Here is a truth: I can’t feel. I’m not allowed to feel; to feel risks the possibility of falling and I can’t fall when we are surviving. I have to conserve energy. Hold on for the girls, for Mike. Hold on for sanity’s sake. I need sanity in order to survive. Feeling? Ha! What a concept!

    – Mission journal entry, October 1994, Barrio El Trompillo, Venezuela

The story begins when I have returned, returned to the States. Each time I look in the mirror I see an old woman, gray haired, stooped, small, in a faded housedress from the fifties with flabby arms, sunbaked. This is me, an old tired woman with two children, aged five and one. That is the odd part. The children are there and I know I must raise them but I am old and I also know that I am ready to die, willing to die if it is my time. That is how long I have been living, an eternity. The mirror reflects this, only the mirror. Everyone else sees a thirty-six-year-old woman. But I do not see her. I lost her a long time ago.

Dengue; Venezuela 1995

The silvered roach darts out from between the gray mosquito netting and beelines its way toward Mary’s plump arm lying motionless against the sweat-stained sheet.

I stretch to flick it away but cannot manage the distance. I lie sideways, flattened to the sheet, Mary upon my nipple, her weak lips sucking intermittently. She is flushed, hot, feverish—we sweat as one. The heat pouring down from the sun-scorched, corrugated metal roof bakes us together.

The roach scatters up on her forearm. I lurch, repelled by its brashness, and Mary whines. It runs faster than I can smack it and darts back down into the crevices of the netting.

Mary’s fever rages 102, 103, 104 degrees. I cannot keep her cool. The fan motions hot dusted air upon us. The wet rag feels heated, dry.

I call to Emma. She takes the rag, dips it into the pan of lukewarm water, squeezes with her tiny five-year-old muscles and hands it, dripping, back to me. We wait for Mary to sleep.

Pulling my nipple out, I slip myself away from her. Tiny droplets of sweat lie across her pursed lip.

She has dengue.

Each day we awake, dress, climb into the gray dust-covered jeep and make our way through the barrio, out into the main thoroughfare and into town twenty miles, to the clinic. We wait in line one, two, three hours until it is our turn for Mary to have her blood drawn. She screams in weak, muffled sobs, her eyes suddenly wide, then drooping, her fever sapping any strength she may have. They tell us yesterday's readings: her platelets are stabilizing. We remain on the outpatient list. She is on the mend. She is only weak.

For ten days we follow the same routine. We arrive home. She suckles, sweats, suckles, and sleeps. There is no urine output. I am engorged. Still they say she is on the mend.

On the tenth day they give her a clean bill of health. We have “beat the dengue,” they say. Mary is still weak.

We are given metoclopramide to combat nausea and vomiting. “Dale tres gotas cada cuatro horas hasta que deje de vomitar.” Give her three drops every four hours until she stops vomiting.

I administer the tres gotas and lay next to Mary as she sleeps. She does not awaken through the night. A first. I sense she is on the mend.

I arise early. Mike will watch the girls. It is my turn to climb the hill to meet with the catechists. It is Saturday and classes are at nine. The children will be coming. I focus on the task ahead. Children ask about Mary. Word has spread.

We are like the plague, ourselves and one other family with a four-year-old. Dengue has reached our homes and everyone is glad they live up the hill and not near us. Dengue kills. Already, this year, five babies under the age of one have died in our state of Lara, Venezuela. Mary is ten months old. It is mid-January.

In a trance I finish my work, descend the dust-caked hill. The sun beats down, relentless. When I arrive home Mike is holding Mary. She is listless, her head arched back. He says she has not wakened today: “She can’t wake up.”

I grab her and we rush her next door. Maria, the neighborhood healer, the one who administers shots and diagnoses fevers, chills, and colds, who prescribes herbs and aspirins, looks at her. She needs a doctor she says. She needs a doctor now.

Maria offers her phone, one of five phones in the barrio. She places a call to the hospital. She talks to someone and explains the circumstances. Get her in right now. Come quickly, they say.

