Rubble and Rot

by Paul Warmbier

Super Typhoon Haiyan
Philippines, 2013
Photo by MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC
Public Domain WikiCommons

        We stood as small knots and discussed what should happen next. The night coolness descended on us like a blanket of moisture. Molecules of hydrogen and oxygen quilted together to eliminate any chance of respite, and after the humid heat, the humid cool calmed, made me unlace my heavy boots and stretch my legs out on a concrete pad. Only days before dogs in varying states of decomposition had been thrown over a high wall to my spot as some sort of quarantine. Rubble and glass shards sparked over the small bodies like little diamonds, reflecting blood and the grayness of death after a storm. I sat on a light blue plastic box that held medical supplies. The base was splattered with mud that caked and dried yellow around the edges into deep brown toward the ground as it sucked up water like a sponge.
        It smelled faintly like sewage and sulfur. All around me were men and women like myself. We were filthy, our clothes dark with perspiration and tropical rain and coated in the same putrid mud that crawled up our boots and pant legs until it coated us like a candle wick. It was 2013, and Typhoon Haiyan had ripped through where we sat, only days before, and the survivors of the rain and wind began falling from cholera and sepsis. They piled along the road, robed in black, and lay in orderly pyramids, strange geometry of the dead. The calm after the water had ebbed was eerie.
        I was helping lead Team Rubicon, a reconnaissance team of medics and combat veterans. Our mission was to find a suitable place in Tacloban for a hospital and set it up after Typhoon Haiyan had turned the city into splinters and a large part of its population into corpses. At that moment, back in Los Angeles, a large team of surgeons, nurses, and pediatricians was getting prepped to fly to Tacloban.
        We had to decide.
        In Guyuan, across the gulf, we found acres of palms bordering the water stripped bare and trees splintered in the middle and piled like matches. The landscape looked like photographs I had seen of the island following World War II. In the half light of the morning, where shadow still superseded light, I could imagine an old enemy pouring fire and steel rain from positions dug into the surrounding hills. While we baked under the sun and offloaded sacks of rice and pallets of water, Doctor Without Borders flew in on chartered helicopters, shook hands with the waiting major, and took over. There was no need for us.
        We found our work in Tacloban. There were thousands of dead awaiting burial, many still floating in rivers and canals, and scores of wounded cut off from medical supplies and hospitals. In Tacloban, we found we had to detach ourselves once again from emotion and reality. We had to operate as we did in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars, blocking out the pain and death all around.
        I used to get tremors in my hands. They would last for weeks sometimes. After a nasty mission or an engagement they would tremble, the left worse than the right hand. I never reported it. I didn’t want to be weak. I hated myself for trembling, for exhibiting some weakness when there was only room for strength.

***

        I love to observe faces. More than just the faces themselves, it’s the reactions I find intriguing. I watch people, and I get some weird looks back when I am not covert enough. All our faces betray some bit of our hidden selves, no matter how hard we try. Stoicism, years fighting, brothers and sisters lost, moral concessions, over thirty suicides in less than a decade, a letdown, a triumph, a loss of purpose since the Marines. Loss of identity. Service as penance. My face betrayed so much and I knew it. I usually kept my eyes narrowed and scoured the ground for bombs, eyes up to the skyline for snipers.
        The flight crew of the C-130 we eventually caught allotted us five thousand pounds, which seemed immense, but we were hoping to set up a field hospital. We had five thousand pounds in IV bags alone.
        What came with us? IV bags, Pedialyte, antibiotics, anti-malarial pills by the tub, braces, trauma kits, food, enough water for a dozen of us for seventy-two hours (we would figure out what to do after we ran dry), our personal and communication gear, a generator (no fuel), and several dozen other instruments, none familiar to me.
        Our faces beamed. There was a purpose.

