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Life and Death

Zambia, like many African countries, is a collection of dichotomies. Life and death happens around everyone in quick succession. For many years, particularly in the 80’s and 90’s, people were dying faster than they were living. AIDS struck like a thief in the night, taking both adults and children.

IPrincess Kasune zulu have been reading a wonderful memoir called Warrior Princess by Princess Kasune Zulu, who grew up in Zambia but now lives in Chicago. She has been a great force in providing help to her people here through a variety of organizations and networking. But as a child and young adult, she was surrounded by the specter of death and dying.

In the short time I have been here, several relatives of teachers and staff have died. zambia funeralTraditionally, the relatives do not change their clothes or bathe until the body is laid to rest, sometimes days later. The “funeral” encompasses all of these days. Also, many travel far distances to attend the final day of this funeral. As a kindness and in the spirit of many small businesses, the Village supports many of these funeral days for staff by providing food and transportation and often, even the burial plot and stone.

newbornAt the same time, there have also been several births, most recently a young son to a teacher. Births are not an easy thing here. There are no medications of any kind, the women must bring to the hospital their own blankets, plastic sheeting for the afterbirth, a bucket, large bottle of bleach, and food. The women are discouraged from crying out in pain and therefore, endure much pain in silence, tears flowing freely. Children often go without names for some many days: after all, the child could die.


Today was a different kind of funeral or memorial service, primarily a white one. Kathleen and Benedict (my hosts), were asked to officiate the service for the 95 year old mother of a family friend. It was held outside on the beautiful grounds of Ibis Gardens (a conference center/resort across the road from the Village). The teens who sing on the worship team at the Village of Hope church were invited to participate in the service. There was an odd mash up of people, the Ibis owner and his extended family, the staff, and a few of us from the Village. After the gentle service, lunch was served to all, made baby monkey twoin lovely Ibis fashion with traditional foods as well as simple fare. One relative had a rescued monkey whose mother was killed for food, another friend’s pre-teen daughter climbed the tree, many ate their meals on the grass, and still others clustered in small social circles for conversation. Most dressed nicely but casually, and generally sandals were the norm, no matter the age of the person.

There are other examples of life and death. Pets are generally around for service (cats are mousers and dogs are watch-animals). The cats live as they can and eat what they forage. They have kittens: some live and some die. It’s survival of the strong. Chickens roam free and often become a meal. It’s rural and it’s Africa. And that’s just how it is. Life is a challenge. Death is pushed away as long as possible. But there is a toll to be paid.

Mary is Dying

MaryHow is that possible, really?

We were teenagers together. We talked into the night. We created songs together. We dreamed dreams. We loved being friends. We were the real deal.

Mary was forever: the rock of a small quartet of girls who navigated the sixties in a thrum of social upheaval. Mary, tall and seemingly powerful, resilient and self-confident, she was the magnet and in many ways, the de facto leader. She was the stable one. She had the traditional home life. She was smart and she was talented, a voice to die for, a smile that lit the hearts of her friends. But she was not the traditional beauty of that era. She was not blonde or petite or giggly. Mary would come into her real prime as a woman . . . and so she did.

Where Mary was the regal big girl, Becky was the slight, soft-spoken one. Becky seemed fragile but with a sincerity of heart that spoke kindness and love. Self-deprecating, she always spoke better of others than she did of herself. She had her own form of stability, but it was deeper. She was the the non-judgmental one; she was the one who accepted everyone around her at face value; she believed in the good of people, even the ones who hurt her and betrayed her. Also brilliant, Becky was our philosopher.

Jennie was our conscience in the face of change. We actually lost her to the times. It was 1968, the year MLK was assassinated and black power became a force to be reckoned with. She had to choose between the love of friends, that is, her white friends, and a future where she would have to make place as a black woman.  Blacks of that time were asserting their identity; it was important to be black, to be proud, to be strong in the face of prejudice. But we didn’t think it needed to affect our group, we loved freely, we were true friends. But for her, it was a moment of crisis. Her black friends had challenged her, had questioned her “blackness.” She,too, was brilliant, but even that aspect of herself had to be set aside for the sake of identity and the black Muslim culture. We lost her that spring, right before graduation: she moved on to another life without us.

And who was I in that day? A poor girl trying to escape her foreignness, her Latvian-ness, her unstable home life, her fears, her self-loathing. I wanted to be like anyone else, just not me.

Mary’s home had been a refuge. Her pastor father (Gordon) always seemed accepting and gentle. Even if he was protective and conservative, it never came across as anger or vindictiveness. He was steady. And kind. To me. Mary’s mother, Edith, was another rock. Clearly, Mary’s stature and security seemed rooted in the genes of her mother. Edith was a servant, a traditional mother, who made cookies and kept her kitchen clean and aromatic. She would sit at the kitchen table with us . . . with me . . . and listen. Her listening spoke of respect for us, despite our age and our inexperience. She was interested in our ideas. She grieved for my home life–and Becky’s. Years later, I would be comfortable enough to spend two weeks in their home, playing scrabble, and becoming one of their beloved “strays.” Gordon died in 2006. Edith, at 96, is in hospice now. She is not remembering, not every day at least, that her daughter is dying too. Will they pass together? I would not be surprised.

