One of the nice things of being a self-claimed writer is you have a therapeutic fall-back. Sometimes I think it would be nice if my self-therapy was instead running or lifting weights or anything that would make me look a little more like Heidi Klum, but then . . . nothing makes me feel quite like finding the right words for the emotion I’m feeling.
I’d already drafted some of this experience, but this essay is the result of a conversation I had last night with a friend and realizing those experiences were the perfect venue to talk about what I was feeling.
Go to Sleep Softly
Hungarians could spend hours complaining about head colds, the government and the Catholic church, but try and offer help with any of the thirty eight catalogued woes, and suddenly it was, “No, thank you—you can’t.” Not I don’t need you, but you are in every actuality incapable of providing service to me. And so, when a thick phonebook was wadded into our tin little mailbox, almost as a joke, I had flipped to the yellow pages to look up service. As missionaries, we were adept at finding that which didn’t want to be found. Under that heading, I found Service, Social. The long list of orphanages, homes for the blind, deaf, the handicapped, and senior citizen centers both surprised and delighted me—like a service gold mine.
The very definition of missionary work can be summarized in terms of service, but as a young missionary volunteering within the bounds of my particular church, there was a rule about it—assumedly for those who didn’t already feel the weight of God’s Almighty Expectation—that required three hours of service a week. Love is God’s access point. As Val Jean says in Les Miserables: To love another person is to see the face of God. Our good works would help people recognize us as His servants, and in addition to exhibiting “unplanned” kindness, we were to schedule planned projects, like stalwart Mother Teresas.
In late February, despite constantly trouncing through squashed streets that looked as if they’d been sucked dry by indifference and poverty, we were struggling with this rule. The need was there, the opportunity was not. The “project” we eventually unearthed wasn’t even the one we were trying for (an assisted living home for the deaf and blind), but it was near the villamos tracks and by this point, close enough.
The sign IDŐSEK HAZA sheltered the entrance doors in cement, water-stained block letters. Literally translated, the words meant ‘house of the olds.’ The last ‘a’ was faded enough to be nearly missing, like missing punctuation at the end of a neglected sentence. I folded our map and worked it into my overstuffed shoulder bag.
The home was a decrepit structure, a product of communism and abandonment, much like its inhabitants. Outside, three men smoked in the back of an open ambulance, waiting for death. The wafting smoke between us provided the only screen from their unblinking eyes as they tracked our progress. As a group, we were two boys and two girls. I was the oldest; both by age and by how many months I’d been in Hungary, and also naturally bossy, so I led us inside where I waved cheerily to the man at the front window, who glared back. Fine, I thought, dropping my hand. We’ll do it your way. And by his way, I meant the Hungarian way—which was to be suspicious of all friendliness and to treat abrasive, pessimistic behavior with respect. I informed him of our intention and it took him a few tries to understand what I was saying. Whether my accented Hungarian was the cause, or the unlikelihood of our offer, I wasn’t sure. He siphoned us off to a series of supervisors, none of whom knew exactly how to deal with religious volunteers. Why are you here again?, they kept asking. To help, I said.
But how, specifically?
Um, be cheerful good company? I didn’t say this. Sometimes, I got a little irritated at the constant resistance we met, to the point where I wanted to smack people and say, I’m here to show you the face of God!—but that might dilute the sincerity of our efforts somewhat.
I didn’t know how specifically. Obviously, I’d never been there before. I didn’t have a clue what to expect, but we had good intentions and, we figured, God’s blessing on our side. Surely, we would help, if for no other reason than we wanted to.
At last we were shown a wing on the second floor and granted permission to visit between the hours of nine and eleven thirty on Fridays, if we wanted. It was a long, poorly lit hallway and tiled with muted colors from the Stalin era. The rooms, as we glanced in during our hurried tour, looked like run-down holding facilities for the mentally ill—like the kind I imagined in a Stephen King horror story.
“Mealtime is at noon,” the nurse informed us. Wisps of hair stuck damp to her temples. Her eyes traveled past us, already mentally doing the next task on her list. “Try and leave by then.”
