On Friday morning, I was listening to NPR while I worked out at the gym when StoryCorps came on the air. Even happy stories on StoryCorps make me teary, so I moved over to an area of the gym where no one would be alarmed if they saw me lose it.
The story was narrated by two epidemiologists at the CDC who described their recent experiences in and observations about the Ebola epidemic in a health clinic in Sierra Leone.
No way was this story going to have a happy ending.
The story centered on a baby whose mother had died of Ebola. The orphaned baby was left alone in a box, but when the baby tested negative for Ebola, nurses began picking it up and caring for it. Eleven of those 12 nurses died of Ebola.
Deriving meaning from impossible suffering
Even if you try and wrap your head around the utter horror of the situation in this clinic, and the selfless and courageous medical staff who risk their lives for their patients, there is something about a baby left alone and orphaned in a box that defies all logic or attempts to distance oneself.
The image becomes impossible to erase from your brain. (Just try to make yourself forget about a baby in a box now.) But maybe the image itself, and the stark reality of it — its sheer and terrible simplicity — is meant to give us pause. Is meant to reach into us and linger as an afterimage.
Maybe a baby in a box can only be framed as a story that instructs us. Maybe it forces us to see the worst that we humans can be; that we live in a world in which babies are left in boxes. Plenty of babies have seen worse. Those babies are in the news every day also, left in dumpsters, locked in basements, buried in backyards.
Maybe the “lesson” we are meant to take from this story is that of the nurses who couldn’t help but pick up the baby and soothe it and care for it. Does the lesson then become that those nurses died because of their humanity? Were their deaths retribution for their humanity, or simple biological cause and effect? I simply cannot and will not accept the premise of retribution, but even the simpler “cause and effect,” by its very definition, erases the notion of humanity.
The theoretical becomes actual
There is an existential game people sometimes play at social gatherings. The game involves theoretical moral choices: if you were in a sinking boat and one person had to be sacrificed so the boat wouldn’t sink, how would you decide. If there was only enough oxygen in a room for eight people, and there were 10 of you, who would have to go. And even though for most of us those scenarios are merely meant to provoke intellectual thought and discussion, in real life, on our planet, moral choices are made every day by our fellow human beings, sometimes involving life or death. Nurses die from picking up sick babies.
I don’t know the baby’s name or if it is still alive. All I know is that those two words “baby” and “box” should never go together. Babies and sweet dreams, babies and warm milk, babies and their inborn trust that we adults will take care of them and keep them safe. Those words go together.
I’ve been thinking all morning about whether I could have resisted picking up that baby, even knowing what might happen. I picture it crying and reaching out its arms. I know I would break down at some point and pick it up. There, there, it’ll be okay. Not out of some noble altruism, but simply because I couldn’t not pick it up.
At the very least, a poem should be written for a baby in a box. The alliteration is already there, bumping our conscience, but where is the poet among us who has the words to describe such a thing?