a little and a lot

Monday, October 24, 2011

Rarely Early, Never Late

So the VISA.  I know, it's totally unfair of me to leave you with that cliff-hanger in a previous post and then wait this whole time before getting back to it.  But this is going to be a long one, so grab your hot cider in your favorite mug and settle in for the long-haul--this is my FAVORITE part of the story!

Let me review the timeline to catch you up:
Sunday, July 3rd: My mother and I leave Memphis/Atlanta, Ethiopia-bound.
Tuesday, July 5th: We arrive in Addis Ababa and take custody of Rhet.
Wednesday, July 6th: I learn of the expired fingerprints.
Thursday, July 7th: I get my fingerprints taken at the US Embassy in Addis, while Nick figures out what needs to happen back in the States.  We FedEx my completed fingerprints to Nick in Memphis.
Monday, July 11th: Nick receives my FedExed fingerprints and FedExes them directly to his contact at the USCIS office.
Thursday, July 14th: Although the fingerprints get a little "lost" within the USCIS offices, Nick's angel-in-disguise at the office tracks them down and says she'll do her best to get them processed in 24 hours.  (FYI: The first time around, we had our fingerprints done in October 2009 and didn't receive our clearance until April 2010!)
Friday, July 15th: En route to Ethiopia (while in Washington DC), Nick receives word that our USCIS clearance is renewed and is being sent to the National Visa Center in the US.
Sunday, July 17th: Nick arrives in Addis Ababa.

This brings us to Monday, July 18th.  The day after Nick joined us in Addis, we took a "quick" six hour trip south to visit Awassa, Rhet's birthplace.  I could tell you how much fun it is to travel for 6 hours in an old van with no seatbelts, swerving out of the way of cows and goats, with your toddler demanding to take full advantage of her mobility...but instead, I'll tell you that the view out of our windows of the Ethiopian countryside was gorgeous and unforgettable.  :)

The hotel where we stayed luxuriously had wifi in the lobby, and while the trip was short and busy, we took full advantage on Tuesday morning before we left to return to Addis.  I learned through an email from the US Embassy in Addis (on the blessed iPad) that 1) they had received our updated fingerprints/clearance, 2) they had made note of our presence in Addis, and 3) we were not yet cleared for a Visa appointment.

This solidified my email obsession, waiting for that glorious email from the Embassy that would notify us of our clearance for a visa appointment.

We swung by the Ethiopian Air desk in the Hilton hotel when we returned to Addis in late afternoon to change our flight reservations.  (We were originally scheduled to leave Ethiopia that Thursday, July 21st.)  Ethiopian Air told us that all flights were booked until mid-August due to their busiest season and they could not get us on another flight until then.  Feeling unsure of what to do, we let go of our seats on Thursday's flight and decided we would contact our travel agent.

When we returned to Addis Tuesday evening, I had an email waiting from the Embassy letting me know that something in Rhet's file was causing a delay and wasn't expected to be complete until August 28th.

This is a perfect example of a normal day for me in Ethiopia--great news (HOORAY!) followed by disheartening news (WHAT?!) followed by eh--let's wait and see what happens.  Emotional rollercoasting at its best.

Wednesday, July 20th, Nick got the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad altitude sickness.

Thursday, July 21st, (our original date of departure, which our travel agent was able to push back one week for us) our agency told me that the document the Embassy was waiting on was complete and that the party responsible for relaying this information would contact the Embassy again.

Meanwhile, I'd been emailing with our travel agent, and she confirmed that there were no economy seats left on flights in July, but that she could get us into business class on Thursday, July 28th for an EXTRA $3,000 per ticket.  *Gulp*  I was starting to feel like it would cost me my first-born to get home, which was ironic because she was the reason we were there in the first place!  We booked the tickets and we had until Tuesday, July 26th to confirm or change them.

We still needed to be cleared for a visa appointment, after which we were hoping that being present in Addis Ababa already would allow us to get an appointment within a day or so.  After the visa appointment, it takes two business days to process the paperwork before you can leave the country, so the very latest we could get a visa appointment and keep our 10p flight reservations for that next Thursday was Tuesday, July 26th--the same day we had to confirm our flight reservations.

This was a tough part of our wait in Ethiopia, because the news and expectations changed twice a day.  We can go home soon!  Oh, wait, just kidding--you can go home in FOUR EXTRA WEEKS.  Nick was only able to take two weeks vacation time total--he planned to spend the first week with us in Ethiopia and the second at home during Rhet's first week in Memphis.  If we couldn't get out of Ethiopia by that next Thursday, then Nick was going to have to go home without us and we would have to tough it out on our own again until we were able to come home (also without Nick's help).

