Care by Sara Swenson
I had a seizure in a convenience store. That’s not the point of this story, but context. The seizure was caused by a rapid-rising fever while I was on a writing retreat between charity programs. I was rescued by a cashier, a 20-something working the night shift who protected me and got me home. I caught a bus back to the city just before sunrise. The fever settled into a high burn, head ache, dizziness, and joint pain. When I lay down, I couldn’t get up. I canceled plans and texted apologies. Immediately one of my friends, a Buddhist nun, texted back that she was coming over. I told her no. I hadn’t unpacked. I couldn’t stand long enough to shower. I smelled like bus. Sister Diligence told me not to feel awkward and to see her as a family member, “nguoi nha.” The term carries added nuance for illness, as “nguoi nha” are also those who care for sick family members at hospitals. Did I have anything to eat? I didn’t have anything to eat. She was coming over, she repeated. Ok, I agreed. I had to admit, I needed help.
I often joke that the reason I study charities is because I’m a charity case. I came to Ho Chi Minh City the first time, three years ago, with intermediate language skills and no contacts. I needed a lot of help to launch a research project. A friend of a friend introduced me with her tattoo artists, and by pure chance he happened to be leading a charity tour that weekend. I met a huge network of people concerned with helping others. They are eager to help feed the hungry, support poor students, build bridges, and care for the sick. They were also eager to help with my research project. With their help comes a commission to use my research to help them help others. Usually, however, this mutual helping stops with parting waves at the end of a charity project. This time, I was not in a place to participate or give anything back. The only thing I could do was unlock my door.
Sister Diligence is the embodiment of a smile. Petite with a perfectly round face, she looks like a cartoon illustration of the sun. She bustled into my apartment laden with grocery bags and a bouquet of tight, pink lotus buds, explaining that they would bloom in the morning. What bloomed that evening was my kitchen – pots, strainers, cutting boards, and knives I had never used sprawled out like squash vines. The smell of sautéing ginger filled the room and clung to the curtains for days afterward. I pulled my pillow to the foot of my mattress, so I could watch her work. Thank you thank you thank you, I said. Could I eat garlic, she asked? Thank you, yes, thank you. She laughed. I didn’t need to thank her, she responded, “Giving and receiving, both are happiness.”
She explained that when she was sick, she often thought how nice it would be for someone to take care of her, make her some rice porridge, massage her shoulders, and keep her company. She remembered how her mother would do this when she was a young child. Hearing her words, I felt my chest tighten with sorrow. Sister Diligence lost her mother when she was only 9 years old, and her father died the year after. She has suffered from chronic arthritis since childhood, often unable to stand up for days. She explained how she felt empathy for me. She knew how “awkward” it felt not to be able to do anything. At the pagoda, when she was debilitated by the arthritis, she couldn’t help with communal chores. The other nuns had to care for her. We had to remember, she encouraged, our sickness can also be an opportunity for others to practice giving. “Giving and receiving, both are happiness,” she repeated, serving up a steaming bowl of rice porridge. I had to eat it hot, she ordered. I did. It made me sweat like a squeezed sponge. She retrieved a towel from the bathroom and dried my neck and back. I was embarrassed to be so completely helpless.
The next day Sister Diligence returned at 7am with a fresh supply of ingredients. She stayed until 8pm, cooking constantly. Another of our monastic friends arrived to check on me, and in the evening, another lay woman. Everyone came with more food and health advice. The lotus flowers blossomed.
As Sister Diligence propped me up for my third bowl of rice porridge, I burst into tears. I felt turned inside out by her kindness and flattened by the idea that I could do nothing to abate her own chronic pain. She sat at the edge of the bed and put a comforting arm around me. She had no regrets about her own life, she consoled. She was happy and fortunate that she had found the Buddha’s teachings. “Do you know anyone who will never be sick?” she asked. No, I sniffed weepily. “Do you know anyone who will never die?” No. I agreed. Everybody would die. Sickness is a part of life, she explained. We can learn from sickness and pain. We can learn compassion for others who are sick and in pain, because we understand some part of what they feel. We can learn about impermanence. From the loss of her parents, for example, she could encourage others to love and be grateful for their living parents. She hugged me. I polished off the last of my tissues. “Out of tissues, out of tears,” we joked. I was struck by the fact that Sister Diligence was comforting me while I cried over her pain.
In fieldwork, I carry I deep sense of debt. I carry a debt to those who have shared their stories. I carry a debt to the organizers who let me accompany and interview them. I carry a debt to those who explain and re-explain their ideas while I learn Vietnamese at the expense of their time. I carry a debt to those who work to include me even when I can’t “kip” (keep up). The weight of this debt often keeps me awake at night. I worry that my coming here displaces the responsibility of my research onto a group of friendly volunteers, when this responsibility should strictly be mine. I try to control as many factors as possible. I try to give back as much and as quickly as possible. To have to rely on someone else so completely and physically was humbling. Such reliance lays bare all the other ways I rely on others. Like Sister Diligence, there are pains that my friends and research volunteers carry which I can never alleviate. We can give money and we can give time, but we cannot carry anyone else’s grief. What I can conclude, is that there is something very human to sitting with others while they are in pain, and to have them sit with you. Sharing these days of helpness was a reminder that no one is self-sufficient. Our brokenness requires care from others. In receiving care, as Sister Diligence said, we may learn empathy for others in their brokenness. In this way, I wonder, if empathy and indebtedness are not so different from each other.