I couldn’t write about it until this morning, when the battery died on a washed out dirt road, enormous piles of rock blocking my path. The rain falling, of course, I stepped out of my car, into thick muck, foot sinking in, pink toe nail polish disappearing under brown ooze. And standing there, wondering if someone would stop. Broken down car on a sunken road, standing ankle deep in muck, as rain spattered my shirt. That is when I realized that I could write about it. About Victor’s death. A week ago. Because I was stuck in that car, and I just couldn’t move, and I am stuck on his death, and I just can’t move, unless I tell his story. So, here it is.
He was the youngest son of Elias Phiri, himself only a young father, twenty-five years old. Victor was one and a half. His older brother, Paul, is four; named after his Uncle Paul, a smiling, kind man who always helps me with my Chichewa. When we visited their home last year, Victor flew into his daddy’s arms, his tiny arms wrapped tightly around his smiling father. We walked into the small room that served as dining room, bedroom, and living room. A few chairs and a bamboo mat that doubled as the family bed. Paul Junior was shy; he clung to his mother. But little Victor was curious; safe in his father’s arms, he kept on peeking at me with enormous, deep brown eyes.
That was almost a year ago; since then, Elias has become a part of the family, throwing Johnny up in the air, teaching Frankie to prune trees. He works two days a week as our gardener, allowing him an income that can sustain his family. He laughs a lot, and brings home mangos from our tree as a special treat for his two little boys.
But Victor, the youngest, has been sick lately. And we have been paying for medicine, for doctor’s visits, for anything we can, to treat the tuberculosis that left lesions in his mouth and a never ending cough. We have prayed, we have hoped, we have waited. And we thought he was getting better.
So last week, as I pulled into the campus, and saw Elias waiting for me, I was sure he just needed more money for medicine. But then I saw his face. Elias’s older brother, Paul, approached me as well. “Victor is dead,” Paul said, because Elias could not get the words out. “Last night, around 2am. That is when he died.”
I brought them to my home, and they detailed the funeral expenses. The cost for transportation, food for the mourners, a burial site, and a coffin. A small coffin. For a one and half year old child.
We cried with them and prayed with them, and gave them the money they needed to bury that small, beloved, sacred human being. And then they left, to travel ten hours into Eastern Zambia, where they would bury the baby in his ancestral home.
Victor Phiri was the youngest son of a very funny man, who loved life and loved children and worked hard and knew how to play. He had an older brother, Paul, named after his Uncle Paul, a kind and loyal and responsible man, who cared for all his younger siblings when their parents died. He had a mother, Amayi Phiri, who stayed up nights with him, held him close, willed him to keep on breathing. And he died last week. Of a treatable illness. And a few days ago, he was buried in a little, tiny coffin.
Awhile ago, I was telling a friend, someone who lives in the US, about life here, and death here, and I was furious. Just angry. And that man said to me, “Well, I guess the only thing you can do is just be grateful for what you have.” And I responded, without any filter, without any thinking, “No. The only thing you can do it get off your butt and do something about it.”
I don’t know exactly what it is. It might be donating money. It might be advocating for foreign aid. It might be supporting global health initiatives. It might be switching jobs. It might be getting on a plane. I don’t know what it is. But I guess I just think that we should all probably do something. Something.
In the mud this morning, rain seeping through my shirt, and I was stuck. Just plain stuck. A dead battery, wet and dirty and sad. And a stranger came, and he pulled over, and he spent some time, hooking and unhooking the jumper cables, pushing the car for a better angle, moving his car until the cables stretched. Standing with me in the rain, standing with me in the dirt, until the car burst to life again. And I could move again. I could go forward.
We do have it in us to do something. To stop our normal route, and pull over, and take the time to stand in the rain, to wade in the muck, to give life to someone else. And I think that is the only way we move forward. The only way I move forward. The only way you move forward. If we all just stop, stop what we are doing, and try a little harder. For Victor. For little Victor with his huge brown eyes, I think we can wade in the muck together. Can’t we?
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