I wrote an entire post last Wednesday about death that in the end I didn’t publish because I just didn’t finish it in time to go to camp the next morning. I had been to the funeral of a colleague’s husband that day and had spent a good portion of the six hours I was at the service contemplating how we all pay respect to our dead. As I sat there, hundreds of people streamed in and out of the family home to give their final send-off to a man I barely knew. The Pentecostal choir stood in the shade and sang hauntingly beautiful African hymns for hours, while the men sat under the awnings praying and bowing their heads solemnly in respect. The women, all dressed in beautiful shades of chitenje sat separately, some on the front porch and others in the house, as the widow lay next to the coffin of her dead husband, wailing with grief and emotion. All the preaching was in Chichewa and I found my mind drifting from observation to observation as the day went on.
What I thought about the most was how up front dying is in this country. Death does not tread lightly here in the seemingly idealistic landscapes of Southeastern Africa. It is frequent and obtuse. It is ugly and sudden. It is often the abrupt end of conditions or diseases otherwise treatable or preventable in the “developed world”. And sometimes, death is just the cruel result of accidental circumstances – the harsh reality of living in a place where being in the wrong place at the wrong time is more commonplace than it is exceptional. How easy it is for us to forget the latter; how blasé we have all become about the truly precious gift of life…
On Thursday morning, in a sad and awful twist of irony, after all these contemplations of what mourning and death are in this country, and after boldly faffing around on my computer and spouting out judgment calls I had no business making about what dying really “means” here, the universe put me back in my place. It sat me right down opened a scary, dark door and demanded that I look at the face of death without any mask or any cover. Tell me then, it said as it ripped the illusionary veil of ignorance from my face, what exactly is it that you see?
I see a sharp, blind-sided road with seven-foot embankments on both sides, that directly bi-sects a primary school. I see a crowd of people off to the left, and more off to the right. I see a pick-up truck stopped in the middle of this scene, it’s driver on the phone, his face pale with shock and agony. I see a mother with a baby tied to her back sink down on her knees and scream a sound more guttural than anything I have ever heard in my life. And I see the little body of a child that one could have mistaken for being peacefully curled up and fast asleep were it not for the bright red pool slowly spreading out from under her precious little body onto the dirt road below.
Death is a condition of life no matter where any of us are from. But it hovers low and close here, and strikes unrepentantly when we all least expect it. It’s like that everywhere, I suppose, but somehow here it feels different – rawer, and more callously guileless in some way, as if to purposely keep everyone on their toes lest we all forget that it is fate, rather than freewill, that pushes us along in this life.
I have never been one for religion or prayer, but that day, as I held the hand of the driver as he cried and tenderly touched the small, cool hands of this little girl, I closed my eyes and prayed. I prayed for hope, and for light, and for healing. But mostly I prayed that somewhere, somehow, there would be a chance for forgiveness – that the family would find it in their hearts to forgive this man for a terrible accident, and that in turn, this man would be able to forgive himself for an awful and tragically unavoidable twist of fate.
I have no better understanding of death now than I did 5 days ago. If anything, I understand it less. It seems grossly unfair and heartbreakingly arbitrary, as if the mere act of opening your eyes in the morning and walking out the front door is like playing an inevitable game of Russian roulette with your life. Maybe it just seems worse coming from a place where we put all of these medical, safety, and emergency infrastructures in place to ostensibly “protect” us from ourselves. Maybe all that really does in the end is leave us horribly unprepared when it all desperately unravels.
So go home, everyone, and look at your life. And more than anything appreciate who it is you have in this life with you because all of it is as fragile as porcelain and so irrefutably precious. At the end of all things, the people you love in this life are the only true measure of anything that really matters. Never, ever, let them go.