It is rainy season in Zambia, and–at least in my neck of the Zambian woods–the rains have been torrential. (Last week, falling asleep during an evening storm, I jolted awake to the sensation of water pouring onto me and my bed from a leak in the roof. That was a long night. Peace Corps is a comprehensive master class in these types of moments; moments where the answer to the question, “Who is going to fix this problem right now?” is “You, pal, and nobody else.”) One Sunday night in January, it began raining at 10 p.m, and did not stop for twelve straight hours. Late the next morning, my host brother gave a light tap to one of the posts holding up the roof of my porch. “This is going to fall,” he said. A few hours later, sitting inside my door, I watched as the roof did just that. It collapsed to the ground instantly, in an orderly fashion, as if on command. It was upright, and then it wasn’t. I was leaving a voice recording for my friend Tyler at the precise moment the roof came down, and in the message you can hear the sudden susurrus of the plastic roof cover rustling over its bamboo backing, then the faint creak and thump of the posts hitting the dirt. Then my voice, almost monotonally: “My entire roof just fell down. I have to go.” (Listening to this is, admittedly, hilarious.)
I ran outside, where chaos had promptly ensued, and we hauled the roof a few yards away and maneuvered it onto the grass. There were discussions about what to do next; about sending some of the boys to cut down trees for new posts, about how swiftly it could be reassembled.
When I finally made it back inside, I had missed a call from my father, so I called him back. As I stared at the back of my closed door and listened to the continued uproar just on the other side, he told me that my Grandma Syberg, his mother, was going to pass away at any time. Literally one day earlier, I had returned to my village after journeying home to America for the funeral of my other grandmother, my mother’s mother. Grandma Brune.
I re-read what I just wrote, and I still find myself unable to believe this.
One grandmother was at the end of a long decline; one grandmother battled the baffling recurrence of salmonella poisoning. Their moments of crisis came at the same time, and my family had to find their way through. My mom and dad. And when my dear Grandma Brune passed away, thanks to my wonderful parents and brothers and sisters (and the Peace Corps) I was on a plane to America almost immediately. Solwezi to Lusaka, then Lusaka to Nairobi, Nairobi to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Chicago, Chicago to St. Louis. A woman on the plane with me to St. Louis gave me her Girl Scouts fleece, even though I told her that my sister-in-law had brought a coat for me, because it was 3 degrees in Missouri. I was wearing flip-flops, and had very little idea of what I had packed. It had been 90 degrees when I got off the plane in Kenya.
My father and brother picked me up from the airport, and we went to my grandmother’s house. My aunts and mother and cousins were putting together a collage of pictures. She’d had a good life. I leaned my elbows on the table and cried. (“Everyone’s done it,” my aunt said. “It’s the house.” Our beloved grandfathers passed away within three months of each other ten years ago, and an older, widowed friend of my mother’s told her [and I’m paraphrasing] that people moved on when they stopped waiting for the person who was gone to walk through the door. I have thought of that many, many times since in my life.) The wake was the next afternoon, the funeral the morning after that. When we got back to Indiana, we went to the rehabilitation center where my Grandma Syberg was staying after her emergency surgery. I cannot describe the profound relief I felt to be able to go straight to her side, take her hand, and tell her that I loved her. It was not a chance I had believed I would have. (Have you told your grandmother lately that you love her? Go tell her, you.) There were more visits to see her in my remaining time at home, and the day before I flew out of Chicago, I saw her one last time. There was a meeting with her surgeon later that morning, and all looked well. Progress was being made. The universe had swept in, knocked us over, but miracles were happening. It was going to be okay. I flew back to Zambia. I traveled to my village. My father called.
There was no bottom to how I felt that afternoon.
My friend came from America to visit in December. When we arrived in my village, my host father happened to be at the road with his truck, and we piled in with all of our bags for a ride. As we drove towards our family’s home, two different men called out to him, and he called back that he would return after taking us to my house. When I asked him what was happening, he explained that he was helping to gather wood to build a coffin. “Who has died?” I said. A sixteen year-old girl, of AIDS. I asked a few more questions. No, her parents were not alive–they, too, had died of AIDS. She left behind two small children. It was unclear who would take them in.
