Monday, May 17, 2010

Sad in the same place

I watched a casket being lowered into the earth. He was 42. I didn’t know him, but he was a beloved cousin-brother of Lajara. She spent the last few weeks by his bedside in the hospital. They ran down the paths of their childhood together. Last semester he helped her pay tuition at Gulu University where she’s continuing her education. Lajara is a woman whose friendship is steadily restoring my weakened belief that solidarity with the poor isn’t just an ideal but a possibility. And so when I heard she had lost someone I came. It doesn’t matter that it’s Monday and there is work to be done. We buried him with singing. I held Lajara’s hand while we crowded around the open grave and she cried, her handkerchief in her free hand covered her face. She’s a tall, strong woman and her long arms trembled a little. We have sat together on mats in the shade enough afternoons for me to know she is not unfamiliar with sadness, but this, I can see, is an especially painful moment. This is unquestionably the most important thing I could do today.

We crowd into one of a half dozen tents providing shelter from a light sprinkling of rain that dampened us while we sang. They’re giving speeches from the head table but we can’t actually hear anything they’re saying. No doubt, they are reflecting on the kind and loving character of the deceased. Some grown men are crying. Others are commiserating on the latest developments in their land conflicts in their villages. Some women are sobbing. Others are cooking a meal for 300 mouths to consume. Over the rain, the conversations, the muffled speeches, is the sound of rocks being mixed with concrete to pour over the grave. I’m struck by how practical and ordinary things happen in this solemn space.

The people sitting next to me are other friends of the grieving family. I’m feeling rather useless—a burden to the overworked women in the kitchen, wondering why we’re all here. I find myself wanting to cry. Why? For the sadness of those who are nearby. For the reminder this day evokes of the burial of a dear friend I couldn’t attend last year because I was in London. And for our fellow communer who lost her dad suddenly two weeks ago whose hand is too far away to hold. When I look around I realize that it’s not about what is being said into the evidently useless microphone. It is not really about what is being done either.

This is a space to be sad in the same place. For those who were close to him it is the chance they have to sit and feel his absence from the world, for life to pause to recognize his passing. Many of the women pound, grind, boil, stir and serve through their grief--together. They carry their handkerchiefs while carrying food and stoke the cooking fires through tears inspired by his loss more than the smoke. Some of us came only because of them. This is an act of solidarity. From what I can tell, they experience our presence as meaningful and not an arduous chore as I feared. It is important that we eat this meal together, that we drink this cup as one. Humanity. We all lose people we love. We all die. We all clasp the hands of friends when we mourn.

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