We got the call at 6:30 a.m. Sunday morning- our close friend *Anna was in labor and needed to get to the hospital soon. Kevin got up and dressed quickly and headed out to the village she and her husband, *Stephen, had been staying in. Accompanied by another woman, instead of her husband, which is a cultural custom here, Kevin sped to the hospital with Anna in very active labor in the back seat.
She almost gave birth in the truck. He helped her get to the obstetrics ward as best as he could; he called out for help when she almost gave birth by the trash cans outside the ward.
He came home as soon as he saw she was safely inside the ward and we switched places. I arrived at the hospital in less than 10 minutes. When I got to the obstetrics ward Stephen’s sister, *Rose, greeted me. I hadn’t seen her since we’d been in Igoi village, over a year ago. It was a happy reunion; her smile didn’t prepare me for what was coming.
She led me back through the double doors to the labor and delivery area and then suddenly she turned to me and said, “The baby died.”
“What?” I said, even though I understood her words.
“The baby died,” she said again.
The entirety of the labor and delivery unit is small and the delivery areas are tiny, separated only by half walls and shower curtains. Rose pulled back the curtain; it was white with blue circles. And then I saw my friend, my sister, lying on a barely padded black slab.
“I’m so sorry,” I said to her in Pidgin and stroked her head. The baby lay wrapped in a blanket on the table.
“It’s a boy,” she said.
Jesus, have mercy.
She then explained to me that the baby had died two days ago. She had been in the hospital last week for chest pains and before they had left on Friday afternoon, they had heard the baby’s heartbeat. He had been alive. We had taken them back to the village that day and I remember asking her if the baby was moving well; she had said yes. It must have only been a few hours after we’d left them that she noticed he wasn’t moving.
A doctor came in to examine the baby. He was wearing flip flops and a lab coat. He lifted the top of the blanket; the baby’s translucent skin revealed his prematurity.
“The baby died several days ago,” he said in Pidgin. “I’m sorry.”
And with that, he left.
Jesus, have mercy.
I tried not to let my face display the horror I felt inside and truthfully, I don’t know how well I did. I’d been to the Madang hospital before so I already knew it was nothing like my American hospital. But this, this was almost too much.
The floor was dirty and there were bloody finger prints on the white shower curtain. Her placenta was in a bag on the table next to the baby. There was no nurse tending to her. There was no one trying to make her more comfortable.
Anna moaned in pain and held her stomach. Her milk had come in and her shirt was stained.
I stood next to her in the corner, almost frozen, unsure of what to do. I left and bought her some water and told her I’d stay if she wanted me to. This was a completely new situation for me; I didn’t know all the cultural rights and wrongs.
There was another woman laboring in the same room, only separated from us by two curtains. She was pushing hard and in a lot of pain. We had no choice but to listen to her as she fought to bring her baby into the world.
She cried out to Jesus through her pain, asking Him to help her.
She cried out for the baby that would live; we cried out for the baby that did not.
Jesus, have mercy.
Rose and I had been standing for a long time; Anna told us to go and sit. I don’t know if she wanted to be alone or if she really felt bad that we’d been standing for a long time. We left the delivery area and sat on a hard bench and waited.
I called Kevin. He and one of our teammates had found a small wooden box that had once carried solar panels. Now it would be buried in the ground, a final place for baby boy to lay his head.
We sat for a while and eventually I heard a newborn cry through the walls. The mama who was laboring so close to Anna did it; her baby was here and alive and the pain had been worth it.
Stephen arrived at the hospital later and I took him back to our house to get the coffin. Kevin drove Stephen and Rose back to the village, the wooden box no longer empty. As the truck pulled away from my house, deep, intense sobs escaped from me, sobs that I’d been holding in all morning. I bent over in the middle of my kitchen, unable to stand up straight any more.
Because we had prayed for this baby. We had been excited for this baby and we had loved it. And we love his parents and his brothers and don’t want to see them in pain. And because I know my friend deserves better care and medicine and a clean space to lie postpartum.
Jesus, have mercy.
So what happens when your body swells for seven months, when you push and feel intense pain, and then the baby dies? Where is Jesus when the laboring only produces more pain?
I wish I had all the answers. I wish I knew why babies die in Papua New Guinea and America and everywhere else.
There are so many women, including myself, with glory babies up in Heaven, babies who never knew the pain of life on this Earth, who only knew the goodness of Jesus.
And maybe that is where His mercy meets us. Because the only thing I’m sure of is this: death isn’t the end.
Shortly after the baby’s death, we celebrated Easter, the God-Man’s death on the cross, a death He went to willingly because of the joy set before Him. It was His delight to reconcile us to God.
But the grave couldn’t hold him and death couldn’t keep Him. He’s alive. He’s alive and death has been swallowed up.
And so now you and me can look Death in the face and say where is your sting?
I remember John Donne’s words:
Death be not proud,
though some have called thee mighty and dreadful,
for thou are not so…
One short sleep past,
we wake eternally
And death shall be no more;
Death, thou shall die.
The ache is real; that week I felt it all the way down to my bones. But I hold fast to the truth that is Jesus: the Death-Conquerer, the Risen One. And in that truth I find His mercy.
*Names changed for privacy