The semester we spent in Belize years ago was the beginning of my love affair with Jesus and helping his people. My parents are headed back on a mission trip to Belize in a few weeks, and I’m just a lot jealous. I’ve been thinking about our time there and wanted to share some fourth grade memories with you.
When I think about my parents’ decision to take their 4, 9, and 11 year-old kids to live in a teeny village with minimal electricity and plenty of need, I kind of understand the people who thought they were crazy. It was 1999, and we were in the process of moving to Ocean Springs, but before we did so, my parents packed up all our earthly belongings, put them in a storage unit, and headed south. To Belize, Central America. For about six months of life change.
I’m not quite sure who I’d be today without that time of my life. Certainly not who I am now. It was one of those defining moments in the life of our family. I don’t quite remember who I was before that time. Not what I wanted to be really. But I can almost definitively point to that fall semester of fourth grade as one that changed my life. And continues to shape me to this day.
For anyone who talked to me between 1999 and 2009, you know I was set, hard and fast, on becoming a doctor. I decided that on the tarmac of the Houston airport that December as we waited to return to a new home and a new normal. I spent years after devoted to the idea of one day becoming a doctor because of Belize. Because of what I saw and what I heard. Because I wanted to be a part of the action. And that was the closest and most obvious way to get there. I knew then and there that I had to go back. I had to help those people. Because America with its perfection (remember this is a nine year old speaking) didn’t need me like these people did.
I’ve always had a vivid memory, but there’s something about our time in Belize that I can remember like it was yesterday. A smell, a taste, a look, and I’m back playing jacks on a dirt road, climbing over and through cement block construction, and riding on a cane truck with the wind and dust in my cropped hair.
I remember the freedom to jump on a bike and ride to the coke store, nothing more than a person’s straw and dirt hut with a cooler full of glass bottle cokes for sale at an impossibly low and delightful price to a nine-year-old.
I remember staying a weekend in the next village where the nurses of our little clinic lived, finally succumbing to use an outhouse, and the man who came to the door that night. The man with a gash in his leg from the machete he held in his hand. The machete that brought him his livelihood had also given him this life-threatening wound. And I was the only one available to hold the flashlight. Well maybe not the only one, but that’s how the nurses made me feel, important, as I held the flashlight and stole glances of the wincing man’s gash, sterilized, soothed, and stitched by the crudest of means, whatever was available right then and there because the roads weren’t safe to travel at night, and the clinic was miles away.
I remember stealing away into the “dentist office”, the tiny cement block addition to the clinic that boasted the only air conditioned space for miles and miles around, when the hot Belize day got impossibly too much to handle.
And the boys that would leave notes near the clinic. Where I first heard, and didn’t understand, the idea of “Latin lover”. Boys, only a few years older than Hannah and I, and the sweet nothings written to the only fair-skinned girls they might have ever seen. The ones we quickly tore up with embarrassment and maybe a tiny bit of joy.
I remember the little boy’s screams as my mom peeled banana leaves off his burnt skin. The skin charred from open fire, the only way the family had to cook their food. The banana leaves the only band-aid available when that fire engulfed his leg. I remember my sweet little brother, telling the boy, no older than his four year old self, that everything would be okay. Soothing and smiling at the boy with the pain that most would rush away from.
I remember the hurricane, Kelvin, and standing under the straw-hut covering right outside the clinic’s backdoor watching the rain and listening to the adults talk. It’s incredible the things adults say when they don’t think children can understand. It’s incredible the things that children don’t understand, until years later when something tiny causes that memory to come back to life and pieces to be put together.
I remember the pregnant women and new families lining the halls of the clinic and the clinic employees scrambling for more blowup mattresses and dragging the mattresses off our beds in the little apartment on the back of the clinic where we lived for those months.
I remember the life that my mom helped bring into the world on that rainy wet weekend years ago now. The baby that was born late into the night, and the rush surrounding the hurricane and birth, the first one of the clinic ever, that let a nine-year-old stay up and overhear the details of that exciting night. I remember being so proud of my physical therapist mom. And the joy that she had in helping bring a tiny baby into the world, a job that she would have never been a part of in 21st century American medicine.
And I remember wanting to go back. For years after. And still today in some ever-changing and ever-true way.
Because poverty is the place where you do the best you can. And not being perfect doesn’t disqualify you from helping. And it’s less about waiting rooms and insurance forms and HIPPA violations and more about helping people.
More about saving the life right then and there because it’s the only thing you can possibly do. And you’re needed because there’s noone else. And life is hard, every day. And you’re a thousand miles away from comfort, literally and figuratively, but beauty is more beautiful because you recognize it as such.
And the ice-cold coke tastes better from a glass bottle on a day you really need it. And the mangos are plucked straight from the trees. Sugarcane cut down with the gardener’s machete. And kids can ride their bikes across dirt village roads exploring without fear just like kids were meant to do. And you walk along the Caribbean Sea right after eating in your favorite “restaurant” in town, restaurant in quotations because you know your friends at home would never consider it one in America. And “impossibly fancy” in Belize is much less stuffy and much more my style than the nicest restaurant you’ll ever wait six months for reservations for. And the food tastes better because it’s cooked with love and probably dirt because, you know, there isn’t a big A-rating hanging on the wall from the latest inspection of this place.
And God speaks there. Even when you’re nine and God is more of an abstract and strange imaginary-and-yet-real friend that you meet in Sunday School and try to bring along to the playground, and you know He loves you because you’ve sung all the songs but aren’t sure what that means quite yet because He’s pouring love in ways you won’t understand until years alter, sitting in your first house recalling those long-lost-and-yet-very-near-to-your-heart days. And it’s these memories that pull you back into His love. That remind you that there was no way you’ve done what you’ve done without Him. That you’ve never walked alone, and maybe, just maybe, you’ve never walked at all, because He’s been carrying you all along.