“You okay?” Asked Rachel. She saw the tears streaming down like rain on a window. She saw the resolute, but ambiguous stare forward through the windshield of the Touch A Life transport van. She saw a silent cry, the kind that doesn’t reveal much besides something weighty is going on in there. We sat close, me in the middle between she and the driver. We had long given up on the idea of personal space as everyone on this trip had gotten used to packing tight into vehicles - my right leg rest against her left leg, my left knee always in the way of the gear shift, and my shoulders scrunched with arms slung over the too large computer bag on my lap looking like I was trying to become small and failing badly at it. I would have been perfectly still had the road been in any way forgiving. Rather, I bounced around in this cramped seating arrangement like a theme park ride I had ridden one too many times.
This was the end of the stay in Ghana, the last time down these roads for who knows how long? I was headed back to air conditioning, smooth roads, and trustworthy tap water; the children remained there at the care center, and my heart already stretching thin between the two.
Rachel’s light blue eyes and strong gaze are next to impossible to ignore. She can command attention with a stare. Not this time. I stared straight ahead at nothing. Nothing. It seemed as though Nothing in and of itself had some profound meaning, like how absence is unseen and yet potent. I was in a staring contest with Nothing and it was winning. What was it? There was plenty to look at on the way to the Kumasi airport. Street vendors, ramshackle market booths, women walking along the wounded and potholed roadside carrying impossibly huge loads on their heads – how could there be Nothing? I’d seen these images all week. No, this time, even though it was all there, I was staring at Nothing and it put me to tears.
Everywhere I have ever been in my life I have seen myself there. I have always found enough familiar in it for me to see me. Canada, inner city Houston, and even Matamoros, Mexico offered some sense of myself. I looked for myself in Ghana and didn’t find anything. I found Nothing. Yes, I was Nothing. Oh my God, I was not in a staring contest with Nothing, I was in a staring contest with myself. The Nothing I saw was me.
And yet in Nothingness, there was feeling, there was passion, there was the sort of raw ache that insists upon a re-genesis of identity. It was not that I was Nothing, but rather that I could no longer be myself as defined by previous standards. It was not that I did not see myself in Ghana, it was that I did not see my old self in Ghana. My soul was stretched tight like a canvas, whitewashed, and then rapid splash painted with the images, experiences, and relationships that came on faster than an African thunderstorm.
“To answer your question,” I responded to Rachel, “no, I am not okay.” It was all I could say without my silent cry erupting into a full on ugly cry. I wanted to tell her I was ruined because of all this. I wanted to tell her I will never be the same again. I wanted to tell her I cannot unsee what I have seen and cannot unhear what I have heard. I wanted to tell her that I will never be able to piece my life back together like it was. Whatever I could remake of this undoing wasn’t going to be the same old me I had always known. I couldn’t speak about it. Words were a poor cart to carry the meaning.
At once I saw the past lives of the children at the Touch A Life Care Facility. I felt their past as though it were my own. I heard the lap of the water of Lake Volta on the side of the fishing boat, felt the whack of a paddle across my rib cage, and held my breath under water as long as I could while looking up in desperation as I was still far from water’s surface – and it was too much to bear. I had to flee the thought. But then I saw Lake Volta, all at once, and counted children scattered across the lake who knew their lives would never be anything different than this – hoping they wouldn’t die today, but having nothing to live for. Their eyes were windows to gasping souls. Days lined up forever with their dark hoods and boney fingers pointing down into the murky water. More children will die on that lake than will be rescued. It was too much to bear. I had to flee the thought. But everything kept coming at me and there was no escape.
In coming to know the children at Touch A Life, there is now only 1 degree of separation between me and Hell. Hearing one boy tell his story sounded like dispatches from Hades, like field notes from Hell. It was terrifying. And yet knowing he felt safe enough to tell his story and knowing desires to grow up and do something about child trafficking with his life is inspiring. Seeing the resilience, the courage, and the hope, there is now only 1 degree of separation between me and Heaven.
All at once I knew more pain than I had ever known and more joy than I had ever known. I felt everything all at once – and it was too much to bear. I couldn’t flee the thoughts, not all of them. And there was little more to do than cry that moment. No, I wasn’t okay, and it would have been wrong to be okay. Furthermore, I had it coming. I asked for such an experience the day I left for Ghana as I penned the following:
A Prayer Before Departure
I go to carry you with me;
I go to find you;
I go to find me;
I go to serve you.
Layers upon layers
Of manic pace
Cover my heart
Numb my soul
Consume my intellect and
Tamp down my passion,
But I seek an uncovered heart
A sensitive soul
A freed intellect
And an emerging passion
To give the best of me
To the best of you
To serve the most beautiful of creatures
The world will ever witness
The young images of God
Those whose image has been attacked
Your image in their eyes, assaulted
They are free and they shall forever be
May their hearts be freed
Like their bodies are now freed
May their souls be freed
Like their bodies are free
May their minds be freed
Like their bodies are free.
Free me to free them
Free them to free me.
I beg for freedom
I beg for love to be born of wounds
For hope to be born of despair
For goodness to be born of evil
For freedom to be born of slavery.
Let us all be free