Well, we just prayed.  Nick was sick and miserable.  Mom and I were in our third week away from home.  Rhet, bless her adorable heart, thought the guest house was our new home.  She acted like she owned the place, literally--objecting when other guests would dig into the food left out for meals or moving guests' feet off of the coffee table.  (Hilarious.)

We were just "over it."  And I felt a tremendous amount of guilt.  I had done this to all of us.  This is not a "normal" experience of going to an Embassy appointment.  I had insisted on going early to be with Rhet, oblivious to what that would require of me.  I had brought my mom with me, who was taking time off of work to be with us and was now just as stuck as I was as she refused to leave me alone in Ethiopia with Rhet (for which I was grateful!).  I had asked Nick to stay as long as he could and now he was laying up in bed, as miserable as I had been.  I had taken custody of this sweet little girl, who had been bonding with us for three weeks and I had NO other option than to stay with her and continue waiting--nothing could be reversed!  Chris Tomlin's new version of "I Need Thee Every Hour" just played on and on in my head and I prayed without ceasing that God would redeem my (for lack of a better word) "mess."

The verse that I clung to and prayed fervently and constantly was Psalm 128:4 (in the Message): "Stand in awe of God's 'Yes.' Oh how he blesses the one who fears God!"

Later that Thursday (7/21), after our agency had given us the encouraging news that the delay should be resolved soon, I received an email from the Embassy with the heading: "Faris Family, Cleared Case."  We jumped for joy in that little hallway in front of the ancient Dell laptop.

There was one snag: the appointment they were assigning to us was two weeks away--on August 3rd.  I immediately emailed them back and explained our situation, asking if there was any way they could get us in by 7/26.  On the end of business hours on Friday, 7/22, they emailed back and said that the very earliest they could get us in would be Monday, August 1st.

We resolved to pray, be persistent, and stay optimistic.  Psalm 128:4, Psalm 128:4, Psalm 128:4...

It was Friday. and the weekend was ahead of us.  Nick was still feeling ill, but he braved a trip uphill (sans Rhet and my mom) to Kaldi's with me, where I thoroughly enjoyed their carmel macchiato and (kind of) french fries.  (SO much better than that first trip!  Ha!)  After regretting the strenuous hike, Nick spent most of Saturday in bed.  On Sunday, we gave it another try and we went to the swanky Sheraton for my birthday brunch (again, just the two of us).  The food was delicious!  I had MILK in my coffee!  Chocolate croissants!  Smoked salmon!  FRUIT!  And the Sheraton toilets...OH the toilets...

(Someday I'll post my complex thoughts on our experience in the Sheraton versus the poverty we witnessed everywhere else. But for now, I'll say that I was so grateful for this extravagant treat.)

On Monday, 7/25, I checked my email every hour.  Nothing, nothing, nothing.  We got out of the guest house for lunch and bravely took Rhet down the hill (in the opposite direction from Kaldi's) to a restaurant for lunch just to do something with our jittery selves.  Three adults for one Rhet proved successful, and she kept us all busy enough to keep our minds off the uneventful morning.  Psalm 128:4, Psalm 128:4, Psalm 128:4....!  The day came and went with no news.

It seemed highly unlikely that the Embassy would give us an appointment on the day they contacted us. I awoke on Tuesday, July 26th, anxious and prayerful.  I felt like Charlie opening his chocolate bar and willing that golden ticket to slip out as I checked my email that morning...but...nothing.

My mother, on the other hand, received a very important email that morning.  It was from her employer, who was upset with her for being stuck in Ethiopia.  He was terminating her employment.  We sat there with dropped jaws in front of that old laptop with its sluggish internet, marveling at the impersonal nature of that email, the awful timing of its arrival, and I boiled inside with guilt over the whole thing.

The day droned on.  No news by breakfast.  Nothing by lunchtime.  Every second was an hour.  We were quiet and subdued as time ran out.

At 2p, with a sliver of business hours left, I began to accept that Nick was going to go home that week without us.  We would stay two more weeks.  I forced myself to look at the positives: We would be here for another fried fish and cake Monday (two more, actually!).  At least there WAS an end date now.  Now we had time to go visit the lion zoo.  I guess this meant my mom had some extra vacation time.  We would run out of diapers soon--a trip to the store to purchase Ethiopian Pampers would need to be lined up.  (We had already done this once.)  I wonder if we'd be able to get seats on a plane or if we would indeed have to wait until late August to leave.  And very quickly those thoughts became little stones weighing my heart down, down, down...I sent the email to our travel agent letting her know that Nick would keep his flight reservation for Thursday, and my mother and I would need to let ours go.  I checked the inbox one more time before pressing "send," but it was empty as ever.  I can't believe He didn't come through, I kept thinking.  My heart just deflated and sank as I realized there was no redemption for my mess.

