Several years ago I was informed that Abdi, the ailing patriarch of the family I was assigned to, wanted to wash himself in the ocean before he died.
He had been dying ever since I first met him, that grand old man of the apartment complex, dressed in pristine clothes and carrying a distinguished cane. He could be both severe and effusive within a manner of seconds, and I was slightly terrified of him. When I entered a room he would rise and extend his hand for me to clasp. He didn’t have a finger on his right hand, which I tried never to stare at. He taught me how to do the proper greetings: As-Salamu Alaykum. Wa alaykum salaam.
I could never really tell for sure what he had. He had tubercolosis; I spent so much time with the family that I needed shots to protect against TB, and ended up testing slightly positive for it at my Bible college (minor heart attacks, all around). The other disease is what seemed to be killing him, but it was only ever described to me as “African sand fleas.” The doctors in Portland tried to treat this parasite, but the medications started to liquefy Abdi’s internal organs. His skin turned gray, he lost what little weight he had, and the whites of his eyes glowed neon yellow.
He was shipped off to Minnesota for three months, where Western doctors evidently know a little more about tropical diseases. I worried it was the last time I would ever see him, but Abdi returned as fresh as I had ever seen him, smiling broadly and yelling at all of us to go fetch him some food.
Life went on for a year. Abdi lived his life with relish, sadly frowning and telling me he was dying, and yet actively indulging in every pleasure his doctors had strictly forbidden: smoking pipes on the front steps, delicately eating spicy hot Cheetos, one at a time, even drinking a beer now and then.
And then Hali, his oldest daughter, informed me that he wanted to go to the ocean and wash in its waters before he died. Of course I accepted the request: you can’t disobey a dying man.
My friend Jan, the one who first introduced me to the Somali community, volunteered to drive us all in her beat up Toyota Corolla. She was scheduled to speak at a Christian summer camp at the coast and decided to kill two birds with one stone (not a very good metaphor for this story, I’m afraid). Abdi sat in the front seat, wearing a traditional tunic and cap and with the cane between his legs. I sat squished in the middle seat between Abdi’s wife (Manu) and his best friend (Ali). It was very hot in that tiny little car during that two-hour drive. Jan had purchased some Somali praise music, a covert way of trying to convert our dear friends, and it was all cheap electronic devices and tinny tin sounds. I found myself happily breathing in the smells of sweat, pretending like I was in Africa. In that moment, it didn’t seem so implausible.
We got to the beach, dropped Jan off to her speaking duties, and stopped to survey the next challenge. The entire way over I had been so busy praying for everybody that I forgot what the Oregon coast in June is like: blustery, gray and cold. We used the public restrooms and then sat in the car eating boiled corn on the cob that they’d brought in plastic bags, trying to gain the strength to go out into the wild. The mood turned somber; everyone was quiet as we stared at the white-tipped water. I tried to explain how truly frigid the water would be, using the few words of their language I knew. But Abdi had a look of determination in his eyes and ordered us out of the car. We trudged down the dunes and started making the long trek out to the water. As the wind brought tears to my eyes, I had a sudden thought: If he goes in the water, he’ll die of pneumonia. I. Am. Going. To. Kill. Abdi. I turned around to wave my arms and warn them all, but what I saw stopped me short.
There was Abdi, stripped down to his boxers, staring solemnly at the sea. He was emaciated, tired, hanging onto his cane for dear life. His wife and best friend had stopped walking; we were all staring at Abdi. And he himself was having a staring contest with somebody: Allah, the ocean, himself.
I couldn’t breath, couldn’t watch as he stepped into the cold water. I turned my back. Abdi muttered something to himself, I imagined trying to explain his imminent pneumonia to the volunteer organization, cursing myself for getting into this mess. And then I heard the peals of laughter.
I whirled around, and Manu and Ali were doubled over in laughter, hysterical to the point of tears.
“What’s so funny?” I demanded, rather tearful myself. They pointed at Abdi, who was slowly putting all of his clothes back on.
“He says it’s too cold,” they told me. “He wants to go home.”
And that was that.
Unbeknownst to me, they had come prepared for this scenario, filling up the trunk with all sorts of empty milk cartons and detergent bottles. We scooped up as much of the water as we could manage, and drove it home. They later told me that they heated it up on the stove and then dumped it in the bathtub. So, in the end, Abdi did get his wish.
On the way home, all three of us fell asleep in the back seat, heads lolling on one another. I woke up, as disoriented and peaceful as a child. Everyone in the car felt cheerful, despite the serious nature of our mission accomplished.
Abdi seemed to rally after that trip. Perhaps the ocean water really was restorative. Life went on as normal, or as normal as it was back then. He was still in and out of the hospital, and many of my afternoons were spent ferrying various children and spouses back and forth to his hospital room, delivering meals of cold boiled potatoes and goat meat, since he refused to eat the American food.
One day, about five months after the beach trip, I took his three daughters to visit him during one such occasion. He was sitting upright in his bed when we went in, his eyes as clear as I had seen them, papers spread messily all over his bed. When we came in he announced that he wanted to read us a story.
That sly fox. For the past year or so, Abdi had been learning to read and write in his own language. This was a recent phenomenon, because until that year his language hadn’t ever been written down. During his years in Somalia, he was denied access to education, and so this was his first experience with being literate in any language. Someone—I don’t know who—had been teaching him to read and write in his brand-new language.
He picked up several of the papers and started to read, slowly and haltingly, sometimes saying the same word 3-4 times. The pride in his work was palpable. I didn’t even need Hali to translate it for me; I knew he was reading about the story of his life. The hard times in Somalia, the war, the deaths, the fighting. The flight to Kenya, and the experiences of the camps. I heard the names of his children, and he read them painstakingly slow, savoring the syllables. Then he read about coming to America and being happy, and finally, of meeting Jan and me. When he finished, looking up with those clear eyes, I burst into clapping. He seemed pleased, and paused, and then decided to read the story again. And again.
That was the last time I ever saw Abdi. He read the story as many times as we could take it, his daughters bored and kicking the edges of the bed by the time we left. He ate his cold, boiled potatoes and complained bitterly about the hospital food. He was modest in the face of my effusive compliments on his writing achievements, but deep down I could see he was flushed with pride.
One week later, he died of complications from his diseases.
At the time, I am ashamed to say I thought of how pleased I was to have made it into the glorious, chaotic, painful story that was his life. Later, months later, I asked his daughters if they had saved the story that he had written, his first and last. No one knew where it was. No one can even tell me where he was buried.
He was a poor, uneducated refugee. Nobody cared when he was young and everyone around him was dying; nobody cared when his farms were burned and he almost starved to death on the journey to a refugee camp. And certainly nobody seemed to care much when he arrived here, penniless and sick and with absolutely nowhere else to go.
Now, I see with greater clarity the absolute pleasure it was to experience the glories and grace of Abdi. I see how poorly I try and communicate with you all, to try and explain how wonderful and desperate it all is. And I see that sometimes, regardless of the medium, the most important thing is simply for the story to be told.