A week ago Monday at 1:00 am, a beautiful, nearly 10lbs baby boy was born to our very close friends Jecinta and Ignatius (Igg) — their very first. It was an extremely happy day for all of us. Around mid-day, Christi was on her way to visit them at the clinic, but found out that they had already been sent home. It was the usual happy celebratory visit. Jecinta was a little concerned that he hadn’t started breastfeeding very well, but all the aunties assured her that he would learn just fine. After some time of instruction and a prayer, he began suckling and Jecinta felt glad that she could feel the strong pull. As she turned to go, Christi thought to snap a quick picture with her cell phone.
The next day,
Jecinta called Christi at seven, having not slept very well (she had called someone else at midnight). She was concerned that the baby was still not nursing well, but this is not unusual; our Kiara had had similar problems. At 10, Jecinta called again saying she thought she should take the baby back to the clinic; he was having trouble breathing. Through the phone, Christi could hear him taking quick, rapid gasps of breath, so she changed her plans for the day and got in the car.
By 10:25, she was at her house.
When she arrived, Jecinta and her sister-in-law Kerry laughed and said, “Oh-we shouldn’t have worried you. The baby has stopped that funny breathing and is now sleeping peacefully. Maybe we don’t even need to go to the clinic.” Christi noticed the skin around baby James’ nose and lips was pale and had trouble feeling any breath from the nose, but his forehead felt warm and dry. One of the aunts assured her that he was breathing through the mouth.
They got in the car and decided to have the baby checked at the clinic where we usually go – Acacia. Due to traffic, it took the better part of an hour to cross town. At this point Christi sent me a text message staying that they had taken him to the clinic because of labored breathing and apparent dehydration:
Recounting what happened next, Christi wrote this to her family:
In the waiting room, there were four patients ahead of us. Jecinta jumped up a couple of times to see that we were not forgotten. A baby was screaming in the doctor’s office because of a vaccination. When our turn came, Jecinta was sitting answering the doctor’s questions and Kerry was holding the baby. I noticed the baby’s whole face was a bit pale and the dry skin seemed worse. I felt the baby’s forehead and it was cool. My whole body went rigid with fear.
I interrupted the general questioning, telling Kerry to give the baby to the doctor immediately. She looked confused, but did so. The doctor took the baby and placed him on the examining table. When he unwrapped the blankets, the pale, little arms jiggled stiffly. The doctor said simply, with a shake of the head, “This baby is already stiff.” We all looked at him in silent shock. He pulled out a stethoscope and felt around for a few seconds just to have something to do, but just said several times, “I’m very sorry. He must have died some time ago because he is already stiff. There is nothing I can do.”
Jecinta huddled to the wall next to her, put her head down on the desk, and wailed. Kerry also started wailing, and I cried silently, sitting on the floor next to Jecinta. The doctor covered up the baby’s face and sat down at his desk to wait. He said that the baby should not have been discharged less than 24 hours after birth, especially since he was not breathing well at birth [he’d been put on oxygen immediately].
After about 15 minutes of crying, it seemed clear that the doctor wanted to start seeing other patients. There was no quiet place to sit in the office because of all the children running around. We said we wanted to wait for the baby’s father to arrive before making decisions. He asked us to wait in the car or drive to the city mortuary, which was about two minutes away [as if this was the only choice].
Jecinta and Kerry got up and walked out to the elevator, leaving me to pick up the baby off the examining table. I held the baby and the doctor tucked the blankets firmly around the head so no part was showing. When we reached the car, I asked Jecinta to hold her son, thinking I had probably read in a book somewhere that that would be a good way to help her realize what had happened.
After the shock, Christi didn’t have the strength to make a phone call, but she did have the presence of mind to punch out a quick little text. Sitting at my library desk, the phone beeps:
“The baby died.”
What?!?!! I call — in the background, I hear the heartrending sobs of a suddenly heartbroken mother.
“Does Igg know?”
“I’ll need to call him then . . ”
– “Yes. Please do.”
“Okay. I’ll be on my way . . . I’ll have to take a matatu.”
I staggered home and mumbled what had happened to Njeri (our househelper and also a good friend of Jecinta’s). . . I sat on the couch, put my head on the coffee table, took several deep breath and prayed, “Lord, I don’t know how to do this . . . ”
“Hello, Igg; it’s Ben” [He already knows this; my name is on his mobile screen]
– mhhmmm [He’s a physics teacher; he’s in school; he can’t talk much.]
“You need to get to Acacia Clinic right away.”
– “Ok, I’ll check [strict school, teachers fired quickly, job market is impossible] . . .”
