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Reflections on a Lean-to

by Jo Gross

During the early eighties, Phil and I lived and worked in Katmandu, Nepal. As volunteers in a medical mission hospital, Phil, an orthopedic surgen, was invited to teach and work with a young Nepalese surgeon. While there, we often trekked the tortuous mountain trails through the Himalayas. The distances we covered were short compared to those of the Nepalese people who were coming from deep in the Himalayas carrying heavy packs, small sick children, and gurneys holding elders. Journeys on foot from the mountains to Katmandu could take up to two or three weeks. The people came for medical help. After a few days in Katmandu or an extended stay in the hospital, the families would take the journey back to their mountain home. Along the harrowing trails, rough wooden boards nailed together to make a roof and side walls with a few rough benches were constructed to provide resting places for the travelers. This was called a “lean-to.” The fragile looking structure provided a safe haven for the weary sojourners to lean on for rest and shelter. In remote areas, the scant wooden structure offered relief from sudden mountain storms. Weary travelers huddled together until the storm passed. There was no public transportation in the mountains, only an occasional yak to help the better off families. Mountain folks of all ages and description walked the trails and the lean-to was regarded as a predictable stopping place to visit and rest.

After forty years, I am still humbled to remember these resilient people. And their story is not unlike the many faces of humanity who during periods of sorrow and distress seek a place of comfort and rest or a community who offers nourishment and loving concern. From the suffering lines of refugees to a litany of others from all walks of life, all those who try to balance tears of sorrow with tears of gratitude, we empathize. Many broken spirits and exhausted bodies need someone to lean on or a safe haven allowing them to huddle together until the storm clouds vanish.

Recently, our oldest son, Cort, age 59, was gravely ill. He has multiple sclerosis and was struck with Covid, which prompted a dreadful combination. After six weeks in an acute care center, he has moved on to an assisted living facility. He has made a dramatic recovery and with a brave and cheerful attitude; he is adapting well to his new living arrangement and learning to navigate with his disabilities. During the weeks in which he was so critically ill, I wrote a number of letters to families who knew Cort during his school years. Many of these families are now spread across the country. Word travels to friends in our community here as well. And within days there was a flood of messages, emails, calls, and flowers, coming to my door. Email letters and iPhone messages were also rushed to Cort. Prayer circles were organized in homes and churches far and near. What matters most was happening. Our extended family and friends were in solidarity with us and provided an emotional lean-to. With every heartbeat, we felt the warmth of their arms around us. The first few weeks, Cort could not move his body or lift his head. Then from a power beyond our grasp, a miracle happened, he began the tortuous path of recovery. There was no question but what the goodness and mercy of family and friends had touched Cort and held him with a love that never let him go until he could move again. Now, nine weeks later, he scoots around in his motorized wheelchair, reads books, writes articles by talking into the computer, and enjoys kettlecorn!

Our story is one of remarkable privilege. Cort had sophisticated medical care. He is now in an impressive living facility located in a vibrant neighborhood. He speaks kindly of his nursing care. He has not only survived his ordeal, but he is thriving with new ideas for the future and with inspiration for purposeful living.

And it is true that with the creating of satellite clinics in rural Nepal, medical care has improved. There is more awareness of need and more help coming from the outside world. Many young people of Nepal are also seeking medical education and working in the clinics. But the people are still walking down from the mountains for their hospital care and seeking comfort from a lean-to along the trail. Images of their faces, dusty worn clothing, and fragile existence never leaves me. And I feel joy to think of them coming together to share their journey as they rest under the lean-to. I doubt that many complain as they are a gentle people with beautiful souls. I will never forget them. Nor will I forget the beautiful souls of our friends who provided our family with a lean-to of comfort and echoes of divine love throughout our recent journey.

Cover image by Bisesh Gurung, used with permission via Unsplash

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