The Next Page: A tale of two villages
A painting by Patrick Donovan: An angel watches over his family as they walk to find a new home after their village was sacked.
"Like the mythical bird, Patrick has risen from the ashes. Twice."
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Patrick Donovan was one of the first Ugandan orphans allowed to be adopted outside of Africa. When he turned 16 in 2006, his adoptive parents, Jean and Ron Donovan of Oakmont, encouraged him to find an after-school job in their neighborhood.
His first attempt, at a local restaurant, met with abrupt dismissal. But a diner who overheard the conversation encouraged the shaken boy to walk down to Hoffstot's and apply there.
Hoffstot's and its sister restaurant, Chelsea Grill, a few doors down, have been owned and managed by brothers Tommy and Danny Monaco for more than 40 years. One or both brothers are almost always on hand.
When Patrick arrived at the front door that day, he felt intimidated.
"It just seemed too expensive-looking ... too fancy," he recalled. He paced back and forth, struggling to surmount his fear of another rejection. An inner voice urged, "Just go, go ... go in."
He went in.
A hostess gave him an application and encouraged him to fill it out on the spot. Danny Monaco happened to be there. "Can you start tomorrow?" he asked.
Ecstatic -- and relieved -- Patrick raced home to share the good news with his parents.
Six years later, Patrick, now 22, recounted how his father hugged him tightly that day. "I am so proud of you, son!" But just a few months later, Mr. Donovan, a pilot, would drop dead at the age of 64.
"I loved him so much," Patrick said, eyes glistening. "Ron had a very special heart. He was brave ... wise. He came to all my sporting events and always encouraged me even when I was losing -- 'Keep moving, son, just keep moving.' I can still hear him saying that."
Ron Donovan was the second father Patrick had lost. When he was 10, he witnessed his biological father's decapitation by Kenyan marauders as they invaded his rural Ugandan village of Kizo, population 100.
During the mayhem, a spear thrown at Kabagambe, Patrick's Ugandan name, penetrated all the way through his left forearm. He pulled it out. Then, at the breakneck speed he would become known for on Oakmont's Riverview High School track team a few years later, he raced into the jungle to distract the raiders from his family and maybe save his own life.
Patrick recently rolled up his shirt sleeve to reveal a mound of scar tissue where the spear entered his flesh. He is tall and slim now, and fit. He commutes to work and travels everywhere by bike. And he runs at least several miles most days.
"I was so small and skinny back then. I think the food here makes you grow fast because now I am 6 feet high and big," he told me, flashing his high-wattage smile.
Patrick's hair is closely cropped and his eyes, as African dark as his skin, often shimmer -- with tears of sorrow, with joy or gratitude. A pewter cross with a phoenix on top hangs around his neck. He created it in a high school art class. Like the mythical bird, Patrick has risen from the ashes.
Rolling down his sleeve, Patrick resumed describing his night of horror 12 years ago.
Bolting into the jungle was a huge risk, but he saw it as his only chance to survive. Even armed men, he told me, feared the thick, dark curtain of forest, alive with snakes, panthers, tigers, gorillas and baboons.
But caught between certain death and possible survival, the boy pulled the spear from his arm and ran, clasping his wound to stanch the flow of blood. "I was a lot terrified, but it was my only hope," he recalled.
Kabagambe collapsed against a tree to catch his breath, then he climbed it. Only at that point did he feel safe enough to cry.
Years earlier, he'd been trained that tears were dangerous in war-torn Uganda: "They kill you faster if you're crying."
"All night long, I cried hard ... and prayed and prayed: 'Mother Mary, help me.' That first night, I dreamt of Mary in a white sky. Everyone I had just seen die was standing around her, alive again. It gave me hope. I never gave up."
When Kabagambe emerged from the jungle, weeks later, only his grandfather recognized him.
Kabagambe's daily life had been burdensome well before the rampage. "My childhood was like being a slave -- and getting hit on the head too much. I was not free."
Even on 130-degree days, his first duty was to fetch water from a stream a mile from his home, a circular thatched hut with dirt walls. He carried it back in three jerry cans, one on his head and one in each hand. He also served as herd-boy, caring for the family goats and cattle when he wasn't chopping wood or digging out roots to clear land for crops.
