Through the Valley of Death (Part Two)
The Bayview Hospital in Mossel Bay truly deserves its name, for you could see the beautiful bay and ocean from every window in our room, with the mountains in a distance. And yet the splendour of God’s creation gave me little joy. I was so sick, sad and confused (also due to the medication) that I could scarcely remember how many children we had or where they all lived. I was particularly sad that Saturday, because it was the day on which I was supposed to arrive back home in Toronto. But here I was, far away in isolation in a hospital, with three other guys whom I have never met before. Regrets that I had ever come to South Africa on this quick visit threatened to overwhelm me.
That first night I lay wondering in my bed whether it would not be better burying my remains in the Karoo, instead of bothering sending it back home. By now I have heard of so many who died, or who stayed in hospital for very many weeks, that I knew anything could happen. In fact, my buddy Carel’s chilling greeting, when I was pushed in next to him, left me with no illusions. He simply said: “Sterkte ou maat…” (Strength my friend). He told me he had been in and out, and was now back in, still on oxygen, battling to keep his saturation up, while his wife was battling Covid at home.
Meditations of the night
I lay there recalling, how on my way down to George on the plane I asked an accountant on my one side: “How many did you know that died of Covid?” “Sixteen…” he replied. Next, I asked the guy working for the government on the other side how many he knew? “Six” he told me, asking me where I was from. In fact, only a few months ago there were not seven but almost seventy Covid patients in this very same hospital. I was also told by someone that the main talking point during the first wave was simply the number of those testing positive. During the second and third waves here in South Africa, it became the names of family members and friends who had succumbed. The first wave took mainly a few among the elderly, the succeeding waves killed both young and old, with Caucasians dying in greater numbers proportionally.
Later that Saturday evening, as I looked across the ocean and the city lights, I recalled that my dear aunt Elna Venter passed away from cancer in this same hospital, over a decade ago. She was just over sixty and I was now approaching sixty. Was that supposed to mean anything? It was her daughter and family that I visited here in George, half an hour away. Karin actually called me up and asked if they could send me something. They were not able to come themselves, since they too now had to isolate. Their teenage son tested positive after my visit, and showed some mild symptoms. I longed for some “real” milk, popsicles and a face cloth, and was so happy when it arrived. It’s amazing how much we appreciate small things when life is tough. My cousin and I became much closer during this time, yet another blessing from above.
Since arrival here at Bayview, I was put on 100% oxygen which I received through nasal prongs and a face mask. I was too weak to get out of bed and also had no appetite, even though, as I soon found out, the hospital food was really good. The nursing staff, physiotherapist and physician were all very professional, kind and helpful. Everything was spotless and clean. The nights were just so long and lonely. After supper around six, there was a long quiet stretch until ten o’ clock, when each of us mostly kept to ourselves and perhaps did some reading. A few nights I watched the ten-part series by Star Media on the life of Anna German on my phone. It helped whiling the hours away, but also drove me to tears. Interestingly, no television got switched on in the room for the entire week of my stay. I only had one book with me, in which I found amazing comfort. For some reason I chose to read Daniel first… maybe because it contains the stories of God humbling proud kings so that they would glorify Him in return. I was pretty sure that the mighty hand of the Almighty was humbling me too, and never thought of blaming him for that, only wondering what He might have in store for me, and what He wants to teach me.
By ten o’ clock the lights were usually turned out, before we were woken up again by five, either to be washed, or to go for a bath if you were able. Every doctor I saw recommended that we sleep on our
stomachs (or at least on our sides) so as to help our lungs opening up. At first it was quite uncomfortable – with all the tubes and wires connected to my face and arms – but after a while I got used to it.
The doctor comes around
My physician, a specialist by the name of Dr. Wybrand Krog, came around the first time that Sunday morning. He greeted me friendly, but said very little. I could just about hear from what he told the nursing staff – all of them covered from head to toe in light-blue protective gear – that he was concerned about the results of my bloodwork. I apparently had a dangerous bacterial infection on top of Covid, and also battled some asthma. All I could think of was that my medical coverage would run out mid-November. And so, counting the weeks, I was hoping the Lord would take me quickly, if I do not recover in time. Was God ever faithful, and all my fears groundless, for in the end my stay in two hospitals, including a three hour ambulance-trip, amounted to just over $5000, nothing compared to what it would have cost in North America. God’s amazing provision did not end here. A good family friend called my wife up in Canada, offering to fly me home in business class!
