Fare Thee Well: Deep Waters and Reflections on 2017
When I look back on 2017, I see many highs and lows, joys and sorrows I couldn’t have anticipated. But if I were to choose the single most impactful and life changing experience I had in this past year, it would have to be an interaction I had with a 17 year old boy from Mosul, Iraq.
I work for a Christian international aid agency and at the beginning of the year, our team had set up an emergency field hospital in the outskirts of Mosul, a town that had been ravaged by ISIS since 2014 but was now on the brink of being liberated by Iraqi and coalition forces.
As I prepared to depart for my second deployment to the hospital in early March, I meditated on Psalm 18. Our church was reading through the Psalms together and this was the chapter designated for the day I caught my flight.
“The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me…He reached down from on high and took hold of me; He drew me out of deep waters…He brought me to an open space.”
I could write pages and pages, posts after posts of the tragedies and miracles we saw in the hospital. I’ve never seen love so valiantly subjugate hate. Light interrupted the darkness with a stubborn audacity. We saw many die: women, children, civilians, soldiers and combatants, for we didn’t turn away anyone who came to our doors. But many received life saving treatment for their wounds, and hundreds were prayed over, embraced, surrounded by songs of hope.
In order to survive this line of work, most aid workers develop a special gift of selective sight. Humanitarians have a knack for not getting distracted by the single story of human suffering. Rather, they see disasters, warfare, and famine from a big picture perspective. They can direct their emotions towards problem solving. They’ve learned to bind up their bleeding heart to become technicians and logisticians. They maintain enough human compassion to stay motivated, but rather than break down at the sight of “the one”, they visualize populations, seek to move statistics, and set long term goals for community resilience. The world needs people like that.
This survival skill is almost a point of pride for seasoned aid workers. Many of us are embarrassed to be anything but a tough fixer in the face of tragedy. The ability to see past “the one” is the mark of experience, emotional fortitude, and the deep seated but subtle cynicism that I’m afraid is so common among humans who have walked in and out of the world’s greatest tragedies for years. It sometimes feels like a hidden rule: that individualized compassion is a sign of naiveté, the misplaced and immature zeal of a novice.
But most would tell you that they all do, in fact, have “the one,” that single, particular, personal story of human suffering that sticks with them, that one child or one village or one family whose story they will never forget, whose suffering clings to them like a warm residue. It’s the story that keeps us going. And it’s the story that keeps us asking God, “why?”
It is the story that steals our ability to float, and truly pulls us down into the deep, dark, chaotic waters of travail and sorrow that are ever present in this world
I don’t especially know why this boy became “the one” for me. I saw others die. Babies. Children. But there was something about the intimacy of the moment of his death that will stay with me forever.
Oddly enough, I can’t remember exactly what his wound was. It was a wound to the leg... a gunshot or explosive device. By the time he got to us, the gruesome gash had begun to poison his entire body. It was too late to save him. Our only choice was to make him comfortable and wait with him while he died. He was 17.
A group of medical and support staff kept a reverent vigil at his bedside, as we tried to do with all the dying. As we waited, we prayed, we read scripture. We sang. As other doctors and nurses had to return to their posts, our number dwindled until it was just me for a while. I can remember every detail about those moments. His breath was labored. His hair was short cropped, a rich black color, stiff and caked with dirt and sweat. He smelled like blood and tears. He was long limbed with dark eyes.
I held his hand and smoothed his hair. I said his name over and over again. I knew he couldn’t understand me but I wanted him to know he wasn’t alone. I felt like if he heard his name, I could convince him he wasn’t with a stranger.
For some reason, I felt deeply ashamed as I sat with him. Ashamed that all I could bring to him in that moment was my pitiful presence and limited knowledge of him. Ashamed because I was, in fact a stranger. Where was his mother? I knew for the rest of her life she would be haunted by this moment, wondering what her boy’s last minutes were like. How could I possibly do justice to this culmination, the end of this person’s life? He had no list of contacts, no names of family members on his chart. How could we even tell her he was warm and cared for in his final moments?
