It all started with a little blue passport. Five little blue passports, to be exact. When you’re residing in a Third World Country, your passport is something you file under Very Important Documents. If anything were to suddenly go wrong where you lived or if anyone you loved back in the States had an emergency and you had to make a rapid exit, you needed to know exactly where it was. You even needed it for basic financial transactions around town.
When we lived in Guatemala, we were not official residents of that country, so we were required to cross the border every 6 months and get our passports stamped. Now, due to all of the lovely political fights and deals and “Hey, we don’t like your country now!” decisions, the borders that counted toward our stamps were very specific. One country we could cross into was Mexico.
So all 5 of us loaded up onto a Greyhound-type bus and began the long trek to a little border town in Mexico. The journey started off quite promisingly with an explicit movie being shown on the screens right above our open-mouthed children’s heads and progressed to even more exciting levels when we all took turns using the “bathroom” on board. This is an excellent cross-training activity. You get to practice isometric squats as you attempt to avoid touching any surface whilst the bus changes lanes and veers around curves at 186 mph. You also get to hone your lung capacity since the smell of the “room” is so intense that you know, once you breathe it in, you are unlikely to eat anything again. Ever.
It was somewhere along a Guatemalan road that we realized that our 6 year-old was ill…quite ill. Now, having parasites was an all-too-common experience for us Gringos. It was just a side effect of the less than clean drinking water we were exposed to. You dealt with it and moved on. But it was a little harder for the little ones. And this time was particularly bad.
There was nowhere to get off the bus except a random village here and there along the road, so we kept going. And kept realizing that things were getting worse. The journey became an increasingly worried-filled one, our stomachs now twisting, not in sickness, but in fear.
Finally, we reached the bus depot in the border town. I was standing by a cracked, plasticky chair as sickness poured out of my sweet child, again, and helpless, panicked tears poured out of me. Suddenly, a tiny, precious lady was beside me. Through my broken, weepy Spanish, we somehow communicated, and I discovered that there was no hospital. But there was a Cruz Rojo. A Red Cross.
Minutes later, we found ourselves in a cinderblock structure, a dirty bucket in the middle of the floor to catch the rain. I divided my time between sticking my head out of the plasticky curtain to check on my two eldest children, sitting beside their new BFF, the taxi driver who’d brought us there, and rushing back into the space that in any US city would be considered a very basic garage, much less an ER.
There was an order for a shot to be given, and then there was a moment when the needle fell. To the questionably-clean cement floor. Before a word could be said, it was scooped up and inserted into my child and I wasn’t sure if that moment made me the World’s Worst Mother or the World’s Calmest.
The phrase “the longest night of my life” is cliche, but there are no better words than those to describe that night in our hotel room. The sickness wouldn’t stop. There was no sleep for my son and my brain swung wildly between desperate prayers and trying to decide how we would find a hospital in any town nearby.
Until the dark-shrouded hours of the morning, before the sun, when an exhausted little boy finally crawled to the edge of the bed and asked for Gatorade. And he drank it. And he slept. And the sickness was gone.
I know his life was spared that day, and yet, for years, I mostly avoided telling this story, because my gratitude felt like a slap in the face of another’s pain, an insult to other parents whose stories did not end as happily as mine. My default mode has been to share a tale and in the same breath qualify that ohhh but other people have experienced much worse so I should be grateful and ohhh did I mention other people had it much worse?
They do. Absolutely they do. But no more qualifying. No matter what difficulty or pain or fear or betrayal we are going through or have experienced? It is difficulty and pain and fear and betrayal. It just is. The end. Period. Yes, keeping perspective is a healthy thing, but not if it walks hand in hand with denial. Yes, we can and must remind ourselves that most of us are the privileged, super-lucky ones. But hard is still hard. And our stones of remembrance…our stories…are still just that: Our stories, meant to own and meant to share, without qualification.
So tell your stories today…to your friends, to your people. And then put a period on the end as you close your lips tight around the tendency to downplay your experience. It’s your story.
With no more apology.
No more “ohhhh buts…”
No more wondering if your story is worth another’s listening ear, if it is enough.
No more qualifying.
“The story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.” Frederick Buechner