Lost in the Darkness (1996)

Patrick Melson on March 28, 2009 Comments (11)

"Pat, where's Lydia?" asked my wife Kellis, after I'd been home for a little bit.

"I thought she was with you," I replied.

"I thought she was with you," she said.

"So she's not with you, then where is she?"

"Oh, she's in the house."

"Where in the house?"

"I don't know, probably in the bedroom," I replied, starting that direction wondering why we didn't hear her. "She's probably on her bed, asleep." She wasn't. She wasn't on her bed, she wasn't on one of her sisters' beds, she wasn't in the closets or the bathroom. She was not inside and it was dark. "She's probably at the Teachout's or the Smith's playing," I said, as we headed for the door. These fellow-missionaries have children Lydia's age (3 years) and she often played at their houses.

It had been a good day. There was a building team here from America, fourteen in all, helping to build a 4,000 square-foot girl's dorm. There were plans for years to start a single girl's program at Goroka Baptist Bible College, possibly the first of this kind in Papua New Guinea. As flooring, framing, rafters and metal roofing were each completed we saw our dream coming to life. Each day took us closer to our goal and this day, Thursday, August 8, 1996, we ended with a mumu. Meat, local vegetables and greens were steam-cooked for hours in a pit lined with banana leaves. The local village and some of our students prepared chicken, lamb flaps, sweet potatoes, taro, corn, squashes, pumpkins and pumpkin greens, bananas, and various leafy greens for the feast. It was always fun to explain a mumu and the food was always good. Well, that is what we told the work team. We weren't lying. It is good to most missionaries or we at least know what foods to eat. "To eat or not to eat?" that is the question. Typically the meal is slow paced as is life, and by the time it starts the food is sometimes cold. It isn't as good cold and this one wasn't cold. It was good. "They eat ferns?" "What is that?" "Go ahead, take a big one, you'll like it!" (And some did.) "What's worse than finding three worms in a banana?" (Finding two-and-a-half, which I did.) "Where's the salt and pepper?" All the local missionaries were there: the Smith, Aholt, Edwards, Tobias, Root, and Teachout families; twenty-two missionary children; and Aaron Thomas, a carpenter who came for a short-term. We ate, talked and joked and the younger children began wandering off in groups to play. Most went to our backyard with its new kunai (grass) playhouse, and we could see four of our five daughters there. About six-fifteen Kellis took Abi (1 year old) back to the house because the mosquitos were coming out. It was getting dark. And here, just below the equator, darkness comes fast. Most stayed and talked as I did, despite the mosquitos. You hated to leave when it was so fun. (The mosquitos thought it was fun too.) When I came in about a half-hour later it was dark.

The day had been good but as we walked in the darkness to the Smith's and Teachout's I was upset that Lydia had gone home with friends. "Kel," I said, "you check the Smith's and I'll check the Teachout's." I was sure she was at the Teachout's. An experienced pilot, Herman and his wife Tami had three children. Andrea was four, Caleb, 20 months, and Brian was two. Andrea and Brian were Lydia's buddies. They spent a lot of time together and boy could they carry on! As I waited for an answer to their door I heard Lori Smith answer "No" to Kellis. I knew it! I thought, as Tami opened the door, she's at the Teachout's.

"Yes," said Tami.

"Hello, is Lydia here?"

"Lydia? No--uh, Brian said something about--Lydia falling in dirty water and--she couldn't get out?"

Turning, I could only think of one place. "Kel," I yelled, thinking I heard a response, "I'm going to the swamp!" I began running, but as Tami's words tore my heart I ran faster than I thought possible. It was a race you didn't want to run and one you could never train for. As I entered our house to get flashlights I had to pull myself together. Our three older girls were watching Abi, and they didn't know Lydia was lost in the darkness . . .


When Lori told me she wasn't at their house I could see Pat up at the Teachout's, and I decided to check the building site. A light was on and as I got close I saw Caleb, Herman, Bill Tobias and Bill Pollard, a contractor on the work team. They were working on the building and they had not seen Lydia. My heart was racing. Lydia's in the dark and she won't be able to find her way home. I was going home when I heard someone yell, "Kellie! She's in the swamp! Lydia's in the swamp!" I ran there as fast as I could and I was really scared. I knew if she was in the swamp, it was already too late.


