In these trenches

In these trenches

Yesterday was another graduation day at Madisi, and with Steve off in America, it fell to me to speak from my heart to our students and to their parents and to everyone who had gathered for the great celebration. It was my chance to talk to them all about Sunday, one of my very students who graduated more than ten years ago.

I can still see Sunday sitting on our couch in our living room. He looked burdened and sad that day, so different from the squirrely student I remember him being as he tried like anything to sit still and study English back in those early days after we had first come to Tanzania from Congo. How I loved his class!

I remember the day that Sunday and his fellow students finished their national exams and we hired a vehicle to take all of those kids to a restaurant in town to celebrate. It was their first restaurant experience and we loved every minute of being together. I even remember what Sunday ordered – something way too spicy for him so he and I switched dinners!

And now ten years later, he was there in my living room. Steve, Godfrey and Imma had taken him with them to Dar to get whatever it was that was ailing him checked out. His knees and joints had been swelling making it difficult to move and doctors had told him he had to think about some kind of surgery. After Sunday had graduated he went on to do his advanced level studies and then finished up at the university and then he had come back to run one of our new schools. He was doing an exceptional job, and boy were we proud of him. But there was no smile on Sunday’s face as he sat there in the living room.

Steve had told me the truth, but wanted me to ask Sunday myself. And so I sat down and asked him to tell me the truth – had he gotten tested for HIV? Was he positive? Looking down at the floor, he told me the truth – where and when and with whom he got infected, and that yes indeed he was HIV positive. The consequences were showing up now seven years later.

Cheerleader that I am I quickly gave him the “This is not a problem speech – we are going to help you…” speech. This is a far different speech from the one I give to kids who are not yet infected! I’ve become adept to switching speeches – there is a time and a place for instilling fear, and there is also a time and a place for instilling hope. He didn’t need to hear about how not to get the virus; he already had it, and what he needed now was medicine, and some hope and a lot of love. I gave him Septrim, the drug that helps people before they need to start taking the ARVs. I gave him money for special food. I prayed with him and sent him back to his school because as we’ve learned with everyone here, getting back to work is wonderful medicine. And Sunday got better – the pains in his joints went away – he got his strength back, and indeed life was going well.

HIV though has this nasty buddy called TB. TB is everywhere but for most people our bodies hold it at bay, but when someone has HIV they can’t fight off TB. And so when after months of feeling in such good health that he was even out playing soccer with his students, he started coughing up blood and that’s when an x-ray showed that he had contracted TB. And the protocol that doctors follow is that anyone with HIV who gets TB needs to start almost right away on taking the ARVs. It’s always dangerous when a person first switches from Septrim to the ARVs and so I always hold my breath a bit during the first several weeks. Something nasty called IRIS (Immune Reconstitution Inflammatory Syndrome) happens to a small percentage of people – when the ARVs help their immune system to kick in and function again – people seem to be very vulnerable. In Sunday’s case, it started with a nasty headache, but it wasn’t a normal headache, it was encephalitis, and for most people they lose consciousness and never wake up. We’ve learned that there’s a drug called Fluconazole that sometimes work and it was over the phone from America, because that’s where we were at the time, that we sent someone to go buy the medicine and take it to the hospital and insist that they give it to him. It worked. And I breathed a sigh of relief. Once he was out of the hospital, he asked for a couple of weeks vacation to take his wife to visit his family in his home region, and it was there that, whether it was the TB or something else, it all overwhelmed his body and took his life.

The news of his death reached me through e-mail. I was shocked. It was as though I had lost my own kid. We work with these kids, love them, yell at them, eat with them, celebrate with them, grow with them and to lose one is just horrible. He died months ago but I haven’t been able to talk about his death all of this time; I just had it all bottled up inside me. God in His mercy though did allow him to go back to his school to see his students one last time, to travel half way across the country to go see his family one last time. God in His mercy also now has Sunday with Him, as I also remember way back to the day years ago when Sunday accepted His Son. In Tanzania, people say when they have lost a loved one that the person has just gone on ahead of us. I look forward to the day when we no longer have to experience this sorrow over and over again – the day when we have all arrived.

When we receive our new missionary teachers here, I always want to say “Welcome to the trenches.” This work is real life trench work and nothing in these trenches is easy. Sometimes the victories seem few in light of all of the heartbreaks. Sometimes the only way to survive the heartbreaks is to remember back to the victories. My prayer for all these new missionaries who have just joined us, and for all those who will be coming in the future, is that somehow God will give them the courage to stay in the trenches, to not run away, to keep on investing in the lives of these kids.

Sometimes the pain is too great to write about; sometimes writing about it helps the pain to go away. I’ll never forget Sunday and I’m so glad that he was my student, so glad he came back after the university to serve with us, so glad that we’ll have all of eternity together, and yet so sad that we don’t have more of the now together. I pray all the time for all of those who are still my students now – some will make stupid, bad choices like Sunday did long ago and it will cost them in the same way that it cost him – and some thankfully, won’t. But I’ll still love them all.