It started out like an ordinary day. We picked up food for delivery. Each house received a bag of rice, two small bags of beans, two bottles of cooking oil, condensed milk, noodles, and several packets of what is similar to oatmeal.
It was dusty and very bumping. We were riding in the bed of a pickup sitting on bags of rice for comfort. We drove out a long way from the parish passing farming fields of rice and beans to a village called Monte Castillo. Only this day we came face to face with the reality of life and death among the poorest of poor.
It doesn’t take long for ones eye to see the difference in this community. A very poor area with very little access to larger communities for work or other needs. You might say poverty is poverty and that’s very true, but if certain people could have less – then the people of Monte Castillo certainly do. Children running about with no shoes, miss matched clothing for the current weather, lack of clean water. Farm animals looking very skinny and gaunt. The list goes on.
The first house we arrive at is one of new life! We see a new born baby sleeping peacefully in a make shift swing. The teenager with me says with curiosity, “Is that safe?”. I respond, “Not by American standards it’s not, but that’s actually very well made and solid. The baby will be fine.” The poor are very resourceful, everything is a commodity to be reused. Except for maybe the plastic bags and water bottles that litter the landscape, but that’s a writing for another time.
As we continue on delivering there were more signs of new life! The second house the mom is very pregnant and awaiting the arrival of her third child. She’s excited and happily poses for photos of her belly. We continue about our day delivering food house to house to families who have been blessed to be sponsored by an American family in the states. A welcomed monthly supplement to those in poverty. We are continually greeted with joy and what I call desert hospitality. We see children smiling and are literally chased down for handing out Dum Dums lolli pops.
We are toward the end of our morning and I’m lagging behind getting out of the truck. It’s the end of morning, I’m taking in the day, soaking up the morning sun, and quietness of the area. I let my new young friend carry the small bag of goods and leave the heavy bag of rice for a much younger and stronger staff member to carry.
I’m the last to walk into the dimly lit house and suddenly one of the staff members grabs my arm and says “Lisa, come quick. A baby died you must pray!” My mind quickly goes to a place of what??
We walk to the back of the house and there is an elderly woman sitting alone in a chair. Her face speaks boldly of sorrow and somberness. She’s sitting vigil. We come to know her grandson died yesterday. Her daughter, the mother of the baby is still in the hospital. Apparently, the baby was breach and there were complications. I ask no questions, as it feels unnecessary to know all the details. What I know is a baby was born yesterday and died yesterday, that’s it. Nothing else matters.
As I gather myself and look around the room I quickly notice the tiny white casket sitting on the table next to her with candles around it. The reality of what I’m in the midst of begins to settle in my bones. Yet, I’m still in some short of shock at what I’m seeing. I’ve heard of this before and talked about it many times and yet, I’m still shocked. There is a casket on a table in a home with a dead body in it, no less a new born baby.
I kneel down in front of the woman and look straight into her eyes and tell her in english I’m so very sorry for your loss. The staff member translates, but we all know in that moment no words were necessary. My heart, my eyes and the continued silence spoke a language we all understood.
After a few moments I stand up and say let’s pray. I grab the hand of my teenage companion, Annie and say “place your hand here on her shoulder we are going to pray”. I realize now I’m stretching Annie into a place she’s has not gone before, but I tell her pray anyway. I then place a hand on the grandmother’s other shoulder and my other hand on her head. We pray for several minutes. I sense the profound sadness for the loss of life and the grief the woman carries for her daughter, who’s still recovering in the hospital.
After praying I kneel before the woman and ask the parish staff member to translate. For the life of me I can’t recall all that I told her other than God is with her and she will see this little one again in the heavenly kingdom. When I’m done the woman for the first time smiles at me and I wonder what she must be thinking, but again I don’t ask.
When I stand up I’m told the grandmother wants me to be the Godmother to this baby boy. I suddenly feel like the centurion from Matthew 8:5-13. This is an obvious odd request, I think to myself. First, the baby is dead and second the woman just met me. “I’m so not worthy of such a request I go on to say. I can’t. The staff member tells me, “but you must” and so I accept with humility.
Now my eyes begin to fill with tears and I understand I’m about to do something that I feel I have no honour to do, but the grandmother insists upon her request. She goes on to tell me through translation that she knows this baby is in heaven and he will pray for me. Oh boy, the tears are openly streaming now from my eyes. Seriously, this is just too much. A tiny little saint praying for me!
