Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Death and Life in Masi

A little sparrow fell to the ground, and yesterday thirteen people clustered in an empty church to remember him. Kenneth (names have been changed) struggled through six months of life on this earth, in spite of several holes in his tiny heart. He conquered meningitis and a lung infection, but never gained the weight necessary for corrective heart surgery. His weight at death was less than eight pounds.

Kenneth’s mother, Iris, is one of a handful of whites living in a township of 30,000 people. Although raised in a middle-class South African home, Iris and her husband Douglas landed in Masi through a series of misfortunes and poor choices. They had their share of relational troubles, and barely managed to keep their rented one-room shack through Douglas’s occasional work and their landlord’s good graces. Add to that a child with life-threatening problems, and you’d think Iris would be a nervous wreck.

But she was amazing. Call it coping skills, call it denial, call it grace given to a mother who desperately loves her fragile child—but Iris was calm and mellow, exceedingly tender with Kenneth but not anxious. My social worker-friend took me along to visit them in the pediatric hospital, where tiny Kenneth lay still like an island in the great sea of his crib, breathing through oxygen tubes. We would say things like, “Yeah, that Kenneth is a fighter,” and Iris would barely murmur assent, then just calmly smile and stroke his little misshapen head.

The doctors sent him home, saying there was nothing to do until he gained weight. Iris continued to breastfeed, tried formula, and the weeks went by. Douglas told me later that, toward the end, they would often have to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in the morning “to get him going”. And one day that was just not enough.

What a sad little scene I came upon in their shack the next day. There was barely room for my friend and I to maneuver between belongings and wedge ourselves onto the bed where Iris lay, the bed in which all three of them had slept. Both parents were distraught and broken. They somehow always thought Kenneth would pull through. Iris told of waking that first night he was gone and feeling for her baby, “but I couldn’t find him.” Her voice trailed off into tears.

I laid with Iris on the bed, hearing the stories, soaking up the sm
ells of poverty (smells that lingered hours later, even after a good scrub), watching cockroaches scuttle up the sides of a teetering shelf. As Douglas painstakingly worked through a pile of baby clothes picking out fleas, he told me of his concern for Iris in her emotional state. We wept together for little Kenneth, who without question is “better off now.” And yet his mother’s heart wonders, “Why couldn’t he have been whole here?”

There are no easy answers, but I thought of Jesus’ words, “God sees even a sparrow falling from the nest. And Kenneth is worth more than many sparrows.” And I thought of a God who “became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message). There are such limits to my willingness to be incarnational, to become one with the people of Masi. And yet this is Jesus’ example. While we were yet sinners, with the smells and dysfunction and cockroaches, Christ became one of us.

Douglas and Iris have talked about the possibility of this being a turning-point for them, and they want to meet with us to proceed. May life spring from death! From the most unlikely of places, this is how transformation begins, one heart at a time.