“Find them.” A woman’s voice ricocheted off the wall. Helen’s hand jerked against the keypad. Two became four-eight-six.
The voice barked again. “I don’t care where you get them. We can’t run a hospital without antibiotics!”
Helen grabbed a breath, corrected the number and pressed enter. She looked up in time to see a flush faced woman striding into the guesthouse sitting room.
The woman snapped her phone shut and growled. “I don’t know what they think we’re supposed to do. We can’t treat people without medicine.”
Helen fixed her attention on the woman. Brown hair pulled tight and bound. Heavy, round face. Thick arms, hips, and thighs. American. Definitely American. And young. Maybe a year or two out of residency. She placed her on her list of guests. Margaret Thompson. Doctor. Ethiopia. Angry. Frustrated. “Not a good day, Margaret?”
Dr. Margaret paced across the room. “You have no idea.” She jammed her phone into the pocket of her khaki slacks. “Worst week of my life.” She picked up a pile of loose tourists pamphlets from a side table against the wall, knocked them together and slapped them back down on the table.
Helen stretched against the back of her task chair. “I’m sorry.”
Margaret threw her hands in the air and slapped them against her hips. “It’s insane. Stupid.”
Helen winced. She glanced down at a stack of papers on the little desk. Three more reservations to enter. She twisted the switch on the task lamp beside her keyboard. The light vanished.
Margaret hurled her story across the room. “They come too late. They always come too late. And I can’t do anything for them.”
kick against reality
Helen sucked in a quick breath and kept her voice as light as possible. “Who comes too late?”
Margaret picked up a little orange and white ceramic bus. She spun it in her palms. The whirring computer fan amplified the rain pounding against the window. “Who came too late, Margaret?”
miss the gifts in our hands
The doctor stepped around the coffee table and collapsed onto the couch, the ceramic bus still in her hand. “I work in a clinic outside of Jimma in Ethiopia. Just a concrete building with a few rooms. Nothing more. We serve people from the bush, mostly, but they come too late.” She leaned forward, set the miniature bus on the wooden coffee table and began drumming her knees with her fingertips.
Helen threaded her fingers through her hair. “Is that what happened last week?” Her voice was soft and slow. “Did someone come too late?”
fixated on what we lack
Margaret drummed more quickly. Her eyes darted around the room, leaping off a painting of a cluster of colorful houses perched on a cliff above a seacoast, rifling through a tall plant in a rose-stained vase. “Yes. There was a family. A little girl. But they came too late. The girl was sick and I couldn’t do anything about it.”
Helen heard a pan clatter in the distance. She stood up. A thought hooked her. Just tell her you have to go. Tempting.
Margaret’s voice pitched into plaintive. “They walked for two days from the bush, but they waited too long.” She pressed her lips together and shook her head. “I don’t know why they do that?”
we are defeated
She stopped drumming, lifted her hands, palms upward and looked straight at Helen for the first time since she’d entered the room. “What’s the point if I can’t help them?” Her words careened off the ceiling.
Helen sat back down on the task chair, swiveled it, and faced her guest. She inhaled deeply, just one breath. “Margaret.” She spoke slowly, her voice just above the sound of rain and whirring ceiling fan. “You can’t change that part. Can you?”
This Stories’ Companion Chapter Reading
by what we can’t accomplish
Margaret flashed. “You don’t get it. I’m supposed to heal them. How can I do that if they come too late?” She grabbed a book from a pile on the coffee table in front of her. She flipped through the pages too quickly to see the rocky coasts, deep green fir trees, splashing waves, and glorious sunrises. She snapped the book shut and flung it back on the table. “So I have to be there at the end? Too late to help?”
Then suddenly Margaret stood up, outraged. “The father wanted me to give the girl medicine, but she was too far gone. Burning up with fever. A beautiful child. Head full of fine braids, but no light in her eyes.”
She swept the little ceramic bus from the coffee table, took two steps and clicked it onto the side table. “I did the tests. The father wouldn’t believe me. He pounded his walking stick on the concrete floor like I’d done something wrong. Like it was my fault. But what could I do? We don’t even have enough medicine for the ones we can help!” She fell back down on the couch, jammed her elbows into her knees, and dropped her forehead into her hands. “What am I supposed to do?”
Helen stretched against the tension in her shoulders. No, she thought. I’ve never been there. I’ve never looked into the face of a dying girl. But I’ve been helpless, insufficient in the face of another’s needs. And yes, it’s hard. The thought returned. Just tell her you have to go. A temptation. Escape the grinding, the scraping against boundaries, the personal limitations. Mine. My guests. The reality of empty hands.
The hardest part is to stay present, isn’t it? To give what you have when you don’t have enough.
Helen knew this story. She knew it from other doctors and nurses. From disaster relief workers whose trucks of food failed to reach those in greatest need. She knew it from mothers whose young adult children had wondered into self-destruction. She knew it from herself when a guest came disconsolate, and no amount of love and attention could break through the darkness.
Run away? Go help in the kitchen? Do the safe? The work for which I’m fully competent? A temptation for sure.
Helen made a choice. She rose from her desk, walked across the sitting room and sat down on the soft white overstuffed chair next to the couch, next to an angry young doctor with too little to give. She leaned back, crossed her legs and folded her hands over her lap.
Margaret shot her eyes at her with a hardness that shallowed Helen’s breath.
“But what did you give them? Margaret?” Helen’s voice was smooth and warm like hot chocolate on a stormy winter night.
Margaret flashed. “Nothing. No medicine. No cure. Nothing!” She grabbed another picture book, flipped it open, then tossed it aside.
Helen challenged as gently as she could. “Did you send them away?”
“No, of course not.”
Helen pulled a white pillow with tiny pink roses from beside her hip and laid it on her lap. She ran her palms over the soft fabric and offered her question again. “Then what did you do, Margaret?”
Her guest pressed her fingertips into her temples and rubbed hard, but when her words came, they were soft and round. “I found a bed for the girl. Brought them all something to drink. Ran ice over the girl’s lips. Cooled her forehead with a damp cloth. I sat with them. Stayed with them. Not long. About an hour, I think.” Her voice trailed off. She leaned back into the soft couch. Her hands, finally still, rested beside her.
we see the something we give
Helen stroked the pillow on her lap. “Margaret, who would have sat with them if she’d died along the way?”
Margaret leaned her head back and gazed at the ceiling fan. “I suppose, no one.” She sighed. “Maybe I did give them something. Not as much as I wanted, but something.”
Helen nodded. “I’m sure you did, Margaret. I’m sure you did.”
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