THE CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL
The van pulled up alongside a single turquoise door, framed inside a cement wall that lined the street with a kind of intimidating authority. There was no sign. No indication of what was hidden on the other side of this wall. We peered through the dusty van windows with hopeful anticipation. Would Mother Superior let us in?
Our driver, Jean, helped translate for our team leader, and even though we were late, the turquoise door opened to us! We were invited in past the nun wearing a blue and white habit and a sweet smile, down the blue metal staircase into an open cement waiting area. One piece of artwork hung on the wall of Jesus saying, “Let the little children come to me” Matthew 19:14.
Eventually, someone led us through the inner waiting area to the far room, and through the thick, brown door frame. The room opened to row after row of little metal cribs, with matching pink crib sheets, and dozens of pairs of big brown eyes peering up at us! A few women moved busily about the room, swaying to music, as moving members amid the sea of sweet brown faces that met us within the walls of that small cement room.
Anywhere from six months to three years old, these malnourished babies had been dropped off by their parents to be cared for by this group of nuns. Many would return home to loving families, and some were left abandoned with no hope of warm embrace on the horizon.
Our job for the afternoon was to hold and love on the babies! We were eager to meet those outstretched arms and engage those tiny, lovable faces. Like all babies, they reached out for interactive play, touch, and loving attention.
Except those few… who seemed too sad or weak to lift an arm and show a smile. This is how I met Kenny.
But first, a side story.
Just as we were taking in the new surroundings of this compact room, all these babies in matching uniform lining wall to wall, I found two blue eyes that caught my maternal gaze. My daughter Alea’s eyes almost mirror my own, and there they were looking up at me with a not-so-good familiar squint. She sent out a secret plea every mother can recognize… She was about to be sick!
Both of our daughters experienced some discomforts on our family mission trip. They had mild heat stroke and diarrhea, learned how to swallow heavy medications, and Roya pushed through a decently bad cold with fevers most of the week on a taxing schedule. We were very proud of their positivity and loving hearts! But no one could have planned this moment. There, beside the first row of tiny cribs, with dozens of brown eyes looking on, in a third world country that spoke a different language, Alea turned to face her Mama then lurched forward to be sick. She lost it all. Everything in that little tummy piled up on the floor of the Haitian Children’s hospital! I stayed by her side, but didn’t know what to do. There were cloths spread out along the countertop, but I didn’t dare mess with these women’s system of cleaning and utilizing cloths to take care of all these malnourished babies! Here we witnessed the amazing efficiency of the Haitian nuns. One came behind Alea, supporting her from the back and pointing to a basin beneath the counter. I grabbed it and passed it to her. She held it under Alea’s face while another woman came alongside with a bucket of water and began dumping it straight over Alea’s head! One held the bucket and supported the child, while the other dumped the water with one hand and cleared the water from Alea’s eyes with the other. Soon, it was over. Everything was clean, and the nuns walked around with a knowing glint in their eyes… “These poor english Canadians… They can’t handle the heat!”
Alea’s body shook from the physical exertion of the incident, but soon settled into a normal calm. We were given so much grace and allowed to turn our attention back to these amazing babies, reaching out, looking on, trying to engage, craving interaction and attention…
I spent some time with a little guy who had a misshapen hand with some missing fingers. He was the happiest and most engaging kid, clearly unhindered by this slight deformity! I wandered over to some of the sweet girls for a bit… and laughed as one fought off her neighbor with her thin blanket, vying for our attention. Even here, girls can get nasty! Sweet, but determined, some of these girls were going to be just fine!
My eyes kept taking me back to this one child, somehow different than the rest. He was obviously bigger, though still small enough to stretch out inside these tiny infant cribs. He laid there, seemingly unable to move. He didn’t reach out to be touched, or turn his head to engage the visitors… Who is this little guy? Eventually, I put the current baby in my arms back down, which was quite a difficult feat, and made my way back to this little boy. “Who are you, little one?” I took in his frame, not really knowing if I’d be able to pick him up. His limbs were long and thin, and felt as though they might snap upon movement. As I leaned closer, there it was… the same childlike response and longing to be held, hidden behind a weaker shell. His head barely shifted toward me and his eyes moved in my direction, a hand may have lifted just slightly toward me… His mind was engaged, though his body was weak. “Yes, please. Hold me.”
