*Meeting The Other Extreme: a Deathly Pain and Seeing His Face In It.*
In the past few weeks I started spending time at the local hospital. Pretty quickly I was drawn to the Pediatric ward where the extremely sick/malnourished children are admitted. At first I’d just go into a ward with a number of other volunteers and pray for any willing patients. But then God provided these prayer interactions as an opening into the lives and hearts of the patients and their families.
I realized right away walking into the narrow room filled with seemingly endless beds occupied by black babies and their mothers, that I, with my confusing brown skin, would have no easy way of explaining my purpose of presence there. And so I decided that rather than telling them—“I’m not a doctor, I have no money or solutions to offer—I’m just here because I want to love on you and your little baby”— instead id just show them.
One day I met a little girl and her father. Winensky (Winny) and William were their names. The mother was out doing the wash, and at first I watched from across the room as this father sat in silence, staring with soft and painful eyes at his little precious angel. Those eyes. His eyes- were clear paths to the unbelievable pain that sat at the pits of his soul—watching his baby in such agony- and all power completely out of his hands. Finally I approached and he welcomed me to sit by her bedside. She was their first and only child. In just the recent months shed fallen ill with a still undiagnosed cough. They were not sad though, he said; they believed she was going to get better.
I laid my hand on her tiny little body covered up in a blue blanket. Her labored breathing was interrupted every now and again by a slow and grimaced cough that seemed to break this poor little girl down more and more each time. “Just a few weeks”, he said, is all he thought it would take for her to get better and for her to be released from the hospital. “Just a few weeks.”
I asked him if he’d like for me to tell my church, family and friends (you) about Winensky and ask for prayer—he smiled and said — “yes…. You are very welcome. Thank you.” I requested and he inclined that I take a picture before I left, of little Winny to send with the prayer request email so that you all could see her sweet little face.
The next day I visited Winny again, and as I sat with her I looked at her ribs pressing up against her skin as she took each shallow breath I saw the pain written all over her face each time a cough stole through her. I looked at this little life — that was seemingly on the verge of death—this fading life that seemingly had no hope—and with despair hanging like a cloud over the ward… I knew in my spirit- that Gods hand was not too short to save. Jesus spoke into my heart something that I could not even understand, but had complete faith in and peace with; that even as I saw this suffering all tucked into this tinny little life- even as I stared into the eyes of someone experiencing pain she didn’t deserve- even in the face of this— something in my spirit was touched and convinced by God, that His hand is not too short to save. And in the depths of my soul, I knew and believed this to be true.
The next day Winny died.
Kebulu Antoine was an infant in the Maternity Ward whose body and face were terrorized by the pain that took over his whole self. Kebulu had a swallowing problem that long left his mother confused and frustrated with the worsening state of her sons health. For too long she couldn’t understand why her hungry son wouldn’t just feed, why he wouldn’t just eat, and then after a while, his body deteriorated and here he was, at the hospital in desperate and urgent need of nutrition. For weeks she sat in the hospital fighting to feed him by bottle, exhausted shed always quickly grow. One day I came and offered to help feed him while she went to bathe. For minutes he fought and worked so hard just to move the muscles to swallow even just a drip. And after each drip he’d fight to catch his breath as that alone had tired him out. And after about 10 minutes of this, a part of me wondered… was this all worth it? In 10 minutes he’s MAYBE swallowed 15 drops of milk. Did I even believe that any of this would matter if he died? Which it seemed would likely be the case. Would those 10 minutes of feeding matter— if he died? And then as I looked down and saw his little lips quiver towards the bottle for more— I knew in my spirit —every drip and every minute— was unfathomably worth it.
Alfred, a 25 month old little boy whose sickness was undiagnosed and out of control, lie just in a nearby bed where Winny once laid. As is often the case, Alfred’s mother was living at the hospital with him. And as is also common, with several other children remaining at home, and a husband rarely present to care for them, Alfred’s mother had no choice but to bring along 2 of Alfred’s siblings to stay at the hospital with them. Sometimes when visiting Alfred, I found that the best love and relief I could offer was to play with his 4 year old brother who for weeks had been bored and cooped up inside this hospital room with no joy and no attention. Other times id just sit and chat with broken Arabic and give his mother a break from swatting flies from her sweet little boys face. Or smoothly move my fingers back and forth over his protruding little ribs and speak softly to him. Or other times I’d feed Alfred 10 mls at a time through his feeding tube. I realized as I filled the syringe, opened his tube, slowly pushed the milk through, closed the tube and did this over and over until a full meals serving was complete— just how tired his mother must be. Here with her dying 2 year old, an infant on her back, and a playful needy toddler—in a noisy room with 10 other dangerously sick children and their families—a room with no peace and no silence at any hour of the day, I realized how draining this life must be.Then as Alfred coughed up the milk id just fed him, and blood, I realized the spirit of despair that his mother was facing as she fought to find the will to live against all the discouragement that all this was bringing her each day.
