These days I feel compelled to tell everyone that I just lost my son. I don’t know why. Whether I’m in St. Louis, or across the globe in India, where I am at the time of this writing, I feel as if I’m not supposed to keep it inside.
Is that because it makes me feel closer to others? And do I need to feel close to others so much that I’m drawn to telling complete strangers? Being so far away from home, is it borne of some deep-seated longing for a kind of human bridge across cultures, across the world, being so removed from the anchors of my life, especially my first-born son?
I took a walk down a narrow street in the quaint town in rural India where we have been a few days. I was taking photographs of the people as they came out, excited by the camera, and curious about the new white guy in town carrying it.
Two young girls approached me proudly, excitedly, to meet me and demonstrate their grasp of English. They asked me friendly, simple, basic questions about where I was from, why I am here, and if I had a family back home. “Yes,” I answered. One of them followed up. “How many children,” she asked in her broken English. I just blurted out, “Three, but a few months ago I lost one in an automobile accident, so I have two.” Her young face dropped in such obvious sadness that the one thing we shared — the humanity within us — became palpable. I kept the conversation going so her excitement about exercising her language wasn’t diminished by that news which so clearly affected her.
Later, we were in Gumiguda, a much, much smaller village, deep in the mountains. We stayed at a primary school there. Upon arriving, I found a very elderly man (pictured here) sitting in front of the old gate designating the entrance to the school. He seemed to have an injured foot. He appeared frail, and walked slowly with a cane. He had dark, sun-scorched skin, and white hair. The people I was traveling with identified the man to me as the father of another man in our party. He knew we were arriving there that particular day, and had walked from his village — a day’s walk away — the day before to see his son.
We were introduced, and even though we couldn’t communicate with words either of us could understand, we greeted each other every morning with a sense of welcoming recognition. Soon after meeting him I learned that this man’s other son had died earlier.
That knowledge connected me to him in a very personal way. We were so very different, but shared this common blow to which no man is immune. I wondered if I should somehow let him know I had heard he lost his son, and tell him I lost a son as well. But I never did. I guess I felt that while the loss was so fresh to me, and several years removed for the loss he experienced, I didn’t feel I could help him really, and might inadvertently suggest to him that I thought he could somehow help me. With the intense language barrier, I was concerned, I guess, that I was opening a deep topic that we would have neither the time, nor language to successfully communicate about. And there was risk that I could communicate the wrong thing.
A day or two later, my two traveling companions and I were in another village, this one smaller still. It seemed to consist of about 10 huts and 25 people. They all gathered to meet us when we approached. They knew Dennis, my traveling partner with Outreach International, so they greeted us warmly. This was a Christian village — not Hindu. The one very old woman looking through the cracked lenses of her dirty, old glasses who seemed to be the respected elder in the group suggested we pray before leaving. Her dark, heavily calloused hand took mine, and everyone followed suit, and she prayed in her native language to God.
Again, at that moment, I felt unified with all humanity, at some place deep down inside. The woman had nothing in this world by the standards of my culture. Her aged, brown skin was like leather, her clothes soiled, the skin of her hand coarse and dry. But she had family, love, despair, hopes and dreams. And at that moment, in a mountain village sitting on the dirt of one of the poorest regions in the world, we faced the same fears, the same sadnesses, the same helplessness at the hands of a life we didn’t ask for and are just making the best of.
Again, part of me wanted her to know I lost my son. Maybe she would have had something wise to say. Maybe I would have gained from what ever reaction she might have had. But it struck me as somehow selfish.
So I left it at just appreciating the comfort of that moment. The realization that even beyond the people I know back home, I was not alone in my struggle. The mysteries of the world and the suffering imposed on us in it are nothing new, even if they are new to me.
I am part of the flow of humanity, everywhere it is. We are one, we face the same questions, share the same hopes, struggle with the same horrors.
And most importantly, we do it together.