(The following was written by RMU senior nursing student Lee Folk, who is currently on his second trip to Nicaragua, where a group of nursing students travel twice yearly to provide basic health care to residents in the barrio around the capital of Managua. The trip is led by Carl Ross, university professor of nursing at RMU.)
“Hey, I know you.”
For nearly five years, George McClintock has greeted me the same way. Hey, I know you. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that he knows me. The man knows just about everyone. After teaching French for over 30 years at Upper St. Clair High School, George is one of the most well-known, and well-liked, members of the South Hills community. He has long since retired from the school district, but not from living an active life, by any means. George is a man who has always enjoyed a challenge. So, after leaving the classroom, he went looking for one. And ended up in the emergency room.
That’s where I first met George. He was sitting outside of a patient’s room in the emergency department of St. Clair Community Hospital, watching for a high school student to come wandering into the ER. I remember being very nervous when I walked onto the floor. My tangerine scrubs set me apart rather clearly amongst the olive-clad nurses. My friend Collin Otis had talked me into this volunteer position. Since I was beginning to investigate the nursing field by that point in time, I figured some experience in the ER would be a good way to get my feet wet.
That first night, I was told to look for a white-haired man with a white mustache. He was in charge of training the volunteers, and he would be waiting for me. His name was George.
For the next six months, George showed me the ropes of the St. Clair ER. My job description was limited, but the experience of simply observing was invaluable. I stocked rooms, transported patients, and did whatever odd jobs the staff needed me to do. George and I became good friends over our dinner breaks upstairs at the snack bar. He and his wife, Obbie, attended my school play that year, and after my graduation, we continued to stay in touch. George may have been one of my oldest friends, but he could text message just as quickly as anyone my age.
Having made over fifty trips to France themselves, George and Obbie were thrilled when I told them the news that I would be going on my first international trip with Dr. Ross in July. They waited each day for The Mail from Managua to arrive via email, and then printed the stories out and took them over to Obbie’s 97-year-old mother, Olive, to read as well. It was George who jumped into action right away when he read the final chapter about David and his stolen trumpet. As I mentioned before, the man knows a lot of people. He made a few phone calls, and within a week of David’s story being written, there was a text message from George.
We have a trumpet for David.
Once we had arrived in the barrio, it was not long before David became everyone’s favorite friend. His smile was contagious around the girls, and they found themselves as quickly attached to the teenager as I was when I first met him in July. David simply has a way of making everyone feel at home. As soon as he learns your name, he goes to work finding out as much about you as he can, so that he won’t forget you. Early in the week, he made it his mission to memorize each of the girl’s names. It was quite a challenge to keep nine girls straightened out, but they were more than happy to help him remember. Kasey even drew a picture of herself in the form a stick figure with curly hair and left it with David for him to memorize. I could tell the boy loved the attention, as he would come over to me on more than one occasion, nod toward the girls, and whisper, “This is the life, my friend, this is the life!”
Everyone knew about the trumpet from the beginning, except David of course. The instrument served as my one of my carry-on bags on the flights down to Managua, and became quite a conversation piece along the way. We decided to save the big surprise until our last day in the barrio, and so the suspense built throughout the week. Back at the hotel, I had begun to receive nervous emails from friends and family back home. They were reading the stories, but not seeing a word about the trumpet. What happened? Where is David? Did you give him the trumpet? There were many eager readers out there, but all of them would have to wait.
Meanwhile, in the barrio, every conversation with David seemed to take on special significance for each of us, particularly since nearly all of them seemed to lead back to music and his passion for playing. One of the most humorous moments occurred during one of our lunch breaks. Katrina was skimming through Ashley’s iPod, looking for a song that David had mentioned earlier in the morning. When she finally found it, she jumped up to go find David. No one could keep a straight face as we listened to him singing in broken English from the back of the clinic, “Bring Me to Life” by Evanescence. It was simple joy for him. The boy just loves music.
On Thursday afternoon, Lindsey boarded the van and announced that she had something to show everyone. “Just wait until you hear what I have on video!” she said excitedly, pulling out her camera. She began to play back a conversation that had occurred just moments earlier. The conversation in the van died down quickly as everyone strained to hear the faint audio. We could hear Lindsey’s voice behind the camera. “David, if you could have anything for Christmas, what would it be?” The lens was turned on David and me, standing outside the clinic. David looked at Lindsey.
“For Christmas? Hmm…” he contemplated the question for a moment. “Well, I would ask for happiness for myself and for my family.” It did not surprise me that he would answer so simply.
“Yes, but we want to know if you could have any gift, or present, for Christmas, what would you ask for?” David nodded and rethought his answer.
“Well, then I would ask for a trumpet. Mine was stolen, so I would like very much to have another one. But I know that is not possible now.” David waved again at Lindsey’s camera, and did not even think twice about the grin that was spread across her face.
“What are you writing now?”
