Tuesday, March 19, 2013

when death is merciful

Yesterday, Bronwyn’s friend Robert died. Bronwyn started a friendship with Robert when I went to visit his mother and talk about feeding practices. (the culture of motherhood: fat babies part 3) Over the last several months, these two have become fantastic playmates. Robert, being a few months older than Bronwyn, would apparently call her name and one of his aunts would come ask for Winnie to come and play. I’d give her to Memory or Monica, strapping her onto one of their backs with a chitenge and wave goodbye, reminding the girls to keep her out of the sun and make sure she didn’t put anything in her mouth. Robert’s grandmother, Bana Louisa (mother to Louisa who is the mother to Robert) would always bring her back to me an hour or so later and tell me all the details. “She and Robert just played and played and played! Robert LOVES Winnie!”

Bronwyn & Robert back in November

We woke up on Friday night to a knock on our door. Bana Louisa’s grief-stricken voice spoke past Jeremy at the door and directly to me, the one still in bed attached to a sleeping child. Through groggy ears I heard, “Bana Winnie please we need transport to town; Robert has died and Louisa is in town with him and the family they are with has kicked them out because they fear the spirits if they keep a dead body in the house and its raining.” She had to say it three times before I caught on completely to what was happening, so fast was her speech to my almost, but not quite awake mind. Jeremy asked me if he should go, and all I had to say was, “if it were me in Louisa’s place…” Two minutes later, in the dark and the rain, Jeremy sped off to fetch a body, and I just cried.

As much as I am “pro-mama” in this place, and hate to speak poorly of anyone, I mourn the fact that there are certain women who simply have a hard time keeping their children alive. My friend ba Champo went through a bitter divorce last year after her husband left her because their first two children had died before the age of one. Bana Magoo, a woman who just completed her 13th pregnancy (one three, thirteen.) was sharing her obstetric history with me last month and revealed that her first five children had died. And sadly, Robert is Louisa’s second child, the first one also deceased. Blame and fault finding are difficult and dangerous roads to traverse, and in the middle of the night, as I waited anxiously to hear the rumble of the landi pulling back up to our house, I asked God why? Why do children keep being born only to be under-fed, under-medicated, under… gah, so many things… keep being born only to live short, helpless lives? I didn’t receive an answer to that question, but it did occur to me that allowing some of these children to pass away while small may be an act of mercy on God’s part. I cringe at that too, though I have seen the hurt eyes of small children who have grown old enough to perceive the neglect and abandonment conveyed through lack of food, prolonged illness and cold. A more emotionally developed child associates parental failure with unmet needs regardless of whether the failure is stemming from maternal ignorance or intentional neglect.

I know Louisa loved her boy. As we walked up the path to the funeral house, wails came from the front porch where sat Louisa, writhing in pain of the heart. As she saw us approach, she started to scream, “Roooooooobert!!!! Come see Winnie! Roooooooobert, come play with Winnie! Winnie is here, Robert, come play with her!!!” Over, and over, she called to her son to come back and play with his friend. Jeremy sat with Bronwyn to the side as I joined the women in the cooking shelter, huddled together in mournful union, listening to Louisa cry out in pain. Every time Louisa told Robert to come back and play with Winnie another tear rolled down my own cheek.

All the women I know who have buried babies, loved their children. The grandmother (Bana Louisa) asked me to talk to Louisa who had communicated that she would no longer eat - that if Robert was dead, she ought to be too. No, I believe Robert died not for lack of love, but because of a long string of actions that were palatable for his mother, but too much for his own small and delicate frame. Links in a chain that are cognitively misunderstood by these moms who aren’t reading articles from the AAP, having routine chats with a perceptive pediatrician, and following a dozen mommy blogs.

These things are gut-wrenchingly sad and equally complex. There are social, economic, educational, spiritual and traditional forces at work in every woman’s situation affecting her decisions regarding the bearing and raising of children. I’ve started ignoring anyone who gives a response to these intricate questions starting with “we just need to…”

The only thing we “just” need to do is pray. Beyond that, we proceed humbly, treating both mother and child with dignity, resolving to do our best, admitting that we are not the Savior, regarding each life as precious, and accepting that we may still get a sorrowful knock on the door in the middle of the night.

We’re still growing in these things, and we’re very thankful that Bronwyn is still oblivious regarding much of life. I’m not sure we’re ready to translate into toddler speak that which we can barely articulate to ourselves. I suppose we’ll cross that hairy ugly bridge when we come to it. For now I shall snuggle my baby till she can hardly breathe and give thanks for all those who have helped keep her happy and in my arms.


  1. I can not read this without commenting...but there are no words. My heart aches for you as you wrestle with such big, hard questions. Hugs and prayers.

  2. ba Betha, thank you for your words... God is close to the brokenhearted and the mourning. Lifting you and those grieving in prayer today.