by Lynne Castelijn
Believe it or not, I laughed my way through giving birth to our third child.
It’s a story for another day which involves chuckling in between contractions as I leaned against the mission van watching my husband and dad fumble to put a mattress in the back of the vehicle.
“Don’t bother! I think I need to push – I don’t NEED a mattress, just open the van and let’s go!” I panted.
Then a panicked pelting down the road in a cloud of exhaust to the small Baptist hospital nearby.
“Hurry, hon, huuuurrrrryyyy!”
Bewildered looks from crisply starched nurses as I ran down the ancient hallway to the birthing room, awkwardly holding on between my legs, not caring one bit how I looked as Filipino jaws dropped in waiting rooms along the way.
I climbed up on the delivery table as the doctor rushed in with her hair still wet from a shower. Mum and Dad had called ahead – “She’s on her way and she needs to push!”
One look – “Oh my, yes – go ahead and push” – Arggggghhhh and there he was.
I laughed again, still in shock, utterly in love from the first hearty roar of those little lungs.
He was my biggest baby and our first boy, our darling Pip. I only have one sister, no brothers. After two sweet daughters the years before, a boy was a total novelty. I had no idea what to do with him. I felt like the cats in Lion King, or an ancient priest, raising my cub and announcing “A son! Behold! I have me a man child!”
From that very first day he bellowed louder than I thought possible in one small baby. But he also snuggled tight and loved us all. He was curious about everything, intense and full of energy.
My photo album is full of pictures of Pip getting into mischief –
“Oh look, there’s Pip when he tipped the green paint over himself …
… there’s Pip covered in flour …
… yep, that’s when Pip put laundry soap in the toilet and laughed with glee at all the suds when it flushed
(I think he managed to drain our entire water tank supply that day too) …
… oh yes, I remember when Pip took a swig of our co-worker’s paint thinner left on the porch – we were petrified, but it didn’t seem to affect him at all. Now that’s a worry!”
So it began, and so it continued.
How on earth would such a boy survive as we flew him, only two weeks old, into the far reaches of the Mindanao jungle where we lived and worked? The Cessna circled, lined up with the tiny grass airstrip and I clutched my new bundle fiercely as we swooped in to land.
Other missionaries forewarned me as this was my first baby on the field – “The tribal folk will want to know if it’s a boy or girl and mere words won’t satisfy them. Be sure Pip’s well swaddled – they’ll want to check!”
Sure enough, they did. The old grannies and little children alike – “Oh ahhheeeebul! A baby boy! A white baby boy! Salamat – thank you God for your wonderful gift! Let’s see – is he really a boy? Is he the same as us?” Then confusion as they encountered not a loose clean flour sack as they all use, but a firmly secured thick nappy, or diaper as our American colleagues called them. I was thankful for the warning from our friends in town. My tribal friends would just have to take my word for it – he was indeed a boy.
Pip grew up. He loved people. He loved activity. He loved the rain, mud and the mission plane.
As a toddler he’d spend hours on the porch or in the yard, diaper dangling, happily playing with whoever came by, gladly sharing all and any toys. He learned the local language right alongside English. The girls learned too, but in a quieter, gentler way, just as happy inside the house as out.
But not my Pip – the more people the better! Walls could not contain him. The more dirt and mud and noise – glorious! Each night I soaked him in a plastic tub liberally laced with Dettol disinfectant, visions of infections, tropical ulcers and boils rising before me in the steam. Then I hugged him tight, my heart bursting with love for this wild boy of mine who wore his own heart on his sleeve. He was the classic what-you-see-is-what-you-get child – never dishonest, sneaky or cunning, though rarely quiet or meek. Even as the years passed, I’d find myself gazing at him in wonder. Then I’d thud back down to earth and give him his regular doses of worming medicine, convinced the tropical amoeba, bacteria and nasties would have found their way into his system. Yet, somehow, they rarely did.
Then came the boyhood years of running free. Pip stretched his wings, independence asserted. The pace intensified and my mother heart stretched too, deeper in fear.
School was a trial for Pip, all those Distance Education lessons from tiresome teachers back in Australia. I despaired he’d ever learn to read. Each afternoon when he was free he’d race up to the village with his friends. “Mum! I’m going to the river with the boys” and off he’d go with a fistful of cookies to share.
I leaned back, drained beyond belief from the morning’s melee, dread in the pit of my stomach as I imagined my boy down at the river where snakes and floods, rebels and who knows what else were real threats.
