Reporter 2: “How many African-American students are at the high school?”
Cathleen: “I’m not sure. We have to look that up.”++
Reporter 1: “How long ago did that student graduate?”
Maurice: “Four years ago.”
Reporter 1: “How many racial acts did he say he was aware of?”
Cathleen: “Three, I believe.”
Reporter 1: “So what does that suggest to you?”
Cathleen: “That we have a problem. And that we have a problem everywhere.”
Maurice: “Look at society. I spent most of my life living in Chicago, that has been and is to this day one of the most segregated cities, particularly north of the Mason Dixon line. Race drives so many conversations to this day across this country. We just had an African American as president for eight years. Did that change anything?
Cathleen: “Even he said in his final address last night, and I’m paraphrasing, but it wasn’t the magic pill some people thought it would be. But it is better. Some things are better than they were 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago.
Maurice: “But we don’t talk about it here. You don’t feel it here.”
Cathleen: “We don’t talk about it here because we don’t have very many children of color.
Maurice: “It’s ‘not an issue’ because it’s such a small minority here. A minority of a minority. And that’s driving this, our feelings about [what happened]. Just because it is whatever the number is—10, 12, 25—whatever it is out of 1,100 or whatever the enrollment is. I mean it’s more than just African-American kids who are minorities. There are kids from the Middle East, there are kids from Latin America—
Cathleen: “And we’ve heard stories about kids who are Middle Eastern or perceived to be Middle Eastern or perceived to be Muslim being harassed, about LGBTQ kids…
The idea to pretend that it’s not happening in Laguna because it’s Mayberry-by-the-Sea, and it’s so beautiful and we’re all so happy and we hold hands because we’re hippies—which is how I describe the place often and not really tongue-in-cheek because that’s how it feels a lot of the time.
To pretend it’s not happening here is delusional and really not helpful, and it lets it grow and fester. Is it the prevailing culture? No. But it does happen here and we need to fix it.”
Maurice: “And these are kids. They’re gonna learn. And some of them have not learned, apparently. We can only hope that the learning curve flattens out a little bit here.
Cathleen: “I started to talk about the kids who didn’t get out of the car that night. What’ the quote? All it takes for evil for flourish for good people to do nothing, to stay quiet. That’s what I keep thinking about with two boys in particular.
Maurice: “There’s a line the moving ‘Mississippi Burning’ where Gene Hackman, who’s the kind of the old Southern sheriff now in the FBI says, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’ and Willem Dafoe, who’s the straight-laced guy, says, ‘If we don’t, who will?’ So that’s’ something to keep in mind, certainly in my mind. If we don’t, who will?’ So it’s something to keep in mind. It’s certainly in my mind. If we don’t, who will?
Cathleen: And obviously we are speaking to you today because Vasco is a minor. He can speak for himself, but we’d rather he not, that’s also his choice right now. He knows we’re doing this and we have his support, and he knows that it’s important to not hide it. And people have asked what might be helpful for him—from kids to grownups to folks on the other side of the world. Just expressing your support for him.
Maurice: “He said, ‘What do I say when people come up and say they’re so sorry this happened?’ and we told him, ‘Just say thank you.’ People want to express their support for you. They aren’t in your shoes but they feel badly that this would happen to you or happen at your home, and they want to self-identify with you. And all you have to do is say thank you.
Cathleen: “We are expecting that we will hear all kinds of support and that, at some point, we might be able to channel that support into some kind of action in our town. Whether it’s something that originates at the high school with other students…We’re hoping this isn’t the end of the conversation. Yes, it’s a terrible thing that happened and we’re exposing it to the light because that’s’ what you do. And at some point perhaps this will transition into a way to make sustainable change.
Maurice: “Kids, people need to understand that they have a voice. They can have a voice. Some think, ‘Well, it doesn’t make a difference what I say.’ It does. It does.
++[Ed note: The latest publicly available demographics say the black population of the LBHS student body is about 0.8 percent of 1140 students. So about nine.]
In 2009 and 2010, Dick Gordon, host of the late, great “The Story” program on public radio, interviewed God Girl about how she first met the miraculous and magical boy Vasco in Malawi in 2007, how he came to Chicago for life-saving heart surgery in 2009, and then how Vasco became GG’s son by adoption in 2010.
It’s the best story we know. An astounding tale of crazy leaps of faith, twists and turns, divine reversals, and the power of “why not?”— with God’s fingerprints all over it. “The Story” went off the air when Dick retired in 2013 and the links to the episodes online went dead. We thought the recordings were lost forever.
But then a few weeks ago, a friend of Cathleen’s, the author and all-around mensch Melanie DeJonge, found the radio recordings downloaded to one of her old external hard drives and sent them on to us.
Bless you, Melanie!
So here they are, back by popular demand, Vasco’s story from American Public Media’s “The Story with Dick Gordon”:
Part One: Vasco’s Heart
Part Two: Vasco’s Heart (And Update)
Vasco’s story here begins at the 12:35 mark
Happy Birthday again, Daddy.
I love you.
