Stay on target

When I was going through the letters that our family had written through a 20-year period, I was amazed at how many things I had forgotten about. But there are situations that have remained with me almost as clear as the day they happened. These times are not recorded in letters. These are the situations when we never got around to writing home. They were days when the Lord spoke so intimately that it was hard to repeat them to others.

I remember one such time I was sitting numbly in the small waiting area beside the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit of the Islamabad Children’s Hospital. It is late March and Ramadan – although I am not fasting this year. Nazreen, beside me, is telling the rest of us her story. She has come in from her village with her third child, just newly born, who is now in an incubator on the other side of the glass partition. She was married at the age of 16 and is now 22. The doctor has just left the room having lectured Nazreen on eating properly. He has told her that she must eat better – so that she will be able to nurse well and ensure that subsequent babies will be born healthy. He has told her that she should not be fasting during Ramadan.

Nazreen had nodded obediently to the doctor, but when he has left, spreads out her hands in a gesture of helplessness: “What can I do?” she asks the rest of us mothers of the NICU, “my mother-in-law requires me to keep the fast. I can’t just go home and demand these foods.” We all shift uncomfortably on the hard, slatted benches, both from soreness (we have all just given birth) and from knowing that there is no answer to Nazreen’s dilemma. Other women nod – obviously understanding her plight from a firsthand perspective. Our language teacher had told us of an Urdu proverb, “Ek aurat thi…”, which implies that despite good advice and scientific reasoning, the older women will have the final say, and everyone understands that in these kinds of matters, the mother-in-law is the head of the household.

There is a sliding window in the wall between our area and the NICU. Two doctors stand on the other side in conversation and I quickly realize that they are discussing my baby. Perhaps because I am a foreigner they assume that I will not understand them speaking in Urdu. We had brought Sophie in just hours after she was born because we couldn’t wake her up. Since being admitted to the hospital because she was in coma, she has also been diagnosed with a bowel blockage. Surgery has already been discussed with us, but now I overhear one doctor tell the other that they suspect the baby has Down’s Syndrome. I am stunned and overwhelmed. Tears begin to roll down my face and I lean my head back against the wall. Then, as clear as day, a voice inside me asks, “Do you want her?”

I am amazed at the question. Its honesty makes me uncomfortable. “Do I want her?” I think about what life going forward will be like raising a child with a disability. I have no reference for it, as I have no experience of someone with Down’s Syndrome. I have absolutely no idea what it will mean. Then I think back over the last 10 months since our third daughter, Danielle died suddenly of leukemia. Because we live in a country where good medical care is difficult to come by and diagnostic labs almost non-existent, she was left undiagnosed until just 2 days before she died. Despite the wonderful way God had prepared us for Danielle’s death and the way He has born us up subsequently, her dying was the hardest thing I ever had to do – and I know it is not something I would chose to go through again. I have learned that it is always good to say “yes” to God.

“Yes, I want her”, I am able to answer. I’m not sure I would have had the wisdom to choose life over death 10 months earlier.

Later that day Bushra joins us in the waiting room having come in with her eleventh child. The eldest of these is the only other one to survive infancy and we all can tell that this miniscule baby she has brought in will not live long either. It becomes evident to me that Bushra has a learning disability and is probably seen by her husband’s family only as a baby-making machine. Again the doctor lectures: “Too many pregnancies too close together”. Again the women of the NICU spread their hands in helplessness. These decisions are not in their power.

The next morning I am told that Sophie is out of the woods health-wise but will remain in the hospital for a few days and I know that this is the result of the conversation that God had engaged me in the day before.

I begin to bring in food to eat – despite it being Ramadan. Normally I would respect the fast and not eat in public but here in the waiting area of NICU I realize that I want to set an example. The next day a couple of the women have courageously followed suit and by the following day we are all eating our lunches together.

The population of the waiting area changes with the days. Some leave with a healthy baby, some leave with no baby – including Bushra. There are no more tears from me. I cannot feel sorry for myself in this company. After 2 weeks in and out of the NICU of Islamabad Children’s Hospital I am able to go home with Sophie to start a new adventure.

The psychologists of this world talk about finding a “happy place” – that place in your mind where you feel peaceful and where the stresses of life can’t upset you. Usually, it’s a warm, sandy beach, or a shady cottage in the woods. But Jesus tells us about a different “happy place” that defies the definition that the world offers. “Blessed (happy) are the poor…. the needy… those who mourn… the humble… those who really want to see justice done… those who work for peace…” This is the real happy place He tells us. We are all seekers with a deep hunger, and prevailing restlessness, not to find safety and comfort, but rather meaning and authenticity.