***

        This was my first trip to the Philippines. Welcome to Tacloban I had thought a few days prior during our first medical patrols. The words even stood on a sign outside the city, hung with drying seaweed, the battered metal bent and the paint chipped.
        I had walked down the still flooded streets on the east side of a town split by a major road running north to south. Depressed schools, apartments, and a partially destroyed hospital dotted the east side barangays while a massive stadium dominated the western skyline. My hands were on my chest, safer there, unsteady thumbs hooked through the straps of my medical bag. This gesture made it easier to hide my shock when pulling broken bodies from rubble, swollen bloated corpses coming apart with the pressure. It was easier to grasp my living flesh and count myself lucky.
        If you were simply to look at her what you would see was a sweet old woman. She had that ancient grace and easy smile that is so common among the old. In some ways, she wore a mask of former beauty, but in another way, one far more meaningful, her face was a rebirth to a new and more elegant beauty. Her skin slouched in contrast to her bright brown eyes and blackened toothy smile.
        When I walked up to her fourth-floor apartment, she stared down at me while nursing a swollen ankle. The joint was black and waxy with red spider webs emanating from an epicenter of black on the outside of her ankle but encircling it, angry and menacing, appearing as one interwoven web. Her long fingers gingerly stroked the red, and as she did so, they shook slightly. “No one has yet come to help me.” I expected halting English but was surprised by her beautiful control of the language.
        When I saw the wizened face look down at me from the fourth story of a concrete apartment building, I saw the eyes, the smile, and the wave, and detached myself from our patrol to see how I could help. I called to Leif, a Norwegian, and he hung back in case two were needed.
        The other men in my group moved on. My team would know what to do without a couple of their number for a few minutes. They trailed off in file, slogging through mud and knee deep water, occasionally peeling off from the main team to look in houses and call in bad Tagalog whether anyone needed help.
        Looking at the interlaced web of infection, all I could do was smile back. “What is your name?” I tried to use my smoothest voice, but I am sure she saw through my calm the same way I saw her.
        “Maria.”
        “That’s beautiful. I’m Paul.”
        “I should have gone to the hospital. But I have no money, and obviously,” she gestured to her ankle, “I cannot walk.” I looked around her apartment. It was a box no larger than some closets we have in America. Far smaller than I would ever have been comfortable with back home. She talked to me out of a shattered window, and I sat down on the catwalk, leaning against the window frame, sitting in pieces of glass and looking up at her slightly.
        Her single bed was all the way against the window frame. I imagined for a second how beautiful it must have been to sit on that bed and look north out over the city. Over the quilt of telephone lines. Over the never-sleeping masses of communal living. Over an ocean, blue in a way I never thought possible. It was blue in a way only Matisse or Monet could have painted. One brush stroke after another of cobalt. It was lapis powder of ultramarine.
        The typhoons were the price Philippine islanders paid for such beauty. “It was a beautiful view.” For once, Maria’s face was not smiling. Even though she passed the word and moved on, her passion seemed to linger on was. She lay on a bed of glass shards. As she leaned over to the end of the bed I could see her legs, sliced to frail red and brown ribbons. Some healed, others raw and angry. She had left brown marks and lines of day-old blood in the mildewed linen. How long had she been bedridden? Since just after she hid in the bathroom and whimpered, kneeling, hands above her head? Beside the bed, on its side lay a small and inexpensive bamboo bedside table lashed together with straining and distended bamboo and twine cords. Scattered on the floor, and swollen slightly so they fanned open, a few books. There were no pictures on the wall, and no decorations.
        “Maria, how did you survive all this, with just, this?” I motioned to her legs. I grimaced, looked around while she stared at me with her head slightly askew, a small smile partially covered up by her withered fingers. Beyond, as it usually happens in the tropics, the sun suddenly disappeared, and the rain began to tap down on the roof in an uneven pattern like an improv jazz drummer. The gulf was an even deeper blue under the low light. To think that so much death came from such beauty.
        I didn’t understand. I had a hard time comprehending how nature could bring so much and yet take away whole families–grandparents, parents, infants, and dogs–just to bring life the following day. I just could not understand. The people would recover in time; I knew that. Maria would, too. Tacloban would return to its beauty. And the residents would return to the water, maybe a little weary, but with open arms.