That is the word for “dragonfly” in Chichewa, my son Vasco’s native language. It was one of the first words Vasco taught me when he came from his native Malawi to live with us while he underwent lifesaving heart surgery in 2009.
For as long as I can remember, dragonflies have fascinated me. They look so otherworldly, like nymphs or sprites or the tiny vessels fairies might ride when they travel long distances—incandescent, filigreed wings holding colorful, twig-like bodies in flight.
When I was a child, August meant it was time for a long visit to my Aunt Patti’s house in Southampton, Long Island. August at Patti’s—she was an artist, a world traveler, a free spirit, and my mother’s best friend—also meant dragonflies. Tons of them in every shade of blue, green, purple, and red. Mesmerized, I could watch them for hours as they danced across her garden and traveled toward the nearby marsh.
It wasn’t simply the beauty of their design and the whimsy of their appearance that captivated me. Dragonflies hold a kind of magical quality for me–like envoys from the other side that cross through the thin places in the veil that separates what the Celts called the “now” from the “more,” carrying a message that makes us pay attention to our lives.
Dragonflies tend to turn up at times in my life that I would describe as liminal—threshold moments when you stand in the doorway between what your life was before and what it will be. A pastor friend of mine talks about how God reaches God’s hands into the world–through that gossamer veil—to touch us directly.
Dragonflies have a way of turning up at threshold moments in my life—like God’s early warning system for amazing grace
Sometimes it’s a gentle tap on the shoulder. Other times it’s a slap across the face. Sometimes God just peeks God’s face through the curtain and … nods. You could call that grace. I do.
That’s why I have a tattoo on my left wrist to remind me lest I forget. It is a black stenciled dragonfly on the bottom, its wings fashioned from Celtic spirals, and on top of my wrist, a single spiral and one word: Grace.
Dragonflies have a way of turning up at threshold moments in my life—like God’s early warning system for amazing grace. One of my best friends, Jen, calls such appearances “God nods.” She swears I get more of them than anyone else she knows. I don’t know if that’s true, but lately I have been spotting more than a few dragonflies at unlikely times and places.
In April, while I was visiting Jen and her family outside Chicago, I learned that my beloved book editor was leaving the publishing house that makes my books. I was mid-manuscript at the time and the news was upsetting. I panicked and then moped around in a funk of resentment and anxiety for the rest of the day.
Late in the afternoon, three of Jen’s four kids came running through their front door, breathless and yelling for me. “Cath-a-leen!” Maisy hollered. “You have to see what we found. You won’t believe it!”
Jen’s son, Ian, gently opened his almost-man-sized hands to reveal a large, perfectly formed dragonfly the exact shades of azure, turquoise, and spring green as the one on the cover of a book I’d written a few years before–a book about grace. This dragonfly was dead but seemed to have met a peaceful end, legs folded gently beneath its body almost in lotus position.
“See?” Jen said. “God nod.”
A few weeks later, my family traveled to Malawi to complete Vasco’s legal adoption. As we are one of the first families in the world (after Madonna, bless her heart) to adopt internationally from the tiny African nation, the outcome was terrifyingly unpredictable. The day we were summoned to Malawi’s high court to hear the judge’s ruling, I waited nervously, pacing and praying and trying not to have a panic attack.
That’s when I saw them. Two tombolombo. Powder blue and black, hovering gracefully like a pair of sentries waiting with me.
God had sent yet another nod—a tiny winged advance team to reassure me that it was going to be fine.
And it was.
Vasco is legally and forever my son. He’s also terrific at spotting dragonflies.
This column originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of Sojourners Magazine.
The first time we visited Kondanani was the afternoon following our successful adoption hearing in Blantyre. We dropped Vasco off at our host’s house to play Wii and XBox with the boys to his heart’s content, picked up a golden retriever puppy that the family was giving to orphanage and all piled into the SUV – with Rob and Francisco and their equipment – so that we could make it to the children’s village before the crew ran out of enough light to film.
We go there at tea time (5 p.m. every day Annie hosts a tea/coffee and sweets roundtable with her staff), visited for a bit, had some truly awesome Mzuzu coffee and then went to one of the children’s wards, beginning with the infants. Then on to the two-year olds and that’s where all hell broke loose.
It was potty time. More than a dozen toddlers were in an small room adjacent to their sleeping room with the amais. Each was seated on a tiny, brightly-colored plastic potty. As soon as they saw Rob and Francisco, one instigator seated under the sink, began to scream with terror. And then another started. And then another and another and another. Until almost all of them were crying and screaming and trying to pee.
My favorite were two brave little soldiers, one crying and one not, who kept scooting closer and closer to big scary Francisco as he filmed.
It was such a ridiculous sight it made us all laugh. All of us except for, of course, the two longsuffering amais who were left with weeping pee-ers on their hands.
I whipped out my iPhone toward the end just to capture a bit of the moment for posterity.
Kondanani Children’s Village is the most beautiful, best-run and nicest orphanage in all of Malawi. More than 150 children live there presently, on a campus of rolling rural land, huge gardens, lovely brick dormitories and learning centers and under the watchful care of the loving, fiercely protective Dutch lioness Annie and her conscientious staff. Kondanani takes in only infants and has committed to raising them until they are married. Not just 18. Not just through college or whatever. Until they are married. Like a regular African family. It’s an extraordinary place. An extraordinary home.
