Bernadette is a runaway.
Three weeks ago, she packed her bags, lied to her mother, and bought a one-way ticket on a train bound for the coast. She said that she would be visiting a cousin, and then she disappeared. But someone like Bernadette does not go unnoticed for long.
The tumor over Bernadette’s right eye pushed her brow to her cheekbone, blocking her vision like an eye patch. As she journeyed from her hometown to Pointe Noire, she would lift it up with her right hand so she could use both eyes to see her steps, her path, and, finally, her destination: a hospital ship.
Now in the hospital ward, Bernadette is a little cheeky, almost rebellious. At about 5’ tall, what she lacks in height she makes up for with spunk. She keeps a match tucked in her hair ‘in case the inside of her ear tickles’ and occasionally erupts with loud, happy laughter. Some days she jumps up and down. Since the operation, Bernadette’s right hand is free to join her left in clapping, pointing, or trying to knit with hot pink yarn. She says she wants to make a chair cushion. The little girl in the next bed watches Bernadette with shy fascination.
Bernadette had no choice but to lie, she says. When she had a tumor, people would see her coming and go the other way. No one would touch, her except for her mother. Even so, if Mama Philo had known that her daughter was traveling to a hospital ship for surgery, it would have made her sick from worrying. By running away, Bernadette spared her mother from fear.
Now that her tumor is gone, Bernadette is looking forward to her future. Some day, hopefully soon, she will sell homemade peanut butter to passengers outside the very train station where her great escape began. Bernadette smiles at a thought: not having a tumor is going to be good for business, she says. In fact, she may expand to selling pastries.
The next time Bernadette buys a one-way train ticket, it will take her home. She hopes that her mother will be too happy to be angry. And if she is mad? Well, Mama Philo will have to forgive eventually, because Bernadette is old enough to make her own decisions. Because Bernadette is 54.
On a hospital ship in Africa, there is a runaway with a bandage on her head and a match in her hair. And if you ask her, “are you ever too old to spare your mother from worrying?” She will look at you with two eyes and say, no.
Photos of Bernadette courtesy Mercy Ships Photogs:
Debra Bell, Michelle Murrey, & Yours Truly.