I grew up on an island called New Providence, in the center of the Bahamian archipelago. My grandparents came from islands in Greece, choosing to settle here in the Caribbean. All my formative experiences took place here, in what some may call a small place. It may be a small place, an island 21 by 7 miles, but I learned here that it is the bigness of heart and spirit that truly define a people. I learned here that it is not what happens to you that defines you, but the ability to bring heart and spirit to tragedy, transforming hurt into hope; following the light of that hope towards brighter possibilities for our lives as human beings.
I did not always understand this. But in my late twenties, events would bring me to the edge of myself, would turn my life inside out, and take me on a journey to Rwanda that would change everything.
I was twenty-nine and pregnant with my second child. I talked to her when I was alone, when it was just me and Meah (that is the name we gave her before she was born) safe inside me. I asked her questions: “For what purpose are you coming?” I could hear her answers like waves of knowing flowing through me. “I’m coming to teach” I heard her say. “I’m coming to change how you see the world and how you live in it…”
The day before I was due to be induced, my four-year old son Matthew finger painted my belly. He was thrilled that soon he would have a sister. My belly was enormous and beautiful in yellows and reds and turquoise blues. We were celebrating Meah’s imminent arrival.
The next day all went as planned. We got to the hospital on time, my labor was induced, and I began to contract. But soon the contractions turned violently sharp, more excruciating than anything I had experienced before. I pleaded to the nurse to make it end, to give me a c-section. Something was wrong. I was panicking. The nurse said she had to wait for the doctor. My doctor was at a conference. She would be there soon. I screamed with the force of each contraction. I felt like I was being ripped and cut apart inside.I felt a heaviness on my chest that made it hard to breathe. A lightness creeping across my fingers, waves passing through and out of me, leaving me. The doctor finally arrived but still, no one did anything. Nothing made sense to me. I knew that something was terribly wrong and yet no one seemed to understand.No one seemed to hear me. I was weak. The pain was so intense I could no longer get sound out of me. Finally,they listened. Finally they heard me. Finally they were wheeling me into the operating room. There were strange tense faces looking over me, working quickly. “Knock me out,” I whispered, “just knock me out.” I felt a warmth running through my body, the pain was gone, I could see a bright orange light, then everything faded, and then nothingness. They were cutting me open. Taking Meah out of me. All was calm and quiet, an eerie stillness that made me open my eyes. I began to hear low voices over me, next to me, but I could not hear her voice. I could not hear her crying. I could not hear my daughter.
What I did hear was the doctor telling my husband, “I’m so sorry, she didn’t make it… I tried… but there was no heartbeat.”
And then someone was putting her in my arms. She was beautiful. I wept.
For months after my daughter’s death, and my own near death, I despaired. I grieved. And I was angry. Angry at the doctor because I felt she had caused the death of my daughter. I was angry at her carelessness. I hated her for using a drug, cytotec, that I felt should never have been used. It was cytotec that had hyper stimulated my uterus so that it tore from top to bottom, endangering my life, and taking my child’s. Why had I been induced in the first place? Why on that day, when she would not be there for me, would she use such a dangerous drug? Every day my mind was plagued by questions I had no answers to. There were many days that I blamed myself for not listening to my body, for not knowing more than I did. Some days I hated myself. I thought over and over of all the different possibilities…had I done this…or not done that… Meah might still have been with us.
Somehow, through my haze of chaotic emotions, I knew that if I were going to survive and still be the mother my living son deserved, the wife and friend my husband needed, and the person I wanted to be in this life, I had to do something. I decided I needed to become active in my journey of healing. I knew that if there were to be a significant change, I would have to become conscious of my thoughts, words and actions. I would have to begin to change the ways in which I was seeing my experience and try to look at it differently. I would have to bring gratitude, love, kindness and compassion to myself and to others. I would need to forgive. Perhaps it was this need that led me to Immaculee Ilibagiza, and to Rwanda.
I had first heard Immaculee’s story of her experience of the Rwandan genocide when I was pregnant with Meah. Later, after her death, I would travel to Orlando to the ‘I Can Do It’ conference for her workshop on forgiveness. Immaculee had lost almost all of her family members during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Over one million people died in a period of 3 months. Immaculee survived by hiding in a tiny bathroom with 7 other women. When the genocide was finally over and it was safe for her to come out of hiding, she learned the brutal reality that almost everyone she knew and loved had been slaughtered to death. What amazed me most about Immaculee was her ability to find compassion for the very people who killed her family and find forgiveness in the midst of her pain.
Simply hearing Immaculee’s story changed me. It gave me strength and motivation to move forward. I traveled to Rwanda with Immaculee in June of 2007 and then again in June of 2008 and 2011.
In Rwanda I met men and women and children who had survived a genocide. I cried with them, I laughed with them, I listened to their stories, and they listened to mine. Sometimes we held hands and hugged when we could not understand each other. I taught them how to make jewelry, and with each story they shared, they taught me how to forgive. For the first time since Meah died, I felt a powerful transformation taking place within me. With every new story, I felt my heart open and the energy of anger and powerlessness shift and change to love, forgiveness, and a sense of empowerment. I understood that it is not what happens to you that defines you, but the heart you bring to tragedy, to loss, that has the power to transform grief and anger to love and compassion. And hope grows from an open heart. And new possibilities are illuminated in the light of that hope.
That light has led me back to my home in New Providence where I began a foundation in Meah’s name. The Meah Foundation is my own way of passing on what I have learned, and what Meah came to teach me: stories are powerful healers. Through our stories of what we have endured and overcome, human beings can reach out beyond our suffering and speak to one another. Our stories can help each other heal and become whole. We are not alone.