Friday, May 7, 2010

What we do not want

“I don’t want to bleed now.”

I heard a little girl say these words as we waited to get off of the big boat from Dublin to Swansea, in 1992, after a sleepless overnight trip across the Irish sea at the end of a long trip through Scotland and Ireland. Suzanne and I were still young, newly married, and traveling on the cheap, so the boat-and-bus route back to London for the flight home seemed reasonable. But we were exhausted and getting over a flu we had come down with in Belfast, and more than ready to blink ourselves home if we could've. We had absolutely had it.

The whole process of boarding the ship was confusing and overwhelming and chaotic—after finding the right docks, then waiting and waiting for hours and worrying and wondering where to be and what to do, we were finally crammed onto the last shuttle bus that would take us to the ship. A little boy strapped into a folding stroller was so far gone by that point that he cried and cried until he threw up at our feet. There was nothing to do for him, and everyone just looked at each other. I think we all felt like he did.

The sun was down by the time we went up the gangway, and after an almost romantic slow-motion silhouette of Dublin disappearing, a vision of the mouth of the Liffey fading over the stern, with the ship’s wake glowing faintly in the last light, we resigned ourselves to our long night of wanderings, looking for some place of quiet, for some relief from noise and cigarette smoke and the constant blast of the engines.

There was a session in the pub space on the ferry, but we weren’t good enough players to participate. I remember a piper ripping away at tunes so fast and impenetrable that it made me feel bleak inside–I couldn't even imagine keeping up with him at some possible future time, after years of practice. It was music that didn't even seem to have room for a listener in it.

Every nerve I had was raw. Nauseous and anxious, every system on overload, it was a constant battle to keep trying to calm myself and sleep. Rattled and buzzing, at once numb and agitated, I would momentarily succumb to fatigue and drift into semi-consciousness, only to be shocked awake by some sound, a roll of the ship, an inner upwelling, or the weird sparking of my frazzled brain.

When we finally approached land, everyone rushed to grab luggage, then crowded into the exit corridor, standing uselessly prepared to disembark for the longest time. A little girl got her finger stepped on or smashed between suitcases in the crush, and blood was gushing from what should have been a small wound. They held her hand over her head for her—she was too big to pick up, perhaps six years old.

Things got really quiet all of a sudden. She said “But I don’t want to bleed now” so simply. It became clear that bleeding was a familiar but unwelcome activity for her, that she must have been a Hemophiliac, and that this small mishap could become a grave problem. I offered them my pathetic wad of napkins and tissues from my pocket, a cache I’d been saving to protect myself from…from who knows what? From some kind of need.

We all waited while she bled, and no one talked. There was nowhere to go. Someone else offered clean handkerchiefs, and my chest constricted and my skin became hot with the weight of emotion for this family who were quietly waiting with us, matter-of-factly helpless till we reached the shore.

I wanted to cry for them, for the simple hopelessness of it all, for the beautiful little hurt girl and her illness that would eventually kill her and the death to come that was suddenly made manifest for us there in all that mess of humanity. She and her parents were brave and still, but I imagined the weight they carried for so long with no relief from the demands and the worry. I could feel her brother’s burning guilt and resentment at not being the one who was sick.

Most of all I think I felt the ache of seeing a hurt that could not be held—there was no one to hold this suffering family and to care for that pain in any way that would help. We were all just there to witness their plain human drama of incurable illness and ordinary but life-threatening mishap juxtaposed with a child’s heart-breaking wish for things not to be so.

I think they were probably spared disaster in that moment, in retrospect—I believe I saw them heading for some trailer in the darkness once we landed. Presumably there was first aid there for them while the rest of us all resumed our self-interested ways and scrambled to find the right bus to London, and they got left behind on the forlorn coast in the middle of the night.

But it makes me cry now, too, remembering, for that innocent little girl, and all the poor sad hurt children who are too big to be carried, and for all of us with sorrows that we did not choose and cannot change. There is no love that can really hold our pain, and all of us, all the poor children who are beyond help, all are alone with our suffering, though we might wish it were otherwise.

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