Was I an irresponsible mother? The girls rarely ventured beyond the neighbour houses. Pip went frog hunting and spear fishing and fought mighty mud wars with packs of friends. He made fires and cooked scalding pots of rice topped with Maggi noodles, canned sardines and edible leaves from the jungle.
Yet if I tried to keep him in the confines of the house or even our yard, not only would it be sorely unfair to our spirited boy, it would surely drive me stark raving mad. I couldn’t, I wouldn’t keep him wrapped in cotton wool. After all, the local boys survived just fine. And yet … he was MY beloved boy …
Every single afternoon I fought this battle. My imagination, which has never been sluggish, went into overdrive and I’d frequently consider radioing our mission base in town to be sure the pilot was on standby and the plane available in case of emergency. I thought about a colleague’s son in a neighbouring village on the same island. He loved to swim in their river and one rainy day he reached out to grab what he thought was a stick. It was a poisonous snake which sank its fangs deep into the boy’s forearm.
If a snake bit Pip, would God do the same as He’d done for our friend’s son? That boy suffered terribly but one miracle after another unfolded as God sent the plane in, then a doctor who knew how best to treat the wound, then an emergency flight to Manila and the major miracle of the almost unheard of antivenom being available. The son survived and ultimately recovered well.
But surely it was presumptuous to expect that just because our son was also a missionary kid he’d be protected in exactly the same way.
I thought about another precious son of colleagues based in the major metropolis of Manila. Their son was Pip’s age. He became sick with what seemed a normal childhood fever. Until it wasn’t. Days later he was in a coma in a major city hospital, but the medical team couldn’t save him. His death shook the field.
Would that be my Pip’s story too?
I’d anxiously glance at my watch as the tropical dusk swept across the treetops, ears straining for the joyful shouts and ardent arguments of boyish voices coming up the road. Was I wrong to let him go? Father God, guide us with this precious treasure of a son, protect oh please protect him I pleaded each afternoon.
We turned to other more senior missionaries and asked advice – what did they do with their children? The answers ranged from wrapped-in-cotton-wool-never-leave-the-house to let-them-run-free-and-trust-God. Basically, it appeared, it was between you and God.
Every child was different.
Every situation was different.
And so we prayed.
And every afternoon I heard the whisper “You can’t keep this boy wrapped and swaddled. He’ll stifle. Keep the communication lines open with him, and trust Me with your treasure.”
So every afternoon I’d find out who was accompanying my boy. I knew the local kids were kind and savvy, jungle smart and used to looking out for each other. I had to know exactly where he was going and he knew to be back by dark. Then off he’d go with a whoop and a holler. I’d smile to hear it, even as my mother heart constricted with fear and love. And I’d pray and I’d pray as I went about my work, or saw to the girls who had their own, different challenges.
It was still a daily internal war, letting my boy go, knowing this was right for him, preferring to keep him close, but choosing to trust God as I watched him tear off at breakneck speed day after day. Fear and trust fought for supremacy in my heart and mind.
One day we were back in Australia on a furlough. We were happily singing our way down a straight Aussie highway en route to our next meeting, kids safely strapped in the back. Casually I turned the radio on to hear the news.
And there it was. Just like that.
“A brick wall collapsed yesterday in a Melbourne suburban back yard, tragically crushing an eight-year-old boy playing beneath the wall, killing the boy instantly..”
The blood drained from my face, empathy with that unknown mother thundering in my heart. Oh no, oh no, oh no! How tragic. How very, very sad. As the miles slipped past, I stared out the window, praying for this family. A boy, Pip’s own age, gone! Just like that. In a safe Melbourne yard.
Where then, I wondered, IS safety? If a young boy’s life could be snatched so unexpectedly, so suddenly in a major western city just minutes from a world-class hospital, a mere phone call away from fully equipped highly specialized speeding ambulances – then where indeed was safety?
Of course the answer came straight away. No matter WHERE I was, whether in the presumed safety of my homeland or the harsh wild jungles of Mindanao, God had my children in His hand.
I simply had to trust Him with these precious living gifts wherever I was, whatever they were doing.
Simple? Yes. Easy? Not at all.
A regular, daily, sometimes hourly re-trusting my treasured children to His care.
Years have passed since then. Pip survived the jungle. In fact, he thrived. Now he’s a fully grown man, about to launch into a ministry of his own as a missionary pilot in those much loved boyhood Cessna planes. And my mama heart which still loves him so fiercely is learning a whole new degree of trust as my big adult son flies and goes on new adventures far, far away from me.
But I know he’ll be okay.
No matter what.
Because I can trust the One who’s always cared for our man-child-now-a-man since he first roared into our lives in a small mountain hospital all those years ago.