Wondering, Part II

Kingston, Jamaica, Saturday, September 29, 2012

I awake at 4:30, eager to beat the crowd to the showers.  Alas, someone is already in our upstairs shower so I creep down the stairs to the one located off the carport.  I can see that it is free, but the gate has not yet been unlocked.

Sister Joanna appears and says that today we are allowed to sleep until 6:30 but I can shower if I want.  I know I'm done with sleep for the day so I opt for the shower. I'd forgotten shampoo so I used the small bar soap in my kit from the Omni and discovered it worked fine.

Back upstairs I get dressed.  Most of our team members are already awake.  Turns out nobody got the news about the later wake-up.  I go to the chapel to sit and read up on Morning Prayer.  I'm used to my abbreviated version in Magnificat, but baffled by the tomes of the Divine Office we are given for the standard version.

A bigger contingent of musicians shows up today for Morning Prayer and Mass.  We chant the psalms and sing praise and worship music.  The brother nearest me has a remarkably beautiful baritone voice.  I get distracted watching him sing and note that he appears to be professionally trained.  I ask him after Mass and he looks astonished and says, “No!” and hurries away.  (We are not supposed to induldge in chitchat with the Brothers.)

We are loaded into the van and taken back to The Lord's Place and Bethlehem.  Today Jerry and I are to work in Bethlehem.  We very much want to work together today, as do Trish and Alan.  We have lots of experience in babycare teamwork! Plus, Jerry and I are the oldest in the group, and figure caring for babies will be easier on our aging frames, as the young people who worked in the older boys' ward yesterday told us that caring for them was physically very demanding .

We are assigned to the older boys' ward.  The boys appear to be, by their faces, in their mid-teens to early twenties.  They are all greatly afflicted with cerebral palsy, their limbs contorted into an incredible variety of configurations I have only seen in photographs.  Jerry is given the task of wiping down all the frames of the metal cots and the plastic-covered mattresses with insecticide/repellant, as ants are a constant plague.  It is an enormous, cavernous room–high concrete walls with window close to the ceiling, concrete walls and floor.  Not a picture, not a cruxifix, nothing that is not strictly utilitarian is present.  There are light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, but they are not lit so it is dim, especially as the day is cloudy and little light makes it through the windows.

I am provided a shred of a broom whose best days are in the last century, and gamely tackle the floor.  Alan mops with disinfectant behind me and Trish is assigned to help with bathing.

The boys and men lie on their cots.  Some are responsive, some are not.  We smile and say good morning to each as we go about our business.  Their eyes track us.

One young Brother is dispensing meds.  Trish and another are taking patients to the showers across the hall.  The Brother helping with bathing sings softly in a clear tenor voice.  It is soothing beyond imagining and of all souls, I suspect mine needed it the most.

My “fix-it” mentality is running in high gear this morning.  I suspect at least some of these boys and men are (or began) intellectually intact.  I wonder about their lives, locked inside the prisons of their bodies, in turn locked within the prison of this place.

Could not Mozart be playing?  Could there not be pictures on the walls to contemplate?  Even the ghastly, ubiquitous televisions that are everywhere in the United States would offer a little food for thought.  What is the reasoning behind this sensory deprivation all around me?  If you transported me unawares to an unoccupied ward and asked me, “Where are you?” I would venture in a gulag or concentration camp by all appearances.

I am assigned to feed one of the older men his bottles of thick formula.  This I can do!  Brother tenderly positions the man with his head elevated on a foam wedge and tells me, “He eats very slowly.  You must be very patient.”

I speak to the man as if he can understand everything I say, although he seems only semi-concious.  His head is normal sized, and he is handsome.  His body is diminutive, the size and heft of an eight-year-old, and grotesquely twisted into an improbable state.

Sucking is hard work for him, even though the hole in the nipple is the size of a penny nail head.  I help by gently squeezing the bottle to help the flow keep going.  Every now and then he shows signs of distress, and I lift him and turn him to the side and gently pat his back as he coughs and clears his throat.  We proceed like this for some 40 minutes.

An auntie approaches and says brusquely, “You are too slow.  Let me!” and snatches the bottle from my hand.  I try to protest but am dispatched.  I watch as she squeezes the bottle hard, shooting formula into the man's mouth.  He begins to cough as the expected trickle down his throat becomes a jet stream.  Sadly, I go away. 

I tell this story to Trish later on and she said, “Yes, and when she left his bed he threw it up.”

It is time for Noon Prayer and lunch.  We have fried hard-boiled eggs in a tasty curry sauce over rice, novel but satisfying.  We speculate that the chicken must be the most revered food source in all Jamaica, if not the sole one.

Among ourselves, we share our dismay at the treatment of the residents by the aunties.  We wonder why, in a country as poor as Jamaica, with such a high unemployment rate, it is not possible to hire people who can treat them decently.  We wonder if maybe we are misinterpreting, with our bleeding-heart Austin sensibilities, typical interactions between Jamaicans. 

We are baffled.

This afternoon we work only an hour more and then are taken to the National Stadium, an indoor arena where the Missionaries of the Poor are presenting Fr. Ho Lung's production of The Messiah, definitely not to be confused with Handel's, but representing a distinctly Jamaican take on the story of salvation from the creation of the world through the Ascension of Our Lord, all in song and dance.

The production is impressive and very entertaining.  All singers and dancers, many of them professionals, donate their time and talent to the ongoing presentation of this work.  It is the main fund-raiser for MOP, which relies less upon ticket sales and more on the collection taken up during intermission. 

Last night it rained hard, and some areas were still experiencing minor flooding, so the crowd, though respectable, is a little sparser than it would normally be.  We sit in the rafter area with the Brothers and other volunteers.  I buy an orange soda, which I don't really like, but I was thirsty.  It just tastes strange, though some of our group like it, so I set it aside.

Afterwards, waiting in our little bus with the windows open, a young boy comes to talk.  He is friendly and curious, and doesn't ask for anything (we are usually approached for help with visas first, and money failing that).

“America is the best country,” he says, “with scientists that think of all these new things and everybody has it good there.  You can do anything in America.”

I fervently agree.

Back at Holy Innocents, we have Afternoon Prayer, and supper.  Someone has seen an ice-cream parlor nearby, so defying all the rules, a contingent of our young men is sent out on a mission.  They return safely with a cache of vanilla, chocolate, coffee, and strawberry ice cream.

It is phenomenal, more like gelato than American ice cream.  The coffee is unbelievably good.  We agree the butterfat content might well be 100%.  We eat ourselves into a stupor and after Night Prayer go to bed, where both Jerry and I sleep like angels in our cots.

Sunday our only responsibility will be to return to The Lord's Place and help the residents dress for Mass.  After that we are free, so we have asked Sister Joanna to help us get a hotel where we will spend the night.  The young people have secured a private bus to take them to a fishing village, but we are tired and feeling old and direly in need of connection (wifi!) with home and the Golf Channel.