I hold Mary. Emma sits in back. Mike winds his way through the barrio, onto the thoroughfare, into town. We park and carry our little Mary in.

A nurse takes her from me and puts her on a gurney. For the first time I realize that Mary’s back, too, is arched, like rigor mortis. Her head lunged backward, the whites of her eyes visible, her pupils drawn toward the back of her head. They look into her eyes. I find a way to hold on, to hold my baby while they work around her. She is stiff and does not move. She does not cry.

A doctor appears.

He asks, “What does she have?’

“Dengue.”

“What have you given her?”

Tres gotas de metoclopramide.”

“How did you administer it?”

“In her mouth.”

“Direct in her mouth?” he asks.

“Yes direct.”

“Why?” he snaps. “It is to be placed in her milk. Did they not tell you it is to be placed in her milk?”

“No,” I say, “I did not know.”

“She is having a reaction to the medication,” he says.

I think, All night she has been like this?

“We do not have the antidote here,” he says. “I will call other clinics. You will have to find it. We do not have it here.”

He leaves. I hold on to my stiff little baby. She lies alone upon the gurney and I want to climb up and cuddle her. I want her to awaken and to nurse. She lies motionless. Head lurched back.

The doctor returns with a slip of paper, an address upon it. He turns to Mike. “You must go to get this antidote. We do not have it and your baby needs it.”

Mike searches for directions. He looks into my eyes and holds my hand. He hugs Emma. He kisses Mary’s head. He leaves. We wait.

Within two hours he returns. Mary is still stiff. The vial he carries looks empty. There is a drop of clear liquid at the bottom; a drop. “It is not enough,” he says. “I don’t think it is enough.”

The doctor returns. “Ah good—” he says, and looks. “Yes this is enough, we are lucky, there is enough.”

He draws a needle syringe out. He administers the antidote. I cuddle Mary, lying half upon the gurney. Emma draws near. We are being transferred upstairs.

Lisa, a veteran missioner, arrives. She has lived here eight years. Her children come along and Maya goes into the corner to play with Emma. We relate the occurrences. She immediately asks, “Did they draw her blood?” No, we say. “Then how do they know this reaction is from the medicine and not from the dengue?” We do not know.

She calls for a nurse. Lisa is in control, her Spanish rapid-fire and precise. “This baby needs her blood drawn—she has had dengue—call the doctor,” she demands. The nurse leaves and returns. “Yes we will draw her blood—the doctor says it is okay.” Lisa goes on, “Yes the blood must be drawn. She has dengue.”

It is late. What is it, two, three, four a.m.? Mary sleeps in a bed with rails drawn up. I have been left to care for her. I am her nurse. I pump my breasts into the sink to relieve the pressure. I cannot relieve the pressure. They are burning red and hot. My head burns and pounds. I lie beside my baby. She does not nurse. In here at least we are air-conditioned and the heat is not as intense, I think. At least here we can burn in coolness.

The doctor arrives.

I get up.

“The platelets are 47,000,” he says. I hear 470,000.

“Oh good,” I say. “She is better—it is not the dengue.”

“No,” he says, “it is not good. It is worse, peor. She has hemorrhagic dengue. The worst stage.”

Hemorrágico?” I ask.

Sí—peor. We must move you to isolation,” he says. “El hemorrágico es el más peligroso.”  Hemorrhagic dengue is more dangerous.

“We must hook her up for a transfusion. If we do not she may begin to hemorrhage inside. Her organs may begin to hemorrhage and we cannot save her.” He must repeat this two, three, four times. I do not understand all the words. Lisa has gone home. Mike has gone home. He draws me a picture.

He is a specialist—un especialista. “I know the path of dengue,” he says. “Your doctor—he did not know the path. It is a tricky path. Not many know the path of the worst stage—el hemorrágico.” With pen in hand he draws the path: first platelets fall then rise then fall again. “Three times they fall and rise. This is dengue. The last rise is the critical one—from there they either rise or fall. Your baby’s fell. They fell drastically. Now it is hemorrágico. We must do a transfusion now,” he says. “You get some rest, we will be back.”

