Friday, June 29, 2007

Saying Goodbye In Oromo

(Originally posted November, 2005).

I know very little of her story.

I know she is a refugee, from Africa. She is Oromian, an ancient people who live in what we call Ethiopia ("It's only called that because of the Bible," she told me once). Her family fled and lived for years in a refugee camp in Kenya. Life was hard there. Life is easier here.

I know that she suffers in her body the trauma she experienced as a refugee, and whatever trauma she fled from in Ethiopia.

I know that she is Muslim, but did not fast during Ramadan because she is sick, and you are allowed to not fast if you are sick.

I know that her eyes are gentle and deep like an ancient river, and she sees into me.

She is my favorite patient, and yet we cannot speak to each other. But when I go to the lobby to call her, her face lights up, and she reaches for my hand, and we smile brightly to each other. I always compliment her beautifully colored robes, and tease her gently about the silly pain scale she hates to use.

The last time she was here, she smiled, kissed her palm and held it up to me in greeting, then put her hand over her heart. I smiled and did the same. I asked her daughter to teach me a few words in Oromo. Her mother was so pleased that I wanted to speak her language. Although she was feeling poorly and had lain down, she sat back up on the exam table and helped me pronounce the words correctly.

I have been practicing them -- Akkam, Hello -- Fayyaa dha, How are you? -- Nagaatti, Goodbye -- since then, reading them over and over here by my keyboard at work.

Today she came again. I greeted her -- Akkam! Akkam! -- and she smiled brightly and raised her palm to me. I did the same, and she squeezed my elbow.

In the exam room she became curious about my Tibetan Buddhist prayer bead bracelet. I took it off and placed it in her hands. I explained that I am Christian, but even though these are Buddhist prayer beads, they help me to remember to pray and to stay present. Through her daughter she told me that she has many prayer beads, too. How many beads does this one have? We counted them. Then she cupped my beads in her hands. Did she bless them? I don't know, but even if she didn't my beads are even more sacred now.

I finished my charting and took a deep breath. "There's something I need to tell you," I said. I told her that I was leaving in December, to go back to school, to become a minister. I watched her face as her daughter translated. The change in expression was subtle, but the surprise and the sadness were there. I told her that I was sad to leave her, that it had been an honor and a privilege to take care of her, and that my heart was always so happy to see her. She said something and put her palms over her eyes, leaning in on herself a little. Her daughter told me, "She loves you too, her heart fills with joy when she sees you."

I squeezed her elbow like she always did mine, and patted her knee. "I will miss you. Nagaatti. Nagaatti."

Her palms still covered her eyes when I left the room.

Later, as she was leaving the clinic, I came to her and told her I hope to see her again before I go, and if not to take good care. "Go up, up!" she told me, "Up with your education! I love you. I love you. Nagaatti."

"I love you too. Nagaatti."

I know very little about her, and she knows even less about me. And yet, without words, without common cultural understanding, our hearts met, and we were both changed, and touched by each other. I will not forget her.