A white bird glides just above the surface of water so still that it reflects the sky. It’s hawk-like, but I can’t identify the species. Everything feels unfamiliar and strange to me. It’s my first full day back from the hot tropical coast of Kenya. I’m disoriented by the nakedness of the trees, stripped of their colorful leaves while I was away. A sharp reminder that I’ve returned to this northern Minnesota landscape with uncomfortable timing. In six days it will be Carl’s death date of two years. It happened just yesterday and a thousand years ago. In some ways if feels like it hasn’t happened at all…that I’m living some strange premonition that I just can’t seem to extricate myself from.
My last night in Kenya, I sat cross-legged on one of the couches in the common room of the eco-lodge where I was attending a PDC course. I was so hungry for a moment of peace and quiet. The rave/reggae/techno funk hadn’t stopped playing for two weeks straight and I was exhausted from the constant noise surrounding me. In an attempt to find my center, I would have liked to stayed planted in bed under the mosquito net of my grass thatched room, but I needed some dinner after not eating most of the day. And I needed a cup of tea. My journal sat on the coffee table in front of me with high hopes of being written in. It was what I wanted most from the day. Not a very lofty goal, but as night laid her darkness over the baobab and banana trees I saw my opportunity to make sense of the last two weeks in the form of journaling slip from reach.
My phone buzzed with a message and it was James. I read the words fast. Then read them again. I felt a wave of sickness well up inside of me.
Nandala Jane’s elder son is dead.
I hate writing this. And yet I need to write something. I hate the feeling of tears. I’m tired from two years of crying. I no longer know where to begin. I used to love writing braided essays, weaving the threads of thoughts and experience into something tidily poetic and sensical. These days, I feel as tho I more often just sit in a twisted up mess with words in my head instead of on paper.
Where does one experience end and another begin? Lunyolo, a young widow and member of The Joy Collective whose baby had just herself gotten out of the clutch of sickness, was now calling to tell us about a loss that knocked the wind from our lungs. Our sweet Mama Jane, one of the twelve widows we work closely with in the mountains of eastern Uganda, her son’s life snuffed out at the age of twenty-three. The call got cut off before Lunyolo was able to tell us more details. I knew only one thing: Jane’s son was gone. I wanted to vomit. Or cry. Or both. Jane’s loss hit me as if it were my own. I thought of Janet, Carl’s mom, and how strong she is but also how no amount of strength can save a mother from the pain she feels when she loses a child. I thought about Jane’s gardens. The ones we helped her build. At the foot of each garden is a grave. One belonging to her husband and the other to her son. And now…there will be a third grave, another son. Joseph’s.
Death, death and more death. Before I even had a minute to process this awful news, Jackson and Timothy, two of my course-mates, sat down next to me for a bit of evening small talk. I tried telling them what had happened, but it felt impossible to convey. I needed a moment alone, but I couldn’t figure out how to untangle myself. I felt bad for wanting to be alone in the first place. By that point, I had been wanting it for two weeks. Everywhere I went there was someone who wanted to talk. My plate full of pasta suddenly grew heavy in my hands. I set it down and wished I could find my way out of so much noise. My energy felt too heavy. I didn’t know where to put the shock of such sadness in a room so full of people.
Jane had finally caught a break in life. She joined our group and, despite my initial assumptions that she might fail, she ended up surprising us all and has since become one of the most successful gardeners in the group. Jane grew so many vegetables that she began sharing with others also. That was a huge leap from the hunger that too often filled her belly in the months and years before. She figured out a way of plant care-taking and harvesting that kept her kale and spinach producing vibrant succulent greens for three seasons straight without replanting. She was doing so well that she ended up hosting and teaching the most recent workshop that was held with the other widows. On the day of the workshop she was beaming. For perhaps the first time in her life, she felt respected and empowered in a way that was changing her from the inside out. From learner to teacher, the light shone from her eyes so thoroughly that it took our breath away.
And now? Just as things were getting better…her beloved son, Joseph, dies. Just like that. He got sick; they got him to the hospital; he was gone within minutes. No definite reason. Just gone. I feel the words rising up into my throat and out of my mouth: It’s not fair. It’s just not fair.
Those words are useless. At midnight, just a few hours after receiving James’s message, I put my bags into the back of the taxi. With a heavy heart of mixed feelings I was headed to the airport so that I might return to the States one last time before moving to Uganda indefinitely. I sat at the edges of numbness until arriving in Istanbul thirteen hours later. In Istanbul, the airport terminal was busy with people, a teeming hub of movement in all directions. The chairs were filled with old turkish women and families and individuals from all reaches of the world. I found a place to sit along the raised ledge of a wall. I sat low to the ground with my head in my hands. It felt good to be low to the ground after so many hours in the air. And that’s when the tears let loose in a silent snot producing sob.
So much loss. And I was moving in entirely the wrong direction, away from Africa instead of towards it. I didn’t want to be traveling back to the States. Is this even home anymore? After two weeks in Kenya, my heart was aching for Uganda more than ever. The further away I traveled, the deeper that ache grew.
After 28 hours of flights and layovers, I eventually made it to Chicago. I sat with detached indifference, apathetically watching random Americans walk by dressed in Halloween costumes. It all seemed so odd, surreal. The corridors of the O’Hare Intl Airport felt cold and dull.
When I met Joseph, he taught me how to braid rope. It’s work meant for men, but with a laugh he said it would be ok for me to braid rope too. He was sweet and welcoming. We sat together, along with Headmaster Moses who had accompanied me to translate, while we waited for his mother, Jane, to get home so that I could meet with her. Joseph’s home was right next to hers. We sat on tiny wooden chairs and waited, talking and getting to know each other in broken English. He stayed close to his mom during my visit. I could feel his love for her. Gentle, protective and caring.
I look at these pictures of him and can’t believe he’s gone. Before the details were confirmed, we hoped it wasn’t him that this had happened to. Death happens easily in Africa, but even so…it was too much, too unexpected. It’s too big of a loss. For the community, for Jane, for all of us. That I captured these photos of him, even that feels surreal. I took them back in December and can’t help but feel that, even then…God knew.
God knew that He would take him Home and He knew that Jane would need us. Just like God knew I would need Jesus before Carl died and so Jesus came to meet me two weeks earlier at baby Anna’s funeral.
These losses make my heart cry out in agony. And yet I see the divine orchestration of details and I cry out again in awe. Agony and awe, pain and comfort. The white bird flies sharply, quickly over the reflections of still water. Two days ago I was sweating in the tropics. Today I’m shivering in the cold, naked forest. I’m here and yet I’m there.
I see beauty in these photos that captured Joseph’s existence. Beauty that brings me to tears. Beauty that crushes me and pulls me forward nonetheless. Like energy, love never disappears, it only transforms. Even after the forest burns, new life grows greener than ever before.
Quite honestly, it’s more than I know what to do with. My journey to Kenya was a head-full. I felt strangely awkward and disconnected. I don’t have it in me to wrap up this writing with a neat and tidy ending. For now, just let me lay out these broken pieces so that perhaps, someday, I might be able to make better sense of them. For now, I just want to grieve with Jane. And, even as I write those words, I know I am also grieving for myself and for Carl and for a million other losses. I’m grieving for the world I’m giving up in exchange for a precious, precarious life in Africa. A life with even fewer guarantees than the one I am leaving behind. How beautifully fragile are we.
Rest in peace, Joseph.