Thursday, October 22, 2015

on death and ice cream

It was a Tuesday morning when the familiar sound came drifting through the crack between the top of our walls and the base of the roof. The inconsolable; the freshly mourning. Boaz has died, the neighbor told me. I knew that he had been injured in a soccer match. I knew that he had been referred to the hospital. I knew that he had been sent home. Died? Yep. We started piecing the puzzle together and concluded that he must have had some form of internal bleeding that was not attended to.

Since Boaz’s house was right across from the preschool, we canceled class for three days so as to not disturb the wailers with our painfully cheerful ABC’s, or maybe  so as to not frighten the wee ones with the fits of sheer grief, whichever happened to be louder.

It quickly occurred to me that Bronwyn might not be so ok with funerals any more. She had attended her fair share in her early years, but now, older, more emotionally aware and empathetic, I wasn’t sure how she would perceive the descending sadness. This is, after all, the child who could not cope when Frosty melted and when Cinderella lost her shoe. A little boy is gone and his mommy can’t even stand up under the weight of sorrow – I wasn’t sure how that would not shake my sensitive girl.

We sent her to play elsewhere as I sat with the wailers in the funeral house - as Jeremy prepared the Land Rover to serve as hearse - as songs and cries of grief waxed and waned. We slept closely that night, hugging our little girls with a fresh awareness that life is fleeting and precious.

The following day, the boy was to be buried. Jeremy was sent to the hospital to retrieve the coffin and the body and bring it to the church. We sat, along with a few hundred others, under the trees, waiting for that familiar sound of the diesel engine to draw near. As the vehicle pulled closer, the noise level amongst the people grew and Bronwyn looked at me with concern. Why is everyone crying? Because a little boy has died, and his mother misses him so very much. When is he coming back? He’s not, baby, he’s going to be with Jesus now. Oh... Can we have ice cream?

the overflow seating
It was the third of her questions that helped me relax again as I was clued in to the fact that this was indeed still beyond her, and we were not likely to have another Frosty or Cinderella-esque melt down. Of course I was still sad for Boaz and his family. This boy has been a part of our crew for years and the unnecessary nature of his death made me ill. But as with so many things, my preoccupation with my own children somehow had the ability to defer and deflect other reactions. And for that funeral, Bronwyn was ok, and therefore so was I.

I posted a picture on instagram of my girls on my lap and the coffin wedged up next to us as we carted it off to the cemetery. She never asked and I never told her what was in that crushed-velvet-covered box. I was surprised a bit by the outpouring of sympathetic reactions to that picture. Clearly the story was heartbreaking, and I did appreciate the solidarity, but the startled response gave me pause to remember, oh, our friends don’t know how normal this is.

It’s not always a boy bleeding out after taking a soccer ball in the stomach. But it seems to always be some one and some thing. The same night we buried Boaz, a Musonda grandchild passed away and the mourners kept mourning and only just shifted to another location. A few days after that, Bana Louisa’s mother died and no one came to my meeting at the clinic. A few days later, Bana Ngandwe’s brother died and Bible study got canceled. We have only attended one of the four funerals in the past two weeks largely because we lack material and emotional resources to cater to every single family, and therefore we pick and choose. But the reality remains that we could probably go to 50 + funerals a year in our community like everyone else does. 

funeral procession to the burial ground

Quite honestly, mourning is strangely normal. The domination of death in the village is seen in meeting minutes when three fourths of the absentees are reported to have gone to funerals. Organizations, including our own have not only “sick day” policies but “funeral day” policies a well. We receive more requests for monetary assistance for funerals than we do for business/micro finance. There has never been a team or a visiting volunteer whose work has not somehow been disturbed by an unexpected funeral.

towards the cemetery
That evening after we came home from the burial ground, I capitalized on the events of the day, taking the opportunity to explain to Bronwyn about Jesus’s death and what that implied for our own. Jeremy, worrying that I was breaking the cardinal rule of parenting by answering questions that my child was not asking, gave me the “stop talking” face and I had to remind him that he had not been there for Easter when we had to completely avoid the death preceding the resurrection because our three year old couldn’t understand and I was determined to use this opportunity to help her figure out the rest of the gospel.

Jesus died so that we don’t have to, I told her, among other things. And she sorta nodded and said, ok while slurping her completely-melted-nothing-stays-cold-in-October ice cream. Jeremy pointed out that she still wasn't getting it, but I’m ok with that because at least she has the full vocabulary of redemption now. She’s seen the picture, heard the sounds and she now has the words to grasp that life here is not forever. She has the context for our work’s great precept: life is hard, God is merciful, heaven is for sure.

This will only get more real for her. With every funeral, every coffin and every burial, it gets all the more concrete that life implies a final hour. This interaction with death is a part of the third-culture-kid package of life lessons that are not at all desirable but somehow a blessing all the same.

I’m thankful that my children have never ending opportunities to come face to face with ultimate reality. It is the hardship of the now, juxtaposed with the mercy of God and the assurance of heaven for those who believe that keeps us here. And I want them to get that. I want them to live the same, where they consider all their years as a mere breath and endeavor to do something significant with them. I want them to know that death is NOT the worst thing that could happen to a person – death without knowing Christ is.

And so in plain view and along side our sticky-faced kids, we champion LIFE. We push and sweat and labor till we just can't anymore - all to the end that people would know LIFE and know it to the full. We mourn with those who mourn. Truly, deeply. There is nothing neat or sterile about it. We also teach/sing/show again and again that to live is CHRIST and to die is GAIN. Because so help me goodness our blondy MK’s might be totally weird and awkward for many of their experiences here, but if nothing else they will have a rock solid theology of life and death…

…and that is a gift greater than all the ice cream in the world.