“I’m sorry.” Are there any words less adequate to say to a husband, a father, who has just lost his wife and youngest child in a tragic car accident?
After first hearing the news, I tried to call Jacob to extend my condolences. I reloaded airtime onto my Ugandan calling card to make sure the call didn’t get cut off mid-sentence. But after two attempts, the call wouldn’t connect. I’m embarrassed to admit, I was relieved. Jacob is not just a casual acquaintance, but someone I know and respect. And his wife Stella is, or rather, was, a friend. The thought of hearing his grief-stricken voice, mixed with the unsteadiness of my own voice, seemed unbearable. The phone network gods spared me, or at least, temporarily.
But before I attempted the first call, I had to process the email I woke up to. The subject header “sad news,” gave no warning of the atrocity that would follow in the email. “Today Jennifer and Stella they have been going for the burial but they got an accident on the way but Stella and her baby die.” Barely awake, I read the email on my phone while still laying in bed. There must be some confusion, an English translation mistake. Stella couldn’t be dead. I reread it, now fully awake. “… but Stella and her baby die…” The day before I had spoken to Jennifer. She told me she’d be traveling to the village for the funeral of her brother-in-law. I casually wished her safe travels. Now I’m awoken to an email that can’t possibly be right.
I immediately replied back for clarification. Not Stella. Not the Stella I know. Surely I misunderstood. The English wasn’t correct or maybe it’s a different Stella. But even as I questioned it, I knew Stella, “my” Stella, was Jennifer’s closest friend. If someone was going to accompany Jennifer, it would be Amolo Stella.
Not receiving an immediate response, impatiently, I sent Santina a WhatsApp message seeking clarification. “Am I understanding your email? Did Stella die?” Even as I wrote the words, my mind raced and reeled and refused to believe the words I silently typed. I couldn’t accept it. Less than two weeks ago, I sat beside Stella having a conversation. Less than two weeks ago, her husband, Jacob, called me at home one evening to plan a meeting with me the following day. Two weeks ago Stella was alive. She couldn’t possibly be dead. She just couldn’t be. Too young, just 36. Too much life left to live. Too much left to offer the world. Too many children to care for. And besides, selfishly, she was my friend. Something so terrible couldn’t possibly happen to someone I cared about so much. It just wouldn’t be fair. It couldn’t be true. The news had to be wrong. It wasn’t.
Finally, the email I anxiously awaited but I didn’t want to ever receive, popped up in my inbox. The words I still grappled to accept were in black and white for the second time. “Yes she die with her son together.” I imagined the sender, Santina, frustrated by my resistance. Frustrated that I kept questioning her. What didn’t I understand, after all? Her words were clear.
Emotionally shaken awake, my thoughts raced. “This is real! Stella’s dead! I can’t believe it! But Jennifer, what about Jennifer?” Santina did not note that she had died, but if she was traveling with Stella, she must also have been injured. How serious are her injuries? Is she sprawled out on the roadside struggling to survive, hours away from medical treatment?
I reached for my phone and called Jennifer’s number, pleading into the abyss for her to pick up. She didn’t. Damn it! Where are you? Pick up! You have to pick up! I have to know that at least you are okay. But my willing the universe didn’t result in an answered call. With my phone in hand, I contemplated calling Stella’s number. Foolishly hoping that she might pick up and this would just be some big misunderstanding. I didn’t.
Instead, desperate for information, I called Mama Oyet. She answered in a sad, faraway voice that matched my own. Neither of us even attempted the half-hearted greeting, “how are you?” Neither of us could have mustered a lame, “I’m fine. How are you?” We weren’t fine. Nothing was fine. Instead, in response to her emotionally depleted hello, I frantically asked, “Jennifer? But is Jennifer okay?” Having already accepted, begrudgingly, that Stella was, in fact, dead, I needed confirmation that at least Jennifer would survive. But confirmation was not forthcoming. “I don’t know…” were the only words Mama Oyet stammered. “I don’t know.”
I could almost hear her shaking her head. Her voice was as lost as my own. How dare I call her demanding certainty in such uncertain circumstances? But Mama Oyet has been my surrogate mother in Uganda. I looked to her for consolation. I looked for her to tell me it would all be okay. Like the child I often feel like in her presence, I was desperate for assurance, assurance she could not give me.
“I picked 150k (about $30) from the money and sent Sylvia to hire a car and pick the body and bring Jennifer back to Kampala for treatment.” Ever the wise one, taking control of the situation, Mama Oyet did what the situation required. I wanted to ask a thousand questions. Instead, I asked just one. The same one, as if the answer would be different. “Is Jennifer okay?” “I don’t know…” Mama Oyet wearily repeated.
We hung up. I tried calling Jacob for the first time, almost willing him not to answer with the same intensity I earlier willed Jennifer to answer. He didn’t.
