I remember it felt like suffocating.
I remember what it was like to say no, and to leave, and to bury my face in my hands, the red dirt collecting on my sweat drenched skin as we drove speedily down roads that barely existed.
The look on her face is branded on my conscience. It laces through my musings in moments I cannot predict. I thought of her after shuffling confusedly from a presentation in a planetarium, feeling particularly insignificant. I thought of her just as I contemplated the potential numerical meaninglessness of just about everything, and that's how I knew it mattered.
To stand on the verge of collapsing into the inevitable nothingness that astronomers predict for us, and still to care so deeply about something that, against all numbers and "rational" arguments, you convince yourself that that something is ultimately precious beyond every shadow of a doubt... well, that's how you know it's important.
That's how I know she is important.
Her name is Patience. Fitting, considering her circumstances. She invited us to her home in Kelefe, Ghana in June of 2013 and entertained our inquiries into the condition of healthcare for her 22-year-old son, Richard, who lived with severe intellectual and physical disabilities. Richard squirmed in the dirt at our feet, smiling that kind of smile that can't come from anywhere but the heart. I sat in a plastic chair, my attention torn between Richard's genuineness of expression and the children playing in the dirt a few feet away. Perhaps acknowledging the reality of the situation in the moment was too much for me to handle. Realizing that Richard had not seen a doctor in ten years because he could not physically walk to the facility that provided free health care less than half a mile away seemed like a problem too simple for me to comprehend.
Patience asked me for a wheelchair. I asked Patience a lot of questions about something she hadn't experienced because her son couldn't walk, and then I left, and in the sticky, thick air I remember it felt like suffocating as my naiveté crashed in on itself. I thought I could make a real impact on a foreign healthcare system for an incredibly marginalized population in a developing country -- me, the one who rode her cruiser bike to the ice cream shop after school as a child and had probably never experienced anything on a remotely soul-challenging level in her entire life. I thought I could fix a complex system, and I couldn't even look in the face of a mind-blowingly simple problem, like the inability to move anywhere at all.
Ever since I resolved to get Patience that wheelchair, things have just sort of fallen into place. It's like pushing a ball and watching it roll down a hill. All I did was tell some people about raising money to buy mobility equipment for Richard, and that has turned into raising money to buy mobility equipment and fund mobility enhancing surgeries for people in Richard's village. Raising that money has turned into the paperwork nightmare that constitutes starting a non-profit, and starting that non-profit has turned me on to the incredible generosity people show when they find someone who believes in something.
I believe in this, The Patience Project, and that allows me to trudge through all the logistical difficulties with the heart of a practical idealist. Sometimes I find myself dreaming big, but for right now, this is about providing the missing link between a few people with severe disabilities and their access to healthcare. This is what I can do, and this is how I ideally will do it.
I will see Patience again this summer, and I will tell her that she has inspired the creation of a foundation in her name, and I will give her that wheelchair, and I will explain to her how many people she has compelled to donate funds for mobility equipment for nearby people just like Richard.
And I will breathe in the liquid air, and I will wipe the sweat from my skin, and it will matter.