This is where Madonna found her daughter Chifundo “Mercy” James.
Mercy was in good hands there, but is in even better hands now in her forever family in America – amai Madonna, sister Lourdes, and brothers Rocco and David (who is also from Malawi, of course.) We spent many hours visiting Kondanani, about a 45 minute drive from Blantyre. Annie is amazing. The children are beautiful. The one to the left there is Grace.
Yeah. Grace. I know.
I’ll be writing more about Annie and Kondanani in the future but wanted to share some of the photographs I took on our last visit, the day before we returned to the United States. It was the only truly yucky rainy day we had in Malawi (the rainy season had just passed.) But Kondanani still was full of light and love.
As you can see …
And their outfits made me think of the Apostles (and Jesus himself) in the movie “Godspell.”
Preee-pare ye, the way of the Lord …
|This one was named “Bertha,” like the Grateful Dead song.|
The family tells one version of the truth about how their desperately sick, orphaned nephew ended up begging on the streets. Vasco has another. We read between the lines and have our own idea of what happened and it’s not pretty. It’s maddening. As his mother, it makes me want to thrash a few people. Some of them are in the video below.
This is some footage I shot on my iPhone (before AT&T turned it off, bastardos) while Rob Feldman (the co-producer of the documentary film being made, “Vasco’s Heart,” interviewed the family at length on camera while Francisco (we love him so) shot beautiful footage, much prettier than this version. But this was easier to upload and … well … you get the story.
The fact that Vasco lived through all of this with such an incredibly sweet spirit intact is part of the miracle of his life.
Seated between Rob and Vasco’s uncle, Mavuto, in the video is James Phiri, one of the many angels God dropped into our lives on our journey to becoming a family, was our luck-of-the-draw (if you believe in such things – I don’t) driver hired along with our rental SUV. James is a beautiful man of faith and, among many talents and blessings, he speaks Yao, which turns out to be the tribal language that the older members of Vasco’s extended family are most comfortable conversing in, rather than the national language, Chichewa, or English. He was our translator, guide, driver, protector and really became a member of our family through the month he was with us. He was unflappable, deeply cool – like Dusty Baker cool. We had a car accident one day and he was more concerned about the woman who blindsided us and how she’d be able to pay for her repairs than he was for the rental vehicle for which he was responsible. He got pulled over in a speed trap on another occasion and just laughed. This man is an angel. We consider him a Big Brother to Vasco and we miss him terribly. So grateful for this man’s grace and elegance and generosity of spirit.
Earlier this week, after a month-long sojourn in Malawi, my family arrived home in California with our newly-adopted son, Vasco Fitzmaurice Mark David Possley.
His adoption would not have been possible without you and the bold actions you took in Malawi last year when its High Court denied you the adoption of your precious daughter, Chifundo “Mercy” James.
You didn’t take no for an answer.
You didn’t buy their argument that allowing your adoption of Mercy would encourage human trafficking. You didn’t agree when they said Mercy would be fine at an orphanage and without a loving family from a foreign land.
When you appealed that myopic ruling and then won approval of Mercy’s adoption from the Malawi court of appeals, you effectively made case law that kicked open the door for other American families to adopt some of the 1 million children orphaned by HIV, AIDS and other diseases (including a grotesque indifference to the suffering of the most vulnerable among us).
Your actions paved the way for families to be created across thousands of miles, through forests of diplomatic red tape and seemingly unbridgeable cultural chasms.
My husband and I met Vasco in October 2007 while we were traveling in Africa on holiday. A few years earlier, we had made a donation to an organization in Blantyre that works with some of the 60,000 children who live on the streets of Malawi — the vast majority of them, as you are well aware, AIDS orphans.
We were on the ground in Malawi for about 48 hours and spent most of our first day visiting with a few dozen teenaged boys — “street kids,” in the parlance of Malawi — at a drop-in center in Limbe.
On our way back to the motel in Blantyre, our guide asked if we would mind making one more stop to visit a street kid that, in his words, was “just kind of special.”
We drove on the road to the airport to Blantyre’s rural Chileka district, clambered down a muddy embankment and saw a clutch of mud-and-waddle huts. Our guide yelled something and we heard a squeaky boy’s voice shout something back — “I’m coming!” in Chichewa, his native language.
Out came this little fellow Vasco — tiny, skinny — maybe 35 pounds soaking wet — with huge eyes and a smile that would split your heart in two. He was about eight years old but was the size of a five-year-old American child.
While we visited with Vasco, who had lived alone on the streets of Blantyre for months after his mother and father had died, he sat on my lap. When he pressed his bony back into my chest, his heart was beating so violently it was shaking his little body and moving mine. I took a good look at him and noticed that he was sweating and struggling to catch his breath even though he’d been sleeping when we arrived and not running or playing.
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked.
“He has a hole in his heart,” we were told.
