Nkosi's Haven: Courage, Redefined.
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As the plane descended into Rwanda, the sun was doing the same. It was gorgeous to see, and interesting to note how different the landscape is from Kenya given the fact they're pretty close together geographically.
The plane was about an hour late to land. With my layover scheduled only as an hour and a half, the possibility for a lot of trouble seemed pretty high. Luckily, the Kigali airport is about the size of an elementary school, and getting from the arrival to transfer terminal was about 50 steps. But I had to go through security again, and after downing about a half bottle of wine on the hour flight, with little water during the day, I was feeling pretty warm in my head.
So, I politely told her that was ridiculous, and unless a peanut butter and jam sandwich was explosive (or gave me explosive diarrhea), that everything and everyone on the plane would be safe. She hemmed and hawed for a couple minutes, which made me feel like a turd for holding up the rest of the line, and finally let me through without force-feeding myself nuts and raw tea leaves. Interestingly enough, she didn't care about my alcohol-based hand sanitizer or anything else in my pockets.
With the wine and coffee finally hitting my bladder, I hit up the loo on the plane before takeoff. When I came back to my seat, someone had made themselves comfortable in it, and asked if he wouldn't mind moving. But then I noticed the vacant exit row seat right behind me, and told him he could have it. So now my legroom doubled, and I got to chat with a nice lady from Namibia and drink more wine and coffee and have more food.
We got to talking about the journey, and I shared with her my observations about (some) white people in places like Kenya imposing their own culture in a condescending way on the locals, trying to "save the poor little brown kids", being bored in gorgeous places, etc. She agreed with all of those things and, as a journalist, has witnessed a lot of the same. I told her I saw someone's facebook profile whose job description was "single-handedly saving Africa." She replied, "what an ass."
After a nice flight, I landed in Johannesburg at around 11pm, and I could already tell the experience here would be much different than the last five months. From the sky, it looks like a sprawling metropolis, the propensity of lights indicating it's a pretty Westernized - or, at least, energy rich - country.
Customs took all of 30 seconds to get through. Being an American in many countries is tantamount to being in the club. All things being equal, though, it's probably not the best club to be in if I were to visit Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Russia, China, North Korea, Pakistan, Kazakstan, or Turkmenistan right now. Otherwise, VIP!!
Grabbed a taxi, and immediately realized my assumption of this being a lot different here was justified. There are immaculately maintained roads, highways, streetlights, and signs. I got to my new placement, Nkosi's haven, at midnight and crashed.
(Borrowed from www.nkosishaven.org)
Nkosi’s Haven is a recognized NGO in South Africa that has been in operation since 1999 offering holistic care and support for destitute HIV/AIDS infected mothers, her children, and resulting AIDS orphans (infected or not).
Nkosi’s Haven is named after Nkosi Johnson, the young AIDS activist who passed away on International Children’s Day on June 1st 2001, who dearly wanted a facility that would care for the mom and her child. He had been separated from his mom because of the HIV diagnosis and he never wanted that to happen to any other child. He also wanted HIV positive people to be cared for without discrimination or prejudice.
At Nkosi’s Haven, all of our mothers and children (currently totalling approx. 160) live in total ‘freedom’ at one of our two locations in Johannesburg. All of our children attend private schools (in the bridging sense), receive all disciplines of therapy (play, remedial, occupational, speech, and hopefully soon art), and we are working on providing sporting lessons as well. Our mothers are encouraged to build their capacity through various activities, during which, if leadership and initiative is shown, an internal position will be offered (such as cook, childcare worker, matron, resident manager etc.) Further, we ask mothers to ‘foster’ our young resident orphans, hopefully providing for some additional support in substitute for the loss of their own mothers.
Through all of the work we do, we ensure that our residents learn how to live with AIDS, not die from it. With this objective in mind, we have built a happy and energetic community were our children can develop and become self-confident, mature, and responsible members of their community.
I didn't know who was who or what to do or where to go. Keep in mind, I found this place through Google and have only emailed back and forth with one of the two women in charge of Nkosi's. I figured a good place to start would be to meet these two. From the get-go, I could tell this place is going to be great.