We’d come simply to investigate if this place would be a viable service option, and I’d half-expected to be turned away with the appropriate visiting hours logged in our planners. But instead we’d been flopped unceremoniously into this hallway of olds, with no instructions and no rules except to leave before lunch and the unspoken and sarcastic well-wishes of the staff: Good luck, do-gooders.
The first room remains clear and untouched in my memory. I was filled with awkwardness and uncertainty, a shirt-and-tie elder trailing behind me as we walked in and introduced ourselves, politely formalizing the small woman curled on her side in the bed. The room was undersized and a pale shade of mustard green. On her dresser she’d arranged a make-shift shrine to the Virgin Mary and rosary beads hung off the white-iron bed frame.
“Here are some missionaries who came to talk to you,” the nurse introduced us, nodded, and was out the door.
“I’m Calvinist,” the woman explained, not very apologetically. (Actually, she talked for at least three minutes, but Hungarian is hard enough to understand without senility and mumbling, and essentially that’s what she said.) Occasionally we provided a prompt to keep her going, but for the most part we nodded and were good listeners. We were still standing. I spotted a little stool at the foot of her bed, but it seemed imposing to remove the aged bible on top so I could rest my feet. “I have no idea what she’s saying,” Elder Schwieger whispered through his gracious smile. Her name was Éva, my favorite Hungarian name.
She didn’t sit up. A large diaper concealed her bottom half and one vein-covered leg stuck out from the blanket.
“That’s a beautiful necklace,” I told her, nodding toward the plastic medallion around her neck. The chain was made of glittery blue beads. I wanted to think a grandchild made it, but it was probably another patron of the idősek haza who still had good enough eyesight to make use of arts and crafts time.
“I can get you one,” she replied.
As she urged me to come back next week and questioned what colors I liked, I noticed a cockroach slightly smaller than my thumb, black-brown against the yellowing sheets. The bug emerged from under her diaper—I drew in a sharp breath, my throat thickening with nausea—and then it disappeared the same way it came.
My disgust sought something to blame. The workers were the first offenders to come to mind, but I knew what money was like in Hungary—an awful, grimy thing no one seemed to have enough of. Most likely, the nurses were just more of the people I was trying to convince to have faith—underpaid, overworked and powerless against . . . what? The system? The world? To blame the cockroach on the world was to blame the guy in charge of the world, and that was a dangerous place to go.
What mattered was I knew there was a cockroach roaming where Éva slept. I could blame anyone I wanted for how it got there, but it would be on me if it stayed. The bug resurfaced minutes later. Before I could think about what I was about to do, I reached down and grabbed it, threw it to the ground and squashed it under the heel of my black shoe.
Éva didn’t notice, continued talking. My hand shook—hundreds of invisible insect legs still scratching against my fingers.
“Dude,” Elder Schwieger muttered, brow lifting. “Savage.”
As promised, Éva had a necklace for each of us next Friday. Mine had transparent, gold beads, and a plastic medallion on the end with a sticker of the Virgin Mary on one side and Christ’s crucifixion on the other. A tiny glitter cross hung beneath Christ’s feet. I wore it for a week, displayed predominantly outside my ironed collars, before my bag strap accidentally broke the string, then I kept what beads I managed to save in a plastic baggie.
Two years after my mission, the notion of believing in God would be described to me as ethically disturbing. Because if God was capable of stopping the atrocities in the world, and didn’t, what kind of entity were you choosing to base your moral compass on?
And two years later, I still didn’t have a good response, only an inner rationalization that it didn’t feel ethically disturbing to me, and the somewhat defensive thought that it wasn’t my job to provide an answer. But it bothered me—then and still—to not have an answer.
I mean, I did try. I alleviated some of the responsibilities off of God’s shoulders onto ours. The common ground, between this prosecutor and I, was that “people are assholes” and that is a really squalid plot of real estate for us to attempt to share.
Why isn’t there a clean, convincing rationale to this idea of hope? You would think the nicer option would be easier to believe.
Éva had a neighbor. Their rooms were separated by a half wall; it was only a step to visit the next room. “Hello,” I said warmly, by myself, with Schwieger still in the adjoining room with Eva. An old man wobbled to his feet as I entered.