With the time we had left in Malawi, my husband and I tried to get him medical attention, but there was none to be had. When we left to continue our holiday in East Africa (which we had won in a raffle — no, really), we stopped to see Vasco one last time. We hugged him close, told him that we loved him, and then we climbed back into the van and headed to the airport.
As the plane took off and I looked down at the African city, I thought of the hundreds of times I’d taken off from American airports, and I knew that if Vasco were the poorest child in the U.S. — even a homeless orphan — he’d be in the hospital that night receiving the care he needed. I began to cry and then I began to wail, making a scene on the flight all the way back to Kenya.
My tears were fueled by righteous anger knowing that Vasco probably would die a sinfully early death because he was poor and African. That is the worst kind of injustice.
I felt impotent, helpless. Then I remembered something our family friend Bono had told me a few years earlier: “We can’t do everything, Cathleen, but what we can do we must do.”
I couldn’t fix his heart myself, but I could tell his story.
When we returned to Chicago, where we lived at the time, I told Vasco’s story in the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times, where I was a columnist. The piece ran on a Friday morning. By Saturday afternoon, three hospitals had offered to fix Vasco’s heart for free if we could just get him to Chicago.
It took 18 months to get him to there, but on April 29, 2009, Vasco arrived in Chicago. Two weeks later, while we were in church on Mother’s Day (because God has a sense of occasion, apparently) he spiked a fever. The next day, doctors determined that he was suffering from malaria.
The infection, we learned, has a two-week incubation period. Vasco had had malaria twice before in Malawi and it nearly killed him. If he had spiked the fever before he left Blantyre, he would not have been able to travel and we doubt he’d be alive today.
As Vasco recuperated from malaria and a host of other parasites he’d brought with him from Malawi, surgery was pushed back for more than a month. He was staying with us in our home outside Chicago and during that time, we got to know Vasco better. We saw the amazing person that he is — incredibly bright and curious about the world, deeply intuitive and compassionate, soulful, grounded and so very funny.
We also learned more about what his life would be like once he returned to Malawi with his repaired heart.
That had always been the plan. Get him to Chicago, fix his heart, and send him home. It didn’t matter that we had fallen in love with him, or that he could really use a family, parents, consistent love and security. International adoption, we were told, was all but impossible.
Vasco underwent successful open-heart surgery on June 10, 2009 at Hope Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn, Illinois, just outside Chicago.
Two days later, as he was about to be moved out of intensive care and into a regular hospital room, we heard the news that the Malawi High Court of Appeal had overturned the lower court decision and approved your adoption of Mercy.
Legal precedent! Case law! A miracle!
A door swung open and a way had been made for us to become a legal family. It was a mitzvah created by many human (and divine) hands, including yours.
Shortly after Vasco was released from the hospital, we moved to Laguna Beach, California and began the process of adopting him. First we became his legal guardians in Malawi, then came months of bureaucratic paperwork on both sides of the world. We had a home study done, got fingerprinted by the FBI, collected recommendations from friends, family, our pastor, our rabbi. You know the drill.
Meanwhile, Vasco absolutely flourished. He’s grown more than six inches and put on more than 30 pounds. He enrolled in school for the first time and excelled beyond anyone’s expectations, learning English and how to read in record time, playing soccer on the town’s championship team, learning to swim and ride a bike, to snow board, skate board and even to surf.
By early spring, everything was in place. We were just waiting for a court date in Malawi to make it legal.
Late last month, the three of us — Vasco, my husband and I — returned to Malawi for our adoption hearing. We prayed to God for favor and mercy and tried to not to panic.
Hearts in our throats, on June 1 we walked into the chambers of Judge John Chirwa at the High Court in Blantyre. The judge began reading his ruling and about half way through I began to cry tears of joy when Chirwa announced that he was legally bound by decision in the “Mercy James case” in making his ruling and, therefore, he approved our adoption.
Because of Mercy.
Because of you.
Vasco now has a forever family. I have a beautiful, healthy, happy son — my first and only child. We are blessed and grateful beyond words. To God and to you.
The blessing you helped create will not stop with us. We tell Vasco’s story to anyone who will listen, and we are creating a road map to guide other American families on their sacred journeys to adopt Malawian children who need them desperately.
From the bottom of this new mother’s heart, thank you.
For your generosity of heart and spirit, as well as your perseverance, bravery and chutzpah — just like the biblical Queen Esther whose name you’ve aptly taken as one of your own — thank you.
You have been a mighty vessel of chisomo — grace — in our lives. And in my heart, you will always be Vasco’s fairy godmother.
God bless you, Madonna.
Zikomo kwambiri, amai.
Three days, three continents, nearly 30 hours in the air and 3 1/2 hours (inexplicably) waiting in the immigration holding pen at LAX, we arrived home late Tuesday in a stretch limo (sent by Uncle Veen who’s in Japan at the moment) accompanied by Uncle Dave (who met us at the arrivals gate at LAX – we’d told Vasco that as soon as he saw Uncle Dave, that meant he was an official U.S. citizen and so when he spotted Burchi in the crowd, he took off running at top speed and jumped into his uncle’s arms) and were greeted by most of closest friends in Laguna Beach who were standing in our driveway with flowers, balloons and champagne.