The swamp, about waist deep, with fish, frogs, water lilies, and high banks, was the size of a large swimming pool, and I was trembling. The guilt was overwhelming. How could I have let Lydia down? How could I have let Kellis down? How could she have gotten out? She couldn't, SHE COULDN'T, SHE COULDN'T! Through tears I searched the banks, walking the perimeter, looking for changes in the water, some stirred up mud or something, a sign of life, a sign of struggle, a body . . . I couldn't handle it. I yelled to the chapel where some of the building team were relaxing. People were coming and I had almost gone all the way around. She's not here I thought, She's not here! I almost thought Lydia was alive but then I heard howls of anguish from our house. Naomi, our seven year-old and her sisters, Beka (11), and Rachel (9), were running this way. "No Lydia! No Lydia! Lydia's in the swamp! Oh no Lydia! Lydia! Lydia . . ." Naomi was hysterical, howling, moaning the loss of her sister, each wail piercing, piercing and wounding. She needed me but I couldn't face her--it was all my fault and mine alone. I just wanted to sit and bawl . . . the darkness was winning.

A splash, someone had jumped in--it was Kellis! I jumped in and more splashes followed. If she were here, we had to find her, I had to find her, I had to know. Michael Zollinger, a work team member and professor in computer animation, yelled "Hold it! We have to do this right!" And Naomi still howled. "Let's lock arms and walk all the way across!" Michael yelled, trying to be heard. Fellow missionaries Bill Tobias and Herman Teachout were in the water, six or so from the building team, several nationals, and we began moving across, the water murky and clammy, the mud sucking the life from my legs. The wailing ceased--someone helping our girls? and now a car's headlights, and then a spotlight, on the water. "Search with your hands!" yelled Michael, who we found later was a trained lifeguard, "They're much more sensitive." I threw my flashlights on the bank and put my arms in the water, I put my hands in the chilling waters. "Help us Jesus!" prayed Kevin Corey, a teacher, nearby. I prayed too, but I could not speak. I tried . . . but the words . . . would not come out. This was a time (as in Romans 8:26) "the Spirit himself interceded for me with groans that words cannot express." What was that? I jerked back, shuddering, bumping something in the water. Is it a leg? No, no, a trunk of a banana plant. I jerked back again and again, searching the dark waters, fighting the black waters for what we hoped not to find. My tears fell in prayers to the One who knows all about lost children. "Help us God," Kevin prayed again from the waters, "Help us . . . "


I jumped in the water because no one else had, but I didn't want to be there. Every time I felt something, a tree branch, a tire, an old can, I didn't want to feel again for fear it would be Lydia. There were a lot of people around. Lori was there, a nurse, and I knew if they found Lydia they would give her to Lori, and it would be too late. I went home. Two things were on my mind--I had to check on my girls and I had to call my pastor. Someone told me the girls were at the Smith's with Debbie Tobias so I knew they were okay for now--I called Pastor Steckiel. When he answered I told him who it was, that I was sorry to wake him (it was 2:00 a.m. in Tacoma, Washington) and that I was scared because we couldn't find Lydia. I was crying and he kept telling me it was alright. "She's lost," he said, "but God knows where she is," and he comforted me and prayed with me. Since Mark, Janis, and their three children came to our church nine months before we left for the field, they have been good friends and great encouragers. Now was no different. He asked a few questions and I knew our "Temple Baptist family" would soon be awake and praying.


We didn't find her in the swamp, I felt my hope returning, and the water didn't seem so cold. But as I climbed onto the bank I thought What am I missing? What am I not thinking about? Dirty water? Where else is dirty water? I wanted everyone to be quiet so I could yell for her but it seemed everyone was running all over the place and doing plenty of yelling. This isn't helping, I thought, We've got to get organized.

"Where?" someone yelled, "Where is she?"

"Over there, by the basketball court," came the reply.

I ran only to discover it wasn't Lydia but Gina Corey, a college senior from the work team, who twisted an ankle in one of the drainage ditches. I felt bad for Gina, for all these who were helping and those who were getting hurt, but especially for Lydia. I knew she was somewhere and needed help, but where? I decided to run and check the dorm area because they have done some digging there recently. I was almost there when I saw Bill Tobias.

"Pat, when was the last time you saw her?"

"In the backyard, with her sisters." I realized I hadn't asked them for more details.

"We've got to get organized, people are running all over, getting hurt."

"I know," I said. (I was one of them.)

"We need to do a systematic search, from one end of the campus to the other."

"Yes," I said, "Have you seen Herman?"

"I think he's at his house," said Bill, and we split up.

I went to the Smith's to check on our girls and found them watching a video. The last place they saw Lydia was the backyard, and I left to find Herman. I had heard he went to talk to Brian some more and I wanted to find out what he knew, what Brian knew, though I felt Brian had told us all he knew. After all, he's only two. But somehow, I thought, Brian is the key to all this. I decided to check on Kellis before going to the Teachout's.

