Part 17: Struggling to Find Grace
I do not at all understand the mystery of grace - only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.” – Anne Lamott
As much as I wanted the future to wait it arrived the next morning … literally, but at the same time figuratively. A contradiction I was not unaware of and which seemed to follow me throughout the day. I was not at my best in the beginning but I hope that by the end I had exhibited more grace than I had been showing previously.
I found myself becoming sympathetic to Major Dunham and his men without really meaning to. It started early on when one of his men, a man named Mark Golden, jumped the fence and helped me to wrangle the Billy goat after he decided it would be fun to chew through his picket line and head over and do the same thing to the wash I had just hung on the line.
“If I were that goat,” he said smiling. “I would be thanking my lucky stars that you aren’t in the mood for BBQ right now.”
Extremely irritated as I tried to tuck my hair back into its braid and back under the bandana I was wearing I said, “Oh I’m in the mood all right but I’ve decided to cut him some slack since this is a first offense. Besides, I should have figured that rope was the wrong thing to try and picket them with.”
“Some goats will chew on anything. This fella just seems more curious than inherently evil.”
Caught off guard I had to laugh. “Inherently evil goats? You all have some of those at the Base do you?”
“According to my wife we do. She is on a work crew that rotates through the home farm every third week. One goat in particular seems to see a target on her … uh … ”
I laughed understanding what he wasn’t saying and then noticed he was limping and asked, “Did you get caught on the fence as you came over?”
“Huh?” he asked before looking down and then sighing before shaking his head. “No. It’s an old injury that is taking forever to heal.”
He lifted up his pant leg and I could see that the wound on his calf had suppurated through what looked like a homemade dressing. “Oh my Lord?! I can’t believe that any properly trained medical person would think that was OK! I …”
“Easy ma’am, I’m on triage. This is just the best I can do.”
Extremely upset I said, “Well it certainly isn’t the best I can do.” Absolutely refusing to give him any way out I made him sit down on the lanai and so I could get a better look at the wound. All the while I growled and mumbled and grumbled not understanding – or at least being unwilling to accept – the whole triage business.
“Ma’am, it is just the way it is. Most of the time it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. We are working as fast and as hard as we can so that they can get rid of the triage rosters, it just takes time. Resources are stretched really thin, and so are medically trained personnel.”
“Humph. Time some people don’t have. You are a productive member of your unit … or at least I assume so based on the fact you are on Major Dunham’s crew. How do they expect you to do your job in this condition?”
Slightly offended he told me stiffly, “No one complains about my work.”
“No. Not yet. But how long before you think this is going to really get infected? It is now in a minor way but it wouldn’t take much for this to turn into something systemic. Where would you be then? Or your wife?”
The wound reminded me of the kinds of wounds that I would sometimes see on Bea’s mother before she lost a lot of weight and got her diabetes under control. First I washed my hands thoroughly and then put on a pair of dishwashing gloves that had been in boiling water. “Sorry, I don’t think you are infectious or anything, I just don’t want to get anything in this wound and make it worse.”
Surprised he said, “Oh. Er … you … you really don’t have to do this you know.”
“Oh yes I do. I just can’t believe no one else has done anything about it before this. Honestly, I think this war has taken too many people’s compassion and commonsense.”
It wasn’t nice work for either one of us. How the poor man had been getting along up to this point I can’t imagine. It is a wonder he hadn’t already lost the leg. It was a lot of puss surrounded by a ring of angry and irritated flesh. After cleaning the wound with garlic juice I used olive oil that had a healthy dose of clove oil in it as a mild anesthetic. After that I put calendula lotion on it and properly bandaged it so that it would remain clean.
He noticed that I was packing up some of everything that I had used and tried to object. “Oh no you don’t. You will sit right there and listen to my instructions on how to take care of this. What kind of person would I be to have seen this, known what to do to help, and just turned my nose up at it like it wasn’t any of my business or my problem? Well I don’t work that way.”
His face registered a sudden understanding. “Oh, you’re one of those do-gooders,” he said.
I gave him the eye that I had reserved for my most hard headed students. “Don’t be obtuse. I personally believe that what goes around comes around … not karma or anything stupid like that … or maybe you could just pass this bit of helpfulness along to someone else, or whatever. I don’t particularly care what you think of my personal beliefs right now. I have my own code of ethics based on my moral compass and that’s all there is to it. Sometimes a sin isn’t committed, sometimes it is something omitted.”
I was about to rip into him further – not really at my best and with no excuse for it – when I saw he was going to continue to object but there was a commotion out front. I didn’t know what had happened at first, all I could see is that two of the soldiers coming back from patrol were injured pretty badly and Major Dunham was in a great deal of pain from something but was refusing to be treated until after his men had been seen to.
