(Note for the Americans who may not know: WhatsApp is a mobile application used all over the world - except most of the US - for group texting and sharing)
This weekend been an emotional roller-coaster for the staff of Kibuye Hope Hospital. Along with 64 others, I am on a WhatsApp group for hospital employees. It's good for my Kirundi practice, and it keeps me in the know for a number of local and national happenings. Additionally, it's an interesting study into the variable cultural uses of emojis and texting etiquette.
Friday morning I awake to about thirty new messages. Our head cashier just had her first baby and posts a beautiful picture. Sleeping newborn wrapped into a clean blue blanket featuring, of all things, American footballs. Dozens of congratulations from her fellow hospital staff, most getting a "reply all" thanks for the congratulations. Celebration is better in a group.
Friday at 3pm. I'm sitting down at home to a Zoom call when I get an urgent text that Jean-Marie, one of our nurses, was found at home in a non-responsive coma. Rush to the hospital, where I find him in a basically brain-dead state. I had seen him two days before and we talked about treatment for some vague symptoms he'd had for a couple weeks. He was to come back to see me that day, and was apparently doing better, until he suddenly collapsed. What happened?
Discussions. Tests. ER Bed encircled by ardent prayers for healing. Dread feeling in my stomach. Afraid to hope. Jean-Marie dies at 1:30 Saturday morning.
After the sudden announcement on the WhatsApp group, the messages of grief pour in. Prayers and expressions of shock. Tearful eyes and stunned faces.
The burial is Saturday afternoon. We meet by the morgue and walk behind the hospital pick-up truck that carries the coffin to the nearby gravesite amidst the towering eucalyptus trees. I can't catch all the Kirundi in the eulogy, so I quietly ask my friend for details.
Jean-Marie Hakizimana was 36 years old. He was a local guy, from a nearby village within Kibuye district. After going to the local high school, he went to teacher's college and taught school for several years. Later, when he got the chance to go to nursing school, he took it. He had been working at Kibuye for a year or two, and was universally known for his diligence and gentleness. He often volunteered to preach at morning chapel. Along with his wife, one son, and four daughters, he was building a house nearby, and in an amazingly tragic detail, he had planned to move into his new house on the very day that he was buried.
Walking back towards sunset, I can't sort out the tragedy, nor its juxtaposition with new life. The group in front of me is talking pleasantly with each other, and even snatches of gentle laughter find their way back to me. Strangely, it doesn't feel inappropriate or disrespectful. It feels like hearts that have the capacity to absorb suffering together.
A few months ago, I wrote about rejoicing and lamenting at the same time. I wrote that we need to learn how to do this, and that the Bible is a great model. Interestingly, I think my African brothers and sisters are also a great model. This capacity seems to be born of suffering, something that is true of most biblical and most African cultures. I'll quote Jerry Sittser once again:
"Sorrow is noble and gracious. It enlarges the soul until the soul is capable of mourning and rejoicing simultaneously, of feeling the world's pain and hoping for the world's healing at the same time."
As I watch my home country of the USA from afar - this troubled nation that doesn't know what WhatsApp is - it seems that people don't know whether to celebrate or to grieve. Because the grief is real, we feel bad celebrating. But the reasons for celebrating are also real, so what does that mean about the grief?
All around me here in Burundi, I see a world that seems to know better than I how to do both at the same time. I am thankful for them. I hope that I can learn this from them.
Today just before noon, the WhatsApp group rings off the hook again. Our cashier's newborn baby has died. I have no idea what happened. The expressions of grief pour in again, mostly followed by the heartbreakingly gracious reply of "thanks". Sorrow on sorrow. Who can endure?
If it is suffering and sorrow that enlarge our hearts, then let's not kid ourselves. There is nothing easy in being broken. But "nothing easy" does not mean, and never will mean "nothing redemptive".
We lean on one another on this long, often difficult, and always beautiful road.
Though his tenure on the earth
is that of a blade of grass,
though his acquaintance among the dead
increases year by year
and, like many grown old
before, he lives from the loss
of one beloved companion
to the loss of yet another,
the old man prays to find,
at the end of his own leash,
his love for the world at hand,
his heart at rest in gratitude.
(Wendell Berry: Sabbath Poems, 2012/III)