Tuesday, September 08, 2009

I Saw What I Saw

When my friend talks about two year old Hawa the edges of his eyes redden. He talks of how he sat with her and her mother, how he prayed for them and how he desperately hoped that the care she was receiving would save her from the illness which had seen her tiny body all but completely shut down. He might also continue to explain that he thinks that maybe he avoided checking on Hawa on the morning of her death because of how uncomfortable that proximity to death made him feel. I wondered the same thing about myself earlier this year as I tried to comfort another friend as she wept after the death of a three year old girl called Fati.

Fati’s mother was not getting her daughter enough protein and when this happens a child’s body basically falls apart from the inside out. It is amazing to me how long a child seems to be able to last on so little nutrition but there is a point when they pass the point of no return. I was there when Fati died. I heard the wails of her mother who, in her despair, ran out the door of our clinic and up the road, howling. I watched as a man came for her body, putting her in a small cardboard box and securing it on the back of his bicycle before peddling off to the village where she would be buried. The whole scene was incredibly upsetting but I was struck by how uninvolved I had been in the story of this little family. Fati and her mother had been in our malnutrition clinic for weeks but I had not spent very much time with them at all. I had just been busy with other things but I also wondered if I had been on some level avoiding the malnutrition clinic because I was worried about being beaten down by the sadness of seeing babies in such a condition. I wondered, as my friend would later, if I was simply uncomfortable with the proximity of death.
I decided on that day that I would get ‘involved’ with whoever would come to the malnutrition clinic next. That I would spend time with them, encourage them if I could. That I would simply ‘be’ with them as they struggled together for life. I did not have to wait very long before I met Alice. She was two years old and arrived with her mother wearing what once would have been a pretty yellow dress. Uncle Charles invited me as he regularly did to come and take Alice’s picture for the clinic’s records and I obliged. As her mother undressed her, Uncle Charles and I saw Alice’s little body properly for the first time and my emotions took a deep breath. Uncle Charles’ face betrayed the slenderness of his hope as he went about the business of doing all he could. Alice sat there, her beautiful big eyes watching us without really seeming to see us, as we sat with her mother and tried to piece together some of the details of their story.

If I am remembering things properly, a day passed when I didn’t get a chance to check on Alice and so the first thing I did the following morning was go to the clinic. When I got there Uncle Charles was visibly upset and a little green cloth bundle lay on the bed beside his table. When a child is as malnourished as Alice, I was told, it's really important that she is kept warm. This had been explained to Alice’s mother, I was told, but when they were checked on that morning Alice was lying on the bed without covers and was dreadfully cold. I leaned forward to look at the bundle that was Alice. Her face was a pale, purple colour and I couldn’t get over how tiny she looked. Like she had been folded in half with her head shrunk to fit. After a moment or too Uncle Charles stepped out to see Alice’s mother and another patient and I was left alone with Alice. I brought my face close to hers and, as delicately as I could manage, stroked her cheek and a tiny hand with the back of my finger. She was deathly cold. I sat with her and prayed and watched her take the smallest of breaths.

Tiny breath.


Tiny breath.

*Longer pause*

Tiny breath.

*Longer pause*

Tiny breath.

I kept thinking, as the pauses between breaths lengthened, that this would be the last one. I kept thinking, okay it’s this time, this time she has breathed for the last time. But she would always breathe again. One more tiny time. And then another.

Eventually I went to the office and started to do some work. Five minutes later Uncle Charles came and let me know that Alice had died.

People ask me how I am ‘readjusting’ to life in what we’ll call the ‘West’. I am supposed to be going through a phase which sees me ‘get used to’ the riches I see all around me, to readjust to the idea that ‘this is how we do it’. The truth is I have gone from something like sheer poverty to the wealth of western normality before and so have already been through some of the thought processes that go along with that. It hasn’t been a shock to the core of my system. I don’t get angry every time I see someone wearing a nice outfit. I don’t think people should feel guilty about earning a comfortable amount of money or enjoying life. I am not calling everyone to sell everything they have and give it to the poor. Although someone did suggest that once. But I have seen what I have seen and there is no going back. And I wouldn't want to if I could.

In Colorado something like this idea was illustrated with play dough. Take the yellow piece of dough which represents the ‘you’ that was before you watched Alice die (Or the ‘you’ before you lived overseas). Take the blue piece that represents the ‘you’ that watched Alice die (Or the ‘you’ while you were overseas). Rub them together and you get a green from which the yellow cannot be pulled, from which the blue can never be separated. With this thought in mind I don’t think I will ever REadjust, if that means to go back to how I had once been adjusted. I will surely always look at issues of money and life and wealth and luxury and blessing and poverty through the eyes of someone who has sat beside a baby as she took some of her last breaths because she was born too poor to eat, too poor to grow, too poor to live. Well, of course, you will think to yourself. Of course you will. But, what does that mean? How will that change things? Those are questions that time will have to answer I guess.

In the meantime I will tell people I am readjusting just fine thanks very much...

To read a bit more about Fati, one of the girls mentioned in this blog, click here - http://www.cotni.org/articles/188


huysmantrophy said...

wow Mark. This is beautiful writing. i am so heartbroken for these gorgeous little kiddos.

Christina said...

Thank you Mark for writing words my heart has been trying to express. I await the day I get to see Hawa in heaven happy and healthy, safe in her Father's arms.

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