Written on September 18, 2014.
When I was 20-years-old my university held a program called immersion. It’s an annual program for every Atenean senior as part of our Theology grade. Each of us is mandated to sign up for a cultural experience that will help open our eyes to the reality beyond our small bubble. The hope is build up a culture of empathy and to catalyze us towards becoming change makers. Some students spend a weekend in the mountains with some of the indigenous Filipino tribes. Others get adopted by the urban poor. My group — it was me, Andy, Sab and Charls — were put in the National Children’s Hospital.
The honest truth: I was bummed. Ours did not seem as interesting as the experience of those who would get a chance to leave smoggy Manila and go beyond our overly congested metropolis. But our professor, Father Pat, had etched the assignments in stone so there was no chance of switching them.
We showed up in NCH at 7 in the morning on a Saturday. We were each asked to wear the same thing: a white shirt with a pair of jeans. The hospital itself was a subsidy of the government and was, therefore, not in its best form. The paint on the walls had faded, the rooms were crowded and there were not enough doctors or nurses to cater to the number of patients that lined the hallways.
I don’t remember every detail of our immersion but some moments stand out so sharply. I remember that in the beginning, we were put in the Hydrocephalus Ward, which was home to about fifteen young children whose heads were massively bloated with water. We watched these children, who had never known normal, and their mothers, who had only ever known disease. Unlike most immersion experiences where the students were given tasks to do (whether it was farm or fish or live like a local), our facilitators just asked us to talk to the parents and the patients. Looking back on it now, it must’ve seemed condescending to these grief-stricken mothers to see groups of fresh faced university kids who were obviously forced to be there, asking them how they were feeling.
Like any of us could completely understand the weight of their burdens.
We got moved around a lot during our time there. To the cancer ward, the infants’ division, the kids with severe deformities. It was like getting your heart broken at every bend. The plight of each parent was the same: that their child had every chance to heal if the government would only help finance the expenses.
It was hard to be there, to hear the stories and know, at the core, that there was so little we could do about it.
During our last day of immersion, my group and I were walking down a certain corridor. I still remember the red tiled floors and the walls, painted a pathetically dull shade of green. That’s when we heard it: a mother let out the most awful wail. Her cry punctuated the hallway and stopped us dead in our tracks. It was the kind of cry that was dripping with far too much sorrow and desperation that if you heard it another second longer, you’d unravel.
When we turned around, we could see everything that was happening through the glass window of an emergency room. Doctors crowded around a baby, frantically trying to revive it, but the line had gone flat. The mother remained in hysterics as we, glued together by grief and shock, stood quietly.
When people ask about life changing moments, we think of the milestones. We think of the times we conquered greatly or failed wildly. We think of ruin and revelation. I’ve been wondering, lately, about what I would say. I know the inclination is to bring out the same old story: how I found myself after a messy breakup. But maybe the truth is a lot more quiet.
Maybe there are a hundred smaller moments that led me to me. To this. To now. Maybe it didn’t really have to be about the lost love of my life. Maybe it was about looking through the glass and getting absolutely suckerpunched in the gut by reality. Maybe it was the wail of a woman that helped me become a lot more human.
I remember reading a poem in Lit class about the Taj Mahal. Millions of people go there everyday to take a picture with the grand elaborate structure. It was supposed to be a romantic gesture — a monument built by a king in memory of his wife. But the poem didn’t talked about its splendor. Rather, it debunked its romantic nature. Because the Taj Mahal was merely commissioned. It was built on the blood, sweat and tears of Indian slaves who endured great suffering at the expense of a magnificent slab of marble.
The Taj Mahal is a beauty, sure. But it’s not the greatest beauty.
These days I am learning not to discount the small things.The fragments measure up to a larger whole and though the stories aren’t always monumental, monuments…well. Sometimes they’re just the Taj Mahal.
I want more than that. For all of us.