I’ve had a hectic past week or so. I wish hectic was a longer word so I could more accurately show how the days dragged on. It was tedious. Emotional. I wished for a fast forward button daily. It was seven days and I managed to attend two funerals, turn twenty-six years old, be eight thousand miles away from one of my best friend’s weddings, and finish a half marathon in a third world country. I cried too much, I laughed some. I think it was the most honest week of my life.
The deaths were unexpected and so were, in turn, the rush of emotion you feel when saying goodbye and its not anticipated. It’s an immediate pain, a knee jerk reaction. That type of reaction is quite honest: not the traditional clenched jaw ache when you know someone is about to go. Traditional Maasai funerals enhanced this honesty: those who attended didn’t withhold emotion, not like we often do in America. Many cried, as with any death, but others wailed, some melted to the floor, some threw dust because that is exactly how they felt at that moment. The women covered their heads and their faces with scarves because it feels like protection. Everyone covered his or her mouths because it feels safe. I have, a few times, attended a funeral in America, and seen the pressed lips and focused gazes, concentrating every ounce of energy from holding back tears. And despite the pain of losing someone so loved, I relished the fact that we exuded the pain so honestly. There was no doubt that love had been lost. There was no doubt every person there was hurting. I wish every moment of hurt could be that honest.
And then, in the middle of remembering, I became one year older. It’s strange to see and feel young death on a birthday. It makes you freeze up, hold your breath for a moment, and consider how simultaneously naïve and experienced you have become. How things are so fleeting. Last year, I played kickball and drank beer in a park with my best college friends to celebrate the changing of the year. This year was different. There was no fancy birthday outfit meticulously planned, there was no party that came with a Facebook invite. There isn’t room for any of that, not now, not here. But what there was is a handful of women who built me up and made me feel loved in special in the midst of rural Africa. I received a cake in a country where cake is (shockingly) hard to come by. The office was decorated with the precious balloons and streamers sent over through the last several years of tourists dropping by. And I received the most eclectic of birthday dinners: guacamole and mozzarella sticks, made from avocados salvaged from the market, tomatoes from the garden and cheese fried in oats with an expiration date of 2013. It was the most honest birthday I believe I had ever felt. No one participated out of obligation, no one tagged along because it was easy and convenient. It was strange creations made purely in love. It was honestly all we had.
A few days later I woke up with the lump in my throat that I fully anticipated. Two of my closest friends got married while I slept under stars in a completely different hemisphere. They started their first dance as husband and wife while I road a motorcycle through the dust and goats of Kilimanjaro region. Their first kiss as a married couple most likely coincided with my chai in a mud hut, dusty shoes, dusty children, dusty cheeks. Those cheeks were tear streaked a few days ago. I had the chance to talk to the two of them together before they tied the knot and it got me all types of teary eyed. I wasn’t crying because I was able to see how beautiful the bride was, I wasn’t smiling because I heard first hand their wedding vows. I smiled with them on the phone that day because I was happy for their future. Not the venue, not the music, not the flower arrangements or first dance song but for the love. Because that’s all I was going to be able to see or feel out here in Africa: the peace in their voices and the words they told me they were going to promise. It was what I like to call “happy regardless.” Regardless how far or how removed I was from their wedding. Oh, I was honestly celebrating with them.
I ended the week exhausted and worn with a half marathon ahead of me. The Mount Meru Half Marathon had started me training just two weeks before, running long hot miles in the never-ending dust and rocky trails of Maasailand. When the gun went off, I felt good and strong, found my rhythm right alongside one of the few other women running the race. She was a Tanzanian woman, long legs, long strides, and picked up the pace on the hills: just like me. She and I began our own personal race: I passed her on the incline, she took the lead as we rounded shaded trees, banana stands, women with baskets of oranges atop their heads. It was a fast race, quick and easy. In Africa, there are no mile markers. That seemed to be representative of more than just this thirteen-mile race. No mile marker in life to tell you that you were nearing the end. No definitive indicator to let you know that you were falling in love, growing up, finding yourself. My race partner and I crossed the finish line at the same moment. Breathless, cold and sweaty, she gave me a huge hug and said, “We ran so much faster because we had each other!” she was beaming. It was the most honest thing I had ever heard. No competitive words, no frustration at not beating her (as I saw it) opponent. She was happy we had made each other faster. Oh, if only I could honestly be that thankful for those types of competition in my life: to see myself improving and becoming faster instead of someone who may be better than me.
I told my mom this may have been the hardest week of my life. I didn’t ring in twenty-six years old with a bang, but instead with a slow steady, step forward in the midst of chaos and frustration. So perhaps it wasn’t easy, but I promise it was honest. And maybe that’s all you can really ask for.