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Witnessing

Mike was waiting for me in the kitchen. I was in our bedroom smelling my sports bras trying to decide which was the cleanest. It was our date day. Once a week we go for a hike together. I threw on the rest of my exercise clothes and came out of our room, "Let's do thi-"

When I looked up, he had his arms out straight towards me in a silent panic, "Sh, stop". It was the same stance I took towards my sister when she was drunk at her wedding publicly rebutting her bridesmaid’s speeches.


But now our friend had just walked into the room. She was leaned up against the wall, pressing a handkerchief into her face.


I didn't need to ask.


I knew.


Her dad had been at the local health center for a week now with a lung infection. He had recently stopped eating, and drinking. Medicines weren't working. He was also unable to get up to use the bathroom, and one day she mentioned how exhausted she was from cleaning the urine out of his sheets every morning.


"Can you ask the nurses to put in a catheter?”


"Those are out of stock," she said shrugging.


Yesterday I visited her father in the men’s ward at the health center. I promised her I’d visit after my shift.


"You see?" she’d said, gesturing towards him.


He had the same look my dad had at the end of his life. Small, frail, asleep. Hovering someplace between this world and the next.


So, when I walked out of my bedroom for the hike, I knew.


I went straight for her and gave her a hug, her head landing on the flat space between my chest and my shoulder. The same place I cradle my 8-year-old daughter.


"I'm so so sorry," I said.


I held her arm and brought her to a bench to sit. She wiped her tears quickly, over and over with the handkerchief, then crumpled onto my shoulder again and sobbed. Not too long ago, I was in her position.


After a few minutes I asked, "Do you want to go down there and see him?"


"Yes.”


"I'll drive you now."


The clinic sits on top of a low grassy hill. Just as you enter up the rocky driveway, to the left, past a row of neatly manicured bushes, is an open-air hallway and a one-story row of wards. The first ward is about the size of an average hotel room, with about 10 beds crammed inside. That's the men's ward, where my friend had been sleeping on the floor next to her father all week. The next ward is four times as big, and much louder. That's the pediatric ward. The maternity ward, where I work, is in a separate building towards the back of the land, overlooking a dense tropical forest.


Inside the men's ward, Lydia stepped a few feet to the corner, and went behind a cloth screen to where her father lay, no longer alive.


"Baaaaaabaaaaaaaaa waaaaanjaaaaaay!" She screamed. My father, my father.


There's nothing quite like seeing the finality of death in front of you. It’s both normal, and monumental. A physical body whose heart has stopped. The lungs, gone lazy. A mouth that will never utter another word.


The story of this person on earth, has been written. But yours continues to be. And when this person is your father? A human that is tied into your very DNA, into every crevice of who you are, for good or for bad, or most likely for both?


Family members of other patients begin to gather around the entrance of the men's ward, drawn in by Lydia and what is happening to her on the other side of the wall.


I walk away, back towards my car.


My gaze is brought upward by a deafening sound.


There, next to where I parked, are two slender palm trees shooting into the air, both exploding with life. Hundreds of weaver birds, dusty brown with sleek yellow bellies, flying in and out as they carefully construct their spherical-shaped nests along the spines of the palm leaves.


The chirping, a hundred conversations happening at once. And the movement and productivity happening in both these trees is playful yet dizzying. Long pieces of grass flow out both sides of the birds’ beaks. They dive in and carefully work their finding into their nest. Others jump from branch to branch admiring the progress. The moment I track one bird, he flits off, replaced by another.


I hear a low moan coming from behind a bush and see a very old woman, crumpled over on the grass, forehead to the ground. A friend is sitting next to her. The old woman twists her body from left to right and pounds her fist.


"Mwaaaannnaaa waaanjaaay" she says, gulping the words out. My child.


The bookends of grief.


Lydia stumbles out from inside and slides onto the grass, palms first, wailing.

Less than 10 feet away, is a woman who I presume to be her grandmother, crying for her now deceased son.


Between them, the weaver birds. Unaffected by any of it. Chattering away in the sun as if it were any other day. Intent on their mission to build up their kingdoms.


I slip into my car, not entirely sure what to do right now. Do I leave? Do I stay? I text my mentor.


I write: How do I best comfort my friend right now?

She responds, get physically close and don’t say a lot.


Seems pretty universal.


I get back out and go and stand next to Lydia while her body continues to heave and wail. I gotta believe that being there is enough. I can't change what happened. I can't make her pain disappear. I have nothing to say but 'sorry'.


But I'm in good company.


There are at least ten other people in proximity too. Standing there in a semi-circle, present and motionless.


A small child sits down on the ground and rubs her back, over and over.


