Behind those long dark lashes there were tears. Trying to hide her grief, little Lillian attempted to smile. She had come to tell me that Adelia's mother wanted us to return Adelia’s belongings from her dorm room to her house. There have been many tears and grief around here these days as everyone here at school has come to grips with our very big loss – dear, dear Adelia. Each time someone said something the memories of our time together came rushing back ...
It’s school break right now and many of my kids from school have asked for work during this time. They want to be able to buy shoes, notebooks, pens before the second semester begins. We make it a fun and festive time for the kids with laughter and food. All these kids with their special needs who need a little extra help, I want them to all know that they are “my kids” and that I like having them around. I make sure that they have no reason to ever drop out of school. I remember when Lillian and Adelia had come to ask to work. I had gulped. I didn’t want them in any way to engage in any of the usual gardening -- which can be strenuous labor -- but I didn’t want to separate them from their friends either. Lillian had had stomach surgeries as a child and so she was extra small. Adelia was living with HIV/AIDS and was recovering from TB so she too was really tiny. But they seemed so happy and so full of life, and they were best friends. But I didn't want them doing any hard labor, so I had them learn how to make greeting cards and they were given the job of planting flowers. Something constructive, something easy to do, something two little girls could have fun together doing. There was such laughter and fun going on Monday that I thought my heart would burst with joy. Just seeing these kids overcoming the world’s obstacles made my heart soar. It is such a privilege to be present in these kids’ lives and I will be forever grateful that I was indeed present. Monday ended with waves good-bye and “see you tomorrows.”
Tuesday I was on the bus headed to Dar for a quick trip to the States for a wedding. When I glanced at my phone though I read that everyone was going to “sweet Adelia’s funeral.” “Who?” “Which Adelia?” My Adelia was just fine yesterday! Shocked, I asked Steve if he had heard anything and he let me know that indeed my little friend had died. He was hoping to tell me once we got to a quiet place. Tears have evaded me for years, but I cried all the way from Mororgoro to Chalinze. I was in a place that there was nothing practical I could do to help. I had to sit there and ponder the “what ifs.” I couldn’t fathom the grief that her parents must have. Adelia had gone home to her house (dorms are closed during break), and was just fine. At bed time though she lost consciousness, then started coughing and vomiting blood. Her parents took her to the clinic, then the hospital where she died less than 12 hours after we were laughing and waving good-bye to each other. Gosh I’m going to miss her. To be present in the lives of these kids is such a privilege, but this privilege has its price – and the price at times like this is very painful.
A week later I was back in Tanzania -- we made it to Dar on Thursday night and on Friday I wasn’t going to sleep until I saw Adelia’s parents. I learned the custom here 16 years ago when my beautiful niece died -- the women who love you give you, the bereaved mother, a cloth to wrap around your body. The cloth keeps on hugging the bereaved mother long after the friends have left. And so I went to a shop in the village and found the most beautiful Tanzanian cloth that I could find and set off for Adelia’s home. Their lovely little home was void of furniture which is custom during a funeral. Everyone squeezes in and sits on the floor off and on for three days. And although the official funeral was over, latecomers like me were still showing up. Adelia’s father and I sat quietly together on chairs until mom showed up. As she hugged me, my soul grieved for this sweet mother. I grieved for myself, because I too had loved Adelia like a daughter. They told me that they had sent someone early that Tuesday morning to find me before I left for Dar, because as her mother told me, I was family and as family they wanted me to be able to say good-bye to Adelia and bury her with them. The kindness and love in their hearts for me during their terrible grief, during our terrible grief, is something I will always cherish and will never forget. Adelia’s mom recounted how Adelia and Lillian just this Sunday had introduced themselves in front of their huge church congregation. How proud their parents were to see their girls up there confidently introducing themselves. They were among the three girls in that church who were attending secondary school this year – something the pastor wanted the whole congregation to celebrate and rejoice over. Adelia was the first in her family ever to get to go beyond primary school. All of our hopes and dreams for her disappeared though in just a few short hours. Had I known she was sick that night, oh how I would have begged God to keep her here, the same way I remember begging God back in 2015 when she was dying from TB. But I did not get to do that this time.
I sure am going to miss Adelia. Such a sweet little girl. AIDS remains a killer robbing people of their daughters, robbing teachers of their students, robbing little girls of their very best friends. AIDS robs the futures from so many of the Adelias in this world. I pray all the time for cure. Oh how I want everyone to pray for a cure. And to pray for dear sweet Lillian who feels so deeply the loss of her very best friend.
I keep reminding myself of the battle we fight to get girls into the classroom. The pain of losing Adelia aches inside. But it doesn't defeat us. Far from it. It only makes us more determined.