When first-time author Juli Boit and her husband, Titus, read their children bedtime stories, the most popular are the old standards—“mostly Disney classics” such as Treasure Island, Mary Poppins, and Cinderella—in which children, either orphaned or taken away from their parents, must make their way to a happy ending in an uncertain world.
This is because it reflects the true-life situation of many children in the countryside of Kenya, where the mortality rate from AIDS and sickle cell anemia is high. And that is the story of the adopted children of Juli and Titus, as recounted in her memoir, From Beyond the Skies.
“There are so many people who walked this journey with us….So many people were just part of our story,” says Boit, calling from California, where she and Titus spend two months of the year. For the remainder, they reside in an African rural village where Boit oversees the international nonprofit The Living Room and directs Kimbilio (“refuge” in Kenyan Swahili), a health clinic and hospice offering care for many severely underserved patients.
After years working nights as a family nurse practitioner at an AIDS unit in Los Angeles, Boit, a member of LA’s Christian Assembly Church, relocated to the Kenya she had first visited at the behest of a friend during their nursing school days:
In those villages, I listened and learned each day from remarkable Kenyan leaders who cared about the suffering of their people. I saw the realities of AIDS within the context of a village setting. There, troubling statistics took on a new meaning to me. Numbers became young people with names and stories. All of whose lives mattered.
In 2004, in her mid-20s, Boit went to Kenya, intending a temporary stay with an AIDS medical mission. But she determined she could do her most vital work intimately at the village level, and after four years of practice and becoming part of the community’s life, she founded the initial clinic at Kipkaren.
“Where we live in the region is quite rural,” Boit says. “We don’t have paved roads. Electricity just came in, in the past few years. There isn’t a lot of running water.” The nearest city—with grocery stores and other amenities—is Eldoret, an hour away.
Juli met and married Titus, a Kenyan man living several miles from Kipkaren. In 2016, just after they had welcomed their first child, Ella, the event happened that would take Boit to the extremes of adoption bureaucracy, international medicine, and a parent’s agonies.
A local woman had died in her home giving birth prematurely (the father had died months earlier in a road accident). The fragile baby was brought to Kimbilio. After deliberation, Juli and Titus decided to adopt the boy, named Ryan—as well the youngest three of his seven siblings—Geoffrey, Alice, and Sharon. Ryan, Geoffrey, and Alice suffered chronic maladies, eventually diagnosed as sickle cell anemia.
Too commonly, sickle cell syndrome is a death sentence in Africa. “In the U.S., there are about 100,000 people afflicted,” says Boit. It is a genetically inherited condition in which blood cells formed in an uncharacteristic crescent shape tend to pool throughout the circulatory system, creating a spectrum of disorders. Few Africans with it survive past childhood, and poor understanding of the condition has bred cultural stigmas.
Even in the developed world, she says, sickle cell can often be overlooked or dismissed. “I think it is a misunderstood disease. You absolutely cannot see the people, who are withstanding it until their pain becomes too much. And they finally go to the hospital, and their pain tolerance is so much higher. They are often not believed or sent home misdiagnosed….By the time they get to the ER for pain management, many of them have used up all their resources.”
Says Boit, “Until very recently, I think, the emphasis of the World Health Organization and most funding and work in Africa has gone to communicable diseases—AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria….In the last 10 years there’s been a lot of work [on] cancer. Only [recently] has the emphasis come around to sickle cell.”
As an afflicted newborn, Ryan’s very existence was especially tenuous. “In our rural situation, there are no large, fancy hospitals,” says Boit. The family flew nearly 10,000 miles to Los Angeles for risky bone-marrow transplant procedures at the pediatric unit of UCLA. What was envisioned as a stay of a few weeks stretched to a sojourn of months, fraught with postoperative complications, recoveries, setbacks, and the help and love of a network of friends, strangers, and fellow churchgoers.
Ultimately, Boit felt a need to write it down. “I actually would wake up early mornings, like five o’clock…before my kids woke up, and sat in a corner chair and tried to process what was going on.” She said she intended a record for the children, to understand what had happened after they got older. But over time, the material coalesced into a full-length manuscript, and she thought of publishing.
“I really was moved by the book When Breath Becomes Air (2016) by Paul Kalinithi, a doctor who died of cancer.” She also cited Being Mortal (2014) by Atul Gawande for being able to communicate health care concepts in terms relatable to the wider human experience.
She found her publisher, Morgan James, via an editor who helped work From Beyond the Sky into shape. Of the book, Kirkus Reviews says, “Boit maintains a glowingly optimistic, companionable tone….She consistently ties her memories to broader insights about love and about her own personal Christian faith.”
Sales of From Beyond the Skies will benefit The Living Room and the Kimbilio Hospice. One final touch in the layout by Morgan James is noteworthy. At the end of the book, readers will find a facsimile of an old-fashioned library-card insert, “From the heart of Kenya.” They are invited to fill it out with their names and locations and pass the book along to another reader.
It will establish how far the book itself travels—ideally, perhaps, duplicating the pancontinental journey undertaken by the author and her family from Kenya to the United States.
And wherever it goes, the book will take with it the modern narrative of a group of orphan children, like those in the Disney classics, seeking a happy ending.
Says Boit, “I think it’s magical in storytelling.”
Charles Cassady Jr. is an Ohio-based author, critic, and endless admirer of Dr. Albert Schweitzer.