Having just finished our Sabbath lunch, our family was talking as we relaxed around the table. It was good to have Karin and Johanna visiting with us during their summer break from college. It was our first Sabbath since returning to the village with them, and we had enjoyed a morning of beautiful fellowship in Sabbath School and church with our Kewa church group.
Our conversation halted when we heard visitors arrive. Steve went to talk with them and returned with the dreadful news that a snake had bitten Angela.
No, not Angela! I thought. In my opinion, Angela was our most faithful and Christ-like church member. She willingly served the church as a deaconess and children’s Sabbath School leader. It was Angela who visited people when they were sick or needed food. I remember commenting to her one time that when Sunday laws are passed and we can no longer buy or sell, I would have to go to the jungle and make sago with her regularly. Her response: “No you won’t. I’ll make it for you!” That was Angela—generous and thoughtful. She was also my closest Gogodala friend. We had spent countless days together on the mission property. She would come and work in our gardens, helping me weed and do other cleaning around the yard. She would also bring flowering plants to add to my flower gardens. Tirelessly, she worked all day in the blistering sun, even weeding the prickly pineapple garden without complaining. I remember sitting on an old coconut tree log talking with her about Christianity and parenting principles. Angela was a seeker, and she desired to follow her Savior in everything. Quick to smile and laugh, she was a joy to be around.
The day we first looked at the land that was given for us for our house site, Angela and her husband Tom were the ones who showed it to us. Holding my hand, she helped steady me as I climbed the steep hill through the freshly cut elephant grass. Many other times she assisted me as I walked down slippery hillsides so I wouldn’t fall. Her English skills were quite good, and I turned to her when I needed something translated for Sabbath School or a speaking engagement in the village. Karin and Johanna also enjoyed Angela’s friendship, and I remember her laughing as she would tell them stories. There was exuberance and inner strength in this woman that I admired. Just two days earlier, she and Tom had met our family at the Kawito airstrip with big smiles and hugs as we got off the mission plane from Port Moresby.
As reality set in, I quickly gathered up supplies to do a charcoal treatment like I had done other times for snakebites. Steve went down to the fuel shed to mix fuel and prepare the dinghy for a trip to the Balimo hospital. Taking the supplies downstairs, I prayed with Angela then quickly assessed the situation, checking her vital signs. The snake had bitten her heel, so I placed her foot in a charcoal bath and gave her charcoal water to drink.
Tom was by her side, and as I worked, they told me the details. After church, Angela had gone to the garden to pick greens for the sago she was cooking for their lunch. That is where the Papuan Black snake had bitten her on the heel. Papuan Black snakes have deadly venom that coagulates blood and can cause a person to stop breathing. Realizing she had been bitten, she went quickly to see the snake doctor, after which she and Tom came to our house.
Who was this snake doctor, I wondered, and why did she go to him before coming to us? What did he do to her? Why was she walking around so much, speeding the venom’s circulation through her body?
Steve finished preparing the dinghy, and we were ready to go. It had been nearly an hour since I had begun treatments, and Angela was not showing the signs of improvement I had been hoping to see. Gathering up the food and a few belongings they had brought, Tom picked up Angela and carried her down the hill on his back. Steve and I said a quick goodbye to our daughters, and we were on our way.
As we sped down the river, Tom motioned for Steve to pull over at the village canoe landing, saying a word that sounded to me like “food.” I was momentarily baffled—didn’t they already have food with them? As Steve pulled up to the shore, I saw a man waiting there. Tom told us his name, which sounded identical to the Gogodala word for food. He was the snake doctor. My heart sank. Why is he going with us? I wondered. There was a darkness in his eyes that made me uneasy. I didn’t want this man in our dinghy, but what could I do? He climbed aboard, and we were on our way again. The snake doctor sat facing Angela who was reclining against Tom with her eyes closed. I watched as he started to pull on her toes and touch her foot. Then he looked at the charcoal poultice I had wrapped around her heel. “Don’t remove that,” I said. “It is helping to absorb the poison.” He continued rubbing her foot. I prayed that God’s presence would be there and overpower any evil forces that might be connected with this snake doctor. Soon he set Angela’s foot down and faced forward in the dinghy. I resumed monitoring Angela’s vital signs. She wasn’t improving, but at least her condition didn’t seem to be worsening.
As we approached Balimo, Tom directed Steve along a waterway that took us to a family member’s house near the hospital. Tom went to get help and came back with several men and a stretcher. They gently lifted Angela onto the stretcher and then hurried away toward the hospital.
Arriving at the hospital after the others, we found Angela in the “Emergency Room” lying on a bed while a nurse started an I.V. in her arm and then filled some tubes with blood for testing. Steve and I stood near the door trying to stay out of the way as we watched the nurses work. Soon a nurse was administering medicine through the I.V. I asked another nurse what she was giving, hoping that it was antivenin, only to learn that it was penicillin, something they give to all snakebite victims. The nurse put circulation-slowing socks on Angela’s legs that extended to her upper thighs while another nurse prayed over her. Anxiously, I waited to see them give the antivenin, but it didn’t come.
One of our Balimo church elders saw Steve taking a break outside and came in to see what was happening. His wife is a nurse at the hospital, and snakebites are her specialty. Unfortunately, she was out of town.
Finally, I asked about the snake anti-venom. The answer shocked me. They were all out! There was a shortage in the whole country. No antivenin? I repeated to myself. How can that be? Snakes bite so many people in PNG. It would take a miracle for Angela to survive, and all I could do was keep giving her the remaining charcoal drink I had and do lots of praying.
