In our small upstairs apartment, we had just started our language lesson for the day and began by asking our teacher for the answers to some puzzling questions. Matimu was having fun playing in his walker, right next to Lora, grabbing at our teacher’s purse dangling from her chair.
A couple seconds later we heard a thump from just outside. Matimu was no longer in the room with us.
For me, time sort of slowed down and my senses narrowed as we all jumped out of our chairs to run to the door.
At the bottom of the first five steps of our outdoor stairway, Matimu was laying, toppled over under his walker. He had just started to cry. Lora got there first and picked him up, but I was the first to see the blood pouring out of his mouth, dripping on the ground. I grabbed Matimu from Lora and started running down the rest of the stairs barefoot, then across the rocks and lawn and up the hill to the house where our landlord lives and keeps her car. I shouted back at Lora to grab my shoes. Matimu’s blood was already soaking his clothes and beginning to soak mine as well. I remember that it seemed a very strange sight to see my baby boy’s blood splattered on my hands and arms. I didn’t know what to think about the significance of what was happening, so I didn’t think of anything much at all. I just knew we needed to get him to a hospital right away.
Thankfully, our landlord was home, started up the car, and off we went. Lora grabbed our money on hand, since we’ve heard that hospitals here often won’t treat patients if they haven’t paid first. It was a very long ride to the hospital, dodging hundreds of pedestrians and bicycle riders, dozens of pousse-pousses, and a few other cars as well. Matimu’s blood was still running out of his mouth and soaked the one cloth we had with us. Along the way we got a look inside his mouth and didn’t see many teeth. We began to hope desperately that it was nothing more than that. Matimu was no longer wailing, but still whimpering.
At the hospital, they saw our baby and they saw the blood and I think our language teacher shouted something to them about what happened. They opened some doors and rushed us into a room with a hospital bed and within a minute or two there were a couple of doctors, a dentist, and half a dozen nurses and assistants. They were talking to us in French and Malagasy but at the time I could think of absolutely nothing to say in either of those languages nor even many words in English.
Thankfully, our language teacher was still with us and did the communicating for us, and attempted to translate their words back to us in English. Unfortunately for her, it all brought to mind a very similar scene when her five-year-old son died in the hospital here just over a year ago, a fact that she’s struggled to accept ever since. And Matimu’s accident, all the blood, and our presence in the hospital wasn’t helping. We were all at the edge of our wits.
My job was to hold Matimu still while the doctors and nurses swabbed away at his mouth, to get a clear view of the damage. It gave me a clear view too, and I was horrified. There seemed to be a gaping hole in the top of his mouth, some teeth obviously gone, others bare to the root, and all the while Matimu squirming and fighting and groaning to get away and have some peace. They pressed on other spots on his body, to test for soreness or damage and only his mouth seemed to have been injured by the fall. They gave us medicines to keep his wounds clean and reduce his pain and scheduled us for an x-ray the next morning.
On the way home, and especially when we returned home, is when my brain seemed to start working again. I started thinking about what happened, about the trauma Matimu just went through, about the blood on my clothes. I started to feel an emotional weight that I don’t think I’ve ever felt before. The guilt was horrible! If we just hadn’t forgotten to shut the door when our language teacher came in! It was the only time it had ever happened; every other time we were more than aware of where Matimu was in his walker and that he couldn’t get out of the room. But this one time, this one day, we were too enthusiastic about our language lesson and we let Matimu have a horrible accident. I found two of his teeth on our stairway, a couple feet apart, and worried that maybe he swallowed the two I couldn’t find. What might that do to his stomach or intestines?
I felt pain for Matimu, for the pain he was feeling. I felt pain for the teeth he had just spent weeks growing… all the pain of them coming in, only to be ended shortly by massive pain in knocking them out. I felt guilty for all the years he’ll spend with a big gap in his mouth, unable to bite and chew the way most kids his age do, that it will be so long until his adult teeth grow in. I was even worried that Matimu would lose his excitement for exploring and for the outside world, when it led him to such an awful trauma. I was worried that his happy, playful, and curious personality would also be damaged by such a bad accident at such a young age. And all of that our fault, through forgetfulness, of course. I felt horrible about the thought that maybe his jawbone too was damaged, but that idea was bad enough that I mostly just pushed that thought out of my mind.
