Love in Cowboy Boots

I was sitting in my seventh-grade math class, bored and confused as usual (sorry, Mr. Wilson, but sums and I just never got along), when suddenly I felt a terrible itching on my scalp. I reached up to scratch and felt a bump, which immediately burst when I touched it. I pulled my fingers back and looked at them in horror—they were wet with some sort of clear liquid. I touched another spot on my scalp and experienced the same thing. I looked around at my classmates, panic beginning to fill my chest—was I dying of some exotic African disease? Would I have time to say good-bye to those I loved, or was I now melting, like the wicked witch of the East? (“What a world! What a world!”)

My friend looked over at me, and I watched her eyes widen. “You have red bumps all over your face,” she said. She raised her hand and caught our teacher’s attention. “Sir,” she said, interrupting an important part of the lesson whereby a person divides the bottom of a fraction to the top, “Becky is sick—she needs to go to the infirmary.”

Mr. Wilson stopped speaking, chalk in hand. He glanced over at me, frowned for a moment, then said, “Go.” As I gathered up my books, he said. “Leave that stuff—your classmate will take it to your dorm for you. Don’t touch anything on your way out.”

Now I was really alarmed—not only was I probably dying, I was so infectious I could kill the entire population of RVA (the boarding school I attended) with my bare, virus-ridden hands! I stumbled up the rocky path to the infirmary. I hated going up there; the building was at the top of a hill, isolated from the rest of the campus, and it seemed like miles, especially if you were sick or in pain. I lamented, as I itched and fretted, why the architects decided to build the infirmary so far away and up a hill. Sick people don’t LIKE to walk. I decided that maybe they did it to discourage “fakers”—a body had to be really sick to want to go all that way for help.

I staggered up to the door and was greeted by Mrs. S, the school’s nurse, a thin, pale woman who wore her black hair straight and parted down the middle like a perfectly straight knife scar. She took one look at me and pronounced, “Chicken-pox. It’s bed for you, Lewis. I’ll call down to your dorm and have someone bring your clothes.” She took my temperature, tucked me into bed, instructed me severely not to scratch, and left me to my own devices.

At first, I didn’t mind being in the infirmary. I was, strangely enough, the only patient there, so Mrs. S brought me cinnamon toast and hot cocoa whenever I asked for it. “Don’t scratch” was still the only directive I had to obey. I soon discovered the infirmary had the entire “Wizard of Oz” series in its limited library of donated books, and I gorged myself, reading until my eyes crossed. It didn’t take long, however, until I started getting plain old BORED. I was used to being with my friends 24-7, and the quiet of the infirmary started to get to me. It was creepy, all alone in that sterile white room. Having been a student at boarding school for two years now, I wasn’t used to being in a room by myself. Thursday passed, and then Friday. I started to feel very sorry for myself—my friends would be going up to Downing Hall that night to watch a movie, while I was just stuck in bed, counting the ceiling tiles. I sighed miserably. Suddenly, I heard a sharp rapping on the window. I rolled over and looked out through the anti-theft bars that adorned many of the houses in Kenya. I squealed with delight and pushed the window pane open, waving my hands wildly. Outside were my six best friends, grinning up at me.

“Hey, we thought you might be a little lonely,” one pal said. “We’re on our way up to Downing and thought we’d stop by and say hi.”

Before I could reply, Mrs. S rushed into my room. “What are you girls doing?” she called out to them. “Becky is quarantined—I don’t need a giant outbreak of chicken-pox. Now scram.”

“Miss you!” my friends cried as they left me, and I watched them until they disappeared down the path, their voices musical as they chattered away, then I settled back into bed glumly. Mrs. S shook her head at me. “Try and rest,” she said. “And DON’T SCRATCH.”

I laid my head on the pillow and closed my eyes. A vision of my mother and father suddenly filled the darkness behind my lids. “I want to go home,” I whispered to myself. A tear found its way past my eyelid and burned a trail down my cheek. I felt ridiculously child-like—I was way too old to be crying for my mommy and daddy—but there it was. Babyish or not, I wanted to go home. I knew sometimes parents came up to Rift and collected their kids when they were sick, but I also knew that mine wouldn’t—my home was six hours away on a pot-holed, Kenyan road, and mid-term break was only a week away. I would have to just gut it out until then, all alone. Feeling itchy, miserable, and not a little sorry for myself, I cried until I fell asleep.

Early the next morning, I woke to the echoing, clomping sounds of somebody walking down the long hallway. I sat up and rubbed my eyes. “That sort of sounds like my dad’s boots,” I thought, wistfully. My father, who’d been from Arkansas before we’d relocated to Kenya in 1976, had worn cowboy boots for as long as I could remember. The leather boots were worn down on the outside of the heels because of the way he walked, and as result, the sound was distinct and familiar. I sighed and rolled over, resting my elbows on the windowsill next to my bed, looking out and thinking about my father. I noticed that the clomping sound was getting louder and louder. Suddenly the noise stopped outside my room. The door to my room opened, and my dad walked in, grinning through his beard. “Hi, sweetie,” he said, “You’re not feeling so hot, huh?”

I stared at him in disbelief for a moment, then propelled myself out of bed and into his arms. “You’re here!” I said.

He kissed the top of my itchy head. “Of course I’m here. I was up in Turkana when the school called and told your mom about you being sick. She told me as soon as I got home, and I got right back in the truck to come and get you.”

I was awestruck. Turkana, the bush country where my father had a church, was a twelve hour drive from our home. My school was six hours away in the other direction; that meant my dad had been driving for eighteen hours straight. (Wow. I guess I did learn some math.) I looked at his tired face and hugged him again tightly. “Thanks, Daddy,” I said, another tear working its way onto the slope of my cheek.

He hugged me back. “You’re welcome,” he said. “I couldn’t just leave my girl in here, sick and all alone, could I?”

It’s funny that chicken-pox would become one of my favorite memories, isn’t it?

Happy Father’s Day, Baba. I love you.

me dad sara menonite gh (2)
Me, on the left, my dad and his boots, center, and my sister, Sara, on the right. Mennonite Guest House, Nairobi, Kenya, circa 1980 something.

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