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Parenthood

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A bill arrived the other day.  I tore it open and read it.  It was straightforward enough: a single page with a figure at the bottom, for services provided by a local hospital.  When I paid it, I did so with reverence and gratitude, for the services rendered by the hospital had saved the life of my baby son.

He came down with a fever a couple of weeks ago.  It grew steadily worse and was not reduced by any medication we gave him.  Eventually we took him to hospital where he was diagnosed with meningitis of a particularly virulent strain and put on a course of IV antibiotics.  The fever came down, his mood improved, and after a week he was sent home to finish his treatment there.  The strain of meningitis which he had is close to 100% fatal if not treated.  The difference between him dying and being alive is the treatment he received, which is translated, by means of the invoice, into a precise sum of money.  The number at the bottom of the page is the price we are paying for him to be alive.

I am pro-life.  This is usually interpreted as being anti-abortion but I see it as a much broader topic than that.  I see life as a gift, as a thing of immense beauty and worth, as something given by God who, as his first act in the Bible, created life in all its variety.  Being pro-life means that I am opposed to war, to the death penalty, to deaths caused by malnutrition and dirty water, to anything which causes life to end.  Life is immensely precious and ought to be protected.  That goes for my son – clearly, I am particularly keen to keep him alive – but it also goes for every human being on the planet.

And yet, at the same time, Christians are encouraged to hold their lives lightly.  Our earthly existence is, in a theological context, a temporary affair, a brief interlude, a half-hour spent in the waiting room of eternity.  We cling onto it with such tenacity, so desperate are we to rage against the dying of the light, and yet the Bible constantly tells us to put God first and our own lives second, if at all.  “To live is Christ, to die is gain”, as Paul puts it.

I paid the bill with gladness and gratitude.  I would pay it again, a hundred times over, for a chance to cuddle my son, to see him clap, to hear him gurgle with laughter.  And yet a deeper joy awaits, one day, somewhere down the road, in a place where sickness is defeated and where the only tears are ones of joy.

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Our son came back from his Sunday school class at church.  He was beaming from ear to ear and ran up to me as though burdened with some great secret which he just had to share with someone.

“Daddy, do you know what?” he said excitedly.  “Teacher said that if we ask Jesus for anything, he will give it to us.  Anything at all!”.

I smiled at him.  I knew exactly what he was going to say next and, duly, he did.

“I’m going to ask him for three Lego sets”.

I took a deep breath and prepared to shatter his first elementary steps into the world of theology but stopped, for the simple reason that the Bible does indeed say that.  Don’t believe me?  “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” – from Mark, chapter 11, verse 24.  This verse, which set my son’s imagination aflame with the glorious possibility of an infinity of Lego, also appeals to followers of the Prosperity Gospel, that appalling betrayal of the Christian faith which states that health, money and happiness are but a prayer away if you have sufficient faith.  Tell that to my friend Fi who prayed incessantly for her premature daughter to survive, only to watch her wither and die eight days later.  So here we have a problem: this verse is in the Bible, which to an evangelical Christian like me means that it is true, and yet it doesn’t always happen.  Many prayers go unanswered.  Dealing with this inescapable truth is the first step on the path to Christian maturity.

So where do we go from here?  We could look at similar verses such as 1 John 5: 14, which says “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”  The key words, of course, are “according to his will”.  An infinity of possessions are not his will for our life.  More challengingly, health may not be his will for our life either.

I am inclined to go further and say that the prayers we make are indicative of our life’s priorities and of how much our faith reflects the personality of Christ.  If our prayers are in line with the priorities of Christ then our will reflects his.  Should we pray for money and possessions, or for his kingdom to grow in the world?  For promotion at work or for greater wisdom in tackling the challenges of life?

God is not some cosmic slot machine whereby you insert a prayer and out pops a big bank balance or, sadly for my son, a new Lego set.  If we stop viewing him as a heavenly version of Santa Claus and start viewing him as a loving, sovereign creator in the light of whose glory our present world is a temporary inconvenience then we may find our prayers are changed.

