(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, August 17, 2013)
HAMILTON, CANADA ✦ It’s a strange world, especially here on what is, for all I know, my deathbed. It’s malaria and I’m dreaming. Or maybe in the fight of it I’m actually hallucinating.
I see a friend, a writing mentor, a bear of a man, the sort you can disappear into when he hugs you. He’s an American who’s never been to Africa, no not once. But he’s somehow made it over the ocean and through the walls to kneel at my Ugandan bedside.
“What are you doing here?” I ask.
“I’m praying for you.”
“Why?” I ask.
“I’m a Christian.”
“I’m a Christian,” he says. “And, well, this is just what we do for each other.”
This friend, I discovered later, had prayed for me. But maybe, for the religious and irreligious alike, our real prayers are somehow spoken between our prayers. This is how my father once put it.
Whatever the case, I share this story – I’ve had malaria three times – with a long-time friend and his wife visiting our Hamilton home. They’re in Canada for a respite from their 20-year work in Pakistan.
“But I doubt my life was in danger. Not really. Not like yours,” I tell my friend’s wife, who once had malaria spread to her brain.
She doesn’t say much. Nobody does. Nobody has to. We know the risks. We get the same questions. “You live where? Really? Is it safe?”
Shortly later my wife Skypes from Hamilton to Yemen. In broken Arabic she wishes other friends, our former Yemeni landlord, a Happy Eid. “When will you visit?” Dr. Ali asks. I chime in, “We want to come today!” Mrs. Ali joins the joy of the moment. Then Tazbeer, their daughter. She’s now engaged. Where have the years gone?
That time in Yemen comes back: the warm Arab hospitality, the waves and yells of “Welcome!” on the streets of Sana’a from strangers who barely know an English word. Then the day an Islamic extremist murdered our three American friends, a bloody day that spilled ink into the papers, especially this paper since my wife skirted death only after her last-minute change of plans.
Is it safe, then? No. It can be any summer day and an exploding train will destroy your town, or a snake will strangle your sleeping boys, or your husband will drive off in his truck for just a minute and be murdered by sunrise. No, the terrible truth of it is that life itself is not safe.
This is why we pray, any of us, in one way or another like my father said, with or without words, whether we’re pious or whether we think it’s all mumbo-jumbo. We murmur our quiet desperations because any of us need to leave bed and eat breakfast and walk into the thick of it, a world that’s not safe because somehow it’s not meant to be.
This is also why our response to global terror chatter, which recently cranked up public fears, can do as much harm as good. The news can have very little to do with daily life in so-called terror states where diseases and driving, in fact, will get you more than anything.
Meanwhile, here you’re more likely to die from falling off a ladder than from any shoe-bomber’s plot. Still, we sheepishly remove our footwear at airports. Just like we fearfully drive our kids two blocks to school when they’re more likely to win millions than get abducted.
This is our strange world, where it’s harder than ever to know what’s real and what’s not.
Now my family, including the kids, are about to return to Uganda, a back-and-forth life my wife and I started in those Yemen years just after 9/11. Some people will pray for us. This will maybe even save our lives. For this we’re profoundly grateful.
And we’re also thankful to fly to a place where the curtain is pulled back a bit, where it’s more plain to see that life is a gift and death is imminent and the days between are meant for a joy that would otherwise be harder to find.