Maize, sweet potatoes, beans, mangoes and oranges most often comprised the family's once-daily meal. Meat was reserved for a few times a year.
"The village was so much suffering."
Two weeks after his miraculous return from the jungle, Kabagambe's mother died from a chronic, undiagnosed illness. "I miss her so much. She gave me the kindness. She was most kind, always inviting all the kids to eat, gathering them from the street.
"Her heart was so pure. She still walks with me, on my shoulder," he said softly, glancing at his left shoulder, smiling. "In English, her name means 'alleluia.' "
When Patrick and his sister Maria were adopted in 2003, Jean Donovan was a theology professor at Duquesne University where she met Patrick's Uncle Kizito, a priest. Eventually, Father Kizito encouraged the Donovans to visit Uganda to consider adopting his niece and nephew. Two trips and countless bureaucratic hoops later, the Donovans brought their new children to Oakmont. Patrick was 13; his sister, 11.
Patrick's eyes widened as he recalled his first impression of the United States. "We arrived at night and -- oh, my! -- the bright lights of the city! I immediately saw the world with new eyes -- eyes of color.
"Oh my! I was so nervous when I saw all the cars rushing by, the roads, the beautiful bridges -- and electricity!
"And then, during my first winter, when the snow came down, so white, so beautiful, I thought -- this must be what heaven's like."
Patricia Black, 65, then the librarian at Riverview High School and now the "grandma" in Patrick's handpicked extended family, had promised to teach him and Maria how to make snow angels the first time enough snow fell.
Over coffee in an Oakmont cafe, Ms. Black described their angel-making adventure. "Afterwards, I couldn't get up! It was worth it, though -- those kids were so excited by all that whiteness."
Back in 2006, during Patrick's first month busing tables at Hoffstot's he often worked alongside co-owner Tommy Monaco, who helps clean up when he isn't chatting with diners. Patrick hadn't been introduced to him yet, so he assumed Mr. Monaco was just another busboy.
One evening, Mr. Monaco invited Patrick to dine with him after work. After a month of shared dinners, another busboy asked him, "Uh ... do you know that's the boss you're eating with?"
"What?! Then I cried. I told Mr. Tommy: 'You're the first friend I made here at work -- and you are the boss!' We joked and laughed. He is so open, such a friendly man."
Five years later, Patrick calls Mr. Tommy "Dad." After Ron Donovan's sudden death, Patrick's relationship to him gradually evolved from valued employee to surrogate son.
"From the beginning, it was a joy to have him working here," Mr. Monaco said. "Patrick is very polite ... all the customers like him. In fact, when they didn't see him, they'd ask for him.
"Then, after his dad died, I started to see him as a kid who could use some male companionship. So I began to take him out to lunch on some Sundays. My wife Fran and I often take him to Steelers games ... concerts at Heinz Hall.
"I'll never forget one of the times we were taking a ride in my convertible -- Patrick loves it -- and he said, 'You know, Mr. Tommy, I lost my dad in Uganda; I lost my dad here, but now I have you ... and being with you eases my pain.' "
After a pause to regain his composure, Mr. Monaco continued ... "He got in the habit of joining Fran and me for Saturday afternoon Mass at St. Irenaeus. One time, I look up and he is gone from the pew. Suddenly I see him on the altar! He noticed that no altar servers were up there, so he went right up to help the priest, even though he'd never been trained. That's Patrick, always willing to help out."
Barbara Stuart, family and consumer science instructor at Riverview High School and now an "aunt" in Patrick's self-selected family, said, "He will give you anything. He would give his clothing away if it saved someone."
Ms. Stuart was born in Durban, South Africa, where she lived for most of her life. So when Patrick and Maria arrived at Riverview "extremely timid, yet most responsible and honorable," she was aware that the newcomers needed to unlearn certain African customs to ease their transition to American culture.
"Children throughout Africa are taught never to make eye contact when adults are speaking to them and never to disagree with an adult," she said. "Any infraction results in being beaten."
And so, to avert misunderstandings, Ms. Stuart coached Patrick, Maria and their teachers about such cultural differences.
Although he graduated from high school three years ago, Patrick remains close to Ms. Stuart and her family. He dines with them often and cares for their lawn when they're away.
