Melissa Fay Greene is an inspiration to so many of us in the adoption community, but not in a distant, museum-case fashion; we feel we know her large, joyous family from No Biking in the House Without a Helmet and her other books, essays, and magazine articles. When we learned that Fisseha died by his own hand last month, on the campus of Georgia Gwinnett College, near the soccer fields, having left a note about his experience on the college soccer team, we were devastated along with the family. This is the full text of the beautiful eulogies given by Fissseha’s older brother, Lee, and by Melissa.
My name is Lee. I’m Fisseha’s older brother. I want to start by telling you Fisseha’s life story because I’m not sure everyone knows it, and it is a really good story.
So his name is Fisseha, which means happiness. He was born in rural Ethiopia outside of the tiny, tiny town of Jima. As a little boy, he worked as a shepherd in the fields near his hut with his older half-siblings. His father, Mengistie, died when he was four years old and so Fisseha was loaned out to a neighboring farm to work their fields instead. While there, he was given one ear of corn per day, and that was to be his only food, and he maintained his love of corn forever. (I’m realizing now that at our brother’s Seth’s wedding in June, I also spoke about corn, in my toast, because Seth loves corn, too, so that’s really odd.)
One day during some sort of dispute over land, Fisseha’s older half-brother killed a man. Because of the custom in that part of the country, the family of the deceased man was entitled to kill a member of Fisseha’s family. And since it became clear that Fisseha was the most likely target, he was sent away from his home and his parents to go live with his grandmother Tsehai, in Addis Ababa. When Tsehai was unable to care for him, she brought him to an orphanage in the city. And when he was 10, he was adopted by our family.
Yesterday, we were looking through some photo albums, and we found a report that Fisseha did as a fourth grader at Fernbank Elementary about his family tree. He wrote:
“My name is Fisseha Mengistie Samuel. I was born in Jima, Ethiopia, and my great-grandparents are from a Jewish shtetl in Lithuania.” [Laughter]
On the second page, he also had his Ethiopian family tree. We always maintained contact with his Ethiopian family.
One of the interesting things about adoption that I’ve come to realize is that, when you enter a family as a 10-year-old, you’re already completely able to join in their life. As opposed to babies that are mostly useless for the first few years [laughter], 10-year-olds can jump right into the fun.
The day he arrived in America, most of my siblings were in our front yard; and we started blowing up balloons and we had a badminton set… We didn’t really know what to do with him. He didn’t speak any English, and we’re all lousy soccer players, so we started bouncing the balloons on the badminton rackets, trying to try to keep one in the air as long as we could. Fisseha, probably thinking this was the National Sport of America, started bouncing the balloon on his racket, too, thinking, “Wow, I could be really great at this!” [Laughter]
The next day, I went back to school. My mom was cooking in the kitchen, and she said she looked out the window around noon, and Fisseha was in the front yard practicing bouncing a balloon with his badminton racket.
From the moment this tiny, adorable, mysterious boy from the Horn of Africa flew into our lives, we were all so wonderfully enriched. And when I say “we all,” I mean (I really mean) we all. My siblings and I, Fisseha included, all got tattoos of the fraction “1/9” or of the word, “One-ninth,” to express that each of us represents one-ninth of the Greene/Samuel Family Child Pie. (My dad also wanted to get one and offered that he could get one-eleventh, but we said that would ruin the whole thing. [laughter] So we said no.)
In reality though, our pie is really so much larger than just nine pieces. So many of you here really were brothers and sisters to Fisseha, like Freddy said earlier. My friends Freddy, Walter, Patrick, Affan, Frank, Cean, and Zack, and my girlfriend Maya, have all known Fisseha basically exactly as long as I’ve know him. They were there the day he came to America, and they’re with us here still.
Fisseha’s friends at Fernbank Elementary, Shamrock Middle School, and Druid Hills High School have been friends with him, and brothers to him, since the day he arrived. There were soccer friends from GSA, AYSA, Druid Hills, and from Georgia Gwinnett College who became like brothers to us, too.
And Heather… Heather is like a sister to all of us. Her family is our family.
We have all had the great privilege to love Fisseha and to feel his tremendous warmth in return. And really, it’s apparent that our tattoos are remarkably insufficient. It’s humbling to think of myself as really only one ten- thousandth of the pie; that’s a far more accurate picture I think.
