A Tribute to Grace

A Tribute to Grace

I had been worried that some of the students wouldn’t show, but now the room was packed with 6 or 7 people crammed on each of the couches and a few on the floor in between.  Everyone was joking, laughing, smiling as each of the students took their turn to stand and tell their story.  It was the first meeting of the school year for the LEF scholarship students in Monrovia.  Older students volunteered first, feeling confident in front of the group, while the newer students sat back in their seats as if trying to fold themselves into the cushions of the couch to avoid being called on to speak.   Finally, it was Grace’s turn.  Grace was one of the new students, having just received an LEF scholarship this year.  She seemed quite nervous to speak in front of everyone.

She tried to stand up to give her introduction but somehow got stuck in the jumble of feet and shoes on the crowded floor, and promptly collapsed back down into her seat.  Everyone began to giggle, and Grace hid her face in the cushions.  We tried to encourage her to get up again, but she tucked her face further into her hands.  Now everyone was really laughing.  Finally she showed her face—she was crying.  The laughter died down a bit as people realized she was embarrassed to the point of tears and I suggested someone else go before Grace.  I switched places with one of the other students to be able to sit right next to her on the couch.  I placed my hand on her shoulder and tried to assure her that she had nothing to worry about.

After a few more students gave their introductions, Grace stood up successfully this time and began to recite: “My name is Grace Wright.  I live in the… the…”  Before she could finish two sentences her voice got high and squeaky and the tears started to come again.  I fully expected her to sit down and give up, as did everyone else, but she continued on in the same strained voice.  She sped through her lines with a kind of desperation, as if she was just praying to finish before she really lost control.

“I live in the New Matadi Community.  I am 17 years old.  I am in the 9th grade.  My favorite subjects are literature and history.  My hobbies are reading and decorating.”

By the time she finished, everyone was laughing again.  I looked at Grace and thought I saw the hint of a grin on her face too.  Even through all of her embarrassment, at some level she realized this was kind of funny.  I was just proud of her for getting up to introduce herself.

The meeting went on and the coordinator began to talk about the importance of being committed to the group and contributing in whatever small ways we could.  He requested that everyone make an effort to volunteer towards the organization and asked who might be willing to contribute and how?  Everyone sat in silence for a few moments.  Then, to everyone’s surprise, Grace jumped up again.  She recited:

“I can cook. I will prepare rice and soup, I can clean, I can do interior decorating………”

Again, before she made it through the first 3 words, she was crying again, her voice elevated and shaky, yet her expression somehow resolved as she continued to list the things she could contribute.  When she finished I had a strong urge to get up and hug her.  I thought of times when I had been truly truly embarrassed—and a piano recital from my high school years came to mind.  In that situation I really botched the piece I was supposed to play, and when I finished I promptly ran off the stage, and refused to perform publicly for a few years after that.   Although we laughed watching Grace, really we all can relate to that feeling of embarrassment—and for most of us it means we run away from our problem and pray for those moments to be over.   For Grace, it was an opportunity to prove she could overcome her weakness.  When no one else was willing to stand up to volunteer, Grace, in all of her tearful glory, stood up to offer what she could.  If she didn’t take the opportunity then, she might not get the chance again.

* * * * *

After that meeting in August, I didn’t think too much more about the incident—until this past week.  On Tuesday morning, I received a text from a friend that Grace had been taken to the hospital.  We were just making arrangements to go and visit her that evening during visitation hours when we got the news.

Grace Wright died on Tuesday, October 1st in John F. Kennedy Hospital in Monrovia.  On Friday at school she complained of lower abdominal pain and when it got worse over the weekend, the family decided to take her to the hospital.  It was only Tuesday morning that we heard she was there, and by then it was too late.  Her mother remained at the hospital with her for those few days, but was unable to speak with a doctor to find out what was wrong for the entire time she was there.  After Grace passed away, there was no investigation into the cause of her death.

The last week has been a difficult one for all of us here in Monrovia who knew her.  It’s difficult to find any consolation after an event that is so confusing, so completely senseless, so unexpected that it still seems unreal, and at the same time is still totally unexplained. In times like this you can’t help but ask yourself the “what ifs?”  What if I had gone to see her on Sunday?  What could have killed her so quickly? What if it was an appendix rupture?  What if they caught it, could they even have performed the surgery to fix it?  What were those nurses doing?  Where was the doctor?  What if this had happened in a different hospital, in a different country, where people receive decent medical care?

I don’t think it’s wrong to ask those questions.  The inequality that exists in this world is something that concerns many of us, but every once in a while events like this occur that remind you that you should be not just concerned, but outraged at the reality that there are places in this world where 17 year old girls can have a stomach ache on Friday and be dead by Tuesday.  Places where a mother can spend three days in the hospital with her daughter who is dying and not see a doctor.  Places where families have to spend their hard earned money to purchase a death certificate for their daughter that reads “Cause of Death: Unknown.”  Yes, all of that should make you furious, and maybe, just maybe you’ll get mad enough to do something to try to change it.  And that would be good.

But even that won’t change the fact that Grace is gone.  And so it is also important that we remember her, and the amazing person she was even at the young age of 17.  Grace was extremely kind-hearted.  She had many friends and she always made sure they knew how much she cared for them.  She would make surprise visits to her relatives, just to check and see how they were coming on.  Grace was also very strong in her faith.  She was a Christian and never missed a Sunday service.  Above all, she was very hardworking, waking up before sunrise to draw water, sweep the yard, and do all her chores before heading to school.  In the afternoon she would come home and cook for the whole family.  Her father is handicapped, and her older sister has severe asthma, so from a young age Grace had a lot of responsibilities.  But she always went about her work with a smile, and was eager to help anyone who needed it.

When I heard that Grace had died, I thought back to that first meeting of the students in Monrovia.  I thought of Grace, the first one to stand up to volunteer, in spite of her embarrassment.  And although at the time the whole ordeal seemed quite inconsequential and funny even, I realized that it wasn’t at all.  All the fragile strength of the human spirit was perfectly expressed in that moment, as Grace gasped and sputtered to tell us what she was willing to offer to benefit the group.

I can’t be sure, but I think Grace was reminding us that we will not always be perfectly strong, perfectly able, or perfectly graceful.  All of us will have moments of fear, moments of embarrassment, moments of sadness.   But somehow even in those instances of weakness, we can still be strong.   Somehow, someway, we can be brave even in our fear.