I wrote this post as a missionary letter for Easter, 2007, but this event actually took place around Christmas, 2006.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to reap; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…” Ecclesiastes 3:1-4
The singing of evening prayers emanates from the fourth cottage. I glance at my watch; they are unusually early today. Children crowd near the inside of the door. This seems odd since they usually sit in orderly rows. Leaving my shoes and bag outside, I squeeze into a space in the doorway and see the children, cottage mothers and warden sitting in a circle that touches the edges of the room.
“Jabom. Prayer,” the Warden announces, and the children rise to kneel on the smooth cement floor. They reach out, clasp hands, and connect the circle. The Warden prays. Then Rajesh, the little boy next to her, lifts his voice in prayer, followed by Indumathy next to him, followed by Sujeeth and so forth around the circle, each person lifting a prayer to God. The children, some as young as five, kneel and pray for an hour trying not to let their stiff knees or the swarming mosquitoes disturb them. These special prayers are for Mathan Kumar, a four year old from our nursery who is very sick and currently in the Pediatrics Intensive Care Unit at Christian Medical College (CMC) Hospital in Vellore.
Reena, the Child Sponsorship Coordinator at Pannai, and I climb into the school jeep to go to CMC Hospital to visit Mathan Kumar and his mother, Gandhimathi who is one of the nursery mothers at Pannai. As I watch the distant hills fall away behind us, I think of the prayer chain conducted by the cottage children yesterday.
Pediatric I.C.U. is located in a new building. Parents with their small children line the hallway decorated for Christmas with large paper star lanterns that add a warm glow to the otherwise harsh fluorescent lighting. We take an elevator to the sixth floor, remove our shoes in the waiting area and enter the ward. It is quiet and still. Cheerful curtains with long-necked giraffe, laughing bandy-legged zebras and swimming fish hang in front of the windows. The walls have been painted with cotton-candy blue clouds and smiling Care Bears sliding down rainbows and chasing after butterflies. The only other signs of children are the subtle bumps their bodies make underneath green bed sheets.
We approach a bed with “MATHAN KUMAR” scrawled in bold purple letters on a strip of paper taped to the head board. Reena walks right over and touches the little boy’s forehead and his hand. “He’s so chill,” she tells me. A tube runs into his mouth, held in place by gray medical tape. Mathan’s eyes form slits, neither open nor closed. I hesitate then reach out my own hand. His forehead is indeed cool and smooth as kitchen tiles. Mathan’s chest rises and falls to the rhythm the ventilator allots it. But for this slight movement and the readings on the monitor above his bed, I would not know that Mathan is alive. The doctor reports that Mathan is not responding to any stimulus, even pain, and she tells us that his body is not functioning spontaneously. The machines and medication keep him alive.
Mathan died two days after I visited him in the hospital. He never reopened his eyes or spoke another word. He will never again sit in his mother’s lap or recite the A-B-C’s during playschool with the other nursery children. He will never again play on the swings at Pannai or play tag with his friends. His diagnosis? Measles: a disease for which an inoculation is available; a disease from which no child need suffer or die.
Where is God in a world where an innocent child is allowed to die of an easily preventable disease? How can God let this happen? My understanding of God is that God does not let something happen and God cannot do anything to change a situation. Instead of a God that does, I believe in a God that IS: a God that is present with us in times of trouble and pain as well as in times of joy and celebration, a God in which and through which all being and life exists.
From the cross, Jesus cries out to God, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But God has not forsaken Jesus. God is with him on the cross just as God was with him throughout his life. God was with Mathan and all of us as we experienced the tragedy of his death. At Easter time we so often focus on the resurrection without remembering the pain and grief of death. Death is as much a part of life as birth. At Easter, hope is faith that God is with us now and always. That for everything there is a time: a time to be born, a time to die, a time to mourn, a time to celebrate, and that through all those times, God is ever-present.