“Oh for Heaven’s sake, don’t be so hard headed. Where does it hurt?” I asked, finally losing patience with anyone in fatigues in general and him in particular. I don’t know why I was letting myself be so easily irritated. Maybe it was the number of people. Maybe it was feeling that things were too far out of my control. Whatever it was my mouth was way ahead of my better nature.
Major Dunham gave me a sourpuss look and crossed his arms putting me in mind of a cranky widower the ladies of my church had tried to minister to for years. Mateo shook his head and told us both, “Rock, meet immovable object. This is getting us nowhere. Leah, the Major had something fall on his foot. He is in pain.” He kissed my forehead and said, “Please, for me, cut him some slack. I have to go help the others.”
He left and I stood there tapping my toe and looking at the Major, trying to decide just how far I could stretch my religion before I lost it. “Major. I’m well aware of your … contempt … when it comes to me. Or maybe it is just civilians in general. Suit yourself. However you are not helping anyone, much less yourself, by refusing to at least let me see if I can help. You need to be in top form to deal with whatever is going on and a broken foot …”
“Toe … my big toe. And it isn’t broken. I can still move it,” he bit out unwillingly.
“Well then God be praised, you got off lucky. At least let me look at the foot. If it is that minor then it isn’t like you’ll lose a body part just from my eyes gazing upon it. Besides, sitting here will give you a chance to be on hand when they report how those two men are doing.”
There was no small amount of cursing involved on his part but I did eventually irritate him enough into taking his boot off and letting me examine the injury. His feet were far from sweet but aside from that the only thing of note was that his big toe was swelling and bruised. Since I already had my first aid box out I decided to ease his pain even if I was more inclined to let him suffer from being such a donkey’s behind.”
I put twenty drops of tincture of comfrey in a pan of cool water and added a couple drops of tincture of calendula, all of which he eyed with suspicion. I had him soak his foot while he waited and then received his reports. As he gave his instructions – all the while everyone including the Major attempting to ignore my presence – I loosely wrapped the toe in wet dressings of diluted tincture of comfrey and told him that I’d be changing them every couple of hours for a while. His nose flared but he never gave me a hard time when I came around to do the changing.
I am no trained medical professional in any way, shape, or fashion so I kept well clear of the real medics as they worked on the two seriously injured men. I did however make sure there was plenty of boiling water for cleaning instruments, hands, and what have you. I also made sure that the medics had food and drink at the ready so they could keep their strength up during what even I could see was going to be a touch and go situation requiring all of their concentration and energies.
Not having anything pressing that couldn’t wait – Joseph and Juliet told me they’d do the gardening that was left if I would look after their friends – I started going around to the rest of the men and asking them if they had any minor bumps or bruises or injuries that I could provide care for. When any would act reluctant I told them I was doing it so the medics wouldn’t be distracted. Soon enough they all got the message that I wouldn’t take no for an answer and simply gave it up.
One man had an ant bite that had turned into an ulcer. Being very familiar with such a thing occurring I had a remedy at the ready. I soaked fresh blackberry leaves in hot wine – cheap homemade wine made from our muscadine grapes two years previously – and then took the still hot leaves out and put them on the ulcer and told the man it would need to be repeated every morning and night until the skin stopped dying back.
I had one man that had a booming cough. “Just can’t seem to kick it,” he told me. I made up a thyme and honey tea and added a little dram of lemon juice to it and then I gave him a small bottle of my homemade cough syrup made with licorice root, marshmallow root, plantain leaf, thyme, honey, a few drops of oil of anise, and water. I also gave him some of my precious horehound cough drops.
“If this doesn’t help you really should talk to someone more trained. If you were running a fever I would swear that sounded like whooping cough.”
“Uh … that went around the base a couple of months back. My girlfriend’s kid had it.”
“Lovely. Well I don’t know if you do or if you are contagious or just what but do me a favor and stay away from my children. I don’t mean to be harsh but …”
“No. It’s OK. If I was in your shoes I’d feel the same way.”
It continued that way on and off for the rest of the morning and into the afternoon … irritated cuticle on a bruised finger, infected hair follicle at the back of someone’s hairline, chigger bites, congested sinuses, ear ache, filthy cuts and scrapes, a badly irritated patch of skin from an ill fitting back pack, and a horribly disgusting case of athlete’s foot. I was very happy to discover that my choice not to become a nurse or doctor like my dad had wanted was the best choice I could have made for myself. I had a lot of patience for kids and teenagers but honest to pete, dealing with adults made me feel horribly cranky; especially when I knew that the regular application of soap and water could have prevented most of what I treated.
I retreated to the house, picking up the children from where Genty had been babysitting them along with the goats, and started a late lunch/early supper. The children were tired and quickly fell asleep after they were fed and I wanted to head there with them but knew I still had a world of things to do ahead of me before I could. Luckily one of them wasn’t hunting Mateo down; he and Dog were sitting in the shade of the front door and I took them both a plate.
