I lay on my bed and watch, discreetly, through the window as they take her body away. I glimpse white hair framing a now pale face before the body bag is zipped and she's loaded in the van.
The paramedics and ambulance have long since gone, their services no longer needed. The family stands around the yard, unsure what to do next other than cry.
I haven't even met these neighbors yet, but their grief is one I know. I remember the body bag, the pale face, the uncertainty of what to do next other than cry.
My kids are lined up at the window, watching. Death is not a new thing for them, for better or for worse, and their questions tend more toward the practical.
Are they going to bury her in the back yard?
Will they keep her clothes on when they bury her?
Why are they taking her away from her family?
The idea of a mortuary or a coffin or a graveyard is foreign to them. Their experiences to date include only blankets and holes dug in a family's yard. A simpler and maybe not so lonely goodbye.
We've been here only a few weeks, weeks full of relearning a culture that we left behind years ago. For my children it is all new. Only my oldest remembers this strange land full of excess and comfort. Every day they cruise the neighborhood on their bikes, looking for someone they can talk to or play with or smile at. Their constant question would be funny if it weren't so true.
Where are all the people?
They are lonely. They miss the friends who came every afternoon to play football on our makeshift field with the handmade, mosquito net goals. They miss the village trips full of dancing and singing and tiny babies with snotty noses. They miss the school interruptions for cleaning a bloody wound that just couldn't wait or buying a chicken for dinner. They miss the afternoons romping on the mountain, often barefoot, surrounded by friends and beauty and freedom.
Here the streets are hard and black, and there are so many rules.
“Don't ride your bike in the street.”
“Don't walk in peoples' yards.”
“Don't eat things off the ground.”
“Don't ask to hold stranger's babies.”
“Don't stare or point.”
“Don't, don't, don't.”
And then, finally, they begin to meet the neighbors.
One elderly man walks his dog every day. His name is Bill and his dog's is Molly. She has a pink tail and loves children. And my children love her. Every evening they watch for Molly and rush for the door as they see her coming. Bill stops at our sidewalk and we chat as the kids take turns petting and cuddling Molly.
Ms. Charlotte is next. She is a widow, living alone, who had always wanted children. I worry that they are overwhelming her with their daily visits. After all, there are quite a few of them.
“Your children are just so sweet! I just love them to death. Please send them over every day to visit me!”
I watch them hug her, one by one, and her eyes are alive with joy. They come back with stories of her earlier life as a school teacher in Alaska. They are fascinated by her and her by them.
We frequent the free lunch at a nearby church. We line up with our paper plates, the baby strapped in and a little one on each side, big ones ahead and behind. They ask if I do foster care or day care, they oooh and aaaah over every “please” and “thank you”. The elderly Vietnam veteran tells me stories of his days in the war while the sweet kitchen ladies feed my children extra cookies and cake. The homeless sit all around us and watch us with smiles. We leave with our arms loaded with free breads and cakes. My kids can't wait for Tuesdays.
The neighbor girl comes over to play. She was adopted after being taken from a mother who beat her and locked her in a closet. Her twin sister has Down Syndrome and neither of them were wanted. She now takes ceramics and runs track. She teaches my girls to roller blade and comes over to jump on the trampoline in the afternoon after school.
Acuka keeps disapearing to visit another elderly neighbor. His back is bent and his gait is slow. He spends his days pulling weeds and mowing his yard. I wonder how he gets his groceries. His family rarely comes to see him, and he is always alone. Acuka talks his ear off as he weeds, showing him his tricycle and matchbox car. Finally, he gets out his bike and rides the street with Cuk, slowly and carefully. I expect him to fall at any moment, but he rides, back and forth, back and forth. Acuka calls him, “my friend”.
And so it goes.
My children may not know how to fit in here, but no one seems to mind. They love well, they spread joy, they bring hope. These things know no culture or boundary or rule. They remind me daily that this life, not the one lived in Africa, just the one fully lived, is full of hurting people and broken lives, of new chances to love around every corner.
We were blessed to be there, and we are blessed to be here.
We are just blessed to be.