“It’s important. . . I don’t know how to say this . . . your son didn’t make it . . . I’m sorry . . . he passed on . . . [choking up]
– “Ok.” [click]
It’s a call neither of us will ever forget – much as we both want to. After this, Igg tells me later, he walks into the principal’s office. The principal not there, but his wife is. . . “my wife had a baby, yesterday” . . . “O great! You should have told us; we could have celebrated with candy.” . . .
I change my clothes, put on sunscreen, and stagger back out the door. Somehow, before leaving, I manage to take a few seconds to peek at my “funeral file” from my seminary pastoral training class (my files are in a box under the bed) – “When you get the call.” All it says is: “Go; be present; and pray, pray, pray.”
As always, when I feel out of my depth, I start thinking of friends and advisors who can tell me what to do. I don’t have time to consult anyone, but I do stop by the kids school on my way out to tell Mrs. Njuguna the principal. (Jecinta has been helping out with the school’s library, and Mrs. Njuguna has always been a great confident and counselor for Christi.) She offers to take me down in her van; she has me drive – at least it gives me something to do; I’m extra careful. [First, we have to drop one of the school kids around the corner — her mother was given AIDS between abandonments by her philandering husband, leaving her with 7 kids (he’s still alive I think). Long story short: one night in desperation, she’s about to kill her babies; an “audible voice” tells her not to . . . next day lady from Mrs. Njuguna’s prayer group visits . . . Mrs. Njuguna organizes for the ladies to rent a place for her . . . puts her kids in this school . . . today, is their first day, but this girl (8 or 9) is needed back at home to take care of the burned baby twin, so that the mother can take the other sick one to the clinic. Note: Mrs. Njuguna is exactly the kind of principal that is shaping the values of my kids.]
The drive seems like an eternity – so much traffic. Meanwhile, Christi, Jecinta, and Kerry are sitting in the mortuary parking lot – engine running, AC on. Again, she writes:
During the hour of waiting, I decided to find my way around the mortuary so that I would know the proper procedures. I waited in an enquiries queue for a while and explained that I had the body of a baby in my car. I was told to just drive around the back and drop off the body.
I went to the back and talked to a man there who wanted me to sign in the body. I asked if I could see the room where the baby was to be taken. He led me through a foul-smelling doorway into a long, narrow room. Directly in front was a long wall of steel vault doors. To the right was a dead body of a young man on a stretcher. His clothes were torn to shreds, his body was covered with deep cuts that looked like they were from a machete, and crusted blood was everywhere. Flies swarmed around him, as well as on the row of steel tables to the left.
The man explained that we would just put the baby on one of the tables and that he would be put into a vault. He then proceeded to open a vault with some feet sticking out the end, as a show of how nice the vaults were.
I asked if there was a quiet place to pray and wait for the dad to arrive, and he looked at me like I was crazy. I felt like I was crazy.
I just prayed that God would send someone who would know what to do. There was no way I was going to take a new mother with her little baby’s body into that foul place.
I walked back to the car, in time to greet Jecinta’s friend Pasqualine and show her where Jecinta was. We all sat in the car crying and praying again.
Thankfully, Ben was on his way with Mrs. Njuguna, my dear friend—a counselor who had buried many people in her lifetime. I called my mom, who was nearby with my dad, since Daystar University’s downtown campus is directly across the street from the city mortuary. I got to cry and talk with my mom for a bit—a relief because I couldn’t do so with Jecinta or her sister. They said that I could find another private mortuary nearby.
Then Ignatius arrived, walking so slowly and looking almost in a trance. . .
It’s hard to portray the shock and sorrow of the day — scenes indelibly burned into my mind. First, the sight of the mother, sitting in the front seat of our car, still holding the lifeless body of her little boy. We spend the rest of the afternoon driving — first to the police station to get a death certificate, then to the mortuary of an outlying hospital closer to us. Mrs. Njuguna’s van ahead of us stops to pick up Jecinta’s mom (the grandmother) and two of her sisters at a bus stop; they had left home earlier that morning just to visit the baby. As I drive, Jecinta sits in the passenger seat next to me staring blankly out the window. Staring right back at her is a billboard of a healthy, smiling baby; I notice signs of healthy happy babies everywhere. As we weave through outskirts of Nairobi, we follow the same route Igg normally follows home from work. Just before we get to their house, we veer off in a different direction. Today, he’s not coming home to see his firstborn son — a baby he got to spend just one night with. No, he’s taking the empty shell to a funeral home. Next to him sits his sister, holding the baby. “Look!” she sobs as she unwraps his head one more time “it’s as if he’s sleeping — so peacefully.” Other than the occasional call that Igg takes (“We are headed to . . . ), no one says anything . . . What can you say?
