When we think of someone dying, we often picture them in their hospital bed, being attended to by family and friends who are trying to make them as comfortable as possible. The best medicines are available to them, and the pain is eased.
Or, if they are choosing to “die at home” then they are in their own bed, surrounded by their familiar things, still being made as comfortable as they can be, propped up on several pillows, given sips of water through a straw, again being attended to.
Yesterday Maureen and I visited Mrs. Tembo. Since meeting her in April 2010 she has been dying of AIDS. Several times, people have come to say their goodbyes only to find that she has rallied again and is hanging on to her life. However, This week, she “really and truly” seems to be dying. The last few months she has been in and out of the hospital leaving each time because she refuses to take medication or be test for HIV.
We walked into her yard and right there on the ground, lying on a mealie sack was Mrs. Tembo. She was covered with a chitenge, and another chitenge was folded up and her head was resting on it. She was trying to get warm. She had two sweaters on, which just hung on her tiny body. She had her arm propped up on her head and was trying to shield her eyes from the sun. With the other hand and very little strength to even move it, she was trying to push the flies away that kept landing on her face. She was the frailest I have ever seen anyone to be, and her skin had shriveled up. She was lying on her side and I noticed her legs, the outline of just mere bones. Her mouth was parched and dry with sores on her lips.
Maureen and I greeted her and her mother who was there taking care of her. She spoke a few words and then we just sat there, quiet. I told her she was blessed with some good kids and tried to encourage her in that. Over the years, so many things have been said about her health, about taking medicine, about her wrong view of God, about her church....that what else can be said at the end. We sat there for quite a while, or maybe the silence made it seem like a long time.
She has spoken to all her children, except Wisdom, about her nearing the point of dying. She asked for Watermelon and some juice when Fanny and Katryn visited earlier in the week and yesterday she asked Maureen and I, if she could have liver and nshima. She had not eaten for several days in a row. So we said we would go and get some for her. She sat up to take a few drinks and then we left.
When we arrived with the liver and bag of mealie, the mother clapped her hands and “blessed” us for bringing it. We went inside the house and Mrs. Tembo now was laying on the rug on the concrete floor of the house. She said thank you and we sat with her a few more minutes and then just before we got up to leave, Maureen prayed.
Their house is at the end of a long dirt road way back up in the compound. When we sat outside with her earlier, in the silence, I looked around. It was a beautiful clear sunny day. A man walked by pushing a wheelbarrow. Another woman passed by with a pot of water on her head. A young boy on his way to school in his uniform. A chicken running in the yard. A small child crying and another older child, saying “sorry..sorry..its ok, don’t cry”. In the distance just green trees, a few houses and the blue sky. I noticed a banana tree among them. I wanted to take it all in. Not in a pleasant way, as if the moment was exciting or joyful and I wanted to keep that picture in my mind, but because it was sobering. Surreal and Real. Surreal for me, that there I was sitting in Africa with a dying woman as she lay on the ground. And real... because this is real life.