Maury and I have never been more surprised in our lives. The fact that Uncle Dave could keep that a secret for the whole ride home from LAX? Miraculous.
Inside the house were cards, notes, a gorgeous, fully blooming orchid from the Tacklinds and lots of food. Auntie Lisa had stocked the fridge with healthy favorites and Auntie Katie had made us a delicious big pan of chicken parmesan. Pastor Brad and Auntie Margy had shared Brad’s birthday cake with us (yum! had it for breakfast the next day) and Uncle Joel had left three boxes of Rootbeer XS, our favorite. Aunt Sarah and cousin Cora gave Vasco a beautiful American flag, which will hang next to his Malawi flag in his bedroom. So thankful for the thoughtfulness of our dearest friends.
Among the crowd of our favorite people – including three of our pastors (we love you Clarke, Brad and JeffyJeff!!!) – was a very kind reporter from NBC news in Los Angeles, Conan Nolan. He’s a dear friend of Keiko and Rob Feldman, the filmmakers who are making a feature-length documentary about Vasco’s story. Rob and photographer Francisco Raposo were with us in Malawi for the first two weeks …
We were so knackered and out of it after the month in Malawi and the loooooooong trip home that we barely made sense to ourselves, nevermind anyone else (particularly a reporter.) So Conan very kindly offered to return the next day. We spent a few hours with him and his crew on Wednesday and a short story appeared on KNBC news that evening.
Here’s the link to Conan’s report on Wednesday: “BRINGING VASCO HOME”
We’re told Conan will have a longer version of Vasco’s story on his news show on KNBC in Los Angeles this Sunday morning that will include some of Rob and Francisco’s footage from Malawi.
We’ll share that link, etc. when we have it.
I’ll also be going back to load more photos and video from earlier in our trip that I couldn’t load from Malawi, so please check back in with some of the older posts as you can. Unfortunately, my MacBook Pro laptop died about a week ago and is in the shop getting fixed. On it is the only copy of the video of Vasco first seeing his extended family again in Blantyre. As soon as that’s back from the fixin’ place, I’ll load those powerful videos.
We’ve now made this blog public, so please feel free to share it with anyone you like.
Again, thank you so much for your support, prayers, humor, outrage, generosity, friendship and love to us and on our behalf. We love you all very much.
As I’m writing this, a young buck deer is nibbling grass outside my office window.
It’s really really good to be home.
Apart from my beautiful son, my very favorite souvenir from Africa was this hand-made rag doll of Archbishop Desmund Tutu that I bought at the Jo-burg airport.
I love Tutu so.
That crazy, infectious laugh.
His beautiful spirit.
His circa-1980 spectacles.
The doll is a Zuko Doll – the product of what has evolved from the Masiphatisane Sewing Group begun in SA’s shack towns in the 1980s. I did a bit of reading about them when I got home and I loved this part of their story in particular:
When we presented our dolls to the Bishop himself, the only thing he wanted changed was that the doll had to have underwear. “NO this won’t do…. the doll must have underpants because I wear underpants.”
My Archbishop Tutu doll does, in fact, have underwear. Light blue jockey shorts, complete with white elastic waist band. Love. It.
As some of you know, I have the word UBUNTU tattooed on my back. I learned that word from Bono who learned it from the archbishop.
Tutu explains it this way:
“One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.
We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”
Our first stopover on our journey home to California from Malawi was in Johannesburg, where the sound of FIFA vuvuzuelas filled the air almost everywhere we went in the city that is home to two of my heroes: Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The one place we couldn’t hear the raucous enthusiasm of soccer/football/futbal! fans from around the world was at the Hector Pieterson memorial in Soweto.
Most of us probably don’t know Pieterson’s story, but it is a horribly sad and powerful moment in the history not only of South Africa and the struggle to end apartheid there, but of identity, the sacredness of all life, race relations and justice worldwide.
Our friend Peter, a Brit who lived in Malawi for a decade and now has lived in South Africa for the last several years, took us on a driving tour of Soweto, a formerly all-black township (although still almost entirely black) under Apartheid that borders the city of Johannesburg (of which it is now, post-apartheid, an official part) and the large gold mining district that abuts the city.
Soweto was the launching pad for a number of watershed moments in the struggle against apartheid, including the Soweto Uprising by students in June 1976 during which police opened fire on school children, high schoolers and other young people after, according to reports, some of the young protestors began throwing rocks at police. Hector Pieterson, only 12 years old, was shot in the back. The photograph taken of his lifeless body being carried to hospital by another student, 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubo, while his sister, Antoinette, ran alongside was seen around the world and spurred international condemnation. Pieterson was killed on June 16, 1976 and that day is now commemorated as Youth Day in South Africa.
As the three of us visited the memorial, I began to think about the link, over time and cultures and history, between what happened in Soweto when I was five years old and what happened in Malawi last week. I wonder whether we would ever have met Vasco if events in South Africa had unfolded differently. Would a white couple from California adopt a black boy from Malawi if apartheid hadn’t ended, if the lessons about race and reconciliation that were hard learned (and still are being learned) in Soweto, Johannesburg and elsewhere around the world hadn’t taken seed on these hardscrabble streets, in violence and chaos, with the will of children and others long ago?
