Out Of Africa Into Life Challenges

Susan Page
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Wednesday - August 16, 2006
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You’ve heard, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans”?

Well, that adage hit home for me and my husband, Jerry Coffee, in the last two weeks. Much has happened between MidWeek columns. Blessings have been counted, prayers answered.

Last column I left readers dangling in a “to be continued ...” I was to finish the saga of driving lost at night in the black South African township of Soweto when I got to Malawi, next stop on our mission. Today, as I sit at Jerry’s hospital bedside in San Angelo, Texas, that experience seems distant.

In quick summary, the Soweto debacle was a classic case of “the blonde leading the blonde.” On Roodeport Road for the 10th time, we pulled over exasperated. Suddenly, a truck with two lovely people offered to lead us to Soweto highway and out of our nightmare. End of story.

Saturday, July 29, Malawi, Africa.

After settling into our hotel in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city, our Heart for Africa teams headed out on our first of six days working in some of 37 extremely poor villages. Our local host and mission coordinator, Theresa Malila, a formidable woman, believes God called her to serve at humanitarian tasks others avoid and supports these villages. Jerry and I and five other team members embarked with Malila as driver. Our dilapidated van negotiated huge potholes in the dirt road that snaked through fallow fields to “our” village. Though jacket-wearing cold in Africa’s winter, our welcoming delegation wore none. Fifteen or so shivering, shoeless children sang us a lively song as our van arrived. We passed out sweaters, then took their digital pictures and showed them, resulting in wild giggles.

We spent all day planting a huge garden of cabbage, onions, tomatoes and 20 banana trees alongside some of the villagers. We took breaks to play with the children, visit homes and attend “school” - a small, dingy brick-and-mud room with cut-out windows. A hundred or so kids from “barely walking” to 8 or 9 crammed onto the dirt floor to sing and imitate the teacher, Miriam, a baby on her hip. No desks, paper, pencils, crayons, chalkboards or books aided Miriam, a villager with passable English and a willing heart. Children with empty tummies and runny noses inspired us with their joy of spirit. They added perspective to our upcoming ordeal.

It was a rewarding day. Theresa Malila felt happy, she told Jerry, who sat in front driving back. I sat behind Theresa with the “street children” she takes along to distract them from their loss: mothers, fathers, siblings. Michael, 8, Theresa, 10, and Angel, 12 were quiet. I was showing Angel pictures of my dogs when a faint sound came from my fanny pack: my cellular.


“It’s Sara,” my sister shouted, voice crackling. The word “died” came clear.

Who died? I yelled. Static, then “died” again.

“Who? Who died?” my screams echoed.

Finally, I heard, “Mother, Mother died.” Then silence.

Sobbing into dirt-caked hands, I felt Angel move and thought about how long I had my mother, and what a short time Angel had hers! Perspective.

Jerry and I had to get out of Africa to Denver - not easy in summer, even as a “compassion case.” But we finally got there to move Mother’s belongings out of Sunrise Assisted Living and into the U-Haul we’d drive to her home-town in Texas. Jerry delivered a beautiful eulogy at her graveside, where she was buried next to Dad.

My large family surrounded us with love.

Maybe it was the stress of travel or the hard (happy) work Jerry did at Swaziland’s El Shaddai orphanage, or the death of my mother, his biggest fan, or the travel, or the upcoming U.S. Senate campaign, or a combination. Or, maybe it was just waiting to happen and Mother led him out of Africa to a safe place, but Jerry woke up the morning after the funeral with severe chest pains - a heart attack. Paramedics, the ER, an angiogram and emergency bypass surgery saved him.

The health of Vietnam POWs has been studied at the Naval Medical Center at Pensacola, Fla., since 1974. Each year those who choose to participate in the study - Jerry is one - have a thorough exam. Now after 32 years of empirical data, one issue is confirmed: atypical cardio-vascular disease, meaning none of the red flag characteristics like family history, smoking, high cholesterol and/or blood pressure, or obesity exists. Despite a healthy diet, exercise and otherwise great blood test results, Jerry is atypical. Accumulatively, his diet, stress, illness and repeated torture over a seven-year period took a toll.

He is recovering. He is strong. He is positive. He is not running for the U.S. Senate from Hawaii. He will be active in other ways and will always serve as he has done his whole life.

We thank you all for your prayers and we are counting our blessings - and the days until we come home to Hawaii.

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