When babies die

Written by on February 21, 2009 in Photo Posts, Photos and Stories in Progress with 14 Comments

A baby girl died almost two weeks ago. She survived for two months longer than her mother. Now there are three sisters remaining, all healthy and confused, and a father who is HIV positive but doing well with medication. She was known affectionately as Baby Peak.

The day before she died I held her for awhile so her sister could have a break to play. An eleven year old girl who cared for her dying mother, caring for her dying sister, just wanted to cut and glue paper with the other kids. I did ask her to stop and bring a bottle, which she did, and then I fed Baby Peak. She burped contentedly and fell asleep on my lap. I thought, “Maybe if we all work together we can save her.” She had a will to live. She ate well.

Baby Peak and her sister

She died of AIDS. Technically, she died of some unknown illness. She had started on ARV drugs (that fight HIV), but something already had her in its grip too strongly for any drugs to release her. The local hospital had given up and sent her to the orphanage. There was hope but not much.

Taking ARV drugs the evening before she died

The next morning (Monday, February 9) we learned that Baby Peak had died in her sleep. I confess my heart didn’t break when I heard it. I didn’t know how to feel. But I found the older sister, took her hand, and led her to where some children were drawing pictures and folding origami. She joined them and drew a picture of yellow birds and a girl (or maybe it was her mother…). The yellow birds were origami cranes. Later I saw a yellow paper crane resting on the flowers that covered Baby Peak.

The father came on his motorcycle. He has his hands full living with HIV and trying to work. He only keeps the youngest sister, who cries all day when he’s gone. After he arrived there was a brief service, and then a cremation. It all happened so quickly I almost missed it. I didn’t bring out my camera for a change. Not that pictures are bad, but one or two people had their cameras out and that was enough. I wondered what the father was feeling to lose a daughter so soon after losing his wife.

I sometimes teach a seminar about HIV/AIDS to university students in Japan. Recently, I was teaching at a Christian university, so I began by asking: “Is God good? How can we say that God is love when children and babies die of AIDS?” Maybe you think that’s a strange way to start, but I figured that was a question many of them would have, so it was best to bring it out directly. Most of the students were not Christians, and they have probably had their share of trite questions and answers that don’t satisfy.

I didn’t want to give my own answer. My life has been remarkably free from sickness and death, so who am I to act like I have honestly confronted these questions. But I asked my friend Wayne, the director of the orphanage, to give an answer. Here is what he said (which I shared with the class):

I believe that GOD is Love. From a distance PAIN and SUFFERING can appear to be acts of an unjust and unloving GOD but when one realizes that those who have suffered the greatest, are often those who appreciate life the most, then one begins to understand that PAIN and SUFFERING are actually gifts from a Loving Creator. Perhaps your question should be: Why does GOD allow some people to live in comfort? For those who live in the greatest of comfort are often those who find no meaning in life.

Wayne is not the type to try and give “correct answers” (in the Christian theological sense). He just answers from where he’s at, and I appreciate that. The students did, too.

Baby Peak’s death was a dose of reality for us (the Japanese volunteers and me). It was a reminder that people are still dying of AIDS, and if we leave the relative security of Japan and go out to where the poor live “outside the gates” then we may find suffering and death there. We also find life there.

When we push death away and choose comfort, we also push life away and choose illusion.

Coming back from Narita Airport on the train, I felt like I was the only person who could see. Everyone looked lost in various worlds, numb or deluded. I didn’t avert my eyes, like I’m used to doing here, but looked at people wondering how they had fallen asleep and what would wake them up.

Now a week has passed, and I’m intent on keeping my own eyes open.

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About the Author

About the Author: Andy Gray is a writer and photographer living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and working with Alongsiders International. You can find him puttering around the streets of Phnom Penh on his Suzuki Viva 125, running stoplights and driving on the wrong side of the road or on the sidewalks like a local. If you see him in a coffee shop, he'll be the one typing and deleting the same line over and over again. .


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  • Hi Andy,

    Great story and photo’s. Thanks for being a part of us and for sharing from the Heart.

    Wayne for the Wat Opot Children’s Community

  • Thanks for sharing your stories and experiences, Andy. They really help to put a face on what can often just become a list of statistics that most of us don’t see the reality behind.

  • joe

    Thanks for being there and doing the things I can’t do.

  • Bonnie

    Andy, you took some very, very lovely pictures of the moments that preceded the baby’s death. I thank you for them; it seemed like such an unreal thing, and even though we expected somehow that she wouldn’t make it, we weren’t quite ready for it to happen so soon. Or not really. Anyway, I’m grateful that you were able to put not only words but also pictures to that day.

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  • Thank you, Andy. I was especially moved by the photo of Baby Peak covered with blossoms and the little paper crane. And by what the older sister must go through. I’m tempted to respond to the “If God is loving, why…” question. But I won’t do that here and now. Tnanks again.

  • Andy,

    Thank you for sharing, and being real, and not being into trite questions and answers.

    I’m curious as to whether any of the people you interacted with in Cambodia cared at all about the current prosecution (finally) of Kaing Guek Eav?

    Do you think such a trial ultimately accomplishes anything or helps anyone? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

  • Andy

    Anna – I’m always open to the “If God is loving…” conversation. I can ask the question again in a separate post, or we can exchange thoughts by email.

    Benjamin – See my current post. I will move your question into the comments there if you don’t mind.

  • garyb

    Thank you for sharing your heart in this ‘beautiful’ experience. Yes, “all things work together for good to those who love God…”
    I kind of envy Baby Peak – she is in her Father’s tender loving care with no more tears and no more pain, only eternal joy in the presence of her Creator.
    You will never be the same because of this experience. I thank God for your willingness to be a part of this precious work that glorifies the Father and I’m sure puts a smile on Jesus face.

  • Thanks, Andy. Very moving pictures and a very compelling story. May God continue to bless your efforts and, through your eyes, show his mercy and compassion.

  • Mordegai

    this reality at its best. Indeed this where the rubber hits the tar. what can we else say:””go dis Love””.

  • Mordegai

    Spelling is not my strong point. sorry for that. I think this story is the best. Reality always let us face to ourselve. God is indeed love. thanks for the guys who give their best to help these poor people.

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