Friday, October 7, 2011

My Chapter Twelve Baby

My middle daughter Stefanie turned 25 today, so I have been reliving many of the memories of that day - finding it hard to believe that twenty five years has passed since she was a baby. 
Also, in celebration of Liberia's president, Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, being chosen as one of the three women winning the 2011 Noble Peace Prize, Liberia has been on my mind today.
Read the article HERE.

So, feeling a little nostalgic, I decided to share with those of you who have not had a chance to hear the story about my birthing a baby in the jungle of Liberia, to be able to read the story here. Below is the chapter from my published book, In This Place (March, 2011). My daughter Stefanie affectionately calls herself The Chapter Twelve Baby.

Times and Seasons of a Baby

     The day I was due to deliver baby Stefanie, our missionary nurse slipped and fell in the mud, breaking her wrist as she was walking to Wednesday market. She had to be flown to Monrovia to have it set properly, and several of the missionaries thought that I should have gone with her. Thankfully, God had already shown us His will concerning the birth of our second child, and even with our nurse Rachel out of the picture, I was still content and at peace to deliver my second baby with the Liberian midwives in Tappi. Believe me when I say that it was not bravado at all, even though I imagine as I have told my story in the past, it might have been construed that way. Though always up for adventure, I was not willing to play carelessly with the birth of one of my children! God just gave absolute peace: there is no other explanation.
     While the ultrasound that I had in Monrovia back in July showed the baby was due somewhere around the middle of September, one of the midwives measured my belly (the act of taking a tape measure and measuring the height of the fundus) in a less conventional way and calculated that I was not due to deliver until about the second week of October.
     Stefanie was born on October 7th, so you can understand why I was both amazed and completely entrusted to those midwives. Jeff had his own ideas of why the baby was supposedly taking longer than usual to arrive. Ever since I had found out that I was pregnant, I had called the baby “TJ”—which was the name we would have given a son. In a journal dated September 6, 1986, I wrote, Jeff says now that he is sure that it is a girl and she’s mad at us for calling her TJ the whole time.
     Since Rachel had broken her wrist and was in Monrovia, I helped run the OB clinic for the entire month before Stefanie was born. The midwives were efficient and competent, and I was mainly there as a reference point. Looking back, I am sure that the responsibility of the clinic during that time served as a great distraction as we waited for baby Stefanie to arrive.

