When I came to dinner on Friday night, Sister Juliana told me, “Your little friend is sick.”
“My little friend is sick?” I repeated, unsure of what she meant.
“Yes. Small boy. The one who was scared of you in the village,” she said. “My sister’s boy.”
Small boy. I can’t remember his real name, because it was an African name I’ve never heard before, and everyone in the house just called him “small boy.” But how could I forget the little boy who was afraid of me? “Oh, yes, my little friend! He’s sick? That’s too bad,” I said.
“They took him to the hospital, but they don’t know what’s wrong,” she said. She seemed really upset, and got up suddenly from the table and went straight to the chapel.
I didn’t see her the following morning at breakfast, but I could hear her talking on the phone in the room next to mine. When I went down for lunch, I saw that Sister Dorothy was the only person at the table. I sat down and served myself some kenkey and stew.
“Sister Julie’s small boy died this morning,” Dorothy said with the air of commenting on the weather.
“What?” I said, nearly choking on my food.
“The one who was sick, Sister Julie’s nephew, he died in the hospital this morning.”
I just stared at her. Then I looked down at my food and stared at my that. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t speak. He died?
“Stop crying and eat your food,” Sister Dorothy said when she saw that my eyes had begun to tear.
“But, it’s just so sad! I can’t believe he died! How terrible!”
“It happens. That’s life. People die. There’s nothing you can do about it,” Dorothy said. “Stop crying. You’re not supposed to cry when a child dies. If you cry, another child will die. You’re not supposed to cry.”
“I’m sad that he died! I’ll cry if I want to!” I shouted at her. “If I’m happy, I laugh. If I’m sad, I cry. That’s life.”
When Sister Juliana finally came down a while later, I gave her a big hug and told her how sorry I am. “There’s nothing we can do about it now,” she said sadly. “He’s already gone.”
She told us that Small Boy is the third child to die. His mother had seven children altogether. The first and the third, both girls, died when they were young. Now him. Only four remain.
Sister Germaine, the sweetest nun I’ve ever met, was lunching with us, and told me that her sister once had three daughters, but each of them, one by one, died unexpectedly in their sleep. The girls’ mother was so devastated when all of her children had died that she divorced her husband and swore she’d never marry again. “That’s a big problem in Africa... child mortality. It’s sad, but it happens often.” She studied me intently for a moment and said, “When it’s far away, it’s just a number, but when it touches you personally... that’s a different story.”
The water in my eyes threatened to overflow onto my cheeks, and I couldn’t smile. Sometimes I wish that I didn’t feel things so intensely, that I were sympathetic instead of empathetic, and this was one of those times.
He only had so many days to live, maybe six or seven hundred, that’s it, and I had caused one of those days to be spent crying and screaming, scaring him with my white skin. His aunts told me that I was the first obruni he had ever seen, and chills ran down my spine when I realized that I was the only obruni he ever saw in his entire life.
I remember sitting in an armchair in their living room on the last night I was there, playing with his brothers and sister and cousin. His next brother, who was about five, had climbed into my lap. Small boy ran up to us, screaming and wailing, as usual, and pulled his senior brother’s arm until he jumped down off my lap. Small boy tried to climb up, but he was too little, so I picked him up and set him in my lap. I hugged him close and rocked him back and forth for a few minutes, until he squirmed out of my arms to play “lion” with his big brother.
When I visited him last, his family was having a big celebration in honor of a new life, the little baby Juliana. Now, his family has to hire a carpenter to build the tiniest coffin. Their next family gathering will be a funeral marking the end of such a tragically short life. Suddenly, child mortality in Africa seems infinitely more than just a number for me.