Walking the Valley
To cater for our children’s educational needs, we sent Mary to boarding school in Nairobi, from where she returned by plane for holidays and we met her at Entebbe airport. It was tough for her to be so far away at a young age, but we felt that it was the best solution. We found out that there was an excellent primary school in Kabale, about 50 miles from the hospital, run by a group of dedicated Christian ladies for missionary’s children. We arranged for John to go there as a weekly boarder and we would collect him on Friday afternoon and take him back Sunday afternoon. Jane was at home, where Lilian taught her, when she had time, as she again had the task of managing the hospital finances.
One of the highlights of our time at Ishaka was the opening of the new church, which had been started by Drs. Taylor and Sturges who also donated an upright piano to the church. We were left with the task of completing the construction, painting and furnishing it and then making the arrangements for the official opening. Lilian had planned and supervised the landscaping of the grounds around the church and the outside baptismal pool.
We invited the local chief and the district chief, as well as local dignitaries and of course, our church leaders. It was a wonderful occasion.
Although the Queen Elizabeth Game Park was only an hour’s drive away, we seldom went there, as I felt reluctant to leave the hospital unless it was essential.
Trips to Kampala were necessary to get medical supplies and to buy our groceries. Also to attend medical meetings. There was an organisation which met regularly to coordinate the activities of the various Protestant and Catholic mission hospitals; and liaised with government. I usually tried to combine attendance at these meetings with a shopping trip.
In 1966 Lilian accompanied me on one such trip, while we left Jane in the care of the nursing sisters. As we would only be returning on Friday afternoon, we had arranged for John to stay at the school in Kabale over the weekend and hoped to "pop down" and visit him on Sunday afternoon and then he would come home the next Friday, as usual.
We were going for our Sabbath afternoon walk, with Prince our lovely black Labrador, when two of the teachers drove in with the chilling news that John was seriously ill and the doctor who was caring for him advised that we come down to Kabale immediately. We were shocked, as he had seemed to be in good health when we last saw him.
Quickly we got ready and set off over the unpaved winding mountain road. We had been told that it was suspected that John had meningitis and that it was planned that he would be airlifted to Kampala the next morning. I remember thinking, as we drove along, "If John is going to die, I want to be there to hold his hand and say goodbye." I wanted to tell him that he would just go to sleep and we would see him "in the morning."
But that was not to be. As we drove up to the school, one of the teachers, who was also the school nurse, came out to tell us that John had just died. We went in to see him and automatically I felt for a pulse and listened for a heartbeat. Then I had to accept that our lovely son, just 8 years old, was dead.
We talked to the nurse and the doctor and were told that John had been in school on Friday, had developed a sudden headache that evening, during worship, and had become unconscious. A spinal tap had revealed that he had a severe bacterial meningitis. In spite of all that the doctor and nurses could do, he deteriorated and died just before we arrived.
Lilian and I spent a largely sleepless night, talking and trying to console each other.
Next morning we had to face the practical details of funeral preparations. We decided that we would take John to Ishaka and bury him there. The most sensible way to transport his body was to put him on the back seat of the car and drive to the hospital. On the way, we had a very sad episode, when we were flagged down by a man who told us that his son had been killed, just hours previously, by a hit-and-run driver. He wanted us to take the body to the police. I had to tell him that I could sympathise with him and the family, because we were taking our dead boy home. We shared each other’s grief and he said that he understood why we could not help him.
The hospital staff rallied round and made all the arrangements. They decided that John should be buried behind the new church; the first grave in the new cemetery, next to the baptismal pool. The hospital carpenters offered to make the coffin and Pr Bob Pfifer, the Field President, came to conduct the funeral service. One of the hymns was "When He Cometh" and the words, "Little children who love their Redeemer, are His jewels, His loved and His own", seemed particularly appropriate.
Mary was away at school in Nairobi and missed the funeral. Jane had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that she would not see her "big brother" again, at least not in this life. We had many letters and telegrams of sympathy, including one from Pr Robert Pierson, our Division President, who later became the GC President. Many people came to offer their condolences and support. The one that meant the most to us was from a family who had tragically lost their son, a year or two previously. When they said, "We know what you are going through!" we sensed that they really did. We appreciated this verse, which they gave us - "The God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God."(2 Cor. 1:3,4 )
Sorting out and giving away John’s clothes and toys was a painful experience. We had no counselling or time off for grieving; such things were not usual at that time. Lilian and I coped as best we could and felt that the best therapy was a speedy return to our regular routine.
Mary came home for the Christmas holidays but Christmas itself was a sad affair, although we tried to make it cheerful for the girls’ sake. In order to give our family an interesting holiday, I planned a trip by car up to Murchison Falls and then down to Rwanda, both being places we had not visited. Unfortunately, not far beyond Bugema College, we had a blow-out to the near-side front tyre, which caused the car to swerve and crash into a culvert, damaging the mudguard and the steering mechanism. We were grateful that no-one was seriusly injured. We had to find a "mango-tree mechanic" to straighten the steering rod and bend the mudguard so it did not rub on the spare tyre. By driving at 20 mph we were able to limp back to Kampala. The nursing sister at Kireka, Miss Olsen, kindly loaned us her V W beetle to get back to the Hospital. That was the end of our holiday!
Pam Clifford was stationed at Bugema College and she was taking her two daughters back to Maxwell School in Nairobi by car. She offered to take Mary as well and so we dropped her off and returned to Ishaka. Two days later we received a message on the SSB radio that the Clifford’s station wagon had been involved in an accident and that there had been some bruises and scratches; but that Mary had suffered a broken cheek bone. It was reassuring to be able to talk to her by radio. (We had no telephone.)
I wondered What else can possibly go wrong? And we felt that in a small way we could sympathise with the patriarch Job.