Verily, in Thee will we find comfort and strength…
With your permission, dear reader, I am about to share with you another story of a mother who lost her child.
As I did in the previous entry, I’ll change the names of those featured in this posting, too, because the subject matter is once again sensitive…and I want to treat it with reverence. I wonder, sometimes, if I should even post these stories…but, as I prayerfully consider what to write, and what to share with you, I am reminded that it’s these most “sensitive” subjects that are the real stuff of life—the stuff that brings us to our knees, and the stuff that stirs our spirits to rise, phoenix-like, from the depths of our despair. The stuff that makes us weep, and the stuff that makes our hearts sing with joy.
Of what else can one write?
I have another hesitation in sharing these stories, though…and that is that I won’t do them justice. That I won’t capture the language that befittingly conveys their poignancy, and heartache, and beauty. Hand of the Cause of God Abu’l-Kazim Faizi has asked, “How can seas of emotion be contained in chalices of words, though they be of gold?” The poets are those, I suppose, who possess the chalices of gold—limited, still, in their ability to contain, but endowed with the power to make that cupful of sea shimmer.
Mine is, I think, a chalice of copper. Unlike the poets, I don’t know how make language become luminous. But—in my very limited knowldege of metal—something I understand about copper is that, though it doesn’t possess the luster of gold, it has the ability to conduct heat. And this, I think, is why I feel compelled to write. While I cannot hope to convey they poetry of these experiences in Dominica—in life—I can strive to impart an ember of their warmth.
(Thanks for allowing me that preface. I will now pour another cup of tea, and try tell you about the mother…well, the two mothers. And with Ruby’s mother, who I wrote about last month, they are three.)
Lara is a 23-year-old mother of two beautiful sons. She is the pre-school teacher for the southern hamlets of the Carib Territory, and has recently begun serving as a Junior Youth Animator. She loves to read, and she loves to eat Milky Way candy bars—but both are luxuries she’s rarely able to indulge in. Lara is also 8 months pregnant, with a third son. She went in for a scan two weeks ago, and the doctors told her that, as the baby she carried was severely underweight, she’d have to remain in the Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH…a place that has become quite familiar to me these past two months) for the duration of her pregnancy.
This is a very challenging situation for Lara. Her two boys are young—ages 2 and 4—and though the children are in the loving care of their grandmother while Lara is away, she misses them desperately. And she worries. Is the two year old getting enough milk? Is the four-year-old practicing his alphabet every day? Do they know how much their mommy wishes she could hold them?
Her sleep has been troubled, Lara told us, partly because the hospital bed is stiff, and she’s unaccustomed to being in a room by herself. Mostly, though, what keeps her awake is the uncertainty of how she will ever manage to pay off her hospital bill. PMH charges 50 Eastern Caribbean Dollars per night, which means that, after a month in the hospital (plus the delivery fee, and other inevitable costs) her total bill could amount to more than her annual salary.
Her first week in the hospital, Lara said, was one of unbearable loneliness. But on the seventh day, Mary arrived.
Mary is a banisher of loneliness. In her presence, one feels an immediate surge of warmth, of friendship. She looks you straight in the eye when she talks to you, and when she asks “How are you?” it is not social convention, but a genuine inquiry as to the state of your inner condition. And she is not merely seeking to know if you are fine, but to discover how she might be able to be of service to you. Fittingly, Mary works as a coordinator of a public service program that provides in-home early childhood education, and coaching for their parents. She is also the mother of three sparkly-eyed children, and a facilitator of various community activities.
Mary joined Lara in the maternity ward of the Princess Margaret Hospital beacuse, in the sixth month of her pregnancy, she went into labor…and after an emergency Caesarean section, baby Grace was born into the world. Before Mary had a chance to hold her, the child was placed into an incubator and connected to tubes and machines. Mother and daughter would not be returning to the Carib Territory that night… and for the seven days that followed, the Princess Margaret Hospital became their home.
Mary slept very little that week. As often as the nurses would allow—and ignoring the searing pain in her abdomen from the operation—she’d sit beside the incubator that was her daughter’s crib, reaching her hand through the opening to touch Grace’s feather-soft cheeks, listening to the beep of the heart moniter, whispering prayers. Mary would have spent every moment there, but even nurseries have visiting hours…so when she couldn’t be by her daughter’s side, Mary would shuffle down to the pre-natal ward, in her slippers and purple nightgown, and visit Lara.
To pass the long hours of waiting, of nervous anticipation, the two young women gave each other manicures and pedicures. They combed one another’s hair, told stories, made each other laugh. They ate their plates of hospital food side by side, took turns calling friends in the Carib Territory for news from home, prayed for one another’s babies.
