Her name was Marikla, and she wore a red scarf tied loose over her brown hair. At her tallest, she was 4’8″, maybe not even that. I felt like I towered over her, but that may have been more because of the way she tucked herself inside, like a silk comforter shoved into a trunk that is too small for it.
I met her when I traveled to northern Africa to work with a physical therapy center that served children with physical disabilities. While my friends and I were there, we were going to build her and her son, who suffered from cerebral palsy, a bathroom.
Marikla and her son lived in a two-room cinder block house; each room measured about 12 x 12, if that. No insulation, no paint. Just bare cinder block, inside and out.
Inside the front room, her son’s blue wheelchair sat in the center, a throne, a prize, a gift. The physical therapy center got her son the wheelchair that held him upright and allowed her to move him more easily . . . more easily in town that is. Marikla lived on the side of a steep, muddy hill that made using the wheelchair to get her son home very difficult.
In fact, when her son had to use the bathroom, she strapped the 9-year-old boy to her tiny frame and carried him on her back up and over the hill to a more secluded spot. There, she undressed him, changed his diaper, redressed him, and carried him back home.
To this day, this image is the most powerful one of love and dedication that I know.
Marikla lived on this hill because her husband divorced her when her son was born with disabilities. It is a common cultural belief in this fundamentalist Muslim society that Allah punishes people with disabilities; her husband left with no consequence or rebuke from his community.
Yet, Marikla, Marikla bore all that rebuke. She was practically shunned by her family and neighbors. A divorced woman is the lowest of the low in this community.
Alone. Unable to find work besides housecleaning, which she had to perform, until the wheelchair, with her son on her back. Ostracized. Marikla cared for her son without aid.
When I have felt the stink of rebuke because I am divorced, a sting delivered, most often, from my Christian brothers and sisters, I remember Marikla.
When people speak harsh words that bring tears to my eyes, I remember Marikla.
When I begin to feel like my life is hard, like I’m carrying too many burdens, I remember Marikla. And I shut up.
My culture does not send me to live on a muddy hill because I am divorced. No one calls me a pariah or spits at me when I walk by. I don’t have to carry a 75 pound person I love on my back to perform the basic necessities of life.
My life is not hard. Not like that. I do not carry the weight of an entire city’s shame and hatred while also bearing the graced burden of love.
One afternoon while we worked, Marikla invited the other women in our group and I into her tiny house. (The men were asked to stay outside because men and women in this culture socialize separately.)
As we walked in, Marikla squatted by a propane tank (her source for both cooking and warmth), heating water in a tea kettle. We all sat on the sofa that doubled as her bed.
With the greatest care, Marikla poured tea into red glasses with gilt edges – her prized possessions, my friend from the therapy center said.
We sat and drank sweet, mint tea, a gift from this woman from whom the world had taken so much.
Assalamu alaikum, Marikla. Assalamu alaikum.
What helps you remember the graces in your life?