“Hello,” he returned and smiled. The gesture instantly melted me. So few smiles here.
“My name is Sister George,” I introduced myself. “I’m a missionary from America. Can I talk with you for awhile?”
“Of course,” he said. “I’m András.”
I pulled out the framed and battered picture of my family and described my siblings and mother to him. His delight was almost surprised—like my little family had all the specialness of the lottery. How pretty, how nice, he said. Nice girls, nice smiles.
“Do you have a family?” I asked.
He stared at me, then his face crumpled and his eyes misted. The pain in his expression was so sudden, so real—flashing openly in his features devoid of shame or pride. Staring felt intrusive, but I didn’t turn away, feeling someone should witness it.
“They’re all gone,” he whispered, “I’m alone.” And then, as if this were the first time he’d remembered, his back hunched and quiet sobs shook his shoulders. His trembling hand sought the bed post, trying to find an anchor.
Stunned, I slipped my fingers under his and squeezed, guiding him gently back to the bed.
“I’m alone,” he repeated.
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered, wishing I had something better to say. I kept hold of his hand until finally he straightened and gazed at me with clear eyes, like the memory left and would only pain him further when someone (like me) reminded him again.
It wouldn’t take him long to forget my visit entirely when I left. No one knew of this man’s lonely despair—he couldn’t keep hold of it very long himself. And yet, in those moments when the pain did come, it was actual, and so . . . pointless. Sorrow, theologically speaking, served a purpose—to grow and refine and better the bearer. But this, forgotten so soon, seemed without purpose.
I pictured God catching all of Andras’s tears and making bricks out of them to add to his heavenly mansion. I imagined each difficult breath as a brush of gold on his future stair banister. Doctrinally, this is probably not entirely accurate. But it served as a superficial balm to my guilt. A reward in heaven was all I had to offer him, even if, frankly, I would have preferred an earthly and immediate solution.
“Can I read to you?” I asked. “I like to read out loud to practice my Hungarian.”
He nodded. I removed a book of poetry from my bag, one I had chanced upon in a bookstore. It was a bilingual edition of Attila Jozsef; one page written magyarul and the other in English. Attila Jozsef was the Edgar Allan Poe of Hungary, so not all of his work was cheering, but I chose titles like “Spring” and “Mother” (though that one turned out to be rather depressing), until finding a poem called “Lullaby.”
It was seven stanzas long, and the last line of each stanza was the same. Aludj el szépen, kis Balázs. It meant: go to sleep softly, little Balázs. The poem was written by Jozsef for the young son of a composer friend.
Concentrating on my pronunciation, I read the first stanza:
The sky is letting its blue eyes close;
The house its many eyes closes, too.
The quilted meadow lies in a doze:
Go to sleep softly, little Balázs
As I read the last line, András’ voice blended with mine. I stopped and looked at him. He said the words again. “Aludj el szépen, kis Balázs.”
In my mind, I tried to envision the circumstance that led to Andras knowing this poem. Maybe, with his mother at night, stalwartly reading Hungarian poets when the forces outside their doors insisted they be Russian. Or maybe a little ten year old, on top of a roof, reading the poem to himself while stuffing a pogacs into his mouth, then brushing the crumbs off the paper. I continued to read. At the end of every stanza he recited the last line with me. Go to sleep softly.
“How do I sound?” I inquired when we finished.
“You aren’t understandable at all,” he replied. “But you have a very lovely girl’s voice.”
I can’t remember the actual name of the resident I called, in my head, the Bachelor. He seemed somewhat younger than the others, and more lucid. He used an old wheelchair which he controlled with a remote that didn’t get him exactly where he wanted, much as he maneuvered.
He had two roommates, one with a skin disease covering swollen legs and the other with no legs and only one stump for a left arm. The blinds had been torn down, so the room was refreshingly brighter than the others. After the usual introductions, he asked whether or not I was a hajadon.
“A what?” I asked. I racked my brain and a thousand memorized note cards, but could not recall ever hearing that word. (I looked it up later and learned it was a maiden out of wedlock, single woman, spinster or virgin).
