Four years ago, Peregrine was present when our teenage neighbor went into labor. The young woman’s previous hospital childbirth had been so abusive that this time she insisted on giving birth at home attended by untrained local women.
Peregrine was with her at the birth and helped as she was instructed. The baby died. The mother was malnourished and underweight, any number of things could have led to the baby’s death. There will be no answers, no autopsy. Just, “the baby died.”
I cracked when I heard, broke apart. Just a few months earlier my friend’s father had passed away while we were living in their home. I rushed in, attempted rescue breathing, ran him to the hospital when I realized my efforts were futile, and there he was pronounced dead. There are always deaths in our community, but these two were sudden, close, with responsibility.
Uselessness. Failure. Despair.
The deaths didn’t come in isolation but as the culmination of a year of difficulty. Once we had gained enough language to understand the events of the lives of our neighbors, we were beset by a stream of heartbreak – illnesses, abuse, broken relationships, failed dreams, and deaths.
With all that on the negative side of the ledger, the positive counterweight felt thin. We didn’t feel we were making an impact. We had moved from the world of privilege into solidarity with the poor, but in their world the suffering continued as if we had never come.
We couldn’t leave, couldn’t abandon them in their suffering. But we didn’t know what our being there did. Was friendship and emotional support even a drop in the bucket when they still died?
Later that year I was again thrust into the role of a first responder when a motorcyclist was knocked unconscious in an auto accident. We got him to the hospital and he lived. A few months later it happened again, another motorcycle accident. We got him into a vehicle to get to the hospital but I never found out how he ended up.
Just after that, when we were supposed to be on vacation, I was present when a tourist fell off of a mountain waterfall. For forty-five minutes I tried to reach him at the bottom of a suspended ravine and could not get to him. The emergency response team who came with ropes and climbing gear couldn’t even reach him for almost two hours. He was dead by the time they got there. That one hit hard, that drawn-out time when I was trying to reach him and could not and I knew that I was his only hope and no one else. And I couldn’t do it.
A few months later I was present at a fatal car crash. Just a week after that a man was electrocuted and fell off a building in front of me. Others got to each of those situations before me, there was nothing I could do to help. Part of me was glad not to have to be “the one” again.
The accumulation of these incidents weighed heavy, especially the young man on the waterfall. I began showing a trauma response whenever I heard a loud noise or tires screech. Having spent my life wanting to be there when bad things happened, wanting to be the one who could help, I now shied away. I began imagining accidents before they occurred, and praying that if they did happen, they would happen around the corner, when I was not around.
For a year there was a relative calm. Then the lives around us started falling apart again. One of the young women we were closest to got married off illegally at 17, we tried to get child protective services involved, the wedding happened anyway. Her sister got married off at 14, when I found out I was so distraught I made a scene at the wedding. I couldn’t sleep all night afterwards, just sat in our room and lamented what had happened. Nothing could be done, we had to live with it and support them as best we could. Two days later two girls in a vulnerable situation ran away. Crestfallen. Still no one has heard from them. The week after that a young teenager who was already in distress got kicked out of her care home and had nowhere else to turn. We provided a room for her as a temporary stopgap and within weeks realized that this young lady, Shadia, was now our foster daughter.
Within a month there was a family disaster in our community, a friend had a mental episode and trashed his home and only my last-second intervention kept him from ending up in jail. He stayed in my room that night, sleeping it off soundly while I lay on my back and stared at the ceiling, unable to get a second of rest as my mind tried to process what the fallout would be and how I could make things right. Then our foster daughter tried to run away, again only my last-second intervention stopped it. Another sleepless night.
The next month that same friend’s 13-year-old brother did run away. Police located him a week later in a city on the opposite side of the country. The stress of having to cross the country on a two-day standing-room-only train in order to retrieve him, coupled with numerous other family stressors, led my friend to have a psychotic breakdown.
