He just turned 14 this past week and last night was his eighth grade graduation -- high school now beckons. Like every other parent present, I watched as my son Ater strode across the stage to accept his diploma to the cheering of his classmates. Closing in on six feet in height, he beamed from ear to ear. Most of those present understood just how far he had come and what this moment meant.
We adopted Ater from Sudan over three years ago. He had received no schooling and knew mostly Arabic, not English. He had been born to a mother trapped in slavery who was eventually shot attempting to get her children to safety and freedom during Sudan's brutal and costly civil war. He became his young sister's caregiver when he wasn't yet four years of age and that challenging experience forged a maturity and gentleness in him that I have marveled at since the day I met him in a Sudanese village.
It's hard to fathom how far he has come and what he must have endured. We used to hear him screaming at night, haunted by the memories of his mother's slaying. That's all over now, as every night he prays for her, thanking God not just for her early influence on him but the bravery she possessed to take that fateful stab at freedom. It is rather humbling and inspirational at the same time to realize that in 14 years of trial and endurance my son has displayed a kind of grace and maturity that I have yet to attain. Remarkable.
Another discovery last night was that it was my own graduation of sorts. Ater and his sister Achan had joined us after I had been elected to politics. They had hardly known a father and that fact was to haunt me during my years in Ottawa. Having come through so much, they deserved a mom and dad that could assist them every day on their road to discovery. They didn't receive it. What they did get, though, was a mother who is remarkable, a reality affirmed by everyone who knows her. That wasn't sufficient enough to take away my guilt, however.
I lost in this recent election but it was to be my last anyway. I cared deeply about my community and was ennobled by the privilege of representing it in the nation's capital, but my calling as a father I knew to be my greater responsibility. It was only a matter of time until I laid down one form of service for another right in my own home. Last night I realized I had made it -- my graduation of sorts. All of those important events in Ater's young life that I had missed were now things of the past. I was now assuming a greater role.
Say what you like about politicians and their susceptibility to party behaviour or lack of decorum in the House; what they pay in personal sacrifice is far more than anyone can comprehend -- especially in family life. The hours are endless, the stress daunting, the travel exhausting. I have no doubt that the guilt and pressure I felt every day I was absent from my kids was replicated hundreds of times in Ottawa. Most of these individuals head to the House of Commons or the Senate for the best of reasons and their belief in public service at that level costs more than we imagine. Hats off to all of them for their willingness to be apart from loved ones for a broader good.
But that's not me anymore -- I've graduated. I am now ready to assume a role I craved for over three years and now is my time. I desire public service and every moment with my family that I can muster. Surely I can't be blamed for that. If you could have seen the wisdom and joy in my son's face last night, you would have understood. Now I have to struggle to catch up with him.
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