Today was another beautiful winter’s day – the sun shining, a gentle breeze blowing in through my office window, the bustle and laughter in Reception drifting through as background chatter. I was sitting at my desk, working on a report, when my phone rang. The instant I heard the stress in the voice of the volunteer and friend on the other end of the line, I knew something was wrong. She had gone into the community this morning with our Feeding Scheme, to deliver food parcels to families who have no form of income, no way of accessing food, and at least one family member on Antiretroviral therapy.
She – along with our driver and another volunteer – had stopped to help a girl who had had a stillborn baby on the side of the road. The girl herself was very ill and in need of urgent healthcare, but they had phoned for an ambulance numerous times and, hours later, were still waiting. The baby was dead, still cocooned in its sac. They needed guidance and advice, which our staff were swiftly able to provide. The girl, her mother, and the little baby were loaded gently into their vehicle and taken to the nearest Clinic – a simple act that may well have saved her life. The girl was eventually admitted to hospital, and will be monitored and followed up with by one of our carers once she is discharged. Many people here are praying for her physical and emotional recovery.
The emotions that washed over me almost instantly were sorrow, pain, fear, and grief. When I then paused to look at some of the subliminal things I was thinking at that moment, which led to my emotions, they included statements such as “Life is so delicate”, “Everything I think is important is actually so small and unimportant in the face of death”, “Life is full of pain”, “We take so much for granted.”
We have a lovely little girl in our care unit at the moment – she is twelve, but such a tiny slip of a thing, she looks about six. She is HIV positive, orphaned, and the child of an alcoholic mother. When she first hugged me last week, wearing a big, warm, fluffy pink dressing gown, she seemed so tiny in my arms, and so infinitely precious. Today, she came up to visit us as we were on the phone dealing with the situation unfolding in the community. She was a calm and sweet little presence, with beautiful big brown eyes soaking everything in, and I felt so helpless facing the barriers of our disparate ages, cultures, and languages. I showed her a photograph of my children, and when I offered her an apple or an orange out of the fruit bowl on my desk, she took both – and I felt so grateful for having been able to give her something small. Soon she will find a foster home and new parents, and be gone from my life – but she has made an indelible impression on my heart, and I won’t forget her sweet face. I can’t bear to get to know too many of the children who pass through the unit – when one utterly delightful young girl I let myself fall in love with a little lost her life to cancer a few months ago, I felt the loss deeply.
I was recently re-reading parts of my journal from last year, and in August I had written:
“I dreamt last night about a little blonde girl of about six – malnourished, dirty, and with no one to love her. And somehow she trusted and accepted me, and we were curled up to sleep in a circle, my body surrounding and protecting her. Just a momentary image – her curled up safe at last; me so deeply moved by having her come into my life, and my protection. What does it mean to me? Why did I go from feeling so content in the dream to waking in tears? Who did this girl really represent – the daughter I’ve longed for but will never have, or the little girl inside me I wish I could protect from this pain, or both?”
My emotions are washing through me, wave after wave, tears and heartache.
This is the work we do. These are the realities of the communities we serve, where desperately ill mothers can lose their babies in the dust and wait hour after hour for an ambulance that may never arrive. This is why our work is so crucial, and why we strive to provide care, hope and love wherever we can. Yet, sitting in my cosy office, I don’t have to come face to face with the harder realities too often. I am not on the ‘front line’ of service delivery, but on the softer side of mobilising resources, sharing stories, and attending celebrations. I serve by enabling others to do so.
I don’t want to stop caring. I don’t want to stop crying the tears that are for myself and my own loss, but also for a young woman who lost her child, a baby whose heart is still, a community underserved and struggling with the burdens of poverty, unemployment, inadequate health services and disease. I don’t want to become hardened and immune to the complex, joyful, challenging and sometimes painful realities of life, loss, and endurance.
Tomorrow the sun will shine again, and the breeze will remind me that my life, at least, goes on, and that there are endless opportunities to care, and touch just a few lives, here and there.