Author's note: This post does, indeed, talk about death and a few surrounding traditions here. Just a heads up for the squeamish.
Last week around lunchtime, I heard loud wailing coming from the neighborhood behind our house. Someone, it was clear, needed help. It sounded like they were running back and forth down the lane, screaming. I didn't even know how to get over to the neighborhood behind and below us, so I was wondering what to do. I grabbed Oliver, and we listened at the back wall to see if she could interpret what the woman was yelling.
"Her mother has died," Oliver said softly.
As we talked, we decided together that Oliver would go down to visit them, and see what she could do to comfort the family. There are times here when my foreignness only compounds issues--e.g. my lack of knowledge of death customs, my immature knowledge of the local language. Interestingly enough, the house behind us is low enough that we look over the roof, the neighbors have only rarely been seen outside, and I haven't known how to get there until this week. (Bad missionary!) But I have learned that some situations are opportunities for Oliver's ministry rather than mine. Does that sound like a cop-out? Maybe it is. But it is also true that I am here to empower Ugandans, not to march in with my rather loud Caucasian American presence, even when no words are spoken. And Oliver, being an orphan, had immediate recognition and compassion for the woman in an obvious tirade of grief at the house below us.
When Oliver returned an hour or so later, she explained. The daughter had enjoyed dinner with her mother the night before, they'd had conversation over hearty portions of food. The next day, the daughter had avoided going back in the house, respecting her mother's wishes to not open the door in the morning but let her sleep.
Around lunchtime was when the door was finally broken down, and the mother lay curled and now hardened in a position of sleep.
How does one respond to this kind of tragedy--so far removed, yet so close?
It has been eye-opening to observe and discuss Ugandan traditions of death, even from afar. The next morning when Oliver returned to check on the family, she wrapped an opaque shawl around her jeans. "I need to be decent," she explained. "I am not going to a party." This falls in line with the Ugandan sensitivity to women's legs (no knees shown in skirts or shorts; always wear a slip beneath a skirt), and modesty for special occasions, like wives covering their arms when in-laws visit.
There have been odd things this week, like the loud music till three or four A.M. as the relatives converge and enjoy one another. But most things have been somber--like the idea of a wake being held in one's own house, especially with limited body preservation. I realize that this has been done throughout time, which makes me the odd one. But still.
Also curious was Oliver's explanation of the care of the body. Often patients near death are sent home from the hospital, simply because it's more economical for transportation, in a country where funds are so scarce and post-mortem services are pricey and out of reach for most Ugandans. I have yet to see a hearse or funeral in Kampala, a city of approximately 2 million people. You can hire a taxi for a person who is sick, explained Oliver. It's not as easy or inexpensive otherwise.
Perhaps the most painful part of this is watching Oliver relive losing her own mother when she was 16. After walking gingerly and painfully with my husband through the intimate horror of his mom's unexpected passing, I have come to realize that there is something about the death of a parent, particularly prematurely, that tears something deep inside. It may take years and years to heal--if it does heal. Oliver has stared out the kitchen window this week as she washes dishes, trying to put to words how the daughter next door must be feeling: the denial, the lack of physical resources (who will watch my child when I work?), the anguish of the soul.
Yesterday, when the deceased was brought back from the autopsy--again, more wailing--Oliver recounted what most Ugandans must do themselves: washing and dressing the body. Her still-living grandmother has had to bathe and dress the bodies of five of her children. "Can you imagine?" she asked me.
No. I cannot. I cannot imagine bathing the grown-up bodies of the child I washed gently as an infant, grinning and cooing at them with their little bird bellies and bald heads in the kitchen sink, smelling of Johnson & Johnson as their limbs jerk with the excitement and unwieldy limbs of new life. I cannot imagine being the one who survives, who must perform even this last act of admission that this is real, this ending of life.
Situations like these make my own heart yell with their wrongness. It should not be this way! God's original intent for the world was so much more than this!
This family has found itself in my prayers this week, as I hear the cries of children over the walls, or see evidences of the house waking up, remembering all over again what is lost. So, at the risk of sounding crass as they enter a new phase defined by "before" and "after", I find myself with added focus for what must be done: Praying for the kingdom to come soon, and asking God for it to come here, in this world, little by little, life by life.