Forced to leave her beloved Kenya because of illness, missionary Ruthanne Carroll begins a painful journey to reconnect with her estranged sisters, Elizabeth and Melody. The thin veneer of the Carroll family’s perfection is stripped away when Ruthanne returns unexpectedly to Elizabeth’s home. Faced with the seriousness of Ruthanne’s prognosis, the sisters attempt a faltering reconciliation that leads to the unexpected revelation of Ruthanne’s long-kept secret.
Targeted Age Group:: 20+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
The Time Under Heaven is a very personal story of family and how real faith is worked out in real life. It’s often messy and imperfect, full of trials and unexpected opportunities. Our decisions to live by faith rather than by sight will make all the difference as the Carroll sisters discover. And I hope readers will encounter as well.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I have two sisters of my own, so writing a story about the lives of three sisters was appealing. Although the Carroll sisters are fictional, their lives have gone in different directions and each has her own secrets just as real life sisters do. Family relationships are always complex, and never perfect no matter how we try.
Ruthanne sat on the rusty folding chair, picking at the corner of the worn manila file in her hands, watching the second hand on the large black wall clock make its circumference. The day was hot as always. Flies buzzed lazily in the air above her, and the sharp smell of disinfectant stung her nose. The large-paddled fan that moved the thick, humid air clicked steadily. A thin trickle of sweat rolled from her underarms and down the inside of her yellow cotton blouse. Her dark blue skirt clung to her legs. A crying child in the next room suddenly stopped, and the low murmur of conversation in Swahili increased in volume when the door to the examination room opened. The tall, American doctor stood smiling at the young African mother, who comforted the pudgy toddler on her shoulder. Her elegant, long face was adorned with red and white beads that draped her head and around her neck. The shuka she wore was a red geometric print. Ruthanne recognized her as one of the newest mothers who was attending the childcare class she taught on Tuesdays. She tried to remember their names. The names spun from the list she kept in her head. The little boy was Isaac, and the mother’s name was Somoine. She pulled a small spiral notebook from her raffia tote bag and quickly wrote the names down on her prayer list.
“Asante, doctor. Asante,” Somoine said gratefully, repositioning the little boy, who wrapped his fat arms tightly around his mother’s neck. Tears were still drying on his cheeks. The woman’s large hoop earrings clattered against the beads.
The doctor patted Isaac’s head and nodded. He turned toward the waiting area, caught Ruthanne’s eye, and motioned for her. She stood, willing her legs to move forward. She quickly pulled the damp fabric from the back of her thighs as she stepped toward the doctor’s office. “Good morning, Miss Carroll,” the doctor said pleasantly. “Or should I say Jambo?”
“Either one will do.” She smiled, handing him the file now moist with perspiration from her hands.
“The test results?”
She nodded. She already knew what the folder contained. The MRI report was clear enough for her to understand. Ruthanne ran her hands across her hips, trying to dry them on the skirt’s coarse cotton fabric. Dr. Hawkes sat at a dented gunmetal gray desk that must have been new around World War II or earlier. She sat on a hard wooden chair near the whitewashed cement block wall, trying not to watch the young doctor read the paperwork. Behind him, mountains rose up like a fortress beyond the smudged glass of the office window. Psalm 121 ran through her head. “I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from?” “Where was help coming from?” she wondered. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to steady her thoughts.
Dr. Hawkes was new to the Maasai village in the Rift Valley area. The health clinic had been empty for a year, and now the energetic, brown-haired and brown-eyed doctor was trying to get all the children vaccinated and develop a regular schedule of care for the area. She heard the new nurse, recently arrived from Nairobi, speaking to more patients in the outer office, most of them with crying children. The doctor seemed oblivious to the noise just outside the door. A fly crawled across the top of the desk, and without warning he slammed it with a flyswatter that must have lain across his knees. He smiled boyishly and shut the file. She couldn’t help but snicker at his smile of satisfaction.
“It’s not a good report, but you probably already realize that,” he said matter-of-factly. His grin had disappeared, and the timbre of his voice matched the seriousness of the papers inside the folder.
“I know,” she answered softly, intertwining her fingers.
“You’ll need surgery, and there are treatments, but I’d recommend that you go back to the States for them. You’ll need the support of friends and family. And the best medical care—”
“My friends and family are here,” she interrupted. “I haven’t been back in five years. Besides, my work is here. I need to finish what I’ve started. These people need me.”
“I totally understand that. The Maasai are wonderful people. But, if you’re going to have a chance, a real chance to beat this, you need to go home. That will be my recommendation to the mission board too.”
“What if I refuse treatment? What can I expect? How long…” Her energy was suddenly sapped, and the now familiar pain was like a hot pulse in her gut.