The two women, Gail and Lynn, are sassy, no BS older women. They have a sign on their door which reads: "Live your life in such a way, that when you get out of bed each day and put your feet on the ground, the devil says, 'Oh shit, they're awake!'" Talking with them, even for a brief few minutes, made it clear that this place is well run, well taken care of, and will be a good home away from home for as long as I stay.
The work started right away this morning, as I helped some of the volunteers put together shelves and bookcases, hammer stuff into other stuff, and haul things around. Everyone here is really friendly.
In the afternoon, when the kids come home from school, they have two hours of study time and, for those who could use a little assistance, tutoring. Lynn asked me to tutor a 12-year-old boy, who she said is incredibly polite and responds really well to male role models. She's right about the polite part - this is one of the most humble and polite 12-year-olds I've met, and I look forward to working with him.
One other thing to note here is the food: it's delicious. Especially given the fact it's made it for over 150 people, which is like catering a wedding every day. Three meals a day right outside my little cottage I'm staying in? Awesome.
<--- Penis enlargements + Abortions for all!
The only similarity between Johannesburg and Nairobi, aside from being on the same continent, is the Toyota van that serves as the taxi here and the matatu in Kenya. Why are these so popular?
Anyway, I went to a place called "The Top of Africa" and saw a panorama of the whole city. It's supposedly the tallest building, south of the equator, in Africa. I believe it. Afterwards, we walked across the Nelson Mandela bridge and had some delicious food at a mall nearby. In case you wondered, yes: ice cream, coffee, and Jameson is a delicious combination for a beverage.
It's great to see how many donations come into Nkosi's, and even greater that the majority of them aren't just, "hey, these shoes have holes in 'em, gum and cow poop all over the soles, but hey...figured you guys could use 'em", but rather quality clothes and food and sports equipment. Once a week, the residents of Nkosi's can visit the Wendy House and exchange clean clothes for clean clothes, school supplies, and the like.
At night time, I found out that Nkosi's has a choir that practices every Friday at 7PM. I decided to check them out tonight, and was invited to sing with them, but reminded them, "I'm just a rapper, you guys are actual singers." They're great! A bit rough around the edges sometimes, but holy wow they've got some seriously beautiful voices and harmonizing like nobodies business.
I saw some great and not so great art, people watched, and had one of the best spring rolls, pieces of chocolate, and smoothies I've had in my life.
After tutoring Petros today, I heard one of the residents at Nkosi's rapping quietly. I told him he should rap louder. His name is Lucky, he's in his early 20's, and he rapped for me over some Waka Flocka Flame (yes, that's an actual rapper's name. sad face.) beats. He's got some potential, and I think it'd be great to include him on the song project I'm putting together.
Paint en-toe, I got back to Nkosi's and taught some of the other volunteers tricks of the trade I picked up when apprenticing for a couple months under a professional painter. Painting is one of those things that looks a lot easier and more enjoyable than it actually is. And new painters, I've found, no matter how much you show them what to do and what not to do, always make the area look like a murder scene. It's one of those hands-on learning things that really takes some time to teach and learn. Progress is being made, though, and it'll be great to have a team tackle each room.
Also, I learned some words in Zulu, one of the eleven languages spoken in South Africa. ELEVEN! It's ironic that this is apparently where the "missing link" fossils were found, 2.4 million year old remains of what are thought to be the first human beings, and that the Tower of Babel apparently decided to be initially erected here.
After work today, all of the volunteers were invited to Gail's house to attend a going away party for a volunteer who had been at Nkosi's for a year. It was pretty great, and here are some of the highlights of why that was the case:
- Gail's two dogs look like mixtures of lions and german shepherds and are incredibly friendly.
- The food was INcredible. Smoked salmon. Chicken curry. Stuffed potatoes. Salad. Red wine. Beer. Dark chocolate tequila...more dark chocolate tequila.
- The conversation was fantastic. Gail and Lynn swear more than my grandma did, which is really saying something.
- One of the doors in the house got stuck and wouldn't budge, and yours truly got to kick it down all manly like (even though it took me about ten tries...)
...So there I was, an hour later, driving on the left side of the road. Apparently the grim reaper had plans for me yet today. A couple of the volunteers, myself included, needed to get groceries, and I needed to get more paint. Again. This was my first time driving on the opposite side, and aside from having to get use to the stick shift being on the left, and hitting the windshield wiper every time I wanted to turn on the turn signal, the drive was a success. My first time driving a car in six months, and it happened to be about the size of a go-kart.
