Tuesday, February 14, 2012

And crown thy good.

"I'm talking 'bout America
Sweet America
God done shed his grace on thee
And he crowned thy good 
(He told me he would)
with-a brotherhood
from sea to 
shining sea."

~ America the Beautiful (as sung by Ray Charles)


When I walked into the room, I felt it. This palpable heaviness that I couldn't put my finger on. The woman waiting for me in the room was staring straight ahead and didn't even flinch when the door opened.

"Good morning," I spoke quietly.

Her head swung toward my face and she offered a tiny nod. "Good morning," she replied. After that greeting her gaze drifted off to where it had been before I entered the room and her face was an expressionless mask of complex emotion.

For a few moments I simply watched her. Skin of such a strikingly dark hue that it almost appeared black. Dark like night; a shade so uninterrupted and pure that it clearly hadn't originated on this continent. Her delicate hands of that same complexion rested in an idle stack on top of her lap. I nodded back.

"My name is Dr. Manning. I am the senior doctor here today and wanted to come and introduce myself to you. Your doctor told me a lot about you, but I hope you don't mind me speaking with you for a bit."

And to that she nodded again.

This was a straightforward follow up visit. A quick check to make sure that the issues from her last visit were continuing to move in the right direction. I chatted with her briefly about what had transpired before and since that last visit. Next, I did a focused examination with the intern seeing her that morning. Things were well. She looked good. There wasn't much more to do.

But still, there was that heaviness. Not necessarily heavy all over. More heavy like some kind of lopsided down comforter where all of the feathers have gathered in one area. Not necessarily oppressively heavy, but heavy still.

"What questions do you have for us today?" I finally asked.

"Questions? I have none."  Her voice was thick with some kind of accent. Likely peppered by her native African tongue. Each word was careful and formal; almost as if she was consciously translating them word by word from her first language into English. Separated by double-spaces and perfect in their annunciation.

I decided that I, too, should be deliberate about my next words. With her, I also recognized the need to keep things as formal as she which isn't necessarily my style. I followed her lead, but still wanted to know who she was.

"Where did you grow up? Your accent is lovely." I chose that word lovely because it was decidedly formal and also because her accent was just that.

"The Congo."  She cleared her throat and sat up in her chair. Then she looked back at me and waited to see what I had next. It felt like an invitation, so I accepted it.

"I've never been to Africa," I gently replied.

"Africa is beautiful," she quickly interjected. "Full of richness, sounds, nature, life. You must go."

The Congo (National Geographic image)

You must go.

Beautiful and formal and meaningful. Just like her posture and hands and her gaze. Sorting through my words, I chose these next: "You're right. I must."

She smiled for the first time after I said that. Her strong white teeth were so straight that they almost looked like dentures. And seeing them against the midnight of her skin nearly took the wind from my chest.

"What brought you to Atlanta?" Careful. Deliberate. Quiet. Formal.

"Atlanta is in America. I came to America." That answer was loaded. Her face washed over with some fleeting grief. I knew then that this might be part of that heaviness I was feeling in the room.

"I would guess it's been a big change for you." I waited for a second and sifted through my words again. "Have you . . .Do you like being here?"

Uggh. So much for my careful words. That felt dumb the minute it escaped my lips.

"I came through a lottery system. They enter your name and if you are lucky you get the visa and the green card to come and work in America. Everyone wants to come to America. It is the dream."

Loaded again. My intern sat on the footstool of the examining table and listened. I followed her lead and waited for the patient to continue.

"In my country, I had a good job. I worked for a company. Not manual labor or any such thing. But a good job and I could care for my family. My whole family was there and they were so happy when I won this lottery. I came with my two sons to this country in 2008." She sucked her teeth and looked away. Then staring right back at me she said, "I did not win anything. I lost."


I pressed my lips together and looked for the right thing to say. I stopped being careful and decided to just be my normal self. "It wasn't what you imagined?"

"No. Not at all. You come here for this America Dream. The dream that you can be anything and do much more and much better just by coming here. But this America Dream is not what I thought. I know it isn't what anyone in my country thinks."

We sat there riveted, watching her mouth move as her body remained as stiff and formal as before.