We explained to Vasco as best we could what had transpired in this place long before he was born. He admires Madiba so much, even though I’m sure he doesn’t entirely grasp what apartheid was and why and how it ended and what Mandela’s role was in all of that history. My memory card in the camera maxed out before I could get a few shots of Vasco’s face when we drove across the Nelson Mandela bridge in Johannesburg. He looked up and saw Madiba’s face on the bridge supports (or whatever they’re called) and shout/whispered, “MANDELA!”
Hiya from JoBurg where we’re on a long layover between flights and I’ve managed to find a computer out of earshot of the vuvuzuela honking that pervades, seemingly, all of southern Africa at the moment due to the World Cup here.
Sadly, not only am I now without iPhone (friggin’ AT&T bastardos), but on Friday, without warning, my Macbook Pro laptop died. We had it checked at the iStore here in JoBurg (their version of the Apple Store) and … no dice. No idea what happened.
So, I (this is Falsani if you hadn’t already gathered) am totally off the grid. And I don’t like it. Not one bit. So much to blog. So many pictures to share and video and columns to write and send to my patient editor in Washington, and and and …
We depart JoBurg in about six hours for an overnight quick flight (in relation to what comes next) of about eight hours up to Dubai, where we then have another 24-hour layover before the last leg of our journey home: the whopping EIGHTEEN-HOUR flight from Dubai direct to LAX.
It’s a 777 and we have seats that are, we believe, not in the middle of the middle section like they were on the way over. But that’s a long haul in coach and Emirates has been a disaster in terms of customer service. If they came through with some amazing grace toward our family on the way home, it would go a long way to repairing the damage they’ve done and that I intend to share with the world once I’m computer-attached again, rested and have re-gathered my bearings.
Please pray for us. We’re all a little under the weather – Mom the most. Seemingly everyone in Blantyre had a bad hacking cough and head cold the week before we left and we got it. We’ve got meds out the wazoo because the one easy thing to get in Malawi is medicaiton (unless it’s ARVs for AIDS babies) and we have cold medication with codeine (over the counter!) etc, which should ease the discomfort for us on the long flights home.
I have never been so happy to leave a place as I was yesterday leaving Malawi.
That drive to the airport in Blantyre – boy did it bring back memories.
The last time Maury and I made that drive was almost three years ago and we had to leave Vasco behind. It broke my heart. This time, our boy – our legal and forever son – was with us in the van and in the plane and now here in South Africa, where he’s playing XBox in the next room after having toured part of JoBurg and then Soweto this afternoon. Very moving. If it weren’t for what happened in this place 20-some years ago, I doubt we would ever have met this boy and become his parents. We stood there before a memorial in Soweto, in front of the church where Archbishop Tutu has preached, near the road that Madiba walked when he was freed from prison after so many years to greet the world with a heart free of hate and filled with grace, and we were so thankful, so grateful for those who paved the way long before we set foot on this wondrous and cruel continent three years ago.
Thanks be to God, today, for these African fathers (and mothers, of course) who brought us to this place of peace and reconciliation. Thank God for mercy, grace, joy and connections that we would never, ever make if left to our own devices.
Happy Father’s Day, Daddy/Poppy Falsani, Papa Possley, Rebbe Allen, Uncle Dave, Uncle Veen, Uncle Davidy and Uncle Bubba and to all the fathers out there reading this.
Happy Father’s Day, from Cat (Yusuf) and us …
A quick note to say that, Lord willing, we will be home in Los Angeles (and then the Gu) a week from tomorrow.
The adjudication of our case by the US Embassy in Malawi will take place at 2 p.m. tomorrow in Lilongwe. We will overnight with friends of our hosts here, the beautiful Halliwell family, in Lilongwe and then pick up Vasco’s immigrant visa on Thursday morning before returning to Blantyre.
We are to be on a South Africa Airways flight on Saturday (we have no confirmed seats, but a lovely woman here in town who works for SAA has promised to meet us at the airport and get us on the flight to Johannesburg) and overnight in Johannesburg with still more friends of the Halliwells there, before catching our Emirates flight to Dubai on Sunday.
We will arrive in Dubai on Monday a.m. and have a day’s stay there – either at a hotel compliments of the airline or at Uncle Jamie’s flat in town – and depart Dubai for Los Angeles on Tuesday morning Dubai time, arriving Tuesday afternoon in the beautiful, blessed, long-missed-by-this-grateful-family US of A at LAX on Tuesday afternoon.
We cannot wait to be home. The whole Possley clan: Cathleen, Maurice and the newly named Vasco Fitzmaurice Mark David.
Thank you for your continued prayers, support, love, good humor and occasional outrage (thanks especially to Uncle Veen for that.) We love you.
See you soon …
We’re feeling pretty darn grumpy over here in Malawi at the moment.
New delays. Unexpected frustrations. General we’ve-so-had-it-with-all-the-bullshiteness.
