Heavy is the only way to describe it. Damp and heavy. After the sun sets, the heat abates, but the air still feels swimable. This is most especially true the day after a rain when the sun's heat has had all day to suck the little pools of water up into the air, sending the humidity sky high and giving clothes, paper, and sheets a moist feeling. Fans help little since neither the humidity nor the sweat have anywhere to go. In another couple days, storms will roll in from the east, the rain will cool the earth and lower the humidity—temporarily—but for now, it is thick air all round, on the skin, in the lungs, and on the brow.
On these evenings, the body doesn't know whether to sweat or not, as the feeling is neither one of being hot nor comfortable, but it will come pouring out in great beads at even the slightest provocation. It is the feeling of tropical evenings or the feeling of summer, night air in a marsh; it's a feeling heavy with expectation of things to come; it's the feeling, if one could sense it in the air, of malaria.
In this soupy air, I stood in the doorway of Pediatrics Room 3 with beads of sweat rolling down my back. I needed to tell the young mother waiting outside on a bench that we had lost her baby to some unknown foe—perhaps malaria, but more likely a bacterial infection. She was anxious, keenly aware that something was deeply awry. She fidgeted on the bench, lifted her dirty shirt up above her breasts, and then adjusted a piece of cloth wrapped around her chest that served as a makeshift bra.
Seconds before I called her over, Safi, the night nurse said to me, "She's alone. She has no one here with her." Not knowing how she'd react to the news, we decided to investigate the family situation a bit more. We quizzed her on the whereabouts or her husband and parents. She had apparently been dropped off at the hospital and some distant relative in town was bringing her food. However, she mentioned the name of her village, and I happened to remember that we had a family from that village with a patient in the ICU. She knew the family but didn't know they were here. This was good; their presence would be a comfort to her. Problem solved.
I felt strangely light, as I called her to the doorway. This was, after all, not my first ride on the child-death-train. I explained that we had done everything we could, but that it was too late and the child was now dead. She didn't even wince—not even an eye twitch. We told her that she could spend the night on the other side of the hospital, with the other family from her village. We would put the child in the morgue and deal with all the paperwork in the morning. I offered my sympathies and condolences. We prayed for her, and then she turned and walked away.
It was so tidy and easy, maybe like telling a mom that her child was due for a vaccine and the appointment would take 5 minutes longer than expected. Or maybe something like telling a mom that her son had a cavity, which she was expecting. But it didn't feel like telling a mom that her baby was dead. It wasn't like looking someone who was completely alone in the eyes and telling them that their only flesh-and-blood attachment for miles around was now dead.
Ashamedly, it wasn't until I was on the moto headed home in dark that I was able to plumb the bottom of my emotional well. Up from its dry cracks, the waters of sadness and anger began to seep out. It wasn't the fountain I thought it should be, nor the deluge of drowning emotions I thought it might be. I wanted it to be thick, heavy, and suffocating like the night air, but it was more like a few drops of cool water on a hot, dry summer day.
But it was enough. Enough to stir me; enough to pull my heart up into a prayer.
I had forgotten the emotional burden of this place, until that moment. I am, admittedly, emotionally retarded, but I don't think that is really to blame for my state. I think this place is emotionally overwhelming, in a manner that dries you out so fast you don't have time to replenish. To complicate it, the sheer busyness of the work pulls your energies elsewhere and makes some of life's sacred and sad moments just another thing standing between you and your dinner and bed.
"Lord," I whispered, "I don't want to spiral off into fits of depression or rage. I don't want to walk around with an emotional weight all the time. I do want to be able to let things go. I don't want to be driven by the waves and winds of my emotions. But Lord, I don't want apathy, numbness, or disregard. I never want the death of a child to be emotionally negligible. I want enough sadness to offer true sympathy. I want enough anger to remember that this is not the world as You want it."
Cutting through the muggy night, I felt heavy and dry. And since it was too late to offer the woman my true sadness, I offered it to the Lord, and asked Him to multiply it for His purposes.