There are some residents of Nkosi's, both old and young, who have pretty progressed HIV, and require medicine almost constantly throughout the day. They were polite enough to move into somewhat cramped quarters in the other sickbay until we were done with the project, which was nice of them. It was also nice of them to provide me with a little perspective when I'd get frustrated at someone spilling paint or me having a little bit of a stuffy nose.
Being able to experience more of the landscape and scenery was a treat on its own. Even just a few kilometers north of the city, everything becomes more rural: large rock formations, rolling hills, farms, and small little villages all polkadot the landscape. Think Southwestern US, but not quite as dry.
The best thing about attending this event, even more than the delicious (and free!) food and drinks, was seeing how well respected Gail is by everyone who spoke to her about Nkosi's, and how the people came together - whether they were just there to win prize money in the race or knowingly attended because it was a benefit relay - to support a place like Nkosi's. Community is a beautiful thing.
At the end of the event, Gail was presented with one of those oversized novelty checks, which I've always wanted to hold (and did!), for 25,000 Rand, or about $2,500. A beautiful day.
In the evening, a couple of us hiked up a small mountain that Nkosi's borders and took in the sunset. Because of the smog in Johannesburg, it was easy to stare at the sun as it cascaded over the skyscrapers of downtown. A wonderful end to a good weekend.
I can't even remember the last time in the relatively recent past when I sat down to only listen to music, eyes closed, headphones on, nothing else. There's beauty in that. There's calm. There's peace. Nowadays, I mainly listen to music on my phone, on my computer, or in the car. But in each of those cases, I'm doing something else at the same time. In just a brief moment, she reminded me of the power music has to help us transcend our troubles.
Petros grew up in Free State, which is a ways away from Johannesburg. It's not the safest place for a kid to grow. When he was younger, around Christmas time, he was walking with some friends outside. A man pulled up next to them, offering some of the kids candy. Petros remembered his dad telling him not to talk to strangers like that, so he ran away. The other kids approached the car. They were shot and killed by the man. Petros saw their blood on the ground the next day.
Both of his parents were soldiers. When he was six, he spent a year in the hospital. Soon after getting out of the hospital, his parents died. He went to live with his grandma, who then took him to live at Nkosi's shortly after, where he has been for the last five years.
He's a remarkable kid, and I can't even begin to fathom or pretend to possess one fraction of the courage and strength he has in order to make it to where he is now.
After I finally got it all built, and tested that it would be safe for a baby to sleep in, I asked one of the other volunteers to come and help me move it. Bad move. Within 15 seconds of finishing it, it was taken apart because, despite my instructions to lift from the bottom, they lifted from the top, asked, "why is it coming apart?" as they kept lifting. Before I could tell them "because it's put together with wooden pegs and that easily fit into one another and it's stable unless you lift from the exact place where you are now" it'd come undone. Since they hadn't learned how to build furniture, they wandered off and left me to clean up after them. I felt like I was in an IKEA.
So I woke up early this morning to go to the paint store. Again. I was told to wait 10 or 15 minutes. 15 minutes later, I was told 10 or 15. And again. Two hours later, I finally got there. What was I, waiting for a seat at a Chinese restaurant?
Anyway, the second sickbay room got done and it's pink as pink can be.
I got a bit of good news today. Lynn and Gail called me into their office and told me they'd decided not to charge me for staying at Nkosi's because of the work I've been doing. While they were hardly charging me anything as it was, it's going to help me save money for the rest of the journey. Incredibly nice of them.
If and when you visit Johannesburg, ride the Gautrain. It's incredibly fast, cheap, and cleaner than any form of public transportation I've experienced anywhere else. The only drawback, on the weekend, is the train only runs every half-hour, so when you make it there at 12:01, you have a lot of sitting to do. When you make it at 12:00.01, like I did, you have even more.
Now, the running store closed at 1. That'd be fine if I made the train when I'd intended. Instead, the train arrived at 12:40, and I had 20 minutes to run about three miles in non-running shoes and a backpack with all of my documentary equipment. I made it to the store with one minute left. New shoes purchased, I was able to catch my breath.
I also had the good fortune of meeting one of the longest supporters of my music, who happens to live in Johannesburg, for lunch. It was wonderful to be able to share stories and interact with someone who has been such an ardent supporter of my work since the beginning, and it was an added bonus that he is a down-to-Earth, well-spoken guy.
