Six of us umlungus (white people) walked into the children’s ward of a state hospital in the afternoon. Four of us entered somewhat hesitantly as we had no framework of experience to know what to be prepared for. The other two, staff of Ten Thousand Homes, didn’t know yet how we would fare. Up the stairs past the drab colored walls that made it look even dirtier than it likely really was and through the door. The hall had the same dingy hue as if the light was somehow being pulled back outside instead of streaming in.
While the nurses and staff went about their work and a few children met my gaze with uncertain eyes, I ghosted my way past each room holding my breath as if my exhale might somehow disrupt the eerie quiet. At the end of the hall, a young girl sat in a chair. With a shy smile and a gentle touch, we found the doorway between our two worlds; no longer suffocated by the lonely ward, but breathing laughter and love. And other curious faces migrated over.
Before arriving we learned that the hospital was designed to work on a sliding scale, but most of the families can’t afford to pay and therefore most of the patients receive free care. Visiting hours are short and strict, leaving some children alone for the duration of care as the parents are unable to take time off or get to the hospital during the day. In addition to visiting with the kids, it was equally important for us to encourage and appreciate the staff. Thankless jobs are often hard to do well. Since TTH has been visiting and thanking the staff, they have seen an improvement in the care provided.
It was still emotionally taxing. In each moment, I focused on connecting, touching, loving, and praying over these small ones. The processing came later, and is still working from my heart out onto the page.
I stepped inside a room of boys. An external fixator and badly wounded leg was in juxtaposition of the smiling face looking back at me. He had a bunch of playing cards all over his bed. I remembered I knew the word for ‘king’ and picked up the card and said, “kosi.” A bigger smile. I gathered the cards (only about half a deck) and began to teach them the game of War. When the nurse came in to administer medication, I slipped out of her way.
A little thing in a crib, clutching a small stuffed elephant sat expressionless. Nothing engaged her. Nothing changed the indifference on her face. I picked the wounded bird up (it made no difference to her). Her gown, robe and bed were drenched in urine. My own shirt was getting damp, such a small inconvenience. Then a woman stood in the doorway and the little bird’s spirit came to life. Reaching out her arms to the woman, finally a smiling light in her eyes… “Mama!”
Two times burned with scalding water, another baby slept in bandages and charred skin. In yet another room, a young boy slept, body contorted in obvious pain. How does one pray? What words can one use other than a deep groan? In a quiet moment alone standing bed side, a collision of horrific love and beautiful sorrow threatened to overwhelm. I sank to my knees on the holy ground of the hospital floor.
A good party always attracts a crowd. By the time we left, us four umlungus had congregated in one room along with the children that could get out of bed. There was jumping and hand-clapping, Eskimo kisses and chipmunk noises. Best of all squeals of delight and laughter.
A hard day for my heart, but awed by love. Not understanding, yet knowing God is still good. We didn’t change the world that afternoon, but the value of every smile (ours included) is priceless. As we walked out the door, the hall behind us felt brighter with the light of just a bit of joy.
Some days came heavy, but others were lighthearted. Life balances both everywhere.
While I enjoyed our day in Krueger Park, the following day was even better. Brett and Wendy (staff at TTH and now precious friends) took Kevin and me out for the day to some of their favorite spots. The beauty of the relationships was just as spectacular as the views.
The day kicked off officially with breakfast at the infamous Harrie’s for pancakes. These are not your ordinary pancakes. We each ordered a ‘meal’ pancake (mine, sticky pork with peaches and spring onions) and a dessert one (dark chocolate mousse). I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted something so good. When Kevin asked Wendy what her milk tart custard was, I naturally reached over and took a forkful off her plate for him to taste and smiling at her said, “It’s okay, we’re family.” Then I took another bite for myself.
God’s Window looked out over a vast expanse all the way to Mozambique, so they say but I couldn’t see the welcome sign. In the rain forest, we pretended to be wild animals we didn’t see in Krueger and we cheered on the people huffing their way up the path. While Kevin and I practiced our bargaining skills to acquire souvenirs, Brett appreciated the classic cars and Wendy… well… A bus load of African woman was having a party in the parking lot. When Y-tjukutja started blasting from the bus, like a moth to a flame Wendy was drawn in. The white woman started busting loose right in their midst. They hooted and hollered, took photos and video, shook and gyrated right beside her. Like I said, a good party always attracts a crowd. Kevin and I watched in amazement and laughed our a**es off.
We had just enough time to squeeze in one more waterfall. I had just enough time left to free fall over the edge of my own fears. Truth took it's brave dive. I spoke, she listened. The words fell and then disappeared into surrounding moments like ripples. There was nothing to mark the moment as significant, but I believe heaven was applauding for us both. The words continue to humble me, the transparency encourages me and the freedom inspires me.
I used to say that my happy meter was broken; it hardly ever went above 80%. It was hard to truly let go and embrace experiences instead of waiting for disappointment to follow. That has been changing. Headed back towards home as the African sun sank towards the horizon, my joy could not be contained. Surrounded by beauty both in landscape and company, my happy meter hit 100% and busted for good.
God had more. Perhaps 100% was a limit too low for such a great God.
I went to dinner with Kacy (another TTH staffer) anticipating conversation to be about singleness and love of children as our most obvious connection. I spared her my harder questions and simply asked her story. She shared the basics of her life journey like a well-rehearsed script. When asked to reciprocate, for a moment I felt my story wasn’t important enough to tell. My life came out in spits and starts it seemed. Little steps of faith soon became dares to take bigger leaps. Doesn't God know I'm afraid of heights? Dreams once again pressed against the dam of my heart to be loosed. I wasn’t sure I was making any sense, but the walls were down, left open from earlier in the day. Once again my ashes brought something and someone beautiful into my life. A silent barrier dissipated into a knowing that someone else understands.