March 8, 2013


It has taken nearly two years for me to write about Helena. Delightful, feisty, joyous, moody Helena, with a smile as big as the sun and a loud laugh that always held mischief in its depths. Last week at our missionaries’ home group, we talked about disappointments we have faced here in Mozambique. Of course, Helena’s story came up.

It is time her story was told.Helena

Helena (centre, above) was becoming a beautiful, bold, dare I say mildly defiant young woman who, at the age of twelve, was a favourite with many of our visitors who loved her strength. Me? Well, I was sometimes quite intimidated by her – such chutzpah in a child is a sight to behold.

Helena came to the Centre as a baby and those who were here say her smile was as bright then as it was as she grew into womanhood. Her mother and grandmother had both died and the only family she had left in the world was her great-grandmother. The men of the family were gone.

First in the Baby House then the girls’ dorm, Helena was thriving here at the Centre. This had been her home for all except a few months of her life.

Then, in May 2012, she became sick. She was taken to the hospital with fevers and head pain but received no diagnosis and was sent home. The next day, she was sent back to the hospital as the pain worsened and the fevers would not break. Again, she was sent back to the Centre. By this stage, the nurse missionaries here had informally diagnosed cerebral meningitis but were not equipped to treat it. So, to the hospital she went again and, this time, a misdiagnosis of pneumonia, a useless prescription and still no hospital admission.

Helena grew sicker by the hour and her pain grew worse. She cried her way through the days, dozing often from the illness’s effects and sleeping fitfully through the nights. Her body dripped with sweat, eyes squeezed shut, hands tapping at her head in a futile attempt to chase the pain away.

By her fifth trip to the hospital, Helena was in agony, suffering indescribably. She was slowly dying before our eyes. There are no words to express the agony of a child in unspeakable pain or the depths of despair we felt as we watched her.

I live in a developing nation which, by its very nature, has some growing up to do. Mozambique still has a long way to go to mature her systems and structures: healthcare is improving by the year but it is not yet what we from “developed nations” (such a dryly arrogant term) are used to. Every now and then estrangeros, or foreigners, must tackle the great divide between “developed” and “developing”, which is confronted most desperately in the area of healthcare.

This time around, we were fighting a life-or-death battle for one of our children. The divide was just too great to negotiate.

On her fifth trip to the hospital in a week, Helena was finally admitted. She was officially, and accurately, diagnosed this time around. Treatment began. Too little, too late.

A few hours later, Helena’s carer (employed by the Centre to stay with her in hospital) phoned, desperate. Helena’s chilling screams could be heard in the background as the tia pleaded over the phone. “I need help! I can’t control her. She’s running around, she’s making no sense. She won’t stop screaming!” She cried into the phone as Helena continued to shriek hysterically.

Within a few hours Helena had fallen into a coma. Not long after this, she died.

There are no words, no neat explanation to make us feel better, no closure to be had. I had touched her face, wiped her tears, held her clenched hand in mine. I’d cried and begged, demanded, pleaded. So many of us stormed Heaven on her behalf. Yet still, she died.

Now, almost two years later, this helplessness continues to jab sharply at my soul. I want it to stay sharp. I do not want closure. I need to stay stirred up, to remain angry in the face of such injustice. I want to remember the depths of helplessness that left me speechless as I listened to her desperate whimpers. I want to stay unsettled. Perhaps that jagged frustration within will press me into action and chase away the shadows of complacency that try to disempower us all.

I wish Helena’s story was the only one I could tell. It is not.

I am here, living in a developing nation, and it seems a powerless offering in the face of overwhelming injustice. Ironically, it is the very helplessness I feel that keeps me here, determined that, somehow - God only knows how - I could see change. Sometime, some way, in the future, just maybe...

I will not taint her memory by trying to explain why this would happen. To a child. To one of ours. She was meant to be safe here, saved from her suffering, given a bright future. Yet still, she died.

Sometimes the world is a dark place and injustice seems to have the final say.

In the face of such helplessness, all I know to do is release her to her Heavenly Papa’s arms. I cannot even ask “Why?” These moments and this release are too deep and her precious life too sacred to ask questions.

Sweet Helena, we were privileged to love you for a season. Sleep well, at rest in the forever peace of Heaven’s arms.