My baby is wheeled to isolation—into an elevator, down a long white hall, into an empty room at the end of the hall. I follow, burning with fever and crawl into bed with her. I lie sideways, flattened to the sheet, underneath a clean white mosquito netting they have placed over us.

“We do not want mosquitoes to bite her. She may spread the disease,” the aide says as she tucks the edges in.

I nuzzle Mary. She is hot. The sheets are cool against my cheek. They are cool and sweet. Her eyes are closed.

I close my eyes.

I sink into a deep sleep and nuzzle Mary.

 “At least it is cool,” I think. “It is cool and there are no roaches.”

* * *

At times I have tried to remember how many people died in our barrio while we were there but I cannot recount the number. I remember some of the near deaths, though. Those were the ones where death lingered on the fringes grasping out with its long bony fingers: Oscar’s three-year-old daughter, Elise, who fell into the water barrel head-first while standing on a chair. No one saw her and by the time they did she was already brain damaged. And Yaneth’s youngest son, Jorge, who walked on hobbled feet and who refused to eat when the family did. “Failure to thrive” is what she told me the doctor had called it. “Feed him more,” she was told—but she had said to me, “How can I feed him more? When he refuses to eat the other children take his food and there is no more food to feed him when he might want some.”

Or the night when, as usual, our electricity went out and we heard the explosion next door. Señora Ana had been trying to light her oven in the pitch black when it exploded into a burst of flame scorching her arms and face. Within minutes the neighborhood women had gathered with aloe plants, breaking off stems to rub the soft center over her arms and neck. I was sent home to get aspirin—the only person who had medicine in her home, basic medications a luxury for most. Muy caro—too expensive. The women instead relied on plants and herbs grown in their gardens and on amulets and spider plants hanging from their ceilings, warding off illness. And on prayer when it was available, “si Dios quiere”—if God desires it—a common refrain to pain or tragedy or future hope.

And then the time when Mike had a gun pulled on him as he descended the hill at dusk and how he ran toward a group of people yelling, Help! Help! in English. At least he was not shot at. We laughed over the English for a long time. I think the laughter relieved the pressure.

When I asked my neighbors about the deaths and near deaths and the inevitable weekly robberies we experienced they just shrugged their shoulders or shook their heads and said, “Demasiado,” too many. Then they would go on to the next task at hand. There was no consideration that the situation could change or might change if it was talked about or pondered over basically because there was no time to think beyond the next task. It was just part of our daily lives—like mosquitoes or roaches—something annoying to be flicked away.

Dengue; Venezuela 1995, three days later

We have been in the private pay hospital for three days. Mary has been hooked up to IVs. Daily showers, a luxury at home, are commonplace here. Air conditioning. Clean, dustless sheets. She has improved.

Pueden regresar a su casa hoy.” You can return home today, we are told.

I do not want to return home. Here I am safe. Here my baby is safe.

Mike and Emma pick us up in the jeep. The twenty-year-old Volkswagen once again in the shop. I hold Mary close, breathe in her cream-scented body, nuzzle into her fleshy neck. Stare out at the passing landscape. Low-lying colonial homes, red ceramic roofs, scraggly tufts of green, sidewalks flush with the road. We navigate our way through town out onto the autopista, past the concrete buildings. Gray, all is dry and gray, heat radiating off of cement winding its way into the car. Fine sand, dust carpeting windows, arms, eyes. We wipe them, squint, look beyond the immediate. Emma chatters in the back. Mike and I catch up on the time we have been apart.

We turn off of the autopista into El Trompillo, a narrow road connecting outlying barrios with the center of business. It is a straight shot from here, up a steady incline. Rows of cement homes with corrugated metal roofs line the path interspersed with lean-tos, ranchitos, homes of metal, nestled alongside cemented neighbors; shared walls. Women in chanclas, rubber sandals and housedresses pass, going from one task to the other. Children gather, run down the sidewalks, play on the dusted ground. The sun beats down heavily, movement is slowed.