For months the emergencies were a blur I cannot parse, five to ten crises a week at the peak. There were more runaways, more mental breakdowns, more relational catastrophes, more sleepless nights. I had the pain of reading a suicide note addressed to me. We were able to intervene. Twice I rushed Shadia to the hospital due to illness. Twice we had to commit my friend to the psychiatric hospital for a week at a time. My resilience was pressed to the edge. I crawled from one day to the next. At one point I prayed Lord, if you could just get one of them to next year, just one.
Hope was a hard thing.
Eight months into crisis mode, Peregrine called me from where she was lying on the side of the road, out of breath, speaking faintly. She had crashed her bike and had a head injury. I rushed there fearing for her life. She ended up okay. Not to be outdone, a week later Shadia was hit by a motorcycle on her way to work and knocked unconscious. Again I rushed to the scene in fear. Though she was initially delirious, unable to remember the previous two weeks or form new short-term memories, within 4-5 hours her brain miraculously reorganized itself and she ended up with a full recovery.
That, gratefully, marked the beginning of sort of a respite. Over the next 18 months the “emergencies” relented. Shadia had a few panic attacks, relationship issues, lost her job twice, but 90% of the time it no longer felt like her life hung in the balance at every setback. My friend recovered from his ten-month manic episode and began to reintegrate into productive daily life, though at a diminished capacity. A different friend had their four-year-old son fall off a roof and sustain serious brain injuries, his life hanging in the balance for weeks. We covered the medical care for them, and by some miracle his little brain made a full recovery. I broke down and cried the first time I saw him standing normally again.
Has this been worth it?
Now I can point to things that I couldn’t yet see four years ago. We’ve engaged meaningfully in people’s lives. We’ve walked beside families in tough times. We have been emotional support when that was in short supply, and sometimes physical support, and sometimes financial support. Peregrine has worked to keep an NGO alive that provides deep care to dozens of girls in difficult times, and I’ve been running a program that improved the education of thousands of people in the slums.
I don’t doubt whether it’s been worth it now. I don’t feel the same uselessness or failure or despair that emerged at times 3-4 years ago.
But the weight of the pain when we can’t do enough has never left.
Last month, when I was supposed to be on vacation, there was another death. Gunfire broke out from a passing car, three men were shot, and I was the only one who could help. I couldn’t do enough. Everything I knew to do was not everything that was required and we got them into the care of the paramedics alive but one of them died in the hospital. His blood drying on my hands.
Some nights I lie awake and run through the options in my head, what I could have done differently, what I would do if it happened that way next time. I wonder if I did any good when the one man still died and when the other two may have lived whether I was there or not. Peregrine says that my competence and care, emotional support and prayers during those forty-five minutes mattered to them, mattered to their families, that he died that much less alone.
I don’t know.
Some days I turn to overeating, or internet surfing and arguments, unable to write or concentrate in any meaningful way and instead focusing on quick-quick spurts of activity, running from one thing to the next to keep my mind occupied because I don’t want to shut it down, can’t shut it down. If I try to stop and go to bed I can’t stop, can’t stop thinking. At 3am or 4am I get tired enough to collapse and fall asleep without having to think.
How many of these nights? Some nights I’ve seen the sun rise before I realized how late it was. Keeping my mind racing on politics or current events or social justice is the only option I come up with to avoid my mind dwelling on the disasters in my own life.
I do know that I cannot stop being in these places, these places where these things happen. I know too much, I will always carry the burden. Perhaps I will again fail to save a life, again experience trauma, and the burden will increase. But if I left their lives I would still hold that burden till the end of mine, along with a deeper regret knowing that I wasn’t there.
A story is told of Jesus and His disciples walking one day along a stony road. Jesus asked each of them to choose a stone to carry for Him. John, it is said, chose a large one while Peter chose the smallest. Jesus led them then to the top of a mountain and commanded that the stones be made bread. Each disciple, by this time tired and hungry, was allowed to eat the bread he held in his hand, but of course Peter’s was not sufficient to satisfy his hunger. John gave him some of his.
Some time later Jesus again asked the disciples to pick up a stone to carry. This time Peter chose the largest of all. Taking them to a river, Jesus told them to cast the stones into the water. They did so, but looked at one another in bewilderment.
For whom,” asked Jesus, “did you carry the stone?”