All of a sudden, as he took his final breaths, it was like I could see in my mind’s eye his whole life stretching out before me: the joyful expectancy of his mother, his first piercing cries as he entered the world, the countless diapers changed and sleepless nights of his parents, his first bites of solid food, the development of his personality, his schooling, his furrowed brows working out math equations, the friends and enemies he’d formed on the playground, the mischief he got into, the years of uncertainty that accompany various wars and conflicts he likely didn’t understand, the entry of an existential threat of a terroristic regime threatening his world, the likely recruitment he may have faced, the brainwashing, the persistent resistance he may have felt in his spirit, the confusion, the desperation of his parents attempting to provide a life for him in the chaos, the months of listening to the bombs fall on his hometown, the caution of walking the streets, the hunger, the thirst, and finally, one fateful day of stepping on precisely the wrong spot of earth, the pain of the journey to receive help, the not knowing, the fear…. All of it ends in a corner of a tent hospital, under florescent lights, laying on a blue tarp, alone with a foreign lady who didn’t speak his language, whispering something in his ear he didn’t understand.
What an odd climax to a life.
The moment of death is an intense and profoundly personal moment. Much like birth, it is a point in time where the lines between heaven and earth, time and eternity blur and coalesce. That boy felt more real to me than anyone I’d ever known. With him I’d made the abrupt transition between television statistics to a breathing, hurting, flesh and bone human. All those wars and disasters we watch on the nightly news: they are real, and the people caught up in them are entirely image bearers of God. To fully understand that was confounding and punched me in the gut.
An emergency medical nurse came by and timed out his last breaths with me, as the space between them grew longer and longer. He was declared dead at 7:19pm. I kissed his head and left to walk back to the office where I had emails to answer. I looked at my hands? Should I wash them? I know it’s silly, but i was really troubled in that moment as to whether or not I should wash my hands.
When I prayed for that boy, and when I pray for the people of his broken city, I pray that God will draw them up out of the deep, dark waters and lead them out to an open plain, one without IEDs or drones that drop bombs, or bullets aimed at fleeing children. I can think of no better prayer that an aid worker can pray for those they serve, whether victims of war, storm, disease or famine. Open space. Safe passage. To be lifted up and out by God. To pray, somehow, in the midst of all this senseless tragedy, that they would fare well.
No song could adequately pay tribute to a life cut short by this hellish war. But I needed to protest in some way. To write this song felt like resistance, resistance to hate, resistance to the forgetfulness of our heart and the limit of our compassion. Resistance to reducing him to a mere statistic. I want to never forget him.
On a very personal note: Later that year I found this song to be prophetic in my life. In May after I returned from the hospital, 1 day before my birthday, I found out I was pregnant. After years of wanting children, we rejoiced. Sadly at 10 weeks, the baby’s heart stopped beating. But it was like God has prepared me. Strange as it may be, it was in a faraway country where I had solidified my theology of suffering and landed squarely on the fact that every human life, no matter how brief the life, fully bears the image of God and is fully known and loved by Him. It was like God knew I needed this song to grieve and to remind myself of that for my own child.
There were a few days in between the appointment when we found out the heart had stopped beating and when I had the surgery to remove the baby. It just so happened that during those few days I was scheduled to track the vocals for Fare Thee Well. My family cautioned me against it, wondering if I’d really be up for it. But something nudged me to keep the studio time, and I’m glad I did. When I listen back, I hear in the recording the quivering yet persistent voice of a simultaneously expectant and grieving mother. And isn’t that the epitome of what it means to be human in this world?
Fare Thee Well
Where do the years go?
I never could know
How do you bear fruit?
Why would He uproot?
When is it enough?
When is a life used up?
And if I bear witness
Will I ever forget this?
Who’s the decider?
And where’s the divider?
When is the last breath?
And how do I protest?
But length of a life won’t change
That God saw the fight, knows your name
And I know it now too
And I won’t forget you
Fare thee well
May He draw you up from the deep, dark waters
And lead you out to an open space
May He draw you up from the ash and embers
And lead you out to the sound of song
The Devil's Bathtub, near Big Stone Gap, VA