The airport in Addis Ababa is an oversized square and smells like people and duty-free snacks. Storefronts with headless mannequins line its walkways and vie for the attention of braless Europeans with money to exchange. Listless travelers dogged its perimeter in the sleepy hours of that morning, schlepping worn backpacks and pretending not to notice us. We felt nauseous after a night of air travel and there were miles yet to go. We spotted what looked like glorified lawn chairs lined up against a section of drywall in the center of the square. We moved our carry-ons up against it and sank, one by one, onto the chairs without debate. I tried not to think about the general dinginess of the headrest as I felt my hair press into it. I closed my burning eyes for a moment, savoring the thin coat of salt liquid that baptized them.
I’m not one to sleep in public. I rolled my eyeballs around under their skin coats for a moment longer and then lay watching the world’s people go by. Commotion and color from the corner of my right eye seared through my brain. At the far end of our line of chairs three travelers had stopped to rest. Two of them were men in their mid-to-late 30′s. Both wore faded jeans and button-down shirts, untucked. Three days of beard growth shadowed their faces, and sleeplessness had left traces of gray under their eyes. Between them sat a misshapen man in a wheelchair. He might have been 25 or 50. His back curled him forward, a scientist hunched over a microscope. One of his hands nuzzled his chest and the other gripped the armrest of his chair. The taller of the two men spoke to the other in rapid Portuguese. His friend nodded and replied in steady, low tones.
I hate to stare. Rather, I hate to be caught staring or to think of myself as someone who stares and gets caught. I looked away from the three men at the end of the row for a moment so that it would seem that I had other things on my mind. But I was surprised. The two men were clearly traveling in Ethiopia with a man who couldn’t walk. They’d come from where? They had to have flown to Addis. Why, I wondered. It was enough of an ordeal to fly by oneself and with only a backpack. I imagined the wheelchair man wedged in a 787 aisle, trying to make his way into the folding bathroom. I let my eyes wander back to where the three men stood.
In a moment the two friends (?) flanked the wheelchair between them and leaned in. They seemed to count and then they lifted the man in it. His shriveled legs hung below him, cherry stems that had long since given up hope. The men’s biceps bulged as they struggled to convey their lumpy cargo. I swallowed a second of horror as I watched them suspend him in the air. He was Gregor Mendel but they were not afraid. Like ballerinas, they lowered him to one of the lawn chairs closest to them. He shuddered as they stretched him out. His curly arm rebelled, springing back, slapping his chest. He let out a low moan of pain. One of the men adjusted his greasy glasses, leaning over him like a mother. When it was clear that he wouldn’t roll out of his chair, the two men settled themselves on chairs on either side of his. One pulled a book out of his pack and began to read. The other rolled up a jacket, tucking it under his head for a pillow.
The three of them lay on their chairs for some time, two of them resting, one of them existing. I lay in my chair, small and tired, until I knew I could no longer avoid the bathroom at the end of the hall. When I returned all three men were gone. I never saw them again.
And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” Matthew 9:2