He was also kind enough to give me a ride to one of the universities in town, where Nkosi's choir was performing as part of a concert with other choirs from around the greater area. The concert was beautiful, and the choir from Nkosi's performed masterfully. Rather than write inadequately about it, I'll post a recording that I made of their performance here:
Though I don't think I have the (infinite) patience required to be a teacher for my occupation, I've enjoyed the bit I've experienced by teaching some of the kids hip hop at the orphanages, and I know that every good teacher will tell you it's all worth it for those times when they have a breakthrough with a student, and something happens that truly moves them. Today I got to experience a small taste of that.
Petros and I worked on his the structure of his verse for the song some more. I had him write ten things he would like to be sure everyone who heard the verse knew about him. I asked him if he wanted to send a message to a kid who might now be in the same position that he was growing up. He said that he'd tell them "you are special just the way you are. Nobody can change that or take it away from you." I don't know about you, but if I were a kid listening and going through incredibly tough times, and a kid who has lived through and triumphed over it said that to me, it'd be enough to help me get through. I'm proud of him for this. It's another example of his age belying his life experience. He's a rare one.
He also wrote me a letter that took me aback, about what he wants to be sure to do with his life moving forward. Among them were, "live my life with confidence and rap on stage with no doubt in myself." He also wrote about how grateful he was to me for teaching him about confidence and music, but let's be honest: he's taught me far more than I'll ever be able to repay.
This level of accountability is rare, and it says quite a bit about the level of respect each one of the members of Nkosi's has for one another, and about the level of responsibility for one's own actions that they all help to instill in one another, and that Gail makes sure all follow through on. Though the moms and caretakers were disappointed in her for going out and getting drunk in the first place, they were proud of her for the courage it took to stand up in front of 150+ people and admit your wrongs.
We went over the usual curriculum I've given at each of my hip hop classes the last couple months: confidence, flow, rhyme, beat, bars, breath control, etc., etc., etc. I pointed to something in the room and asked him to rhyme a word with it. At first I pointed to a chair. Within 5 seconds he said, "hair." I pointed to the ceiling. Without missing a beat, he said "feeling." Keep in mind this is a kid who speaks about 4 languages fluently, and English was not his native language. Remarkable.
Then, it came time to start writing a couple bars. Our goal for today was simple: 4 bars, which is about 12 seconds of music in a hip hop track. We started it like this:
My name is Petros, I was born in '01
Life tries to kill you where I come from
Young, I may be, but I've seen a lot
Gunshots, 5 kids dropped, I just run
The other astonishing thing is he knew, intrinsically, when and where to take a breath, how to stay on beat, and wait to come in on the offbeat. He's a talented kid.
Also, we finished painting the reception room today, in a nice sky blue and white. Take a look.
*Side note: I've realized that anytime I look at something, or pick it up or set it down, and think to myself "don't forget this", I always, without fail, do. Episode 534564509813 of this is leaving my room keys at the field, and having to run back and get them in the pitch black.
9.5 - 9.7.13
The relative stress of almost certain vehicular death or paralysis was worth it for the views, the fun, and the peace at the farm. And, to find out what really is down one of those unmarked-type roads I've driven past countless times.
9.8 - 9.9.13
South Africa's Kruger Park, on the other hand, is massive and in no way feels like a game reserve. Well maintained roads stretch on for hundreds of kilometers, no one is allowed to drive off-road, and you can go 20 - 30 minutes without seeing another soul (aside from an animal). It was gorgeous. If you make it to South Africa, it's more than definitely worth the journey.
Now, I don't mind if people sleep when I drive. Someone's got to do be the driver, and as long as there's a co-pilot helping to navigate, the rest can sleep. But when it's 18 hours of driving in one day, driving on the opposite side of the road, with endless streams of people walking on the shoulder, and semis driving 10mph and forcing you to pass on a blind turn lest you get rear-ended by the cars behind you, a simple "hey, thanks for driving" would be somewhat appreciated. And when that doesn't come? Well...figs.
We finished working together on it today, and here it is. I hope you like it.
