I’ve written before about my involvement with the Karen refugees that my church is helping to settle here. I backed into this responsibility reluctantly. I really only got on board because my son, Adam, 14, just loves these kids. He has a knack with kids and with people from other cultures, maybe because he is such a good communicator and such a warm person. At any rate, our family responsibilities include me taking the mother, whom I’ll call Sunny, to the health department every few months to get her Depo shot. She is thirty and has four boys, 3-11. She also had a baby girl who died, either in Burma or in the refugee camp in Thailand–that part of the story isn’t clear.
Sunny’s English is getting better, but is still very minimal. Working with her I realize how much of language is body language, facial expressions, and idioms. I often feel that she has much more to say, but is frustrated. It is frustrating for us both. But recently, it has gotten better, which I think has to do with simply with the fact that we have spent more time together. The reason being, Sunny seems to be having heart problems.
The second time we went for the Depo shot, she complained again–in a soft voice that dropped the consonants–that she had pain in her chest, tiredness, heavy arms and legs, sweating. I had to urge her on to tell the nurse, and luckily we got a nurse who listened. We also got a phone translator who eased communications. The nurse concluded that Sunny couldn’t have her shot until she had seen the GP and been given the OK.
The doctor was way out in the country. “Teacher,” Sunny said, her hand on her chest, “Sometime I feel heavy, full. Sometimes I feel empty.” There were tears in her eyes. “My husband say, maybe I’m sad.” Although Sunny is warm and loving, in her thirty years she has lost a mother at three, lost a father, lost a husband, buried a child, lost a homeland, and a language. I believe perhaps her father and or husband may have fought for the Karen cause. She tells me, “I never forget them. I never forget.” Her siblings are scattered around Burma, Thailand and one in St. Louis.
She tells me that she loves America, that she will never go back. She tells me that in her village, a quiet village away from the police, the children all played freely, the mothers doing their chores. One day the police came. “Rattatat, rattatat,” she goes, and then motions with her arms a sweeping motion. “Mother’s look for babies,” she pantomimes, “go into trees, police get closer, babies cry.” I stare at her, wondering if she was a child or a mother, wondering if maybe that little daughter didn’t die of natural causes. “No, she shakes her head,” I never go back. “Rice, I carry, walk all day,” and she pats the top of her head. “No Piggly Wiggly!” she makes a joke and we giggle and then she says it again, “Piggly Wiggly.” I’ve taken her to Piggly Wiggly, and seen the amazed look on her face at all the food, which she buys in bulk to feed those five men of hers. She shakes her head again, “No Burma. No chicken plant. No DVDs!” Her second husband, twenty-five, works sometimes seven days a week at the chicken plant, a job you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, but for them it is the key to the kingdom.
We get to the clinic, and there is an hour filling out forms, getting approved for the sliding fee scale. At first they don’t want to treat her without a translator–they don’t have the phone translator service. They are about to turn us away, but I convince them that we can communicate “enough.” It is urgent–she is frightened as it is. “All right, but you’ll have to see the nurse practitioner.” Fine, I say. We wait and wait. Then we are called in. The nurse who takes her vitals is lovely and gentle. She has to wire her for an EKG, and I try to explain to Sunny what is going on. Sunny is holding her breath in fear. Her eyes are panicked. The nurse says, “Tell her it won’t hurt.” And I do, stroking her forehead. And it doesn’t hurt, but it is invasive to have your body touched and taped and to be in a prone position, to be totally vulnerable. It is for me. It is for anyone, no matter how hard we rationalize it.
We await and wait again to be seen. Then a knock and a woman comes in the door. She has a disapproving frown on her face and a very loud, brusque manner. “Her EKG is abnormal. She is not cleared for Depo. She needs to see a cardiologist. Any questions?” We both just stare at her. That’s it? I take the records and thank her. We silently leave. We get in the car and I tell her she is going to have to see another doctor. She nods, frowning. I know that getting her to see a cardiologist will be an uphill battle. I know that many doctors will just see a small brown asian woman who is a nuisance, a free-loader. I wonder who will take the time to see or hear her, who will take the time to hear the story her body is telling.