It is approximately 1,436 miles as the plane flies from Huntsville, Alabama to Clinica Ezell in Guatemala, but “Señor Gruñon” was making me feel right at home.
I had once again traveled the road to Montellano, Guatemala to participate in an eye surgery medical mission (Code name: “Operación de Ojos Claros) in conjunction with health professionals representing Health Talents International and a team of students from Lipscomb University, the University of Alabama and the University of West Florida.
I was scooting across the poorly-lit, humid waiting room on a stool which reminded me of a shopping cart with one, misdirected rogue wheel and browsing for the biggest, ripest cataracts in all the land, the kind that literally block out the sun like a noonday eclipse. It was my second year of practicing “jungle ophthalmology,” and I was more comfortable this time, quickly screening a long line of patients while deftly waving my titanium-plated, 10,000 candle power Welch-Allyn Model LX-5000 penlight like Harry Potter’s wand.
But instead of Latin, in my wake lay a bloody trail of mangled Spanish phrases.
My intrepid interpreter and assistant Danny always shadows me, cleaning up my linguistic mess, and most of my patients take my well-intended attempts to speak their native tongue in stride. They simply smile at the bumbling gringo and look to Danny for clarification. But Señor Gruñon was having none of that.
He became agitated when I told him to “Abre sus ojos” (or at least that’s what I thought I said) and began to wave his arms angrily. “¿Por qué se molestó?” he sighed.
I knew he wasn’t pleased. I had seen that look many times back home. Although I was used to dealing with “Grumpy Geezers,” the language barrier was greater this time, not merely a matter of me speaking a little more “country” with one of the manure-covered farmers in Liberty overalls from Lawrence County, Alabama.
I looked at Danny, but I could see that he was going to let that one pass. He often mercifully edits and filters long monologues and dialogues so that even a gringo like me can quickly get the gist. When he doesn’t translate at all, I know that whatever was said has no “clinical relevance.”
Later, Number One Son, who had been scribing and instilling eye drops for me that day, filled me in: “He said, ‘Why does he even bother?'”
Good question, Señor Gruñon. Although I know that you were complaining about my pathetic attempts to speak your native tongue, your question is a loaded one with far-reaching ramifications.
The short answer is I was trying to be polite and show you some respect. Sorry it didn’t come across that way and that it made you mad. I’m sure your anger was nothing personal.
But the longer answers are legion: Because I want to get outside my “comfort zone” and away from my comfortable, white-bread suburban “utopia” and see how the majority of the world lives; that after nearly 25 years of seeing patients, I’m still searching for new challenges and opportunities to learn; because after almost 50 years of “going to church,” I’m burned out on much of “American Christianity” with all its number-crunching and parochial concerns; that I’m searching for signs, tokens, any trace whatsoever, really, of God’s kingdom, bright and pure, and, like Bono, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” but I’m not going to give up; because I always dug those stories of Jesus healing the blind, and I want a piece of that action.
Once inside the exam room, I couldn’t even penetrate Señor Gruñon’s cataracts with my brightest light (and believe me, I tried). Both lenses of his eyes, once crystal-clear, were murky brown, like old mud. He could have flipped a coin to decide which eye to have done, but he chose the right one (el ojo derecho!). Without a word, he rose from his chair and left the room.
The day after his surgery, I removed Señor Gruñon’s eye patch during morning rounds. I gently wiped the gooey string of residual antibiotic ointment from his lids and lashes and tugged on his upper and lower lids as if drawing open a pair of window shades. I scanned his eye with my penlight. His cornea was clear, and his pupil was wide and round. He squinted reflexively against the light, his retina and brain struggling to adjust to this startling new sensation.
I could have asked Danny to translate my question, but sometimes I can be a stubborn old fool, too. “Cuantos dedos tengo?” I asked.
“Cinco…uno…tres,” Señor Gruñon replied. The light that streamed in illuminated not only his eyes but also his understanding. There was an upturn at each corner of his mouth, a trace of a smile. Señor Gruñon looked at me and softly said, “Gracias.”
Holy Ground Moments like that, Señor Gruñon, are why I “bother.”