After Matimu was finally able to take a nap, Lora and I sat on the couch and held each other and talked about it, crying a bit. Actually, crying a lot. We prayed about Matimu and his teeth and his mouth, about the blessing God has given us in him, and we pleaded for God’s grace for him and the healing he needed. And God gave grace to us too, later that night. Matimu woke up again, Lora fed him and we gave him his medicine. I was holding him for a while and he started to smile again. Then he even started to laugh and become playful. His lip was swollen and scratched and there was a gap in his mouth and one tooth barely just dangling in there, but he was playing and laughing as if nothing had ever happened. That did wonders to take the load off of my heart, and Lora’s too.
The x-ray seemed amateur, with Lora and I both having to hold Matimu down with our hands, and no lead vests or lead screens anywhere, while they took a few x-ray pictures of his entire head (and my hands). The picture wasn’t clear to me, but I’m sure the local Malagasy doctors are more used to it, and they said there was no damage to his skull or jaw-bones, and no damage to his baby teeth that had yet to grow in. The final verdict was as good as could still be hoped for. Because of the gap in his baby teeth, his adult teeth might grow in crooked, but then again, that happens to many kids anyway and we can deal with that when it gets here. He should be able to eat just fine with his remaining teeth until his adult teeth arrive.
Of his six teeth that had already grown in by that point, two were knocked out, two were broken in half, one was intact and looking well, and the other was just dangling, very low and with the root exposed. They said it might strengthen again, but after a few days we had to return to the hospital for them to pull it out so that it wouldn’t fall out on its own and possibly cause him to choke. At that point, Matimu had healed so quickly that his lip no longer even had a scratch on it. And when they pulled the loose tooth, it just needed a gentle tug and then he was smiling again within a couple of minutes. He was back to rolling around in our apartment and smiling and laughing as much as usual.
When we resumed our language lessons a few days later, our teacher told us in Malagasy: “Congratulations that your heart and your life are not dead.” Apparently that’s the common saying here for a person whose family member has survived a serious accident or illness. Not dying is reason to congratulate a person’s relatives here in Madagascar.
During the time of Matimu’s accident and the days that followed, watching him and waiting for him to heal, I had the time to reflect on something that I didn’t know was in me. You see, the truth is, I haven’t really considered myself to be a very good dad. I’ve thought about it for a while, long before the accident. Maybe it’s just not instinctual for me, or maybe I’m just too selfish and impatient, I don’t know, but I know I’ve been lacking in some key areas. When it comes to diaper changes or feedings or that sort of thing, I let Lora bear the brunt of the hard work. When he’s crying a lot, I don’t think I’m especially soothing and the most I usually do is just hold him while I still try to do whatever I’m doing for myself. When I feed him, if he starts spitting the food everywhere, all over himself and all over me, I usually give up after just a couple of spoonfuls of that. Worst of all, I guess, or at least worst when I think about it, is I just haven’t felt that emotionally attached to him. Sure, there were a lot of emotions there for me when he was first born, and I always love it when he smiles at me, but I guess in many ways, I just didn’t feel that much at all towards him.
Yet, when this accident happened to Matimu, it brought out of me a depth of emotion that I seriously didn’t know was there. I felt willing to do anything for him, if it could just somehow fix the hurt or take the pain away. But I knew there was very little I could do. I was broken. I was in grief and agony. My connection to him ran far deeper than what I usually felt, than what I knew was there, than my own ability to truly be self-sacrificing and do what I needed to do to be a good father and a good husband.
