“Moja, mbili, tatu, nne, tano.” I repeated those Swahili numbers, one through five, over and over again as I stroked a two-year-old’s fingers. A single hand was the only portion of this small girl’s body that was not severely burned.
Abused frequently at the hands of her mother, pain was familiar to the child. Fire was the most recent act of hatred inflicted upon her. But flames of malice could not scorch the spirit of this small girl.
With her hand outstretched to mine, she sat stoically in her hospital bed, her deep brown eyes continually scanning the critical care burn ward of a Kenyan hospital. For weeks, she sat there. She had no visitors.
I call her Patience, a common name in Kenya and one that speaks to the resiliency of this child.
I was this two-year-old’s hospital chaplain in a Clinical Pastoral Education program, a requirement for my Master of Divinity degree. My primary role was to be present with each patient while assessing his or her needs.
The basic need I could meet for Patience was simply sitting with her.
I taught her how to count numbers on her five fingers. Simultaneously, Patience taught me five healing lessons about life.
1. Freedom is internal
During her time in the burn ward, this precious little girl endured pain and witnessed death. Patience heard screams from neighboring patients and smelled rotten flesh.
But her spirit was defiant.
When I eventually saw her smile that second week and heard her laugh during the fifth week, she showed me her innocence and childlike wonder. Patience taught me that freedom is not bound by exterior conditions. Freedom lives within each person.
She taught me that we can shackle ourselves when we carry in our hearts resentment for past hurts.
2. Healing begets healing
This toddler spent her days observing what was happening around her in the hospital room. There were patients on either side of her, and they knew her name.
One of her neighbors lost his legs to amputation. He had been severely burned in a house fire. Patience stared in his direction often, and he stared back. When I talked to him, he told me about her strength; how she inspired him daily.
From time to time, I left the little girl to visit another burn ward where her one-time neighbors went when they left the critical ward. They were always eager to hear how Patience was doing. When I told them about her progress, they could not hide their grins.
This two-year-old was their champion and aided in their recovery. She was essential to their healing.
I reflected about how friends and I have shared our emotional injuries with each other and helped each other heal.
3. Forgiveness is hard
Visiting Patience became somewhat predictable as the weeks progressed. One day, however, I found someone at her bedside.
The nurses told me it was her mother. My thoughts raced in disbelief and my heart pounded. The mother is the reason Patience was in the hospital! How could she have hurt her daughter?
I felt certain that her mother would not return again after she had neglected Patience for weeks, but she came back the next day, the day that followed, and each day after that.
I looked at the toddler’s face when her mother visited, and Patience showed such expressive signs of happiness. It’s not reasonable to assume a two-year-old, dependent on her mother for care, has the capacity to forgive her abuser; but in her childhood innocence, Patience taught me that we are all called to forgive.
I considered, how might I choose to show mercy toward those who have torn my heart?
4. Pain is part of healing
From her hospital bed, Patience taught me that you cannot run from pain.
Rather by embracing pain, she healed. I saw her bandages change and her wounds improve.
I thought about my own life. I buried hurtful experiences without processing them, which inevitably meant that they would reappear in life. By doing so, I couldn’t heal.
5. Let go of expectations
I expected to say goodbye to Patience before returning to America. I wanted to count on her fingers one last time.
But, there was a cholera outbreak in Nairobi during my last week. She was moved out of the burn ward to navigate the new crisis. I asked the nurses where Patience was moved but was not given an answer.
I did not get to say goodbye, but this taught me to let go of expectations. Perhaps, we did not need a final visit.
We had experienced what we were meant to from one another — love.