Yesterday, we awoke at 4 a.m. in Blantyre, packed overnight bags and hopped in the SUV with our driver, James No. 2, at 5 a.m. to drive five hours north to Lilongwe to appear at the U.S. Embassy for what we thought was the final step in our adoption process/immigrant visa application process to get our son back to the Shire (read: beautiful Laguna Beach, our beloved home and community.)
The plan was to appear at the US Embassy for what we believed was our last step – the adjudication of our adoption case by the US and the processing of Vasco’s immigrant visa to reenter the States (he automatically becomes a naturalized US citizen as soon as he walks out of customs at LAX) and then, as we could not make the Saturday flight from Malawi to Jo-burg, perhaps head to Lake Malawi for couple of days to unwind, look at the lake, swim in the pool and read a few books.
As you might have guessed by now, that’s not what went down.
Last week, when we met with the U.S. Consul Peter Ganser, we came away believing that when we got Vasco’s new birth certificate and new Malawi passport, with his new names and new, more accurate birth dates (the birth certificate and passport had to match), we would return to Lilongwe, meet one last time with Ganser, have our case officially adjudicated and be able to come home on the next flight we could book, which already was a week later than we had expected. Before we left for Lilongwe this week, Maury spent a day changing our flights on South Africa Airways and Emirates Air to the tune of about $2,000. Some of you know the horror story of our experience with Emirates before we left and how thoroughly gruesome the 16-hour flight from LA to Dubai was for us, so handing them another $1,500 was galling. But, we told ourselves, it’s only money. We can make more. We just want to get our boy home.
Last week, Ganser, who has been until now a lovely and helpful man and is an adoptive father of two to boot, told us that he’d need to do his “due diligence” in the intervening time between our meeting last week and this week, checking with Vasco’s family (his Uncle Mavuto, the one who speaks English sort of, mostly) to make sure that Vasco’s biological parents were indeed deceased. I sent him Mavuto’s mobile phone number on Monday. Ganser said he’d call. So you can imagine our surprise when we stood on the other side of the bullet-proof glass from Ganser and heard him say something to the effect of, “Ok. Your paperwork looks all set. Now I just have to do my own investigation – due diligence. I have to speak to Mavuto and to any other living relative (that would be Aunt Esme who speaks about three words of English, a little Chichewa and mostly the obscure Yawo dialect) and … this part is particularly enraging – Mac – the sociopath and pathological liar who traveled with Vasco to Chicago and stayed with us for six of the longest weeks of our lives before we put him on a plane back to Malawi (at Ganser’s behest.)
Some of you know the story of Mac and what a problematic human being he turned out to be. He lied about just about everything, including much of Vasco’s biography; embezzled about $7,000 from the charitable trust set up for Vasco’s care by the Chicago Sun-Times (we sent him money for various expenses – doctors, vitamins, medication, a new tv, a puppy for Vasco, etc. – from the trust funds and he basically drank most of it. No tv. No puppy. We’re still not really sure where Vasco was actually living before he came to Chicago last year as it was not with Mac. Mac’s awful wife Susan had thrown Vasco out of their apartment.) Ganser is also the one who yanked Mac’s visa to the US at the last minute last spring after an American missionary accused him of stealing money – something like $10,000 kwacha, which is a couple hundred bucks.) We worked closely with Ganser to get Vasco and, yes, Mac to the States for Vasco’s life saving surgery. Ganser released Mac’s visa under duress and with the understanding on our part that if Mac was any problem we were to put him on the first plane back to Blantyre.
So what the hell? Why in the world would Ganser have to “check” with Mac now to do “due diligence” in Vasco’s immigration case? We are Vasco’s legal parents by decision and decree of the Malawi High Court. Even before that, we were Vasco’s legal guardians in Malawi – since last fall.
Maury and I were so flummoxed by what Ganser was saying to us – and the news that we’d have to return to Lilongwe not once but two more times before we could leave for the States – that we stood there gape-mouthed like a couple of bumpkins rather than the well-connected, well-clouted, veteran journalists that we are. We were wearing our parent hats. And it wasn’t until we got back out to the SUV, with Vasco totally confused and angry with us that we couldn’t leave for LA on Wednesday as planned, and began our five-hour trip back to Blantyre, that it hit us – the magnitude of the bullshit that we had just been handed by this diplomat. Adding insult to injury, our driver told us that the SUV was almost out of diesel fuel and the button that accessed the auxiliary tank full of diesel was broken. We spent two hours looking for fuel and finding none in the Malawi capital, wound up literally a back alley of a black-market diesel dealer (who was also out) while five guys spent an hour hand siphoning diesel out of the auxiliary tank, pumping it into plastic containers and pouring it back into the main tank. We then drove 100km before we found a station that had diesel. You know you’re in a third world country when …)
This was supposed to be the easy part. The hard part – getting Malawi to grant the first international adoption to an American family since Madonnna got her daughter Mercy out last year – was done. We just need his immigrant visa and for the US to give the nod on the adoption.
