Before I’m even halfway up the rickety stairs, Rhia begins speaking to me in rapid-fire Malay. Many people from this area have spent years working in Malaysia. My neighbor Rhia knows I grew up in Indonesia, which has a closely related language, so she skips the usual greetings and rushes on. Her baby is running out of time.
Rhia clings desperately to her naked boy. He is suffering—belly and eyes swollen as every cell in his body gasps for air. “Please help me!” she begs. My mom isn’t far behind me. I have never been more thankful to have an experienced nurse visiting than in that moment. She also understands Malay. The situation is grave. We have to move fast if we want to save this boy. My mother and I run back to our house. I swing our bedroom door open and wake up Joshua, who is recovering from dengue fever. “You’ve got to drive us to the hospital. It’s an emergency!” I say. “I’ll explain on the way.” I grab my purse with money and keys to the car and house. Seconds later, we are on the road. Joshua turns on our emergency flashers and leans on the horn as we dodge cows, pedestrians, driftwood and vegetable and meat sellers along the road. I sure wish we had an ambulance siren right then.
As we race along, Rhia tries to tell us more. Her baby has some kind of blood disorder and is due for a transfusion next week at the provincial hospital more than an hour away. That’s the nearest pediatric care unit. He had been just fine till about thirty minutes ago.
Joshua is calling ahead, asking for an ambulance with oxygen. All are busy. My mom suggests stopping at a smaller hospital on the way to get oxygen for the rest of the trip. We pull up to a hospital and yell for oxygen. The doctors are playing volleyball outside. Some recognize Joshua from a few days he spent there volunteer translating for a group of Adventist Korean doctors.
A nurse reluctantly comes to check the baby’s blood pressure and starts him on oxygen. There are no portable tanks, so we wait while the volleyball players discuss whether or not we can take the full-size tank. Then four men heave the huge tank into the back of our car.
The baby is having a harder time breathing with each passing minute. We say another prayer out loud as we drive on. There is a chance the road to town is not even open since it is high flood season. Everyone is praying silently the whole way.
The sky opens up on us with the late afternoon monsoon shower, and then a beautiful sunset fills the western horizon. Rhia is sobbing quietly as she mumbles her Arabic prayers and clings to her pale boy.
We rush into the children’s ER (which is upstairs!). As we climb the second flight of stairs, Rhia says, “Why is he so still?” The team of doctors and nurses grab him and start CPR immediately. The tiny room is full of serious cases in every corner. Two preemies are fighting for their lives as nurses squeeze air bags for them. Rhia comes into the hallway, and we hold each other. A doctor comes out every few minutes to ask another question. We pray together out loud as I continue to hold Rhia close to my heart. Silently I ask God for mercy and for Him to use me in this moment. Rhia’s tears wet my shirt, and mine wet hers.
The doctor finally calls Rhia into the room. She barely has any strength left, so I walk her inside. He explains to her that they tried for 20 minutes, but sadly they could not save her son’s life. He is gone. She collapses into my arms as she wails in agony.
How do you comfort a mother who has lost her only child right in front of her eyes? My tears flow as I realize once again that the only hope I have is through Jesus my Savior. How I wish my new friend knew my Savior!
When she is ready, Rhia wraps her precious, lifeless child in a tattered green towel and carries him back outside to our car. As we drive home in the dark, it is drizzling, and I think to myself, God must be crying, too.
We arrive back at Rhia’s grandparents’ house where neighbors have started to pile in. A single feeble lightbulb throws long, dim shadows from the wooden stilts. The older women spread out a piece of white cloth and a plastic-covered pillow and place the limp body on it. After they finish bathing him, they wrap him in a local multipurpose cloth called a kroma. Rhia is crying quietly. The men are trying to figure out how to hang up a mosquito net. As I look around the room, almost every woman’s eyes are wet. I wonder how many of them have lost a child. I hear the child mortality rate is quite high among the Great River People. I think back to the tragedy that happened to my own family nine years ago when we lost my nephew suddenly at barely four years old. I want so badly to share with everyone in that dimly lit room about the hope we have as Christians. But I know this is not the time and place for that, so instead I silently ask God to give us opportunities to share in the coming days.
The next morning, I wake up wondering where they will bury the child. There is barely a patch of dry ground above the floodwaters anywhere. I walk the narrow path past several wooden-stilted houses to the house where flip-flops dot the bottom of the stairs. When I arrive, two imams are again washing the body in preparation for burial. They smile and joke as they work. They wrap the body in cotton and then a white sheet tied with pieces of white material. Then they place the body on a mat on the wooden-slat floor. While the men recite a prayer, the women stand off to the side. Rhia is by my side again sobbing quietly. I hold her close. It seems that in this Muslim culture, loud expressions of emotion are frowned upon. Rhia clings to my arms and I hold her close to my heart as she weeps silently.
Then we walk past their small garden to the front yard where the hole is dug. A grave hole should never be this small, I think to myself. Two men climb into the hole and place the body on a shelf dug into the side of the excavation. They tilt the white bundle slightly, facing it toward Mecca. Then they place a large panel of planks against the wall so that no dirt will touch the body. A large grass mat is held up to protect the two men in the grave as the dirt is tossed back in and packed down. Josh is right there digging with them. It all was so respectful and efficient. Rhia can’t watch anymore and goes back inside the house. Her husband is in Saudi Arabia studying to be an Imam.
After the hole is filled, two branches are stuck into the dirt at the head and foot of the grave for simple markers. Then all the men lift their hands with palms up and recited a prayer. Everyone is then invited back to the house for a meal of rice, fried fish and chicken-broth vegetable soup. As is the custom, the men eat in the living room area along with special guests while the women gather in the kitchen.
The atmosphere at the home is a little bit lighter now. Two other women join us as we eat. I speak to them in my limited Khmer. Joshua is sitting with the men, and they are asking him a lot of questions. He shares a little bit about how we are here to help people learn about Jesus. They accept him warmly, awed to hear a foreigner speaking their language. They all encourage us to come visit their homes anytime.
I notice Rhia sitting quietly in the corner, looking at her phone. I figure she needs some time alone, maybe to look at pictures or talk to her husband far away, so I let her sit. The women are chatting and happy to see me. I sit down on the slatted wooden floor to visit with them for a few minutes before I bid them farewell.
It’s Sabbath noon by this time and blazing hot. In two hours, our church group will meet in our living room. I take a cold shower as I think back over the events of the morning. How my heart aches for Rhia and her family. One day, I hope they will treasure the blessed hope we have in Jesus. Would you join me in praying for this special family?