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(DANIEL ZENDER FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
(DANIEL ZENDER FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

How a stranger saved my life Add to ...

The Essay is a daily personal piece submitted by a reader. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

My Gran, Sidney Tebbutt, once gave me a cartoon she’d clipped from a newspaper. It showed a group of grinning sheep walking toward the edge of a cliff, and one sheep, a black one, heading in the opposite direction.

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I’d always felt like an outsider in my family, and I guess this was Granny’s way of saying it was okay. I’d thought something was wrong with me because I could never make my father happy.

Granny wasn’t related to me biologically. She was a married white woman who lived in Canada when she began to write to my father. He was then in his 20s, a single father of four living in a refugee camp in Kenya in the early 1980s. We’d fled the civil war in Uganda following the end of Idi Amin’s regime.

Granny and my father connected when he applied for Canadian citizenship. Her church was doing outreach work at the camp, and with its help Granny eventually sponsored our family to come to Canada.

I was 9, and the second-eldest of the children, when we boarded the flight. None of us had flown before. My younger sister Pam couldn’t believe all the in-flight meals were for us. Ketchup had been a luxury in our years in the camp, and when she saw it she proceeded to pour it on everything, including the chocolate cake.

We were going to “America.” Our uncles had told us money grew on trees there. My sisters and brother were excited about getting a chance to eat apples and see snow. We didn’t know what it would be like where we were going, but knew it would be better than where we had been.

When our plane landed, we saw a tall white woman with grey hair and large glasses. She had flowers in her hands, and as she walked toward us she grinned a warm, wide smile. Right away I loved her.

She took us apple picking in the summer and tobogganing in the winter. When we were baptized she became our godmother, and she never forgot a birthday. Every Sunday, Granny picked us up from our apartment and took us to her house. She made sandwiches and lemonade while we played in the backyard. Eventually, we moved next door, into a house she owned.

After school, we’d run over to Granny’s house. She’d peel potatoes and make chicken stew for us while my big sister played the piano in the den. Whenever we were at Granny’s we felt protected. I dreaded leaving her house, because as soon as we stepped on the sidewalk life became noisy and unpredictable.

Soon after we moved to Canada, my father had begun to drink uncontrollably. Physical and emotional abuse followed. Once, when I came home from a birthday party, he smashed my head against the drywall so hard, it left a hole. My crime: I’d worn a headband in my hair. He then punched me in the face, and when I ran away toward the basement he pushed me down the stairs.

I feared hearing the key turn in the lock whenever my father came home, knowing that yelling and hitting would soon follow.

At school, my teachers would ask me about the bruises. But I never trusted them. Instead I would go see Granny. She told me she loved me and that everything would be all right. No one else had ever told me they loved me.

At night, I cried into my pillow because I didn’t know what I was doing to upset my father. But when I thought about taking my life to get away from him, I imagined how Granny would feel.

Years later, I found out that my father used to visit her as well and confide in her. My grandmother never judged him, but tried to help him. She knew what he had been through during the civil war in Uganda. As I became older, I realized my father probably had post-traumatic stress disorder. He had never been violent toward us before.

Granny never had kids of her own. She’d lived with cancer since she was a young woman. Seven years after we came to Canada, the cancer came back, and this time it killed her.

The day she died, I was watching The Simpsons when the phone rang. I don’t remember who gave me the news, but I didn’t cry. I dropped the phone and knelt on the carpet of my basement apartment. A few weeks earlier, dad had kicked my sister and me out of the house. Granny had co-signed our lease. Her death meant we now had no one to turn to. I was 16.

It rained the day of Granny’s funeral. It was Remembrance Day. The church was so full of mourners that loudspeakers had been placed outside on the lawn. It had been three days since she had died and I still hadn’t cried.

I watched her friend Tom bent over in the pew. He was at least 20 years older than Granny, and recovering from a stroke. Granny used to take care of him. As I watched his body shaking with sobs, I realized I had never seen a man cry.

After the funeral, I went for a walk in the rain. I saw a tree and began to punch it with my bare hands. That’s when the tears came. I felt guilty for not having cried sooner: I’d loved Granny more than anything in the world, yet I hadn’t been able to cry for her.

I don’t know how it happened that Granny became friends with my father. I don’t know how we came to matter to her. I often wonder about that small detail.

What would have happened to my family if she hadn’t cared for us and decided to help us get out of the camp? How long would we have stayed there? Would any of us be alive now?

Granny’s kindness saved us. I owe my life, that of my siblings and our children, to a stranger who became blood.

Nam Kiwanuka lives in Toronto.

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