My name is Petros I was born in 01
Life tries to kill you where I come from
Young, I may be, but I've seen a lot
Gunshots, five kids dropped, I just run
Spent a year in a hospital bed
Soon as I got out both parents were dead
No time to hang my head, I had to move away
With my grandma to Joburg where I live today
Now I live in Nkosi's, my family is enormous
My new mom Gail gives food and school for us
To me that's freedom. I can make the most
Of my life, a dark past, but my future is bright
My one wish for the world is for war to stop
That's why one day I will be a cop
There are many kids like me and for us life is hard
But you and I are special, just the way we are
I helped Petros practice rap his verse out loud today. I played the beat with my fists on the table, and he recited bar after bar over and over until he started to memorize them, learn where to breathe, and when to pause or keep the flow going. No surprise, he gets it right away. The only thing he's really having trouble with is projecting his voice (confidence) and not trying to make all the words fit the beat. But he's practically already there.
To give him his first taste of stage fright, I had him perform the track for Gail. She was genuinely, visibly taken aback by his performance and lyrics. After he went back to the homework room, Gail informed me she'd be passing on his work to one of her friends who works at a Juliard prep school in Johannesburg. If he got in there? Sky's the limit for this kid.
One of the women, about 30, has two children. One has HIV and one doesn't. She didn't know she had HIV until she was pregnant. She used to be a caretaker for people with Aids and never thought that she would get it. When she was diagnosed, she thought about killing herself, but quickly decided against it because she wanted to stay alive for her children. That's the thing that keeps her going each day. The dream to one day see her kids graduate from school and live full, productive lives. She had a stroke a little while ago, which caused her to lose most control of one side of her body, so she gets around with a cane. She always has a smile on her face and one of the most infectious laughs I've ever heard.
Another one of the women I interviewed is a 17 year-old, who has a 2 month old son with her in the sickbay at Nkosi's. Both have HIV. She started the baby on anti-virals the day she knew he would test positive, and there's a chance it could completely wipe the HIV out of her son's system. The guy who infected her is in prison. She didn't know he was HIV positive before it was too late. Her insight into how she got it, and her on-camera advice for girls around the world was something that belied her age.
It was also interesting to hear accounts from them about how some people still think you can get HIV from sharing a kitchen with someone who has it, or by hugging them, or sleeping in the same area. The most shocking thing is that the people who thought this have been volunteers from predominantly Western countries. I have no idea how people could either a) be taught information as archaic and false as that, or b) not know any better. Wow.
Petros and I also recorded his verse today. He had the whole thing memorized already, and we went through it about 15 times, which really isn't that much when it comes to recording a track. Back home, I often record a verse 50+ times before I'm happy with it. Really looking forward to seeing how the whole song comes together.
Today I also was lucky enough to be granted an interview with the main nurse in sickbay. Of course nurses, by profession, deal with a lot of death. I can't imagine how difficult the job must be, nor can I convey how much respect I have for those who do the job well. I've always thought one of the most difficult parts of being a nurse, either in a medical or hospice setting, would be building relationships and bonds with incredible people who are on death's doorstep, and having to be ready to say goodbye to them at any time.
In a place like Nkosi's, where the patients often have children who are living on-site, that nearly inexpressible anguish is amplified. She said that one of the things that helps her get through is to re-direct the pain of losing a friend to supporting the loved ones they leave behind. A truly remarkable, caring woman.
The first day I met Gracie, she was working in the kitchen, and had the most raidant smile on her face. It was dinner time. She'd been up since 4am working in the kitchen, prepping all of the meals for the day, cooking, and cleaning. Then she goes to help her son with his homework until about 10-11, and does it all over again the next day. She's 55. I was immediately struck by her authenticity and candor she effortlessly exudes. That carried over to the interview with her.
Here's her story in brief: at 8 years old, she needed to work to help provide money for her family. She sold beer and alcohol near Johannesburg, and learned the trade early on. She met a boy and fell in love. Together, they opened a pub/restaurant that was incredibly successful. The boy, now her husband, fell sick. It wasn't until they went to the doctor, together, that her husband told her he had AIDS. By the time she found out, she already had HIV and passed it on to their firstborn son, and she was pregnant with their second child. It didn't take long for AIDS to take his life. Shortly after he died, she gave birth to her second son. Now a widow and young mother of two, her husband's family accused her of poisoning him in order to take his part of the company. They fought in court for control over all of their assets - house, car, money - and won. She was homeless, living under a bridge, with two baby boys.
