Pendo is a 28-year-old mother of two in our parish in Tanzania. Her oldest boy is 8 years old and named Bahati, and his brother John is 7 years old. Their father died when John was just one month old. John has a severe handicap. He is underdeveloped mentally and physically and has no muscular control in his neck or limbs. In Gospel language, Pendo has “lost her life” for the sake of John’s welfare, a “cup” she’d have preferred to be taken from her. Bahati, her oldest boy, also “loses” hours of his day as needed to attend to his younger brother and his crippling handicap.
When Pendo talks to me, the priest, she mingles thanksgiving with tears of grief. She is grateful to be a mother and to exercise her duty and affection. John will always be different and demand extraordinary care. This can manifest as an unusually heavy cross. John himself, his body about the size of a 3-year-old, expresses himself in limited range, with a smile to show contentedness and a cry when he feels distress.
Pendo lives in a rented room at the top of a steep hill on the edge of town. She exhibits astonishing strength for a woman who is thin – carrying John up and down the hill, for example, on the way to and from the hospital. (A wheel-chair works when she gets to the bottom of the hill.) “Because he is my child,” Pendo tells me, “I carry him myself, and I cannot give him to someone else to carry. Only I know what John needs and how to carry him. For someone else to help,” she adds, “they would have to carry me (together with John).”
John requires more attention today than he did in the past. Part-time work for Pendo is no longer manageable. She takes John with her to visit her mother-in-law occasionally, but relatives prefer to stay at a distance, more than Pendo would have it. Physical and mental stress are the circumstances that Pendo struggles to embrace for the sake of the God she believes in and serves. She prays for her boy John, that God protect him, and that he passes each day safely. “If I were to die, who would care for John?” she has wondered aloud to me, asking that I find an answer to her nagging worry.
I find myself in Bahati’s shoes, and those of the relatives who, in turn, did not ask for Pendo to show up with John in critical need. For me, it is preferable to choose those who will be dependent on me rather than to have others thrusting themselves into my lap with overwhelming need. When, in the interest of saving “my life” must I turn my back on the excessive demands of others? When are the demands of others in need my chance to die with Christ in order to live with him?
Maryknoll Father John Eybel, of Oakland, California, has served for more than four decades in Tanzania. Currently he is involved in programs focused on formation and pastoral education.
Featured image: Pendo with Father John Eybel in front of her humble home with her two children, Bahati and John. The younger child requires constant care because of a severe disability. (Photos courtesy of John Eybel/Tanzania.)