"It was better for me at home. Here, I cannot find work. At first, I could. Cleaning jobs, bagging in the Kroger store. But then it got worse. Nothing here for me to do."

"What about your sons? Has it been good for them? Better for them?"

"They were already teenagers. It was hard. They do not look like people here so people were not nice. They came home and said, 'Mam-ee, they treat us like we are aliens from another planet.'" She sucked her teeth hard again and this time rolled her eyes. "And they are smart boys but not A students. So a college scholarship was not there. They are looking for work, too. It is bad. Very bad. And I cannot afford to go back home. No money."

"I'm sorry," I whispered.

"It isn't what they tell you. My country is beautiful. The people work hard and I wish I could go and tell them, 'Appreciate this. Love that this is your homeland and you belong.' That is what I would tell them all."

And so we just sat there in that heavy. Cloaked in the reality of something that I never had to think of. Smothered by those layers of complexity that I initially felt but for which I had now gained insight.

Finally, my intern spoke up. "What will you do?"

And even though that question seemed vague, that patient understood it as the direct question her doctor intended to be. She drew in her chest and straightened her spine once more. And finally with a slow motion blink of her eyes, she paused and then prepared to speak. With that same fiercely searing gaze and her formal staccato English she firmly declared:

"I will survive. It is all I know to do."

And this? This, too, is Grady.

"'til all success
be nobleness
every gain divine."

Happy Tuesday.

Now playing on my mental iPod. . . . .


  1. Yes, yes, yes. There is so much that is better in Africa.

  2. Oh. I will forward this on and on. Sobering, sad, powerful -- how many words one could put to it despite the fact that it rendered me speechless.

  3. In North America, the first priority seems to be "money". It looks like easy street the way our lifestyle is marketed. What WE don't know, is the value of family and community and enjoying the natural beauty surrounding us. If we make an attempt, it becomes a "lifestyle" image, posed, all about prestige. We do not really welcome people who are different, who are not as well off, we want to use them.

  4. that gave me chills. Thank you for writing it.

  5. that gave me chills. Thank you for writing it. There is so much to learn in that one interaction.

  6. this one struck a chord. and reminded me to try harder to be present in this life, to be grateful of all that i have.


  7. We need to be told, we North Americans, just as much as the Africans need to be told- this country is not everything it is told to be in legend and myth.
    This makes me heartsick, this story. Sick in my heart for those who came here thinking they had won the lottery but who came to find they had lost.

  8. I know you didn't mean to make me cry, but you did. I thank you for sharing this story, though, and for the quiet woman who told it, I wish I could say I'm sorry.

    Since I started driving right downtown into the gritty heart of the second largest city in Illinois to work, I see the saddest version of this country, the homeless, the dropouts, the gang members, the poor, the "bottom feeders" as my boss likes to call them. It's depressing on a good day. So, very sad to see someone came here thinking this would be better than all they left behind.

    It's nice, though, that there are people like you here, who look and listen and provide some dignity to the people they meet. It's something good to hold on to.


  9. So true. At least once a week here in Africa I'm asked about the possibility of returning to the States with someone (usually in the form of a marriage proposal). I'm constantly trying to refute the misconception that life is _easier_ is the good ol' U S of A. Cameroonians love to say "Look how we suffer," but suffering is universal even though the specific woes (financial/health/familial/ economic) differ.

  10. Thank you very much for this post! I have to agree that the "American Dream" is more a dream than a reality for many people who come the United States. We, immigrants, have a very different perception of America before we come here. We expect to be welcomed and supported. We expect to live a better life. We expect to live an easier life because we see America on TV and in the movies- and we tend to watch the movies that show America as a Wonder Land- where everything you want comes easy. My husband and I came to the United States 6 years ago- after my husband won the Diversity Visa Lottery. I think one of the advantages that my husband and I have over so many other people is that we are young. It was easier for us to start all over. I was 21 when we came here... I am in a Master's program now and on the way to medical school, and my husband is graduating with a computer engineering degree. We are two of the many ones who get to live their American Dream. Our experience was definitely not an easy one- but what doesn't kill us makes us stronger :)


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

Related Posts with Thumbnails