A mother stands on a pile of rubble, peering down into its depths.
This tangle of cinderblock and rebar was once her home. Her children's home.
On January 12, 2010, when the earth shook, it became her children's grave.
She stands on the pile of rubble, for the second time, three months from the first. The first time she stood here, amidst terrorizing aftershocks, she desperately dug for her children, impossibly buried in layers of concrete. Miraculously, she found her toddler Emmanuel, crushed but alive, in the depths of the rubble. Only Emmanuel, face and body bloody and torn. On that day, she acted with stoic determination. She took the injured form of her child and left the bodies of her three remaining children behind in the rubble. No time to grieve. No time to reflect. Only time to act with direct and forceful intention. To keep her remaining child alive. And, so, for three months, she has fought for his life.
You may remember Emmanuel's mother. Two weeks ago, when her son had his last in a series of painful plastic surgeries to reconstruct his face, she stood up in the center of our hospital and sang a chilling accapella Alleluhia, praising God for the gift of her child's life.
Today, she peered down, for the second time, into her family's grave.
She asked us to bring her here. For closure. She did not know what to expect. Would the house be gone? An empty lot, where her life had once been? Or would it be hauntingly unchanged, the moment of her loss frozen in time.
We worried for her. What does a mother do when she encounters such a challenge? Which would leave a more gaping hole in her soul -- an empty space where her house and children had once been, or an untouched pile of rubble with the bodies of her babies still trapped within? Would she stand and stare at the base of the rubble? Would she fall on it and wail? Would she start to claw and dig at it? Or would her soul just melt away?
She quietly climbed the untouched rubble pile, peering down into the hole from which three months ago she had plucked her little Emmanuel and beneath which her other children's bodies lay entombed. Then she wandered away silently, over the rubble, searching intently, she later revealed, for a precious momento -- a sacred book of hymns that she had carried with her throughout her life. She did not find it.
Nor did she see -- or perhaps, she just did not acknowledge -- the small brown arm of a child that was still visible, pinned under a concrete slab, in the depths of the rubble below her feet.
Tonight, as I left the hospital, she sat with her Emmanuel on a small cot in the corner of the courtyard, staring silently into the distance. I placed my hand on her shoulder in comfort. She stared up at me, with a depth of sorrow in her eyes, despite her ever present smile. I leaned down to hug her from behind and gave her a gentle kiss on the cheek. She lifted a hand to hold my cheek to hers for a moment. Such depths of sorrow. Invisible, searing, devastating sorrow. Just below the surface of a smile.
How does she survive?
A boy of seventeen lies on our procedure table. It is three months from his injury. He still requires sedation for painful dressing changes. One leg is missing below the knee. The other missing tissue from painful, poorly healing skingrafts. He is new to our hospital, transferred from another facility. He has been quiet, stoic, perhaps shy. He keeps to himself. He smiles when prompted with a greeting, but the smile rarely reaches his eyes.
Under IV sedation, we change his extensive dressings. His pain is blunted, as are his inhibitions. As the medication wears off, he begins to cry. Are his wounds still so exquisitely painful? Then he begins to sob. He raises his arm to cover his eyes. "I should have just died..." he cries. "Why am I alive..." In the misty consciousness of his sedation, his stoic mask is lifted, and his soul is revealed. He cries. He sobs. It is heartwrenching.
He cries first about his physical torment -- still so equisitely painful, twelve weeks out from his injury. The physical pain jostles his subconscious, and the suppressed, terrifying memories, are resurrected. This normally stoic and silent boy, still sedated, begins to sob uncontrolledly. Tears well as he rolls his head to and fro, crying about the loss of his leg.
"How can I live without my leg. What will I do without my leg?" he cries.
Then his mind wanders to the loss of his family. He was trapped in the rubble of his house for days. Twelve family members died in his home on that day.
"Why did I survive?" he asks, sobbing.
His mind wanders again, this time to his future.
"How will I live without my leg? How will I work without my leg?" He sobs.
Heartwrenching. Loss of self. Loss of identity. Loss of a future.
"I need to help my family. My father has lost his job. He cannot work. My family is homeless. They are living in a tent. They are starving. We have no money for food. How will we survive? How will we survive?" He sobs again.
"I was a student, but my school has collapsed. Now I have nothing. I have no job. I have no school. I have no leg. I have no life. I have no home. I have no future. Why didn't I just die? Why didn't I just die?"
He tires. Tears stream down his face. Is he sedated? Or is he awake? Is he rambling helplessly? Or speaking with direct, absolute, sober certainty?
It is heartbreaking. It is devastating. We long to reassure him. We long to comfort him.
Yet so much of what he has said is sobering, raw, undeniable truth.
This is far too much burden for such a young man. Far too much sorrow for one soul to bear.
And yet the story repeats, again and again. Patient after patient. Behind each face. Behind each tarp, in each tent city. So much sorrow. So much loss. So much suffering and grief. So much buried in the shallow depths.
But just barely.