Wiping Away Baby Tears

The Spanish-speaking nurse placed a stethoscope on my swollen middle and listened in vain for a heartbeat. Her expression showing concern, she whispered to the other nurses, who then called the Italian-speaking doctor. He broke the water, took one look, and then asked my husband to step outside. Neal returned to tell me the baby was probably not going to live. Having observed the reaction of the team, I was not surprised. My heart sunk. I thought, Well, the worst has happened.

What mother enters childbearing without passing thoughts of What if…? What if the baby dies? What if the baby is not healthy? How will I bear it? Will God help me?

In the late 70s I had married Neal in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, and moved two countries east to his Bible translation project in northern Togo. A few months later, I was pregnant.

Many missionary wives fly home to the U.S. or Europe to give birth. We decided to stay in Togo. Since our town, Kande, had only a small hospital with one doctor, we planned to go to a private Catholic hospital about seven hours to the south. Wasn’t childbirth a normal process of life? Certainly, it was not a disease to fear, we reasoned. We read information on childbirth and were ready to consult a doctor if anything alarming occurred. This was not arrogance on our part for our work often demanded living in places with less than optimal medical care.

Three months before the due date, a couple living in the capital, about one hour from our chosen hospital, invited us to stay with them for the birth. Ann and Jake took us in like family. Helping younger women at these joyous times was a ministry Ann relished.

One day, expecting the baby to arrive any time, Neal and I took a walk in the neighborhood. We passed some gorgeous African tulip trees—filled with delicate deep-orange blossoms—and thought how beautiful they would look in our courtyard up north. We gathered a few of the seeds and returned home.

Labor pains began that evening and we left for the hospital. By the time we arrived, it was night. I had visited the hospital for a check-up six days before and all had been normal. The doctors were Catholic “brothers” from Italy, the nurses came from Spain, and the midwives, from a local ethnic group, Ewe. They all spoke French, as we did, the national language of Togo, but preferred communicating with each other in their native tongues.

In more pain than I’d ever known before, I let the nurses guide me to the delivery room. Even though the baby was probably already dead, I had to go through a normal delivery—with the help of a drug to speed it up. The skilled midwives advised me. “Push, Madame. We are pushing harder than you!” My occasional screams were met by giggles—probably their culturally-appropriate way of comforting me.

Not having ever given birth before, I had no idea what to expect. With Neal by my side, and praying all the time myself, I knew God was with us. However, hearing a young girl screaming just outside in the hallway did not help! Apparently, she didn’t want to push and the nurses were encouraging her vigorously.

Once our Sarah Louise was delivered, the nurses brought her to my side. I decided not seeing her would make it easier for me to cope later on. Surprised, the midwives took her away. The following morning Neal, with the help of a hospital worker, buried her in an unmarked grave in a little cemetery on the grounds.

The nurses rolled me back to my room as the clock tolled twelve strokes of midnight—a dramatically sad moment. What a great disappointment! Nine months of joyous anticipation—and now nothing. Neal and I stayed up most of the night praying and talking. The shock kept me from crying much then. We knew that God had allowed this in His wisdom. Perhaps Sarah was severely mentally or physically handicapped, making her death a grace to her and to us. We determined to trust God’s decision. But the tears did come, on and off as the months passed, usually in response to telling the story or receiving a letter of condolence.

The following morning Ann and a colleague, Claire, came to visit. Their excited smiles disappeared when we told them the outcome. They were the first of many friends whom I needed to comfort just as they comforted me.

A couple days later we returned to Ann’s home where she pampered me until my strength returned. Even though most of our mission colleagues were in town, few came to see me. Many told me later, “I was so devastated. I just did not know what to say to you.” One of those was a woman who had visited the hospital with me six days before the birth for she also was expecting soon. Another had just given birth to a baby girl two months to the day before Sarah’s birth. A few days later, I was able to see and hold Irene—a delight. But her mother was shocked that I could rejoice over her daughter.

