The radiance of her skin startled me. I didn’t expect to see anyone through the slit in the hospital curtains. I lay on my stomach on a cot just five feet from her, but the little girl seemed far away from this place. The hospital itself is an anachronism, built by the Portuguese and used until this day with little regard for maintenance. Faded yellow walls with cracking paint. Long, poorly lit hallways. A mortuary connected to the southern wing. It reminds me of a zombie movie. But the little girl’s cheeks were anything but dead – vibrant, a creamy softness inspiring the caress of a hand. Her eyelids too. They rested over her eyes like the oxygen mask over her mouth. The image of innocence. Of fragility. Of helplessness. I intruded upon it through a crack in the curtains, and perhaps the privacy of the scene – the concerned woman sitting in a chair just beyond the child – impressed it upon my memory. Perhaps it was the evanescence of it all. Within seconds, the nurse in the toothpaste green scrubs stuck the needle in my ass, injecting me full of diphenhydramine, and I was free to go.
A predictable sequence of events led me to the provincial hospital for that syringe full of antihistamine. After breaking my toe, I started wearing shoes everywhere. Outside, inside, AM, PM, at school, at home, – constant support for the wounded digit. Two toes down the line, a red splotch appeared. It started to itch. It spread. Within a matter of weeks, both feet succumbed to the fungus. It was the logical outgrowth of the broken toe. It was yet another unforeseen obstacle to the recovery of my health, Mozambique’s way of keeping me on my toes – or at least keeping them swollen and itchy.
A fungus does not go away over night. Nor does a broken toe (especially when the fungus demands that you wear sandals). Nor does an atrophied vastus medialis (where your quadriceps muscles unite to hold your knee in place). Nor does IBS. The weight of the afflictions I’ve accrued in the last year seems heavier because of their chronic nature. Acute diarrhea is quick, harmless enough to become the playful title of a blog. Chronic diarrhea is demoralizing. For the past fourteen weeks, I’ve maintained a journal detailing every morsel I have consumed and every bowel movement I have passed. I can tell you the hour and consistency of every shit I’ve taken for the past one hundred days. Since December – the lowest moment of my entire life in terms of health – I’ve joked to myself, “It’s all uphill from here.” Then in February a Mozambican doctor sent scopes down both ends of my digestive track and told me that my intestines bleed easily. The character in the movie says that things couldn’t possibly be worse, and then it starts raining. When was the last time a fungus aggressively attacked his feet?
But let’s not stray from the hill underfoot: how does one eradicate such a fungus? First, you must dry it out. Foot soaks and topical anti-fungal creams will only serve to hydrate the skin, creating a favorable environment for the yeasty devil. Instead, soak your feet in a solution of one part water, one part hydrogen peroxide and let them air dry afterwards. Do this three times a day. After about a week of this, the skin will visibly crack, signaling the time to begin applying a broad-spectrum anti-fungal cream. This is the theory at least. I’m on step two and noticing definite improvements. But the itchy mongrel is not gone yet, and I’ve learned to temper my expectations.
The hydrogen peroxide phase of the process coincided with the visit of my roommate’s family. Mom, Dad, sister, brother-in-law, and sister all stuffed into our two-bedroom, one-bathroom, no-running-water house behind the school in Nomba for a week. On Tuesday night, we made chicken masala. The curry cooks for two hours. Pumpkin bakes in the oven for an hour. We borrowed a mattress from Orlando next door and it stays on the living room floor. Evan and Elise play Euchre against Drew and Cheryl on the edge of the mattress. Madi and Andrew lay behind them, reading a book and playing solitaire, respectively. I sit on a chair watching the Euchre game, remembering the rules and testing my theoretical move against what Elise or Drew do with their cards. The warmth of the oven and the smell of the curry circulate through the house. The warmth of bodies and the sound of voices and flicking of cards waft through the living room. I sit above the scene, watching it, feeling it, absorbing the comfort of a home. Not just a house, but the lived-in feeling of a family occupying the same space. And I too feel warm.
So often we do not perceive the ways in which we relate to others, are not aware of the effects that we have on them. The Briscoe family did not notice their silent observer, could not see the pleasant nostalgia that they evoked simply through their presence. It follows that they could not see the subsequent emptiness generated by their departure, either. Sometimes a hug only serves to draw attention to the body that is now missing from your grasp in the aftermath. I have not hugged my family in almost two years. I became acutely aware of that as the Briscoe’s left my house for the airport.
But a body is just a body. I’ve taken to sleeping with a large blanket rolled like a taco for me to cuddle underneath my actual blanket, and that does the job almost as well. What we miss are the patterns of those removed from our lives – the accumulation of actions and words and shared moments that stitched their lives to our own. When we are separated from those closest to us, those whose patterns cross-threaded intricately with our own, we look for a way to attach those patterns to something else, to preserve the threads of our common fabric. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we don’t. All the while, the loom continues to add layer upon layer to the pattern we perceive as our identity. Sometimes we’re aware of where we interweave into another’s fabric. Sometimes we aren’t.
Before I left for Africa, I received two manila envelopes filled with one hundred letters of encouragement from family and friends. I binge read fifty of the letters in one late-night sitting during training. Not until I reached somewhere in the thirties, a letter from my sister, did I begin to cry. I was not aware of her letter, of the light in which she perceives me. She was not aware of the impact her letter had on me once I found out. In the last year and a half, I jealously guarded the remaining letters, only reading thirty of them in two separate sittings when the question of self-pity thrust itself to the forefront of my thoughts and demanded a good cry. In the wake of the Briscoe’s departure, the question surfaced once more, and I found myself reading the last twenty letters in my collection. As I read, I reflected on the pattern that I have woven in my interactions with others, in the strange memories of me that people mentioned in letters, memories of which I have no recollection but which the other person has held onto for some time (all this talk of patterns comes from the afterword of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I finished earlier in the day). My consciousness holds on to clippings of the past in a seemingly haphazard fashion. I do not remember sitting next to the future Gamma Phi sister on the bus to Sea World when I helped run orientation week at USD my senior year. I do not remember doing group work in a Shakespeare class my junior year. I do not remember meeting the president of Relay for Life with an enormous wad of cash my sophomore year. And yet, these are the moments that others have held onto, the threads I have sewn.
During this final session of letter reading, the tears would not fall. Perhaps my fabric has had time to fill in the tear of my relocation to Mozambique. Perhaps the hydrogen peroxide evaporated all of the moisture from my tear ducts. Letter writers, please do not think that I value you any less; I miss you more than you can know. My thoughts, however, drifted to the radiant skin of the girl in the ICU at the provincial hospital. She will never know of the momentary interweaving of our lives, of the broken-bodied arungu that stole a glimpse of her helpless form beneath an oxygen mask on a Thursday morning. I did not choose to purloin this memory. She did not choose to provide it anymore than she deserved to be in the hospital. But the loom weaves on with less concern for karma or individual choice than I would like to believe.
This entire experience – 27 months in Mozambique – has begun to feel like one big rip in the fabric of my life and those connected to me. Severed from home at the start, soon the end will sever me from here. A fabric sewn in too many directions becomes threadbare. Sometimes I wish I never came. Sometimes I wish I’ll never leave. More and more it seems that all I have to rely upon is this broken body. Then I remember the fungus on my feet and the dysbiotic hellhole in my gut. No, I’ll never be completely alone.