What I didn't know was that there was already some news about Brian. Teenager Geoff Root, a missionary kid (MK), saw him crying by the chapel next to the swamp. He tried to find out why Brian was crying, but was unsuccessful. He carried Brian to his mom who was about to go home. Some felt Lydia was in the swamp because Brian was found by it, but they didn't tell us that. Tami felt guilty. "How can I face Kellis?" she asked Debbie Tobias. She felt she should have listened more closely to Brian, but Kel and I knew she wasn't at fault. Almost everyday Brian and Andrea come to our house to play, or Lydia goes to their house, or both. When we ask Lydia about it she usually says, "Oh, Brian did this . . . " or "Andrea did that . . ." So when Brian said, "Lydia fell in dirty water," it would be easy to miss the significance. Tami was hurting too.

I was just about to our house when the next bit of news about Brian arrived. Someone saw him crying on the hill above the chapel, and they were searching up there. By this time many from the haus lain (local village) were searching and the missionaries from town had returned. About half a football field in size, the hill above the chapel has the married students' apartments, a toilet block, a partially finished cook-house, a couple of old outhouses, a storage building and several piles of old equipment. Lucas Allen, a high-school senior, was searching by an outhouse. "This one's open," he called to Mike Edwards nearby, and looking inside, he found her. She was standing there, about four feet down, almost knee-deep in the yucky mire. "I found her," yelled Lucas, and the yells repeated down to our house. I exploded through the door--I was going to bring her home.


I decided I should take a shower so I could go hug my girls and talk with them. I still had mud all over me from being in the swamp. As I showered I prayed and tried to get myself together. Lord, I prayed, I know she belongs to you, but I'd really like to have her back for a while . . . But . . . I'll accept whatever you send my way. As soon as I had finished praying I heard them yelling, "We found her!" I held my breath--Was she okay? Somewhere outside Debbie Tobias yelled, "Is she alright?" and a chorus of angels sang down the hill, "Yes! She's alright!"


And she was alright, except for scrapes under her arms and chin from falling in the hole, and over forty mosquito bites. When Bill Tobias gave her to me, wrapped in Steve Root's shirt, there were so many people around and I was crying. She was so cold. She had been down there for at least one-and-a-half hours. Steve Aholt offered a ride down but I thought it would take too long until he mentioned his heater was on. The warmth and the company of friends felt good but there was a greater warmth. It was the gratitude I felt for all these who helped, people full of courage, selfless, and doers of good. It was the unspeakable joy of a father whose child "was dead and is alive again; she was lost, but now is found."

We discovered a few things about that night after Lydia was found. She and Brian walked up there, according to Lydia, "to find a place to hide from our mommies." Well, she did a good job. The liklik haus (outhouse) just has a floor with a hole in it, and the normal cover for the one-by-two foot hole was out of place, so she fell in. Though crying, scared and hurt she had the presence of mind to tell Brian, "Tell my mommy I fell in dirty water and I can't get out." That's pretty amazing for a three-year old but no less amazing is that two-year old Brian, though crying and scared, delivered that message and helped us find Lydia. (They both must have truly amazing parents!) Lydia said later to Kellis, "I couldn't get out because I didn't have a rope." She told Lucas, who found her, "I got a scratch." And so many came by to see Lydia and we can never repay their kindnesses. Nor shall we ever forget the horror and joy of that night.

It has been two weeks, but it is not over. Lydia's scrapes and bites are gone but she still has trouble sleeping sometimes, and when it is dark. She still may get Malaria or Hepatitis A, and we might too. We have to watch her for almost another month, and believe me we will! But for now, a day does not pass without talking about it, thanking God, hugging Lydia and our girls more, wondering what could have been. Sometimes late at night, when all is quiet, and Lydia is sleeping, I slip into her room just to watch her sleep, to watch her little chest fill with air again and again, until her image blurs . . . And I am reminded of the treasure, of the sacred trust God has given us in our children.

The swamp is being filled. About a dozen dark-skinned children are playing, watching by the trees as two tractors in unison gouge and scrape the ground, pulling and pushing earth into the dark waters, forcing them to retreat. The chug of tractors brings tears to my eyes, for it could have been so different. I watch the children as they laugh and dodge in and out of the trees and realize I am still crying . . . Some of these too, are lost in the darkness . . . and I shudder.

Patrick and Kellis Melson, Goroka, Papua New Guinea, August 1996 



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