Greetings from Bandung, Indonesia!
Though I will escape the New England snow for an entire, glorious month, I have arrived during rainy season. Musim hujan means thunderclaps that overpower even the loudest Adhans’ prayers, cries that blanket the city through crackly megaphones atop minarets.
It means preparing, when you can, to avoid being on your motorbike during the afternoon downpour, and accepting, when you must, to sometimes get caught in the rain.
Early morning air not yet tarnished with exhaust fumes, but thick with jasmine and ringing with the bells of street vendors’ offerings, I awoke with a beautiful plan for the day. Baby Keandra, the infant son of my friends Adit and Rany, came home from the hospital yesterday.
Keandra survived heart surgery the week before Christmas (many thanks to many EA readers who helped fund his surgery), and Keandra’s super-parents had planned a syukuran: a party to give thanks for his safe recovery.
After all, in a country of 300 million people, Mom and Dad had sought out and identified one of the few qualified doctors – and the single hospital – capable of conducting Keandra’s heart surgery. For the entire process to have gone so flawlessly is a miracle, and today we intended to celebrate.
But before we could leave the house, Ginan’s phone buzzed with an SMS that would darken the morning’s joyful tone.
G*****, our colleague and friend at Rumah Cemara (Ginan’s drug rehab/AIDS organization), had passed away in the early hours of the morning. Just the evening prior, G*****’s wife had been in our office, weeping about her husband being hospitalized for the past five days. She was confused about how to pay for his bills, and unsure of whether or not his heart condition would heal.
“What’s wrong with his heart?” I whispered to a friend, reluctant to ask his wife directly.
“Kaya hati Keandra,” he said. “Like Keandra’s heart. The pump’s not working”
Sort of like Keandra. Unlike Keandra, G***** had spent years of his life injecting heroin, often laced with unknown chemicals that filled his veins with air kotor – “dirty water”. Even though G***** was three years clean and sober, for the past two working as a beloved staff member at our rehab center, he still had to face consequences of his darker days. His illness – endocarditis, or inflammation of heart valves due to air kotor bacteria – was not completely unexpected, but by no means anticipated as he worked his way up diligently from rock bottom.
Instead of biking to Keandra’s syukuran, a group of five of us from the office traveled to G*****’s home. As is Muslim custom he had already been buried within hours of passing away, and so we went simply to visit his siblings and his wife, whose hair lay sweaty and matted beneath a black gilbab, eyelids swollen and shiny with tears.
We stayed only for an hour, sitting in a circle on the oriental rug in the open living room, giving his wife space to emote and share, brief laughs punctuating her flow of tears.
It was not the kind of morning anyone expected, and I observed silently – as I do so often when in a culture so different from my own – the grace with which my co-workers carried and managed his wife’s grief. Later in the day we made it to Keandra’s, where he lay on his back laughing at the toys around him, unaffected by the scar down his chest. The juxtaposition of grief and joy – two people, one heart apart – prompted me to recall one of the most important lessons in my travels abroad to date, a founding principle of Everyday Ambassadorship.
When I first started working at Rumah Cemara three years ago, I was a world traveler intent on public service but unwilling to accept that there were outcomes out of my control. Hard work and clever leverage of resources could surely solve any trouble I encountered!
Needless to say, there were countless days – like today – when I was faced with painful realities I could do very little to avoid. Over time, with repetition, I learned from my colleagues – mostly HIV-positive and recovering addicts themselves- who had survived the roundtrip to rock bottom back up, and dedicated their lives to serving others struggling with the same illnesses. Everyday they fielded unpredictable, often tragic, outcomes, and still persisted with tireless, hopeful, compassionate inputs.
Days like today – the joy of Keandra’s miracle mixed with the pain of G*****’s passing – remind me about the need to stay balanced when we head out into the world to try and make it a better place. There will be plenty of problems we can plan to tackle, and work our hardest to make happen: funding Keandra’s surgery, finding the best doctor, providing the highest-quality care; supporting G***** through rehab, providing him a job, accompanying his family throughout his illness. But there will be plenty of unexpected outcomes – some as sweet as Keandra’s miracle heart and some as bitter as G*****’s swollen valves.
As we drove away from Keandra’s, the ground began to darken with wet, sporadic splatters, the sky darkening and thunder rumbling behind us. We pulled over to put on our raingear, and traveled the final few kilometers in a drenching downpour, arriving at the office soaking wet, but safely.
Days like today I ask myself about my ability to manage the unexpected. Can I respond with grace and not frustration, acceptance and not denial, determination to keep working and not a broken spirit?
I hope that Keandra’s life and G*****’s memory together can remind us to try and avoid the downpours whenever possible, but be willing to face unpredicted storms with patience and strength.