Try explaining this to a 6 year old, though…

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I try to take the kids out for a treat individually every now and again.  With four of them in the house it is difficult to give them individual attention and so, once a fortnight or so, I will take one of them out for what we call Treat Day.  The format is predictable: a trip to the bigger of the two shopping malls in our city, where I buy them an item of clothing and then an ice-cream.  It doesn’t take much to enthral my kids.

Yesterday it was the turn of our second youngest, only 2 years of age.  She hopped into the car singing “Treat Day, Treat Day” all the way to the mall.  We parked in the underground parking lot – when the weather is hot, parking in the open is liable to turn your car into an oven – and took the lift up.  She pressed the lift button and giggled for joy.  We picked out a new shalwar kameez for her – which is to say, she picked out several and I chose the cheapest, least garish one – and she carried the bag out of the store by herself.

We went to the bookstore where she chose a new colouring book, and two others to take home to give to her brother and sister.  We went to the supermarket where she bought a lollipop for herself and two more to take home and share out.  Then we went to one of the ice cream shops on the top floor.  She gazed, open-mouthed, at the array of colours on offer and eventually plumped for a combination of strawberry cheesecake and Nutella.  We found an empty table and sat down.

And she stared at her ice cream in awe.  The world, for her, seemed to stop in its tracks.  I chivvied her along.

“Come on, sweetie, eat your ice cream” I said.

Slowly, tentatively, she picked up her little plastic spoon and transferred a tiny speck of it onto her tongue.  She swallowed it and raised her eyebrows in delight.  Then she returned to gazing at it in adoration as though the small paper cup was the Holy Grail.

I was getting impatient.  I had things to do, shopping to collect, and then I had to get home in time for a conference call.  When you’re raising four children in Pakistan with minimal support, life never stops being busy.  I tapped my foot impatiently.

And then I felt ashamed.  For me, Treat Day was something on the diary to be ticked off before moving on to the next task.  For my daughter, Treat Day was a unique chance to be the centre of attention rather than a small, indistinguishable part of family life.  This chance to have new clothes and an ice cream only came around every couple of months.  I was sitting there checking my watch and tutting impatiently but my daughter was drinking in the moment, enjoying every part of it from pressing the lift button to sitting in the front of the car.  When we got home she would recount the story to her mother and her siblings.  She would tell her teacher at school about it the next day.

She’s not going to be small forever.  One day it will take more than a new shirt and a cup of ice cream to enthral her.  One day pushing the button for the lift will not be exciting; it will be an insignificant task carried out by adults, like me, who tap their feet impatiently, frustrated by any delay to their busy, busy lives.  The small wonders of life shrivel as we grow.  Why should she not pause to enjoy it while it lasted?

And so I sat, and watched, and stopped worrying about the next thing in my schedule.  Conference calls could wait.  Emails can be answered tomorrow.  I stilled my tapping foot, calmed my impatient heart, and focused on my daughter as she transferred tiny specks of ice cream to her mouth, her eyes open with with wonder.

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We were stuck in traffic in Abbottabad.  We had turned off the main road onto a side street barely wide enough for two cars to pass.  A van was parked on the left hand side and when we pulled out to pass it, another van headed straight for us.  He screeched to a halt in front of us.  As I prepared to back up, another van pulled up behind us, and another behind him.  The van in front of us attempted to back up, but two more vans pulled up behind him.  We gazed at each other through our respective windscreens.  The engine idled away.  In the car seat behind me our infant son started to whimper.

It had been a bad week.  The attack in Lahore had shocked us deeply, dragging us into a familiar mood of anger, sorrow, and desperation.  The same evening there was a riot in Islamabad.  Schools were shut, the buses were cancelled, and the city ground to a halt.  We needed a holiday, so we loaded up the car and drove north through the green hills of Hazara District.  And now, a few metres after turning off the Karakoram Highway, we were stuck.

The crucial thing, I knew, was not to lose my temper.  But this is easier said than done when there are four small children in your car who have already driven for four hours, and when your nerves are frayed to breaking point from the stress of driving up one of the most stressful stretches of road in the country.  Pedestrians were filtering through the traffic jam, glaring at us as they squeezed past our car as though we were personally responsible.

