2009 June 25
What follows is my account of the events of June 10, 2009, the most emotionally difficult day in my life for a long time, the day I built my first casket.
This morning I awoke a little after 0500 as usual and proceeded with my day. Nearing 0600, I began getting into my work clothes and getting my mind geared up for another day of construction work on the hanger/housing project. I was just pulling on my shirt as I looked out the window toward Gary and Wendy's house and saw Gary opening the gate. He called out to me, and in a fairly urgent voice he said, "Hey Jonathan, could you throw on some clothes and come over here and watch Cherise. We have to take Kaleb to the hospital." "Before breakfast?" I wondered. "Something must be very wrong." Arriving at their door I met Wendy who was holding limp little Kaleb, still breathing but unconscious. Gary said, "We found Kaleb this morning in his bed... he is unconscious." "Is there anything else I can do for now?" I inquired. "Just pray," Wendy said in a wavering voice. So off they rushed on the motor bike toward the hospital. Cherise sensed distress and began crying. She could see that we were upset. I told her that Kaleb was very sick and that they were taking him to the hospital. Cherise and I went to the next room and knelt down. She held my hand as we prayed that God would be with Kaleb. Then we read a Bible story - about Daniel and the lions' den and how God sent an angel to protect Daniel. After the story Cherise said, "Where is the cereal?" I told her that we would eat soon, but that for now she would have to wait. Food appeared to be the primary focus of her thoughts and she kept asking me about eating. So I started some oatmeal.
Not too much later, within an hour of departure, Gary and Wendy and Kaleb returned on the motor bike. I knew this could not be good. Certainly Kaleb is not back already. He should be getting IV and other treatment at the hospital. "Did they forget something here at the house?" I wondered, but not for long. Gary, Wendy, and Kaleb were back now, but Kaleb was completely wrapped in a blanket. The day was cool for the country of Chad, but not cold enough for a blanket like that. Cherise heard them arrive and she went running out the front door, wanting to go "see Kaleb." The family gathered outside the door for a minute or two. Wendy simply explained, "Cherise, Kaleb died. He died at the hospital, and later today we will have to dig a hole and bury him." Gary also explained, "Kaleb died and we will not see him for a long time until Jesus comes back to get him." I opened the door as they walked in. Shocked, I did not know what to say or what to do. I do not think I even said anything, but I gave them each a hug. Then I went to my hut to leave them time as a family to process this. Gary sat in the chair embracing his lifeless son, and Wendy sat by his side.
I went to my bed and laid there and cried and talked to God and told Him all about how I was feeling. An interruption occurred, however. One of the workers wanted the container unlocked. My first thoughts were ones of frustration and disgust. I just wanted some time to process this by my self. Then, I reasoned that this man did not have any comprehension of what was going on yet. I knew that Gary and Wendy would want time alone for a while, so I did not feel comfortable telling people just yet about Kaleb's death. I told the worker that I would be out soon to open the hanger. Some people called out the local greeting "Lapia," but I did not feel cheerful. I only waved in return. After opening the container I waived to the workers and started walking back to my hut. Annie passed me on the motor bike, headed to the hospital for work. I made it back to my hut and cried some more. Annie soon returned after hearing about the news from the people at the hospital. She and Jeremy visited Gary and Wendy for a few minutes. Then I heard a knock on my door. Jeremy and Annie came over. We said a few words. Then Jeremy said, "We are going to have to build a casket, you know. The burial is going to be later today. We have that plank under the container." "So soon?" I thought, but then realized the necessity of a quick burial in such a warm climate. Jeremy and I proceeded to discuss plans for a simple coffin. As we had no certain memory of how tall Kaleb was, Jeremy went back to the house to measure him. As the news spread around, people began gathering to watch us build the casket. Many had their piece of advice as to the correct way to build a casket. I appreciated everybody's concern and desire to help in some way. Gershon, a young man who has helped us on the building project, came and just sat next to me for a while. That felt good. He was showing that he cared. What can a person do or say in a time like this that is meaningful? In my opinion, not a whole lot. But his being there showed that he cared, and I appreciated that.
The plank was made out of some kind of reddish hardwood, was cut quite crooked, and was highly warped. We did our best, cutting lengths four feet long. The plank was about a foot wide. As we were cutting boards and beginning to plane them, Gary and Wendy showed up to tell the other crew where to dig the grave. Then they went back to the house. Rain steadily fell, and the air was slightly chilly. We moved the boards into a shipping container, but workspace as too cramped from other stuff stored in the container. One of the guys suggested that we work on a table under a nearby overhanging porch. So we moved the process again, a man per plank and plenty of onlookers following. People continued to gather to observe the construction of the coffin. The boards were so badly warped that somebody fetched a chisel and began chiseling the edges so they would fit together better. Several people helped with the planing and chiseling until after several hours had passed, the boards were good enough to fit together.
Dr. James showed up and helped us complete the little coffin. One board was still so badly warped that we both had to stand on one of the boards as Jeremy nailed it together. The wood was so hard that it required pre-drilling before nailing, but eventually, the coffin was finished. About this time, the men finished digging the grave. Throughout the day, I can hardly believe the reality of what we are doing. The casket is so small. I think of my niece back at home.
