Yesterday, a bit unexpectedly, I found myself wandering through a neighborhood across the street from the hospital. Normally this would be no big deal, but because this was an unplanned visit in the middle of my workday, I didn't have a head covering with me.
About an hour earlier I had received the news that a three-year-old patient of mine, little A., had died the day before while I was still in Niamey. I knew I would need to go visit his family; I figured I'd wait until I could change out of my scrubs and put something on my head.
But, as I learned yesterday, when it comes to grief, in Galmi, it matters most that you've shown up.
'Where did you go, like that?' My assistant B. had gone looking for me and had been told that I was seen leaving the hospital. He was waiting at the entrance when I returned, and was ready to scold me for the inappropriateness of my bare head if I was going to galavant through town.
'I went to A.'s father's house.'
'Oh, in that case, you did the right thing.'
Actually, I hadn't told him the full truth . . . yes, I was at A.'s father's house, but I didn't intend to be. I had planned on dressing in a way that would show respect to the family and not send a message of 'Oh, I just happened to wander over this way and there you were so now I have to visit because if I don't it will be rude' . . . which is what, in fact, had happened.
Having been gone for 10 days, I needed to catch up on what was happening in my department and the rest of the hospital. I had been searching for my boss when I heard the familiar yell of one of our local beggars.
Disabled from birth, A-R, crawls along the filthy streets of Galmi begging for alms. Earlier this year I had been working with him to see if it was possible for him to walk upright with an assistive device. Maybe if we had started treatment when he was two, not 20, we would have been more successful.
But since then we've managed to shock the passersby as we shake hands in the market or he crawls next to me down the road announcing that the townsfolk should greet me since I am his friend.
A-R doesn't speak clearly, but we've managed to figure one another out. I went through my regular list of greetings and when I came to 'How is your father?' he pointed to the road and said 'He's just there, come and greet him!' (well, that's how I translated it anyway.)
I followed him out of the hospital, past the bush-taxi parking-lot, across the street, down an alley, and around the mosque . . . sure enough, there was his dad. As I began greeting him and the men sitting with him, I became very aware of my naked hair.
As I was just about to comment on how I had been at work when A-R bumped into me and I didn't have a calibi with me and . . . whatever . . . a man stood . . . and I recognized him as Little A.'s dad.
'Thank you for coming, Déborah, I will bring you to the house, my wife will be happy to see you.' My friend's eyes blinked back tears as he tried to hide his sorrow.
'M., I'm so sorry,' I told him. I searched my mental Hausa dictionary for the appropriate phrases to say upon visiting a grieving family . . . but I couldn't remember them. So I said nothing else.
We entered the house and were met by half a dozen women sitting on mats in the courtyard. 'The white-girl is here!' they announced as I slipped my shoes off at the door.
Another six friends were sitting on the ground just outside the main room of the house, Little A.'s mom was sitting on the bed, next to her sister. Her mother sat at her feet and her grandmother was in a chair next to the bed.
I held back tears as I approached. 'Greetings to all of you,' I said . . . frantically searching for at least one grief-appropriate phrase . . . but I had nothing. So I said nothing.
Granny handed me Little A.'s baby brother. I wanted to throw my arms around his mom and tell her that my heart ached with her's, but that's what I would do where I come from . . . not here. So I accepted the baby.
Mama shifted on the bed, indicating I was to sit. So I did.
'Sannu.' I whispered to her . . . her sad eyes met mine and nothing more needed to be said. She knows I loved her little boy . . . she knows the time we spent trying to help him walk again . . . trying to help him regain his childhood after a high fever left him greatly impaired . . . visiting him in the ICU to pray over him . . . visiting the house to pray for comfort for his parents and healing for his little body.
The longer I sat there the more visitors arrived . . . and the more curious they were about the white-girl with her head uncovered.
I had come to pay my respects and to grieve with the family, but here I was the center of conversation, being continuously questioned about why I wasn't yet married . . . being offered the babies off the backs of these visitors . . . being teased for how broken my Hausa is.
It was uncomfortable and felt wrong . . . but as I looked over at Little A.'s mom, she was smiling at the teasing. I didn't understand what exactly was going on . . . nor did I have a grasp on the cultural rules to know what was okay and what wasn't. So I held baby-brother and tried my best to play along.
I don't mind being teased, I get it all the time . . . I'm used to it. But we were all here because a child died, and a family is grieving. I kept telling myself that grief looks different, but it feels the same . . . that just because I don't see what I would define as grief doesn't mean it's not there. I had to accept it, and I prayed silently that I would begin to understand.
Unable to stay much longer, I found an appropriate hole in the teasing to be able to excuse myself. Baby-brother was returned to Granny and Mama took my hand and thanked me for coming. Her eyes spoke her sorrow while her tongue blessed me for coming to share in their grief.
It didn't matter that my head was uncovered . . . or I was in my scrubs . . . or I had come unintentionally . . . or for only twenty minutes . . . or that I didn't have the right words, or any words for that matter! No, what was important was that I came and sat with her. Because in Niger, to come and just be-next-to is the language of grief.