Ten days before I left for this trip, my friend Leah died in a car accident in Ghana. She wasn’t yet thirty. She was working on international food policy. She was headed to the beach for the weekend.
I only knew Leah for a few years, but Minh used to joke that he was afraid we’d run away together, kindred spirits. To be honest, I always held pride in this little joke of his. It felt like such a compliment, every time. As her dear friend Maria said: “Leah was somethin’ special. There ain’t no more Leah’s in this world.”
And that, you see, is exactly the problem. And I can’t sort it out. I can’t wrap my mind around this absence. This fact. And yet, today, here, in this moment now, it feels so real. Too, too real. And I am so mad that I shake.
I try to imagine what she would say to me here, sitting under this mango tree, hot tears blazing down my face, children coming home from school staring at the mzungu trying hard not to make a scene in public. “But I had a wonderful life!” she would start, gesticulating with her hands, and tilting her head. “But you are in Africa! C’mon. Get up and go visit your friends, do your work. Keep going! I am fine.”
No, I say. It is NOT ok. How is it ok? How can I believe in a world where Leah is senselessly gone? Someone doing such good…real good in this world. Someone with such passion and spirit and life! How can that life be gone? And if it is, since it is, what the heck are we doing here anyway? I feel like her death is supposed to make me feel even more strongly about my work; more committed. We always talked about our work, compared our work, took turns being amazed then wonder-fully jealous of one another’s work. We complained in good humor, and dreamed in good faith. Neither Leah nor I ever knew what was going to come next, but wasn’t that the beauty of it? Leah was ok with the uncertainty and made me feel confident too, proud and more comfortable with flowing with life, asking questions without real answers, and taking risks for the beauty and humanity of it all. I sit here now, and I hate to be this way, but I don’t want to flow or dream right now. Right now I am only asking, really, what is the point?
I used to have an answer to that question. When asked about the point of it all, I pointed to my favorite, favorite quote – an Irish proverb, actually: “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live,” it says. Take care of one another, love. To me, this seemed so completely crystal clear. This was the point. But now, now….I’m honestly not that sure. God, I am angry.
In Jewish tradition, focus is not placed on the afterlife, but rather, the life we are living now. Even the Kaddish, the prayer said for the dead, speaks only of the miracle that is this world, this life. But you see, I whisper in between the lines of the Kaddish, we really need Leah back in this life. We really, really need her here. Surely, there has been some terrible, terrible mistake.
Here in Uganda, a country where she has never been and will never be, her absence to me is profound. Perhaps it is because we talked of traveling here together one day. More likely, though it is because this is a place where Life and Death are intimate partners and good friends. Here, the joy and the pain, the ins and outs of a day, they are all raw. There is no pretense of “forever.”. Everything, and everybody will one day cease, and that day…well, it could be today. I feel Leah here as I walk the path in the morning past the chickens and goats and cows, down into town. I feel Leah as the grass tickles my legs and the breeze gives a momentary respite from the searing mid-day sun. I feel her so much as I simply go about my day.
I look down. The red dust is swirling around my ankles and knees as a storm brews across town. The road is pocked with holes– the mark of rainy season – and a truck rushes down the road, like an elephant on a balance beam. Everything can be swept away.
An old woman walks past me now, hunched over a walking stick, eyes cloudy, dress to match the grasses. “Apoyo” she greets, and raises a hand. I smile and greet her in return. Three children in blue-checkered uniforms balance on the back of their father’s bicycle, returning from school. They smile and wave wildly “Muno, Hiiiiiiiiiiiii” they shout, using the word for “foreigner”. “Acholi, Hiiiiiiiiiiiii,” I offer and they erupt in gales of laughter that I have met their call of “foreigner” with the word for their own tribal identity. Six strong women turn around in passing and smile at the exchange. They are each holding a day’s worth of labor on their heads, doubtlessly walking home to bathe the children and prepare the evening’s meal.
There is something faint in the distance. Wailing. Is it screaming, even? In a moment I recognize this sound. It is the sound of mourning. Somewhere nearby, a family has lost a member. Someone beloved is gone. Yes, I want to say….yes, I understand. The void is too deep for words or flowers. I know, and I am sorry. So, so sorry.