How was Africa?
How am I supposed to tell you?
How can I make you understand?
You – the nameless person I have never met
You – the one who asks me how I am doing
You – the one who will try to love me one day
You – the one who says, how was Africa?
I want to tell you,
I want to tell you
How can I bridge this great divide?
How can I can I elevate and rotate this vast cube of experience in a way you will see every dimension?
How can I make you understand that I’m not a good person for having come here, that I didn’t do something special, that I didn’t do something others cannot do
How can I relate it to you without distortion, without vanity, without lying, without exaggeration, without losing the vibrant cadence of the moment, without betrayal?
How was Africa?
Do you really want to know?
There were glorious things –
moments of color and the throaty clap of drumbeats and the raw primal passion of life coursing through your veins – moments laying cradled in the dusty arms of the earth, watching lightening roll in on roiling clouds of grey, moments of cool water on shivering skin, moments of blood orange pink and purple sunsets, the darkly shadowed trees juttinG stark against the backdrop of a fiercely setting light.
Moments of magic and solace, moments of goose bumps and wild wonder, moments of connection, serenity, purpose, and peace. Moments of exactitude, of knowing that the place you are standing is the very place you were meant to be, moments of gratitude
of breathless being
of grit and strength
of exhilaration and triumph
How was Africa?
Should I stop here?
do you really want to know?
Do you want me to tell you about the dark side?
About what I can’t forget?
About how I blew every vein – about how because of me, because of me, the lifesap slowly faded from the eyes, and the half-finished bag of blood sat, and separated, and congealed - the sole coagulating witness to a tiny gasping flame which faded too early
About the veins swelling the balding sides of the heads of malnutrition, about the widest oldest eyes I have ever seen, about the open soars, about the raw gaping wound of an armpit, about the skin peeling off in large, dark, flakes falling onto the sodden worm infested mattress.
About holding a tiny hand – a thin languid aged hand – a hand that no matter how far it reached came up empty – about how those brave fingers curled around mine the night before she died, the other softy brushing away the flies that that clung manic to the corners of her eyes, her lips, her mouth, about how I will never forget that gesture – about how at 3 years old she was only 4 kg – about how you never will know what those numbers mean until you hold them in your hands
About how her nose rotted, 24 hours before she died, about how within hours, the layers of nasal flesh were disappearing, eroding stair stepped, red and angry and black and rotten – about how her nose was falling off. About how she didn’t die today – about how she really died a long, long time ago
About how it feels to grab a chain-link fence with two hands, sagging against it, back turned to curious and judging eyes, losing reason and stamina and will, sobbing, crushed by the weight of two innocents that died 10 minutes apart from each other, about how you didn’t know you had it in you to cry, about running for the stethoscope to hear the silence that you already knew – about how the grandmothers pressed the eyes shut, crunching the head down against the neck, calloused fingers coaxing rigid lids into eternal closure - shut so the soul wouldn’t fly away.
About how it feels not to care. How it feels not to feel. Not to connect. About what it’s like to beat yourself to a mental pulp because you just don’t care – about how if you don’t care why can’t you stop thinking about it, why can’t you stop writing it, why can’t you stop seeing it?
About how it feels to be stripped of all your good intentions and come face to face with the demons within you, how it feels to re-examine, re-evaluate, re-think everything that you thought to be true about yourself
About how it feels to yell at the patients parents – about how it feels to grind poor haggard souls further and further in the dust, knowing yet still doing, not being able to stop snapping, to stop being angry, reaching into your deepest self for kindness, mercy, compassion and coming up empty handed – about how I told him sharply – don’t cover her up – she has a fever of 40 – you are trapping the heat – about how I said it, exasperated, about the look in those eyes, eyes that looked through me into nothing, hands twisting robotically, about the punch in the gut when you realize she is covered because she is dead, when you focus on that strip of fabric tied tightly over the eyes, about how it knocked me over from the inside out
About how it feels to have dead baby on your mouth – about how the ambu bag didn’t work – about how I was the last person in the world qualified to receive that baby with my sterile blue towel – about how he was limp and grey and cold under my lips
About how it feels to stop CPR, to be the one to give that last breath, that last push, to make that call – to leave him limp and naked on the table and walk away
About how it feels to never start at all.