In those moments as I was feeding Alfred through his tube, a thought came to me—- what was it all going to matter that I’d spent all that time feeding drop after drop to this little boy- if inevitably, he was going to die from this. And if I knew that in fact he was going to die—- would I still find this to be worth doing?….And Jesus said to me— when you feed Alfred— it’s me you’re feeding. When you help his mother and show her she’s not alone in this fight— its me you’re loving. Its me—you’re loving. All that I did in those long or short moments was worth it, regardless of what would or would not come of Alfred’s life. A little more love was known by this little boy and his mother. And that’s worth it. Regardless.
One day while watching Alfred as his mother was out washing clothes- a few beds over I noticed a boy under a blanket slowly rolling his fragile body over, and he was slowly rolling, right off the edge. Just in time I ran over to his bed side, and caught his limp body just as he was about to fall.
That’s how I met Dominic Peter.
Peter was 6 and a beautiful boy. The most kind eyes; but layered over and jaded with such pain and fatigue that it broke my heart instantly. Peter’s mother also had no choice but to bring along Peters infant brother to stay at the hospital— leaving 5 more at home.
Peters skinny body was wrapped in thin skin covered with specks and sores and scars. Bed sores- Bloody open wounds gathered around his joints that were painful just to look at. I watched the way that Peter’s mother was so loving and thorough as she cared for him- and I couldn’t wrap my mind around how it possibly could have gotten this bad. How his sickness could have been ignored or under acknowledged long enough that it reached this indescribably painful state.
Though she was caring with him, she seemed to have not yet warmed up to me or more so that she didn’t yet understand just what I wanted with her son. I sat by his bed and she sat uncomfortably seeming to wonder what I wanted. He gestured and groaned something to her, and she moved to pick him up. “Can I help?” I asked in Arabic. She frowned with her eyes and doubt leaked out from her face- doubt and insecurity with why someone would want to help. She didn’t answer and moved again to pick him up. “…….I want to help you…..” I said as I caught a strong hold of her eyes. “…….. Pick him.” She said. And her wall crumbled as she slowly allowed me to come beside her in caring for her son.
That day as I left, I knelt down beside Peter and said goodbye as I did with all the other kids; only they as younger kids, were unlikely to understand as much Arabic and so they never responded. “I’m going home,” i said, “I’ll be back tomorrow, ok?” He nodded his head and my heart stopped. It was the first kid who id invested emotions in who was actually capable of comprehending the beautiful nature of our friendship and this interaction sent chills throughout my soul. I looked into his sweet little eyes and wished so badly I could just take his pain away. “God loves you. God will help you ok?” I said. He nodded. “Ok. Sleep well.” And he closed his sweet little eyes. I walked away and I knew he’d stolen my heart.
Days later I went and helped his mother bathe him. I picked his frail little body up and carried him outside. He rested his head on my chest and looked up at me and kept his gaze on me for a moment, and then peacefully closed his eyes as I walked. A love and compassion sprang throughout my body as God made me aware of the beauty that was within his trust and comfort with me.
His mother removed his covers and revealed his scarred and tiny body. Spotted skin covering his bones, and ribs pushing out and exhaustion in his eyes and aching from within. His mother sat him down on the sidewalk and she turned to grab the basin of water, and in that quick moment, already his strength was not enough to hold his self up, and his limp body fell backward an his head hit the sidewalk. My heart dropped through my stomach as he cried and I whispered “Sorry. Sorry . Sorry” into his ears. His mother simply sat him upright and carried on without the blink of an eye. Of course it tore her apart inside just as much as it did me, to see her poor little suffering boy, getting hurt even more; of course she wasn’t heartless and cold such that this didn’t bother her. But it came to me, that she had to be strong. Strength was the only option in this situation. With such devastating circumstances right before her, she could not break down and cry or panic any time something happened that was painful to see. This all- was painful to see. And through her pain, she had to give herself grace, and keep moving.
After bathing him, as she rubbed lotion on his body, I said to her, “you’re a strong mother… you’re strong.” She looked down and said nothing and just continued putting on lotion. I loved that she put lotion on him. I loved that she wasn’t going to stop putting effort into the details of loving this boy as her son just because he was sick. She was still going to bathe him and put lotion on him, even though things were looking so bad. I cant really explain it, but I loved to see her loving him.
On Sunday, after a full day of not visiting the hospital, I rushed excitedly to visit Peter and show him my African dress I had worn that morning for church. I rushed into the ward and was halted by the sight of an empty bed where he always had been. I searched the rest of the room with a deep fear and panic raging within me. “Dominic Peter—– I’m looking for Peter,” I said as I looked around. The doctor looked at the nurses and then looked down. “Is that— the boy? — the malnourished boy?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “………… he died at night……. I’m sorry.”