        “I still love to hear it on the roof.” I looked back. Her words drifted on.
        “Even after everything?” I asked, my eyebrows raised.
        “Of course.”
        I always thought we as a people valued calm in the face of struggle. She looked at me and smiled with one side of her mouth as if to say, “Oh, dearie, this isn’t my first.” Maria understood. From her vantage point, she could see the destruction as it unfolded all the way to the sea. I imagined her sitting by the window watching the storm surge turn her city into water and rubble and bodies until the water got too close to her building, and the wind built up, shattering her window and forcing her to retreat.
She sat with her brows pulled a little lower over her eyes, the lids closed half way, the lines moving in on the apex of her face, magnanimously surveying everything with that sad love that showed in both her eyes and the slump of her body. Her swollen and lacerated leg and her arm rested on shards of glass covering the windowsill. I wonder if I had ever been that understanding about life and death, or if I ever could be. She was the eye of the storm, the one bit of sanity in a city of rubble and death.
        I’d seen death plenty of times. I saw it in the aftermath of a buried roadside bomb or a vehicle-borne IED. I was no virgin to carnage, to picking through the blood and bits of my friends. I’d even escaped death in Fallujah and Rawaa and Hit and outside Ramadi before. But it was all so random. I didn’t have time to comprehend it because it came and went so indiscriminately. I never saw it wash in and destroy all around me.
        “You need to go to the hospital.”
        “You don’t have a vehicle.”
        “I can call for one. We also have a hospital just a few blocks away. Your foot is infected. You need antibiotics and observation. And you need them now.”
        “Can you carry me?”
        I could only smile as I hid my shaking hands. I walked through her door frame, scraping glass on the linoleum as I pushed softly on the splintered door. When I stooped down to place my hands under her like a forklift, her frail arm closed around my shoulders and back, burning me slightly where her skin hit mine. It could be a fever that had set in after her infection, but, at the time, it was also a sign. It caused a feeling that set off all other emotions and senses I possessed. I have struggled for years after war to have that moment where, instead of hurting, I was able to construct a new shelter within and allow humanity to evacuate the refugee camp I placed it in. If Maria’s touch was Moses parting the Red Sea, her rough fingerprints were even more: They became the hands of deliverance.
        I picked her up like a baby and carried her in my arms down the four flights of stairs to Leif.
        Her arm still reclined against my neck and wrapped around my shoulder. Her little fingers played with the hem of my keffiyeh scarf wrapped thickly around my throat and soaking from the tropical downpours and dangling down my chest. Once we were down, I spoke into my Motorola to one of our mobile patrols. Maria sat on the grass, and Leif gingerly poked and prodded her, his blond brow furrowed in concern and concentration. She looked at him a little nervously.
        “Don’t worry. He is quite nice and very good. Norwegians just don’t smile much. He is maybe just not used to being warm and wet.” He smiled at the joke, and when he did, she melted.
        The rain came steadily down, and the rivulets dripped down Maria’s face, washing away the salt grime from days of sweat. Our hair stuck flat, and as Leif perused his medic bag for something to fix the problem short term, a small cab splashed through the puddles.
        “Hey,” a little Philippine man called out to me in high pitched suspicion. “Does she need to go to the hospital?” I nodded and walked over to his taxi, hands in my pockets.
        “I am a medical student from Manila. This is my ambulance. Can I take her?” I looked at a badge hanging from his neck, a hospital ID. I saw his eyes move to her ankle and heard his voice change, becoming more authoritative, deeper, and aware of her danger.
        “I would like to take her to the hospital myself.”
        “Sure, but we also have a truck coming to take her there. She cannot afford the fare,” I said slowly.
        “There is no fare,” he said quickly.
        I turned back to her. “He will take you to the hospital.” She nodded and Leif picked her up and walked her to the open back of the taxi where there were several other people holding onto bandages though I could not see their wounds. I pressed American money into her hand and whispered to her, “Do not show this to anyone. If he asks for money, in the end, give it to him. But I am sure it won’t come to that.” She just smiled as if to tell me not to worry, that she could take care of herself.
        The taxi bounced away, and Maria left. I waved and brought my hands to my chest again, hiding the shakes by keeping them busy.