The intense dark eyes of the doctor bored into hers, and he sighed. Leaning back in the squeaky armless desk chair, he pushed his long fingers against the edge of the desktop.
“Six months, tops, Miss Carroll,” he said finally. “I can’t promise I can manage your pain or even provide nursing care. And you will need care. If you get treatment in the next few weeks, you have a real shot at two or three years, maybe more.”
Ruthanne couldn’t meet his penetrating gaze any longer. Her eyes shifted to the small wooden cross that hung a little crookedly on the wall near the window. She didn’t want to go back to the States. There wasn’t much there for her. Her sisters had their own lives. An occasional email was their only communication. Their parents were gone. Her supporting churches would expect slideshows and endless presentations. She didn’t have the energy for it right now. The demands and the pace of American culture would suck her dry within weeks. There had to be other options. She’d go to Nairobi for treatment, and then she’d be back. She wouldn’t have to leave.
“I’ll have to think about it,” she said, licking her dry lips. “And of course, I’ll pray about it.”
“Of course. But don’t take too long. You have a small window of real opportunity. If you get the right treatment, you may be able to finish your project here. It’ll wait for you.”
“That project can’t wait. The children need it too badly.”
“As I said, it’s a small window, Miss Carroll. After that…” He stood and handed her the file. “I’ll pray you make the right decision.” John Hawkes extended his right hand, and she gripped his strong hand with matching strength.
“Thank you, doctor. God has never failed me.” She forced herself to smile. But it seemed she had failed God time and time again. She couldn’t leave this project unfinished. It was the work He had given her. Tucking the file under her arm, she fled through a rear exit, avoiding the women and children in the waiting room who knew her so well. She needed some time alone and that was difficult, if not impossible.
She walked quickly down the path to her home at the edge of a grove of acacia trees. A slight breeze stirred through their thorny branches. The smell of cattle dung hung in the air. The large grazing area for the cattle called a kraal was not far from the path. Goats bleated in the distance. Young boys watched over the cows and goats as they grazed on stiff grasses. Ever wary of predators, they kept a sharp watch for lions or hyenas who might dare to come close to the village for an easy meal. The boys sang a rhythmic chant that soothed her mind. Ruthanne couldn’t imagine leaving here. It broke her heart every time she left on furlough. The school building was so close to completion, and she’d fought hard to get it for these hurting people. She had to see it to completion. There was no one else. Dr. Hawkes didn’t have the time. The mission had no one to send. She was the project manager, grant writer, and teacher. The whole village was counting on her. The children were especially counting on her. They would finally have real classrooms. Desks, blackboards, books, even computers. Every day, boys and girls from preschool to junior high age greeted her on the way to the church, dancing around her, little ones tugging at her skirt, excitedly asking when it would all arrive. There were grants to be monitored and regulations to be met. The village elders had experienced so many disappointments from the government and other agencies. If she left the school unfinished, it would never happen. After so many years of pleading, debating, and finally succeeding, this had to happen.
Her small, round house made from traditional building materials of mud, sticks, and cow dung stood quiet. Hellen, her housekeeper was not there. Ruthanne sighed gratefully. If she just had a few minutes to herself before someone came to the door. She needed to pray, to clear her mind, and breathe. A thick blanket was suspended on a wire that ran the width of the house at the back. It was the wall that gave her privacy for the small sleeping area. The cot was made up neatly. Her worn, black leather-bound Bible lay on the small carved table at the head of the cot. A kerosene lamp sat next to it. She pulled the blanket further along the wire to create a greater sense of isolation. Privacy was a luxury here. It seemed that an endless stream of needs was always at the door. Each one was important and immediate whether it was food, a disagreement that needed mediation, or a sick child, Ruthanne was always the first one the women came to see.
She looked into the old, chipped mirror that hung precariously over the small chest of drawers and took stock of her appearance. She didn’t look sick. Her short, gray hair was wavy and cut close to her face. Her brown eyes, flecked with bits of gray, were clear, but dark circles puddled under them. The long bus ride from Nairobi to the large village of Asiri, and then jolting Land Rover ride to Kakuta must explain her fatigue. There were some lines, now etching deeper into her face, but she had turned 50 only weeks ago. She had earned them honestly. Her skin was dark brown, sprinkled with a few freckles on her arms that were strong from manual labor. She had lost weight though. The skirt and blouse hung loosely on her frame. She could hear her grandmother’s voice admonishing her to eat and get some meat on her bones. She had always been a little thin, much to her sister Elizabeth’s dismay, but this was different. Weight had slid from her body like water running off the roof in the rainy season in the last few weeks. She was sick. She tried to mouth the words, “I have cancer,” but they stuck in her throat.
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