When I was able finally to attend church, several people asked when the baby was due. They didn’t even notice that my big tummy was gone. Embarrassed, they struggled for something to say. Few found comforting words. Comments such as “Praise the Lord, anyway!” or “Well, there will be others,” left me speechless. A simple, “I’m so sorry,” would have blessed me.

Neal and I eventually returned to our small town in the north. For some reason, I had never bought clothes for the coming child, only a few diapers. I had thought, We’ll find out if it’s a boy or girl and then we’ll get what we need. Months before, a friend had passed on to us a baby basket-bed. It was the only baby item to greet us upon our arrival—wrapped, to keep out dust, in a large black, plastic bag….

Our sad news had preceded us. A female Peace Corps worker came right to the house and fell on my shoulder, sobbing. African women in town comforted me in their special way. “Just rest. Don’t dwell on it. God will add to you again.” Strangely enough, the most effective comfort came from Coocoo. A small man, he cooked for the Catholic priests in town. Coocoo (for “cook”) met me one day on the dirt street, mildly inebriated, and declared, “It’s nothing. My wife lost several that way. I have seven children now. Don’t worry about it.” He punctuated every sentence “blowing raspberries” through his lips, a common French language sign of contempt!

It was only after we got back to Kande that I remembered what had happened about a month before the birth. I had woken abruptly in the middle of the night, sat straight up in bed and heard a voice say to me, “Death is near.” To be truthful, I don’t know whose voice it was. I wondered at the time if it pointed to my grandma in her 90’s or myself, or…. But remembering the strange message now brought consolation, knowing that God knew ahead of time what was to happen.

My husband, also, told me later that he knew the child was not to live!

Perhaps the greatest challenge I faced was dealing with the letters that arrived over the ensuing months. The first ones came from Togo, then some from the United States and months later, from distant countries such as the Philippines and Australia. It seemed we could never put our baby to rest. Each letter brought comfort—and tears. I was surprised to hear from an astounding number of friends who has lost first children to stillbirth or miscarriage. Another friend wrote, “Well, your babe took one look at this ol’ world and decided to pass it by and go straight on to heaven.” That made me smile.

We planted the orange-flowered tree seeds in our courtyard. They grew quickly and, for years, were a reminder of Sarah. Even in the dry season, when all else turned brown and dry, the blossom-filled trees delighted my soul.

In the next three years, I gave birth to Daniel and Benjamin. When they were able to understand, I told them about their sister in heaven. The bond they had with her showed in their young faces: surprise, concern, and sadness that they were not able to know and enjoy her. Every year on her birthday, I remind them of the date and we think about her with longing. There is no grave to visit, but having buried her in Togo seems fitting. We gave over 20 years of our lives to translate the New Testament for the Lama people of northern Togo. Her presence continues to tie us even more closely to those people and their needs.

The year that Sarah would have been 20 years old, I completed a crewel embroidery project. It now hangs on my bedroom wall. It’s a life-like photo-painting of a blond-haired girl of about three to four years old, drenched in heavenly light. She peeks out from behind a bouquet of flowers she presents to me. As I contemplated it recently, thinking of her, it occurred to me how sad she might be that her Momma never even looked at her or held her in the hospital. How could I have known then what to do? So I prayed, “Lord, if it’s possible, would you tell her I’m sorry and that I look forward to seeing and knowing her some day.”

Some Old Testament writers depict stillbirth as one of the worst things that can happen to a person. Job says, “Or why was I not hidden in the ground like a stillborn child, like an infant who never saw the light of day?” (Job 3:16) But I believe what the Psalmist David says,

My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. Psalm 139:15-16

God knew and loved our Sarah and fulfilled her life in His own way. And when she arrived in heaven, He surely wiped away her baby tears.

As Revelation says, He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. Revelation 21:4

Yes, “the worst possible thing” did happen to us, but our God proved Himself immensely bigger than disappointment, suffering and sorrow. If you, dear reader, are passing through this same valley, trust Him. He will comfort you and take you through.