Monday, January 28, 2008

A Story of Shakespearean Proportions

A Wheel Chair Ride That Speaks Volumes

I sit behind her and can only think that I have traveled into the world of a Shakespearean tragedy. The rollercoaster ride has death, love, suffering, and now prayer. The words begin to come out of her mouth. She speaks aloud to the dead body and then folds her hands to her head to signal she is praying. A calmness sets in, but an uneasiness enters. A chill runs over me as I stare and try to imagine myself in her shoes.

It was the start of my second day and already I knew my back and hands could not take another full day of giving massages. I remembered seeing wheelchairs the day before near the bathroom and thought I could shuffle in wheelchair rides to give my body a slight break. However the physical strain was only transferred to my mind and emotions.

It started simply and in the middle became quite challenging. A nurse brought me to someone she thought would want to go outside and informed me that the patient had "a slow brain". The woman barely spoke a word to me the day before and her facial expressions did seem a little abnormal. I helped the woman into the wheelchair and started to go outside. Something was obviously up as she pointed to the left. A female french photographer greets me outside and asks if I was going to take her for her daily tour. She took my puzzled look as a sign to explain further. She continued by telling me that a Maryknoll priest had been volunteering at the Temple for almost six years and had taken the woman out every morning to pray and see her boyfriend. However, the priest has since been stationed inTanzania and the morning ritual has gone away with him. From what I have been told no one else had taken interest in continuing the ritual.

We begin by stopping at a small shop and she asks for a energy drink with two raw eggs in it. The photographer ques me in on the story and outlines the "stops" before going off to finish her work with TIME magazine. The woman came to the Temple over eight years ago with her husband. They both had HIV and the husband soon passed away. Over the years she fell deeply in love with another HIV positive man at the Temple. He passed away as well and in an act of despair she attempted suicide by jumping off a roof. She broke her hips, damaged her mouth, and did some nerve damage as well, which explains the "slow brain" and her inability to walk or stand. When I heard this story I could not help but think it was a plot from a depressing and twisted movie; one that depicted a rollercoaster of emotions and in the end left the main character bedridden and alone.I am told that she shared a deep and affectionate relationship with the man she met at the temple and soon they became "the couple" all could see constantly together.
By this time we had already stopped at the Buddha shrine and she has prayed using the traditional three sticks of incense (see photos on sidebar). We make our way to the infamous Life Museum and I hesitate to enter. The photographer sees my hesitation and points to one man on display and says . . . that is him! She leaves as quickly as she came and I am torn on what to do. Does she really want to be rolled into a room full of dead bodies who succumbed to death from the same virus she has? Does she really want to be locked into a seat a few yards from the naked and partially decayed body of a man who she passionately loved and attempted suicide over? Even if it were torturous, how would I know what she is saying or trying to communicate? The questions flooded my mind as I lifted the chair over the step and then finish locking the wheelchair in its place.

She has not been here in almost a month and all I can do is think about what she is saying out loud. After ten minutes she claps three times and rubs her head - it's the signal that she is done. She opens up as we leave the life museum. She laughs and starts to talk as we make our way to the stand at the front gate. Once there I buy her some of the plastic bracelets that she loves to wear. During this time she gets to talk to some of the vendors, who are HIV positive as well. It's her only time to socialize because in the infirmary attention is not something she is accustomed to. I bring her back and realize after 40 minutes and 2 dollars that what started as a way to take a break ended up making someone's day in way I would never have expected or anticipated. Now when I first walk in she looks at me and signals to the door with a smile. Sadly every time I bring her back I can not help but wonder if after I leave she will be resigned to the bed and never get a chance to go for what some might think is just a wheel chair ride.

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