Thursday, March 5, 2009

Confession

Failing Henry

It was early in the morning for us, maybe 7:30am. We were slowly rousing our sleepy selves, filling the shower bags, putting on a pot of water for some Nescafe', and sweltering as usual in mid 70F dew points and air temps in the low 80's. So when the banging came, we reacted as we had been conditioned of late-- with a whine and a grumble. "Too early!" I shouted out the window, but I was kidding myself if I thought that would make any difference. On the other side of the steel door in the glass shard-covered eight foot wall, I could hear the shouted response-- which, muffled by the barrier and in Liberian English, was unintelligible to us. His continued banging and calling could only mean that the only way this guy was leaving was if I went out there, unlocked the padlock, worked the rusty latch back and forth, back and forth, until it came free and I opened the door. Mumbling something about, "It never ends..", barefoot in my boxers, I went to the gate and muscled it open.

Standing before me was a small, middle aged man, about 5'6", slight of build (not unusual by Liberian standards), with that same urgent, pleading look we had seen in the gateway many times before...

... the 80-90 year old woman, Sarah, who periodically rapped on the door to beg for food... ("Oh papa O, Oh, papa O," she called in thanks when we filled her bags...)

...the guys with the spray pumps on their backs, offering to kill all the fire ants in our yard for $35.00, begging that we hire them...

... the mothers who had heard we had helped some kids go to school, and would we please help their children...


... the children of all ages who were hungry and wanted some food...

... the women who had heard about loans for businesses and hoped we could give them one...

... the seventeen year old girl, frantic that it was 9:30pm, and her 6 year old brother was missing, last seen at the lagoon-- do we have any flashlights? (We searched the lagoon together and found only his flip-flops on the beach. His body surfaced the next day)...

... the boys and girls with infected hands, feet, ankles, faces...

... the young couple, who brought their sick infant to us because she wasn't eating...

So, the man standing at our door that morning was just another in a long line of desperate-looking people with yet another request. He handed me a note. He was delivering a message from a man we knew as Henry. Henry, with his wife Mary, had been the manager of an orphanage down the road, one that he could not run properly. The children were unclothed, undernourished and getting very sick. We helped him close the orphanage and reunite children with families or get them better care. So I read Henry's note. It said "Dear Mr. Reed, please help. I am very sick. I cannot move my legs or feel my hands. Please come and help me."

It was not what I wanted to read right then. It was another poor man in with another need who wanted me to come and spend my morning doing something other than I had planned. I looked at the man who gave me the note. I shook my head. I said to him, "There is nothing I can do. I am not a doctor. Tell Henry he needs to see a doctor." The man at the gate was insistent. "I will take you to him. Please come." Annoyed that he was pushing, I settled the matter. "No, I said. I mean it. It makes no sense for me to go there. I do not know you. And I cannot help." We looked at each other for a second or two more, then he took a step back, with a confused and disappointed look on his face. I closed the gate, and got back into the morning.

Two days later, Henry died.

Too late, I found out where he lived and drove to his house. Too late, I visited his family and told them I was sorry for their loss, and sorry that I did not visit him when he asked me to. Maybe I could have helped. Maybe I couldn't have helped. But I could have been there. Too late. I imagined myself as the rich man who passed the Samaritan in need on the road. I had blown it, and while I didn't exactly believe that I could somehow have saved Henry, I knew I had reason to feel guilty. I was guilty. I had I missed-- by choice-- an opportunity to simply be Jesus to a terrified man facing his own death. I was overwhelmed by my capacity for cold, cruel ugliness.

That was as bad as it got in Liberia for me. I would see more sickness and death in the coming months and years until we left. Hundreds more would come to the gate. Every single story, even if a lie, would be a legitimate cry for help by someone who was just trying figure out how to ease the burden of crushing poverty. We still said no to some, yes to others. We tried to make decisions based on compassionate and responsible criteria. We sometimes asked people to work or in some way "pay back" or "show results" for what they were seeking. And sometimes we just gave because, after all, how does one say no to an 80 year old hungry Liberian woman? For her, life has said no so often, I just did not have the authority to say it again. But I think it was the death of Henry, more than anything else, that taught me when to say yes and when to say no, and mostly, to make sure I was listening to Jesus when I said it. I don't want to be on the wrong side of "no" ever again.

Henry died in early spring, 2006. He was in his forties. He never got a diagnosis. His wife Mary died two months later from a sudden, unexplained liver failure. The couple that knew they couldn't care for a group of orphans left the world four of their own.

3 comments:

Lorraine said...

Oh, Bob . . . this made me cry. And automatically, I want to tell you to not be too hard on yourself, that you can't do it all . . . what people constantly tell me . . . put your own oxygen mask on first.

And I who am overwhelmed by the paltry "needs" of people around me in this bloated land we know as the United States, cannot even imagine what it must be to face, day after day after day, an endless stream of needs.

This is why your family are heroes of mine . . . and yet, I don't want to give you the burden of putting you up on that pedestal, either.

I don't know what else I can really say . . . but thank you for your transparency, and for continuing to go back, even when things are so hard, and hurt so much.

lorraine

The Reeds in the Wind said...

Thanks. The episode was a gift.

You know, you can put us where ever you want-- pedestal, dungeon, dog house-- It's when we start believing that we belong where others put us that we run into trouble.

Now, if you start drooling and genuflecting when you see us, I'll know you've lost it.

Bob

Dr. Jean Young said...

Greetings from Saboba, Northern Region, Ghana, where Bob and I work at Saboba Medical Centre, a mission hospital run by the AG, Ghana Church. Our friend Peter DiLorenzo sent us the link for your blog. Can really identify with "failing Henry." So heart breaking to be "on the wrong side of no." Am the only doctor for 120,000 people on both sides of Togo border, and some days I feel like I am a Coca Cola and everyone has a straw.
Our phone numbers: Dr. Jean Young: 024-4444387;027-3480408;020-4936208; Uncle Bob Young: 024-4996692;027-3481533;020- 5746206. (These are in-country numbers. Calling from States, you add 011-233-and subtract the 0 from the front of the Ghana number. Victory in Jesus! Dr. Jean