***

        I first met Reyna in a rainstorm. She was small and frail, and her skin was dark and waxy. Our acquaintance was brief as so often happens as we move through the world. I had to make a lot of assumptions with Reyna.
        A possible version of her whole life played through my mind. I imagined her to be around thirteen or fourteen. I never asked her father about it when I talked to him. From the grime caking her olive face and the blank sadness in her eyes, I have to think that her smile was huge and lit up her dark eyes when it came. Reyna would have been in high-school. I wondered what they were studying. What had she wanted to do with her life? Did she want to marry in a storybook wedding and raise a big family? Did she want to escape home and become a cardiac surgeon?
        Days before the typhoon hit the Leyte Gulf, she would have swum in the ocean. To Filipino children, the ocean seemed to be a physical extension of their souls. The lap of water was their blood. The salt water stemmed a flood of longing when they were not in the Pacific. Perhaps she would have loved to dive deep into the crystal water and look into the black eyes of colorful fish. Like all her friends, she rarely left the water. After all, she lived in the northern most Barangay in Tacloban and daily felt the moisture coming off the water in the morning, calling for her to come and play. Reyna was given goggles as a present for her tenth birthday, and she most likely spent the whole of each day in the water, only coming up for air when her lungs burned, and even then only reluctantly.
        I believe Reyna’s family was loving. Her parents loved to see her dance in that way almost every other people besides Americans do and to any music that played. Uncontrolled, uncaring, just the body and the music filling the soul. She lived with her extended family and loved to hear stories from her grandmother. She would caress her grandmother’s cheek, feeling every wrinkle, every cell of the leathery brown skin, and would have loved it all. When the storm hit the island, she cowered in the central living room of their small yet middle-class home. She was in the center of the family circle; the rest of her extended family enclosed Reyna and her siblings like bison do their young when the wolves are hungry. And the wolves did come. They came with unquenchable force and uncaring brutality.
        The water hit their house in the initial surge. It was one of the first houses to be hit, and the full fury of the ocean slammed against their home. The walls survived the first push, the tons of weight. They survived because there was almost no debris yet to pinpoint the weak spots in the old house and crack the walls. The family had lived in the house since the fifties, but time and constant water eroded hidden pieces deep in the walls. The water eventually found its way in, and the second surge smashed the stones to jagged chunks that exploded around the family. Reyna and her whole family were washed away and through the wall in moments. They were swimming amongst stone, bamboo, and bodies.
        Two of Reyna’s siblings survived. So did her dad. Also her ancient grandfather. They all survived by chance.
        When I met Reyna, her body lay slumped, frail, and broken. She was all alone. I saw her as an origami crane beautiful and terrible. Her soft joints folded into something different and new. She lay on the side of the road, and fat tropical raindrops beat against her forehead. She lay all alone. The body collection points piled corpses anonymously simply along the road. Trucks rumbled by at designated hours and unceremoniously threw the bodies onto a heap. Cholera pathogens were in the water that pooled everywhere, and other diseases loomed in the future if the bodies were not removed.
        We drove up to the gas station along the road where Reyna lay in a small cardboard box, her head flopped backward. Someone had placed her carefully in the box, slowly and with infinite care. Her father? I noticed some of the team visibly shaken. One of my men pointed. “Put your hand down.” I hissed it through clenched teeth, my arm reaching up to intercept his and bring it down, my hand trembling on his wrist. We were all combat veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or experienced firefighters and EMS crew members. Reyna was not the first mangled and bloated body we saw, but her lying there was something else entirely. Acid rose in my throat.
        I choked it down.
        My vision blurred.
        I hid my hand in my pocket.
        I have never looked away.
        One of our men, a Swede named Tommy, moved over to the box and covered Reyna up with a torn sheet. He took out a sharpie and wrote on some cardboard. “Small child, please pick up and bury.” But we knew when there are thousands more to be collected, one cannot make special room for children. Along the road, black bags lay in heaps like cordwood, stacked three layers tall, all waiting for the trucks. The trucks, when they came, were already overflowing with infants and babies. We moved on to collect other bodies, but Reyna accompanied me even out of my line of sight. She sat with me that night. She looked over my shoulder as I wrote a few lines in my journal. She saw as I wiped my face before anyone could see.