That's it. Right there.


I know grief looks different for everyone, but as I watch my friend something about it seems SO RIGHT. She's certainly gone far past the point most Americans would feel comfortable being vocal or visible in public suffering. And she's loud. Impassioned. Paying attention to no one. Grabbing fistfuls of grass with each inhale. Ripping at the ground.


The community holds her gently in this space.


Last August when I was back in California for my dad's memorial, I had 2 emails from friends apologizing to me for not coming to give me a hug after church. Both had lost their fathers within the year, and both couldn't bear the thought of it yet. My pain was their pain, and their pain was too overwhelming to face. Perhaps they hadn’t had the time, or the freedom, or the personal permission from themselves to do what Lydia is doing now. Grief can be scary. Instead of using the forward momentum that it naturally gives you, they resisted and got stuck. I think American culture woos you into trying to sidestep grief by being busy. But you don’t actually sidestep. It turns into quicksand instead. Trapping you.


My counselor said once, 'have you heard… grief is like a magnet? It pulls out all the little and big griefs with it too'.


In this moment, I understand what she means. I wipe my tears from under my sunglasses.


Why does death feel so wrong? Why does it rip us in two? C.S. Lewis wrote about that shocking feeling one has when you haven't seen a person for a long time, and you notice they've aged. That slight sense of betrayal or disbelief or sadness one feels that time has passed. He goes on to ask why we find it shocking?


People morph, grow old, and die.


Why does this rock us the way it does, if it were how things were meant to be, it would feel natural and right. Does a fish find water shocking?


It must mean, we are designed for something different than aging, death, and decay. Something that doesn’t fade away. Our inner most being cries out for something imperishable and unfading. (1 Peter 1:4). Whether we are conscious of it or not, the way Western culture tries to minimize, ignore, or compartmentalize death into a category far off and removed, makes me believe that yes, death is one of our greatest fears, and the assurance of something beyond is one of our greatest desires. I find this true for myself.


This is where Jesus speaks to our hearts. Where he reaches out his hand and leads the way.

Does he take away the pain?


No.


He wept over death too. (John 11:35) And He willingly chose to do it.


But then, he trampled it.


"In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."


He didn’t overcome the world to check it off his personal bucket list.


He wants us to have eyes that can see beyond the here and the now.


We are bound for so much more than this world has to offer. We are set for a place of unfathomable wholeness. Those who believe in Jesus, can look death in the eyes and see it as an ellipsis, not a period, because that is the hope he gives.


A tall lanky young man has been walking between us and the male ward. He explains to Lydia that it is time to take "the body" back to their home.


I figure this is my cue to leave, except that I am the only person at the entire clinic who owns a car.


How does one get a body back?


I'm from Southern California, we don't do this. Like I said, death is compartmentalized. People who move dead bodies around are either professionals, or serial killers. Not average people, like me.


Do they carry it? Through the streets in the heat?


Or propped up on a motorcycle? With someone sitting behind?


The gymnastics of it all makes my head swim. The clear answer here, is obvious.


It's me.


I look around.


Does everyone else think this is the clear answer too? Or could I quietly coast away, unnoticed?


My inner germophobe is struggling.


I cried in the first grade when Svitlana’s dad, who was from Ukraine and had a long red beard, brought us out to ice cream and then took a bite of my chocolate chip mint scoop.

My heart sank as I watched his beard and lips sweep across my dessert knowing that despite his trying to convince me, I would never touch that cone again.


That same six-year old is alive in me today. I am struggling right now, imaging bringing my friend’s father into my car. But I love her, and I care for her, and sometimes, you’re already in too deep.


"I can take him," I say to the tall guy.


I have a van that seats 8 people. It's called a Supercustom. It’s large. I open the back and tell the men standing around that we can gently slide the body underneath all the seats, with his feet towards the front.


The corners of everyone’s mouths go down, they shake their heads disapprovingly.


"The body will go ON TOP of the seats," a short guy says. "Can we get this back seat to go down?"


I imagine a lot of secretions pooling onto my cushions. "Nope. The seat has to stay up. We should put him down below."


"It's not possible," one says.


I bend down to show them the space beneath the seats. It's somewhere between a half foot to a foot. It's a strange case to be arguing and I certainly don’t want to disrespect their deceased father. But I know my limits.


I need this to be a clean transfer.


"Okay," the tall one says, "we can try."


Lydia comes over and thanks me. She has a kitenge wrapped over and around her head, with her face peering out. It looks comforting to be partially wrapped and hidden inside a cloth cave. I'd like to do that too, but instead I open the front car door for her and she hoists herself up. I turn to see the young men carrying her father out on a foam mattress.


