“We think of you as Gabriel. The angel, God’s messager. You are a messager of our people. God has sent you to us.” Seated in the administrative office of Sister Freda’s Cottage Hospital she tells me that I have been sent to Kenya “by divine appointment.” Hearing her voice in my head as I write brings me to tears even now.
Saying goodbye today was not easy.
Walking down the dimly lit corridor of the modest hospital I turned back from the rooms of the patients I had grown attached to over the past two weeks. If I entered one room I knew I would find Boaz, the 17-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. I knew that he would be curled on his back with his chin at his chest. I knew that when he saw me that huge smile would flash across his face, he’d let out a breathy laugh, and reach out his curled hand to greet me. I knew if I enter another room, I would find Wangila on his mattress on the floor, coloring in his coloring book. I knew that when I greeted him, he would say nothing, but rather look at his mute mother who never let him leave her sight as if for consent to greet me back. I knew that Colletta, his mother, who look at me, smile with her front tooth missing, tilt her head back and grunt her own kind of greeting before signing to me that I should take her home.
Although I turned back and forth down that hall, hesitating to say goodbye, I went through the same routine of greeting each and every person I met. Because I knew that it was my presence alone that made the most impact. And I can say that without an ounce of conceit. You start to realize that you can’t do it all. You can’t treat, heal, or even love everyone. But what you can do is show up. Present yourself without fear, without judgment. Show those in need everywhere you go that you are present. Listen and respond, observe and absorb what you can. If Sister Freda thinks of that as my “divine appointment” than it is one I have accepted. Because it is that banishment of fear that inspires me to inspire others.
Our last in Kitale began as usual. Sister Freda picked us up with her husband, Richard. She slowly emerged from her seat, cradles me hands in her, bows her head and says “thank you, good morning, Tyler.” Once packed up and out the gate, however, Sister Freda tells me that we are going to a couple of villages. I had mentioned that I would like to meet some of her patients in their homes, so we were going to pop in on two on the way to the hospital.
“She has just given birth. Even… ten minutes before we arrived!” says Sister Freda as she exits a darkened mud-dung hut. She is gleeful. She rushes to the car to fetch a cloth to cover the mother. This is Caroline’s third child. Before entering to hut, I greet about seven children who have all gather to greet Sister Freda and her “visitors from the U.S.” I duck my head inside to find Sister Freda bent over on the dirt floor of a household of 11 people no bigger than my mom’s walk-in closet. In the corner is a pit for cooking, a few feet away in the other corner are scraps of firewood. And on the floor in front of Sister Freda is a woman who has just given birth. “Just now?” I ask in shock. “Yes,” says Sister Freda. “You see. You have to just leave it up to the higher power and he will provide.”
My heart swells.
Sister Freda takes the newborn in her arms. “Is it a boy or a girl?” I ask. She stand up with the child in her arms, unwraps his coverings and reveals a new life, so new the umbilical cord has not yet been removed. “He is a boy, you see.” His eyes are not yet open and his face is brown and squished. Ten minutes ago, this child was in his mothers womb and now Sister Freda is there to help him take his mother’s milk. And I am welcomed to be part of all of it. Why? I hear Caroline’s mother speaking joyfully in Swahili and I recognize the word “Baraka” meaning “blessing”. “She says she has been blessed with a new child and with nothing to feed her family, she is blessed to have you as guests to aide her. I tell Sister Freda I have none to give. “It is still a blessing to have you here,” she says. She looks down and the child in her arms, radiating with joy and says, “This is what I love. Seeing a new life.” We get back on the tarmac, down a dirt road, and another narrow path to our next home in another village. “This is the HIV+ patient who had the HIV- child I told you about,” she says to be from the front seat. “I hope she is at home.” Just then, Catherine, the patient arrives from fetching water. She carried a jerry can on her head, gripping it as she carries another jug in her other hand. She’s smiling. We enter to find her friend carrying for her young, healthy, jovial baby boy, Isaac. When she sees him, Catherine lights up. He smile is sweet as she admires him from afar. In a short interview she points to two mounds in the grass. She tells me that her husband and her daughter are both buried there. Later she tells me about the night before her husband died, the same husband from whom she contracted HIV. “He was very ill,” she said in a small voice, her eyes rarely making contact with mine. “It was late at night and he got up. He walked just out that door,” she said, indicating the front door of the brick home her husband worked tirelessly to build before he died. “He walked right to that place and said he cant go on. ‘Burry me here,’ he said. He died right there. And in the middle of the night, with the help of my friend down the road, we buried him.”
The image of her carrying her husbands frail body struck something in me. I began crying. Streams of tears strewn down my face. I couldn’t flick them off fast enough. I thought of my Dad, another death in the middle of the night. Another frail body. Another wife and mother – my mother. I thought of these parallels, these moments in my family’s personal history, which I thought were so private, so intimate, were all being shared – and I couldn’t stop the tears. The woman struggles every day, to see her son and first-born daughter succeed just as my Dad did with his cancer for years to see his sons grow up. The moment seized me. I told her of our shared experiences, took her hands in mine, squeezed them tight, and as one final tears slipped into the corner of my mouth I said simply, “You are very strong.” With a 7th grade education, she sells milk and maize to support herself and her family. She smiles unabashedly, sings, and prays daily for strength. As she says a prayer before me leave, we all stand around the room, heads bowed and silent. She rattles her prayers in Swahili and gasps for air between each prayer, and I can feel the strength in her voice building each time. Then I realize with my head bowed, fighting back more tears, that over my twenty-five years of pain, joy, discouragement, fear, and love, I have crossed continents, oceans, borders, and boundaries to realize that we are all the same. One human family.
We all struggle, but not in vain. All you have to do is show up. Even if you have to fight to stay alive, just like Catherine and my Dad, you can find joy in life and strength in love.
(and my heart swells once more… in Kenya)