Lightning over Jackson, Mississippi

It’s dark outside my window. I’m flying over Jackson, Mississippi, and I’m watching thick fingers of lightning dance across the floor of clouds before disappearing. There are still four hours left in my flight from Miami to San Diego. I’m tired. Allie isn’t sleeping because the flight attendants keep interrupting with announcements about credit cards and snacks for purchase. I wonder to myself if this is worth it. Is it worth being a full day and $2,000 dollars away from our family? Is it worth the long flights, the mosquito bites when I sleep, the bad internet cutting short the video calls home, or Zika controlling if and when we have more kids? I ask myself these questions often, and I always come to a quick conclusion that it is.

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I’m watching the film “Concussion” on the seatback in front of me. The protagonist, demonstrating with his hands, states that when he grew up in Nigeria, heaven was here—he holds his hand level to his eyes—and America was here—he moves his hand slightly lower, to his nose. It gives me goosebumps.

The map shows I’m between Fayetteville and Norman now, two cities I recognize only because of football. I love football, I always have. Football makes me think of my grandpa and of Jen’s family. It makes me think of home, now that I’m far away.

On the heaven to America scale, I’d rate football at eyebrow level on a cool September night. It might dip to my eyelashes in November, when the sun casts a low shadow over the stadium even though it’s noon.

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I have a friend from Jackson. She’s a sweet woman with sweet kids and a great husband. We studied together for the oral exams and ended up in the same A-100. I remember hearing the twang in her voice the first time we met and thinking how American she would sound to somebody overseas. Last year, one of her girls asked her if Allie was adopted because she looked Asian. It still makes me laugh. They’re all away from home too, serving as diplomats and probably wondering, like me, if it’s worth missing tailgates in the Grove when Oxford shuts down on Saturday afternoons. I think about her friends below me, the lightning casting shadows on their living room walls as they tuck their kids in bed or laugh over the ongoing jokes every family shares. I wonder if they think about us.

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The movie ends and the script before the credits tells me the protagonist eventually became an American citizen. My eyes are teary; I’ve always been emotional, but my patriotic hormones have been especially out of whack ever since I got the call. 

I’ve stamped thousands of pieces of paper over the last ten months that created American citizens or LPRs. My favorites are the orphans. I handle the visa adjudications for Jamaican children being adopted by Americans. They have tough stories, almost all of them. Fathers murdered in front of them, mothers who left them with distant relatives and never came back. They’re all bright. They call me sir, they smile shyly when I ask them if they’re excited about moving to America. The teenage girls roll their eyes when I ask if they’ve ever been married or arrested; they purse their lips and scowl when I joke that there is some lucky boy waiting in Miami or NYC to meet them.

I have two dozen rubber ducks in my desk drawer that I bought to give to these orphans. I wanted them to have something to signify the moment America became their home. I got the idea from my boss. He hands out rubber ducks as awards. On Halloween, the ducks look like mummies or Frankenstein. On Easter, they look like chocolate bunnies. My adoption ducks wear red, white, and blue tophats and hold American flags.

The first duck I hand out is to a 17 year old boy. He tells me he wants to be a pilot for the US Air Force; he too is bright. He calls me sir, but is solemn when he tells me he has never been arrested. I finish up his case and slide the duck under the thick glass between us, bending its neck to get it through the slot. I tell him to tape the duck to his cockpit window to watch over him while he flies. I almost didn’t give it to him. I thought he might be too old or too tough or too cool to want a rubber duck. He rolls it over in his hands, not looking at me. He says thank you to nobody in particular, then looks up. “I really appreciate it.” He has tears in his eyes and now I do too.

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We are almost to Amarillo. I know the name from country music, not football, but Lubbock creeps onto the south of my map. The clouds are gone and the lightning has faded into hundreds of street lamps dotting the ground like smouldering freckles. The towns are small and I can’t see the roads that connect them, the roads that connect to Jackson, Misssissippi, and Logan, Utah.

I ask myself if it is worth it, but I never ask why I do it. I love the people below me, the ones I’ll never meet in Jackson—my home, my country. I love what America can mean to so many people outside of it. I love living overseas and speaking on behalf of the people who live here. I worry that Allie won’t feel the same way. That she won’t identify as an American after spending her life outside of America. I hope I can pass on the concept of America as our home despite moving across oceans every other year. I’ve never felt at home more than I do right now watching Amarillo hum orange against the dark sky.

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4 responses to “Lightning over Jackson, Mississippi

  1. Just read this after spending the day at the zoo with you…re-living the memories of you as a little boy with Devon at zoo camp…both of you in your safari helmets marching around singing your mammal song. How fast life goes by. I told you I just realized I’m now the same age as Grandma was back then. As we walked around the zoo today you told me all about your life in Jamaica and we talked about where you might be going next. I thought about how proud I am of you and the man, husband and father you have become. You told me you’d really like to move here to San Diego when you retire in 22 years and I thought about how nice that would be to have you and your family here! Then I realized I’d be 85 and I might not be here anymore.
    When we hugged goodbye you couldn’t tell because I had my sunglasses on but I had tears in my eyes. Just like I do now reading this incredibly beautiful thing you wrote on the plane last night. What a difference you are making (and will be making) touching so many people’s lives in the years ahead.
    Yes, it’s worth it.
    That heart of yours is too big to stay in just one place,

    Liked by 1 person

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