A tear formed in the corner of both eyes almost simultaneously, without her making a sound. She stood stock still in front of me, a diminutive version of her beautiful mother across the desk. I had asked her gently to open her mouth, stick out her tongue, and allow me to use a tongue depressor and penlight to view her throat. Within seconds, a fearful tremor began as her eyes darted from mine to her mother’s, hoping for a way out.
Halfway through a busy morning in the Cornerstone health center, I had already seen 15 new community kids for screening history and physical exams as well as nutritional assessments. My heart felt raw from encountering so many tattered sleeves and thin limbs, uncertain smiles sneaking out from behind hopeful faces, and the signs of malnourishment and lack. At times I just felt like crying myself.
Her slight frame and hollow expression fit the news that her mother had just given me –“She’s positive.” I noticed that the brave one before me did not flinch at these words, which have carried an ominous stigma for 35 years on this continent now. She could not possibly have understood autoimmune deficiency, the need for lifelong antiretroviral medications, and the threat of early death she faced. Naiveté is a childhood grace, a temporary blindness to the full nature of things. I have come to see it as God’s design, like a divine pardon from having to absorb the more awful aftershocks of the Fall until we grow thicker and stronger.
Youthful naiveté aside, her trembling at the prospect of my exam suggested prior traumatic experiences in similar settings. Enduring chronic illness with only limited medical care in rural hospitals wears on a child born into poverty in Africa. My mind saw flashes of others like me in white coats unintentionally hurting her before, causing pain and fear in their attempts to diagnose and treat her sick body.
Philomena, my faithful translator and our Cornerstone chaplain, put both hands tenderly on the girl’s cheeks and spoke compassionately to her in Kikuyu, and for a moment I saw Jesus. Surely this would have been His play, to look directly into the eyes of the one He loved, to share her suffering, to take her fear upon Himself and carry it. Her countenance softened, as fear drained away gradually. Trust took its place, so that life could go on through another hard moment.
I calmly seized the opportunity to complete my head-to-toe examination, even catching a wry smile at the end when I gave her a high-five. We will have years to get to know her better, and we are determined to be her friend and helper through the storms ahead, to make sure that she thrives. But I am more aware now that we won’t carry our burden alone, not after that sacred moment. No, we will always and forever be just a breath away from seeing the evidence of our Savior, doing what He does, making fear a slave to love in the course of an ordinary day.
By Bob Mendonsa