A couple weeks ago, the morning report of overnight admissions informed me that we had admitted a 75-year old lady with malaria. The severity of the illness had taken its toll on her. Her blood pressure was low and she was quite agitated and "talking crazy" (to attempt a translation of the French). These were all very bad signs. Her husband had been admitted the same night, at the age of 82, also with bad malaria, but he was looking even worse.
They were placed in two different rooms, across the hall from each other. The next day, the husband passed away. In the other room, his now widow had regained her rightful mind, but had become acutely short of breath, and so was placed on one of our precious oxygen canisters. Her children had not told her about her husband's death, afraid that it would cause her to lose hope. I told the students that it reminded me of the story of King David and Bathsheba's first son, which remains incredibly realistic after 2500 years.
There is a third room in that hallway, one that I always jokingly refer to as the "Ward of Darkness", due to its utter lack of windows and our frequent power outages. The same days that I was seeing this struggling, frail widow, a new lady came into the "Ward of Darkness". She was thirty-one years old, and had delivered a baby three weeks before. She started having trouble breathing, and the local health center referred her quickly to us.
Unlike most of our patients, she looked strong, well-fed, and healthy. But something had gone wrong, and she was now floridly infected with something. Her temperature soared and her blood pressure dropped. We started her on antibiotics and lots of IV fluids. The next day, we did some more tests, and broadened her medicines. Nothing would bring her fever down. Her newborn baby would lay on the bed, nursing from her mother, who didn't have the strength to rise and whose milk supply was rapidly diminishing. Her husband stayed by her bedside and carried their newborn around.
We talked some more, and considered every diagnosis we could treat. We treated her in the face of negative tests. My student (also a mother of four) was worried for the baby. We examined the baby, ran a couple tests on him, and Alyssa donated a tin of baby formula. The next day, the mother died.
The widow survived. She slowly got off her oxygen, and I remember her last day as she smiled at me, greeting me and shaking my hand with both of hers.
It was all very juxtaposed. The young healthy mother, with a family and a newborn. She falls away while this elderly widow beats the odds once again to go home. Why would this happen?
But then again, this family had just lost a father, and though ancient by Burundian standards they might be, they were spared the tragedy of losing their mother in the same week.
These things are just utterly impossible to weigh out. And yet I try. I try to make some kind of sense of them by looking at them from different angles, trying to see how the light is outweighing the darkness, and my only conclusion is that I will never see deep enough into the mystery of the manifold world to be able to make a call one way or another. Who knows? Who knows what just happened here? We tried. There was great sorrow and there was some great joy and some moments of great beauty. But what is the sum of it all? Any pretense on my part to be empiric in one judgement or another would be foolish. Who knows?
About a week later, we were in morning prayer for the hospital staff. What this means normally is that I do my best to understand the rapid-fire Kirundi and consider it a success if I can grasp the Bible passage we are reading, and then I try and think about it on my own, since I don't have much chance of catching the speaker's conclusions.
We read from Isaiah chapter six. It's a classic missionary motivation text. Isaiah has a vision of the glory of God's throne room, and he hears God ask "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" and of course, Isaiah says "Here am I! Send me."
But for the first time, I was struck by what immediately follows: "Go, and say to this people: 'Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.' Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes... until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste."
It seems incredibly incongruous. Was this what he was signing up for? Why would he do that? However, if Isaiah was surprised, he gives no indication of being so. Maybe he had been surprised one too many times already. Or, maybe he had seen the Lord, and what exactly he was going to be doing was not as important to him as the one that had commissioned him.
Don't misunderstand me. I believe that God is doing a good work, better than we could dream. Sometimes I can see it with my own eyes, and sometimes I have to cling to it, remembering evidences of past goodness. Maybe I even have to cling to it in order to see it with my own eyes.
But I cannot grasp it. I cannot anticipate it all. My concepts of what is just and unjust will always continue to move me to action, but I also recognize their limits.
What are we doing? Where are we going? God knows. If that was all we had, it would be enough.