At 7pm, at 11pm, and again at 3am, as each shift departed and a new shift arrived, I hugged my brand-new-now-previous-coworkers, and said, “Thanks for everything. I loved this assignment.”
And they hugged me in return and said, “Good luck. Come back.”
I have been the actor, center-stage, of this tableau over and over again. I have hugged coworkers in two hospitals in New England. One in the midwest, another on the border of Mexico. Three now on the west coast, and one in the desert. I hugged coworkers in the pitch blackness of a Sierra Nevada night at a medical station only accessible via a two-mile hike. I hugged fellow volunteers in Central America, in rural Tennessee, on a beautiful Philippine island ravaged by a storm. And furtive hugs were exchanged in Africa, though we denied it under the gaze of the blistering daylight.
Each time, someone says, “Come back.”
And I say, each and every time, “I’d like that.”
~ ~ ~
I’m telling the truth, with that phrase. I would like it. I would like to come back again, to re-live shared moments and experiences, cultural in-jokes and the smooth glide of teamwork when everything clicks. Each and every hug relays a gratitude that I cannot express otherwise, a gratefulness that I was in that place, at that time, with that person, treading the same path for a few complicated, wonderful steps.
But in acknowledging that I would like it, I tacitly admit that I cannot do it. I cannot ‘come back’ because the path has already been altered in my arrival and by my departure; it will never again be the same as it was. It evolved before my presence was known and continues to grow in my absence; my part was so small as to be irrelevant.
More importantly, though, is this: I cannot ‘come back’ because I am unwilling to go.
‘Back’ is the car-wreck of domesticity in the rearview mirror, disappearing around the bend at 70 miles an hour. Back is the rubble of trampled and forgotten milestones on the trail behind me, I will do this by twenty-five, I will accomplish such by thirty-one, I must try this before I’m thirty-five. Back is a bed of hot coals, my feet burned and blistered.
I cannot go back.
~ ~ ~
Word travelled quietly on electronic airwaves from the west coast of Africa to the west coast of the United States. Did you hear? One of the nurses has tested positive for Ebola.
And I heard the moment he died, a quiet chime on my cellphone as I waited at a red light in a northern suburb, heading to the car wash. I picked up the phone and the message from a different nurse in the northern district said, We have lost him, and I didn’t know what to do. So I paid eight dollars and got the car cleaned.
Then I drove home and sat in bed and did nothing at all, startled by my sense of grief, and terrified by an uncontrollable anger. You absolute, complete and total asshole, I screamed at him. You were treating someone on the side, weren’t you? Who was it? Who was so important or so rich that you kept them out of the ETU? Who was this person that signed your death warrant? Are they dead now, too?
The international press release hailed him as a hero, someone who stepped up to help his country fight a war that has dragged on now for almost eighteen months. Were you a hero? I asked him. Did you breach? Did you give someone a shot of valium, only to have them strike out at you in their confusion, driving the needle out of their arm and into yours? Did you touch your face in doffing? Did you miss a step in your exhaustion in the heat of the rainy season?
I sat later at a table in a bar, still not drinking, picking idly at some french fries (and if you were there, you recognize the irony of that statement), and realized that out of the swirling mire of emotions was rising a singular, familiar feeling. I felt betrayed. Sierra Leone had betrayed me again.
She had promised me that I would make a difference, that I would use a decade worth of skill and passion and practice to kill off an epidemic. She had promised me that I would finally be fulfilled, that I would find my calling, at long last, my place in the world. She had promised me that this relationship would be different.
And there, in an air-conditioned bar, surrounded by big-screen televisions and satellite sports channels and too much food and casually potable water, I realized that she had promised me nothing. I had made those promises to myself, I had given myself those reassurances. Their empty weight was mine to bear, not hers.
~ ~ ~
A week ago I stepped out of the front door of my parent’s home early in the morning, walking down the stairs to grab the newspaper from the sidewalk. I stepped straight into a spider web, stretched invisibly across the porch. I saw the spider fleeing down a silvery strand, and grabbed it to lower her safely to the rhododendron bush next to me.
“Sorry,” I said, talking to a spider as though this were something humans did as a matter of course. “Just knocked your house down in a matter of seconds. My bad.”
A few days later I returned to the city, worked for three days, hugged my coworkers, slept for five hours, and then put everything I owned into duffels and bags and boxes. In less than ninety minutes my rented room was empty, and the trunk of my car was full.
As quickly as the spider had appropriated that porch to make a home, so had I made this beautiful city mine for these few brief months. And as quickly as I’d torn down her home, I’d torn down my own.
I pulled onto the I-5, and didn’t look back.
~ ~ ~
I wept when I said goodbye to my nurses in the northern district. It was mid-March, and I was heartbroken and heartsick and had nothing left to give them, and wished somehow I could be or have or make more. My plane would leave Freetown the following night.
Come back, many of them said.
And I said, I’d like that.