We arrive home. Thick air within the walls is stifling. We open windows. Start fans to circulate the heat. I lay Mary on the bed. Already she is sweating. She stares up at the colorful mobile. The ceramic one we made in women’s group. Her hands wave in their direction.

We begin preparing a meal: arepas, cheese, jamón, jugo de naranja; check to see we have enough water. Mike walks up the hill to buy some eggs.

There is a knock.

“Is this the house where there was dengue?” they ask. “Sí? Bueno, we need to spray. It will not take long.”

Two men dressed in black flak jackets, completely covered neck to toe, canisters strung on their backs, come in. They look like riot police. Heads covered in gas masks. They spray the rooms. A thick fog emerges from their hoses, white, dense, wet. They go from room to room: bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom, porch; into the yard. Nothing is left untouched. I carry Mary out to the backyard to hide from the fumes, Emma by the hand.

As they leave they tell me they must spray all the houses adjoining ours and up the hill as another child also has dengue.

I close the door. I head to the bedroom. A fine oil has settled on the dresser. I cannot see it but I suspect the sheets and everything else must also be covered, even the dishes.

Mike comes home. We throw out the exposed food. We clean what we can. The rest we leave as is. Today's limited water supply hampers us. We eat lunch. We are home.

Here there is no time to think about the future. Here there is no time to contemplate life. Here there is no time to be grateful that one has come through a crisis—that one has evaded death.

Here there is just life and the living of it.

The sinister aspect of dire poverty is that it can kill life—not just physical life—but the life of the spirit, the life of the mind that can see possibility and hope. That is not to say that those experiencing dire poverty do not or cannot think. No, they think abundantly, for to survive one must have a keen sense of thought and organization and clear priorities. No, what dire poverty kills is the luxury of having time to think beyond poverty, to think beyond day-to-day survival. If one’s energy is wholly absorbed in the task of survival then what energy is left to ‘imagine’ how one can transcend this existence? What energy is left for one to rest?

I do not understand this kind of poverty. I only know that I have grown to hate it. I hate that I must constantly fight off bugs that may harm my children. I hate that I cannot place my baby on the floor lest the dry dirt blown in, permeated with outhouse residue, find its way into her mouth. I hate that conjunctivitis—pink eye—is a monthly menace. I hate that no matter how clean we can be we will always get lice. I hate picking out nits. I hate placing pails and bowls and buckets under rain that drips through our roof. I hate not having water to shower. I hate the larvae that float on the top of our barrel water and I hate the dirt that pours through our pipes on those thrice weekly occasions when our part of the barrio gets piped water to fill our barrels. I hate that all I feel that I am doing is surviving day to day.

And the fact that my neighbors are doing the same is no comfort to me. I hate that they also must endure this and I hate that I am so whipped. I hate that the wound has begun to fester in me.

I hate that I want to escape.

I hate that I count the days until I can escape.

Maybe the hate has made me old.

Why did I go overseas? I thought that in some intentional way I would be able to ease the suffering of those in need. By binding my life with theirs, by walking with and sharing their burden, somehow, I would be able to help. I was not naive. My husband and I had been activists; lived nine years in inner-city Chicago, working with neighbors in soup kitchens, shelters, halfway homes; providing pastoral counseling to elders and those facing loss and death. We lived simply. Perhaps it was the starkness of third-world poverty, dire poverty, that began to age me; the inability to escape a ‘survival mentality.’ I never thought that by being present to this type of poverty I would be dragged under. I never knew that it would mean the possible loss of my child. I never knew that it would mean that I would die inside, that part of me would succumb, be swallowed up, disappear. I never knew that I would come back so old.

I don’t think that I am strong. But I need to be strong. I don’t have a choice.

It is the next day. Mary recovers quickly. Dengue has a knack for that—striking quickly, lingering many days, plunging one down and then just as quickly disappearing. That is, if it is treated quickly.

