My mother started from scratch and built a beautiful life for us in this country. I am eternally grateful. As an adult, I would be presented with an opportunity to make a small sacrifice to help her. It was a decision that would change my life.
By Muji Kaiser
Mother. For much of my life, that word meant one thing and referred to one person - Maggie Okaja Mbu-Abang, the woman who gave birth to, loved and raised me. When I was three-years-old, in my home country of Nigeria, I fell suddenly ill. Local doctors were unable to diagnose the disease that left me unable to walk and our only hope was to seek treatment in America. Unfortunately, only my mother and I were granted travel visas, so my mother had to make what I imagine would be the most painful decision of her life - leaving my father, three older brothers, and the only life she had known.
Doctors in New York diagnosed me with osteomyelitis, a rare bone disease. Soon-after, they performed the surgery which saved my life. In recovery, my mother sat by my side, fervently praying the rosary. I also recall a prayer to Our Blessed Mother that she would often recite, “I’m all thine, my Queen, my Mother and all that I have is thine.” As a child, I didn't understand the prayer’s significance, but, because of how frequently my mother said it, I knew that it must be meaningful.
After spending a year in recovery at the hospital, we were told that I would need to return for follow-up appointments every six months. We could not afford to travel from Nigeria to the US this frequently, so my mother and I permanently relocated to the US. Years later, my brothers were granted visas and joined us. My mother started from scratch and built a beautiful life for us in this country. I am eternally grateful. As an adult, I would be presented with an opportunity to make a small sacrifice to help her. It was a decision that would change my life.
In 2015, I had been in Los Angeles for about two and a half years and was searching for my professional calling. I had a promising position as assistant to a Hollywood agent in the company’s foundation department. Though I was passionate about working in the nonprofit sector, I was saddened by the fast-paced, cut-throat nature of the entertainment industry and grew increasingly unhappy. So, when my mother called to tell me of her impending back surgery, I knew that I was being called home to help her. Associates asked why I was giving up a promising career for my mother, but I knew that what I was doing for her paled in comparison to the sacrifices that she had made for me.
In Ohio, I began working for a non-profit clinic in Cleveland. I was happy to be reunited with my mother and was thankful for the year we spent together prior to her surgery. While she was in recovery, my siblings and I visited her daily at the rehab facility. One evening, as I sat by her bedside, my mother told me that I was going to be a great wife and a great mother. I often wonder what inspired those beautiful words in that seemingly random moment. Regardless, they will forever bring me joy. The next evening, my mother passed away, as I stood by her side. As she laid in the hospital bed, slipping away, I recited the prayers she had taught me as a child. I cried. My best friend was gone. She would never see me become a wife, or a mother. How would I know how to be those things without her guidance? The next year would be the most difficult year of my and my brothers’ lives, but the events would lead me closer to Christ, through the Mother who had been by my side all along - the Blessed Virgin Mary.
After my mother’s passing, life was a whirlwind. For years, we had been waiting for a response from immigration regarding my dad’s visa application to come to the US, from Nigeria. My mother received the approval notice not long before her surgery, but he arrived in America a few months after her passing. When he arrived, we were proud to show him where we grew up and the life that our mother built for us in America. The joy was only momentary as we soon discovered that our father had advanced prostate cancer. As the months went on, his condition rapidly deteriorated. I had heard about the devastating effects of cancer, but it was my first time witnessing it up-close, and in someone whom I loved dearly. After a few short months with us, my father passed away. My brothers and I lost both parents in less than one year.
A month after my father's passing, 2015 was coming to a close. I was blessed to have a nearby chapel that offered 24-hour adoration. On New Year's Eve, I had the chapel to myself. I spent hours pouring my grief out before the Blessed Sacrament. I had no words, just an overwhelming amount of pain and the feeling that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, laying prostrate before the Lord.
With the new year came a peace and comfort that I never imagined possible, considering the circumstances. I had lost my earthly mother, but I had begun to develop a deep love for my heavenly mother, Mary. As I said the rosary, I thought back to my mother, seated at my bedside when I was ill, reciting the prayer with such devotion. She knew what I would soon discover that the best way to Christ was through his Beloved Mother. Not long after her passing, a friend gave me the book, True Devotion to Mary, by Saint Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort. In reading his words, I finally understood the prayer which my mom had recited with me since childhood, “I’m all thine, my Queen, my Mother and all that I have is thine.” It was a consecration to Mary, in which we promise to give all that we are and all that we have - our goods, both material and spiritual, to Jesus, through Mary. For what better way is there to approach our Lord, than through His Blessed Mother? The world was unworthy, says St. Augustine, to receive the Son of God immediately from the Father’s hands. He has given Him to Mary in order that the world might receive Him through her. In discovering this, I no longer felt motherless.