By now the sun was getting low in the sky, and we didn’t want to leave our daughters home alone at night. But my friend was lying in a hospital bed possibly dying, and I didn’t want to leave her! Slowly, I resigned myself to leaving. Stroking Angela’s hair, I told her we had to leave. “I love you,” I whispered in her ear. Her eyes stayed closed, but she smiled weakly. I knew this might be my last time to see her alive on this earth. I could only hope and pray that this nightmare would end, and Angela would be healed.
Arriving home, we gave the girls a report and then spent some time praying for Angela before going to bed. Steve and I talked about the incident for some time before falling asleep. We mostly discussed the snake doctor. I shared my thoughts about him, the evil I had sensed. Steve said he had talked with the snake doctor outside the hospital. The snake doctor had told him that Angela was the first person he had treated who had gone to the hospital. We prayed more for Angela, pleading with God to spare her life and grant her eternal salvation. A text message came in from Tom reporting that Angela’s condition was still about the same.
It was a restless night of sleep, then around 4 a.m. the phone rang, and Steve answered it. It was Tom. All I heard was Steve quietly saying, “I’m so sorry.”
“She’s gone, isn’t she?” I asked. We wept.
Why did You have to let Angela die, God? She was such an important part of our church. Who is going to take care of the children’s Sabbath School? What about Tom and the children? Our church is so small with only a few baptized members. Why did we have to lose our strongest one? Lord, I don’t know what You are doing. I don’t understand all of this. It would have been so easy for You to heal her or to prevent the snake from biting her in the first place, but You didn’t. I can only trust You in all of this, as much as it hurts. Please help us. This was the conversation I had with God the rest of the day and days after.
Later that morning we got in our dinghy and headed to Balimo to see if Tom needed help bringing Angela’s body back to the village. On the way we met three dinghies packed full of crying family members on their way back to Kewa, including Tom beside his deceased wife. Steve pulled alongside one boat so people could get into our dinghy to lighten their load.
The funeral was to take place in the village evangelical church since our church wasn’t big enough to accommodate everyone. Our family slowly made our way there. It was a funeral I didn’t want to attend. How many funerals had I attended at that church? And at every one Angela had been by my side telling me who the family members were and what was happening.
Inside there was a lot of commotion with all the people crying loudly and chanting. Angela’s father was kneeling on the floor with his arms flapping at his sides and tears running down his cheeks, repeating over and over in Gogodala, “Angela, my baby, come back! I want to hold you!” She was his eldest child, and they had been very close. It was heartbreaking to watch.
A lady cried out, “Angela, why did you have to leave us so soon? You were so kind and caring. You were different from your father’s other children.”
I saw Tom sitting with other men along the side of the church. We had not yet been able to talk with him. I took his limp hand in mine. “Tom, please don’t give up. God has a plan.” Tom was so distraught he only shook his head as he cried.
Lord, did I say the wrong thing? I wondered. This was all so hard. I just wanted to find a shoulder to cry on, too, and grieve, but everyone was so consumed in their own grief. Finally, I saw Angela’s cousin, and we embraced and cried together. Steve was asked to organize the funeral service and speak for it, so he was busily preparing while the commotion around us continued.
After the service was the viewing. At first I wasn’t sure I wanted to look at Angela, but I decided I should. She was lying in a casket made from her rosewood canoe. She looked at peace, and I was glad. Angela, I thought, you can rest now. You don’t have to work hard anymore making sago or fishing or gardening to feed your family. The next thing you will know is being raised from the dead and seeing Jesus, your Savior, coming in the clouds. Sleep well my sister; I’ll see you in the morning.
It continues to be rough living here without my friend. I’m thankful that I have my two daughters here to help ease the loss. I often ask, why Angela? There is such a hole in our church without her. As I walk around my yard looking at the flowers we planted together, I miss her so much.
As much as I miss my friend, I am hopeful. Her two adult children and son-in-law are regularly coming to church now. Tom believes he can see his son converting. After Angela’s burial, their previously wayward oldest daughter went to the graveside and cried out, “Mommy, I believe! I believe!” Now she helps clean the church on Fridays, is showing an interest in leading out in the children’s Sabbath School and has offered to help in my gardens, too.
Recently, Tom came to ask us questions about some things he was reading in the Bible. After his questions were answered, we talked about Angela’s death. He recounted that near the end she told him to make sure the children don’t play around with the Sabbath. She had been out picking greens on Sabbath when the snake bit her, and she felt she had been wrong by doing that work on God’s holy day. Tom then confessed that he had been thinking about what I said to him at the funeral . . . to not give up and that God has a plan. My words had brought encouragement to him. He proceeded to tell us how he, too, is changing. He realizes that he needs to live like a Christian, not just say that he is a Christian. He longs to see Angela again and to spend eternity with her. As I listened to this man share the changes taking place in his heart, I was in awe at the work of the Holy Spirit. This was the change we had longed to see in Tom, and Angela, too, had been carrying a burden for him. It also seems that he is closer to his children now. As Tom talked, I watched his eight-year-old daughter sitting close to him, holding his hand. She was the child I had been the most concerned about since she was the youngest and so close to her mother. Tom had spent three years in Port Moresby away from his family, which caused a lot of stress. Since his return, his little girl had been shy around him and didn’t have much to do with him. Now here she was, content to quietly sit close to her daddy. This was evidence to me that Tom’s testimony of a changed life is true.
Angela’s life created ripples that will keep spreading outward. I wonder who else will share a testimony of a changed life because of her? I know God has a plan. His way isn’t always the way we might choose at the time, but I know His plan is best. Seeing lives changed since Angela’s death, I am reminded of a parable Jesus told referring to His own death: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone; but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit” John 12:24 (NKJV). Losing a friend like Angela is not easy, but it strengthens my hope in Jesus’ coming and the resurrection. “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Ps. 30:5).