“Do you have a boyfriend?” he tried again.
“Not right now,” I replied with a wry smile.
“You should go out and taste the Hungarian men,” he said. “They’re an exquisite flavor.”
“I’ll think about it,” I promised, then pulled out my picture in an effort to change the subject to safer topics. “This is my family.”
“Your mom is very beautiful,” he remarked.
“She’s married,” I informed him, replacing the picture. He was friendly, but seemed a bit greasy on the edges—figuratively and literally.
“Would you open that drawer?” he asked, gesturing to the nightstand by his bed. “I have pictures, too, in there.”
I opened the drawer and found a cracked leather picture case, which I carefully removed. “Is this it?” I asked, undoing the small clasp. Roughly eight tiny bugs burst from the exposed pages onto my hand. I gasped and shook out my fingers. Most of them fell off.
“Were there bugs in it?” he asked casually, as if it amused him.
“Yeah, just . . . a few.” I shuddered, handed him his pictures. Months of missionary work had turned me into the kind of person who could repeatedly have bugs in her hands and continue a conversation as if they’d been nothing more than lint.
He extended the first wallet-sized photograph to me. “This is my first girlfriend, when I was seventeen.”
She was very pretty, looking over her shoulder in black and white. He detailed for me her finer features, then showed me the next picture—his next girlfriend. Each picture depicted a different beautiful girl, or as he showed me more, beautiful women. Seven girlfriends and two wives. One daughter. The affection he still felt for each one endeared me to him, greasiness and all.
“And this one. Who do you think this is?” He freed the last photo from scratched plastic. It was his first love, probably his only true love. A handsome, light-haired young man had smiled once, confident and playful, at the photographer.
“Is it you?” I guessed, smiling, unable to help myself.
“There I am.”
Glancing between the two, I marveled at what fifty plus years had done. I could find no semblance of the debonair boy in the withered man in front of me. He stared at the picture in my hands with longing and envy.
“Twenty one. The girls, they loved me, they would say to me, ‘Come here, beautiful boy—dance with us, kiss us.’ They chased me. And I loved them, too. I’ve always loved pretty women.” Even now, the memory alone kept him company, though none of the pretty women were with him.
I thanked him for showing me the pictures, but declined a lunch date. As I stood to leave, his disease-riddled roommate, lying prostrate in his bed, mumbled something at me in a raspy voice.
Using the polite term reserved for teachers and betters, I asked him to repeat himself. As well as he could, he got upright and released an angry stream of Hungarian that, due to his cracked voice and the speed of his diatribe, I didn’t understand at all.
Seeing my blank face, he paused, then spoke slowly, though still in the harsh rasp, “God isn’t real.”
The room chilled. “God loves you,” I replied, though uncertainty halted my voice. It was the second phrase I learned after “I know the gospel is true.” Our eyes held for a minute. His were clouded, with physical blindness and life—and I knew what mine looked like. Wide-eyed, stupefied and blinking.
To those who use horror as the primary evidence against God’s non-existence, I feel helpless in my duty to fight for the defending argument when they have so much material to use. There is no shortage of abuse, neglect and life-stifling oppression. Pit against these monsters I have the array of stars in the sky, the wisdom of a newborn’s eyes and the perfection of a spider’s web. And the invisible ember of belief inside me that I have no idea where, exactly, it came from or why it stays, despite everything.
It’s why sometimes in my argument, I feel foolish.
And I hate not just feeling foolish, but that I’m asked to feel this way.
If, like before, I used the reasoning that we were made to suffer so that we learn and become better, I had to also acknowledge that this man didn’t seem to be struggling in a cocoon from which he would eventually burst free, triumphant. He seemed rather like the twitching, almost-dead beneath a mountain of rock, as if the hill he was supposed to climb vanquished and fell on top of him instead. And soon he would be so encased in stone he would never get out of it on his own.
Though, didn’t I also believe that another source, already in him, would break through and cut away the stone like searing diamonds of light and free him? But this, I must admit to believing as I stared at him, would only happen after he died. And for that, again, there was such little proof that, again, I felt foolish.
