By Nancy Rempel
Just before midnight on September 30, 1994, a baby, one month premature, slipped out of an unwed Muslim girl in Peshawar, Pakistan. Wide-eyed with fear, 15-year-old Jan Bibi delivered her tiny boy in silence. The victim of a revenge rape, Jan Bibi was running, hiding, and dodging death.
Six months earlier, our phone had rung in Layyah, 400 miles south. “Unmarried girl… pregnant… baby due the end of October. Do you want the baby?” a friend asked. We counted what little of the cost we could imagine and plunged into God’s grand adventure.
A Pakistani nurse who was concealing Jan Bibi in her home whispered an Islamic prayer into the baby’s ear. Jan Bibi cleaned herself up, tied back her long dark hair, and swept a wool shawl around her and the baby. Her older brother, posing as her husband, loaded them into a waiting car, and they blazed out of town.
Jan Bibi tugged her shawl open at the neck just enough to gaze down at the baby nuzzling her breast. She relished the smell of him, memorizing his face. Within hours, like two mail packages, they were sorted, separated, and sent in opposite directions.
Throughout the night, strangers passed Jan Bibi’s son from one to another in a secretive chain. The baby, nestled in a little pink sleeping bag, was more than usually controversial because he was the grandchild of a well-known Muslim cleric.
In the pre-dawn hours, the baby’s last guardians delivered their package to Bach Christian Hospital, 133 miles from where he had been born.
Later that day and four hours south, we idled our van through the gates of a Christian retreat center in the city of Jhelum. Clouds of dust settled behind us as our eyes drank in green lawns and purple morning glories climbing the brick buildings.
My mother, who was traveling with us and our toddler, had recently arrived from Canada for the expected baby’s birth. The aroma of curried chicken wafted from the dining hall as Mom got out of the van and stretched her long legs.
As we searched for our rooms, arms full of luggage, we halted at the sound of running and a breathless voice behind us: “Your son has been born!” A friend had been tracking us all day with the news.
The next morning at Bach Hospital I posed for a photo with our new son, Curtis Donald. In the photo I look gaunt and tired, wearing a deer-in-the-headlights expression. Like a minor movie character suddenly elevated to the leading role.
While I waited for Don to return from the market with milk formula, I bathed off the last of the umbilical cord stuck in Curtis’ navel. A perfect little person entrusted to such weakness and brokenness.
Jan Bibi and her elder brother reached their village. Her arranged marriage would be conducted in six weeks. As long as she could conceal the awful truth, she would live.
Meanwhile, I was a mother again, grateful but so overwhelmed. I had thought I would have another month to prepare, to rest, to let another baby into my heart where our toddler lived.
Back at the retreat center that day, while Curtis gorged on milk formula, I studied my mother. Her eyes were dull, and her clothes looked saggy on her shoulders.
Something had happened to Mom.
And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Corinthians 12:9a NKJV).
Edged between her two grandsons in the van’s middle seat, Mom was quiet on the trip back to Bach Hospital, her face sad, vacant. In a real-life game of Whac-a-mole, I lurched back and forth between a sick mother and a premature baby.
Fuchsia-colored bougainvillea climbed the wall of the brick bungalow set on green lawns at the hospital. Huddled in Dr. Luke’s living room with its low ceiling fans and ethnic carpets, medical staff had gathered to meet our family.
People leaned in to meet my mother. “When did you arrive in Pakistan, Mrs. Arcand?” A string of unrelated words tumbled off Mom’s tongue, and an icy coldness spread through my body. I covered for her, providing the right information to the question.
Dr. Luke was gentle as he examined Mom in a private room. “I don’t think it’s a stroke. Her diarrhea is pretty bad, so let’s give her oral rehydration solution and see how she does.”
I took a deep breath and exhaled through pursed lips.
Mom’s eyes were closed as I slipped into the double bed beside her that night. Plastic bags layered between her sheet and the mattress rustled as she shifted. Rehydrating Mom had produced predictable results.
“You Ok, Mom?”
She mumbled something unintelligible and gazed blankly in my direction. I felt like I was living someone else’s life.
In the dark, it was quiet except for Mom’s steady breathing. My brand-new baby and the rest of the family were somewhere else in the house. I had no words and no prayers. I was tumbling disoriented into a fearful valley.
Like a shaft of light, the words of a psalm streamed into my mind. I can’t remember now which psalm, but I latched onto it like it was the last bus out of hell.
And I slept.
Around midnight, Mom awakened, struggling with soiled bedsheets. “Mom?” I was a small child looking for her mother.
She responded normally, like her old self again.
Dr. Luke admitted Mom to a hospital ward for tests and round-the-clock pampering by nurses.
I dragged our double mattress outside and doused the soiled areas with soapy water, scrubbing the stains, wrestling within my heart. So much for the carefully-planned arrival of our baby.
While the mattress dried in the hot Pakistani sun, baby Curtis and I followed Don around the hospital grounds as we dealt with details: Now a circumcision. Now polio drops. Now a birth certificate—“Father unknown, Mother unknown.”
Somewhere in the kerfuffle, a wise friend said, “Nancy, you are on a train and the train is going through a dark tunnel. Stay on the train.” But I resented God’s train with its unplanned schedule and uncertain destination. I hated being out of control, unable to protect my image, our topsy turvy family on full display.
The word weakness was scrawled across the whole black canvas—Jan Bibi’s rape, Curtis’ premature birth, and our awkward, imperfect family. But as I flip the canvas over now, I discover four more words etched—the power of Christ.
Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me (2 Cor 12:9b, NKJV).
Nancy and her husband, Don, served as missionaries in Pakistan and India for many years before relocating to Canada in 2017. They continue to share Christ with Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs in Kelowna, B.C.