Today is World AIDS Day. Today is the day I tell you about Jessie.
Everyone can and should read Meg’s blog posts about Jessie here. You’ll get a window into what I mean when I say Jessie. Meg is much better at this than I am; she understands the medical implications far better than I ever could, and she loved our little girl longer and better.
I’ve been putting off discussing Jessie for some time now, because it’s hard and it hurts and no words could ever really be enough. I’m compiling this, in part, from several other things I’ve written about Jessie for other tasks. Basically, I’m just going to relate every Jessie story I can think of. Everyone who was there will have to forgive any lapses in memory on my part; feel free to correct me, and please feel free to tell your own Jessie stories in the comment box.
I wish I could do this eloquently, with beautiful words and advanced literary techniques. But it won’t be.
The first thing I did when I arrived in Kazembe this summer was puke into a trash bag in the village. The second thing I did was help this crazy girl, a nursing student from Belmont named Meg who I’d only just met, and a poorly educated (male) Zambian midwife hook a tiny infant up to an IV. That infant was Jessie.
Jessie was only a few weeks old when she came to the orphanage shortly before I did. She wasn’t born premature, but she was the size of a preemie, which was unfortunate because most of our preemie clothes were for boys. As a result, we tried our best to remind people that she was indeed a little girl by wrapping her in pink blankets and keeping bows in her hair. She was most likely HIV positive, although there is no way to know before 6 months old. This meant that we couldn’t really treat the HIV; we could only treat the symptoms.
When I say help, I really just mean holding things – flashlights, tubes, Jessie herself. Meg and the midwife did all of the work. The day before, they had inserted an NG tube into Jessie’s nose. The tube went through the nasal cavity and into her stomach, allowing us to feed her directly, as she was unable to take milk from a bottle. This tube had to be held in place through a stitch in her tiny nose, and later we resorted to literally duct taping it to her face. It sounds like we were torturing her, but it was for her own good. She hated having that tube in her nose and used every opportunity she was given to reach up a tiny fist in an effort to yank it out. Obviously, this was dangerous for her health. This meant that we had to essentially straitjacket her tiny body using a onesie. We tied the sleeves around her back so her arms couldn’t escape. She hated that.
The tube also posed risks in that we had no equipment with which to ensure its location. If it went into her lungs, we could potentially kill her easily. All we had to test this with was a cup of water and keen eyes watching for bubbles. Fortunately, this never happened, but we knew it was a constant danger.
For the majority of our time in the orphanage, we fed Jessie through this tube. Her formula had to be heated and pushed into the tube slowly, milligram by milligram. Here, we also had to be wary of bubbles, as pushing air into her stomach was also dangerous, partly because it was hard to get out. I have never met a baby who was harder to burp than Jessie. As it turns out, infants are a little less fragile than we realize, and in Kazembe I learned how to really burp a baby. My readers who are moms will understand. The best way to burp Jessie meant laying her flat on her stomach, holding her tiny face in the palm of your hand, and slapping her back till she elicited a tiny squeak.
Jessie was kept on a very strict hourly feeding schedule. This meant that we all took turns caring for her through the night. My shift was frequently the first night shift, from about 10 or 11 to 2 or 3 in the morning. I certainly had the easiest shift. I hated to wake Meg up at 2:30 a.m. and hand Jessie over, partly because Meg was so very tired and partly because I wanted to hold the baby longer. Sometimes, we were able to feed her with a bottle, and I remember spending three hours feeding her continuously, drop by drop, until she had swallowed 30 milligrams and kept it down. I remember other nights spent pacing the floor of the living room, trying to get her to stop crying, near tears myself in desperation for this child. I talked to her like she could understand me; sometimes, the exasperated faces she would make at me made me think she could.
Nights were difficult because of the cold. Jessie had zero body fat (which was also a problem when we needed to give her shots.) She had to be kept warm during the chilly African winter nights, which meant bundling her up as tightly as possible and keeping her sandwiched between a warm body and a hot water bottle. One night, I found a hole in the windows of the main house, and used my maroon Italia jacket to block the cold air. Now, when I wear that jacket, I think of those nights.
Times with Jessie were not all hard. I treasure my memories of watching Meg dance in the candlelight to My Favorite Things with Jessie in her arms, or of leaping up and down in the kitchen because Jessie had gained a fraction of a kilogram. (She only weighed 2.2 kilograms, or 4.4 pounds.) She went with us to the waterfalls one Saturday, and at one point Amy, the wife of the missionary family, held her up in a Lion King moment as she transferred Jessie to Meg’s arms. We would laugh over the expressions on her tiny face. She had the skinniest, longest neck I’ve ever seen on a baby, and we often likened her to an old man, a turtle, E.T., or Yoda.
