at the entrance to compound one, there is a white board on which all of our movements are recorded. it has room for 2 weeks of Mondays through
Sundays. when a week runs through, it is wiped off the board and replaced with seven more days. it flips through time like those old
clock radios did numbers. I watch people arrive from two weeks away, and from days back, watch them leave. underneath may 30, in scrawled felt
pen, sits my name. "Out: Dr. James – R&R". like a marathon is a 20 mile jog to a six mile race, so to this latest push. one foot in front of
another, one day at a time, and on may 30, I will meet my felt self leaning against the plane window pane, and I'll fly away.
as I have said before, I would write about other things in my life if there were other things in my life. for now, there are only these.
a woman in the single room at the back, a cursed room that no one leaves, is wracked with tuberculosis. she walked for days to come here. this
week she delivered a baby prematurely. he was no bigger than a bird. I showed up in the morning and looked into the room and saw two stacks of
breathing bones hanging onto each other. skin and angles.
I need to tell you other things. I don't want this to be too much for you once, when I was walking through MoMA [Museum of Modern Art, New York], I watched a man lead a woman around by her arm. he would stop at a painting and say, "this one... this one is... modern. abstract... it is a large canvas, perhaps 10 feet wide and six tall... the background is yellow, and there are thick blue strokes carrying away from the centre that fade to grey as they near the edge... in the bottom left is a thin circle of white... " she would pause, imagine, then touch his elbow. they would move to the next.
there are snakes in the hospital. every few days you can see a cleaner carrying one to the waste area, draped over a broom handle, beaten
flat. earlier in the week, we found one on the bottom tray of our delivery room trolley. our midwife nearly picked it up, thinking it was
a rag. the next day, they found one in the single room at the back, beneath the bed. the baby died later that day. cursed room.
I visited Pablo Neruda's houses a decade ago, in chile. in the one in Valparaiso, you can see the ocean from every window. in Santiago, the
china cabinet in his dining room was a secret entrance. when he had new guests for dinner, he would enter through it, surprising them all, and
calmly sit down. at the door were a pair of shoes twenty times larger than a man could wear. he bought them from a cobbler who made them to
hang above his store.
today a boy came from "far away" to the hospital, accompanied by his father. his leg was full of holes from an infection that had festered for two weeks. he was thin from it, all angles. I lifted his leg off the bed to look at the other side, and it came apart at the knee.
last year, I went camping with my friend jehan. we paddled for hours to find our own lake. we set up camp, and the next day, in my hammock,
after a cup of strong coffee, I ate a plum for half an hour.
our new nurse arrived yesterday, full of nervous energy. she toured the hospital and saw her first starving child. she told me about it.
"yeah, I saw him too... he probably will die," I said.
"I don't know how I am going to get used to that," she answered.
"you don't," I said, "you just accept it."
when I was in Bolivia, in Copacabana, I got lost. I was looking for a restaurant with a hand drawn map I could make no sense of. as I gave up,
I caught the faint strains of a violin. I couldn't place where it was coming from. I turned down one street, then another, walking further and
further, following the music. I finally arrived to the edge of a valley, outside the town. across it, on the other side, light poured out of a
large house, and with it, the sound of an orchestra blared, echoing strings, horns, piano, thick drums. the moon was fat, full. in yellow
light I sat down on the top of the cobblestone stairs that lead into the valley, and listened. an orchestra. here? a music lover. this late?
here? the movement finished, and I stood, dusted myself off. I turned to walk back, full of thoughts, a witness to a beautiful mystery. I saw a
man standing at the door of his small house, holding a baby in his arms. "que pasa?", I said, and gestured back to the valley.
"ella esta muerta," he said.
she has died. of course. a dirge.
a few days ago, I was standing over a boy whose leg was wrapped in bloody bandages. I asked him what happened. my uncle found a grenade,
and he was pulling at it. I told him to stop, but he didn't. his uncle's body was lying in our tent, a hole in his stomach, through and through.
the boys leg was badly fractured by the explosion. we took him to the operating room, but his hemoglobin was too low to give him general
anesthesia. the sedation and local anesthesia we used was ineffectual, and as we cleaned the shards of bone, he begged us to stop in a
language we did not understand.
last year I was working at st. mike's hospital in downtown Toronto and walked into a room to tell a man that he had a badly broken jaw. "what happened?" I asked, "...if you don't mind telling me."
"well, I'm not from here, you see," he replied in a thick native Canadian accent, through clenched, broken teeth. "I came from the nort'. looking to get a job as a counselor. I don't got any money, and don't know anyone in the city, at least not yet, so I'm staying at a shelter. it's not good. lots of drugs. so tonight I saw someone, a brother, selling. I walked up to him and said, 'what are you doing? you're poisoning us, you're killing your brothers and sisters. don't you see that?'"
"they got angry and chased me, then I guess they broke my jaw. but I'm not done with them, doc. I'm just getting started."
he is the only hero I have ever really met.
six days. now it's a race.