things emma taught me

Sometimes the words about Uganda are there, and sometimes they're not. They're never there when people ask me about the trip. "How was your trip?!" They ask. "Good!" I reply. Good? Uganda wasn't good. It was beautiful and heartbreaking and joyful and sad and tragic and wonderful and dirty and serene and life-changing and soul-filling. It was all of these things and so many more, all at once. But those words are never there when people ask, nor could I very easily explain it all even if they were. "Uganda was good," I say. "It was really good."

I think most of the time, people want the 30-second version anyway. They want "good" and "cool" and "awesome." So in this space, I'm diving into the long version. I'm confronting the heartbreak and the confusion and the joy and the lessons. And I'm honored to bring you along with me.

***

The night before our first day at the babies home, our friend Mary gave us some advice about what to expect and what to do when we visited. She told us about the special needs children and to not be afraid of them, to interact with them and play with them just like all the other kids.

I'll be honest, I'm scared of children with disabilities. And I'm ashamed of that. When we walked through the big green gates that shield the babies home from the outside, I had no intention of starting off my day and my experience with the special needs children. It was a little bit nervousness about what to do with them and how to engage them but mostly selfishness stemming from the fact that they couldn't indulge my need for giggles and kisses and interaction like the other kids could.

And then there was Emma.

Emma, short for Emmanuel, "God with us."

Emma was the first child who grabbed my hand at the babies home. While my teammates busied themselves holding the babies or pushing the toddlers on the giant woven swing, Emma grabbed my hand and grinned up at me and I sat down next to him and he climbed right in my lap. He touched my face and my hair and never said a word but smiled at me all along. Mary's voice echoed in my ears about the special kids needing love and attention too. I sighed, and hugged Emma, and just like that we were pals.

Emma has disabilities. He doesn't talk. He is extremely strong and can be very aggressive. He wraps your ponytail through his fingers and pulls and it hurts. And it's hard to get him to let go. He will take your hand and pull you on a walk around the whole compound and you'll find yourself surprised by the strength of his grip. Sometimes Emma will throw himself down to the ground and slam his head against the concrete. The sickening thunk echoes in the pit of your stomach where dread lives and it's the worst sound in the world. Emma's eyes will go unfocused for a minute as he lays there and then he recovers and sits up and is back to whatever he was doing beforehand.

I quickly learned that the head-throwing happens when Emma is corrected. When you tell him "nedda" ("no" in Luganda) or "stop" or "don't," he will throw his head. Maybe he has some history of abuse or trauma associated with that, I have no idea. All I know is that when Emma senses tension or disapproval in your voice, he reacts by violently throwing his head and shutting down.

But if you gently correct Emma, it's a completely different story. Instead of "nedda," we would say "gentle, Emma, be gentle" in a soothing voice. We would grab his hand and take him for a walk to make him stop doing whatever he was doing. And if we caught him mid-head-throw, we would hold him and stroke his hand gently and he would calm down. One of the aunties taught us that. Emma just needed some extra attention and a little extra work. Don't we all?

Emma taught me that gentleness is paramount. When people make us mad, when they hurt us, our first instinct is to react. To make them STOP. Maybe even hurt them like they hurt us. But of course, we are called to gentleness. To serve one another. To approach situations with kindness and love. When Emma pulled my hair or bit my hand, it hurt. And I did not want to sit there and stroke his hand until he calmed down, I wanted to tell him "no!" and walk away. And then I think how God must feel when we hurt him. How much it must pain Him to sit with us until we calm down. How it would be easier to push us away or walk away and find someone else who actually appreciates him. But God never gives up on us. He never will. So in many ways, I saw so much of myself in Emma.

Emma taught me to delight in the simple things. Emma sat with me for awhile one day, squeezing a tiny rubber ducky next to his ear, a grin splitting his face every time he heard the squeak. Squeeze, squeak, grin. Squeeze, squeak, grin. He would hold the duck up to my ear, squeeze, and wait for my reaction. I would laugh obnoxiously, and then he would smile from ear to ear, and the whole thing was weirdly, hilariously funny. A rubber duck squeaking. We did that for awhile, Emma and I and the duck.

Because of his disabilities, it will be hard for Emma to get adopted. It will be hard for people to look past the surface issues, the things that are readily visible. The inability to talk, the aggression. But like most of us, I think all Emma needs is a chance. Given the right resources and a loving, steady environment, who knows what he could become. The aunties at the babies home are AMAZING and give all the children every ounce of love--it's superhuman, what they take on and how well they love these kids. But it's still Uganda, and there's still only so much that can be done for a kid like Emma.

Emma will probably not remember me. He doesn't know my name. But I'll never forget Emma, or these things Emma taught me.