Word Medicine

Writing and Healing: exploring the art of healing and the healing of art

The Body’s Story April 15, 2011

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.

 

The Long Way Home January 5, 2011

Yesterday, I took our Karen refugee mother and her two youngest children to the county health department.  Our church is involved in resettling Karen refugees.  I had known nothing about the Karen, their long battle for independence in Myanmar, their brutal experiences at the hands of the Burmese, or their lives in Thai refugee camps until my son met this family of six through our youth group.  I’m not sure who adopted who, but Adam loved the warm, lively children and when the church asked for volunteers to help refugees transition to life in America, in Athens, we signed up.  The mother, whom I will call Rose, is thirty, only five years older than my daughter, Hannah.  Over the past several weeks, although her English is rudimentary, she has shared with me stories and photos of her life lived mostly in a Thai camp: she has buried one husband, one infant daughter, and both parents.  She has two older boys by her first husband, and two by her second husband.  She is very proud of her husband–he speaks English fairly well and went through eleventh grade.  She herself has no schooling, but she is quick-witted and exudes such warmth that Adam calls her “A bundle of love.”  She loves America, because she has a floor, warmth, safety.  In the camps, her children were always dirty because of the dirt floors.  They were cold because of the bamboo huts. They were hungry because of lack of food.  They had no hope for the future, no possibilities.

So, the health department.  I had to take her for her birth control, which meant that I left Adam in the waiting room with the four and two-year old children.  Using pantomime and simple English, I had to ask some very personal questions, like “When was the last time you and your husband had sex?” which I demonstrated with my hands coming together. She got it, answering with great dignity, looking straight ahead.  She is so gentle and soft-spoken, I just winced at this invasion of her privacy.  As we waited in the women’s waiting room, there was some conversation, but much silence.  At one point, she turned to me, and said, “Teacher, I no like fat.”  She gestured to her belly, her face sorrowful.  In the photos she had shared, she had been very thin and youthful.  Still pretty, she has put on a lot of weight with all the food and kinds of food available here.  I asked her if she exercised, or walked.  She shook her head, no, she said “Eat, sleep, children.  Sometime walk to Piggly Wiggly with Sunny.”  She giggled when she said Piggly Wiggly and I did too.  We talked about getting a stroller so she could walk the youngest one.  Her comment was a small glimpse into her world, her feelings, something that made her an individual, not merely a “refugee mother.”  I hated it for her, this so American struggle with weight, this estrangement from our bodies.

We waited and waited for her to be seen .  We both stared at the video monitor, featuring a documentary on the Rockdale County sex scandals.  The video showed people in church, at prayer.  Rose said, “praying!” in her soft, lilting voice.  I nodded, but what the video showed was how a certain kind of fundamentalist Protestant Christianity had failed this Southern community, and maybe contributed to the incredibly depraved sexual behaviour of the county’s teens.  It showed how there was an emptiness at the core, a kind of ennui, which pulled the children into extreme sex and drug experimentation.  The experts also commented on the parents’ complete disconnect with their children, their disbelief, their denial that such things could happen to their children.  The children interviewed talked about long hours alone at home, free to do what they liked.  The camera panned on the upper middle class suburb, the large brick McMansions with their huge yards, the SUVs and Hummers parked in the drives, everything pristine, perfect, shiny.  But no people.  Big bright suburban emptiness.

I thought back to the birthday party/prayer meeting I had attended at one of the Karen homes.  The whole community seated on the floor, listening respectfully to the preacher, even the youngest child attentive, well-behaved.  Their beautiful singing, the openness and generosity between them.  I didn’t understand the words, but I understood that this was something special.  Their strong and vital faith has seen them through years of deprivation, but will it survive our materialistic culture?  How will their community handle our emphasis on the individual?  Already the children are becoming more fluent, not only in English, but in the culture.  Adam told me the four-year old is so smart, he even knows the mother of all curse words, which he picked up from the older boys.  I think of how Rose is with her kids, naturally authoritative, never raising her voice, gentle but firm.  It is enviable, her naturalness.  I don’t want that to change for them.  How will she find her way in this new world as a mother, as a woman?

Rose is finally seen. We pick up the boys and go into the children’s vaccination room for another long wait.  The room is crowded with a Chinese family and several Hispanic families.  There is a huge National Geographic map on

the wall, and we show Rose and the children were Burma is.  Rose tells how it took four planes to get to Georgia–one to Japan, from there to California, then to Colorado, then to Georgia.  “Long way,” she says, smiling wearily at the map.  Her youngest has fallen asleep in her arms. The four-year old is speaking and gesturing rapidly in Karen, pointing to places on the map and making up stories.  Maybe he is making up the story of their plane ride, or of the adventures he will have in the world as a Power Ranger.  I look around the room at the weary parents, at the dark-eyed children shyly smiling,  at my tired, bored fair-haired boy.  I wonder–what maps, what stories will lead us–all of us– home?

 

 
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