There's one other thought that bothers me as I sit idly on this rock catching my breath: as important as my work is back home seeing clients, teaching therapists, writing about therapy, more and more, it feels like I'm replaceable--that there are so many others who could do what I do. But I look at these children surrounding me on this mountain, all waiting for directions about where we're going next, and I wonder where they'd be without our help.
As I've done every year during the past decade, I've brought a team of therapists, graduate students, and other professionals with me to work with the girls we're supporting to have a better life. We've spent the prior week conducting home visits, consulting with parents and teachers, awarding new scholarships, and providing supplies and resources for the children. We've been mentoring and helping them support one another in the face of the challenges of extreme poverty, catastrophic illness in their families, and often a parent who's abandoned them. This is the first time that many have left their villages; some have traveled for three days to join us. ;The girls from the jungle region in the south have been mostly terrified by the strange environment of the mountains. They're climbing the steep incline in flip-flops or plastic shoes. Despite our efforts to help girls from the various groups interact with one another, they're mostly staying close to friends.
As I breathe deeply and gather my energy for the climb to the summit, I review the morning's activities. We'd arranged the girls in small groups, each from a different village. They'd been asked to share something in their lives about which they were proud, as well as some difficult struggle they were facing. Since most of the girls are from the "untouchable" caste, it isn't surprising that many shared economic hardships, such as living in small huts and sleeping on the floor. But I was shocked by how many of the girls have lost parents--some to disease, others to abandonment. A few have fathers who are alcoholics or incapacitated. One girl's father was eaten by a tiger! As they were telling their stories, they were trying to hold back tears. I was amazed by their courage and resilience.
Supposedly, we're here to help these children, but they've done so much for me. Many of them, and their families, have nothing and expect nothing, yet they appear to accept their fate with cheerfulness and joy; maybe the next life will be better. As for me, it's when I'm here that I feel most alive, and at least for the few months after I return, I feel a new clarity and focus about what's most important to me, none of which includes ambition and materialism. If only the effects would last!
I'm at a fork in the road, quite literally, as the trail we're following splits in two directions, just as my life seems to be. Reaching my sixth decade, I wonder how to refashion my life in the ways I've often advocated that others do. With the perception of limited time that comes with aging, I'm asking myself more and more frequently what I want to do with the opportunities I have left.
My reverie is interrupted when a hand touches my shoulder. The girls are reminding me it's time to move on. As we continue up the trail, I notice one girl who's still sitting on a rock, shivering. She's quite striking, though taciturn; in the time I've known her, we've barely spoken. I recognize her as one of the girls from a jungle village. I ask her name. ;"Timro nam ke ho?" She smiles shyly and looks away.
While most of the other children file ahead of us, I sit next to her and offer her my jacket to cover her shoulders. She just shakes her head in that ambiguous half-yes, half-no Nepali gesture. She's obviously embarrassed by the attention. I notice some of the other girls further along the path watching us carefully. I wonder whether what I'm doing is culturally appropriate. It's a thought that frequently crosses my mind in situations when I'm trying to be helpful in a strange land.
"Please," I insist to the girl, "you must wear this jacket." I cover her and she meets my eyes for the first time. It's then that I notice how carefully, almost compulsively, she keeps rearranging her turquoise scarf to cover the right side of her face, almost as if she's hiding something.
I'm used to reticence, of course, not just in Nepal, where I've worked for so many years and still don't know what's going on most of the time, but in therapy, where I'm accustomed to clients who withhold information until we've developed sufficient trust. I sense that something is terribly wrong here, but I don't yet know what it might be. At times like this, I find myself wishing I were back in the comfort of my office where I know the rules, understand the language, and feel more in control. But then one reason I'm here in the first place is because I thrive on novel experiences that challenge me in new ways, and enjoy surrendering control at times.
Once we've both gathered our strength, we continue walking up to the top of the hill and I lose track of the girl for a while. The other girls are all running around, screaming and yelling, fascinated by all the pine needles hanging from the trees. The Himalayan peaks are stretched majestically across the horizon, but it's the tree branches that command the most attention. The other girls pull the branches down and place the ends on their heads as makeshift hats.
On the way back down the trail, I notice the girl wearing my jacket is continuing to hold her turquoise scarf across her face. Finally, my curiosity gets the better of me and I ask if she'd mind removing the scarf so I can see her face. I sense immediately that she's mortified by my request as the other girls start to gather round us. I feel as though I have no choice but to proceed. "Please," I insist, "could I see your face?"
Slowly, reluctantly, the girl allows the scarf to unravel. I'm horrified to see that her cheek is completely swollen and pus-filled, and has all kinds of nasty colors. My first reaction is that someone struck her, but she explains that it's a skin infection that's been getting worse. I realize that, without some sort of intervention, this girl may not only become permanently disfigured, but could even die.
I call over her teacher and the other adult chaperones. "Look at her face," I say. "We have to do something!" They look concerned, but then just shrug. What can be done? In a country where 90 percent of the population has no access to regular healthcare, most injuries and diseases have to run their course or heal on their own.
I insist that the girl must receive medical care; that she be taken to a doctor, a dermatologist, who can lance the wound and provide antibiotics to kill the infection. I'm told that this is much too expensive, especially consulting with a specialist. There are also transportation costs and the money needed for the drugs. Another shrug.
"What would all of that cost?" I ask. "I'll pay for it. We must get her some help."
I'm told this would cost as much as 1,000 rupees, which sounds like a lot until I do the calculations and figure that it's about $13. For less than the price of a single meal back home, I can save this girl's face, if not her life! I make arrangements right then and there for her to get medical attention as soon as possible.
"You're a god," the girl whispers to me with awe.
I don't know what to say to that other than to shake my head.
"You're my god," she repeats to me. I can tell that this is no idle compliment.
I hurry away. I don't want her to see me crying.
Once alone, I just completely lose control, sobbing in a hoarse voice I barely recognize. I'm scaring myself with the raw power of my emotions. I've done a lot of good things in my life. I've helped a lot of people in my professional life. I look for opportunities every chance I get to help little old ladies cross the street, lost tourists find their destinations, or anyone else I meet locate what they're seeking. But of everything I've ever done, nothing seems to come close to what I can do for this young girl because I noticed that she kept covering her face.
After leaving the village of the girl in the turquoise scarf, a small group of us journey overland and then by small plane, followed by a three-day walk, to another village in the Everest region. We spend the day traversing the side of a cliff to visit a monastery perched high on a peak, and then go farther to a school and small settlement sitting precariously on the mountainside. Earlier in the year, two of our scholarship girls were killed in an avalanche near this spot, their huts and families swept down into the river below.
We're conducting home visits, showing each of our girls that we support their education by having tea with their families. We talk to the parents about how important it is that they allow their girls to attend school, and that we'll support them to become whatever they wish to be. We visit one home in which a mother tells us that she can only afford to send one of her twin children to school. The two kids, both 6 years old, shyly peak around her legs. The mother asks me if her daughter might be able to attend school along with her brother. When we agree to support her, the mother and both children start crying for joy. I lose it again and struggle to keep myself together.