Today I rise early. I must finish cleaning the oily residue left by the gas spray. I do not know if it is poisonous but we have made it through the night with it on our sheets and pillows. I must begin the laundry right away, hang it in the sun. I must order gas for the stove and make sure there is enough drinking water; open the slats to air out the house. I must sweep out the carpet of dirt that has accumulated overnight. The sun is already beginning to bake our roof. Mary whines to be nursed. Emma is fed. We have fruit in the fridge and hard pan dulce—sweet bread—that we can soften with milk. Tomorrow is feria day so we will get our supply of fruits and vegetables and hopefully a loaf of sliced bread, my one indulgence. I tire of arepas and hard rolls. The list goes on.

Mike will attend to the vocational school.

The neighbor women pass by on their way to the bodega to offer support, to ask questions, to kiss the baby, to give Emma a mango, to find out where we contracted the dengue. They come with kindness and with curiosity. And then they continue on with their next task.

Here women do not stop; or if they do, not for long. They cannot. The tasks of living: peeling fruit, squeezing juice, forming corn dough, frying arepas, soaking black beans, and putting food on the table commences at daybreak. Then there is the task of washing the few sets of clothes by hand, beating the dirt out, scrubbing with knuckles, hauling water, sparingly—bucket after bucket from the barrel, rinsing with clean water, saving the run-off for tomorrow’s wash or for hair shampooing in the afternoon or to mop the floor, hanging the clothes out on the line, sweeping the ever incessant dirt and sand that covers every corner of the house overnight; and then running down to the bodega to purchase two eggs or powdered milk or a package of noodles for lunch; taking the clothes down and folding them.

Here there is no time to think about life or what one might want to do with their life. Here there is only the chore of living it.

I find that women here endure. While there are moments of frivolity and laughter, moments when we gather in each other’s homes to borrow necessities like beans or noodles or when we share stories on the way to the bodega, for the most part it is a journey of endurance. Rarely is there time to just rest and chat, to gather for coffee or to reflect. Chatting and resting and reflecting must be done in conjunction with another useful task otherwise needed chores cannot get done by sunset.

The work we had come to do: to insert ourselves into the neighborhood, to identify the needs of the community with the people, to begin a trade school to address the teenage dropout rate, to provide leadership development and health classes, to work with catechists, becomes secondary to our existence. Our primary work is to find a way to endure.

And so I fall into this rhythm. Living in the barrio I do not have a choice. My day-to-day tasks also include swatting mosquitoes and smashing roaches when I catch them unawares. It is an endless battle but I feel a great sense of satisfaction each time they splat. Of course my stomach churns when I need to clean them up but at the same time I feel deeply satisfied that I have rid my home of one more bug.

I struggle with this question: how close must one come in order to be in solidarity with the poor? How close must one lean if they are to share the burden of those who suffer? And if they lean too close will they be of any use? Will they too succumb, grow old, die, and disappear? And what is it to “be of any use” anyway?

In the Dawn of Shadows:

    Barrio El Trompillo

I stand in the dawn of shadows,
my arms wanting, the world beautiful.

My eyes can’t get enough of the morning showers–
they’re so clean, so clear.

A rainbowed path runs through the bougainvilleas,
I’m underneath the corrugated metal roof, dripping.

I can smell the excrement bubbling from the ground—
a gentle wind must be blowing.

It’s this way:
to stand as witness is beside the point,
the point is not to turn away.

Birth, Venezuela, One-and-a-half years prior to dengue, 1994

Word reaches me that Yaneth is home. She delivered her baby yesterday. She has two other children to care for: Elias, age six, who is her mama’s right hand, and Jorge, age four, who often hides behind the door whenever a visitor stops by. I myself am six months pregnant. I go to the bodega, buy three mangoes and place them in my shoulder bag. I wrap a receiving blanket with Disney characters and some booties that I received from the States. It will take a good forty minutes to climb the hill and I am glad that I have begun the trek early before the sun is too hot for travel. I want to visit Yaneth to see what I can do. If I am fortunate I will be back by noon, in time to join Mike and Emma for lunch. Today we will have arepa with cheese, fried banana and papaya. Mike will cook.