About how it feels to be helpless, to be trapped, to want desperately to give good care, to get a lab test, to have a crash cart, to give oxygen, to do something
About how it feels not to try
About how it feels to see children DIE in front of your eyes, under your palms, on your watch almost every single day. Little people. About how I think we should stack them up – body over body over body – until we have a huge rotting pile – and then we could take a picture – because now they just slip away – now its as if they never were, now this great evil is faceless and nameless and African
About how it feels to be covered in vomit and oozing liquid diarrhea – I’m pushing on your chest, rhythmic, futile, your heart doesn’t start again but fluid pours out of your nose, your mouth, , every push and the fluid gushes out – you didn’t just die – you drowned, you didn’t just drown, no one jumped in after you because we were told not to swim, no one siphoned the depths out of this vast ignoble pool of indifference and injustice – about how this, this is holy water, about how this is the black smear on the conscience of mankind, how this, this is our gargling cry for redemption
About what it’s like to dare God to reconcile himself with this greatest of evils.
But I want to tell you.
When you ask – how was Africa – I want to tell you – but how can I?
Is it even mine to tell?
Watching someone die is deeply personal. Perhaps it isn’t something you should try to explain.
When you do it ends up coming out cheap. Like you sold them out for a story – like you took their soul and held it out naked and shivering on a cold metal platter
It’s something that belongs in your head. Because when you let it out – the joke’s on you.
And it seems kind of twisted anyway – the telling of s story that isn’t yours – casting their personal suffering as the dark and tragic protagonist of this mad black place
But what is the alternative? Lock it inside? Is that somehow more just and fair? Does anyone know what justice means anymore?
Can we be friends, can I let you into my life, into my world, can you really know me if I lightly brush over my “adventure” to Africa?
How was Africa?
They say it takes a special kind of person to be here – it doesn’t.
Anyone can do it.
Anyone could hurdle it – grow and warp and bend and change and feel
And then they say, well not everyone WOULD do it.
But that still doesn’t make me special.
Everyone thinks I’m a good person for being here
That’s the hardest part.
What they don’t know is that I’m just like everybody else.
How was Africa?
And then I’ll have to smile, and laugh and nod and engage
And demure and give cursory, expected, glazed responses
Maybe once in a while slip into something real in a pseudo kind of way
But what I really want is for someone to look into my eyes.
And to let me be completely still
And to not have to smile or apologize or explain
To just look into my eyes and travel in them so that they might know so that they can see what I’ve seen and then they might understand
Just seeing all of it
No undeserved flattery
No shiny veneer smoothed over cracked, chipping wood
Not thinking that I am any more or less of a person than I really am.
Understanding that sometimes everything you want to say, everywhere you have been, the dying face of every child, every wild splash of personal triumph, is in the eyes.
The times I looked away, the times I looked for the wrong reasons, the times I looked feigning emotion, or affection, or interest, the times I refused to look at all – is in the eyes.
The times I made myself see, the times I gave you the gift of being seen, the times that salty tears rolled from the pooled corners of my eyes for you, the times I decided not to blink – that’s all in the be eyes too.
I want our eyes to lock
For however long it takes to transmit those images
For however long it takes for you to understand
Is this selfish? Who would accept this great burden? Is this too much to ask?
I hope that one day I will have the strength and the audacity and the quiet confidence to do this for another – to let them show me what they have seen – to ask a question seeking the answer, to listen with my eyes, with my ears, and with my heart.
To fill the silence with the unspoken
To enter that deep pit of knowing – that dark wrenching gut that writhes with every flash, every word, every memory, every touch, every song
For it is there, and only there, that I want to meet you