Empty Stomach

I had good intentions.

The alarm-clock sounded five minutes earlier than usual. I wanted the girls to have plenty of time to swallow their typhoid-vaccination capsules before the school bus arrived.

Next month, our family leaves for a short-term mission trip to a Haitian village that we’ve grown to love. This will be our girls’ first trip to a third-world country, so they need an oral typhoid vaccine. The doctor said the capsules must be taken on an empty stomach, every other day, for a week.

I positioned their first capsules next to their waffles, on melamine plates decorated with cartoon characters.

Sometimes, it's the little things that provide a mother with some sense of control, real or imagined. I’ve been happily checking off tiny boxes: Schedule doctor visits. Pack suitcases. Distribute vaccine.

But honestly, how does a parent adequately prepare two girls—ages 11 and 8—for an up-close encounter with abject poverty? 

Lord knows, we’re trying. We tell the girls that children their age live in tin huts and—if they’re lucky—have one shirt that they can call their very own. Lydia cried herself to sleep in my arms one night, overcome with the thought that somewhere on that tiny island, a girl her age was sleeping in dirt.

We also tell them Haiti is more than poverty and despair. We want them to expect startling beauty and incomprehensible joy, which is hard to miss even in the foulest corners.

Still, I wonder: Will a trip like this hurt our children, or will it help them?

What if the pain is too much? What if they can’t handle the heat, or the food, or the weird insects? What if I lose my patience at a time when they need their mother’s arms, not a reprimand? Will I play the guilt card, reminding them that a Haitian child would give anything for that plate of beans? I know how I can get when my best intentions are interrupted by unscripted moments. By the surprises. By life.

Even if you wake up five minutes early.

The girls shuffled into the kitchen with water-slicked hair and puffy, morning eyes. I pressed my best cheerleader voice into service:

“All right, girls!” I clapped my hands. “Each capsule means we’re one step closer to Haiti!”

On the count of three, Lydia easily swallowed hers. The younger daughter, Anna, grimaced and gagged. After much cajoling, the capsule went down, straight into an empty stomach.

We raised victorious fists into the air. I encouraged them to eat breakfast quickly because the bus would arrive soon.

Just then, the good Lord gave me an ounce of common sense:

Yes, the capsules landed on empty stomachs. But if the girls ate, they wouldn’t have empty stomachs for long. I snatched the typhoid-vaccine brochure from the counter. Sure enough, the warning blared in bold: No food for one hour … OR THE VACCINE WILL BE DESTROYED.

I gasped, horrified at my error. "Put the waffle down!" I exclaimed as Lydia’s first bite reached her lips. She stared at me with wide, frightened eyes.

“But, I’m hungry and …”

“Just put.the.waffle.down.” I repeated.

I scooped their breakfasts into plastic containers and quickly emailed the teachers, telling them of the embarrassing mishap. The girls would need to eat breakfast in their classrooms.

We laughed nervously about my mistake. And then, out the window, I could see that the bus was almost here.

We scurried for backpacks and breakfast containers, and then we piled into the car. Every morning, I take the girls down to the end of our long farm driveway to meet the bus. We take turns praying along the way.

But there would be no time for take-turn prayers on this day.

I remembered then how we had prayed “Haitian style,” on my previous trip to the island: Everyone gushed out their prayers all at once. It was one of the most cacophonous, disorganized, joyous sounds I’d ever heard, knowing God understood every word.

I told the girls we could pray like that, so we did. Three voices lifted God-ward in a chorus of chaos. I thanked God for two empty stomachs. And in my right ear, I heard Anna, praying for any child in Haiti who woke up today with an empty stomach. 

Note to Readers: This is the first of two stories about our family trip to Haiti. I'll be back here at The High Calling on January 30 to share what we experienced. Also, you can follow our journey while we are in Haiti next month at my blog, www.JenniferDukesLee.com.  Our family would greatly appreciate your prayers.  

Read part two: "Dirty Feet"

Image by Patricia Hunter. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Jennifer Dukes Lee, contributing editor.