Always on the trek up, there are women behind barbed wire fences sweeping their dry plots of land or hauling buckets of water to their wash basins. Children play on the dirt patios. Lean dogs roam the streets. Today I wave out greetings to Señora Rosa, to Ire and Señora Josefina. I tell them the news and they send well wishes to Yaneth. Men and women descend the hill on foot heading toward the nearest bus stop. They will journey into town to work.

When I arrive I am surprised to find Yaneth already dressed, with broom in hand. She is sweeping the dirt-packed yard. White laundry hangs from the barbed wire fence that doubles as a clothesline. Jorge is sitting in the dirt playing with two bottle caps. Elias is hanging socks. Yaneth smiles, “Hola, Michel—véngase—come!” She pulls a metal chair from her two-room ranchito and tells Jorge to get another from behind the house.

I hold out my hands to embrace her. Felicitaciones—ya estas trabajando?  Y la bebé?” Are you working already—and the baby?

Sí, sí,” she laughs. “Durmiendo en la casa.”

Y tú?”

Bien bien—siéntese!” I am well she says—sit!

And so it goes. We embrace, we laugh. Yaneth eases down onto her hard chair. We sit. I pull out the three mangos and the children gather around. Elias runs in to get a platter and a knife. Today we are feasting!

Three months later I will try this.

My baby arrives early. She was born yesterday and today I am home. Mike has left before dawn to drive to Caracas, four hours away, to pick my mom up from the airport. I am fortunate that my mom has agreed to come but I do not know how she will be able to adapt. Once again a fine dust has entered in and covered everything. Emma, four, strokes her new sister’s hair and tries to nuzzle in as I nurse. I ask her to watch the baby while she sleeps and I find the broom and begin to sweep. Blood throbs against my stitches. I try to ignore it. Yaneth swept the next day and so did Julia and even Maria. I too must keep going.

I stoop gently as I set up my mom’s bed, as I squeeze juice and fry an egg to prepare breakfast for Emma, as I sweep the dirt into a pile. I begin to bleed. I change pads. I try again. I want our home to be prepared for Mom, who is coming for the first time. If the women can do this then so must I. I carry water to the stove to heat it before I do the dishes. I carry another bucket to the toilet to flush the morning’s accumulation away. I splatter drops of water on the floor and mop the concrete clean.

Wounded? Is that how far one must lean? Must we too become infected by dire poverty in order to be of any use to those with whom we journey? The policy of our sending group was that we live in the barrio, at one with the people, sharing their burdens in order to understand their reality; working alongside them as we sought solutions to the pressing needs of the community: education, job training, health classes. Their policy was well intentioned but it ran a risk. Either one entered in, worked hard and maintained a sense of detachment, their head above the pain, or one entered in, heart open, and struggled to do their work. And if we became infected, would we stay or would we turn away? We did not know the path the illness would take … mejor? Better, stronger, willing to take on more? … Peor? worse, falling, unable to navigate the road ahead? It was a tricky path. There were no specialists to guide us.

Being a woman, sharing in the daily tasks, struggles, laughter, and heartaches of my neighbors, I became infected. At night, lying upon my pillow, I would offer the burdens of the day to a God I was certain dwelled within the barrio, listening to our pleas, guiding our paths. But as time went on and deaths and near deaths continued to take their toll all I could do, as a I lay upon my pillow, was place a kiss on my prayer beads, uncertain of anything. By the time my baby became ill I was beginning to bleed within.

I look back on that time, in Venezuela, as though it is a chapter in a book. I can’t believe that character was me; that Mary, who is now fourteen, was that baby in the grips of dengue’s clutching fingers; that the water we struggled to obtain was filled with so many little larvae; that the dust that coated our clothes and floors was so full of dried feces; that the nits we picked out of hair were that numerous; that the mangos we shared on dirt plots gave that much refreshment. I can’t quite fathom that part of my life.