But if this is what this means to me, an accident that, as it turns out, is minor compared to some… If this is what it means to me to feel this minor loss, to consider the pain and suffering of my son, all the while I’m not even a very good father like I ought to be… Then really, truly, what does it mean to say that God gave his only Son? God gave his Son, Jesus, to suffer and die on the cross! What can that mean?!? I shudder to think.
That description, that “God gave his only begotten Son”, never meant a whole lot to me before. I haven’t been a dad for very long, so maybe that’s why, but I always found more amazement and wonder in the other descriptions of Jesus’s life and work, the things that maybe I understood a bit better. I won’t even pretend that I understand how an eternally existing God can be both Father and Son at the same time, and it doesn’t matter how many theology courses or books I’ve read, I don’t think our minds were really made to fully grasp that.
I’m sure, though, that it has something (or maybe everything) to do with Jesus’s incarnation, with his willingness to set aside his rights and power as the Almighty God, and instead to humble himself and be born as a baby and live his life as a boy and then as a man. I don’t think his ears heard any better than ours generally do, nor did his eyes see better, his brain probably didn’t even function any better, and as Jesus he wasn’t in more than one place at one time. So, I suppose in his relation to his co-existing eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent self, he was quite a bit limited… probably far more aware of the Almighty God than the rest of us have been or usually are, but maybe not so much more than what’s between a father and his son. So maybe that’s something about how it works. It’s at least an idea.
However that all works out, there’s no denying that the message we’ve received is that of a Father, an all-loving and all-good Father, who gave the only Son that he ever had or ever would have, for a bunch of people who mostly could care less. But he didn’t just give him to live among us only, just to teach us more about what it means to know and follow him, but God also gave his Son to suffer the worst possible torture and punishment that evil people could come up with at the time. Not only that, but to be mocked and ridiculed, betrayed by one of those closest to him, and to be declared by his own people as more despicable than a convicted serial killer. And at his worst possible moment, at the height of his pain and agony on the cross, Jesus declares that he’s been forsaken by his own Father.
What does that mean?!? How could God really do that? I’ve only experienced a very small and minor fraction of pain and loss during Matimu’s accident, and already it was very difficult to bear! If God loves his own Son more than I love mine (and I have to admit that he does), how in the world could he give him up like that, to suffer like that? The truth is, I doubt I love any of you or anyone here in Madagascar enough even to willfully suffer another similar accident to Matimu, if I knew it would happen and if there were any way I could prevent it. Encountering risks for myself, even subjecting Matimu to some risks, is one thing, and I’ll do it out of love, out of obedience to God, etc. But if I knew something bad like that were sure to happen to my son, I just don’t think I could go through with it, no matter how much it benefitted someone else.
But God did it. It’s no longer a question of how he could do it, because it’s already done. When I think of what I went through with Matimu’s small accident, then I have to think: What immense and seemingly unbearable pain and agony must God Almighty have experienced during the life and death of his Son, Jesus? I like to think that God’s pretty rational, inasmuch as self-sacrificing love for anyone can be rational. I think that only leaves one conclusion: the immense pain and unbearable agony that God feels at the thought, the reality, of losing all of us, or even any of us, to the consequences of the sin and death that formerly ruled our lives must be somehow greater pain and loss for him than it was to offer his own Son, his own life, and suffer in our place.
That’s a very sobering thought.
Personally, I can’t comprehend that sort of love and I don’t think I feel it towards anyone. I think that what I’ve felt towards Matimu and what I now know is there between me and my son, is maybe a small glimpse of the depth of emotion and love that God has towards us. In the end, God gave his only Son to suffer unspeakable pain, that in so doing, pain and death and our sin itself would be defeated once for all! And of course, nothing is strong enough to hold God captive, neither as the Almighty Father or as the humbled Son. He rose again to new life, bringing with him the keys to our freedom, for anyone who’s simply willing to hold out their shackles to him so that he can set us free and show us the way to go from here. And why wouldn’t we? Our former slave-masters are all dead and gone! The battle against them has been won through a terrible pain and an indescribable love. What are we waiting for? It’s for freedom that he’s set us free!