Thursday, February 16, 2012

Birth, Death/America, Botswana

My fourth granddaughter came into this world on January 3. My 92-year-old father left this world on January 27. Birth is an almost universal celebration—every culture responds to the birth of a child with joy and hope. My Botswana friends were thrilled to hear of the birth of a granddaughter. Death is another story.

Every culture, every family, every person, has their own way of dealing with it. My father had lived as long as he wanted to, and had plenty of time to make preparations. He donated his body for study at Boston University Medical School. He chose the minister he wanted to lead his memorial service. He wrote an outline of what he wanted in the service. Then he waited for death. It took longer than he expected. Years longer. The minister moved to Florida. The grandchildren who were to play the piano and guitar no longer did so. My father was a stubborn man. He discussed end of life plans with his doctor, saying he was going blind. The doctor pointed out that going blind does not mean the end of life. “You can adapt to this,” the doctor said. “You have probably already adapted, haven’t you?” Well, my father admitted, he did give up his weekly dart games…

Although it was a long time coming, my father’s death came faster than we expected. Our family held a memorial in ‘celebration’ of his life. The minister came from Florida, the grandchildren spoke, someone else played the piano and a friend of the family sang. We will miss him deeply, but we know he had a good life, he was ready to leave, and his final wishes were respected.

The people I have met in Botswana do not talk about death, much less celebrate the end of someone’s life. This is a country where death stalked the young, the innocent, those in the prime of their lives, where death is never mentioned in the age-old hope that not speaking of it will keep it at bay. When I told one of my colleagues that I expected to be going home because my father was at the ‘end of his life’ he was shocked. When I returned to my village this week after my father’s death, people were welcoming and comforting and willing to talk. “Ninety-two years” they were astonished. “He lived longer than he needed,” they said without irony as they hugged me and offered me their condolences.

The first time I saw a Botswana graveyard I thought it was a community garden. I saw a field of rectangular plots with green sunshades over them. When my father’s ashes are returned to us, they will be interred in a drawer in a garden area of the cemetery. No need for sunshades, but still a rectangular place of rest within the beauty of the earth.