Our Little American-African Arrives

     I once heard a college student say that she was thankful our God is an on-time God. So true, and even more so when it comes to the mysterious ways of babies. By the end of the gestational period, a woman is usually finished, done, at the end of herself. She has shared her personal haven with that sweet little creature long enough! It is time that the little one face the world for whatever it is worth. Even fathers are ready for the mothers to birth the baby. Everyone is ready except you know who floating peacefully and contentedly inside the cozy, watery home. All three of our daughters hung Home Sweet Home signs inside my belly and were sending messages for pizza delivery.
     Stefanie Leigh Abernethy came exactly in God’s time. I hope that I will not bore you with the details of her birth, but it was such an acutely commemorative time. After dropping twenty-six pounds, being extremely sick for more than four months, and at the same time, battling culture shock and mood swings, deep down I still knew that it was right to have that baby in the middle of the Liberian jungle.
God was merciful to the little American mommy who had only lived in the unfamiliar African jungle for ten months. I went to sleep on the eve of October 6 with tinges of hope, awaking around 1:00 a.m., filled with more than just hope, but also with a strong assurance that it was time. From that point, I never thought about being afraid nor did it stress me to realize that I would be able to have absolutely nothing for pain, no matter how hard the labor might get.
     The jungle was pitch black and quiet except for the soft breathing of Jeff as he slept. Whispering my longings and petitions to my Heavenly Father who I knew was there with me, I tiptoed around, getting things ready, laying out clothes for the baby, making some hot tea for myself, making sure for the twelfth time that the bedroom where I would deliver was clean and orderly. I reveled in the exclusiveness of the early morning quietness, but was starkly aware that all would change very soon. When I could no longer delay the pointed breathing through the contractions, I woke Jeff. When he realized that it was still very dark outside but heard the urgency in my voice, his face became a mural of excitement in the flickering amber light of the kerosene lantern.
     By 3:30 a.m., Jeff had gone for one of the missionary ladies who wanted to be there for the birth, mainly, in case Michelle were to wake up during the process. He also rode to the clinic and informed the two midwives that I had chosen to help with my delivery. One of them, Emma, arrived a few minutes later seeming very nervous and concerned. She told us that she had just delivered a baby about three hours earlier and that the baby had been macerated, black, and rotting as it came out of the mother’s womb. Emma was still having a hard time with what she had seen. The Africans have many superstitions, and even after becoming followers of Jesus Christ, it took great effort to lay down those fallacies and begin to live out the truths given to them in God’s Word. Emma felt that she should not be in the room with me because she might “jinx” our  baby.
     Even in the evidence of my labor cranking up, it was a wonderful time for us to talk to her, using Scripture and prayer to help release her from those fears. Nothing like getting your mind off your own situation (like labor pains) than by investing in the lives of others! Though the labor pains increased rapidly, I was still able to be involved in the teaching process with Emma, and thankfully she soon agreed to help deliver our baby. As I began the pushing process, Jeff tried for comic relief. After four hours of labor, he was concerned for me, especially knowing that there was nothing to give me for pain. So, as Stefanie’s dark hair crowned, he exclaimed, “I see black hair! Oh, by the way, sweetie, this baby better be white!” A very cute joke, definitely, but the timing was off. The joke fell soundly to the floor as another round of pushing ensued. Poor guy!
     Stefanie was born at 6:30 a.m., with the humming of the generator and about 100 curious bystanders waiting on our piazza for the news. That, unfortunately, was as close as they were getting to the delivery room, though it might have been different. When I first decided to have Stefanie in Tappita, I considered delivering at the OB clinic just as the African women did. Incredulously, I soon got wind that a couple of the midwives were going to sell a few tickets for entry into the delivery room to watch the white woman have her baby. That was enough to persuade me to deliver in the most controlled environment I knew: my house.
     However, there was no way to stop the throng of people waiting on our piazza and what made it more interesting, was that none of our windows had glass in them. Only a thin metal screen was between those waiting for the white baby to be born and the sounds a woman makes while in labor. I have no idea what they heard and at the time, I am sure that I did not care.
When Emma cut Stefanie’s umbilical cord, that was the last I saw of my new baby girl for almost an hour. Jeff and my Liberian midwife friend Mary swept her away to be weighed, cleaned up, and shown off. I heard clapping, singing, and shouting on the piazza, and knew that Jeff must have gone out there with our little baby. I heard later that he went out the door holding her up above his head and was praising God for a beautiful little girl. The Lion King was proud of his cub, and many of the townspeople were perplexed by the genuine pleasure they saw in Jeff’s face.
     In Liberia at the time we were there, a man was not really considered a man until he was able to have a son. Since we already had a daughter, everyone assumed that our second baby would have been “Teacher Jeff’s” son. When Jeff walked out on the piazza, tears running down his face, praising God for baby girl Stefanie, some of the men in the crowd asked him how he could be so happy about another girl child. So, with his second beautiful daughter snuggled deeply into his arms, another teaching opportunity arose.
     With all the celebrating on the piazza, Michelle did indeed awake as baby Stefanie began crying. Our beautiful, wide-eyed three year old came out of her room saying, “I hear a baby crying! My baby is crying.” She went to look at the baby, but instead of wanting to hold her right away, she first needed to see mommy and to make sure I was fine. When the young nurse deemed her mommy in good health, she excitedly went out to find her new baby sister. Eventually I was able to also hold Stefanie for the first time and after eating a big breakfast prepared by one of my missionary friends, Beth Wittenberger, both Stefanie and I slept for quite a while.
     Having to take care of a baby the first night without a hospital nursery was a shock for the Americanized mother. Stefanie acted hungry all night and hardly slept, so neither did we. By the third night, I was seeing the advantage of having nurses to help with a newborn baby so that the mother could get some rest. Through all the adjustments of caring for a new baby in the middle of the jungle, I was acutely aware of one thing. Having Stefanie there in the town of Tappita was perhaps one of the best things we could personally have done.
      I later wrote in my journal:
For me to have chosen to have my baby here in Tappi by their very own midwives is a compliment to exceed no other. It showed them that we love them, trust them, and want to be a part of them. So they all came to celebrate with us, that special Liberian-born child of Americans! It has been almost twenty years since a missionary woman had delivered a baby in Tappita.
    Often God calls us to do unusual, uncomfortable, and unconventional things. As Americans, it can be difficult for us to leave our traditions, stepping out of the ordinary so that we can see God do the extraordinary in our lives! Do we dare allow God to be extraordinary in our lives? Today? Every day? With our children? Our possessions? With our lives?

