Sweat trickled down my forehead as I guzzled down my fifth glass of water in thirty minutes. Earlier that day, I had climbed a small mountain, visited the Picasso museum, and sat on a sandy beach eating brunch and cake by the sea.
I had planned my time in Barcelona as a three-day stopover on my way back to the United States after spending the summer in Uganda. No stranger to culture shock, I attempted to give myself space to feel the deep emotions I usually avoid – time to pore over my journal in hole-in-the-wall coffee shops and meet with God. Instead, I wandered across busy parks, down abandoned streets, and through breathtaking cathedrals. I hunted down famous spots I never before had interest in, ate mouthwatering gelato and fresh paella, and got my nose re-pierced. For three days I wound through cobblestone streets filling my belly with exotic fancies and filling my shopping bag with European summer crop-tops I would never wear back at home.
But a twisted blackness gnawed at me. I loved Uganda: African sunrise, daily teatime and the red dirt that had stained my shoes after three summers there. More importantly, I missed my best friend whom I had tearfully left behind. I was frustrated God had not opened the right doors for me to stay there full-time. Avoiding facing the pain of those disappointments, I immersed myself in the experiences of Barcelona and ran from meeting with God. I have never felt so alone.
By the time I made it back to my flat in El Raval, my walk had become a slight limp until I found myself literally crawling up the seven flights of steps. Having returned to Wi-Fi access, I immediately googled “What number do you dial for 911 in Barcelona?” I called a cab, crawled back down the seven flights of stairs, and waited for the driver who never showed.
Just as I mustered up the strength to try to walk to Hospital Clinica, my Scottish flatmate came around the corner. When she saw my weak body draped across our stoop, she grabbed my arm and we weaved in and out of darkened streets as fireworks exploded and beer bottles smashed against the bricks above our heads. The Feast of Saint Joan was apparently a real banger.
I don’t remember anything after giving the nurses at the hospital front desk my name, telling them I had just spent the summer in Africa, and dropping into a nearby wheelchair. I woke up a few hours later in a hospital bed with a man standing over me saying “La Americana, you have the malaria.”
The next eight days blur together: having conversations with nurses in broken Spanish, throwing up constantly in a shallow glass bowl, and drinking apple juice. But most vividly imprinted in my memory is the sense of God’s presence. He didn’t let me get on a plane without doing what I had come to Barcelona to do – sit with him. While I don’t think God revels in our brokenness, I do believe he delights to restore, protect, and heal us when we are in the trenches of despair and isolation.
God later revealed to me his intricate attention to detail. My flatmate had left her party two hours early. The doctor told me if I had shown up at the hospital even thirty minutes later, I likely would have died. The hospital I landed at functioned as the only one in that part of Europe equipped to test for and treat malaria and other similar illnesses. I also learned I had had two other illnesses along with malaria. My hospital’s position on the coast made it the primary research hospital in the region for infectious diseases.
The day before I became ill, I attempted to meet up with a local Spanish missionary, but faulty cell service had hindered our connection. When she heard of my hospitalization, she brought a paper fan to my non-air-conditioned hospital room and proceeded to fan me for hours during the height of my fever. After I spent days failing to keep down the one-eyed fish the hospital kept serving me, God sent a cousin from Germany and his Turkish bride to honeymoon in Barcelona. They brought me the first solid food I had eaten in eight days – fresh McDonald’s French fries.
The devil isn’t in the details – God’s the one working them out. I can trust his mercy and love no matter what predicament I find myself in or how I landed there. I can even trust him with the matters of my heart because he loves me dearly and longs to walk every path by my side. God’s presence on the journey is my prize. “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:26).