Then I tried Jennifer again. It rang. I waited anxiously. Then I heard her voice, barely audible, “Hello?” “JENNIFER!!!!! Are you okay?” I screamed into the phone, unrestrained. Relief flooded me. My heart broke into a thousand pieces as she responded. Her voice gave way to sobbing, uncontrollably, unbridled tears that could fill the ocean’s depth. The tears flowed freely, the desperation, unsurpassed. “What am I going to tell Jacob? What am I going to say to him?” she trailed off. The pain was deep and wide and raw. “Are you okay?” I quietly repeated, still needing to know that her injuries were not life threatening. Answering my question without answering, Jennifer laid bare the tragic details. “The back tire blew and the vehicle bounced across the road,” she wailed. Between heaving sobs, I tried to make sense of her words. By her description, I imagined the vehicle flipped over at least once. Jennifer extricated herself, only to find Stella and her eighteen month old son were dead. “What am I going to tell Jacob?” she wailed again, not really looking for an answer, as there was no answer to be given.
Engulfed in guilt and grief and shock, Jennifer cried. Steadying myself before we hung up. “Please seek treatment in Kampala to make sure you’re okay,” I pleaded. As unbelievably tragic was the loss of Stella and her young child, I could only imagine the loss magnified if Jennifer had undiagnosed injuries that could later claim her life, like the internal bleeding that killed her brother-in-law back in December following his fall from the roof of the church he was repairing.
I called Jacob again, but thankfully, he still did not answer.
I tried to work, but my thoughts were incoherent. Finally, I gave up and went for a hike, slowly and deliberately, pondering how the world was turned upside down, like the vehicle Stella was riding in, in an instant. I sought clarity, but found only memories.
After the hike, I sat in my car and cuddled into a tight fetal position ball. I fell asleep. I woke up disoriented. I had hoped that somehow twenty minutes of sleep would have righted the world and this would have all just been a bad dream. But when I woke up, the only thing that had changed were the stripes on my cheek left by sleeping in such an odd position in my driver’s seat.
I met with several friends for a second hike, thankful for their constant chatter to lift me from the black void into which I had descended. Following the hike, I considered walking over to my friend’s truck and asking him for one of his giant bear hugs so I could just lose myself for a moment and feel something other than grief. I didn’t. My heart continued to cry its silent, unheard tears.
The next morning, I called Mama Oyet to garner the latest details for the burial. When a loved one of a member of Project Have Hope dies, such as a spouse or a child, we contribute 200k (about $60) towards the funeral expenses. But this was altogether different. Not only did we need to make a larger contribution for the burial, but in time, we’d also need to find ways to support the family, possibly by adding some of Stella’s remaining five children into our sponsorship program.
Jacob and Stella had supported their family well because they both worked diligently. Besides the tragic loss of a mother and a wife, losing her income would be equally devastating to the family.
But, one thing at a time. I knew Mama Oyet would be able to advise me what would be appropriate to contribute. “We had a meeting last night.” Mama Oyet explained. “Jacob is alone. All alone. I told him not to have fear, that we will walk together.” Mama Oyet, ever wise, would coax even this grown man into her nurturing folds. She explained that PHH would pay for the two coffins for Stella and her baby, about $350. I cringed at the mental picture of a child’s coffin and the loss it entailed. I nodded, as if she could see me.
“Of course. Whatever they need, we will provide,” I agreed. She continued. “Transport. I think they will need help with transport.” In the Acholi Quarter, when someone dies, their body is returned to the northern village from which they hailed and is buried on their family homestead. Transporting the bodies can cost more than the coffin. “Anything, Mama Oyet. Anything they need, we will provide,” I methodically repeated. The burial was scheduled for the following Saturday, April 17th.
We hung up with my assurance that I would call at the same time the following day for an update.
I emailed Santina to let her know where I had $1500 stashed away for emergency use.
I considered booking a flight so that I could be there to say my final farewell and drop a flower onto Stella’s lowered coffin. But how self-serving would that be? Her family will need extensive financial support. The cost of my flight would be better served with direct financial assistance to Jacob and his motherless children.
I consoled myself by looking through photos of Stella that I had taken over the years. I studied the last photo I took of her on March 20th, just seventeen days before she died so tragically. Was it just me or was there a knowing glint in her eye? As I carefully studied the photo, her smile seemed off, as if she knew her earthly time was coming to an end.
I braced myself for the call I had strategically postponed for 24 hours. I called Jacob. This time it rang. He picked up and before I said a word, he said, “Hello, Karen.” I hadn’t thought he’d recognize my US phone number, but he had. I gulped. This devoted husband and father was not some mere acquaintance in my Ugandan world, he was a friend. And his wife was dead. His youngest child was dead. I had had 24 hours to consider my words, but they failed me. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Quietly, as if all the joy and happiness had been forever sucked from his soul, just as Stella’s last breath was sucked from hers, Jacob replied simply. “I know.”