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Spirit Story

Forever my mother, always my inspiration

By Shelly Manley-Tannis

It's easier to say now than it was at first: “My mother has gone to Africa.” I had to keep repeating the words to convince myself they were true. I knew nothing about the place she had gone. In the space of a few days, I went from hoping my mom would visit Winnipeg soon to feeling like Zebedee sitting alone in the boat, a little stunned, after his sons up and left with Jesus.

This One whom people followed — and still do — instantly, is said to have warned that families would be divided. And as my mom made her preparations to leave for the Robin’s Nest orphanage in Bungoma, Kenya, within three weeks of receiving the invitation, ripples moved through the waters of my family, just as Jesus said they might. Don’t get me wrong, my mom and I are still talking — more, in fact, than we were when the distance between us ran from Port Dover, Ont., to Winnipeg. With modern technology, Bungoma seems to be only a laptop screen away.

No, my unease is not about the distance. It’s about my own questions, and about how my heart continues to be opened by my mother’s decisions. My late father was an ordained minister in the United Church, and I, of course, never planned to have anything to do with that. My mother is a nurse whose work has been a ministry of another sort — one that I knew (for sure) was not my calling.

But what has been uncomfortable for me has helped to open my heart. Community nursing is my mom’s love. She has allowed boundaries to blur at times, doing one patient’s wedding makeup and visiting others with ice-cream sundaes. Joining my mother on one of these visits as a teenager, I experienced souls — my mom’s, my own, that of a dying woman and her dementia-affected husband. My mother’s respect for the couple was palpable. Thinking it was pain I was experiencing, I returned to the car, heartbroken, sobbing. My mom listened, let me cry and wiped my eyes.

It has been in the midst of heart-opening moments like this that I have been able to hear my call for ministry to the soul.

Like most people, though, I forget that I can be surprised, moved and opened further. And then, with only three weeks’ notice, my mother went to Bungoma. This had been a dream of hers for a long time — nothing specific, but simply to someday go where she felt called to help.

One of the administrative roles I had not imagined my mother playing in Kenya is bringing children to meet extended family members. At times this is risky, but the children are always kept secure until the situation is assessed.

On one such trip, my mom, a driver, a social worker and some of the kids from the orphanage travelled by van to bring provisions to local families and offer the possibility of a few moments of reunion. As they drew closer to the area that one of the little girls recognized as home, the child was sick to her stomach. She threw up mostly into the bag my mother had supplied (my mom knew the signs — I was her practice run) but also onto her dress and on some of the other children. They stopped to clean up; in my mind’s eye, I see a frightened little girl, overcome by fear and sadness, looking up from her soiled dress for comfort. I cannot help but put myself in her place — my mom’s hands rub my back, gently wipe my face. She gets me back on the road feeling a little more open, a little more vulnerable and a little stronger for the journey ahead.  

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