Sometimes missionaries find themselves in surreal positions, thinking to themselves, “I never thought I’d be doing this!”
An extreme example of this facet of our job occurred this morning at 6:30 when my close friend in the village (Martha*) knocked on our door. She was stunned by the “khombo” (danger) that had befallen them in the night. The 7-month old son of her best friend and relative who lives on her property passed away in the dark of night.
She had just held him two hours before and rejoiced that she had finally gotten him to take a little milk after what seemed like two days of stomach flu. She had spent what little money she had on a tin of milk powder, hoping to try something the child would drink. Finally, he took some. He played on her lap, and Martha and the child’s mom were relieved. Two hours later Martha awoke to try to feed the child again, but “his eyes were open and would not close.” How shockingly sad.
They wanted to bury the child today, she said. Did we have a box they could use? And would Seth “do the prayers” for them?
Of course we would help. We had church at 9:00; but she already knew that, and we hoped to finish the funeral before church began.
Seth left the sitting room, and I heard him begin to break a pallet down in our garage. I looked back at Martha in time to notice her hand over her eyes as the tears began to flow. She recounted her shock again–how could this happen? He was just happy two hours before! My own tears came as I looked straight ahead at the jars of marbles sitting on our bookshelf, filled with one marble for each month of our children’s lives for 18 years. That mother had only 7 months to spend with her baby.
I fed my children and dressed them for church in record time, tasks my husband usually helps with. It felt so surreal when he came in to measure our toddler, trying to guess at the dimensions of the casket he was building. We shared a shocked glance at the thought of measuring our own child for a casket. Yet practicality reigned on the surface while emotions simmered beneath. We discussed how long a 7-month old might be and raced back to our respective work.
I dressed the children in their best clothes, thinking this might be the first funeral they would attend. At first, we hoped Seth could run the funeral and come back to get us; but as the casket took shape, we both realized we would have to go all together and straight to church thereafter.
The casket was beautiful. The wood itself was rough shelving board, but I was surprised to see a hexagonal shape with a perfectly fitting lid. I had expected a quickly fashioned rectangle.
While Seth dressed for church, I grabbed my kitchen shears and ran out into the garden. I snipped Gerber daisies, hibiscus flowers, hydrangeas, and any other flowers and greens I found that were blooming and made a quickly thrown-together arrangement in one of my melamine glasses.
Seth had asked me to scribe a message on the lid. Surreality washed over me again, as I asked the dead baby’s four relatives (children), who were all standing at the edge of our garage watching, what his name was and made sure of the spelling.
When we arrived at the house, it was Martha, Seth, and I who arranged the baby in the casket. I have never felt a dead person before. Again, I wondered to myself at how my left hand could ease the dead child’s head into place as my right hand held my toddler on my hip.
We held a short service with about 15 people as some men finished digging. My sons and the other children were out of my sight elsewhere in the yard during that time. The people wanted to perform some traditions and invited us to head to church. Seth felt obligated to remind them that we would have nothing to do with ancestor worship. Then while the ladies sang, the men worked in turns to shovel the dirt back into the grave.
Before we left for church, I went into the house with Martha to speak to the mother for a bit. She cried, and I sympathized. My heart broke a little for her.
Then we took our kids, as well as their other children, to church. We arrived 15 minutes late and conducted affairs as usual. It felt…strange–almost like it hadn’t happened. But when we got home and cleaned up the mess left from our hurry, reality began to hit. Seth had been both carpenter and preacher, all in one morning.