Pat’s dear young friend M. died today, just after midnight. She was 26 years old, a widowed mother of two little girls. Pat (and we!) met her in 1993 when we first came, and she was a 12 year old girl going to church. Something about her touched Pat’s heart, and they developed an almost mother/daughter relationship over the years. She grew up, she married a soldier, and then he died and left her with two children and a virus. She died of AIDS, but also of fear, of prejudice, of secrecy. She died of the injustice that makes a girl overly desperate for a relationship, she died of the injustice that means a person as sick as she was was being cared for on the floor of a minimally equipped health unit instead of in a state-of-the-art ICU.
But she did not die alone. Over the past few weeks she finally allowed her friends like Pat to delve back into her life, to get her the diagnosis long suspected, to take her to the clinic. Her self-sufficiency and willfulness melted away before the relentless pursuit of this disease. Once a healthy plump girl, spunky and lively, musical and laughing, she shrunk into a weak jaundiced figure with a shuffling walk, and finally needed help even to turn over in bed. And she had help, lots of it. Pat spent hours and nights with her, bringing her into her home for care, taking her to the hospital. Her young twenty-something girl friends tirelessly sat by her side. Her older mother wore herself out.
Over the last few days M. was increasingly uncomfortable, restless, breathing more quickly. Her CD4 result came back: 79, terribly dangerously low. She stopped eating and drinking, pulled out her IV lines. By yesterday morning even her mother was ready to give up, so they brought her home, laid her on Pat’s lap on a mattress on the floor of her simple mud-brick room. In the confusion and busy-ness of this summer and this week in particular we weren’t sure this was right, this was the end. Two other AIDS patients of mine came into the hospital as wasted and near death as M., but recovered. So we respected her family’s decision to bring her home (M herself was no longer coherent) but Scott and I went to visit, and Scott put in a home IV for fluids and antibiotics and even gave her pain medicine. We sat with her, and Pat, and her friends, and prayed. About 10 Pat called to say that she had pulled the IV out again, but we would wait until morning to restart it since she was no longer dehydrated. But then just after midnight, we got another phone call to say she had died.
AIDS represents so much of what is wrong with our broken world, but in spite of it all in Africa sometimes we can see the beautiful picture of a community responding to pain. Yes, some of the crowd of people that came to visit M. before and after her death were merely curious or looking for gossip. But most were sincerely moved by her suffering, and here that is expressed by physical presence. By the time the sun was well up this morning over a hundred people were warming themselves over the coals of the compound’s fire against the damp morning air, sitting shoulder to shoulder on benches. Later I counted 26 people (adults) sitting in the 6 x 8 foot room with her body, our legs tangled, our hips pressing together. Dozens of women sang hymns most of the day. At least five different pastors came to pray and give sermons to the growing crowd. By late afternoon there were at least 500 people. It was long, and crowded, but that is Africa, everyone must have their say, and the more people that are there the better.
A number of family members also spoke, but Pat was the only woman and the only “friend” invited to say something. She begged people not to live in fear, and very boldly declared that M.’s rapid decline was not the result of witchcraft, that God knew the number of her days. When Pat emphasized how she longed for people to know the freedom from fear that comes through Jesus she got down on her knees in the muddy courtyard. I heard people gasp, cluck their tongues. They were listening. A little window of life and hope on a day of sadness.
It was nearly 5 pm by the time the crowd moved towards the graveside, in this case (after long negotiations through the morning hours) M. was buried on her own land, land that Pat had helped her obtain after her husband died, which was a ten minute walk from her mother’s home. We stood around the gaping grave, administering first aid to hyperventilating and fainting friends. After a few more prayers and songs the thunk of dirt clods on the thin plywood top of the coffin, the sound of finality, dust to dust, mud to mud.
The picture of AIDS today is raw, unadorned, sagging skin and yellow eyes, labored breath and weeping friends, wide-eyed orphaned children clinging to relatives. But that is not the whole picture—hundreds of people in solidarity, singing praises in spite of suffering, testifying to the unseen reality of eternal life in the midst of muddy death, caring for each other, this is also part of the picture of AIDS. Like a swingset in the graveyard, like a bloom in the desert .. . Love is going to break through (Chris Rice).