“Children down?” Mateo asked. He caressed my arm and some of the tension I had been feeling drained away.
“Yes. At least now I don’t have to pretend that I don’t feel like chewing horse shoes and spitting nails. Will someone please explain to me what happened?”
Dog looked surprised. “You haven’t heard?”
“I’ve been too busy and His Majesty the Major would clinch his teeth and lips tightly shut whenever I was around,” I told him more than a little aggrieved.
Mateo and Dog tried not to laugh but still wound up smiling real big. “Mi Tesoro, you have definitely gotten under the Major’s skin. I heard with my own ears him tell one of his men to stop standing around and go see ‘that woman’ before she drug him away to witch doctor him.”
There went all my good intentions out the window. “Witch doctor?! Of all the nerve. See if I …” I didn’t finish because they both finally busted out laughing. “Would you two please explain why you are laughing like a couple of buffoons? Or is this a guy thing?”
“Leah … it’s … it’s just …” Dog snickered but couldn’t finish.
Mateo finally caught his breath and gave it a try. “Love, you’ve managed to impress the Major and he is none too happy about it. Some men are just like that. He is being forced to re-evaluate his opinion, something he is obviously out of practice doing and does not relish.”
“Oh, honestly. Men. I swear Momma was right. Most of you are obviously a few bricks shy of a load. It appears that the Major is more short than most.” As they say, the best offense is a good defense and I retreated to continue my own work for the day. Juliet and Liz showed me how to milk the goat and gave me other pointers and tips on how to manage them. About midway through their demonstrations the children woke up and came to learn about the goats as well and I discovered that Nydia rather enjoyed it, more than I to be honest, and I hoped that she would be a good helper as it looked like there was going to be more work than I had anticipated there being.
It didn’t take long though for the children to tire again and I fixed them a snack and then put them to bed with Mateo’s blessing. Having so many strangers around seemed to be taking it out of them and Neeno more than Nydia required careful handling.
After putting them to bed I finally found out what had happened. Not too long after that Major Dunham came over for his last dressing change of the evening.
“Raiders. They are going to be an increasing problem. You do understand that Jakob.”
“I’m well aware of the danger Major,” Mateo acknowledged. “We’ve faced the threat. It does no good to run from reality.”
“We’ll step up patrols in this area but logistically it is impossible for us to get them all. The teams rebooting MacDill will probably put patrols on the Hillsborough River as well since I’ve heard that some supplies will be moved that way to try and save on fuel.”
Mateo’s response was a typically Latin shrug.
“You don’t think it best to send your woman and children to the Intake Facility?” Major Dunham persisted.
Before Mateo could answer I gave an emphatic and final, “No.”
This time is was the Major’s turn to shrug.
I interrupted and said, “There. Assuming you don’t bang it on something the pain should be minimal. You’ll probably still lose the nail but hopefully not until another one has grown in beneath it.”
“Hmmm,” he mumbled. Unwillingly he said, “If you aren’t a witch doctor then what do you call all this you’ve been doing today?”
I snorted gracelessly and said, “Helping.” He gave me a look that reminded me briefly of my father when he would get fed up with my occasional foul moods at home. That thought brought a smile to my face and it must have disarmed the Major because he looked startled. In a calmer tone I told him, “I don’t really call it anything. I suppose in the old days I would just be called a housewife or maybe, at most, a Yarb Woman or maybe a Granny Lady in training … though the Good Lord above knows how little I know and how much I have to learn.”
“Were you experimenting on my men?” he asked suspiciously.
Understanding that he was just being protective I told him, “Of course not. I think I told someone today that I have a code of ethics that I hold onto very tightly. At least as tightly as any doctor or medic would their Hippocratic oath. The only way I would experiment as you call it was if I was at the end of my rope and I had nothing else left in my knowledge base that worked. Everything I’ve done today is something I’ve done to myself with no ill effects. But I have to be honest, I understand why there is a triage order in affect but I’m not sure I agree completely with how it is being applied. Some of it just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Major Dunham eased back in the chair he was setting in and sighed, “No, I don’t suppose you would. But you haven’t been to the camps and you haven’t seen how limited the supplies are.”
Looking at Mateo who seemed content to let me carry the conversation I turned back to the Major and said, “No. No I haven’t. In fact I haven’t left this street since well before the baby was born. But I’ve made it and it isn’t like I had a whole lot of help to do it. I’m sure it was with God’s grace but I did make it … and without stinting on medical care for myself or the children … or Mateo.”
“You haven’t needed a doctor apparently.” Oh foolish man was he … and he knew it almost immediately because he said, “My wife would probably have a few words to say regarding that last statement since I seem to recall a baby making an appearance in there somewhere.” It was strange. When he talked about his wife he seemed somehow softer; not less strong, just more approachable.
