A Doctor Visit and a Mound of Sand

A Letter from Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mather, serving in South Sudan and the United Kingdom, currently in the United States

September 2020

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“Don’t cry,” the doctor said, seeming uneasy with my display of emotion, “everything will be fine.”

His discomfort surprised me. In an office for mothers with high-risk pregnancies, I would think people cry in here all the time.

“Take a tissue.” He could not hand me the box due to social distancing restrictions, but assured me, “the box is clean.”

The ultrasound revealed that our baby’s aortic valve is on the wrong side of her heart. The doctor explained that this could be “accidental” or caused by a chromosomal abnormality. If the latter, she may face a series of medical challenges, including physical or mental disabilities, and/or immune system disorders.

Since I am considered to be of “advanced maternal age,” the chances our child might have special needs are higher. So, I tried to embrace that very real possibility early in our pregnancy. While I knew a level of struggle would be inevitable, I made peace with the idea that whatever child God chooses to give us will be a blessing to our family and community.

Yet, I had not reflected specifically on what it would mean to have a child with a weak immune system until we sat across a desk from this doctor.

“We have been living in the UK recently, but normally we live in East Africa,” I began to unfold our family story. “Our children take anti-malaria pills and require several shots to be able to travel. Do you think that could be a problem for the baby if she has a weak immune system?” I asked.

At the beginning of the meeting, Shelvis and I listened attentively to the long description of our baby’s potential abnormalities without showing much emotion. Consequently, the doctor may have perceived that he had already carefully delivered the more serious information, and since we handled it well, he responded to my last question with jovial light-heartedness.

“You could live in the UK without a problem, but you couldn’t live in East Africa…”

I burst into tears.

While I knew a day might come when our family would no longer live in East Africa, I did not expect the decision would be a surprise, that it would happen all of a sudden, or feel completely out of our hands.

A few hours after the doctor’s appointment, we received a call from the pediatric cardiologist’s office. The doctor with whom we met that morning was not a heart specialist and could not give us specifics about the actual likelihood our child might have the particular disorders he described. The cardiologist’s physician assistant on the phone knew more about the particular heart defect and quickly assured us that the likelihood our baby would have any immune disorders was very low.

Her words brought tremendous relief.

That concern has not weighed as heavily on me since that morning in June when the box of tissues could not be avoided. We will learn more about our baby’s health when she arrives. The unknowns about her health do, however, add another layer to all the uncertain factors swirling around us during this pandemic.

In this season, making decisions for our family has been so hard. We have made many difficult decisions through the years; decisions about whether to evacuate our home during times of war; decisions whether to cross borders for urgent medical care, decisions whether to move to different countries… Even so, it feels harder to make family decisions with the level of uncertainty in the larger world at this time.

Shelvis and I spent countless hours over the past few months talking through different scenarios, trying to discern our next steps. In March, we decided to leave Oxford when UK schools and U.S. borders were closing. In May, we needed to move out of temporary housing in Georgia and decided to move in with my mom in Charleston.

As the academic year approached, we looked at the options for our children’s education. Home school? Try to remain online with their school in the UK? Local public schools, which are all currently offered virtually? Private school with in-person classes, increasing our exposure to the virus?

It wasn’t easy, but we finally decided to put the children in small church-based schools with about 50 students. Not wanting to expose my mother to all the potential school germs, we moved again. Within the last six months, our kids have lived in four different homes.

By God’s grace, James Island Presbyterian Church in Charleston welcomed us to move into their Mission House. Usually booked by short-term volunteer groups, the house sat vacant due to the virus. The church’s hospitality felt like a tangible reminder of God’s provision for us.

Planning with the uncertainty of the pandemic is challenging for many. Things keep changing. While writing this update, I received an email stating the PC(USA) is extending its travel ban on mission personnel from December 31, 2020, to June 30, 2021.

Shelvis expected to continue his Oxford classes online this fall but recently learned that the University decided not to offer online classes but instead to require in-person instruction. He is now requesting to take a temporary leave from the program. Not an easy decision after striving for years to complete this research.

In the midst of so much instability, I have found myself clinging to certain things too closely, perhaps grasping for anything I feel I can control or hold onto. Last week, though, a memory from South Sudan vividly came to mind, changing my perspective.

It was a morning devotion with theological students in Yei. I think the scripture focused on Abraham being called to move. We stood in a circle outside with our hands cupping small mounds of sand. The sand represented our plans. At the same time, we all opened our fingers, allowing the sand to slowly slip through them. With mounds forming on the ground below us, our hands became empty.

We needed to let go of the plans we made to have open hands to receive what God wanted to place in them.

God, who called Abraham and Sarah to leave their home and go to a land they had never seen, help us to trust that you also have a purpose for us at this time. May we release anything we are holding too tightly and believe that if it is your will for us, it will remain; if it is not, let it slip through our fingers, leaving us open-handed, ready to do Your will. Amen

Thank you for your support of our family and the work we continue to be a part of with our South Sudanese sisters and brothers. You are a blessing!

Nancy and Shelvis

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