Of dignity and despair

Posted on August 23, 2012

We are, we fragile mortals, a sum total of our life’s experience. We are shaped by what we have seen, what we have done, and decisions we have made, as well as actions we have taken, and events that were thrust upon us, during our all too brief sojourn on this planet Earth. This is what identifies us, and the sum total of these experiences has helped to define who, and perhaps more importantly, what we are.
I have been fortunate beyond most, in that I have spent my adult life engaged in a profession that I absolutely loved, and at the same time, was able to make a living doing.
I have been a helicopter pilot, and as such have had many opportunities presented to me that most folks have never had.
I have plied my trade all over the world, on six of the seven continents, and in so many different countries that I have literally lost count. I have lived in a five star hotel in a beach resort city, a bamboo and thatch shack in the middle of the Amazon jungle, and every other level of accomodation you can imagine between those two extremes.
Most importantly in my travels, I have been blessed to interact with people from an uncountable array of cultures. I have been exposed to the absolute best and the appallingly worst that humanity has to offer. I have witnessed both the nobility and the savagery that human beings are capable of.
This is a tale of nobility.
On October 29th, 1998, Hurricane Mitch slammed into Central America, bringing unprecedented amounts of rainfall to Nicaraugua. Estimates range as high as 75 inches of precipitation in less than 24 hours. This resulted in massive flooding throughout the entire country. The devastation which resulted as a consequence was on a scale rarely matched in recorded history. 11,000 people lost their lives and an additional 11,000 were declared missing, the majority of whom were never found, and therefore assumed to have died.
The country itself was hammered to a degree which rendered it non-functional.
It is not an exaggeration when I say there was not a single bridge left standing. All roads outside of the capitol city of Managua were impassable, and many inside as well. Every town and village in the interior was completly isolated, left by an uncaring goverment to fend for themselves.
To give some perspective, the poor rural population of Nicaragua lived mainly in small villages in the interior of the country, scratching out a bare subsistance living from the land. They existed almost at a hunter/gather level of civilization, augmented by what meager crops they could coax from the land. Even before the storm arrived, they were among the most wretched, poverty stricken people in the world, barely surviving during the best of times.
Most lacked the basics that we all take for granted. No electricity or basic sanitation, and a total lack of education and access to medical care.
Mitch was a fatal blow to these people.
The storm arrived just as their meager crops were about to be harvested. The food they depended on for their very survival through the coming winter was completly destroyed. Starvation and disease became rampant.
My company was solicited by the relief organization “Doctors Without Borders’ to respond with a helicopter to help them in the Herculean task they had taken on themselves, which was to try to aleviate as best they could the overwhelming misery the country was experiencing.
I flew a Bell 212 medium helicopter from the U.S. down through Mexico and Central America to Nicaragua, arriving in Managua during the first week of November.
I was immediately involved in flying emergency supplies, doctors, clothing, and emergency aid workers to the the most remote areas in the interior. The terrain in the northern part of Nicaragua is very mountainous and heavily forested. The communities there were completely isolated.
From day one, I was stunned at the level of human misery I was forced to observe.
Dead bodies lay in piles, placed there by the few people who had the strength to move them from where they had died, but lacked the ability to dig graves. Old men and women lay in what meager shelter was available, too weak to move, in the final stages of starvation and disease.
Due to the lack of adequate sanitation, the water supplies were contaminated. Cholera was epidemic.
Everywhere we landed, we were mobbed by those strong enough to do so, begging for food. The despair wrenched at the hardest of hearts. I myself had to make a supreme effort of will to not dwell on what I saw around me.
It did cause me to question how a just and loving God could possibly allow this to occur. These were some of the most wretched people on Earth even prior to the storm, and certainly did not deserve the calamity that had been visited upon them.
On one particular occasion, I found myself in a small village deep in the mountains and jungles, hundreds of miles from any vestige of civilization that still existed in this devestated country.
I had delivered three volunteer doctors. I had shut down my helicopter to wait on them to render what limited aid they could. As had become my habit in situations such as this, I tried to remain in the background, out of the way. This was, of course, impossible. Here I was, an obvious foreigner, well fed and had arrived in a helicopter, something these people had never seen in their entire lives. I was continually approached by starving men and women,dressed in ragged scraps of clothing, begging for the food which I could not provide for them.
Although it wrenched at my soul, I had to explain to them, in my inadequate Spanish, that I had nothing to give them. I was forced to harden my heart, and try to not be overwhelmed by the abject human misery which surrounded me.
On this particular occasion, as I sat on the edge of the passenger compartment of my aircraft, I noticed a young woman hesitantly approaching me.
She appeared to be about 15 years of age. She was holding a tiny, alarmingly quiet, infant in her arms, while crying uncontrollably. Body wracking sobs convulsed her frame.
I was not surprised that such a young woman was a mother. In this harsh environment, where the life expectancy is in the forties or early fifties, men and women marry at a very young age.
This woman approached me, and through her sobs, spoke to me in what was clearly a beseeching tone, although my very limited Spanish skills did not allow me to understand what she was saying. She proceeded to try to hand her child to me. With a feeling of apprehension, I did not accept the baby.
One of the doctors who had flown in with me then approached and spoke to her at length. When he turned to address me, I could see the tears welling in his eyes. When he did speak his voice was cracked with emotion. When I asked what it was all about, the doctor explained that she was asking me to take her child with me when I returned to Managua later that day.
I asked him what she intended for me to do with it.
He replied that the woman expected that I would abandon the baby on the streets of the city, with the hope that someone would take it in.
I was stunned, and explained to the doctor that I could not do that.
His reply was that he understood, and would try to explain to her that I could not do as she had asked.
After another brief conversation, the woman turned and walked away, clasping her infant to her breast, still sobbing,her body slumped in despair.
The doctor then spoke to me again, and now crying unashamedly, agreed that he fully understood that that was too great a responsibility for me to assume, and had explained that to her.
Although it had been the only decision I could have made, it has haunted me to this day.
Please try to imagine, if you can, the agony that desperate young mother was feeling. She was willing to have her child taken away to a place where she would never ever know the outcome of her sacrifice. For the rest of her life, she could never know if her child lived or died, but was willing to follow that course of action with the belief that the child would have a better chance of survival there, rather than remaining with her.
Such desperation is beyond my ability to understand. There is no love greater than that of a mother for her child. This was demonstrated to me on that terrible day.
I have been blessed to have had as my life companion, my bride of 40 years, there for me always. I have been able to confide in her my deepmost joys, fears, aspirations, and pain. I have always been able to talk with her about everything in my life…with this one exception. It took me the better part of an entire year of trying to wrap my head around this incident, and come to terms with it, and with myself, before I was able to confide in her. Eventually I was able to do so, which aided me a great deal in finally accepting this experience as part of who I now am. It has not been easy. I still awaken sometimes in the middle of the night, and clearly see the haunting eyes of that poor woman whom I could not rescue.
I cannot honestly say I found God in that awful place and time, but I can without equivocation assert that I found Godliness.
It was in the person of that desperate young mother.