“Well since you already know I won’t point out the obvious,” I told him with a genuine smile. “Look Major it is six of one or half a dozen of another, at least to me. I realize that commercially made medical supplies are bound to be in short supply; only a fool wouldn’t understand that. On the other hand there are alternative methods of treating things. Not every bump, bruise, or ailment requires top tier treatment. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.”
“And exactly what would you suggest?” he asked, resigned that he was likely to be made aware of my opinion whether he wanted to be or not.
“OK, if you really want to know the first thing I would do is route all medical issues through a central processing station or stations and have it run by nurse practitioners or some other person trained to deal with triage issues. Make sure they are completely honest so that they can’t be bribed and give them and their families’ protection so that they can’t be threatened. Make it a felony offense to be caught doing either for anyone involved. Next, set up alternative clinics. I’m not talking about homeopathic clinics nor some form of placebo quackery. These clinics would be honest to goodness clinics that would serve those needing treatment but not top tier treatment such as would be needed for surgery or some type of inpatient issue. These clinics would utilize herbs and just plain, good ol’ commonsense to take the pressure off the supplies and personnel that are needed for emergencies. They would also encourage people not to let things become emergencies and find ways to increase people’s knowledge of how to take care of minor things at home. Have one or more of these lower tier clinics for those that have been triaged. By restricting access to the top tier treatment to only those who need it rather than having the top tier treat anyone and everyone that isn’t triaged, you may find that strict triage can eventually be eliminated. Prevent what used to happen in the old days when people without insurance or regular doctors would just show up in the emergency room for any ailment thereby preventing quick access for those that really needed it.”
“Oh is that all?” he asked with an amused look on his face.
Dead pan I told him, “No but it is a start. I understand the concept of rationing, this simply uses that concept to replace triage.”
“Mrs. Jakob, the triage order came from well above me, well above our Base Command for that matter. We cannot ignore it.”
I smiled again and told him, “And that’s the beauty of it Major, you aren’t ignoring the triage order. If anything you are actually enforcing it even further and better. As I said, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. For example, save the Tussen based cough controllers for those that an herb-based gargle doesn’t help. Instead of sticking a child immediately on a nebulizer because the parents waited too long for treatment, encourage the early use of a cool mist humidifier and appropriate oils that will keep the airways open. Make washing with soap and water mandatory – for example have wash stations set up outside the mess hall - that will cut infections of all types way back. If people won’t use them then have them have to get a hand stamp or something along those lines before they can enter the building. It isn’t rocket science and I’m sure some of your staff can come up with better ideas and easier ways to implement them.”
He sat looking at me long enough and hard enough that I felt Mateo stir beside me. Before anything came of that however Major Dunham said, “I can see your attraction for Major Taglione, she’s for ever looking at alternative methods of doing things. And it isn’t as if these ideas haven’t been raised before. But when you have limited resources and limited time it must all be prioritized.”
“I agree. But there has to be times when putting a little extra work into something reaps a bigger pay off in the long run.”
He gave another long-suffering sigh. “I’ll … I’ll take your suggestions under advisement.” He sat for a moment and then looked like he was going to rise and leave only to remain sitting. I started to say something but Mateo’s arm across my shoulders stiffened and I settled back and simply gave the lead over to whoever would pick it up.
Mateo asked, “Is there anything else Major?”
Another sigh. The man had the talent for putting a lot of emotion into his sighs. “I’m a fool. Twice a fool and more. But I can’t … my daughter …” He clinched his teeth over words that wanted to spill out.
My conscience kicked me in the side of the head. “Major, children are gifts from God regardless of their color, shape, or size. Let me get some paper and we’ll make a list of some of the things I’ve used with my own children.”
It let us both off the hook to put it that way and when the Major finally did go back to the patrol’s camp he took with him all that I could think of and some supplies for his wife to keep at home until they could get more of their own. I felt like I had done the right thing but I still felt irritated at myself for taking so long to realize what God had wanted me to do in the first place. No wonder I had felt like I was being poked with a sharp stick all day long.
“What time tomorrow are they pulling out?” I asked Mateo as we got ready for bed.
“Early, but there will be patrols in the area off and on that may or may not be stopping in.”
“You don’t sound completely happy about it,” I told him after hearing his tone of voice.
“I just don’t want them to bring any special attention to us, make us a target … or more of a target than we already are. Tomorrow we need to start extend the walls around the properties on either side of us. I’ve got some idea of how to do it after talking to some of the others and hearing what they’ve seen some people do.”
Putting trust in him that he knew what he was doing I asked, “But what about the swamp?”
“That will come last and I’ve got some ideas for back there as well. But let me sleep on it first Leah, we have a lot of work ahead of us no matter what strategy we ultimately go with.”