One day as Rick and Danny were making their way down the street, the boy stopped for a moment and looked up at Rick. "Let's hop," he suggested. So there they were, Rick, in his striped button-down shirt and khakis and baseball cap and Danny in his mission-issued (clean) hand-me-downs, hopping along on the rubble of stones that passes for a sidewalk, holding hands and laughing their way to the kiosk. It was just about the first kid thing the boy had ever done.
Earlier that week, Rick had said to no one in particular, "I've got half a mattress free." This meant that there was a small bit of unused space at the house he shares with the horde of children who have become his family. Some of these kids are patients who have already undergone surgery, like Dejene and Zewdie, whose crippled backs were repaired, and Mohammed, who lost a leg to cancer and now wants to become a cancer researcher. Others, like Tesfaye and Zemenewerk, are still awaiting their operations.
Some made their way alone from the countryside and had the good luck to find Rick; others were abandoned by their families and left on the streets of Addis to fend for themselves until Rick found them. Recently, some girls were added to the mix when Rick took in two spinal patients and then Zewdie's sister, Balemlai (whose name means "on top of the world"), because she was eager for an education, and then another when he literally bumped into Zemenewerk, a tiny twelve-year-old who was walking along the street in Gondar with her uncle, both of them in tears because the hospital had turned her away as a hopeless case. These improbable encounters have led Rick to fill his conversations with references to God and miracles. He's convinced that some mysterious power keeps putting people in his way who need help.
"If you are not religious," he said recently, "you ascribe it to coincidence; if you are a believer, you attribute it to God."
Rick, who was born Jewish but of the three-day-a-year variety, became a modern Orthodox Jew when he was thirty-seven years old. Now he is completely convinced that God makes everything happen. Even my decision to walk that day instead of taking a taxi went into his miracle category because that's how I found Danny.
Rick is an enigma, although here the word seriously understates the case. From his early years, he seemed to be looking for a spiritual home, but that search was independent of and parallel to a compelling instinct to help those in need. He wasn't performing good works because the commandment enjoins us to do unto others. His altruism, it seems, was innate. For him it was normal to do good, and only later did he find in the Talmud reinforcement of his humanitarian instinct.
One day Rick invited Danny home for the weekend, but the boy hesitated. By then, he was happy enough at Mother Teresa's, and he'd already had enough change in his life. Still, one of the sisters encouraged him to go and he did, albeit reluctantly. Another weekend Danny was included in a Sunday family outing to Sodere, a scruffy resort where Mohammed, one of the older boys, carried him on his back in the swimming pool. Danny had even gotten strong enough to challenge some of the other kids to a race. And then, a couple of weeks later, Danny went home to Rick's for good. That "half a mattress" became his. It was like winning the Ethiopian sweepstakes.