With some effort and a degree of caution, I lifted Kenny from the crib. With one arm behind his neck and the other under his legs, we managed to settle in together. It felt awkward, like carrying a limp old man, instead of a baby.
His eyes moved around, though his frame was useless. I couldn’t help but notice his responses were different than that of a baby… Somehow more mindful, or mature. There was a deeper level of understanding and intentionality behind those eyes. I followed his eye movements as he led us closer to the speaker where songs of praise reverberated in exuberant Creole. I engaged those eyes and saw his lips part just slightly in the most precious smile. This little treasure was soaking it all in… and so was I.
My friend Jayne walked over and asked who I was holding. I hadn’t even noticed the way these children were labeled and identified by the hospital tags around their ankles!
Jayne bent to read the tag, and said, “Wow, seven years old.”
I looked at her, unable to process what she was saying. “Well that doesn’t make sense,” I thought. But as I walked around the room, with this long, lanky “baby” in my arms, I knew it was true. It’s what had set this child apart from the others. It’s why he engaged differently with more maturity in his way of thinking and responding…
Laying limp in my arms, was a 7 year old boy, as small as a two year old, so weak he couldn’t even part his lips into a full smile.
Tears stung the corner of my eyes, and my throat was lodged with emotion. Don’t cry, Maya had warned me! She said we can’t cry until we leave the building! But I was stunned and quickly filling with liquid emotion. I couldn’t help myself and looked up at my Alea. She was eight years old, moving around the room, holding and playing with other babies, just a few months past seven… How is it possible that this child in my arms and the radiant daughter before me could be almost the same age? What sort of different lives have they led?
My imagination wandered to take in what might have been the last seven years of this child’s life, that led him to his present state today… Did he sit for seven years in a dirty street, in the blazing sun, uncared for (perhaps unintentionally) by those around him? Did he go seven years without food or water to drink, denying his body the necessary nutrition to grow and develop like it was supposed to? Did he fight some sort of condition that kept him from developing? Why was he so unengaged? Did he lay helpless in the dirt for seven years and watch the world go by, unable to participate? Without arms to hold him? Too weak to run and play with the other kids?
Did this boy in my arms spend seven years longing for touch, for food, for water, for love…?
I felt the innocence of his suffering, and assumed he would soon die. How could he come back from this level of malnutrition? Is it possible? I made myself pray for healing and strength, but my heart wanted something different for him. “Is it okay to want this?” I wondered. I pictured Mother Theresa and wondered what it felt like, her ministry to the dying… My heart didn’t long for Kenny’s healing, as in the kind of healing that would keep him longer in this world, but it longed for him to be with Jesus. I wanted to hold him until I could deliver him straight into the outstretched arms of Peace Himself. I wanted to take him home, to carry him there, to a better place. I wanted him to die in my arms (or the loving arms of someone else), so he could pass through death as a loved, held, and cherished son.
He grew heavy in my arms. We danced. We prayed. I loved him. And then, I had to put him down and walk away, not knowing…
Since then, I’ve wondered. Is he still lying there alone? Is he still where I left him, stretched out in his crib, unable to move, surrounded by playful infants and sweet busy ladies who move about caring for the dozens of them?
Or has he gone home?
My heart mainly wants to know, is he still alone? Or is he with someone who loves him?
Mother Teresa said, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”
Seven is a profound number in Biblical numerology. It represents a sense of completion in the Scriptures, and a stamp of spiritual perfection.
God knows our times, the when’s of our story. In Psalm 31:15, the psalmist writes, “My times are in his hand.”
Jesus sees and knows every soul. Every human being is priceless to the Father, worth any and every cost. He carries each one of his children in his heart, keeping them and perfecting them until He carries them home.
In my short interaction with this suffering child, I received that sense of stamping over the seven years of his life.
Hebrews 2:10 says that Jesus was “made perfect through suffering.”
I think so was Kenny.
“Perfect. Yes, perfect.”