I fear that the pain I feel this weekend will never totally subside. Fisseha was the most joyous part about play. Truthfully, I doubt I’ll ever be invited to another pick-up soccer game since people only ever invited me in the first place because they assumed Fisseha would tag along with me [laughter]… and he always did.
When he joined me at pick-up games of soccer, football, or Ultimate Frisbee, we had to kind of skew how teams were chosen. Team A would pick Fisseha, and then Team B would get two picks. And then we would continue with the draft. If we had an odd number, we would make sure that Dad was on Fisseha’s team [laughter] to try and keep things more balanced.
Everything was more fun with him, not just soccer or Frisbee or Samuel Family Thanksgiving beach football but also Risk, Monopoly, Settlers of Catan, or Carcassonne. He came to my and Maya’s and Freddy’s apartment frequently to play board games. And when he would flip over that crucial, three-sided city piece with the road coming out of it, he’d shout, “Lesssss….go!” [laughter] and everything in the world was totally perfect.
He was the most down-for-everything person I will ever know. The ultimate come-with guy, which is a remarkable trait. For as long I’ve known him (for 10 years), whenever I had to run an errand, I’d say, “Fisseha, I gotta go to CVS—I need Gatorade.“ He’s like “Lesssss….go!” and we go to CVS. Or: “Fisseha, we gotta go to Kroger. Mom made the meatloaf!” [Laughter] So: “Lesssss….go!” and he’d come with.
His exuberance, ceaseless smile, and ridiculous athletic ability will be missed so completely that I fear that I will never be able to enjoy the simple pleasures of play as much ever again.
Fisseha, I don’t think I ever told you, but I love you so, so much. Ewodihalehu.
My kids are always trying to educate me about sports, which is a long up-hill battle.
Lee gave me his favorite article about the World Cup this past summer, and it was about Brazil’s incredible, stunning seven-to-one loss to Germany and the article was written by Lee’s favorite sportswriter, Brian Phillips. I appreciated the writing. My favorite line from the article I keep remembering this week, this bizarre bizarre week.
What the sportswriter said about Brazil’s loss in the game against Germany was:
“It was utterly beyond belief. It was the sense—obviously irrational, but still strong—that we were outside the realm of things that can occur.”
I feel that we, all of us, right now, are witnesses to a thing that not only should not have occurred and can not have occurred but an event that is outside the realm of things that can occur.
Those of us who knew and loved this boy, knew him to be a golden boy, miraculously strong, fast, beautiful, intelligent, and kind.
Over the last 24 hours, the friends and family that have surged through the house and have flown in and driven in from all over the country have shared stories. One of the stories was of our visit, soon after Fisseha arrived, to Mystic, Connecticut where it recreates 19th century America. We went to a museum of 19th century America and then a gift shop showing 19th century Americana; and the gift shop offered a toy enjoyed by 19th century American children, which was a wooden hoop and a stick. Fisseha lit up. Finally. Finally a toy in America that makes sense [laughter]. For him this was an absolutely modern and important toy, and he needed it right away. So of course we bought him the hoop and the stick, not as a relic and not as a souvenir of 18th and 19th century America, but as a toy he knew how to play with. We took it home, and he immediately went running down the street with the hoop and the stick just like you see in the paintings. That was a toy he knew from Ethiopia.
I wrote a story about Fisseha in my book, No Biking in the House Without a Helmet. Actually that book is full of stories about him, but here’s one:
“One afternoon at recess, fifth-grade Sol was engaged in a pick-up football game on the school playground. The P.E. teacher, Peggy Sutton, a middle-aged blonde woman in Bermuda shorts and a clean white Polo shirt, got on her walkie-talkie and beeped the principal, Jason Marshall. “Mr. Marshall, can you come out to the playground right away?”
“I’m on my way,” came the voice through the static and Mr. Marshall, a black man and former athlete in his early thirties, a graduate of Morehouse College and Harvard University, exited his office. In his suit and tie, he hurried to the sports fields. “What’s going on?”
“I’ll bet you five dollars,” said Ms. Sutton, “that Sol can throw a football from the monkey bars to the baseball backstop.”
“What are you talking about? That’s got to be . . .what? . . . 60 yards. And he’s 10 years old? No way.”
“Five dollars?” repeated Ms. Sutton.
“SOL!” she yelled across the field. “THROW THE FOOTBALL! Did I mention,” she added to the principal, “that it will have a perfect spiral?”