What the hell? Are we suddenly dodgy? Is there some moral turpitude that has surfaced calling our character into question? If that’s the case, then what in the world have we done that could top anything Madonna has done in her 25 years in the public spotlight? Last time I checked, I hadn’t published any nude pictures of myself in a hard-bound, foil-wrapped package. I’m not running Madonna down in saying this. I am forever grateful to her for opening the doors to international adoption. Without her and her persistence in challenging ancient and ridiculous Malawi case law, we would not have been able to adopt Vasco. For that, we are forever grateful. It’s just that, I mean, jeeez. If they approved Madonna’s adoptions TWICE, what the hell is the hold up with us?
We’re livid. We’re exhausted. We’re trying to figure out what to do next.
Before we left California, we alerted Senators Dick Durbin (he was helpful in getting Vasco to the States last year) and our new senators in California – Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein, about our trip and the background of Vasco’s story, etc., just to give them all a head’s up IN CASE something went awry.
We’re wondering if now is the time to call “awry!” Will that speed the plow or only make Ganser slow down further? Do we reach out to the Obama administration directly? We do have the contacts to do it. Do we wait until Monday to see what Ganser has to say for himself, or do we make a move today or Sunday to put pressure on him to stop farting around and process our applications without further dilly-dallying?
At this point, we will have to rebook our flights AGAIN for next Saturday. Mind you, we have to fly through Johannesburg and there’s this little thing called the World Cup that started, oh, YESTERDAY.
Pray for us. I’m angrier than I think I’ve ever been about anything. My Irish is flying off the top of my head like flames. I finally broke down this a.m. (when I found out AT&T had turned off my iPhone service and won’t turn it back on until I pay half of the charges I’ve incurred so far in Malawi – charges that aren’t actually due for a month and that I don’t have the cash to spare for now) and had a long, wailing cry. And then I fell asleep for a few hours.
We’re really good sports. Really. We are. But this is just stoopid now.
Thanks for your support and love and prayers. We will update you as soon as we know when precisely we are flying home.
There’s a word I’ve never loved or appreciated more than right now.
P.S. If you need to reach us, the best and kinda only way right now is via Maury’s blackberry. His email isn’t accessible on it (inexplicably) but he can receive and make calls (most of the time) and can receive and send texts (most of the time.) That number is 312-208-0357.
Such beautiful voices.
Such beautiful people.
My iPhone has turned into a block of wood. Well, plastic and stuff.
No service. No service. No service.
Glad I spent two hours on the phone before we left California setting up my roaming and international plans.
Additionally, the Interweb here is … well … in about its Neanderthal era. Thus, none of the lovely video we have of Vasco and his family, our safari(s), Vasco exploring Blantyre again, the kids at Smile Malawi singing and Vasco singing with them, and about 90 percent of our photos, are un-loadable here at this time.
Please stand by for loads more as soon as we get a more Medieval Internet connection.
If you need to reach us for the foreseeable future before we get stateside late next week, try to text or phone Maury:
Love and kisses,
p.s. never put a sock in a toaster, never put jam on a magnet … never lean over on a tuesday.
|Vasco and Frankie on Wednesday at Smile Malawi|
|Little Frankie and Me on Oct. 12, 2007 in Blantyre|
|Me and the boys. They’ve aged well. I hadn’t had a shower in two days. But Frankie and I can still curl our tongues.|
|A heated game of UNO.|
|Vasco gave Frankie his favorite Marley shirt. “Positive Vibration” indeed.|
On Friday, we had to fill out a new Malawian birth certificate for Vasco, adding our names as his legal parents and adding his new, legal name:
Maury and I always said if we were to have a son, we’d name him Fitzmaurice (pronounced “Fitz-Morris”) and probably call him “Fitz” for short. Well, we were blessed with a son who arrived with his first name already in place so we gave him Fitzmaurice as his first middle name.
In Irish, Fitzmaurice means “son of Maurice” and “Maurice,” in Irish, means “the dark one.”
Vasco, for those of you who know him already, is a truly extraordinary person. He has a huge, beautiful spirit and a soul that draws people to him — even strangers wherever we go with him. Such a magnficent soul, we thought, is certainly capable of bearing the weight of many auspicious names, so we gave him a couple more middle names.
Mark is for his American “anjiba” (special uncle) my brother, USAF Major Mark Dante Falsani.
Mark is also for one of my most special friends ever, Mark Metherell, the uncle he never knew but a part of whose spirit and character we like to think he carries with him.
David is for three very special men in his life and ours:
and David the Funck
Both Mark and David have roots in the Bible — in the Gospels and in Hebrew Scripture.
St. Mark was one of Jesus’ companions, one of the Twelve Disciples, and according to tradition, as founder of the church in Alexadria, St. Mark is credited with bringing Christianity to Africa.
King David, according to Hebrew Scriptures, was the second king of Israel. He was a righteous man and a complicated guy. David was a warrior, a poet and a musician. He is also described as a “man after God’s own heart.”
Vasco Fitzmaurice Mark David is a mighty soul — epic, one of his uncles would say — so we thought he deserved a name that fit the largess and beauty and story of his mighty spirit. Our miracle. Our joy. Our son.