Mother Teresa's Home for the Sick and Dying
Trip Start ??? ??, 2000
1Trip End ??? ??, 2004
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Haiti, from the cluttered saffron streets of Port-of-Spain, through all the honking and screaming and chickens squawking, up into the craggy mountains where cars lurched along pot-holed roads, and donkeys inched up the hills beneath loads of bristling sugar canes and burnt black men. We women stood in Mother Teresa's Home for the Sick and Dying, tiny against the massive blue-tinted walls and throngs of bent men shuffling along the dusty ground. We were here to encounter "Tough Stuff," as our jaunty yellow T-shirts proclaimed, but here in Haiti, our grins and jokes shriveled, withering away like a mango in the dry season.
Mary, Julie and I gathered in the dim room where gloves and medicines were kept, listening to the nurse prep us for our afternoon with the sick women.
"You must wear gloves," she said briskly, in her French accent, handing us a box of blue latex gloves. "These women are all on treatment, so they aren't contagious, but you can wear two pairs if you want. You do have to switch gloves every time you go to a new person. Here's the lotion." She handed us each a bottle, the top smeared and caked with dried lotion, dirt stains on the side, obscuring the Aloe Vera signs.
"You're sure we can't catch anything?" Mary whispered to me as we stepped back onto the concrete verandah, weaving around women and babies lined up on the sides.
"That's what she said," I whispered back. Mary's pale blue eyes widened, and her crazy scarlet hair bounced.
"I'm kind of nervous. I've never been around people with leprosy or AIDS before, and I can't ask them anything. Creole's way harder than French." She hurried beside me, her shoulder locked to mine, her pale face inches away. I felt a little stifled in the heat, a little panicked.
"Don't worry about it," I told her, examining my fingers, a strange fleshy blue inside my single layer of gloves. Julie caught up with us, her straight brown hair tied back, her double-layered hands twisting together unconsciously.
"Hey guys," she said, a false cheery note crashing against the silent women and sniffling babies watching us. "We're only here for three hours, but we can leave early if you need to." I looked at our Youth Group leader, saw her eyes dart around the dying women, nervous as Mary and I. We nodded and looked up as we stepped into a room, the heat intensifying even more.
Julie said the thing that hit her the most was imagining if she were in the position of one of those women. Absolutely heartbreaking. I can't do that for myself, because I know I'd lose too much hope. Mary said when she massaged one woman, she kept an eye on her chest to make sure she kept breathing. I don't know how the Sisters do this everyday; you must become either blocked to suffering, or filled with unbelievable compassion. Are we all filled with a strength that can't emerge until we must use it or die?
The women were skeletal, with hollows behind their collarbones so deep, you could collect water in them, and with upper arms so skinny, I could encircle them with my petite hands. Only their eyes moved, flattened against bony skulls, following us around the room. I walked over to a woman, gesturing with my lotion bottle and gloves. She nodded. I squirted some onto my hands, feeling the cool pile build up, then gently took one of her hands, and began massaging the lotion into her brown arms, withered like the discarded skin of a snake left shriveling in the sun. Sores punctured her arms here and there, like a volcanic range, leaving dark scars and puckered marks. They weren't oozing, so I rubbed the lotion over them too, wincing inside as I covered her fragile arms with my firm hands. I couldn't tell how old the girl was, perhaps my age, but time and leprosy had eaten away at her, until all that was left was skin like wet paper, draped over a jutting skeleton, and her dark, dark eyes, following mine, speaking what her mouth would not open to say.
Most of the women were like that, mute in words, but loud in their lack of gestures, in their eyes, like the new moon. I started with their fingers, pressuring each one separately, then moving up on their arms, feeling the skin fold and squish like an overripe, wrinkled plum. The collarbones swept down into their chests, shadowy, and I found myself wanting to trace my fingers along those impossibly deep curves, trickle water in and see it cup and mirror in the hazy sunlight. I tried to banish any surprise from my face, concentrating on the symmetry of their bodies, of the primordial need for physical contact.