Emily Himmel has asked me the same question half a dozen times this week. I look up from the table in the back room of the clinic. It’s Friday afternoon, and the health fair is about to begin out on the veranda. I only have a few minutes to catch up on my notes.
“Just jotting down some things,” I reply.
“What kind of things?” She snaps a picture of my hand covering up my small notebook.
“Oh, just notes for a journal entry. I don’t want to forget anything that happened this morning.” The girls are used to me scribbling notes by now. I have my notebook in my back pocket at all times, ready in case I need to record something quickly. The difficulty comes in deciphering the notes when I get back to the hotel at night.
Emily leaves me to my writing. A moment later, though, I sense someone else staring at me. I look up again. The three nursing students from UPOLI are standing opposite the table. They are watching me write. One of the girls asks for my name.
“My name? My name is Lee.” I tell them, pointing to myself.
“Lee? Lee. Lee. Lee.” they each whisper it carefully to themselves.
“Yes! Lee. Good.” I go back to writing.
“Like Bruce Lee?” one girl asks after a moment. She chuckles.
“Yes! Like Bruce Lee!” I respond. “Nice!”
“Or Robert E. Lee!” adds another.
“Yes, Robert E. Lee, too!”
“Or David Lee Roth!” The students are all laughing now.
“Very good!” These girls really know their Lees.
“How about Lee Harvey Oswald!” I add as I continue writing. The laughter suddenly dies off. I look up. The girls nod solemnly and stare down at the table. Way to kill the mood, Lee.
The silence is broken by a familiar voice. “My friend! Why do you look sad?” David sits down next to me and puts his hand on my shoulder. “My friend, I have something for you. A Christmas gift.”
“A Christmas gift?” I look at David with surprise. “No you don’t!”
“My friend, it is no joke!” he says as he places a small bag in front of me. “It is for you!” I haven’t the slightest idea what the bag contains, but the mere fact that David wants to give me something at all is touching. He already has so little to call his own. I look into the bag. At the bottom lies a necklace, made of polished volcanic rock.
“David, you’re giving this to me?” I ask as I pull it from the bag. David nods.
“It is for you! Merry Christmas!” The necklace looks like many others that I have seen at the various markets across Managua, and yet, it is unique. Regardless of what it cost David, the gift is already priceless to me.
A few minutes later, Ashlee and I are introduced to the families. Our presentation goes off as planned. Afterward, I stand in the back to watch the rest of the groups, snapping pictures next to Kasey. “Did you see what David gave me?” I ask, pulling the necklace from underneath my tshirt to show her. Kasey admires the necklace, and then produces her own gift from David.
“He gave this to me, Lee.” she says. She holds out a beautiful macaroon seashell. “We talked about the beach a few days ago, and he told me all about when his family went to the ocean. He said it cost so much money to go, but he would never forget it. And he gave me this shell that he found there.” Kasey was not the only one to receive a special gift, either. David had found something small and meaningful for each of his new friends, and was quietly going about his own gift-giving as the health fair went on. He didn’t want us to leave without taking a part of him with us. None of us really knew what to say.
The health fair culminates with the ceremonial beating of the piñata, and as the children finish diving for candy, I sneak out to the van to retrieve the hidden trumpet. We have a duffel bag to hide the case in. The girls go about distracting David while I carry it to the back of the clinic. There is not much time left before we must leave. The group gathers in the back to share in the moment we’ve all been waiting for. I hand Mrs. Perozzi my camera and turn to the girls. “Is everyone ready?” I ask. A dozen heads nod yes. David is talking to one of the children over by the door.
“David!” He turns toward me. “Come over here, pal. We have some gifts for you.”
“You have something for me?” David looks at me suspiciously as he walks over to the table.
“Yes, we have a couple presents for you!” I reach into a plastic bag and pull out an old Robert Morris College jersey that Emily brought with her. David’s face lights up. He already has a few RMU tshirts, but he always loves getting more apparel.
“For me?” he asks. Right away, he takes the jersey and puts it on over the Kenny Chesney shirt that Katrina had already given him. I pull out the other things I brought with me. There are a couple framed photos from my first trip. David smiles at the photo of me and him and holds it up for the girls to see. A dozen camera flashes go off in his face. He points to the picture. “See? We look smart!” The girls laugh. His English phrasing is one of his most endearing qualities.
At last, it is time for the surprise. Up until now, I had not given much thought to what I would say before unveiling the trumpet. Now the moment is here, and I have to say something. I tell David that we are proud of him for all of the work he does in the community. I tell him that he has made each of us feel at home by being our friend. I tell him that we love him and that there are people in the United States who love him too, though they have never met him. David keeps nodding as I talk. He understands most of what I’m saying. “There are people back home who read your story, David. They know how much you loved your trumpet, and they also know that it was stolen from you. So they wanted to do something for you.”
