His name was Charlie.
Although I didn’t personally know him, so I can’t tell you his favorite colour or his favorite food, the sound of his laugh or whether he was looking forward to starting school or not, there are some traits almost all boys along the river share so I can tell you with almost absolute certainty that he was rambunctious and mischievous, but in the endearing Curious George kind of way, that he was quick to laugh and even quicker to jump in the mud when it started to rain, that he loved rice and that although he probably didn’t have any toys of his own his favorite thing to play with was whatever and whoever’s ball was closest to him at the time.
Was, was, was, was, was….
Not the kind of temporal definer one wants to use when describing a child, especially a four year old who, tragically, will now not see five.
It can be hard to comprehend sometimes how life walks hand in hand with death. Standing there looking into the coffin of a small child they seem like such irreconcilable entities. They are the most opposite things we can possibly think of and so, to picture them hand in hand, an act of affection, can be shocking. It’s not in the same way as two lovers strolling down a beach would hold hands but as in a couple who can’t decide what turn to take where one wants to go left and the other right, pulling at each other in constant tension.
I am beginning to realise that this is especially true along the river where the very things that give life and make it possible are the very same things that so often take it away. Life and death are not these separate occurrences who never meet until a fateful day when they collide and it’s all over. No, they are that couple holding hands, two things made into one, and the fateful day is not the first time they come into contact but rather the culmination of that tenuous struggle on which direction to take, left or right.
Life or death.
Charlie’s story epitomizes this image in that it ends in the very place where it was made possible for it to begin: the river.
Life in Onzole is contingent on the river. It provides food, it provides water when there is no rain, it provides a means of transportation to the outside world where otherwise there would be none. It is the economic artery of the entire region and people are able to build their homes and feed their families because of what they are able to ship down the river and sell. Generations of families have been able to carve out a tough existence along its banks because of all that it provides. And yet sometimes the river turns on them. It swells and grows and as it grows it flows, faster and faster, and ever more dangerous. The river which people use to bathe every day becomes a death trap that every so often succeeds in grabbing someone.
Charlie was bathing with an older sibling one evening last week and as they finished and were preparing to leave the sibling turned his back for a moment to start climbing the bank back up to the community. When he looked back to where his four year old brother had been he wasn’t there. They searched for Charlie for three days until finally his body emerged, floating on the surface of the water almost a 15 minute canoe ride down-river.
His life and his death, who had coincided hand in hand along that very same river bank until that moment, had agreed on which direction they were finally going to take and life gave way to death’s pull.
I don’t think we were created to be able to understand the death of a child. With our finite minds how could we ever understand the abrupt ending of such a beautiful thing that had only just begun? I believe we were built to mourn it, each in our own way, and to celebrate the life that was when we are emotionally ready to do so. I have my beliefs on death, which may differ from some of yours, that come from my faith in a loving God who created us. This faith, which by definition is in large part believing in something without fully understanding it, has allowed me to celebrate the new life that Charlie now finds himself living, without understanding the reason for ending the old one, and feeling at peace knowing that Charlie is now in the arms of the person who knows exactly what his favorite food is and knows the exact notes that make up his laugh because he created every fibre of that boys being and loves him more than we could possibly ever know.
I can’t think of a better ending to anyone’s life than that.
Charlie, may you rest in His eternal love and peace.