I spent a great deal of time praying over Jessie. Her favorite position was curled up on your chest, where she fit perfectly. You could smell her hair and feel her tiny hands on your skin and you knew that you were both exactly where you belonged.
A few days after we arrived at the orphanage, Jessie became very ill. Her breathing was labored and rapid. We gathered in the living room to pray, and there were tears. We expected her to die, but she didn’t. Somehow, she pulled through, regained her strength, gained a little weight. I knew she was safe. I knew there was no way she was going to die now.
I was wrong.
Jessie began to decline on our last Saturday evening at the orphanage. Her body grew weak, she stopped eating, and her breathing again became dangerously shallow and fast. I didn’t really believe that anything would happen, so when someone knocked loudly on my door on Tuesday morning, I ignored them and went back to sleep. Twenty minutes later, I rolled out of bed and slowly got ready for the day, groggy and sleep-deprived. I was confused to find my dear friend Zeger waiting outside the door. He told me, gently and succinctly, that Jessie was gone. She had died, around 2 a.m., in Meg’s arms in the living room. There was nothing we could have done to save her. I could go see her, if I wanted to say goodbye. I couldn’t say anything other than “okay,” even though everything was very much not.
Jessie was in her crib in the living room. I’ve never touched a dead body before, so I didn’t know what to expect. People talk about how they are cold, but I suppose I had always thought that was just a figure of speech. Jessie’s soft cheek was icy, her eyes and mouth half-open. I remember thinking that someone should close her eyes, but I couldn’t do it.
We bundled all 4.4 pounds of Jessie in a green wrap and took her to the village clinic, where we handed her over to the grandmother who couldn’t have taken care of her after her mother died. I stared hard at the people who watched us in silence. The orphanage has lost many children, and death is a daily aspect of life in a place like Kazembe. The faces of the villagers looked as empty as I felt. We handed the bundle that was no longer our baby over to the grandmother, who then asked for a ride home. In the car, I couldn’t take my eyes off of that tired old woman. We took her to a dry, dusty road and watched her shuffle slowly back to the hut where she had raised Jessie’s mother.
The rest of the day was a blur. I threw myself into working with the kindergarteners and refused to break down. The tears came on the bus after we left the orphanage five days later.
We explained what had happened to the kids. Our brilliant 5-year-old, Johnny, was eager to know the scientific details. Someone else, probably Meg, must have explained it to him. He asked me if I was sad, and I told him I was. He asked if Meg was said, and I told him she was. He told me that he was sad for us.
That night, as we lay outside, watching the stars for answers to our silent questions, a shooting star splashed across the dazzling Zambian sky. Meg knew that it was a reminder of God's presence, and we were comforted.
There have been many tears, many nights spent curled up, sobbing into a pillow. These nights have taken place in Kazembe, in Texas, in Tennessee, in Belgium. There has been anger and sorrow and grief and frustration and confusion. Again, read this by Meg, and it provides a tiny glimpse of what it was like.
Jessie was not a mistake. God didn’t forget to keep her alive or create her by accident. He brought her to us for a reason. We are not yet sure what that reason was, but I know that I learned more about life and love from Jessie than I ever did in 18 years in America.
I don’t understand why she died. God has not written words on the wall, giving us the answers. I hate HIV. I hate AIDS. I hate starvation and poverty and suffering, and I hate that children are the victims of these things. I hate a world where I focus more on what I’m wearing than on the fact that people are dying at the moment. I don’t know how to reconcile these truths with a loving God.
I have a particular memory of Jessie, the night before she got really sick. I had laid her on the couch and was changing her diaper, which was always a messy endeavor. She was relatively “healthy” then, and she let us know it by kicking out her tiny little legs, clenching her fists, and screaming at me in anger. I remember laughing at her indignation. I poked her tummy and informed her that I was happy she was so angry, because it meant she was strong and tough. I think that was the last time I laughed over Jessie. The next day, things began to go downhill.
Jessie was a fighter. We joked about how it was a good thing she couldn’t speak, because she probably had some colorful language she would direct at the people who kept poking and prodding and forcing tubes down her nose. She fought us and she fought illness and weakness. You could see the fight in her as she panted for breath, as she struggled to keep her food down. She was strong until the very end.
I can be strong, for Jessie. Jessie never stopped fighting. Neither will I.
I’m going to change the world, and I’m going to do it in Jessie’s name.
Note: Like I said, I am writing about Jessie on this day in particular because today is World AIDS Day. Please, take a few minutes to go to this link and learn a bit about this terrible problem. If you want to learn more about the orphanage or help the Morrows save the lives of kids like Johnny, Jessie, and Elias, click here.