It is quite literally impossible to recall this conversation and not to think: who am I to grieve this much?
This is not an easy question. But it has come to mind again and again in the past month. Death and life here are completely intertwined, equally acknowledged, equally possible from day to day. I have almost never returned to my home here from a trip of any length without being informed of someone’s passing. A brother, an uncle, a mother. A colleague’s cousin drowned in the Solwezi River. A car accident happened down the road. The day after I spoke to my father, I told another teacher what was happening. He had two family funerals to attend that afternoon. At each meeting I go to at my school, the person offering the opening prayer–no matter who it is–thanks God that everyone in the room has lived through the night to see another sunrise. Nothing here is assumed. Do we pray this same prayer of thanksgiving, in America? This is not a prayer I have heard before.
“Death is a part of life here,” the teacher said to me as we talked, calmly, in reference to my grandmothers. “But they did not die here,” I thought, mentally correcting him in the most literal sense, and then wondered what I meant. And then thought, for the millionth time here, the trillionth, about the unfairness, the imbalance, of it all. Of how little any of us understand these mysteries. Of what death can mean in a different place. Even thinking this particular problem through feels like a betrayal of someone on one side or the other. I’ll save you the suspense: it is not given to us to know these things. All I can say is that grief is real, in America and in Zambia, but that here, perhaps, you are forced to endure this human rite more often.
Peace Corps allowed me to leave my village for some days to be with other volunteers after I told them about my second grandmother’s imminent passing. My wonderful host family knew what was happening, and had very kindly offered their condolences, but I needed to be away–being in the village, waiting for the second phone call, surrounded by people but still alone, had become torture. The day I planned to leave, I packed up a bag to stay with a friend, walked outside, and tried to shut the door. It wrenched out of the frame in an explosion of concrete, wood, and mud brick.
I put my bag down, trying not to let out the scream I could feel building. My host father rushed back from the fields to try and fix the door, and I held boards for him as he hammered and sawed. When Peace Corps staff arrived late in the day to examine the damage, they deemed that the door was still too loose for me to sleep there that night–but did I trust anyone to sleep there in my place, to watch my things? The ultimate question. I told them that I trusted my thirteen year-old host brother, Benny, with anything. And so that is who guarded my house: an eighth grade boy. We drove off in a pounding rain. When we got to the Peace Corps house for volunteers in the provincial capital, about thirty minutes passed, and then my sister called me. My grandmother was gone.
Some months ago, a young grandchild of our family, who I had never met before, passed away. I was told that it was diarrhea, and that the mother and remaining siblings were coming to stay with us for a time. When I went to bed, they had not yet arrived. But hours later I awoke in the darkness, and heard all of the women of my family together on the opposite side of our compound, keening and wailing wildly in the night, and realized that the grieving mother had come.
Life continues, in spite of all that can happen, and expects us to continue with it. All I wanted to do in the world was get back on a plane and come home again, but I stayed here. I wasn’t there. I video-chatted with my family at the wake, talked to them every day. I stayed at the Peace Corps house and tried to push through it, and my friends helped. I went back to my village after the funeral, because it was time to get back to work. And work helps. I told my students why I had been gone from them for so long, and explained that both of my grandmothers had died. Their young faces turned solemn. “Oh, Madame, we are so sorry,” they said, and I nearly wept right then and there.
I have a stack of mail from Grandma Syberg in my box at the Peace Corps house, sent throughout my time here. One envelope did not arrive for months and months; she specifically asked if it had come, because in it she had included some brochures from her own trip to Africa. When it finally arrived, there was an official stamp on the bottom: “Missent to Jamaica”. I have never seen a funnier notification from the post office. I’m so grateful I got it. But then, there was love in every letter.
My grandmas have pride of place in my house now. All of my Zambian family knows their names.