There is something about being glared at by a succession of bearded Pakistani men which makes one reconsider one’s life options.  What a peculiar circumstance to find oneself in!  Stuck in traffic in a town four thousand miles away from my own country, eight thousand miles from my wife’s own country, in the town famous for being the final dwelling place of Osama bin Laden.  The men passing our car looked fierce, warlike, with turbans, straggly beards, and default facial expressions of profound grumpiness, as though I had wronged them in a past life.

Surrounded by seemingly hostile people I was struck with a profound sense of not wanting to be there.  Of not wanting to be in Pakistan at all, really.  A sincere desire to be somewhere, anywhere, else, preferably somewhere with a beach and a succession of cold drinks with little umbrellas in.  I couldn’t take it any more.  The heat, the traffic, the unrelenting stream of bombs and protests and overwhelming public anger, the caustic and abrasive daily grind of Pakistani life.

Suddenly the driver of the van in front of us clambered out of his vehicle and came to my window.  He looked angry.  The crowd paused to see what would happen.  I took a deep breath, prayed briefly, and opened the window.

He thrust his hand into our car and shook mine warmly.

“I am most sorry for inconvenience” he said, smiling gently.  “Perhaps if you move car back just a little bit, we will be able to make progress”.

He moved to the back of our car and encouraged the vans behind us to shuffle backwards.  One by one they did, opening up space for us to reverse into.  Once his path was clear he got back into his van and drove off.  As he passed our car he stopped, held his hand out to shake mine, and thanked me warmly.

“Thank you so much, sir” he said with a simple smile.  “Welcome to Pakistan”.

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We had just got to the end of a meeting in the office when the room started juddering.  It felt as though a large truck was driving down the road outside.  Then it got worse.  My friend looked up at me with wonderment in his eyes and said “It’s an earthquake”.

I didn’t know what to say.  Nobody has ever trained me in how to respond to a major seismic energy transfer happening under my feet – a worrying omission in my upbringing, I know – and for the first few seconds we just sat there jolting back and forth, wondering what to do.  Then it got worse.  The room was really moving around quite a bit.  My friend looked at me again and said, “Do you think we ought to go outside?”.

This struck me as a good idea.  If a building is going to collapse it seems prudent not to be inside it at the time, and we duly walked outside and into the sunshine.  There, a small crowd of people stood around looking concerned.  Many of them were calling their friends and family to find out if they were ok.  The trees around us were being jolted back and forth, while the tall metal lamp-posts on the newly-constructed Metro Bus route were swaying back and forth to an alarming degree.

It is profoundly odd to feel the ground move beneath your feet.  We take it for granted that the ground stays still – not an unreasonable assumption; it generally does exactly that – so to feel it shuddering back and forth, bucking up and down to a noticeable degree, was weird.  This, after all, is the foundation for buildings, for roads, for us when we walk and drive, for everything we do, and to have it moving was disturbing.

The shaking eventually stopped.  I tried to call my wife but the mobile networks were down.  Eventually we got in touch via WhatsApp and she told me that she was fine, and was standing in the street with the kids wondering what to do.

I jumped on the bus and went back home to be with them.  On the way every person on the bus was talking about the 2005 Kashmir earthquake which killed over 70,000 people.  Everyone in northern Pakistan has a memory of this awful event: a relative killed, a house destroyed, an entire village slipping into the river.  We later found out that this earthquake was of the same magnitude as the 2005 event but happened much deeper underground – a fact which saved most of northern Pakistan from unimaginable destruction.

That night we went to bed grateful for our safety.  Then, at 4am, our son came into our bedroom, wide-eyed and anxious.

“Daddy, is the earthquake going to come back again?”.

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It had been a tiring day.  With four kids under the age of six every day is a tiring day, admittedly, but yesterday had been particularly tiring.  The kids were off school because of the Eid holidays and all the places we would normally take them – the mall, the park, the other park – were all closed.  All of our Pakistani friends were visiting their families around the country so most of our friends were away too, but our families live in the UK and Canada and so we were on our own.  The kids were tired and irritable and fights kept breaking out.

