Rose died on Wednesday evening, the 15 month old baby of JD and Kevin’s houseworker, and our near neighbor, Jowasi. I had found them admitted already on Wednesday morning on the Paeds ward, mother and baby sleeping on a mattress on the over-crowded (!) floor, one of almost 40 kids needing attention. And I failed Rose, failed not notice how sick she was becoming throughout that chaotic day. After seeing all the patients, running home to feed Luke lunch between two exams, and meanwhile greet a delegation from Catholic Relief Services touring the country, then running back to see the HIV positive kids in the clinic, I checked on her. No malaria parasites on her smear, a hemoglobin that was anemic but not a critical value. He mom said she was breast feeding; I declined to order them a Quinine drip given the lab results and decided to keep her overnight on oral medications with an anticipated discharge the next day. It was mid-afternoon, and I left, much more concerned about two other children who seemed objectively much sicker, than about her. So when I heard from friends early the next morning that she had died, I was shocked. Evidently about 6 pm that evening she had begun to deteriorate, probably more anemic than I realized, and she died in the hospital. I went to their home to find the women shuffling quietly single file, weeping, to the nearby compound of Jowasi’s clan, where they would bury that day.
There is no glossing over death in this place. I suppose I usually move on with the assurance that we did all we could, or the convenience that the family whisks away the dead body during the night so I only find the empty place. This time I could not do either. After finishing at the hospital on Thursday I accompanied JD back to the place of the burial. We sat outside in the drizzling rain, clustered with other women around the mud and wattle house where Rose’s body lay. A few sang hymns and beat a drum until the freshly dug grave was complete. Neglected children tried to amuse themselves, or huddled under the dried banana leaf shelter of the kitchen shack. Oblivious duck families waddled about as rain collected into puddles. Even as Bundibugyo homes go, this was a pretty bleak scene, unswept dirt and leaning shelters, scraggly livestock and runny-nosed toddlers. Then we listened as a local elder and a family member took turns recounting the events of her short life and death. In this place, and in this clan in particular, accusations will arise. Who bewitched them? Whose jealousy was aroused by Jowasi’s job with the mission, by his two wives, his 8 plump children? Whose fault that there was a quarrel in the marriage, and the sickness began while Rose and her mother were staying away from home, sulking back at the in-laws?
When the short coffin, covered in bright purple cloth, was lowered into the hole Rose’s mother threw herself into the loose dirt at the brink of the hole, crying out “they have taken my child” until she was carried away by other women, the grave dirt on her face and clothes, while men shoveled the clods of soil with the thump of finality onto the hollow box. Her father sat forlorn, some distance back. We walked away, heavy-hearted, to team meeting and James 2, Abraham and Isaac. I struggle with that passage. God clearly judges against the nations that sacrifice their children to Molech, that burn their babies, something He hates, the prophet Jeremiah rants on and on against the idea of gaining advantage by sacrificing a child. Yet in this story Abraham ties Isaac and puts him on the altar, then raises the knife, and this is pointed to as true faith in James. Testing, the purification by fire of a precious metal. After 14 years I’m still crying out for that kind of faith. If it were my child in that box, not Rose, would I believe God’s goodness? And even if (I sincerely hope) I never face that test, can I keep on with the more subtle daily sacrifices that living here entails for my kids?
The rain drizzles on, and I pray that my faith will lean on Jesus, the ram in the thicket, the child whom our Father in Heaven watched die, in our place and my kids’ place. And Rose’s place, so that she could rise from that mud-splattered purple coffin and run into the arms of her Lord.