I turned without a word and walked out fighting back tears until I was out of their sight. I fell to the sidewalk curb and cried there on the ground just where I had once bathed him. I couldn’t even begin to sort through the emotions I was having, and I really still cant. I stood up after some minutes and fought my way home through blurry Eyes. At home I sat outside on a rock and cried and cried and cried until not one more tear could fall. And somehow- right there in the midst of all that pain, confusion and regret—something both mysterious and yet so real, spoke into my spirit. That God had in fact, helped Peter. Just as I had spoken those words to him, that God loved him and would help him—- my spirit knew that even in his death, even in my human nature to dread and mourn death- even in the validity of that all— the truth was, God did love this little boy, and God did help him. He took his pain away. And no I didn’t like it that he died. No I didn’t like that his life wasn’t used as a testimony to God’s death defying healing power— but my spirit knew—that God, did help Peter when he took his pain away. And I just had to trust that.
Sitting on that rock as the tears stopped and thoughts cleared, I realized that in the havoc of rushing out of the ward when the doctor told me Peter had died, that I hadn’t remembered seeing Alfred lying in his bed, or his brother running around like usual. A dreadful panic shot through me as the impossible thought came to me—- that perhaps, he too— was gone. I wanted to know- I needed to know, if he was ok. But fear was dominating all of me. I couldn’t bear the thought of going back to that room and finding that he in fact had also died.
A few hours later, I went back to see, with Murielle (another staff member) by my side for strength—in case. On the way, we stopped in the Maternity ward to check on Kebulu whom Murielle was especially close with. She walked up to his bed… but the woman who turned and looked up at Murielle was not Kabuli’s mother, and the child she held was not him. Murielle looked around with that same shocked and panicked but still look on her face that had struck me hours before when looking for Peter.
A nearby mother softly said to me in Arabic, “he died”. “He died? Kebulu?” I asked to clarify, “Kebulu Antoine?” “Yes”, she said and all the mothers looked down as Murielle and I walked out in shock.
For a minute we stood outside, silent and numb— caught completely off guard and even more broken than we’d come prepared to be. “You sure you want to check on Alfred?” she asked. “Yes.” I think in our spirits we could already feel it, but I needed to know.
Into his ward we walked. “Little Alfred?” I asked a nearby mother, “with the baby sister and older brother? Where is he?”
“…..He died,” she said.
“Ok……… thank you.”
I went home and buried myself in my bed. The most indescribable numbness took over my emotions and I couldn’t feel. I couldn’t feel— anything. I couldn’t even think. I couldn’t understand how this had all happened, and in all that pain, I couldn’t even cry. I couldn’t find a way for it to settle in my spirit that had these children been in America, none of this would have happened. They never would have gotten this sick; there would have been more equipment to diagnose them; more medicine to treat them; more answers; more everything. More of a chance. In America, none of this would have happened.
In processing it all, a friend helped me realize that when our spirits battle with the unrest of this tragedy and the injustice of the way that there can seem to be completely separate worlds within one world- its not a question of geography that we’re struggling with. It’s not as simple as “why was I privileged enough to live in America where this wouldn’t have happened, and they had no choice but to die from something so simple?” It’s never this simple. And maybe there’s something inside of us that breaks and aches and moans when things like this happen; when little girls like Winny die over night when her parents were convinced that in just weeks shed be back on her feet; when little boys like Alfred moan themselves to sleep for days and days on end, until finally— they die; when little babies like Kebulu seemed to never have a chance from the start; and when children like Peter can be alive enough to communicate and understand, and feel, and cry, and love….. and then in days…. No longer be. When we struggle with the reality of this tragedy, we’re grieving the fact that things like this happen because we live in a world whose fate is marked by brokenness. We live in a world ruled by life that cannot escape brokenness. And we wrestle with this heartbreaking and inescapable truth——– because, we all own a part of that brokenness. My sin, my wrongs, my imperfections and my brokenness—-contributes to the fact- the fate that someone has to suffer. I own a piece of Winny’s suffering and I own a piece of Peter’s mothers loss.
I don’t at all believe that God wants us to live under a blanket of guilt and powerlessness due to this truth. But I do think that God has made it clear enough in his word, that this isn’t the way he intended it; and his heart does break with ours; but this is the way we chose. Us. We own this.
I wrestled quite a bit at first with the Lord, trying to understand why it was that God allowed our staff, to go and visit the hospital and get close to the 4 children who coincidentally all died in that one week. Why he would let us pour our hearts our on them, and takes theirs into our own— and then let them all die. But it wasn’t even a minute later that I felt the spirit tell me— that that was exactly why God took us to get close to those particular children. God knew what was about to happen; and he chose us, he called us to love them, to care for them, and to be him, for them, because they were about to die.
And in that moment, I again knew the beautiful privilege of being used in Gods grand plan. It looked a lot different than my role in Kadema’s story. It didn’t feel at all joyful and it held a lot more pain and weight. But I know- that his hand is real- and his guidance is undeniable- and I know that he used me—in the last days of their lives, to show them one last glimpse of his love, his Amazing Love.
Until next time,
Your growing sister,