I disappear into the adjoining kitchen area where the duffel bag is waiting. David suddenly becomes aware from the crowd watching him that something big is about to happen. I step out from behind the bookcase with the trumpet case. The miraculous appearance of the instrument sends David’s hands to his face. He turns away for a moment, then whirls back around to make sure it is not some sort of mirage. But I’m still standing there. He looks down at the case. As I open it, it appears as if he really can’t believe what he’s seeing.
“No! A trumpet?! For me?!” he cries. There’s an amazing sound in the young man’s voice. It’s the sound of childlike disbelief. The girls around me are wiping their eyes. Cameras continue to flash.
“It’s for you, David. You deserve it.” David picks up the trumpet and inspects it. It is a well-used instrument. The bell needs polishing, and the valves could use some oil. But David holds it like it’s the finest trumpet he’s ever seen. He attaches the mouthpiece and looks around shyly, as if seeking our permission to play a few notes.
“Go on! Play something!” Dr. Ross encourages him. David lifts the trumpet to his mouth and purses his lips. The first notes are a bit sour. He quickly stops and laughs.
“I need practice!” he tells us. Not to be denied, though, he fiddles with the valves for a moment, and then tries again. This time, the horn rewards David with several big, brash notes to accompany the excited applause of his audience. We don’t care if he needs practice. That’s why we brought it for him in the first place. He stops playing and hugs me.
“Now I can make the band!” he tells me. The shock is still sinking in. He collapses in a chair and stairs at the instrument in his lap. “I am just so surprised!” he laughs. “I don’t know why, but I feel like crying!”
“Oh, don’t cry!” I reply. “Nobody cries at Christmas!”
Unfortunately, the time we have been dreading cannot be put off any longer. Dr. Ross tells everyone to say their final goodbyes to the families and head toward the van. I can see our father, Alvaro, waiting patiently out on the veranda. He catches my attention and grins, waving for Ashlee and me to come over. He squeezes my arm as he tells us one more time how thankful he is for what we did. “He hopes that the Lord blesses you and that you will arrive safely home,” our translator tells us. “He wants you to come back to see them as soon as you can, but if he never sees you again…” the translation trails off. Alvaro has begun to weep. He finishes his last sentence with tears in his eyes, then turns away quickly to leave. The translator leans close to us. “He said if he never sees you again, he will look for you in heaven.”
Dr. Ross conducts one final head count in the van. David is outside, leaning against the wall, still inspecting his trumpet. He looks up at us, and through the window, notices the heartbreak on the girl’s faces. The goodbyes are beginning to sink in. Our friend opens the van door and sticks his head inside. “Hey now!” he points to the girls, shaking his finger. “Do not be sad! You must not be sad!” The girls manage to smile at him. “We will see each other again,” he says with assurance. “Now do not be sad! Okay?”
The door slides shut again, leaving David and all of our friends on the other side. The families stand along the side of the dirt road as we pull away. I turn around and look out the back window, managing to snap one last photograph just before the rising cloud hides them all away in the dust. The lens catches Alvaro, standing alone on the street corner, with his hand high in the air. He is smiling again.
For several long minutes, no one speaks. On my first trip, I remember the students being talkative and cheery as we pulled away. The mood is quite different now. There are no words for this group. The air in the van is heavy with the sound of flowing tears. This is the moment that my camera could never capture. This is the moment that is impossible to explain to your friends and family when you get home. This is the moment where your heart determines that this life is so much simpler than you once thought, and this world is so much bigger than you ever knew.
This is the moment that changes your life.
I suppose I was wrong in what I said to David. This year, everyone is crying at Christmas. During the miserable ride to UPOLI, I find myself wondering what it will be that will pick our hearts back up and start us laughing again. Katrina is sitting beside me in the back. She suddenly remembers the Christmas present that David gave to her. It is a favorite CD he owned, a collection of his favorite American songs. Just as Don Pedro drives up to the university, the CD gets passed up to the front. “David said I would enjoy this mix,” Katrina says to the group.
At first, no one recognizes the opening measures of the song. There is a big band playing, with the bright notes of a trumpet in there too, somewhere. Then the artist becomes clear as the unmistakable voices of John Lennon and Paul McCartney come flowing out of the speakers. Somehow, after making all of us cry, it is David who makes us smile again. The boy was right. We should not be sad. We accomplished what we came here to do, and whether we knew it yet or not, we were leaving with more than what we brought to give. The families have been assessed and treated and trained and loved. The Nicaraguan children know some English now, and they have taught the American college students some of their Spanish, as well. There are new beds to sleep on. There are new friends to stay in contact with. There are new godsons and goddaughters to pray for. And deep within the barrio, thanks to the determination and optimism of its young musician, there is music once more.
Indeed, by the time the Beatles reach their chorus, the tears are being wiped away, and the sun is shining again. I know everything is going to be all right, because my brother David picked the perfect song.
All you need is love.