She met Gail who had recently adopted the 12 year-old Nkosi (the namesake of Nkosi's haven), who himself had AIDS. Gracie worked as one of Nkosi's caregivers. She was giving Nkosi a bath when he slipped into a coma from which he never awoke. Just a few weeks later, Nkosi died. Gracie has lived at Nkosi's Haven from the beginning, and worked as hard as she does now every day she has been there. She does it because she knows the pain the women and children here go through, and she wants to bring a smile to their day.
Seeing tears on her face during parts of the interview, and then her beaming smile and infectious laugh at other parts...it made me realize this is a soul who is truly alive, facing everything that life has brought her way. What a magic spirit.
Before leaving today, I had an interview with Gail, the director of Nkosi's. She's up there with Visma, from Namaste Children's Home in Nepal, as the best directors of orphanages I've met. We covered a large range of topics over the course of the hour-plus interview and, similar to Gracie, her effortless candor and charisma shone through on her answers to my questions. Watching her interact with the kids, moms, caretakers, and volunteers over the last month, it's clear that she runs Nkosi's Haven out of love and a desire to help, not to get a paycheck or add another story to her house. (I later found out she hardly makes enough to stay alive from the salary she gives herself at Nkosi's. She, just like most of the people she helps take care of, lives month-to-month).
Saying bye to Petros, after all the time we spent together at homework and music, was also a tough one. I bought him a lyric book, and wrote a little note inside in hopes of inspiring him to continue working on the (incredible) talent he has.
And, finally, saying bye to everyone else: Gracie, the women in the sickbay, the dozens of other incredible kids, the moms, some of the fellow volunteers. I still haven't mastered this art yet,and I think, maybe, that's an OK thing.
For my upcoming 18 hour Greyhound journey to Cape Town, Gracie said she was going to make me a sack lunch. The sack lunch turned out to be a literal two pounds of the best chicken I've ever tasted, four double-stacked burgers, and a gallon-sized tupperware container of carrots, cucumber, tomatoes, and feta cheese. Some day, when I can afford it, I'd like Gracie to be my tour chef/therapist/surrogate aunt.
Goodbye, Nkosi's. I'll never forget.
I also sat next to a man from Germany who was a professional trombone player for almost 50 years. Hearing his stories of tour-life, growing up, and words of wisdom was a nice treat.
I got into Cape Town in the early afternoon, and it was pouring rain. So I got some good food, caught up on emails from the confines of my hostel, and got some much needed sleep.
While I didn't get to see much of the natural beauty of Cape Town due to the weather, I did get to go to an incredible, and massive, Indian restaurant. It's in a place downtown and the length of a city block (but very narrow). It's basically fast-Indian-food, ridiculously cheap, and delicious. I ordered butter chicken, garlic naan, and falafel with humus. I figured the portions, based on the $1-2 price would be pretty conservative. The naan was literally the size of my torso, the butter chicken had about two full breasts in it, and the humus was the equivalent of going to Costco, buying the tub of humus, and emptying it out onto a plate (with a dozen golf-ball sized pieces of falafel). So, I had lunch for the next day (which was about halfway gone by the time I got back to the hostel due to sharing with several homeless folks).
Table Mountain is one of the new 7 natural wonders of the world. I don't know if it was the new accolade or the gorgeous day, but there were tons of people here, so parking was a bit difficult. When I finally found a space after navigating through the maze of pedestrians, this guy was standing in the spot because apparently he needed to practice posing for an upcoming Dockers ad, which made parking in said spot a bit of a challenge since he didn't think it necessary to move:
But it wasn't all for naught. I drove back up the west coast of the peninsula and pulled off the side of the road, next to a lighthouse, and watched - in complete solitude - one of the most serene, unreal sunsets I've ever witnessed. The only sound was the tide rolling in, an occasional bird in the distance, or the clack-clack of rocks tumbling over one another as the water pulls them out to sea. The silence here is something I haven't experienced in quite some time, and it gave me the opportunity to look inward and reflect.
To anyone who reads this who I've met on the journey...kids, caretakers, directors, fellow volunteers, strangers...know that I appreciate you. You helped teach me, even if I wasn't always as present for you as you deserved. I remember you and the memories you helped me create.