August 1, 2017, started out as an ordinary day. Atticus woke around 6:15, his cheerful chatter acting as my alarm clock over the baby monitor plugged in beside my bed. We ate French toast sticks and peach slices for breakfast, read a story, got dressed. We went to his pediatrician’s office for his one-year checkup. He got two vaccines and a clean bill of health. He fell asleep in his car seat about two minutes after we started the drive home, and Kyle and I hushed our voices in the front, whispering to each other about dinner plans for the evening and how cute Atticus looked in the neon shorts he was wearing.
And then, I checked my phone. My heart caught in my throat as I skimmed the paragraph, an update from Liberia. Words jumped out at me as I stared at the screen in disbelief, saw a picture of J., a young girl I’d grown to love during my time there. Cancer in her eye. Untreatable in Liberia. High probability of spreading. Vision loss. Eventual death. I enlarged the picture, saw the white spot that has completely taken over her left eye. She no longer looked like the J. I remembered. The girl I first met when she was only about two, the girl whose giggle sounds like sunshine, the girl I’d held and rocked and kissed for the majority of my five years in Liberia. I thought back to one time I’d visited her orphanage and found her delirious with fever in her bunk bed. “Malaria,” the caretaker had told me. J. looked at me with heavy eyes, and I saw something there that scared me, and it wasn’t just sickness; it was the every day, all-too-real possibility of death in Liberia. I knelt by her bed and put my shaking hands on her, stroked her hair wet from sweat, and I prayed, and I felt a hand on my back, knew it was Piko, praying along with me. And when I opened my eyes next, and looked into hers, the darkness was gone, and she gestured she wanted to sleep a while, so I left her. An hour later, as I was getting ready to leave the orphanage, J. found her way to me, nuzzled against my leg. I remember what she was wearing: a pair of turquoise cotton shorts and matching sleeveless top, a size or two too small, stained with dirt and palm oil. I touched her head; it was cool. I asked her if she was feeling better; she nodded. I called one of the older kids from the home that night to check on her; J. was just sitting down to eat her evening rice after spending the afternoon playing.
Yesterday, I couldn’t take my gaze away from the picture: the way her collarbone jutted out of her neck, her fancy hairdo, her signature tight-lipped smirk, the cloudy white of her eye, and the memories came flooding back. I met her when she was living in a bombed-out radio station, having been abandoned there by her grandparents when she was only a baby. My team and I, we fought hard for those kids, the ones at her orphanage. There were feeding programs and medical care, and after a while, construction of a new home, one that had all its walls and a full roof. I thought about the day we had the opening ceremony for the new orphanage, the kids cheering excitedly upon sight of their new home, as they clutched their plastic refugee bags stuffed with the little belongings they had. I remembered J.’s dress, the green ribbons in her braids, her big eyes taking it all in. I remembered fitting her for a new outfit at Christmas, how she’d run her fingers through my hair and marvel, “It soft-o!” under her breath, and how she sat in my lap the last time I saw her with a smile on her face, and when the other kids asked if she was happy, she said, “Yes! My ma now come!” (Translation: Yes! My mother has come!)
And now, cancer is taking over her eye, and she’s begun losing vision because of it, which tells me it’s getting worse. The doctors in Liberia say the eyeball needs to be removed, a prosthetic put in, but they can’t and won’t do the surgeries in Liberia. There are too few resources, the risks too high, and the amount of follow-up care she’ll need? Unheard of there. But if she’s not treated, the cancer will spread, and eventually kill her, a girl of only nine years of age, ten at the most (birth certificates are rare in Liberia, so her true date of birth is unknown). She has survived neglect, abandonment, little food, dirty water, inadequate shelter, countless bouts of malaria–and now this.
So here’s what it comes down to: hope for J. at this moment looks like getting her here to the United States for emergency medical care. It looks like a family choosing to step forward, sponsor her for a medical visa. Leaving her in Liberia to go blind from cancer that may also eventually kill her simply isn’t an option.
I turned to Kyle, crying, the sobs choking me, and explained the situation. He’s heard all my stories about J., seen her photos, watched the light go on in my eyes as I spoke her name. We sat quietly for a few moments, letting it all sink in. And then, he said the words I had been listening to in my soul and spirit, but was too afraid to speak out loud. “My heart is open to doing this,” he said. And it feels right–so, so right. Because we love Jesus, desperately. Because we’ve taken his Word as life, and we see all throughout the arc of scripture God’s special care and attention to those who are sick, those who are orphaned, those who are in need. Because James 1:27 tells us that “religion which God accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…”. So we talked, and we cried, and we prayed, and we agreed I’d call my former boss in Liberia and tell her we are interested in finding out what we need to do to step forward to help bring hope to J.
Friends, family — we are terrified. This is big, and it seems a little crazy, and we have so many questions; so much is unknown. Because of her eye, this is a time-sensitive issue, and yet we know things like this can be held up by paperwork and finances, and we are literally starting from the ground up here. But as I prayed last night, God reminded me of Jeremiah 6:16, which has long been one of my favorite verses. Thus says the Lord: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” The truth is, we still have the opportunity to walk a different road. We don’t have the money right now. We don’t have any contacts with cancer centers or doctors who would be willing to treat her. We have our hands full with Atticus. We have no idea where we even begin here.
But the good way, the right way, the ancient path that leads to the fullness of joy in God? Well, we feel like that’s the road that calls to us in the beating of our hearts, calls us to walk forward with this, to take the first step, though our fear might make that step shaky. Nothing is set in stone yet. Nothing, except we are willing.
We are desperately in need of a village right now. Our greatest need at this moment is finding doctors who will agree to treat J. and cover the costs of her care. I will be honest; there are some moments in which I doubt this can happen, moments when I’m filled with fear and discouragement because it seems so…impossible. But we believe in the power of prayer. We believe it can make the crooked path straight. So today, we are asking you would remember us before God, the Father of the fatherless, Defender of the orphan and the widow. (**And if you have any contacts in the medical field, particularly in the field of ophthalmology, please let us know!**)
Thank you, dear ones. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
(Also, the above photo is a generic, Creative Commons photo, not one of J.)