Funny how the world and its many events can stimulate our brains to recall things. As I write this column it is the seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day, at that time the largest planned, multi-nation amphibious assault on an enemy defensive line in the history of warfare. I have also been reading about global warming, the flooding in the Midwest, political strife, and other natural and manmade disasters. This has been juxtaposed this past week with the wonderful visit of our two oldest grandchildren to our home, something that my wife and I anticipated with great joy and gratitude. The two opposite circumstances, and their associated emotions, brought to mind a story that I first told in 2005, as I was working as a Red Cross volunteer in Mississippi and Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina had slammed ashore and turned the world upside down for so many people on the Gulf coast. I thought I would share this story with you. It still makes me smile.
I had an encounter with a beautiful little girl in Mississippi, just days after the monster category 5 storm had entered her family’s life. It reminded me, harshly and painfully, of what present-day Red Cross workers and thousands of other volunteers are going through right now, trying to do what they can for and with people who continue to suffer in various scenarios in our country and around the world.
I met Erica at the First Baptist Church in McComb, Mississippi. We were deploying out of the Red Cross shelter there, and I would often see people in that setting at the church or in the gym where they were making their temporary homes until the aftermath of Katrina’s wrath could be sorted out. She was a frail seven-year-old with beautiful dark skin and large eyes. She had not been eating or drinking in the five days since Hurricane Katrina had demolished her family’s house. She now lived in a small trailer with her parents and younger sister. She had nightmares where her parents and teachers were brutally killed and maimed, and she had lost all interest in playing or singing. We sat crossed-legged on the floor of the education building hallway, busy volunteers bustling around us, a tired Red Cross worker and a little girl who had literally lost everything in her life but her family. I leaned against the wall, happy for a few minutes to sit down and rest. She sat with chin in hands, looking down at the polished floor of the church building. I had tried to engage her in conversation, to no avail. I thought I would try one more thing.
“Erica, what’s your favorite food in the whole world?” I asked.
She looked up slowly, her interest piqued. She sized me up with those big eyes as only a child can, and I saw a faint glimmer of a smile.
“Fortune cookies?!” I said, truly surprised. I had expected the usual hamburgers, hotdogs or ice cream. “I’ve got your number,” I said instantly, my way to this child’s fragile and damaged psyche suddenly made clear to me. “Give me twenty minutes and I’ll be back.”
She looked at me quizzically, but a simple “Okay” came out.
I returned to a Chinese restaurant I had just found the day before. I had enjoyed a meal there that nourished my mind, heart, and stomach, and I had struck up a brief conversation with the staff while I was there. Wearing a Red Cross vest was almost always a stimulus for questions from those who lived in the local communities that we served. I sought out and spoke with the hostess, who listened to my story about the little girl whose life had been ravaged by this storm that came out of nowhere and changed everything forever. She stepped toward the back for a half minute, returned and immediately began filling a large shopping bag with handfuls of fortune cookies plus a few dinners for Erica and her family. As I pulled out my wallet to pay her, she pushed it away, tears streaming down her face. “Hurry back to little girl who will not eat,” she said, handing me the bag full of food. “Go. Go now!” I thanked her, many times over, for her family’s generosity and goodness that would mean so much to this little girl and her family.
I returned to the church education building hallway, finding Erica sitting exactly where I had left her, surrounded by boxes of peanut butter and tuna that reminded me of a protective wall.
The little girl and I sat cross-legged once again on the floor. She looked in the shopping bag that I set down between us, eyes growing big as saucers. There was no mistaking fortune cookies, with their brightly colored wrappers.
She looked up at me.
“Can you eat just one of these for me, right now?” I asked.
The faint smile returned.
“Could I eat one with you?”
Little hands plunged into the bag. Cellophane wrapping papers crinkled happily. We munched contentedly.
“Now, how many of these do you think you can eat?”
The little girl from New Orleans gave this some serious thought.
“ALL of them,” she said emphatically.
“No way! You haven’t eaten anything in five days,” I teased. “You’ll be sick!”
More serious thought, eyes narrowing.
“Well,” she said slowly, “maybe not TODAY!”
The smile broke through.
Disasters are overwhelming and ubiquitous. Our personal response, our personal ability to do anything helpful, sometimes seems tiny and insignificant. If we listen, look, and pay close attention, we can make contact with those who need us most and deal with one small crisis at a time. Much like Erica and her bag of fortune cookies, we may not be able to help thousands of people in one day. We can start with one fortune cookie and one little girl with dark skin and beautiful eyes and a smile as big as Louisiana.
Erica, wherever you are, you should now be a vibrant young woman. I hope you are doing well. I am so glad that I was able to share your favorite food with you that day, and I hope that your fortunes have made a giant turn for the better.