First, before I go on I want to set the record straight for all my classmates & clergy friends – I did not baptize a dead baby. I quickly tell the staff member who was a former sister in Mother Therese’s Missionaries of Charity to please explain the proper Catechesis to the grandmother. It’s important that incorrect Catechesis doesn’t spread like wild fire in this village. I learn a priest was there yesterday and I’m assuming either baptized the baby or recited prayers for the dead. I’m not sure as it was not appropriate to get into the details of all that in the moment. I just wanted everybody present to know this was not a baptism, it was a blessing.
The next thing I know someone opens the tiny white casket and they hand me a glass filled with what I’m told is holy water. In the glass is a tree branch acting as a whisk. I’m told to bless the baby boy, who’s name I’m told is Valentino. Wow.
As I look into the tiny casket I notice his little hand still has a cotton ball taped where the IV needle must have been. He’s wearing a little onesie and looks as though he’s at peace and in a very deep sleep. I’m not sure my mind even comprehends the moment. I slowly pull the branch from the water and make the sign of the cross saying the words in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I watch as the water falls upon him and the casket. I some how notice the wetness of where the water falls. I go on to bless the three little ones standing around the table watching, two are siblings. All of which do not understand the gravity of the situation, as they go on about their play. I may have blessed the grandmother too, I honestly can’t remember for sure now.
By now my eyes are noticeably full of tears and so is my teenage companion who I later learn has never seen a dead body. I have some experience in this area, as I have attended many funerals and have no shame in sharing that after my father passed I crawled into bed with him to hug him one last time. The death is not what shocked me, but the request.
What must Annie be thinking I wonder? I’m sill in such awe I only know enough to ask if she’s ok as what we just witnessed is a lot to take in I tell her. She tells me, she’s fine and I think I hope so because I’m not even sure what to think myself at this moment. There’s a dead baby in a casket on a table in the middle of the day, in the midst of what feels like no where. And today, God sent us here together.
We say our goodbyes and go back to the truck as we have two more deliveries. My heart can not shake the sadness and my eyes continue to tear. I’m completely fine with all who see this vulnerability. There have been many firsts during my time here, but this one takes the cake. For sure, a story to be told.
We arrive at the last house and once again we witness new life. Another woman very pregnant and excitedly anticipating the birth of a miracle. We take photos to send the sponsor back home, as well as congratulate her. We tell her we will pray for a safe and healthy delivery, not forgetting what we just saw less than ten minutes before.
We are at the end of our morning and have seen an abundance of new life, as well death. I’m reminded of why Jesus came – for all to have eternal life. In faith, both exist – the sorrow and the joy. You learn through experience both can be held in a delicate place of tension ever so gently never diminishing the other. For our time is limited, but eternity is forever so I look forward to the day of seeing my dad again and now my little Valentino.
On the way home, I realize what we all just saw in a matter of a few short hours. Life and death. Joy and sorrow. And the difference faith makes in these moments and the strength I witness in that grandmother. Now, she’s one who I’m certain has seen much life and much death and with confidence she knows she will see Valentino as she told us so. And let’s not forget there laid a dead baby in a casket on the same table they break bread day in and day out. Maybe it wasn’t so strange or shocking after all, right there was the altar. I can’t speak for Annie, but I know I saw Jesus. Gosh I hope that woman did too.
During the long drive back to the parish I remember that I have two baptismal gowns back in my room. One I was saving as a gift for a family that is expected to deliver later this month and the other I guess for this very moment. Once again, I realize the affirmations of the Holy Spirit at work. I continue to wonder why I choose to wrestle with Him regularly. I do not know.
I make arrangements for the other gown to be delivered to the family before the funeral planned for that very afternoon. A gift from his new Godmother. I prayed that night at mass for Valentino and the family.
There are moments that change you and then there are moments that propel you into new territory in the spiritual life – this is one. It’s difficult to find the words to explain what we saw, what I felt, what it was like sharing that moment with Annie, the privilege, and the honour of what was asked of me other than admitting “I am not worthy”_______fill in the blank.
P.S. It is with heartfelt gratitude that I say thank you to the ministry Rest in His Arms. The gown I gave was one of donated gowns I brought down to Peru. https://www.restinhisarms.org