***

        Barangay 61 was one of the poorer neighborhoods in Tacloban. Their fortunes sunk lower now that everything had been swept away in one fell surge of the ocean. In places, the waterline had been over two stories tall. We talked to children and old folks while walking along the main street. They smiled with their eyes, waved, and offered to share suckling pigs roasting over orange bamboo coals. We declined. There was plenty of food back at our base. The pigs turned from white to golden, and the skin crackled in people’s hands when we talked. I wanted some. Badly. I love pork. They needed it more.
        We walked and waved. We talked and heard stories. We sat down with the residents and asked pointed questions about their health: “Is it hard to breathe?” Or, “Do you have any cuts that have not been taken care of?” And, “Do you have enough medicine?”
        The storm surge had come and taken everything away in moments. One family I talked with had been in their home, huddled together, a complete family unit. The next moment they were inundated by water. It didn’t even stop to knock, just bowled over the flimsy door, stove in plywood, already weakened by black mold, and drove splinters zipping through skin. Little wooden bullets. The water washed over them in an instant.
        They were not just hit by flood waters but by a wall. The wall of water overshadowed men and women. The water carried not only the force of freight trains but the flotsam and jetsam of a country, the shipwreck of humanity.
        The water came and two grandparents, old stalwarts, both over eighty, survivors of the Japanese occupation in World War II, were taken through the back of the building. In the blink of an eye, they died and became gray and cold. They most likely became less than corpses in the churning cataract of the current. In some cases, not even whole bodies remained. The quick ones, the children, lunged for the rafters, rendered horizontal by the running water. In an instant, they were windsocks in a gale.
        People described the rumbling, the wind, the rain as the wave slammed into earth. It was unavoidable and insatiable. Nothing was going to stop it. Man had no power there but to run. “We were tossed through the Barangay looking for trees to grab on to.”
        “How did you manage?” I asked, almost in a whisper.
        “God? the saints? Who knows?”
        How do you respond to that?
        Considering the aftermath, I was convinced that only through a miracle could people survive while living in bamboo-framed huts covered only by palm leaves and rusted corrugated tin.
        Everyone had a story of survival to share. No one in this neighborhood escaped without a story. I wanted to remember the hope and the smiles. Although it was absurd, I needed the hopes and smiles. I needed to bank them for that time, late at night, after a few drinks of rum, when I would sit around with my team, and we would let the day’s events wash over us. I sat on the blue plastic tub, without boots, my feet breathing in flip-flops, a bottle in one hand draped limp at my side and my face buried in the other. We all spent time this way. After a long day of being impassive and stoic, something had to break, and sharing stories and loss among people who understand made the break all but inevitable.
        The stench that fills the air after such disasters was everywhere. I’ve smelled it many times. I smelled it first in Fallujah. It is the stench that wafts up from bloated bodies still lying under rubble and waiting yet to be found. The rain fell on them each day, pitiless, and the heat penetrated the rubble. “Every person we talk to says they are still missing family members,” Alex said. “They want to know if we can help find them.”
        The observation seemed too obvious yet said aloud was devastating. Alex was our interpreter. He was a Philippine national who also lived in America. As a former American infantryman, he was a perfect addition to the team. His calm demeanor and friendly personality made him a hit with our veteran team as well as with the locals.
        We walked out of Barangay 61 that afternoon. We slogged back to base through rubble and mud. We stepped over the bodies of animals left to rot in the sun. They were once pets, but now there was no place for sentimentality for lost animals. We walked past a hatchery. I imagine the kids liked to gather by the fences and watch the little chicks bouncing around the yard by the hundreds, their raincoat yellow down making it impossible to have a bad day. The smell hit us first. It was simply decay. Our heavy boots crackled over chicken bones and little raincoat yellow bodies now stained brown. Hundreds scattered along the sidewalk from the gate.
        We walked back, stopping every fifty feet to talk to people and to ask how they were doing physically. I had no idea how to treat them emotionally. I handed electrolyte packages to kids. Others gave out antibiotics and sat in the mud, their patient’s hand or foot on their lap, and cleaned wounds slowly, methodically, and lovingly. Though these were not our people, we fretted for them and cleaned their cuts as if they were our own children.
        He flew a kite in deliberate resistance to the situation. I saw it up in the air. The diamond of red against the sky dipped and turned, riding the invisible wind. I noticed a single child in a field that had once been a palm grove. He ran along the trunks of palms, without a shirt, or socks or shoes. He ran, giggling to himself, one tanned arm raised high in the air along the string as though willing the kite to take him away. He jumped over puddles, bouncing from one palm trunk to the next, and expertly moved among the rubble of his home. Our eyes locked for just a moment. I raised my hand in a wave, and he just turned away and bounced to the next stump and out of my line of sight.
        The kite stayed in my view, turning, diving, and pulsing with life.

