He was trying to take my shoes off for me and I was absolutely no help in the situation… which was (if we were being honest) a state I had gotten pretty used to within the last 15 hours. My head flopped forward as I sat with my legs thrown over the side of the patient bed in the hospital room. I mumbled a feeble “I’m sorry” to Justin as he shimmied my black Nike sneaker off my left foot, and surrendered pride. It was either because it was my millionth apology of the day or because I’d officially lost touch with any language altogether, but Justin ignored my sounds. “You need sandals,” he said with one firm nod and one quick yank of my right shoe.
I took the release as permission to collapse back onto the raised mat-chair-thingy. It didn’t have that paper I’d normally seen in medical rooms— you know, the kind so ear-splittingly crunchy it makes you cringe—but I guess, then again, I’d never been hospitalized before anyway.
And frankly, I was too exhausted to make accurate comparisons between the hospital rooms in the U.S. and those in Rwanda. My whole body was freezing and damp, but my breathe felt like fire. I couldn’t evaluate what muscle on me was most sore, and I couldn’t stop moving—anything, anything to stop the aches. My head and face had a pulse I could hear, and the only way to keep my eyes open was to grimace hard enough to keep my cheeks waking my eyelids up. Eyes, eyes, yes, my eyes…
They rolled to find the three World Dancers planted in various spaces in the tiny, blue-walled room. My vision was blurry, but I could see them hesitate as the Rwandan nurses tried to coax them out of the room in broken, poor English: “You can’t be here, wait outside please yes, okay, now.” Debra, Olga, and Genevieve either were genuinely confused or did an excellent job of playing Foreigner-Doesn’t-Understand, but either way I was grateful that they all stayed.
Earlier, before we’d left the hotel for the hospital, Debra (almighty medic Debra) had promised to ensure the use of sterilized needles before any injections came my way… or else she’d supply them herself. And tall, freckled, all-smiles-and-curls Olga was a retired firefighter, telling any doctor or nurse who would (and wouldn’t) listen the full details of my circumstances, health history, personal information and what she recommended they do with me.
And there was Genevieve, who didn’t have to come at all. Who had a billion other things to be up to for this trip, and yet was standing by the bed scratching my head and double checking that
- I had my Traveler’s insurance,
- that Olga was relaying the correct facts,
- that Debra was surveying the safety of the Rwandan medical supply,
- that this entire thing was being documented on my phone via video (“We’ll laugh about this someday, girl.”)
….all while communicating with the doctors and nurses in her dusty French because they couldn’t communicate in English.
I surveyed the room of my heroes, aware that not even all of them were present.
I was really glad I was sick. Except I wasn’t glad. Except I was.
I was able to exercise—in my personal little fever hell— the greatest humility. And maybe a little humor.
As Justin half-carried me to the new room that the doctor needed me in (only to find it locked?), all I could think was This was not suffering. No, not like what I have seen this past week.
The night before I had been vomiting every hour on the hour into a grungy blue bucket on the floor of a dimly-lit moldy bathroom next to a toilet with no seat. Mosquitos carrying god-knows-what-diseases burned in my ears while I befriended the slimy yellow tile I knelt on, waiting until my system stopped wretching so I could water down my puke and pour it down the toilet slowly so not to clog it. Weak, shaking, and freezing, I would then carefully rinse out my mouth with water from our last water bottle. Around 2am I realized I had to start rationing out the toilet paper I used to clean myself up because we only had one roll of that, too.
I was not sick in a world of surplus; I was ill in a hotel of limited supplies.
But I was not one of the Tubehotwese children I had seen sitting in the dirt, stomachs bloated from starvation, eyes glossy and filmy, white spots on their scalps, and no energy to swipe away the flies that never stopped landing on him.
I leaned a little less on Justin as we waited for a nurse to unlock my room. I was not suffering, not really.
I may have spent several hours in a hot van bouncing along dirt roads while every flu symptom beat into my core. I may have been weighing an extra two tons due to the weight of the burden I felt I was, being a pointless body mass on a team where every helping hand counted.
But I was not one of the Murindi women who carried AIDS, who were burdened with nightmares that scorched their daylight with impossible darkness. One of the women who had watched her neighbor murder her son and daughter, who had been systematically raped by known Hutu HIV carriers, who was forced to perform incest by gunpoint, who…. Well. I was not one of women I had seen with long scars down her face where her perpetrator’s machete had marked her as mutilated, to carry for the rest of her life. I did not have permanent pain on my face as they did, like tears I could never wipe away.
The nurse was unlocking the door. I was not suffering, not by any means.
The first thing I noticed about the new room we were in was that it was much larger and much better lit. There were two greenish-blue couches on both sides of the room and a quaint, dark wooden table in the middle, a bouquet of fake blue roses as it’s centerpiece.
But I was after the second thing I noticed. On the far side of the room was the hospital bed, pink country rose sheets turned down. I willed my body toward the bed. I motion to collapse onto it, but Justin gracefully guided my spontaneous submission by easing me slowly into a laying position.
I’d never been more pathetic….but I was starting to realize that when you’re really under the weather, your appearance never mattered less. Your 100% is like 10% and it isn’t a good or bad thing, it just is. It’s all you got, the best you have. I ached for the covers and I prayed they’d stay off; the fever tornadoed between my eyes, pressing my headache so deep I felt it spilling an even louder pulse into my ears. I almost laughed, you’ve got to be kidding me.
I looked up at the ceiling above me. A brilliant pink Pepto-Bismol pink mosquito net was knotted above my head. Almost in answer to my gaze Justin says aloud “They’ve put you in a maternity room.”
I let my head drop to the left so I could smile weakly at the room. “Cat’s outta the bag, fellas. Looks like I’m having the baby in Africa.”
Debra, Olga, and Genevieve let out small laughs, but the concern doesn’t drop from their eyes.The grimacing is starting to hurt my cheeks, and my eyelids feel inches thick– keeping them open is now my full-time job with a little overtime.
I miss my mom, I think for the first time. But I do not cry, not as I look at the two moms in the room with me. I trusted them with everything I had and a little extra. It started out because I had no choice… we were, after all, all we had in this foreign country.
But as I looked at Debra surveying the room, Olga smiling softly, and Genevieve rubbing my leg and asking Justin about they were going to do next, I felt very close to the Tubehotwese children and the Murindi women, the people who’s suffering I could not match.
So this was how the co-ops worked. They were bits and pieces of broken families all put together to protect each other. We were all parents of each other, all children of each other.
I relaxed onto the rock mattress and let the fever, the aches, the chills run wherever they needed to. I was not suffering, not really.
….And then, right on cue, Moses walked in.
—————–To be continued—————-
MORE ON WHAT I GOT,
WHAT I HAVE,
WHERE I GOT IT,
AND WHERE I”M HAVING TO TAKE IT…. LATER.
You know, when I don’t have a million things to do with the renewed energy I have. I have a lot of team-help to catch up with.
But spoiler: I heal enough to play Duck-Duck-Goose. So. There’s that tidbit of info for the worry-wart readers (I see you, Grandma).