Soon after the doctor left, they began administering antibiotics intravenously for the infection, which had good effects within 48 hours. That Sunday was still quite tough. The loneliness and uncertainty about the future got to me. When my sister sent me some songs recorded from their worship at Grace Fellowship in Pretoria, my tears ran freely, overcome by emotion. I realized why so many were converted by simply entering a place of true worship, for that’s where God’s presence is felt so unmistakable. It was around this time that I also got a message from my friend Philip in Cape Town encouraging me to read Psalm 18. The Psalm helped him in his deepest trials battling frail health. I was especially touched by the words of verse 28:
“For it is you who light my lamp / The Lord my God lightens my darkness”
By now I was also getting WhatsApp messages from all over. Since I found it hard to keep up with it all, I decided to make a WhatsApp group to keep everyone updated. My African brothers – who called or texted from as far as Uganda, Kenya and Canada – assured me how they were all praying and even fasting for my recovery.
I don’t remember much of that Monday, just that I was very sick and too weak to go to the washroom yet. So many thoughts kept rolling through my mind, making me weep behind my blankets. How will our children cope if I never return? Will I ever see Margherita again? In fact, during the worst of my illness, my wife towered above all living beings as the one I most loved and longed for. I so wished I could just touch her, or go for a walk with her, or just enjoying a coffee on the couch. I thought by myself: Wow, is this why marriage is so sacred to God? It really is in a category of its own. I began to grasp better what St. Paul meant when he wrote that Christ loved his bride so much that He was willing to give himself up for her, even unto death.
New life emerging
The early-morning nurse on Tuesday brought amazing news. My oxygen could be lowered to 80%. I also noticed that my appetite was back, and that my thoughts were much more positive. I knew right away then that the Lord was doing wondrous things, hearing the many prayers of his people and blessing all the good medical care I was receiving. Even though the doctor spoke few words from behind his covid-gear, I sensed that he was happy. On Wednesday my oxygen was reduced to 60%, so that I now needed only the nasal prongs. That also made sleeping a bit easier.
I later learned that I was being prayed for in churches all over southern Ontario on that Sunday. What a humbling thing to know! It also helps to explain the amazing turnaround God brought about. I was astounded how much better I felt. And so, as I kept on reading my Bible, I became determined to acknowledge the Lord for all his goodness to me, to whosoever I would meet. I was touched by what the Psalmist in Psalm 116 and Jonah in the belly of the fish promised long ago: They said they would pay their vows to the Almighty, should He deliver them. It struck me how both Psalm 18 and 116 begin with the words “I love the Lord because…” Not many Psalms begin this way. In both cases it was the reality of staring death in the face, that prompted those words of deep affection for Yahweh. I was now determined never again to take ordinary blessings for granted again. That morning I could go to the bathroom all by myself, even though I had to hurry shaving, because my strength was still small.
On Thursday the 21st my oxygen was reduced to 36%. When Dr. Krog came around, he said that he hoped to discharge me by the weekend. I could hardly believe my ears; it was truly amazing. And yet, I felt for my buddies in the room, who were all there when I came in, one of whom was taken to the ICU the night before. I promised the other two that I would pray for them before I left. Thank God both of them have since gone home, as I am writing.
Though I was officially discharged that Friday, my sister’s husband Andrie, also a specialist, felt that I should stay a day longer to see how my lungs would cope without any help.
That Saturday morning the 23rd must rank as one of the happiest days of my life. When Kobus called at eleven to tell me he was waiting outside, my joy knew no bounds. But I first had a duty to fulfill. Just before I left I went to my friends’ beds to pray for each of them. I was so overwhelmed with emotion however, that I could hardly utter two sentences.
Soon after a nurse came around to guide me to a backdoor. A cold fresh breeze blew right into my face from the ocean as the door opened, signalling God’s mercy in my recovery and freedom. And then I saw him: My brother in his bakkie (truck). As we drove off in silence, with thick clouds hanging over the mountains, we knew what a special moment this was. When we made our way across the Outeniqua, with the fresh signs of much-needed showers everywhere visible, I thought all of creation was singing God’s praises with us. It was a sublime morning and an unforgettable ride… two brothers in a Toyota Hilux bakkie, so glad to be together again.