***

        Earlier that night, on the last of our days in Tacloban, we knelt on the flight line in camouflage pants, ripped and bleached from months in combat and disaster zones. They were actively decomposing in the humidity, and we knelt on sore knees and waited. A monster C-130 lumbered past on the asphalt. This was ours. We had waited all day for it. The sun had just dropped behind the hills far to the west, but the tree trunks were still visible beyond the airport. They were splintered and defoliated. This place used to be a paradise. Beyond the flight line was a no man’s land of splinters and bare, lifeless trees. Decay whispered up through the ground; it clicked and scuttled. Decay in the form of crabs, bugs, and heat made the air oppressive.
        The dark crept up on us as we waited. We stood apart from a line of refugees clutching crying children, handbags overstuffed with all that was left. We could see the people were terrified. We waited, leaning on a palette that was our gear, tons of gear consisting of rucksacks and pelican cases of communications equipment. I slouched and watched the stars come out; they twinkled one by one allowing the first to show before making their appearance. Stars are polite like that on clear nights with little light pollution.
        A Marine sergeant came over and yelled over the all-present propeller blast of the airfield. “Your flight is this one; help us out shepherding the line into the aircraft. You get on last with your gear. Understand?” We thumb-upped affirmative. Each of us picked up our rucksacks, and whatever else needed to be carried, and made our way single file to the back of the C-130. I wore desert Marine camouflage trousers and in recognition, the Marines nodded. Even now, a decade later, there was fraternity.
        I leaned sideways, walking behind the propeller wash, a channeled blast of heat and diesel fumes. We once more stacked the gear beside the aluminum loading ramp and lined up. We picked out people who needed help: a woman, well past her prime trying to walk in line, hunched under her burden; a young child, crying with no hand to hold on to; and a man, well into his seventies, two young children in each arm, each hand carrying a handled bag. We grabbed what we could. A girl, maybe two or three, wrapped her arms tightly around my shoulders as if I were her only lifeline, a buoy thrown to keep her from drowning in the wake of sorrow and loss. They loaded in, practically sitting on each other. Lastly, our gear occupied the final few yards of the loading bay. The door closed; eyes widened. This was it. They were leaving all they had, rubble, bodies, and family. The raised hydraulic door closed on this part of their life. I wondered how many of them would find their way back to Tacloban. How many would find nothing but more pain and sorrow on the mean streets of Manila? For many, the massage parlors and slums were all they could hope for.
        We taxied. The roar of propellers intensified, and diesel fumes filled the cramped quarters, replacing human sweat and fear. I lay back on my rucksack. I had done this simple act so often over the last week and more. We had waited so often. In the Marines, years before, waiting for orders, patrols, and vehicles was a fact of life. It was referred to as “Hurry up and Wait.” My legs crossed under me, and I was astonished at how easily my body eased into that same old manner. It seemed to know I was not going to move for hours, and the usual ache of knees and back faded to a grim realization.
        In front of me a mom and two children cowered. They took up almost no space, and they had no luggage, no possessions, beside their lives. They looked so scared. The two girls–maybe eight or ten years old–burrowed into their mom’s armpits, perhaps hoping to reenter her body and escape this life. Occasionally, they looked at me. Just one eye peeked out. Each time I smiled. They looked so pathetic.
        They reminded me of little Iraqi children, unwashed, sad, hard, and confused why an American shared their moment. I loved smiling at Iraqi children. I gave them candy when I was on patrol with my cargo pockets bulging as I began the patrol. It made me think of a better place than the one I was in. I remember how they smiled, and how their whole faces lit up, their little brown eyes turning golden in the sun. Their mouths, always missing baby teeth, so wide, so open. These two girls were the same when they finally smiled back. I tried to look unconcerned. I have flown in C-130s often enough; it is easy to be unconcerned, but perhaps this was their first flight. After that, I am sure flying will always be ruined for them.
        In time, they escaped their mother’s grasp, and she seemed relieved for it. We stared at each other. We just stared, our eye contact more of a connection than touch or speech. We stared and smiled, and in time their eyes drooped, and one by one they rested their head on their mother’s shoulder. Her arms were wrapped around them. They were scared. I saw pink raw skin glare in streaks and jagged lines all along each arm. She wore a button-up Hawaiian style shirt that no longer proclaimed the carefree ease of Pacific living. The green and red lights above, in the high canopy of wires, gave her shirt a sickly glow. She also smiled, but knowingly, remembering the last weeks. Knowing the pain that would not leave.
        I would return to my job and family and what would I leave with them? A few memories of a time they would fight to repress? A grainy image of some boy who was thinking that he could undo all his past sins by traveling across the world to briefly help others? I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want that letdown once I came home and realized just how lucky I was. I didn’t want to go back to a place where there was little hurt and suffering, and where I lived in my own head.
        I broke away and turned. Behind, several team members slept, their heads jerking from side to side as the plane bumped in the airwaves, their arms crossed, and their legs out in front. It was five days until Thanksgiving.