Why All the Suffering?
It's Christmas break. But I'm not feeling very festive right now.
Sometimes I'm in the spirit, ready to celebrate the birth of a baby boy who brought the hope of eternal life to the whole world.
But not now. Now, I'm thinking about another baby. The one I held this morning. The one who will soon be dead. And I'm wondering what God is up to.
It happened as I followed my father, a missionary, on his morning rounds through the Nigerian hospital where he works as a pediatrician—and where he must daily bring the news of a death sentence to the parents of an ailing child …
It's Christmas break. But I'm not baking cookies or hanging tinsel on the tree. I'm in a room at my father's hospital.
The light is dim from the Saharan haze, but I can see a pale baby in the bed nearest the window, sticking his tongue in and out, in and out. He is so scrawny, so tiny, and he looks so helpless. At 18 months, he only weighs about eight pounds.
Once milk-chocolate-brown, he is now a pale shade of gray. Wrinkles accent the folds of skin sagging from his delicate frame. Gingerly, I reach toward his head and feel the sunken depression at his scalp.
"What does it mean?" I ask Dad, fingering the baby's head.
Dad stops his examination long enough to tell me the child is dehydrated. I shudder and take my hand away. Dehydration, malnutrition, yes, but what brings the tears to my eyes is a pink slip of paper clutched in my right hand. I blink back tears as I read the two simple words on the center of the laboratory test slip: "strongly reactive."
Bitrus* has HIV.
Dad sighs as the pediatric team turns away from the emaciated baby in bed 4E, wishing he could avoid being the bearer of bad news to this baby's parents.
As we exit the room, my eyes steal a glance at another bed. It is empty, its sheets fresh and tidy, neatly tucked beneath the thin foam mattress. I bite my lip and close my eyes, remembering the little girl, Salamatu*, who occupied the bed only yesterday. Today Salamatu is dead—another name on a tombstone, another child denied childhood, another victim of the killer we all know as AIDS.
I watch my weary father cross the hall and enter another room. Quietly, I follow him. Dad sits stone-faced on a low couch, tense with apprehension. I take a seat close to the door and wait to see what will happen.
A woman comes in silently, followed by a tall young man, his shoulders broad, his head held high in pride. And so it begins. My father and his Nigerian assistant speak in hushed tones to the couple before them.
"Your child has HIV."
The woman hurls herself to the floor, crying out to God in heavily accented Ibo, her native language. She writhes, flailing arms and legs about in grief.
"Chiwo! Chiwo!" Oh God! Oh God!
This thin woman, whose face speaks of deep pain, continues to wail. She begs God to give ear to her suffering cries.
It's Christmas break. But I'm not thinking about the baby Jesus. I'm thinking about the baby Bitrus, and his mother's cries of agony. And I'm asking, along with that grieving mother, Does God hear? Where is he in the midst of this overwhelming pain?