Nick and I went upstairs to put Rhet down for her nap.  We read,  How big is Elmo?  Sooooo big! and Hello.  Howdy do, little Princess Honeydew!  We sang, "Jesus Loves Me, "and "I am a Sheep," and as we started in on the Nick-n-Jesse 2011 remix of "Go to Sleep Little Baby" and Rhet fought the whole notion of naptime, I started to cry.  I was completely helpless in all senses of the word.  Rhet wiggled and wailed and we rocked and cried.

Downstairs, the phone rang.  (Not uncommon.)

There was the sound of a muffled exchange.  (Not uncommon.)

"JESS!" my mom called.  I handed Rhet to Nick and rushed downstairs.  I went into the little kitchen off the side of the house where the housekeepers were preparing dinner.  I sat down on the little wooden chair in the corner and picked up the corded phone.  It was the social worker from our in-country offices.  The Embassy had called and said they could take us if we could be there NOW--they closed in an hour.

I ran into the hallway, looked at my mom, who was wide-eyed and hopeful, and I said, "Yes.  YES!  Get your stuff!"

I ran upstairs, where Nick was still trying to rock Rhet to sleep.  "Naptime is over," I announced.  "We have an embassy appointment RIGHT NOW!"  We crammed all necessary items into our backpacks, grabbed the Ergo and Rhet's shoes, and rushed downstairs.

The question of whether we'd even be able to get a driver on such late notice was solved immediately.  A driver was just returning from the Embassy to the guest house with some other guests.  When we asked if he could take us to the Embassy, he explained that the social worker had called him on his cell phone and he was on board with the plan.  Nick, my mom, Rhet, and I crammed into the backseat of his SUV, swung by the offices down the road to pick up the social worker, and we were on our way.

We stared out the windows on the 10-minute drive in shock and disbelief.  It started sinking in.  This literally happened in the 11th hour.  This was HAPPENING.  We were all going home TOGETHER in two days!

When we arrived, there was a short wait while they prepared for our meeting.  I showed Rhet the American flag waiving out the window--I am not an overly patriotic person, but I couldn't stop staring at it--it looked beautiful because it looked like home.  The "Today Show" was playing on the mounted TV in the corner.  (I have never been so excited to see Matt Lauer's blessed face!)  They called us up to the window, we answered questions and signed papers, and then we were told, "Congratulations!  You can pick up her Visa on Thursday morning."

Elation and weary relief was just seeping out of us as we walked back to the SUV.  My mom could not stop her steady stream of tears.  Nick and I just kept looking at each other and laughing.  And sweet, adorable Rhet...Little Girl was giddy over "tricking us" out of a naptime!  She just laughed and laughed.

Surprised face!
It was especially then that the old saying, "God is rarely early but never late," just kept echoing in my brain.  I was flooded with gratitude, humbled by this enormous and personal act of mercy.  He DID come through.  In the best way.  I was not on my own--I never was!  I truly stood in awe of God's "Yes."

Oh, and I emailed our travel agent back that evening with the subject heading: "DISREGARD FIRST EMAIL."  Luckily with the time change, she hadn't even begun work that day and we were able to keep our reservations.  In an extra turn of good "fortune," a second flight had been added, so we did NOT have to pay the extra $3,000/person after all!  Well how about that?

The next day (Wednesday), I went back to the Sheraton and this time I took my mom.  We treated ourselves to that amazing brunch and celebrated and processed all that God had done.  I can never express how grateful I am for the huge step of faith, the enormous sacrifice (financially, emotionally, physically), the pouring out of herself for me that my mother exhibited.  She is my very closest friend and what amazing acts of friendship she gave to me in that month!  I hope I can be the same kind of mother to my own daughter.

Thursday afternoon, Nick walked down the street through a downpour to the agency offices to pick up our oh-so-precious documents.  We packed and packed and packed.  We tried to prepare for that never-ending flight with our busy little toddler.  We tied up lose ends.  And at last, the driver arrived with a quick honk of his horn.  We loaded up our many bags and began our last drive in Addis Ababa.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful. Just wonderful.

Lela Elliott

Cody said...

What a great post Jesse!! I was cheering at the end!! I can't wait to meet Rhet! I call dibs on 'Uncle Fuzzy'.

Jane said...

Wow, Jesse! I got a huge lump in my throat toward the end. I cannot imagine all of that waiting and hoping and I can't believe that about your mom's job! What a wonderful story! I am so glad you are sharing it with us.

Julie said...

I'm sitting here snibbling and reading this and feel like my heart if all swelled up for you with love and pride. This is one of those stories I will tuck in my pocket and pull out when I wonder where God is and if he is going to come through. Love you and can't wait to meet her!!

Adopting Rhet: Click on the timeline above to read more