I could feel my mother helping direct my path from heaven. I imagined that she was praying to Jesus through Mary, asking her to lead me to a life of peace and joy. Her prayers were answered as I got married later that year and soon became pregnant. It broke my heart to think of having my first child without my mother present. Who would teach me how to be a mother? But, God, in his Divine Providence, brought me into a community full of devout and dedicated women; women who beautifully embrace their calling as mothers in a way that's rare in our modern, ultra-feminist society; women who emulate the words of our Blessed Mother, "be it done unto me according to Thy will", through their openness to life and adherence to God’s will. My mother was gone, but I had been given the gift of being surrounded by and learning from the example of exceptional mothers who inspire and motivate me to grow in virtue, humility and faith.
Photo by Kim Baile
I gave birth to our daughter on May 13, 2017, during the 100th anniversary of our Lady of Fatima. We named her Maggie, after my late mother. Prior to her birth, I made the decision to resign from my position at a non-profit mental health clinic in order to be a stay-at-home mother. Not long after quitting that position, I received a call from my late father’s sister, Reverend Sister Mary Rita Abang. Sister Rita and her religious order, the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus (HHCJ), founded and operated an orphanage in rural Nigeria called Divine Providence Home. The orphanage was located in an area severely impacted by the AIDS epidemic and had an overwhelming number of homeless children. During our conversation, Sister Rita mentioned that the Nigerian government discontinued the funding that they initially gave the orphanage. They had about 50 children under their care and were in danger of having to close their doors, due to lack of financial support. I felt that I was being called to use my professional experience in nonprofit management to help find support for the home. In 2017, I founded the Okaja Foundation, a nonprofit organization, in loving memory of my mother. Since 2017, donations made to the foundation have kept the doors of Divine Providence Home open. I often think about how those children lost their parents at such young ages and can’t imagine what they must be going through. Many of them have grown up without any memories of their parents. What must the word “mother” mean to them?
Image provided by The Okaja Foundation
A few months after Maggie’s birth, my husband, Nicholas, and I took her to Nigeria to meet my family and to visit Divine Providence Home. Upon our arrival, the children greeted us with song, dance and enthusiastically curious questions about America. I was amazed. Despite their grief, the children were filled with a contagious amount of joy. Their songs are ones of praise and thanksgiving to God.
Image provided by The Okaja Foundation
Hours passed since our arrival at the home and, although it was getting late, there was so much joy and excitement at the home. I held my daughter and watched as the children danced with infectious smiles on their faces. In that moment, I realized that their joy is a testament to the care, love, and faith-based guidance provided by the sisters. What did the word “mother” mean to these children? I can’t presume to know. But, in Sister Rita and the rest of the sisters who care for them, the children had been given spiritual mothers - mothers who, while not related by blood, were sent by God to nurture these young lives. The vows taken by these sisters means that they will never have biological children of their own. However, they have become spiritual mothers to many vulnerable souls who rely on their prayers, support and love.
Image provided by The Okaja Foundation
Many of the children at Divine Providence Home have been there since birth and will stay until adulthood. Over 140 children have been taken in since the home’s founding. Occasionally, however, some children have been adopted into loving families. Often, the adoptive parents are couples who have had difficulty conceiving. Photos shared with me of the first meeting between the new parents and their child are moving. I am often captivated by the display of emotion on the mother’s face and can only imagine the flood of emotions that must be overwhelming her. A mother longing for a child. A child in need of a mother. Brought together by God, in His Divine Providence.
As a child, my concept of motherhood was limited. I have now come to realize that God calls women to motherhood in various ways, each according to His will. Biological mothers, adoptive mothers, spiritual mothers and mothering those in need through prayer and acts of charity. Each of these forms of motherhood allow us to imitate the virtues of our Blessed Mother, thereby exalting her son and giving greater glory to God.
For more information about the Okaja Foundation, please visit theokajafoundation.org.
Photo by Kim Baile for Theology of Home