The community on board the ship here is just that: a community. It's like a small town, complete with a Town Square, a post office, a hairdresser and a school for the children in the twenty or so families who call this place home. One of my favourite parts about life here is that I get to serve as a youth leader with the junior high and high school-age kids on board. We meet every Tuesday for worship, study, service and fun.
Tonight was service. We split into groups and headed down to the wards to have dance parties, paint fingernails and do crafts with the patients. Those of you who know me well might be surprised to hear that I was not, in fact, part of the dance party group. Working ten-hour days while pregnant isn't exactly a picnic, especially since it turns out that everything they ever told me about the second trimester was a nasty lie. At least for me. I'm more tired now than ever, probably related to the fact that my body still continues to staunchly reject all food except for elbow macaroni, cheese and cereal. (I manage the occasional BLT, but we only get bacon once a week, so that's not much extra protein.)
So I volunteered to lead the craft group and two of the girls and I gathered supplies and headed to D Ward where I knew there were a few kids who would be eager to get their hands on some glue sticks. It's a craft I've done before here and one I've done with kids at home in New Jersey, too, at the church where my sister teaches the kids. The message is simple: You are fearfully and wonderfully made.
We gave them each a stripe-less paper zebra and a handful of multi-coloured strips of paper, and before they set to work gluing, I had them each look around the room at the people gathered there. Boys and girls and mamas and papas. Brown and white and tall and short. Bandages covering necks and eyes, tubes coming from noses, scars distorting cheerful smiles. Each one different. Each one marked by life in some way, each one on a different part of the road towards healing. Each one beautiful, created by a loving God.
We had four kids lined up on the blanket on the floor and twice as many adults gathered to listen. Paul, one of our new day volunteers, translated while the children sat quietly, nodding solemnly each time he said it again. You are beautiful. No matter how you look, He has made you beautiful.
They bent their bandaged heads to their work, each one choosing a different pattern for his zebra.
Edem lined all his stripes up perfectly, covering every square inch of his paper canvas. He's seven and had surgery six days ago to remove a massive tumor that was distorting the side of his face, pushing his eye out and threatening his sight. Before the operation, he could barely see from his right eye, and we were afraid that the surgery would damage his sight irreparably. This morning, we removed the bandage and he carefully held his little hand over his good eye as his nurse shone a light towards the bad one. I could see his head snap up when he realized that he could see that light. Emboldened, he slowly opened the swollen eye and proudly answered correctly every time his mama held up fingers for him to count. Across the room, my eyes filled with tears as I realized that I was witnessing a quiet miracle, right there in the corner of D Ward.
Kossi chose a more haphazard placement for his stripes, which kind of surprised me, since he's the studious one of the bunch. He's around the same age as Edem and also had surgery on a tumour in his cheek. He spends much of his time sitting on a stool a the end of his bed, feet swinging, looking through picture books or colouring carefully inside the lines. He'll go back to the operating room tomorrow to have the packing taken out of his nose, and he should be able to go home soon.
Aichatou is eleven and the surgery to transplant a piece of her rib to replace a damaged jaw joint has been successful, but the wound has been slow to close. Her therapy consists of chewing gum to exercise the mouth she hasn't opened for most of her short life, and her favourite kind is Juicy Fruit. She has a sweet, quiet smile and her zebra was carefully patterned in criss-crossing stripes.
Moukaela was the last in the line, his zebra receiving stripes on top of stripes on top of stripes. His little eyes widened each time he reached into the bucket to pick out a new one, amazed that he was allowed to just keep going even when his whole zebra was covered. Moukaela is well known to us, at least in the outpatient department. He was seen for stubborn wounds from noma throughout the whole outreach last time we were here in Togo, but we were never able to do his surgery because he just wouldn't heal. His name is the first on the list on tomorrow's schedule, and he'll have the first of several operations to rebuild his mouth.
Beautiful, each one of them. We sat there on that blanket, helping little hands glue stripes on zebras and we spoke this truth over each of their lives.