Mary is dying. How can that be? How do I embrace a truth of that magnitude and not somehow “do” something. Can’t I stop the inevitability? Can’t I pray the right prayer? Can’t I be the “Good Witch of the West” and wave my magic wand to stop this travesty of human loss?

My tears will not keep her here. Nor will my anger or indignation. Nor my pleas to the God of my faith.

How often have I really seen her since those teen days, those magical days when we bonded hearts in such a way that even a lifetime of loves and experiences and travels and change could not break our bond? Not so many visits, not really. We were so sure of our friendship that we didn’t really worry much about the time or the distance. Whenever we did connect, we just started right there. Whether we sat in a boat in the Magothy River or lounged in her parents’ cottage in Mayo, Maryland or got all dressed up and celebrated a family wedding or birthday, we believed in that undying friendship. We made it so.

Yet, Mary is dying.

She was the one who filled her life with adventures from Canada to Nepal to months on a sailboat; Mary was always seeking, seeking, seeking. She cast aside her traditional God understanding and tried on a few extremes but then eventually, found a way to unite them all within herself into a magnificent wholeness. She walked labyrinths and sat in sweat lodges; she sang hymns and tribal chants; she wandered the universe within and she learned about the voice of silence. She found love in Jim and their marriage challenged her as much, if not more, than her wilderness experiences. But, she remained the rock, even for him, and then for her two girls, Hilary and Ariana, as well. She learned with them and through them. She went back to school and picked up that formal credential to do something she had already been doing all her life: helping others be themselves.

Mary is dying.

Mary is living on. She will cross into a new kind of life and her greatest adventure of all time begins. She leaves a legacy of love. She leaves a plethora of friends who call her cherished. Her daughters will fill jugs with their tears and yet Mary will drink them, in gratitude for their trajectories launched. They will be all right. And even Jim, husband of three decades, will find her spirit near to under gird the sorrow days and nights. He will be all right too.

But will I? Will Becky? Would Jennie, if she knew, even after all this time? Mary was a presence that we counted on, maybe only once a year or even less, and yet, we knew the tether from 1964 remained unbroken . . . until now. Our grief will be different than the immediate family. We can pretend for longer that she’s still there. And so, I predict, there will be odd drifts of grief that will overwhelm us in the months to come. It will feel fresh and immediate. And memory will have to be enough but never will be. Until we meet again. There.

Mary is dying.

Mary is living on.



Walking with Papa

Hard to know, really, what is a true memory and what is based on an old photograph. I hate that. I hate the fact that my childhood memories are such a blur. I know the reason, I didn’t review them. Somewhere along the line, I must have decided that the memories weren’t valuable. Too late now.

There are a few stand out memories of my father nonetheless. I can remember walking the neighborhood streets with him. Back then, it didn’t really matter where we were going; I liked walking with him. He always wore a hat, a fedora, and carried a cane. I’m not sure he actually needed that cane; I thought he looked distinguished. He always held my hand, although it was rough with calluses, it was a very large hand, a carpenter’s hand, and it completely encircled my own. I felt safe. That is, except for the times I had to stand outside the store and wait. I was never allowed inside that store with the lower half of its windows and door painted jet black. I couldn’t see inside, I couldn’t see if Papa was coming. It was some years later before I realized our walks had a specific destination: the local liquor store.

My father was a drunk, an alcoholic. These are words I learned later in life. Back then, it was a walk and a smell. I have a few cursory images of him arguing with my mother and on a few occasions, he would be unwieldy and unsteady, and my mother would do her best to get him to bed. Considering that he was probably 6 foot and she was only 4’11”, this was no small feat. The worst memory for me is seeing my father passed out in a chair, half naked. It was my first glimpse of a man’s private area and it was frightening. How old could I have been?

Other flashes are of card games with men friends, feeding one of our critters (no, that’s a lie memory, we have a picture of him doing that), reading the Latvian newspaper, and smoking. He smoked everything from pipes to cigarettes; did he smoke cigars? I don’t remember.

The strongest memory of all is the last one I have of him alive. We were visiting him in the hospital, my mother and I (was my brother there?). According to my mother, he had been there a month and although there were days when he was doing very well and was up and about, on this day, he was under an oxygen tent (old school). I was too short to see him from the side of the bed because of the tent, so the nurse pulled out the side table and I stood at the up left corner, near his head. He swiveled his head and looked at me, really looked at me. I cried. He wept. But what did he say? What did he say? What did he say?

A few days later, my brother woke me up to get ready for school. He stood at the foot of my bed, shook my feet and told me to wake up.

“Papa is dead.”

“That’s not funny, Zig.”

“I’m not trying to be funny. Papa died last night. Mami went to the hospital. We have to go to school. get up.”

He was only fourteen. I was nine. And we went to school that day, without a father.

This is one exchange that has already found a home in my fiction, in Swan Children, when the mother dies and the oldest must tell his sister that the mother died. “That’s not funny.”