I've been sick this week--the cruddy aftermath of a bad cold, mostly, but enough to place me within the nebulous borders of what I think of as "the kingdom of the sick." We know it when we're there, or when another is stuck inside the gates. Unlike dire poverty or hunger, which can seem so alien to our experience, all it takes is a racking cough or a temperature--or the terror of a suspicious lump--to kick us roughly into solidarity with everyone who dwells in that big, dark place; and whenever I leave (or sometimes, when I just pass) a hospital and glance up at its flourescent-lit windows, I feel a surge of selfish joy to be outside, where everything is suddenly more beautiful, free, and promising.
Maybe that's why my defenses, immunologic and psychic, have been down this week at the deluge of horrifying images from West Africa, none more shattering than this one from Sierra Leone, at a "hospital" where every vestige of care has broken down, every shred of human dignity dissolved like the capillaries of this awful virus's victims.The older I get, the more I realize that "human dignity" has come to occupy the summit of my hierarchy of values; this picture takes a sledgehammer to it.
I think of this little girl so often now. As a little girl, I was sick quite a lot. My mother would bring me buttered toast and Campbell's Chicken and Stars soup. If I was feverish, she would bathe me in bed with a clean-smelling solution called Lavacol; the washcloth as she wrung it out in a basin would make a lovely trickling sound. When I got up to drag myself to the bathroom, she would smooth my sheets, and they would be miraculously cool when I returned. I felt only the comfort; I could never have articulated that what was restored also was my human dignity. And at some miraculous moment, I would feel the stirrings of energy, the clearing of the fog, and would start to think about going outside to play. When I did, the world would seem, for a while, to be in a halo of grace and opportunity. The kingdom was forgotten. In my turn, I did the same for my own daughter. Same soup, same trickling washcloth.
I want to be an X-Men mutant, immune to Ebola, and stride in past the men in boots and suits and their chlorine hoses, and lift her up off the reeking floor, and give her clean sheets and toast and her humanity back. This picture is a few days old; she is certainly safe by now in the Kingdom of her Creator, or at least my faith affords me that consolation. But with every mild cough and its annoying cargo of mucus, I now remember her, poor little sister in the dark kingdom, inside the deepest ring of its hellish confines, the "bourne from which no traveller returns." Even the reflexive terror of living in a metropolis where this virus could emerge tomorrow--perhaps on the next subway pole I grasp--does not equal the horror of being alone on that floor.
A Prayer for the Forgotten Dead
O merciful God,
take pity on those souls
who have no particular friends and intercessors
to recommend them to Thee, who,
either through the negligence of those who are alive,
or through length of time are forgotten
by their friends and by all.
Spare them, O Lord,
and remember Thine own mercy,
when others forget to appeal to it.
Let not the souls which Thou hast created
be parted from thee, their Creator.
May the souls of all the faithful departed,
through the mercy of God, rest in peace.