These last days death has been on my mind a lot. Friend, can you believe that he even has the audacity to visit me in my dreams? I wish he would leave me alone! I know it is strange to talk this way about him but you have to understand, in my line of work(I deal mainly with HIV/AIDS orphans) I am surrounded by the effects of death. He is never too far away, always lurking behind the memories of the children I help, he is the very reason their lives are so difficult and at times abusive.
I have wanted to share this story for years but each time I read what I had written I did not feel like it did any justice to the short life of the baby boy who made such an impact on my life.
In Africa it is common practise to give a baby a name that has a meaning. I was first introduced to the baby when he was still in his mother’s womb. His mother visited my house often and always told me when he was born I would name the baby. I always thought she was pulling my leg as no one had ever asked me to do this before. A day after he was born, his mom was at our house asking for the baby’s name. Only then did I realize that she was serious.
I spent a week thinking over various names and asking my family what they thought and finally came to the name “Tendai.” It means “give thanks” in Shona a Zimbabwean language.
Tendai and his mother visited us often, he was a little charmer. At six months Tendai got sick, at first we thought it was just the normal diarrhea that little babies in this part of the world occasionally suffer from. Nevertheless my mother encouraged his mom to take him to a local clinic. That was on a Friday.
On Monday, Tendai’s condition had worsened, the clinic had done nothing to help him. When his mom brought him home Monday afternoon he looked like he was dead… its amazing how fast a baby can lose so much weight in just two days, gone where the chubby ebony cheeks. As my mother held his weak frame she wept deeply, I realise now what she knew then; when you often deal with death you can sense him in the room, patiently bidding his time till he robs life from us once again.
My friends and I were not willing to give up on the little boy and decided to rush him to a hospital 30 mins away. I remember Tendai made no noise, he was too weak to do anything but give out very shallow breaths. The car was in silence except for the occasional cries of a mother loosing her baby and the desperate prayers for a miracle that we quietly shouted to the one who understands suffering more than anyone else, Jesus.
When we arrived at the hospital I took Tendai from his mothers hands and as I held him, he released the rest of the water that was in his body, a sure sign that he had just died. With my clothes covered in liquid I held the baby in my arms, my two friends and I did not have the heart to tell Tendais’ mom that her pride and joy had just gone. . . at that moment she was running towards the hospital looking for anyone who could help them.
Many African government hospitals are often places where people go to die than recover, when we entered the hospital all we could see where rows of people holding someone who was dying or in great pain. We called for a doctor or a nurse but all we got were vacant stares from others who had been waiting hours for help that was taking its time to arrive.
I ran out of the E.R and entered another section of the hospital. The pediatric ward to my knowledge should be filled with nurses, doctors and children of all ages recovering. I hope to never enter a pediatric ward like the one I walked into, it was deathly quiet, no children, no doctors, no help. As we stood helplessly not knowing what to do next, a man came towards us took one look at the baby and referred me to a room.
Inside the room where two doctors engrossed in a lively conversation. They took one look at me and the baby and continued talking as if I did not exist. I stood there for what felt like an eternity doing my best not to crumble into a heap of tears. I finally asked them, “whats wrong with the baby?” Irritated to find I was still in the room with them they flippantly responded, “this baby is not our responsibility it died before we got it, there is nothing we can do.”and immediatly continued with their personal conversation.
No one wanted to tell the mother the truth so I told her. . . no one should tell a mother she has lost her love. . . babies are not meant to die.
The man from the mortuary quickly decided he didn’t want to deal with a grieving mother and so chose me to take Tendai to the mortuary. We entered a small van that had seen better days and whose inside floor had traces of blood of another who death had taken. Had I known they would take me to the back entrance of the mortuary maybe I would have declined to go, I just wanted to make sure Tendai would be OK. What I saw will haunt me for the rest of my life.
The last memory I have of Tendai is when a half drunk mortuary man grabbed Tendai like a sack of potatoes opened the door to a cold room that was lined with wooden shelves on which lay at least 40 uncovered human bodies…he found a little corner and shoved him there.
The whole time I was at the hospital I was like a stone, I knew the only way I could handle the situation and be strong for Tendai’s mom was to switch off emotionally. It was only when my friends and I got home that I broke down and wept.
Some memories are hard to revisit but still they come, clamoring to be remembered, refusing to be ignored. Today the memories and the pain of Tendai’s story feel as if it all happened yesterday and yet its now going onto 4 years.
babies are not meant die but sometimes . . . they do.