A wave of relief floods through my body.


A mattress.


Of course!


He is bundled in bed sheets, carefully wrapped, like a newborn baby. Like the same way we are cared for just after we enter the world. Ending just as we started, being carried by others. A thin strip of fabric has been thoughtfully tied underneath his jaw and loops around his ears, to keep his mouth closed. His eyes are shut. He has a peaceful look.


The men slide the mattress towards the back seat, but his feet stick up and now I understand why they were saying it wouldn't work.


"I see. It’s okay, keep him on the mattress and I’ll put my seats down," I say.


"Ah ha, exactly," the short one says, relieved I finally understand.


Once the body is completely loaded into the car, tucked in just so, his entire family climbs inside too. His mother and Lydia are still wailing, but now their grief sounds like a song, wordless, punctuated by the old woman letting out very high-pitched yips every ten seconds or so.


As we drive, the grandmother calls out to a few people she sees on the road. "AKUYE! AKUYE!" He died. He died.


The women walking drop everything and turn in our direction to follow us. We slowly pass through the center of town, and down Black Street, the road where people sell piles of charcoal. Where my friend says some people buy their marijuana.


We turn right and glide down the hill.


"At the top, go straight," someone says.


They direct me to a dirt lot and tell me to park.


They jump out, and unload him, carrying their relative across the dirt and through a cluster of stick and mud houses. I follow behind. A tent has been set up in the center of the compound, with one stick jutting into a tarp that’s been tightly pulled and fastened with fraying rope between each house. Under the large tarp are rows of blue plastic chairs placed in the dirt.


They bring the body through a low doorway into one of the small dark rooms. Enclosed, womblike. Lydia and her grandmother go inside also, and there begins another wave of vocals, where a cluster of new voices raise up their lament. But the sound is beautiful, stunning actually. Like music. Like a choir singing for lost love.


I sit outside on a plastic chair, adjacent to a group of men, who are all stone-faced. They are quiet, and still, until their roles allow them to become physical.


They must carry the body. In a few days, hike out to the hillside where Lydia’s dad grew up. There they will dig a grave, wide and deep. Mix and shovel the cement by hand. Some will get drunk. Others will make speeches. Some will make drunk speeches.


Everyone will be together for the next 4 days. There will be a fire burning constantly, as is the custom. They will play music, loudly, through all hours of the night- to chase away evil spirits. Lydia and her family will sleep outside. And she will not change her clothes, or bathe until the 4 days are over. On the fourth day she will walk to the river, cleanse, and emerge. She’ll put on clean clothes and return to her home, her official period of mourning complete.


The tall guy walks out from the dark room and says "We need you inside."


"For what?"


"He needs a doctor now."


"I don't understand."


"He. Needs. A. Doctor." He repeats.


My mind can’t compute that a person who is no longer alive needs a doctor. Also, I’m not a doctor.


“I’m a nurse.”


“It’s fine, you can help us," he says.


"Sir, this is not my culture. Please explain, what is it that you need help with exactly?"


At this point, it could be anything. And I’m hoping he’s not wanting to try for a resurrection.


"Herbs," he says, pronouncing the "h" with a fast harsh gust. "Herbs, for the body.”


“Herbs?”


“So that it will not be smelling."


Ohhhh. Right. There’s still that.


I already transformed into a hearse today, but embalming? That's beyond my scope. I gotta draw the line some place.


"I'm sorry. I don't do that. You will have to find somebody else."


"Okay, no problem," he says, as he darts off and disappears into the room again.


When I get home a little later, Mike has hung the laundry and is chopping carrots. It's too late and hot outside for our date, which is fine. A date after this morning would be strange.


"How'd it go?" He asks.


"It was a lot."


"Yeah?"


"Ya."


“And Lydia?” he asks.


“Devastated.”


He looks sorry.


I walk towards the bedroom. “I’m gonna shower and lay down for a bit before the kids come home.”


"I was thinking of going to do some errands," he says.


“OK, I’ll tell you all about it later.”


When I hear the keys rattling, I remember the state of our car. "Sorry about the car! I had to make room..." and not wanting to sound crass but having no other way I said, "for a dead body!”


He hollers back, "Well, okay! Add that one to the list!".


"The List" is our imaginary list of things we've said here that we've never, and probably won't ever, say anywhere else. Because life here has all sorts of surprises around every corner. And the deeper you love, the deeper you find yourself immersed in a world different from what you've known.


Also, life in Africa can just get kinda crazy sometimes.


It's beautiful and utterly exhausting the way everything runs together, all of it so up close, personal, and communal.


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