I haven’t experienced a whole lot of true tragedy in my life. Even being here, in a 3rd world country, with lots of exposure to life and death, I continue to remain fairly untouched by true heartache. True heartache, of course, being the kind of heartache that makes your heart ache, not just people around you.
The hardest death I’d every experienced up to this point was my Grandma Cain (my mom’s mom) this summer. I wasn’t angry or bitter, but just so, so, so sad. My mom and I decided at my grandma’s funeral that we really didn’t like the idea of the glossy American memorial event. It all seemed so fake and surreal. I mean, instead of grieving and spending time rehashing memories with our closest family, we were making funeral arrangements and receiving guests. Yet, to us, that’s what’s considered normal. You make things pretty. You play nice music. You rush around cleaning and making casseroles. Don’t get me wrong. My grandma was honored in her death and it was absolutely wonderful to see my family together and spend time with them. It just somehow felt a little…off. The best part was that my mom, my brothers Sam and Henry, my sister Jayne, and I got to hang out for a whole 4 days.
Last year, here in Zambia, I experienced the death of a young child (13 months). He died after I had cared for him consistently for 3 weeks. He had failure-to-thrive syndrome and just didn’t get any better. I never saw him smile or laugh, and he rarely reached for me or cried when I left the room. It was a sad day when he passed away. But somehow, it was comforting that he didn’t have to suffer anymore.
This week, a tragedy of a whole new sort hit my heart, and the heart of the entire community here. The head housekeeper, Janice, lost her youngest son, Caleb. Janice has been a close friend of mine and Jacob’s since she came to live and work here over a year ago. She is in her early 40’s, speaks perfect English, and is my “go-to” lady for all the questions I have about living and ministering in Zambia. She is an unbelievably strong Christian, daughter to the famous Zambian evangelist Rev. Mwiikisa, whom Jake and I have mentioned often. Her husband Albert is also an amazing man, and up to this week they had 5 beautiful, strong children. Caleb was just about a year old when he came here, and I used to carry him on my back when Janice needed someone to take him off her hands for awhile. Caleb’s first real word was, “Jacobo” (Jacob), and he would squirm from anyone’s arms to run to Jacob’s, and Jake would fling him high in the air. Just this past weekend, on our outreach, we traveled with Janice and Caleb to Siachitema, which is Janice’s home village. Caleb fell asleep in my lap on the way there, and slept next to me that night. I dressed him the next morning and swatted the flies away from him in church. Me and Janice and the rest of the team had an awesome time in Siachitema.
Monday night, Caleb got ahold of some mouthwash with Bedadine (??? not sure if this is right). He sent it flinging over his shoulder, which is when Janice realized that he had gotten the top off and at least taken a taste. Sal was rushed to the scene, pronounced him healthy as long as nothing got into his lungs, and we went back to our Monday night meeting. Monday at midnight, Sal got a knock on the door. Caleb was expelling massive amounts of mucus. That’s when we realized that Caleb had swallowed much more of the liquid than we had originally thought, and that it had also aspirated into his lungs. Without a PICU (Pedatric Intensive Care Unit), there was nothing that could be done. And even with one, there may have been little help. He died at 3 am on the way to Zimba hospital.
Lisa woke me at 6am to tell me the news. I wailed like an African woman. I had never been so shocked. Never had someone so close, so young, so quickly…been gone.
Needless to say, it’s been a tough week. I was so worried about Janice that I could barely keep from seeing her. We went to the funeral yesterday, or should I say, the burial. It was an experience. My first African funeral. And oddly enough, it seemed to make a lot more sense than the ones I’ve been to at home.
I made my way into the women’s hut, where everyone was wailing and crying. I greeted each woman in the family and stopped to cry with each one before sitting straight-legged on the floor and crying for a long time. As people arrived, they passed through the women’s hut, and they also stopped to cry and sit with Janice. Then, the relatives brought food into the hut. We ate. We spoke quietly and talked about Caleb’s antics and the best memories we had of him. Janice recounted his death countless times. They brought the casket into the women’s hut. The women wailed loudly as his belongings were placed inside and he was wrapped in a blanket. Janice gave an old blanket. “His soul is not there anyway,” she said. We stumbled out into the light and the pastor gave a short message. It made sense. We prayed. They called for the people to come and pass by the half-open casket. I wasn’t going to go. But Janice said, “Come, Jess, let’s go for the body-viewing.” So I went. Janice led the whole funeral in a song. I didn’t understand all the words, but I know she changed the verses to say, “my baby, Caleb.” We processed to the gravesite.
Caleb’s two older sisters were devasted. They wailed on the way to the gravesite. The women around them comforted them and carried them so that they didn’t have to bear their own full weight. We arrived at the gravesite. The coffin was placed in the grave. A member of the family spoke. The pastor spoke. Then, the women started to sing, and the men started to fill the grave. There were only 3 shovels, but when one man would start to shovel, another would interrupt silently within 30 seconds or so, taking over where he left off. Taking the burden from each other. When the grave was completely filled, the women moved forward in song and together got on their knees. They patted the mounded grave to the beat of their singing so that the dirt became smooth. The pastor called families forward to place flowers on the grave. When Janice and Albert came forward, Janice sang declaringly, “It is well, It is well, with my soul.” The siblings cried. When it was finished, the women sang joyfully. We walked back to the village together. The women gathered again to pray. We said goodbye to Janice, and went home, leaving her there with her family for a few more days.
The Bible says that Jesus came to give everlasting life to those who believe in Him. The Bible also says that the kingdom of God belongs to the children. I know that Caleb is in heaven. His mom and dad know that too.
There are a lot of things that Zambians are uneducated about or don’t understand. However, after yesterday, I’m pretty convinced that they understand death and the grieving process a little better than I do. When my mom and I were going through the process of my grandma’s funeral, we came up with a mantra. We said, “When we die, cremate us, then have a party. Die, burn, party.” I may have changed my mind. (Sorry mom.) I would want my family to be together for as long as possible. To grieve together. To not have to worry about fancy caskets or song selections. But to weep and to sing and to be encouraged. To take the burden from each other. To take turns shoveling.
I think I mentioned before that things are a lot more “real” here. A lot grittier and sometimes harder to swallow. I hope this wasn’t too morbid, but sometimes a terrible tragedy makes you think that way. I am grateful for life today. And I pray that I can continue to be this thankful every day that I take breath, for as long as I do.