I’ve been struggling over this post for a couple of days now – trying to work through the emotions that are tied up with it so that I don’t allow anger and bitterness to take over and trying to find some hope within the heartache.
A little more than a week ago, I held a dying woman in my arms. I don’t know her name, and I can only guess at her age – somewhere in her 80s probably – but I know she was dying, because she passed away on Friday.
And judging from the conditions in which she lived and the rough handling I watched from her daughter, it’s very likely that the last gentle, loving touch she received was from the hands of the short-term American missionary, a physical therapist named Sam from California, who helped me carry her to the filthy mattress inside a one-room mud hut that she shared with 10 other family members.
The truth is, even as I left the doorway of her home on a bare patch of dirt on the side of a mountain in Haiti, I think I knew subconsciously that she would die before I saw her again, I had sat for a couple of hours on a primitive wooden bench with her at a medical clinic in a little church built of sticks, mud and tarps in a place called Cawuso. It’s the poorest place I’ve seen in a country where that’s really saying something.
The woman – too frail to walk on her own, her skin so thin and dry and stretched so tightly over her bones that when she moved her arm, it tore – had been brought to us for treatment, but she needed more than we could give in what was essentially a first-aid effort. She needed (and would almost surely have responded well to) an IV and a complete checkup. And she needed a new home.
We had hoped to give her both.
Supply and Multiply, the ministry I serve in Haiti, operates two homes for elderly residents in nearby Montrouis. We had been trying to get the family to let us take this woman in (free of charge) ever since we saw her lying in the dirt when we first visited this little community in February. Each time we asked, the daughter declined to allow us to take her mother – even refusing to allow us to take her to the hospital to be checked out. I had prayed hard for the woman before we arrived, and I had high hopes that when the family saw we were there to help the community and that we weren’t looking for money or anything in return that the daughter would relent.
Her family had said she was crazy, and it’s true that we had seen her rolling in the dust and had watched her fight against them as they tried to move her from one place to another in previous visits.
But when I held her as she received a sponge bath from another visiting missionary, she was still and quiet. She put her hand on my knee and simply seemed to relish the attention and the love she was getting.
She was impossibly tiny. Her daughter said she ate plenty, but the woman’s arm was smaller than the circle I can make with my thumb and forefinger, and as I tried to get her to drink fruit-flavored water from a plastic bag with a melting popsicle, I realized she was having trouble swallowing even that. She clearly had not been getting much to eat at all.
As we pleaded with her to allow us to take her mother to the Matthew 25 House in Montrouis, the daughter told us her mother had been like this for years. “This is how women in our family are when they’re old,” she said. I thought, “Well, good. Then you’ll get to see what it’s like to have your family watch you suffer.” And then I closed my eyes and asked God’s forgiveness for that sinful, bitter thought.
“We are strong,” the daughter told me. But all I could see was a frail wisp of a woman whose every bone I could feel through her skin. “We are taking care of her, but if you take me, too, you can have her.” I was shocked at the callousness.
In the end, all we could do was to let the woman sit in the shade for a while, rub Vaseline onto her dry, broken skin and try to squeeze a bit of sugar water into her mouth. My heart was breaking, and at one point I stepped into a corner of the church and just broke down.
I love this place, and yet I hate it so much sometimes.
On Friday, we got a call from the pastor of the church in Peris, a partner in our ministry in Cawuso, who said he had been up to the community that day and learned that the woman had died overnight. I cannot help but wonder how much more she suffered during those last days. I cannot help but wonder if she remembered how much she had been loved. I’m sure she had no idea how many Americans’ lives were changed by the encounter they had with her.
As I grasp at some way of finding hope in this whole affair, I am left simply with the hope that as she passed her last days on earth she felt the presence of the merciful God who loved her more than anyone else ever did or could.
As I pray for strength to forgive, I will rest in that hope. It’s all I can do.
— Res Spears