It was a somber procession that made its way to Gary's house that afternoon. The coffin was carried into the house and placed on the floor in the bedroom where Kaleb was. Gently, Gary lifted Kaleb up and embraced him one last time. Wendy lifted the blanket and kissed him on the forehead. Then Gary bent down and asked Cherise if she would like to give Kaleb one last kiss. She stood up on her tippy-toes and gently placed one last kiss on his head. Then Gary laid Kaleb in the coffin. His body fit perfectly with no extra room to spare. Then came the part that I had been dreading all day. It was time to nail the lid shut. This scene had replayed over and over in my head throughout the day, and now it was the awful time to do it for real. The heavy pounding of hammer and nails seemed so final. This was actually real. Most of the day my mind had been busy on constructing the coffin. Now, reality struck vividly. Soon the Pathfinders arrived and began carrying the casket. As they started walking toward the freshly dug grave, they sang a song in French. I asked somebody what the words were and was told it was song about being faithful to God no matter what the circumstances. Over and over they sang the song. The casket led the procession with Gary, Wendy, and Cherise following behind. Then came other close friends, and then everybody else. The procession wound its way past the airplane and across the runway toward a spot between two trees. They marched the casket around the grave and then set it on the fresh pile of dirt. Singing followed, and then a brief sermon.
Gary spoke a few words and then Wendy started singing "When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound and time shall be no more, and the morning breaks eternal, bright and fair; when the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore, when the roll is called up yonder, I'll be there." I tried to open my mouth and sing, but I could not. I had two images tugging at my emotions. One was of Kaleb singing this song during worship in the morning. He loved that song. The other was of singing this song in the mountains of East Tennessee near the site where we sprinkled my grandfather's ashes. We sang the song from the top of a rocky cliff overlooking a big valley. That day has been burned in my memory clearly. This song now doubly reinforced my longing to "be there" when the roll is called. And now a new memory is burned, one of a small casket lying beside a small hole near the runway in Bere.
Soon, the service was nearly complete. One last thing remained: to lower the casket and cover it with dirt. But there was one problem. Somebody got a piece of rope and measured the casket, and then the hole. The width of the hole was good, but it was not long enough. They had measured the casket several times, and we had given them numbers bigger than the real size suspecting that this might happen, but I had not actually verified the size of the hole. Oh well. So we all stood around while the men dug the hole bigger. The Pathfinders sang songs. Finally, it was time for the last part of the service. The dirt made a harsh sound as it hit the lid of the casket. As more dirt accumulated, the sound became more muffled until the hole was filled and a neat mound of dirt was now where the hole was. The procession returned to the house, but this time without Kaleb.
Now Kaleb awaits the day when the trumpet of the Lord shall sound. He is sleeping now, but soon he will run and play again. Only this time he will get to continue his childhood growing up in a perfect land where there is no malaria, and where there is no crying and no more death. Each day as I go out to work at the project, I see the neat pile of dirt and bricks. Tears have flowed multiple times as I remember the events of that day. Just today, a young girl walked by the house and I could hear her singing that same song about serving Jesus unconditionally. I have to ask the question to myself, "At what cost am I willing to serve God?" No cost is too high when I consider the cost that Jesus paid when He came as a missionary to this world. Being anywhere other than where God wants me to be is too dangerous.
The following morning after the service for Kaleb, I awoke with heavy thoughts. Satan wanted me to be discouraged by this experience. Yet how can I doubt God's leading? God was not surprised like I was. He knew this would happen, so He has a plan of encouragement for those who remain. As I open the door to my hut, the contrast is striking. Yesterday the weather was cool and drizzly rain. This morning the sky is bright blue and the bright, yellow sun is flooding the earth again with cheery light. Instantly, the words of another hymn pop into my brain: "The golden morning is fast approaching, Jesus soon will come To take His faithful and happy children to their promised home. The gospel summons will soon be carried to the nations round; The Bridegroom then will cease to tarry and the trumpet sound. Attended by all the shining angels down the flaming sky The Judge will come, and will take His people where they will not die. There those loved ones who have long been parted will all meet that day; The tears of those who are brokenhearted will be wiped away. Oh we see the gleams of the golden morning piercing through this night of gloom! Oh we see the gleams of the golden morning that shall burst the tomb!"
During that day, I was sitting out on the porch visiting with some people. Suddenly, the world seemed to spin around me. I became very dizzy and could not stand up without falling over. I told nobody, as I did not want to worry them and sent up a silent prayer to God to cure whatever was causing the dizziness. I remained seated until after a couple minutes the dizziness passed.
That night, as I head to bed, I find a plump scorpion just inside the door of my hut. I squash it, and then squat down to take a closer look at it. Moments later I shine my light behind me and just a few feet away is a snake. I do not know how to identify African snakes yet. Nearby I spy a large stick and I kill the snake. I am not exactly in a relaxed mood, but I am tired.
As I finally lie down for the night, I think back over the events of the past couple days. It seems like a week has passed since I began work on my first casket. Yet it was only yesterday. I hope I never have to build another casket again - small or large. But now that I have built one, I am even more eagerly looking forward to the resurrection when we will see Kaleb and other loved ones again. My prayer is to remain faithful until Jesus comes, faithfully representing Him in whatever I do and say, and bringing as many people with me as possible. That is not an easy task, and Satan has many things to discourage us. But if we look to Jesus, He always has provision for whatever need we have.