You see, I escaped.

It is true.

I ran. Two months after my baby had fallen ill with dengue we left. My husband, through his work, maintained bonds but I could not.

I fled, in mind and body, I fled.

To survive, I fled.

Does Yaneth still exist? Does her child, who suffered from “failure to thrive,” still limp? Did he live?  Is Oscar’s daughter, Elise, still strapped to her chair, head lolling back and forth? Did Senora Ana’s scars fully heal? Do Señora  Rosa, Ire, and Señora Josefina still sweep their patios so thoroughly? Do the women still gather to borrow necessities and share stories on the way to the bodega? Do any from that world still exist?

I don’t know.

Yes, you see, there were attempts at letter writing; there were letters lost and letters returned but with a postal service that infrequently delivered mail to the barrios my letter writing stopped. I was afraid to hear back, anyway. I was afraid that if I heard I would be dragged back under and so, instead, I laid my heart on my pillow and wept.

That is what I did; for endless months I wept.

When I came back to the States I discovered that, having lived in the barrio, I had lost a sense of perspective; I forgot who I had been. I forgot what it was like to live with a semblance of abundance and safety. I forgot that it was okay to choose to slow down, to take care of myself. I forgot that there was a choice. Was this the poison that had invaded me? The women in my neighborhood cared for everyone but not always themselves. They did this because they needed to survive. Their children and their spouses needed to survive. It was not a choice for them. I lived like my neighbors did because they were my mentors, they were my guide in this new land, and I too needed to survive. I survived and like them I grew old.

That is the burden of those who must live in dire poverty; they grow old too fast. I saw it in the face of Señora Ana and Yaneth. I saw it in the face of Elise’s mom who was my age but looked much older. The struggle for survival ages the body. It narrows the perspective. It causes people to forget what it is like to live with any sense of abundance and safety. When I left Venezuela I was thirty-six years old but I was so tired that I was ready to die. I can still say that with a great sense of calm. Death and the idea of a long, long rest felt so inviting.

When I came back to the United States, I could no longer live in the cities. We fled to the suburbs. I needed a space where my heart could rest, where I could raise my daughters away from poverty’s clutches. I did not want to just survive. As a chaplain I immersed myself in my work, at hospitals and nursing homes and in a hospice. I journeyed with the infirm and aged. I listened to their thoughts, sat with their questions, found wisdom and strength in their stories of uncertainty and in their ability to endure. This time I did not run away. I, who had watched death cling to my daughter and who had fought back; I, who had watched death wind through my community, stood vigil with those who would succumb to death. I was not afraid.

The act of leaning into dire poverty, to share the burdens of two-thirds of our world neighbors, is not merely that we can be of use to those who live in poverty, nor that we can die, but rather, that the very experience of poverty can have the opportunity to transform us, can use us, who are often shielded from its clutches.

It is this way: like fine dust, the shadow of poverty still clings to me after all these years. It informs just about everything I hear or see in the news. I understand the world through its filter: Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip, the Congo, Kenya, Chicago, Katrina. What is it like to be the poor in these communities today? Who is suffering? How? What is it like for these mothers to watch their babies dying? I cry, at times, when I hear the news. I hate this filter for it is a great burden. I would rather live in a world of comfort, like many people in my new community, shielded from the knowledge of poverty’s effects. I do not want to hear but I need to hear. We need to hear.

 And still the old woman persists. I see her beckoning, shadowed deep within the mirror. At night, I feel her presence in dreams that nudge me awake. I smell her in morning showers that clear the dawn away. I taste her in afternoon coffee that singes my silent tongue. I hear her in the incessant whispering of summer mosquitoes, refusing to go away.

She is gentle, really, stooped. She holds out a crippled hand. In her palm there is a vial, a drop of liquid at the bottom.

“Is it enough?” I ask.

I need to turn back. I want to listen to this old woman. I need to hear her story.

She has more to say about the poison, how it kills. She wants to expose the poison.

I write.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 | Single Page