"He loves gardens, nature, the land ... Remember, he actually did subsistence farming as a child."
During the summer of 2009, Patrick's newly widowed mother decided to move to California. She encouraged Patrick to return to Uganda to visit his beloved grandfather, who was 94 and in failing health. Although Patrick initially resisted, he obediently agreed.
"Mr. Tommy told me he'd hold my job until I found a way to come back. By then, Oakmont was my own special treasure. People there care. They are really kind and loving ... the town reminds me of my dad and his very special heart."
Patrick's own heart was heavy when he boarded the plane. What awaited him when he resumed his Ugandan identity as Kabagambe was rougher than even he, seasoned in suffering, could have imagined.
Immediately upon entering his village, the aunt and uncle now in charge of the family announced: "You do not belong to our tribe anymore."
Ms. Stuart confirmed that African villagers who spend time in another country sometimes are considered outcasts if they return. Indeed, Kabagambe was literally cast out -- denied shelter and food, yet expected to work slavishly. He slept outside, stealing food or eating garbage. His uncle once pounded a nail into his forehead. Both aunt and uncle often beat him with strips of rubber cut from abandoned car tires.
During one beating, his skull opened. He ducks his head down to display the scar. "I still get headaches from that one. I think that's why I have trouble learning to read ... it's hard for me to concentrate."
His grandfather was the only source of kindness: "Don't worry, Kabagambe, I am praying for you."
Kabagambe was also praying desperately to return to the safe haven of Oakmont. Unbeknownst to anyone, Patrick had presciently purchased a round-trip ticket when he left Pittsburgh. After a nightmare year in rural Uganda, he made his way to the Kampala airport. He flew back to Pittsburgh.
"Grandma" Black vividly recalls Patrick's homecoming during the summer of 2010. She and Barb Stuart went to the airport to welcome him back. His first words were loud and joyful: "Thank you, God, I am home."
Mr. Tommy had held his job, as promised, and the Monacos took him into their home until he could find an apartment six weeks later.
Ms. Black and friends sprung into action gathering furniture: "Russ gave a rug and a chair ... Kari, a TV ... Karen, a couch ... Fran, kitchen utensils and bags of fruit ..."
On Oct. 1, 2010, Patrick Donovan moved into a one-bedroom apartment on the first floor of a rambling yellow frame house halfway up one of Oakmont's tree-lined hills. He began to till the small yard.
"He loves landscaping," Ms. Black told me. "I sometimes have to drag him indoors when I come to teach him how to manage money, shop for groceries and clothes, do laundry ...
"Patrick is a joy. He makes you smile no matter how nasty things are going."
I've talked with Patrick many times over the past year or so. Every time he would move mercurially from joy to sorrow, then back again. His unabashed emotional arcs called to mind Kahlil Gibran's words from "The Prophet": "The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain."
As with anyone who experiences sustained trauma, pain rises to the surface at times of vulnerability. For Patrick, triggers can be ugly memories, nightmares or blinding headaches.
When the "big pain" strikes, he copes by trying to think good thoughts, especially about the blessings of his life in Oakmont, or he picks up a brush to paint scenes of his homeland in vivid oranges, purples, blues and greens in a self-taught, Grandma Moses style. The titles of his paintings hint at what's going on in his head: "The Last Memory of Africa," "Dream of the Survivor," "The Battle of Freedom," "Rest Your Mind."
One sure source of solace are Sunday mornings. At 10:30 a.m. every week, he, Grandma Black and friend Cory Anthony swim with special needs kids for an hour under the auspices of the Shaler Area Association for Handicapped Children.
Asked how he learned to swim, Patrick lights up the room with his incandescent smile. "Oh my, you should see me swim -- and dive, too! Ron taught me during a trip to Hawaii. He taught me to trust the water," he exclaims, making swimming motions.
What's next? Patrick ticks off his list, rapid-fire:
"I am saving money to buy a house.
"I want to keep painting.
"I want to sell some of my work."
He turns quiet for a while, then continues, "Lately everyone's asking me -- 'Patrick, do you have a girlfriend?' And what I'm thinking is -- I want to serve God. Look what He got me through! God is great! I have a new rising life here in Oakmont with my new family."
First Published July 22, 2012 12:00 am