To be honest, the only reason I could look at him and still think God loved him was because God loved me. Of that, I was sure. God loved me no matter how utterly useless I was at helping people who didn’t believe in Him, no matter what a fake I was. There was so way a divine parent loved me in my selfish, vain privilege and not this son and his lack of it.
The man growled then sunk into the bed, closing his eyes and turning his head away.
“God loves you,” I repeated, this time with conviction, then left, feeling useless and foolish.
When Mother Teresa’s journals were studied, they found her constant exposure to human suffering had blossomed within her, in addition to faith, a profound doubt in God. She said, “Where is my faith? When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul … What do I labor for? If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true.”
And yet, in the face of these doubts, she didn’t abandon her faith, but instead worked as if to compensate for this lack she felt.
On my way to leave, I heard the cries of pain. At the end of the hall, in the corner room, I searched for the source of the sound, hoping I wouldn’t find it.
Ratty drapes were drawn over the single window, casting the room in eerie shadow. Two beds lined opposite walls. In one, a diminished form lay motionless, I hoped sleeping. In the other, a man hovered, his mouth open in wordless struggle, halfway to sitting up. Our eyes met briefly and then he collapsed onto the bed, moaning and crying. Again he tried, pushing against the restraints of his broken body. I rushed to his side and grabbed the wrist of his groping hand, cradling him as best I could between my neck and shoulder, helping him the rest of the way.
The eyes, only the eyes, of the patient in the other bed shifted to watch me.
At least he’s alive, I thought, fighting not to drop the dead weight of the body in my arms. He wasn’t light and he smelled bad. He breathed heavily, but it was the fading pant of relief, his age-spotted temples glistening with sweat. I was breaking two missionary rules, first by going into the room alone, and second by being in such close physical contact with a member of the opposite gender, but if holding this man up didn’t match the representation of a servant of God, then I willfully shed the title.
“Would you like me to help you turn over?” I asked. He turned his head and said nothing for several moments. Then he nodded. I shifted him to his side and eased him back onto his pillow.
He mumbled a few unintelligible sounds, seemingly content, then his face contorted and he groaned in agony.
As fast as I could get him upright again was how long it took for his cries to subside.
Elder Schwieger came in the room. “What’s wrong with him?” he asked, after absorbing the scene.
I shook my head. “I don’t know. I think it hurts when he’s lying down a certain way, but I’m not sure what to do.”
Elder Schwieger took over my spot and tried to help, with the same results.
Likely drawn by the man’s cries, a male nurse strode into the room. “What’s going on?” he asked, sounding both bored and annoyed. “Lajos, I’m tired of this—stop it. Enough!” His voice rose almost to a shout.
Elder Schwieger and I stepped back. I flinched as the nurse yanked the man into a position on his back and he gave a muted yelp. “Sit still and be quiet,” the nurse ordered.
Him too, I thought, closing my eyes. God even loves him. I looked at my wrist watch. Almost eleven thirty.
I turned to find the other patient still staring at me. He looked how a skeleton would look as a person. “How are you?” I asked softly.
He didn’t answer, but his mouth split into a toothless smile. A tiny wind of breath escaped, but no sound. I smiled back, or at least attempted to.
In my church, there is a story told that during the bombing of a city in World War II, a large statue of Jesus Christ was severely damaged. Experts were able to repair most of the statue, but its hands had been damaged enough that they could not be restored. Ultimately, the people of the city added on the base of the statue a sign that said: “You are my hands.”
Believing in God had created in me the desire to leave my home for a year and a half to serve His children in an eastern European country—so that I could be His heel squashing an errant cockroach, His voice whispering love and His shoulder to prop up someone who couldn’t do it alone.
If cynicism yields the defeating attitude that “people are assholes and that’s the way it is,” I’d rather keep the faith that moves me to prove God’s love is real by becoming that love when I can. If God wasn’t real, then I would love the Hungarian people in His place. We belong to each other as much as we belong to God. And as far as I can tell, He never asked me to convince other people that He loved them, but to simply love them as the living expression of His kindness.