In the Shadow

Below is another early entry from Nathaniel’s African journal.  It very much relates to the first we offered here a few days ago, called: “Pray for Bob, Daddy.”  Perhaps you would like to read the former before reading the below…if you have not already done so.

he car window framed an evolving portrait of Ugandan life.  Leafy banana fields and papyrus-filled swamps waned into the bustling city streets of Kampala.  They, in turn, faded into sugarcane plantations, and the soft, rolling hills of the tropics.  A bridge crossed the River Nile.  On any other day, this masterpiece that is Africa captures my being’s heart and soul; presenting a unique gift of inspiration, peace and nourishment.  Today, I barely noticed the beautiful canvas outside because of what I was feeling inside; because the pickup ahead of me held my little Ivan.  Or what had been Ivan.  His spirit, now in a new home, was with us in a different form as we traveled to lay to rest his former vessel—near his parents’.

He had died a peaceful death. At nine years old, he had lived longer than most children with AIDS in Africa.  Longer than hoped.  Longer than he would have outside my home.  For that I was grateful. 

And one day, Eternity will reunite us, and we will dance together again—like we always used to.  And his steps will be freer and more beautiful than ever before. And what music!

Until then, though, there is a season of mourning—and a season of fighting. We will keep going.  We will continue to help children to live longer, to suffer less, and to be at peace.

The pickup pulled off the village road.  My taxi followed.  I stepped out.

“This is Bob,” someone said to me. 

“He asked for you just two weeks ago,” I’m amazed. “We didn’t know where to find you.”

I guess Bob to be about seven years old.  He sat next to me throughout the funeral.  He wanted to hold my hand.  I wanted to hold his.

As we left our seats and moved towards the grave, little Bob squeezed my hand and spoke my name.  I looked down into his eyes.  Ivan’s eyes.  His tears. “Thank you for treating Ivan,” he said simply.  “You are my friend. My real friend.”

We went together to say goodbye.

The grave was nicely prepared.  This hasn’t always been true for my other children who have died—children who had no one.  But it was so disturbing.  So small.  Tiny in fact. 

Surely graves were never meant to be so little.

We sprinkled flower petals on top of the simple casket.  Some men from the village sealed the grave.  Bob took my hand again, and we walked back towards the small village hut.  The family’s land was filled with graves.  We carefully stepped over them. Around them.  Many of the sepulcher mounds too small.  All of them, I had a sense, had been dug too soon.

As usual, people crowded around me after the service.  Many to say thank you.  Others to get a closer look at my fair skin.  Most came with desperate questions about their own HIV situation.  Their children.  Their orphaned grandchildren.

I lingered.  I answered all the questions I could.

Finally, I had to go.


The next morning, my little Mzee died.  Also nine years old.

The process repeated itself.  Another tiny grave.  Another suffering body put to unmatchable peace.  And rest.

Two days later, Prisca died.  Also nine years old. 

The next day, I gathered all my children and my staff in our backyard.  In the shadow cast by our house.  And by our sorrow.

Again, the masterpiece that is Africa framed each of us as we took a turn to stand and talk about our precious sons and brothers.  Our Prisca.  Our Ivan.  Our Mzee.  We cried. And we laughed.  We shared secrets.  We shared tears.

I had prepared a basket filled with flower petals taken from blossoms from the yard.  Our yard. 

“Let’s form a circle,” I said.  From the inside of the circle, I presented the basket to each staff member, each child, one-by-one.  “Take a handful,” I quietly instructed.

“These flower petals,” I began, not sure what I would say next, “though now in a different shape than they were when on the stem, remain beautiful.”  Still inside the circle, I slowly turned and looked into the eyes, the souls, encircling mine.  “Even more beautiful, some may say. Though their form is different, though they are no longer ‘living’ in the way that we normally recognize, they are still with us. And they are wonderful.”  Every eye, each soul, was looking back at me, at mine, in understanding.

“Ivan, Mzee and Prisca are a lot like these precious flower petals. Their form is now different, but they are still beautiful, still lovely.  Still precious.  And they are with us.”

We then took our handfuls and lofted them into the heavens—and said farewell. “Until we meet again.”

The gate’s buzzer used its startling voice to join the moment.

The gatekeeper excused himself from the circle.  He ran to the gate.  There, he found a small child.  Another soul.  Another opportunity to make a difference.  Another chance to make last days more comfortable, life more precious and hope more real.  

And so it goes.