On our way we stopped for lunch at a cozy little restaurant in the scenic town called De Rust, celebrating this wonderful occasion. As we carried on and drove through Meiringspoort in the Swart Berge, with water gushing down the mountain river, I thought by myself: “Not so long ago, you passed through this same gorge to go and isolate, not knowing what a deep dark valley you were about to enter, yes that an ambulance would take you the opposite way!” Surely, God was merciful to me.
Back at Lemoenfontein
For my recovery I was going to stay in Room 14 of the lovely guest house at Lemoenfontein, with its colonial style buildings and atmosphere. My room was only few yards from my brother and his wife’s home and office. Though I was desperately homesick by now, I was determined not to waste a single moment here in the heart of the Great Karoo and among its wonderful people.
Sunday the 24th was going to be my last Sunday in the Karoo. I longed to go to a church-service to celebrate God’s unspeakable goodness. So I went to the Gamka-Oos NG Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church), as I heard earlier that week that it had a good minister who was still preaching the Gospel. When I sat down I read that the service that Sunday was going to be a thanksgiving service for ten millimetres of rain. Yes for 10 mm of rain! Some districts may have received more, perhaps up to seventy, but Beaufort-West, Lemoenfontein and the surrounding area only got about ten. And yet the whole service was filled with prayers and songs of thanksgiving. It touched me profoundly. It tells you also why the Karoo is such a wonderful place. Humility and gratitude are much more common here than where I come from on the other side of the world. Another thing that made me rejoice in my heart, even before the service began, was when I saw a young coloured woman come walking through the door. Back in the day, when we left the NG Kerk in 1994, apartheid had just about come to an end, thankfully.
When the minister said he was going to speak about “power” from Psalm 23, I wondered what he was up to. I will briefly paraphrase his sermon that was so incredibly simple and impossible to forget. He said that we need two kinds of power every day: “hand-power” and “heart-power”. Hand-power is that power by which we power our tools and vehicles, etc. Heart-power is the power we need to live with joy and courage, with faith, hope and love. We may have as much hand-power we want, but without heart-power we won’t make it, at least not in our crazy world with all its many challenges.
It is heart-power we need above all, that kind of power which God gave Habakkuk when there were no figs on the trees, no grain on the fields, and no sheep in the folds; the power that enabled him to tread like a deer on high places. But it is also a kind of power that we only receive through a personal relationship with our heavenly Father, through faith, repentance and prayer. And for that – the minister said – we each need a secret place where we can regularly meet with Jesus and meditate on His Word. A special place like that I also had there at Lemoenfontein under a doringboom, every morning after breakfast.
I went to thank Dominee Van Zyl afterwards, but yet again broke down in tears, when I told him what God had done for me over the past weeks. That Monday morning was the last time that I would see the sun rising over the Karoo from my pillow in Room number 14. It was the last time that I would enjoy breakfast on the guest house’s large “stoep” (veranda) with the Swart Berge far in a distance. And so, before I finally left my room, I went on my knees to worship and thank God, with tears freely flowing. By eleven we would be leaving, and that not a with a little sadness, for God had blessed me so profoundly here in the Karoo, that only eternity will reveal the full story. That is why I had to write it all down, for only gross ingratitude on my part, can allow His kindness to me to fade into oblivion.
Kobus and Ingrid, who were so good to me already, were going to drive me four hours north on the N1, to the great Gariep Dam on the other side of the Orange River, where my sister and her husband would meet us, coming from Pretoria. When we finally arrived at the dam, and I saw Andrie and Marianne late that Monday afternoon, I was yet again so overwhelmed with emotion, that I could hardly utter a word, even though I tried. How amazing, I was so determined to give God the glory, but He gave me only tears.
Um den Abend wird es Licht Sein… were the words on that plaque. How amazing, that somber evening when we left the farm in deep despair, ushered in a bright new day, full of new opportunities to glorify Him who loved me, and gave himself for the sins of the world.
My heartfelt thanks to my two siblings, Kobus and Marianne (with me here on the picture) for all their love, and to so many more of you all over the world.