Editor’s note: I am writing a memoir about my experiences as the chaplain at the Air Force Field Hospital in Balad Iraq in 2009. The following excerpt is about my encounter with a boy whose Iraqi father brought him to us with third degree burns over fifty percent of his body. _______________________
“This is Hakeem,” the ICU doctor said from beneath his surgical mask.
The boy was a handsome 8-year-old who viewed his world with wholesome and moistened eyes. I beamed a smile toward his perfect face, but found his emotional echo flat. His father’s eyes directed my observation below Hakeem’s waist where he was one massive blister.
The doctor managed to whisper, “Iraqi grade schools don’t admonish their kids to ‘stop, drop and roll.’ The kid was playing with matches and cooking fuel. Bad combo,” he added in even lower tones.
“I brought something,” I murmured.
The head nurse shot me a rapid glance, “Whatcha got, Chap?”
I responded by turning toward Hakeem’s father who was not much more than a head taller than his son. His sunken eyes projected a familiar fear. While we didn’t share the language, we shared the title of dad, the role of Baba.
I reached into my satchel and withdrew a bilingual Koran. In accordance with their tradition, I kissed its cover and motioned an invitation for the father to read an Arabic passage. “The true servants of the merciful Lord are those who say to him: ‘Make our families happy, and make us examples to all who honor you.’ ”
He responded by imprinting his own chapped lips on the cover and then placed it with trembling hands on Hakeem’s pillow above his head. He turned to me and brought his hand to his heart. I shadowed the same movement and pulled my hand to my heart as if trying to reach for something else to give him.
The next day, I returned to our ICU to find the staff teaching Hakeem’s father how to rewrap the burns. In the father’s culture, nursing is a “feminine” role, but the father bucked his traditions and accepted the fact that loving Hakeem was more than our reckless war gave anyone the right to do.
The touching scene had an unfortunate background. The staff had just informed Hakeem’s dad that his son had a stroke and his burn infections were septic. He was dying. We were sending him home on the strongest pain dose so that he could be with a family that anxiously longed to hold him again.
When the bandage lesson was complete, none of us wanted to face what was next. Nurses pretended to be reading charts and technicians took meaningless measurements. Sniffles pulled back the emotion no one could afford.
Finally, the doctor placed Hakeem into the same strong paternal arms that had brought him to us. Our translator walked them out of the unit and into a waiting car, leaving a torrent of staff tears in his wake.
Later that day, a nurse complimented me on how well I had translated my compassion to the boy and his father.
I simply said, “I offered my sympathy the only way to I knew how. I did what I also hope you do. In the midst of chaos, I pray. I share a laugh. I wipe a tear. I offer a shoulder. I lend an ear. And at the end of the day — whether quiet or rushed — I strive to be a visible reminder of the holy to a place that desperately needs it.”