Last edited by T. Clifford on October 20, 2012, 4:31 pm

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3 responses to “Of dignity and despair”

  1. Absolutely awesome write. Simple, straightforward words.  Very powerful.

    I’m going to have to sit down and wrap MY brain and heart around this, because I need to express several impressions in a careful comment. I will do so tomorrow, after I have digested this.

    I will say that in setting up this website, I hoped, but I never assumed. to encourage and stimulate amazing stories.  When I read your story, and Kate’s I feel the enterprise and the long hours that have gone into it, extremely handsomely rewarded. Thank you both for sharing these intense experiences.

    This is the first time I have felt the need to vote a 100% approbation. Very, very sensitively written.

  2. This is a truly great story…I just finished reading it for the second time.   And after the first time, I thought about how many of you fellas that fly those things..how many of you have so often been the ones to rescue someone in peril..like you were in this story, or like some of you have done in war.  Other times, I imagine, its bringing in desperately needed supplies…and those thoughts evoked in my mind not an avenging angel descending, but a humanitarian one…a redeeming angel.  God, how we need those…and you are one of them.  None of us, no matter what we do in life can ever do ALL that needs to be done even though so often we have to see it, to know that we cannot fix everything and to feel that somehow we weren’t enough.  You were…enough.  You must never forget that.  

    I don’t know if you ever heard this poem, or saw this video on YouTube, but your story made me remember having seen it maybe four or five years ago.  I couldn’t remember the name, so it took me a while to bring it up to mind and find it…but it reminds me of what you did and you need to remember that because we are mortals and not really angels, we cannot ‘save’ everyone.  Still….we can save some, and that’s what counts. Until you’ve been the one on the other side of that door, maybe its hard to get that perspective.  That’s what the video is about.

    You write a mighty fine story, Mr. Clifford.  This is the first one I’ve read; it surely won’t be the last.  Thanks.

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