(From Nathaniel’s African Journal, circa 2006.)
“When we miss them too much,” I said, “we‘ll come here to the flags, and look up.”
The kids were very quiet, listening to my words. So were the VIP‘s who had joined us for the special flag raising. Some eyes were eager to meet mine. Others were moist with tears. Three heads were averted in grief.
“Each of these flags represents a brother. A sister. Our children. Our loved ones who lived here with us.”
I was trying to be careful not to emphasize that they died with us, but that they had lived with us. While the reality of death cannot be hidden — or made to go away — I so hate for it to shroud the wonderful preciousness of the short lives. Beautiful soul-instruments who performed magically in our orchestra; realizing a perfect concert of melodious gentleness and tenderness. A symphony unlike any other.
We raised five flags; one for each of the children who have recently been with us.
The first one is bright yellow for Milo whose personality was a beaming flower in our garden. Sunny petals carried away by an early gale.
The second is deep blue; Ivan’s favorite color. How he loved to wear it; “to look smart”. How we loved him.
The third is light blue — a soft, tender heart. Young. Precious. Innocent. Mzee.
Next is a ravishing, pink flag flying for our lovely, little lady. Exquisite only begins to describe our Prisca.
And last is Isaac‘s penetrating red; a perfect symbol of his deeply strong spirit. Passionate. Courageous. Beautiful.
The first letter of the child‘s name is in black on her flag. His flag. A gesture of mourning. A remember-me voice.
On Friday, we had a bus-full of visitors; HIV-Positive Community Counselors from the capital. Aidchild hosts visitors about once a week, and it is always incredibly moving for me to give my tour to guests who are themselves living with this virus. This disease.
I started the tour at the new flagpoles. I wanted to explain that the flags came from my intense desire to help my kids to not fear death. While we do not tell them that they have AIDS, the children are unimaginably wise.
Even though we dwell on hope; though we tell them they can and will fight; though we believe that our prayers and treatment will lead to longer lives, the children know that we will all die. One day.
And they fear.
Nasaka (age 9) keeps looking into my eyes with a placid alarm. Silently she says, “I‘m afraid, Daddy.”
I have set my heart to find a way to answer her. To relieve. To calm. To help. To find a way. I must find a way.
“Look up. Look up at the flags, sweetheart. See how beautiful they are? Look beyond them to heaven. See how fantastic? It‘s not scary. It‘s wonderful. It‘s perfect there. Don‘t be afraid, baby.”
My guests and I stood together. We looked up. Up the twenty feet to the flapping, waving, beautiful banners of honored memory. To the heavens. We fell silent.
I looked at Isaac‘s red flag. It is still at half-mast as we remain in mourning. He died only days ago.
I looked at my many visitors. I saw their thin bodies, their painful skin conditions. I heard their coughs. And felt their sorrow.
I looked back at our beautiful flags. While I wanted my hope to somehow be extended to them in a significant way, at that moment all I could muster was an inner-dam of tears.
Don‘t cry in front of these people.
The disturbing reality of AIDS drenched me like a pelting rainstorm of emotion. I wanted to run for cover. For protection. I wanted it all to just go away.
They stood there looking at me.
Again we fell silent.
Finally, I cleared the emotion from my throat. I chased the hopelessness from my heart. I continued the tour.
We went to the Aidchild Academy while the kids were at recess. They admired the children‘s artwork; their soul-monologues of beauty and voice. They had questions.
We stepped out of the classroom just as the children were returning from their break. Just then, Ronald, 9, came skipping down the hill.
Carefree. Joyful. Fun. A perfect interpretive dance of the life that we have, desire, and cherish. If briefly.
We looked at each other.
Small teardrops formed in the corners of eyes.
Hope-petals re-opened in wilting hearts.
“I have something to say on behalf of the whole group.” The voice came from a man standing near me. “Thank you,” his eye contact was intense. “As counselors in the field, we work with many AIDS patients who are dead long before they die. They give up. They let hope leave them.” He swallowed. “You have shown us that this doesn‘t have to be. Your flags have shown us a beautiful hope. Your project has shown us a precious life.”
He looked at the other members of the group, and then back at me. “Thank you for your work.”
I had no response.
My visitors returned to their battered bus; to their reality, I remember thinking.
Here came that emotional rainstorm again. It was as if they had been filled with our mutual, single-measure of hope; draining it from me.
I desperately wanted this reality to disappear.
Go away. Just go away.
I tried to give up.
I made myself walk. Going where?
How can this be reality?
The base of the flagpoles.
I released the inner-dam of tears.
And I looked up.