Sol launched the football in a soaring arc. It quivered eagerly, nosing through a flight pattern that would have been the pride of a Division I college quarterback.
Mr. Marshall reached into his pocket, removed his billfold, and drew out a five-dollar bill.
“Thank you, Mr. Marshall,” said Ms. Sutton crisply.
“You’re very welcome, and thank you for your involvement in the wellbeing of our students,” said the principal, returning to his office.”
But what I most want to say is how precious our children are to us, how precious all you children—all you children the ages of my children, the teens and the 20-somethings and the 30-somethings—are to us; and that we see you in the fullness of yourselves even when you do not.
How did it happen that Sol, that Fisseha, saw his life as measured out in soccer minutes?
How did it happen that while we saw infinite possibilities for him, infinite chances for happiness, a lifetime of partaking in the joy he endlessly shared with everyone—how did it happen that he saw one path to happiness, one very narrow path, through one team, one season, one night?
I want to talk especially to the soccer boys who are here.
Once upon a time baseball boys filled our house; but in recent years, it’s always been the soccer boys.
The soccer boys are from Ethiopia and England. The soccer boys are from Congo and Somalia, from Bosnia and Ghana and Liberia and Mexico, and some of them are actually from the United States.
There are probably no finer groups of young men anywhere than these soccer players. And yes, you all do always look handsome in your uniforms. And no, I actually don’t mind that much when you clomp across my clean kitchen floor in your cleats because I like the sound of cleats as long as you return in your socks and sweep up.
And yes, we’ll take sports drinks and orange slices to your games, and we’ll photograph you and videotape you and cheer for you and believe in you.
But here’s what we cannot and will not do: We will not believe with you that your prowess on the soccer field is the most important thing about you.
Sal’s prowess was second to none. In his obituary — and, yes, yesterday we wrote an obituary for our 20-year-old son — Donny wrote, “Sol’s ferocity on the field was matched by his sweetness on it.” But what we do not and will not believe is that soccer, the ‘beautiful game,’ is the full sum of your beautiful selves.
We do not believe that off the field, out of uniform, in your little stripped knee socks, that you’re somehow of less value.
We do not agree that if your brilliant soccer career falters, if you have a bad half, a bad game, a bad season, if you’re not a starter, if you don’t get off the bench, then you’re not the genius we always thought you were. We don’t believe there’s no Plan B for you. This goes for the soccer girls too. You are still irreplaceably marvelous. There’s always a Plan B.
And the same goes for all the young people here, the teens, 20-somethings, 30-somethings, because there is something like the dream of soccer greatness in every one of you. It may be a dream of radio greatness, of philosophy or history greatness, of greatness in building families, organizations, or communities; of greatness in teaching or photography or music; but the big news is that the real greatness—the true, deep, brilliant, untouchable greatness — has nothing to do with your resume.
True genius is the genius of the heart, the genius who knows how to love, to give, to make other people joyful every day of life. Fisseha—“Sol”—was a natural-born athlete. But we didn’t love him because he was the best we ever saw, ever, at soccer, baseball, football, basketball, volleyball, and every other game.
At our extended family vacations every year at Thanksgiving in Florida, we play big beach volleyball games. One year, the entire extended family was on one side of the net, and our four children from Ethiopia—Fisseha, Daniel, Helen, Yosef—on the other side. [Laughter] The Ethiopians were required to play like soccer players, using only their heads and feet. And, of course, the 28 of us on the other side were defeated. [Laughter]
But that’s not why we loved Sol nor because he also enjoyed trouncing us in games of Risk, Monopoly, Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Fantasy Football.
Lee in the car this morning said, “He beat me this past week in Fantasy Football and talked shit.”
Sol beating us at Boggle was a surprise. [Laughter] How could he, given limited English skills, beat all of us—beat me—at Boggle, an English-language spelling game? We think it was because his spelling was so atrocious, he just picked random, crazy combinations of letters, and some of them actually turned out to be words. I can picture his kind of worried look as we’d study the words on his list: g-r-u-n-t…? It’s a word! And then his happy look as he racked up another win at Boggle.
But even all the victories he racked up against us and against everyone here—whoever played him in anything—was not the reason we loved him.
We loved him so much because he was a genius of the heart, a natural-born athlete of joy.
It’s been our indescribable privilege to be his family for ten years, and we’re currently at a loss as to how we will go on without him.
—MELISSA FAY GREENE