George’s mother has died.
|George and Rosette's mother died a few months ago of breast cancer. She had no access to screenings or treatment, leaving her two young children to be care for by a cousin.|
I watch him and his younger sister, set out into the world without her. A cousin has taken them in and I can see that they go to school and have food. But ever since I came to his village, George has tapped on my window or knocked on my door and called for me. The other children say, “Mamma dead, papa dead.” It is how they define him. George is the boy whose both mother and father have died. The children who say this, do not live with both of their parents. Their parents live in different cities or even countries trying to find work, trying to find a better future. They wander too but with the hope that one-day the unknown parent will return and they will be a family once again. No one says, “Mamma dead. Papa dead.” There is an occasional phone call or a gift or even a visit. Even in this hamlet with many parentless children, George and his sister, Rosette, are unique in their lonliness.
George’s mother died of breast cancer. By the time she sought medical attention it was swollen and abseced. It was beyond hope. In my village, we try to find a cure for breast cancer. They say cancer is cells gone wild. I think of a gang of teenagers and someone saying that they have gone wild. A bunch of adolescent cells dividing and growing and taking over the town with no sense of how to behave; no sense of order. You want to say, “If you keep this up, something really bad is going to happen. You are bad cells gone wild.” They use to say some children were just “bad seed.” It was just a bad crop and noting much could be done about it. The next year, the next child will be better. There was a mold n the seed or not enough rain or to much rain. It was just bad seed gone wild.
George’s family had little, if any, knowledge of cells, let alone cells gone wild. No one explained the disease. They keep saying it was a breast infection and I think how could George’s mother have died of a breast infection but it was cancer which, at the end, looked like an infection to those who cared for her. They sent her, on the crowded ferry, to Port-Au-Prince but it was too late. They are grinding corn in a large wooden pestle and mortar as they try to explain why George has no mother. They keep pointing to their own breasts and showing me how large it grew.
George’s sister eats a bowl of rice all alone. She tries to join a game but she cannot. She is frozen. I begin to notice that love is defined by how tight your braids are, how many there are and if they are tied off with ribbons or brightly colored barrets. It is defined by someone sitting down and taking the time to yank on your head and pull the hair tight and braid a hundred small braids that are shiny and black with red and yellow and white ribbons. Rosette and the other children, living without mothers do not have braids.
They say, in Haiti, 1 in 44 mothers have a chance of dying in childbirth. Most of the babies will not survive if their mother dies. There will be no milk and no one can afford formula. But George’s mother survived childbirth and nursed him and his sister. She got them that far. In a country where so many children never reach their first birthday, this seems like an accomplishment worth noting.
It is dusty and they are most often covered, like me, in a fine layer of red dust. It collects in our hair and on our clothes. Sometimes I look at George and the other children and we are all bathed in the earth. We try to wash it off but it is not easy. The water must be collected and poured over you. Once I gave George a bar of soap and he took his clothes off in one second and washed. I had not meant the soap to be an order to bathe but only a small gift. I think of his mother handing him soap and telling him to bathe. Dis he see the soap as an order or was he just so exited to use it. Did he have, even for a moment, a mother who cared if he was clean?
In my village, in the United States, mothers die too. I have watched beautiful, young, talented.. loving, funny, smart mothers die. Mothers who ate well, took good care of themselves and devoted a large part of their lives to being a parent. I knew women who mothered everything they saw and shared their mothering arms with every child they saw, die too soon. I am ashamed to find myself thinking their deaths are worst; not just because I knew them but because mothers in my country are not suppose to die and deep inside, death in Haiti is not such a surprise. I can blame poverty, colonialism and the rich elite for George’s mother’s death but here I am forced to accept a mystery. I am fighting it. There is no one to really blame and why do I want to blame anyone at all. It was so sudden, so unexpected, such a rare disease, an accident.
Their children have the same look in their eyes as George. I can see it when I run into them. I sit in the sun watching the sea. I watch the waves come and go; the shorelines shift and change. I want to scream, “ I know, I know” but I do not know. I only see the faces of the children whose mothers died before they were grown.. George’s mothers death was preventable and with early screening, curable. Maybe other deaths were preventable and curable but how can we prevent everything. An inner voice tells me I am not being reasonable. I argue. I am not trying to defy death or believe everything can be prevented. I am only asking for a moratorium on mother’s dying; on children growing up without mothers.
I can tell it is too much to ask. I am brought to my knees by the latest death of a loving mother. I feel her warmth and radiance around me. I watch soap bubbles blown into the air; small rainbows that drift until they land and return to the earth. I want to see her again. I want the baby to cling to her legs as she talks to me in the hall of the school. I want to listen, once again, to her hopes and dreams.
She climbs up on the cliff where I am sitting and George’s mother finds her way there too. “You two have met?” I ask. This seems impossible. They did not know each other. They lived in vastly differently countries. I think they are trying to explain the work they are doing and how there are many ways to mother. I can see that there are many things I do not understand. I tell them to go away and just let me put my head in my hands and be sad. Let me paint my body with clay and mud and make a fire and sing all night until I am worn down by grief. I am not interested in understanding.
I see George and his sister and all the children who lost their mothers. I want to shake the world and free them from this loss. I want them to wake up and discover it was a dream and not true at all. Are we united by our losses as much as by what we gain?
By morning, the tides have changed and the seas have covered yesterday’s footprints. On the mountains above me stand the nations who sing their own death songs; their own songs for mothers, for the first words spoken and lost to children taken away and sent to boarding schools. I know death takes many forms for mothers.
Sometimes I ask my own motherless children from Cambodia and Vietnam to try to remember their mothers; to think back on any small memory. I remember a relative saying, “She didn’t try hard enough to live. She gave up. “ Another says, “She gave the food to the children. “ I want to keep their mothers alive, for them, but I cannot.
I think of the last Star Wars movie with Obie One and Datthe Vder and Yoda altogether in the sky, offering love and encouragement to all the world below. And then I see the mothers; the ones who passed away before their children were grown. I know they are counting on us to raise their children. I can see the world they are hoping for. I feel their prayers drifting over all of us all like the cherry blossoms on a windy day.
Later we walk to see an ancient tree. I try to explain how the mother tree fell down and began to die but also to make a bed for new, baby trees. We call it a nurse log because it gives its last bit of life for the next generation. Although the tree has fallen, it continues to nurture and inspire its young for many, many more years. And in time they too will lie down and make a bed for the young to grow in as it has been done for all of time.
I would like to say that I found peace there by the ancient tree but peace comes and goes. I dive into acceptance and come back out in depression, despair and denial. They say that the mother who has died had a rare disease that had no cure. I can see that I have not accepted that as possible. I take my sad heart out of my dreams and try to work on a plan for mobile, prenatal clinics in rural Haiti. I think of the sunrise in Haiti and Vietnam and rural Cambodia. I look out on my world. I try to understand how I can live within the mystery of death while working hard to prevent the needless deaths of mothers in Haiti. In these raw early morning struggles I am left only with a faith in a goodness beyond understanding, beyond borders, beyond history, beyond death. I close my eyes and feel the loving presence of the mothers who died when their children were young and know that I cannot see the world as they do or fully understand. I only can go out into the world with love for each child; with a vision of the world that honors their life and their children.