This begins a story of an event that changed my life in ways I could never have imagined.
In 2005, I was a 44-year-old mother who had just become a Christian with a mundane life. I was cleaning houses part time, and aside from my five beautiful children, my only real interest was scrapbooking. My marriage was failing, and I was unsure of my real purpose in life.
It began with an email from a friend asking if I was interested in traveling to Africa with a project called The Memory Book Project. I had never been overseas before, so in October 2005, getting on that plane with five women I didn’t know was way out of my comfort zone. I was scared about losing control, as I cry so easily.
The mission statement of the MBP is “To inspire hope and dignity in parents living with HIV/AIDS and the children they will leave behind”; this is done by making a book using photos and journaling. Sitting with someone for a week listening while they tell their story and leaving messages for children is heartbreaking. Knowing how much we meant to these people by caring enough to listen is humbling.
When I arrived back home in Australia, I knew I had left part of my heart in Africa. I couldn’t help spreading my passion, so in August 2007, there I was stepping on a plane again, this time leading a group of five amazing women. I never pictured myself as a leader, and certainly not on a Christian mission trip. Also, the fact that I had lost my darling dad a couple of months before meant I was feeling a myriad of emotions, including terror and self-doubt.
In 2005 we had worked with people suffering from AIDS, but for the main part they looked reasonably healthy. The care center had a hospice for patients in the advanced stages of the disease, but due to lack of funding, it was empty. This time, however, we had three patients from the hospice participating in the project. We knew that for them, time was running out, and difficult thought it was, it was important their books were completed.
So Hazel and I sat down with Sarah, Jane, and Norman. Jane couldn’t speak English, so Hazel had a translator helping, which was painfully slow. Despite the the difficulty, they managed to complete her book, an amazing effort. I sat down with Norman, who was extremely ill and in complete denial. It was a struggle for the first two days to get any information from him, and even when his younger brother Michael came to talk to me, it was still difficult. The pain in his eyes when Norman argued with him because he wanted a witch doctor to get rid of this thing in his belly was sad. I shed tears of frustration. knowing I was only there for a week and I had to finish his book.
The night before our last day, I warned the girls it was going to be hard to say goodbye to our new friends, knowing that if we returned, most of them would not be there. How could I have known we were about to face the hardest goodbye of all? Arriving at the center the next morning, we discovered Norman had passed away in the night. We were all devastated, but I especially felt like such a failure for not completing his book.
The amazing thing is, after we arrived home we learned Michael had returned to the center—and with the help of a caregiver, finished Norman’s book himself. I know without a doubt that by spending the time with both Norman and his brother Michael, I made a difference. Michael now has documented memories of his brother, and Norman’s last week of life was not spent alone, but with somebody who took the time to care.
I have since returned to Africa three more times to work with these beautiful people. We were six ordinary women but one extraordinary team. What a difference we make by following our hearts, listening, and giving love unconditionally.
Maxine Sommer is a mother of five children and three grandchildren, and lives in Brisbane, Australia. She is an avid scrapbooker, and she has learned that it is not just about making photos look pretty on the page—it is about documenting our stories and our lives. She has a passion for history, reading, and taking photos.