Eventually, reluctantly, we put on a film for them to watch while my wife prepared dinner.  I collapsed onto the bed and opened my laptop to answer some of the many emails that were waiting for my response: funding proposals, meetings, requests for board minutes, and so forth.  I tried to get my brain into order, to assemble my thoughts, but it was like trying to round up a gaggle of hyperactive squirrels.  They kept wandering off.  This state of perpetual fatigue is, I think, going to be my salient memory of parenthood.  The other week my watch was showing the wrong date, and I only noticed ten days later.  I opened my laptop and started to type.

As if on cue, our baby boy, only six weeks old, opened his mouth and started to scream.

“Sweetie, can you get him?” called my wife from the kitchen where she was, by some kind of alchemy, turning fish, spinach and potatoes into something delicious.

I sighed.  My one chance to get something done today.  My one chance.  Once the kids are in bed and we have the house to ourselves all we do is collapse in front of a DVD, and often fall asleep halfway through an episode of the West Wing.  All of the work I was hoping to do today would have to wait until tomorrow.  It was frustrating.  I felt angry.  I felt tired.  I felt a whiney sense of injustice: why did we live so far from family and friends who might be able to help us?  Why had we gone so long without a day off?  Why had it been two years since our last decent holiday?

And then, as I picked up my new son and held him close, his eyes fixed on mine.  He pulled his head slightly back to get things into focus and stared at me.  And then, slowly imperceptibly, a tiny smile started to curl at the corner of his mouth.

My wife and I have four children, and three of them were born in Pakistan.  All three of them were born in the summer, which demonstrates a lack of good timing on our part.  Being pregnant, I am reliably assured, is no picnic, and the discomfort of lugging around a swelling belly is made significantly increased when it is forty degrees outside, and humid to boot.

It was with a sense of relief, therefore, that we pulled up outside a private clinic in Islamabad for the birth of our fourth child, my wife feeling happy that she would at least be relieved of the burden of pregnancy, and I was also feeling happy that I would be relieved from worrying about whether the baby was ok.

Pregnancy, after all, is something rather miraculous, and in many ways rather strange.  The sense of love for the child-that-is-to-be is powerful – and yet in the early stages it is an odd love, for an anonymous blob of tissue, tiny and helpless, growing silently and invisibly in the womb.  During each of our pregnancies I have found myself wondering what the child will be like, what it will look like, how it will laugh and cry and play – and all this at a stage when it consists of little more than a bundle of cells buried somewhere inside my wife’s tummy.  It is also an anxious love.  We are desperate for our babies to thrive, to develop normally, and even in the West this cannot always be taken for granted.

We walked into the clinic feeling relieved, therefore, but also anxious.  The various stages of medical assessments and preparations came and went, and my wife was prepared for surgery.  I put on scrubs and went in to sit next to her in the operating room.  And then, a few minutes later, came the sound of my son’s first tentative screech.  I started crying.  I always do.

Later that day, while my wife was recovering, I took my son in my arms and went for a walk down the corridor to comfort him.  The corridor was lined with women, mostly mothers or mothers-in-law of the other women who had come to the clinic to give birth.  They looked up at me silently as I passed.  There is a barrier between men and women in Pakistan, a barrier of culture and honour.  I would not talk to a woman in the street, even if she were a friend of my wife’s.  It would be awkward for both of us.  I have not even met all of my wife’s friends; some of them I have never even seen with their hair uncovered.  So when the women in the corridor looked up at me it was with the usual sense of silent curiosity.  They would not speak to me, nor I to them.

But then the saw the bundle in my arms, swaddled in blankets against the fierce air-conditioning, and the barrier broke down.  “Mashallah” said one as I passed, “Praise God”.  Then a second echoed her, and a third, and I walked down the corridor with a foolish grin on my face, accompanied by the faint whispers of Pakistani grandmothers quietly praising God for the safe arrival of my son.