Saturday, January 14, 2017

The 4th Question

I should be writing other things right now. I should apologize to the people for whom I should be writing those things. I probably won’t.
I scribbled some of this down in my journal the week it happened. It’s been tucked in a bookshelf along with countless other stories in several unfinished journals for years since returning to my continent of residence. I don’t often finish journals. It feels a little like finishing the chapters of my life contained in them, and I never could quite pinpoint the end of chapters in life. But that’s a thought for another time.
I’ve never really gone any significant period of time without thinking, at least briefly, of this story. It wasn’t a big story. It’s not full of action or adventure. It’s a story of quite and tears and hugs and mosquitos. What makes this story important, I think, is that it seems to grow with me. Though the events are forever locked in place, the implications seem to change with each new season.
And so, for a reason I can’t quite put my finger on, tonight I’m writing it, not any of the other things. This one story, for now, is making its way off of a dusty bookshelf and out into a world where anywhere from no one to everyone can see it. Taking its place in type instead of scrawl and bringing up with it the new implications of my life as it is now, from as it was then.

"Fo dem?", Akili chimed, wondering where I was going at this hour of the night. I filled her in that my roommate and I would be heading down the street to use the phone, calling our families back home. We headed out into the night. I barely noticed the shouts floating up the staircase from the small, one room home below. I was more concerned about bats as we passed the tree they had been known to abide in. As we approached the bottom of the staircase and were shooing goats out of the way, a slammed door reminded me of the vague awareness that I’d had of the argument that must have been occurring below.
As we rounded the corner, we saw Juhudi, a wise-mouthed, funny, and beautiful 8-year-old from our compound, throwing herself onto a stone wall, sobbing. We paused for a moment, not knowing what to do. Crying like this was not common here. Sure, a little kid would cry and whine when they fell or didn't get their way, but usually the aim was to get attention. A child, already 8, and a girl especially, was just not found sitting in the dark crying her eyes out by herself. My roommate said the girl's name in a sympathetic sounding voice, not knowing much else in her language that would be appropriate. We walked over slowly, and I sat next to her. I put my arm around Juhudi, and thought about asking her what was wrong. My roommate sat off to the side quietly.
            Juhudi sat, perfectly still except for the sharp rising of her chest as she gasped for breath between the sobs and the tears that streamed down her cheeks. The three of us sat in silence for what seemed like ages. I decided against asking what had happened, realizing that it was likely to only make things worse for her to want to open up and talk, but have to deal with my limited language skills. I finally just leaned over and hugged her. I worried that this intimate hug would be too much, but my fears proved unfounded as the little girl desperately hugged back. I periodically loosened my grip slightly, inviting Juhudi to pull away if she so desired, but she only hugged tighter, her sobs now increasing and her tears flowing freely.
            After the hug had lasted several minutes, I half-wrestled her little arms from around my neck, and pulled her up onto my lap. I started singing. I don’t know why, but softly, and in a language Juhudi couldn't understand, I sang an old hymn. As we rocked gently, Juhudi's sobs subsided, and her tears slowed. I nodded at my roommate’s questioning face, hoping to give her permission to make her way on our errand without me, knowing that the time she has spent sitting humbly off to the side had been filled with hurt and desperation for this broken child.
Juhudi and I sat for what seemed like hours, as I did my best to cover her arms from the mosquitoes that had begun to swarm us. With a tight squeeze, I eventually broke the hug and turned the child around on my lap to face me. I gently pulled her downcast chin up towards my face, and wiped her tears aside with my thumbs.
I had been thinking of several options of what I would say to her. Piecing together what encouraging thoughts I could with my limited vocabulary in her language. I hadn’t consciously settled on any of them when I said, "Juhudi, don't cry.”
A slight nod showed that she followed my attempt at her language. "You are very smart. Do you know that?” I asked her. She looked down and I again pulled her chin up and looked in her eyes as I repeated, “Do you know that?”
She nodded quietly. “You are beautiful. Do you know that?" I continued. With a slight smile she nodded with a quiet “yes” this time.
“You are funny. Do you know that?” I asked yet again.
The answer was faster and more confident this time, “yes” she smiled.
I hesitated now. Not sure if I should ask this but simultaneously knowing that I would anyway. “Jesus loves you…. Do you know that?”
I couldn’t have realistically expected anything else. That name wasn’t well known here. In fact, if she were to repeat this conversation to her mother, we may not be welcome to stay in that compound anymore. My mind knew to be careful with my timing, but I’m not sure exactly sure how much say my mind had in this conversation.
“Who?” was the word that went along with the puzzled look Juhudi gave me. I repeated it once more and was met with a pleasantly confused look paired with a slight head tilt.
The devastation was a bit unwarranted, I’ll admit, given my known location and situation, but I felt it all the same. I felt as though I carried the weight of the entire village that night, the entire country really. All the while knowing that this was just the tip of the iceberg of things that would break my heart in this world. And for just a moment, I had just the tiniest glimpse of the heartbreak that we inflict upon our father with the implementation of the free will that he gave us. Just a fraction of the weight that he carried when we placed that burden upon him. I longed to be able to repair here and now what had taken centuries to break. More than so many other times in my sometimes monotonous life did I desperately want his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
But there I sat, with a confused child on my lap and with a landslide of implications behind the utterance of a single name. I sighed and asked her one last question, “I love you. Do you know that?”
This time she hugged me once more with her “yes” and I hugged back just a little tighter than I had before. 

I think about Juhudi a lot. I wonder if our paths will ever cross again. I wonder if I’ll recognize her if they do. And I think I’ll always wonder if I said the right thing. I think I’ll always wonder if she’s ever been able to answer that 4th question.

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