What’s your picture of gratitude? In this age of Covid-19, many of us are thinking deeply of the things we have and don’t have. I venture to say that, on this side of the world, what we do have far outweighs what we don’t.
In 2007, I took a trip that changed my definition of need. After listening to an engaging speaker recount what it was like to travel to a third world country with a medical missions team, I thought I’d might like to do that…someday. Someday came quicker than I thought it would.
At the end of his talk, he laid out the plans for a trip to Vietnam. His organization was ready to sign up volunteers for the trip. I’d like to say I leaped to my feet and ran down to the front and begged to go. I could see myself doing that, but I decided this might take some thought—and convincing my husband I should go. Not to mention my grown kids. Oy!
Surprisingly, my husband and kids, after some discussion, told me to go for it.
For this girl, who’d barely been out of her hometown for decades, Vietnam was a gigantic leap out of the comfort zone. I was a teenager in the sixties, so I had all that war angst buried somewhere deep within. It all disappeared when the hundred or so of us landed in the dim green of Hanoi, then made our way to our first government housing in a moderate-sized town.
I couldn’t believe the poverty. I guess I’d never seen real poverty before. I still have images filed away in my head of tiny shanties with no doors—just threadbare sheets and blankets covering the openings. Goats, chickens, cows, and barefoot children ran in and out of those dwellings. Yet, if the wind blew the door covering aside, one could see a big-screen TV glowing in the dimness. I was told the government wanted everyone to have televisions.
I saw and experienced many things on that trip. When we weren’t working in our free clinics, sometimes we would walk to the open-air market. One day, looking at the variety of vegetables and fruit available—and let me tell you, jack fruit is the best—I saw a plate of some kind of meat resting on the edge of the table. It was dog. Seems it’s a delicacy in some parts of the world. That’s fine, but this homegrown girl from Washington State wasn’t prepared to see paws still attached.
The image that stays with me, even thirteen years later, is of an elderly couple on the side of the road. We’d loaded into our buses to travel from our housing out to a remote village, where we’d set up our clinic for the day—usually a school, which wasn’t in session in July. We traveled up into the mountains on a narrow dirt road, potholes every few yards. The bus was crowded, the team shoulder-to-shoulder on wooden seats, the weather was—well, Vietnam in July, what can I say—hot, and I just wanted to get to where we were going. I remember wondering what in the world I'd been thinking to come to this place.
Then, the bus jerked to the right, and I looked out my window to see an old man and woman. Bent almost double from working in the rice paddies, they carried a grown man with no legs between them, going in the same direction as our bus.
The woman looked up at me through my window. When she smiled, the sun came out. She was dressed in an ancient-looking dress, barefoot, and struggled to hold up her end of the legless man they carried. Her gray hair hung in wisps around her face, framing her toothless grin. I still see that grin—it passes my vision in slow motion to this day.
I asked the Vietnamese student who shared my seat where she thought they might be going—the market was back the other way.
“I’d guess to our clinic, to get help for their son.”
“How far away are we from the school?”
“About seven miles. But, we can’t pick them up. There’s no room, and we can’t let patients on the bus.”
I wondered if they’d make it that far.
All the way to the school, I thought about that mother and father and the lengths to which they had to go to get medical attention. A scene which is repeated thousands of times the world over.
And I thought about myself—complaining of the heat, when at home I can turn on the AC. And when I feel ill, I can pick up the phone and make an appointment with a doctor who has cared for me for years—and drive my car to that appointment. I don’t have to worry about a poisonous snake dropping on my head if I stand under a tree, or contracting malaria from a bug bite. Most of the time, my lights glow and my furnace heats. I enjoy clean water from my well. And when I go to the grocery store, the shelves (until recently) groan with enough food to feed an entire village in Vietnam.
The first picture above illustrates my experience of meeting people in the medical clinics in which I volunteered. The boy is separated from those luxuries I take for granted. He’s behind the wall, unable to comprehend what my life is like. He will likely always be behind the wall.
But look at his face. His smile says it all—it beams his appreciation at receiving a simple vitamin that I think nothing of taking every morning.
And he flashes the peace sign with his fingers. At a white American woman—who didn’t know what gratitude was until she met him.
What are you grateful for today?