Finding Our Normal

Within a week of Stefanie’s birth, life demanded its normality. Our new little girl was one week old when Rachel, our missionary nurse, returned from Monrovia with a cast on her wrist and asked me to be her “right” hand while her wrist was healing. She could not write at all, and in the running of the weekly clinics, there was much necessary documenting of patients’ care. So, Stefanie and I headed to the clinic every Tuesday morning, and while she slept peacefully on my lap or was carried around by one of the midwives, I filled out charts, made notes, and wrote prescriptions for Rachel.
Three weeks after the birth of Stefanie, my parents came for a visit. It was amazing because I knew that my mother did not like to fly at all, and here she was coming all the way to Africa to see us! It might have had something to do with the fact that I had teased and told both sets of grandparents that there would be no pictures of Stefanie sent until they came out to see her.
     My parents were with us for thirteen days, and it was so wonderful to share all the things that we had only been able to write about before. Jeff’s parents and his youngest sister Renee came out a few weeks later, and we were able, again, to share all the cultural idiosyncrasies and introduce our wonderful African family to them. Just rereading my journals even now overwhelms my heart with the love they all had for us and how supportive they were of what God had called us to do. They tasted the African foods, went with us to the local churches, and walked with us to the weekly market in town. Of course, I had a break from bathing the girls as the grandmothers both desired to do that. Michelle especially enjoyed having the attention of other family members. After their visits, it was so much easier to describe things to them in our letters because we knew they had a better idea of what we were talking about.

A Different Kind of Yard Sale

     Near the end of the Bible school year, which in Liberia, was the first of December, it was customary for the missionaries to hold a yard sale open only to Bible school students and their families. At first I did not understand why we could not simply give away our stuff as it was obvious that the families were in great need. But after a few months, I began to grasp how the tension and jealousy would have mounted up if we were to just give our stuff to certain Bible school families. So, we continued the tradition, using one of the Bible school classrooms for our group sale. Going by only the experience of participating in yard sales in the states, I wondered how many hours we would have to stay there until everything was sold.
     Wisely, but baffling to me at first, the veteran missionaries who had done those yard sales before, kept the doors locked until we had laid everything out on the tables. When the door was unlocked, whoever it was that had unlocked the door might just as well have become a doormat for the fury of how everyone entered! Walmart stampedes had nothing on those African shoppers! In less than an hour, the tables were completely emptied! It seemed too daunting of a task to charge for each individual item, so we charged them by the paper bag full and left it to the individual families to trade and barter with the others for what they really wanted.
     The second yard sale in which we participated was my most memorable one. Stefanie was about 14 months old and walking. Jenny, a Bible school students’ daughter who watched the girls in the afternoons, brought Stefanie over to the sale with her. Stefanie had on a diaper and a little diaper shirt which was about all she needed during that time of year. Once the sale began, we never set eyes on Stefanie again until the last item was bought. I, assuming that Jenny was watching Stefanie, concentrated on taking money from the students and sharing some good natured banter about the items they were buying. A few minutes later, Michelle called for me to come and see Stefanie. “She poo-pooed on the floor, Mommy,” I was informed by the big sister.
     As I looked up from the table, quickly wondering how that could have happened....I saw her. Stefanie was completely naked. No diaper. No shirt. Nothing but the birthday suit with which she was born. Her clothes had obviously been taken in the yard sale! Michelle later told us that several African women tried to take her clothes, too, but she ran under the table and hid. That yard sale was such a complete success that they had literally bought the clothes off my baby’s back. Did Stefanie seem to mind? Absolutely not.

If you are interested in viewing some pics from our time in Liberia, click HERE.

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