We lay together in the dark, the window open, the night unnaturally warm for Seattle in July. Traffic hummed quietly along the road below us, north to the suburbs, south to the city. Headlights traced the far wall, up across the ceiling, down across the bookshelf, disappeared into the hushed piling of the carpet, reappeared on the far wall, circled around again and again.
His left hand traced my left hip, my waist, up my ribs to my shoulder. Greater trochanter. Iliac crest. 10th rib, 9th, 8th. Scapula. Acromion process. Greater tubercle of the humerus. His hand curled around my upper arm, followed it where it lay across his chest, over to my hand. Triceps. Brachioradialis. Abductor pollicis brevis. He threaded his fingers through mine, squeezed gently, his lips pressing softly against my temple. My eyes drifted closed and latin names dissolved like sand under a wave.
He followed the same path back to my left leg, and paused over the decade-old image imprinted there. “What does it say?” he asked, his voice subdued.
I didn’t open my eyes, didn’t need to. “To feed the hungry. To give water to the thirsty. To clothe the naked. To shelter the homeless. To care for the sick. To visit the imprisoned.” I sighed. “And to bury the dead.”
My left hand traced the fingers on his right hand. My fingertips found the tattoo covering the fine, strangely soft skin inside his forearm. I cupped his elbow, rubbed my thumb over his bicep. I spread my hand over his chest, pressing down slightly. Anterior origin of the deltoid. Pectoralis major.
“I had forgotten,” he said.
My hand paused. “Forgotten what?”
He was silent for a moment, then said, “How good it is. Just…being touched.”
~ ~ ~
I was going to agree. I was going to bury my face in his shoulder and inhale him, to absorb as much of him as possible before he disappeared with the dawn. I wanted to bottle up the sensation of the skin of another person on mine, to hold it in a quiet, secret reserve for the long weeks of a road trip to the desert ahead of me.
And then the flashback hit, a tidal wave that drowned those thoughts and feelings before they ever saw the surface. Like a slideshow moving too quickly, picture after picture after picture flashed through my brain, too bright, too real.
I was in Sierra Leone.
I was in the Suspect Ward. I was holding an infant, looking down at her from behind my face shield.
I was in the green zone, watching a naked child run screaming from the pediatric ward towards Emily.
I was in triage, in the red zone. I watched as Tracy pulled the limp body of another child from between the fences.
I was in doffing. The apron of the nurse across from me was covered in blood. She was standing frozen in front of the chlorine bucket, choking on great, wracking sobs behind her mask.
“You can do this,” I said quietly, urgently, speaking almost mindlessly. I just had to keep her moving forward through doffing, I had to help her get herself out of her gear. “You’re stronger than you think, you can do this. Wash your hands, honey. That’s it. We’ll get through this. We’ll get you out. You’ll be ok.”
~ ~ ~
Without conscious thought, I started speaking.
“In Sierra Leone, children are carried on their mother’s backs from the moment they’re born. They’re tied up with this long, wide piece of cloth called a lapa, laying with their face against their mother. When they get a little bigger their legs stick out the bottom of the cloth, and when they get even bigger they sometimes wiggle their arms out, and reach for things as their mothers walk by.
“So from the moment they enter into the world, they’re being held. They’re being touched. Their skin touches their mother’s skin, their sister’s skin. They go through the world always hearing a heartbeat, always hearing the breath moving in someone’s lungs. They’re always warm, always safe.
“But we would get these kids at the treatment unit, and a lot of the time their mothers were already dead, or they were so sick that they couldn’t care for their child, and we separated them on the off-chance that the baby wasn’t infected. And all we had were these horrible cholera beds, and they were easily a meter tall, and the children would either roll off the bed, or fall through the hole in the center. So we found all these red plastic laundry baskets, and we’d line the laundry baskets with yellow isolation gowns and stick the kids in the baskets.
“And they HATED the baskets. They were cold, and alone. No one was holding them. And they’d cry, and cry, and cry. And we weren’t supposed to pick them up; we weren’t supposed to hold anything or anyone directly against our suits. But we couldn’t stand it. And we’d go back into the red zone for a third time just to hold the children so they’d stop crying. We’d pick them up, and they’d just….stop. And they’d watch us for a while. And if you walked with them, they’d fall asleep.
“So we’d walk, back and forth, back and forth, all the way down to the end of the ward and back again. And again.”
I went silent, remembering the child I carried back and forth across the ward. She had a head full of thick, dark curls. I was terrified she’d stick her hand up under my face shield, breaching my gear, and I wouldn’t be fast enough to stop her. But I carried her regardless.
He had gone still for a moment when I started talking. But his left hand had resumed its path, wandering from my fingers to my hip, gently stroking my back. “What happened to them?” he asked.
The headlights of the cars looped across the room. A truck roared by, gearing down to get up the hill. I sighed. To bury the dead. “They didn’t survive.”
He wasn’t in medicine. “Was there anything you could do? Any drugs or…anything?”
I lifted my shoulder in a half-shrug, and inched in closer against him. “We ran out of medicine all the time. We didn’t have anything that was really effective. And it was electrolyte imbalances that killed these kids, mostly. They were just so sick from the virus that their K and calcium would get all fucked up, and they’d have these huge seizures, or their hearts would just stop.”
Suddenly another picture from the slideshow flashed in front of me, and, surprising myself, I laughed. “God, those little shits in the pediatric ward! Christian and Chuck and I worked for almost two hours one day, trying to save this sibling group that all came in together. Two of us would hold the kid down, and the third would start the IV, and then we’d do all these ridiculous things to keep the kid from pulling the damn thing out!”
“Like what?” I could hear a smile in his voice.
“We’d cover their hands with gloves, and tape the gloves to their wrists. Or we’d fold up pieces of cardboard to make a splint around their elbows, and tape the cardboard to them. And even then, one of boys managed to get his hand to his mouth, and almost got the glove off with his teeth! God, they were tenacious. Even when they were sick, they were so damn determined.” I remembered Christian gently scolding the boy, teasing him, trying to comfort him, the boy staring at us wide-eyed and fearful, brave.
We lapsed into silence again. His hand curled around my hip, and he rubbed his fingers against my skin. Anterior superior iliac spine.
Then, as quickly as it had started, the slideshow in my brain stopped. The lights went out, the soundtrack went quiet. I was back in the city, in the dark of the night, inside my body, wrapped around his.
I was suddenly, painfully embarrassed. “I’m sorry,” I said, pulling my hand away from his arm. “I don’t know why I told you all of that. It’s pretty depressing stuff.”
He reached out with his right arm, and grabbed my hand back. He brought it to his face as he rolled onto his left side, looming over me in the shadows. “I’m glad you felt safe enough with me to say it,” he said simply.
I traced the line of his jaw, felt the roughness of the stubble under my fingers. His eyebrow. His cheek. Zygomatic arch. He was leaving my bed in a few hours, and I was leaving his city for good in a few days. We both knew we would almost certainly never see each other again.
I reached up for him, and in my touch I gave him the rest of the memory, pressed it into his skin, trusting him to carry it away, to let it be forgotten and lost to me, just as we would be to the other in the passage of time.
Wow. Your writing is quite powerful. I am an RN. I’m also a friend of Paul Gunderson in Milwaukee. He has mentioned you in our conversations. This is the first time I’ve read a blog post of yours. I am in awe. What you have done in Africa is amazing. I doubt that I will ever need the kind of courage that you must have needed to provide the care that you have. Again, wow.