The Kikuyu hospital mortuary/funeral home is simple — even Spartan — but peaceful. The older ladies and Christi take of all the paperwork – Thank God for them! Then we all gather around the baby one last time to pray; Jecinta stays in the car. Pasqualine looks at me an nods. She’s the senior person in this group, and this is her signal to me to pray. What can I pray? “Father . . . our hearts are broken . . . we started today with so many hopes; the dreams of so many years have been crushed here in the death of this little boy . . . we know that you grieve with us . . . comfort Jecinta and Igg . . . ”
It’s too much for the grandma who is seeing her grandson for the very first time. As her sobs pierce the air, there’s not a dry eye among us. I touch his cheek; his head flops lifelessly to one side. Igg stays behind for a few more tender seconds with his son; then we all turn to go.
As we drive home, I glance in the rearview mirror; Igg stares forlornly at the empty baby blankets in his hands then gazes blankly out the window. Back at their home, we all file down the narrow walkway between the small flats. Before we enter their door, we all have to duck under the new nappies (diapers) that have had been hung up to dry on the new nylon line that Ignatius had recently installed. It’s too much for Jecinta. Kerry takes down not only the nappies, but also the new clothesline. Still, everywhere else we look. . . .
We all crowd around their sitting/dining/kitchen room – just sitting quietly for a while. A pastor friend who has joined us prays briefly; he lost his first three kids, so his prayers seem especially heartfelt. (They are certainly more coherent than mine). Then some of us go; it’s the first time Christi and I have had a chance to talk since early this morning. At home, the kids shock us back into a bit of normal reality; they still have to eat. Luckily, my sister “Auntie Beth” is here to feed and put them to bed while we stare off in stunned, semi-shock slowly recounting the day’s tragedy.
Death is so real and stark when it hits this close. One day, we are celebrating the long anticipated birth and admiring a big, beautiful baby; the next, we are in total, utter shock.
It’s striking how many people have a similar story, even here where all the best medical care is available.
We wrestle with all the “what ifs.” What if we had taken the baby to the hospital earlier? What if . . . ? In retrospect, we saw signs. It’s hard to avoid the anger against a clinic that rushed the mother and baby out the door – a baby that was put on oxygen at birth no less (something we didn’t find out till later). But going down that road now won’t bring him back now. A surgeon in the US tells us that it could could have been a heart defect; a baby there had two heart surgeries and still died – 12 days old. It could be anything; we will never know. Igg says, “We have to realize that God gave us a little angel for a day. Pointing fingers won’t bring him back. It will only hurt us more.” . . . and yet the thoughts keep creeping back in.
In the midst of the sadness there always bright spots. These two families from different ethnic groups (Gikuyu and Luhya) came together beautifully in the midst of this crisis. They’ve gotten to know each other — and we’ve gotten to know them — in much deeper ways over the last week. I’ll never forget the image of the baby’s two grandfathers, shovels in hand filling the little grave with dirt. A year ago, with ethnic violence ravaging the country, we wouldn’t have been able to get together. The community here has been so supportive. The doctor that they saw Saturday was so spiritually healing and affirming. . .
Yesterday, Igg went back to work; in addition to teaching, he has to write eight exams this week and sixteen next week. Jecinta’s mother-in-law went back home to Western Kenya yesterday, and the rest of the siblings went back to work. To keep Jecinta from being left alone at home, we’ve moved them into our room for the week [we’re sleeping on a mattress on a floor in the kids room]. Student housing doesn’t seem like much, but at least it’s a little more space, with running water, a hot shower, greenery, and friends all around.
Conversations are mostly normal; we still tell jokes and laugh, but behind it all — as we look off into space, we all know what each of us thinking.
Yesterday, it was: “This time last week, he was here, and we were so happy.”
Last night, it was: “This was the only night we spent with him. If only he had been in the clinic as we had originally planned. . .” [Igg was only able slept one hour last night.]
Today, it’s the day he died . . . going over the memories of everything I’ve just written.
Thursday, it will be, “This is the day we buried him. ” His mother took one quick look at him and buried her face in her shawl. “He was so beautiful!!”
This is going to be a tough week. Maybe the excitement of today’s the inauguration can provide a little distraction this evening (if they go somewhere to watch it). Today, Christi took her to the pool for a bit, then grocery shopping. When I stopped by this afternoon, Njeri was doing Jecinta’s hair as she watched Mary Poppins. They were interrupted by friends and relatives coming to check on her–all bearing bags of fruit–true community.