The second woman I came to lay perfectly still until I reached her shoulders, and then she struggled up, slowly stripping off her shirt. It came off, a leaf blown dry to crumple on the floor, and she settled back down, naked, waiting for the lotion. I paused. Her breasts were dry and withered, sacks of flesh that sagged down, the layer of fat that is supposed to be in all women nonexistent. I began rubbing my fingers softly around the skin at the hollow between her collarbones. Then down, to her fleshless, wrinkled breasts. I massaged them gently, rubbing in lotion and moisture, wondering at the woman's quiet dignity. These breasts had perhaps nourished a baby, perhaps felt its lips and hands. I couldn't tell how old she was; maybe she had just come into womanhood when the disease stripped her body of fat and firmness and muscle, sending her here to lie on a bed all day, staring at the ceiling and listening to the moans of other women, and the flies buzzing duets around the room, watching the sun rise slowly up the orange wall, hover, then set in richening shades. I wonder what she thought as a strange white girl, with wide eyes and nervous hands, took her breasts in her small white fingers and massaged in lotion, without talking, without knowing names. Almost all of the women stripped for me, and I found their matter-of-fact nakedness freeing. All they wanted was to feel the smooth coolness of the aloe vera lotion from the grimy bottle rubbed into their skin, to dream for a moment of babies or husbands.
I wished I knew more Creole, or even French, as I struggled to hold conversations with the women who were more alert, but often the words scratched the air like nails, then dropped raggedly, and I would concentrate on remembering to switch gloves, and to finger each toe. Their toenails were all painted red, though chipping away and in need of clipping. Calluses covered their feet, and I wondered, as I spread lotion, if this was really a way to die with honor, and how some older or sick people would otherwise be cast out on the streets.
One lady wanted me to rub her hard, because her muscles hurt, probably from staying in bed all day. She sighed and moaned when I hit the right spots. "Fort, fort!" she commanded, French for "stronger, stronger!" I rubbed and pushed until I thought she might break, but she just closed her eyes and smiled slightly, and I stared at my hands in amazement. I never knew what strength I had in them, that what words would fail in saying, my fingers could express. Words couldn't span the gap, but our eyes betrayed our souls to each other, and my body spoke a language we have all known since the beginning of time.
Their eyes, their dark eyes never left us, the entire time we circled around the room, three tiny women against the roaring immensity of silent suffering. Our ignorance poked through us like shattered bones, white and awkward and visible. I bent down towards a young girl, whose face never shifted as I asked her her name. "Comment-appelez vous?" No response. Mary's girl said something, and Mary turned to me.
"She likes your earrings," she said.
"Merci!" I smiled, and as I turned back to the girl, Mary called out again, blushing.
"Oh my gosh, I'm sorry! She said that the girl's deaf!" I knew all the women in the room were staring at us, wondering why I had thanked, in a jovial voice, the girl for saying my patient was deaf. My face burned, and I massaged her limp hands, trying to convey apologies with my fingers and the lotion, which moments ago had been so eloquent, and now fumbled and pushed too hard.
It was strange coming back and seeing everyone walk in the room, talking about the babies that they held, the hopefulness of life at the orphanage, and here were the three of us, who had just been giving massages to sick and dying people. It didn't feel right or fair, and I'm not sure who I'm angry for, me or the women. Even now, when I hear someone laughing, it feels like they don't understand what Mary, Julie, and I saw. I'm angry, I'm betrayed, but there's no real rational for these feelings. They're simply here.
The next afternoon, the boarding house for disabled children that we stayed in offered for us to come help with massage therapy with the kids downstairs. We had to don latex gloves for it, and I walked down into the room, saw the rubber gloves, and recoiled. The plastic smell, the blue-tinted fingers, all glared at me, and the faces of women swam before me.
"I think I'm going to go rest for a while," I choked out to my dad. "I don't think I can do this." He gazed at me, his gloved hands reaching out, but I recoiled.
"That's all right. Go lay down, sweetie." I escaped, terrified of being trapped by those gloves, by the hollow eyes and flaccid breasts and ribcage bones like piano keys.
Haiti had bared her teeth at me, and all the naked death and dust and garbage spilled out around me, until I felt I might be buried unless I unleashed my emotions. But I had none to let go, no sobbing like Mary and Julie needed, no shaking hands or breath catching in my throat. Instead, I felt a tiny thrill of joy that these women and I met, fragile as the curl of dawn, that my hands caressed their skin. I paused, beating at this feeling-surely there could be no positive feelings from a visit to the hopeless. The gloves made me gag, but amid all the horror, the women had seen me, and I them; I recalled the faint smile lifting a woman's face and my own grin. A faint butterfly struggled within my breast, so I allowed it to stay there for a while, perched on my heartstrings.
A butterfly, a butterfly! I just saw a butterfly flutter past the window as I said my silent farewells to this island I so love. A yellow one! A sign from God. It's like what a Haitian told me: watch Haiti, feel her, know her, she will embrace us. I felt something in me finally sigh. It is time to dance on one foot with the Haitians, and know she flows through my veins, and all the poignant silences of the women are wrapped and absorbed by her.