Grandma’s chair sits in a small spot of sun near the bottom of the steps to her house. It is a plastic chair with metal legs, the kind that sit in mechanic’s waiting rooms. Grandma was sitting on the chair breaking sticks for kindling as I went past after work today, the cat sitting on her lap to keep her company and to warm her legs. I stopped to greet her. Sometimes she brings a book out to read in the mid afternoon sunshine – usually a Christian biography that she makes short notes in to guide subsequent readers. I often ask what she is reading. I doubt she knows who I am, but that doesn’t stop her chatting kindly with me. She has something interesting to say on many subjects and is happy to talk to any who stop and past time with her.
12 years ago when I was here she was still conducting ward rounds on the front veranda of the hospital surrounded by CHWs students. She would chop her own firewood aged 81. Now days she has given up public life, and the wood chopping, but still keeps herself busy with the kindling,sterilising the obstetric drums for the wards and folding the laundry. She reads her large print Bible at night before climbing into her many-blanketed bed with its hot water bottles. It may be the tropics, but the rainy season is still cold for a 92 year old who has been here for more than 60 years.
Lin Calvert is something of a celebrity. She has appeared in books and magazine articles both here in PNG and in New Zealand and her life story was recently made into a short documentary film by one of her grandchildren. She moved out here, to one of the most remote places of the world, in a time before helicopters, satellite internet and outboard motors. She and her late husband Peter were dropped off by ship and made their way inland by dugout canoe to Kapuna Station in the early 1950s. Apart from short trips away, Lin has remained here ever since.
We are now nearly decades into the 21st Century and life continues on in Gulf Province much as it has for generations. The Australian Government granted PNG independence in the 70s and a succession of governments have come and gone. Lin’s son and daughter-in-law returned in the 1980s to help manage the hospital, and her daughter, herself a doctor, returned in the mid 2000s. Time has passed, but the geographical challenges mean Gulf still has no significant industry to speak of, no cash crops, no income and virtually no social, educational, civil or health services. Dr Lin has continued on here caring for the sick, teaching health workers and being God’s hands and feet to the small people here amongst the mud, mosquitoes and malaria that she was promised all those years ago.
It is inevitable that as one prepares to meet their maker ones world shrink. Bubu Mai gave up hospital work after her daughter returned, and gave up teaching several years after that. Now she isn’t seen at church any more. But while her world may now be much smaller, she is still very much connected to it. She continues in the only home she has known for the vast majority of her life. She has her bedroom at one end, and the hospital office is at the other. Grandma takes naps on the ‘front veranda’ but the room is also the video room for the school children and the small meeting room where big decisions are made. The school children pray for her daily and occasionally have to climb on her roof to retrieve a ball. She continues to read medical journals and, on good days, takes a walk around the garden, inspecting the pineapples and hibiscus with Uncle Colin and two walking sticks for support.
In Dr Lin I see a model I want to emulate. Intelligent and outspoken she has never been one to hid her light beneath a bushel. She has taken on spiritual, community, and professional leadership roles without a hit of that shame so often affects me when offer something of myself. Alongside this is a robust kindness, made up of repeated small acts of compassion- giving the cat some precious milk, giving me the excess bananas to take to the patient children who are always hungry, the kindness of holding hands. And there is that determination, what one of my spiritual parents called ‘a long obedience in the same direction’. In her own words, “God called me here, and didn’t called me anywhere else, so I stayed”.
I don’t know what the future holds for me but as I think through where serving God with my whole life might take me Bubu Mai’s old age shows an inspiring example of a life well lived, right to the end.