What Is Seen When We Close Our Eyes

Recently I’ve found myself thinking a lot about what if I had done somethings differently.  Would it have made a difference?  Or would the world continue turning, turning, ever turning?  I’ve found myself waking up in the middle of the night recently, thinking about some of the things I’ve seen, some of the things I’ve heard, smelled, experienced and continue to wonder if I did the right thing.

Ever since my time in Uganda (during the summer of 2009) I’ve been haunted by my experiences at the Agule Community Health Center.  It may be the lingering effects of malaria still haunting me, or it could be that what I saw changed who I was. 

I returned a different person.  I saw death take a child and heard the piercing cry of his mothers mourning.  I felt the darkness creep in around me, even though there was nothing there.  I heard the rain pitter pattering on the tin roof above me and watched as the sun faded away and night overtook the land. 

I’m still haunted by these events.  I lay my head down and close my eyes and I still see their faces.  I still hear her scream. 

Not even a year ago, when we received the call to respond to the devastation in Joplin (the morning of 23 May) a weight landed in my stomach.  I heard her cry again, saw death again, and I was afraid.  We arrived in the darkness of a storm and I knew that I couldn’t head out into the debris, the destruction. 

I volunteered for the night shift that first night because I was afraid of what I would see when I shut my eyes.  I didn’t want to see death again.  I was afraid of what I would see when I ventured out into the wreckage.  So, I listened to their stories, their acts of bravery.  I stayed up all night because, like them, I feared what sleep would bring. 

I still see them.  I still hear their stories.  Rain comes and I can see the fear in their hearts once again. 

I eventually did venture out to capture the story of the response.  It was one of the smallest things I’ve ever done.  And one of the hardest. 

Walking through the ruins, we experienced more than just the sights, but the smell of rotting meat, left over food, garbage spewed across the ground.  Almost like walking through a haze, we wandered block to block alongside the last of the Search and Rescue workers. 

In those days, I saw the sights that accompanied the stories that had been told.  And again, I found myself awake at night, wondering.  Unable to sleep. 

We returned to Denver a wreck.  All of us.  Nobody came out of those two weeks in Joplin untouched by its effects.  Some of us hid it better than others, but we all had changed.  And the biggest question that weighed on our hearts was this:  “Could I have done more?”

If things had been different.  If we had arrived sooner.  If we had more time.  If….  If. 

Through talking with my teammates and the amazing AmeriCorps staff on campus, I realized that we will never be able to find out ‘what if’.  There was nothing more we could do.  We have to let go of the questions and remind ourselves that we did everything that we could in that moment.  There was nothing else that we could do. 

I still see them when I close my eyes.  The visions still haunt me.  Uganda, Joplin, it all mixes together alongside the rest of my experiences in Togo, Honduras, Spain, Houston, Tulsa, Crown King, Williamsburg and all the other places my feet have taken me. 

But I know that I did my best.  In that moment, when I could have frozen, when I could have run away, when I could have shut down, I moved.  We can be haunted by the questions or we can realize that we did our best in the darkest moments of our lives. 

The memories will always be with us.  They are a part of us.  They have made us into who we have become.  I no longer fear them as I once did, even though I still see them when I close my eyes at night…

God Bless and PEACE

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