The two mothers called us Wednesday night, knowing we’d be in town the following day, asking that we bring them mangoes, and a camera…Mary hadn’t yet taken a photograph of baby Grace. They’d both seemed in high spirits during the phone call. But when we arrived at the maternity ward the next day, there was a heaviness in the air, and in the mothers’ eyes. Baby Grace, we learned, was struggling. She’d held strong until earlier that day, and was even breathing on her own for a little while, but had needed a blood transfusion…and it seemed her body was having a difficult time adjusting to the foreign platelettes. Grace’s lungs had stopped breathing on their own, Mary told us, and the baby had to be reconnected the oxygen machine.
“Pray,” Mary asked us. “Please pray. I don’t know what else we can do.”
We had brought with us a special prayer book for women, “Wings of Prayer,” and we gave it to Mary, along with a compilation of Bahá’í Writings, called “Fire and Gold,” on finding strength and blessings in life’s struggles. We prayed together, seated on that stiff hospital bed. And then Mary returned to the nursery, camera in hand, to take some photographs of her baby girl.
In the middle of the night, my phone rang. It was Lara, crying. She didn’t have to say a word.
By the time we reached the Princess Margaret Hospital the following morning, Mary and her husband had already gone. We met them at their home later in the afternoon, a home—I realized—that I hadn’t visited enough this year, but from which I’d always perceived the fragrances of unity, of collaboration. Mary’s husband was at the stove frying fish; one of the daughters was holding her little brother; the other daughter was seated beside the bed where her mother lay resting. Mary sat up to greet us as we approached. Her countenance was calm, her gaze steady. As we knelt beside her, and held her hands, she told us about her last moments with her baby daughter. They had been precious moments, sacred moments….moments, Mary said, that will remain with her always. There, beside the glowing incubator, Mary had sung to her child. She’d repeated the prayer “O Lord, Help Thou this daughter of the Kingdom to be exalted in both worlds…” over and over, as she stroked Grace’s tiny hand. Back in her room, she read passages from “Fire and Gold,” and felt, she said, oceans of strength coarsing over her, through her. She knew, then, that she and her daughter, and all the mothers and all the daughters, were being held by the Greater Hand.
It has been a week, now, since Grace’s passing. During these past seven days, Christine and I have visited Mary often. Every time we come, she updates us about Lara. Mary has called her every morning and evening, just to check in, just so she won’t be lonely, or discouraged. “You must keep your spirits up,” Mary tells her. And she tells us that we must pray for this baby, for Lara’s strength. Mary has been advised to remain in bed for the time, as her stitches have not yet healed, and the wound is still so painful that she’s unable to pick up her one-year-old son. But from that bed, Mary is reaching out to her sister Lara. From that bed, she is serving.
Yesterday, she put together a care package for us to bring to Lara in the hospital. In it, she placed some bars of chocolate, some romance novels, a newspaper, nailpolish. And then she asked me to remove a large blue bag from the shelf. She instructed me to open it, and that everything deemed suitable for a boy was to be added to Lara’s care package. I realized, as I removed the tiny socks, the pastel booties, the cotton blankets, that these precious garments were to have been Grace’s. We folded each of them neatly, setting the pinks aside, but placing the blues and greens and soft yellows in the package for Lara…for Lara’s son. Mary added several packets of diapers to the box. “These were given to me by Ruby’s mother last month,” she told me, “after Ruby died. Grace only used a few of them…so let’s give the rest to Lara’s baby.”
I battled against tears as I helped Mary assemble that package, and wondered at how her eyes remained dry. “I’ve done my crying,” she said. “Now it’s time to be of use.” I began to understand, as we folded the last article of clothing and placed it in the box, that Mary wasn’t supressing her grief, or ignoring it…she was channeling into service, into acts of love.
As we beheld Lara’s care package, brimming over with gifts, Mary motioned to the items in the box. “We can think of these as my blessings,” she said. “I have been given so many in life. How can I not share them with my sister?”
* Lara is still in the hospital, with an estimated due date of February 28th. She is progressing in her study of Ruhi Book 5, “Releasing the Powers of Junior Youth,” and has been memorizing prayers. We’re also trying to keep her supplied with novels and Milky Way candy bars. Mary, in the midst of planning a funeral from her bed, still calls Lara every morning and evening. She is reading “A Thief in the Night,” and is already planning a community devotional. Baby Grace’s funeral will be held tomorrow. Please keep these heroic women, and their children, in your prayers.