The recent demise of Fat Stanley was met with far fewer tears than that of Kevin Bacon (the gerbil) and definitely far less anguish than that of Tub-Tub, our first dearly departed rodent pet. It did however, necessitate a discussion about death with my three children. The easiest answer to the question “Where is Stanley now?” would have been to describe a dwarf hamster heaven, where Stanley roams freely among a vast surfeit of yogurt treats and well-oiled wheels. While it was somewhat tempting to give them an easy and soothing answer, I can not in good conscience pitch that pablum to my kids. You see, in my line of work, I talk to people about death all the time.
As a human rights lawyer, my job is to document human rights abuses. So there have been many days over the course of my career when I have asked people to describe to me in very precise detail how someone they loved died. In one week alone in 2007, I took statements from more than 45 Liberian refugees at Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana for Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The very first person I interviewed at Buduburam was a teacher. The teacher was wearing a pink polo shirt that was remarkably clean and crisp, given the hot, dusty conditions on the camp. He had come into the Refugee Welfare Office, where we were piloting the interview process, to watch a football match on the TV. When I asked if he wanted to give a statement, he said, “Sure. Why not?”
It was late May and the equatorial sun had beat down relentlessly all day long. As we went into one of the private offices to do the interview, however, a pleasantly cool late afternoon breeze was coming through the barred window. I discovered later that the location of the camp was very close to the Prime Meridian, as well as the notional center of the world – 0°, 0°. The sun sets early and fast near the equator. As we talked, the shafts of light from the setting sun were low and long, glinting off the gold in his round, wire-framed glasses.
I had an interview protocol to follow and certain biographical data to collect. We talked about what he did in Liberia, where he had lived. It was going well. We established a rapport, buzzing through the facts of his life. I’ve done many similar interviews with the survivors of human rights abuses. You know immediately when a question is going to cause someone to break down. But the trigger questions are not always the obvious ones and usually you can only tell as you ask the question. As you see the pain in their eyes, the anguish in the lines of their mouth. The moment I asked the teacher if he had ever been married, I knew. I knew we would both soon be crying.
People who have experienced trauma and loss often think it is behind them, that they have put it in the past. But of course, that is never really possible. The teacher and his fiance were not yet married when the fighting came to Monrovia in July 1990. When Charles Taylor’s NPFL rebels came to their neighborhood, they separated the men from the women. She talked back. He yelled for her to hold her tongue, to just cooperate! He didn’t know if she heard him. The teacher had been herded into the back of a pick-up truck with other young men. It was from that vantage point – above and unable to help – that he saw the rebel hit her with the butt of his rifle. He knocked her to the ground, turned the gun around and shot her. The whole thing happened fast, so fast. Then the truck pulled away.
There was much more to his story. He escaped the rebels eventually, made his way onto a leaky tanker with thousands of other refugees, made it to safety in Ghana. Got a teaching job and lived in a refugee camp for 17 years. But those parts of his story came later, after he had wiped the tears from his glasses. After we took the time to honor the memory of his fiance. To dedicate his statement to her, so that her story would not be lost among all the others in the terrible Liberian civil war.
As a parent, I know there is a natural impulse to try to shield our children from the sad and terrible details of both life and death. I believe each parent has to make his or her own decision about what is best for their children, so I am not presuming to give advice. I do believe in God and the potential of an afterlife, but I have no idea what actually happens after you die. But I know that bad things – terrible things – happen all the time and, as my kids grow into their tweens and teens, I think I would be doing a disservice to them not to be honest about that. And I am absolutely certain that, like the teacher, you carry your loved ones in your heart long after they leave this life. The best thing you can do when you lose someone you love is to keep their memory close and honor them in whatever way you feel is right.
Sometime shortly after my third child was born, I gave up trying to be the perfect parent. I made peace with the fact that the best I can do is try – try as hard as possible – to do my best. I stopped obsessively reading parenting books and desperately seeking “expert” advice on how to do things like talk to my kids about serious issues like death. I started following my own parenting guidestar. For lack of a better way to put it, I started listening to my gut instincts.
So when my 9 year old son asked me to tell him a story from my work, I looked at him silently for a while as I listened to that little voice inside my head. It was telling me that he was ready to hear the story of Victoria.
Victoria was the last refugee I interviewed at Buduburam on that trip in 2007. She was a poised and intelligent young woman who rushed back to the camp from her classes at nursing school in Accra in order to give her statement. We sat outside, away from the buildings on the edge of the camp, face to face with each other on white plastic chairs set on the hard-packed red dirt. Victoria’s mother had died when she was young, so as a child in Liberia she had lived alone with her father. Her story began later than the teacher’s; two civil wars raged in Liberia between 1989 and 2003. She was only 8 or 9 – the same age as my son – when the fighting reached her house.
Her father told her to hide in the bushes by the side of the house while he went out to talk to the rebels. She lay on her belly in the bushes, saw the rebels argue with her father. She watched as they shot him in the head and he fell to the ground, unmoving. The rebels went into the house and took food and anything of value. But they didn’t find Victoria in her hiding place and eventually they lit the house on fire and left. “I didn’t know what to do,” Victoria told me. “My father never moved so I knew he was dead. I just didn’t know what to do next. So I stayed in the bushes, crying, near my father’s body all night.” The next day, as the sun rose, she kissed her father goodbye and went to a neighbor’s house. The neighbor brought Victoria with her to Ghana.
After Victoria told me her story and left for her home, I sat for a long time on that white plastic chair, on the edge of a refugee camp near the latitudinal and longitudinal center of the world. A cool breeze stirred the sweat-damp hair on the back of my neck as the sun sank rapidly. The sunset was brilliant with colors – the muted pink of an impossibly crisp polo shirt, the bright orange of my small son’s hair, the deep purple of a bruise left by a rifle butt.
My son had listened to the story quietly. I hadn’t been sure how he would react, so it was a surprise when he said. “That was interesting. I feel sorry for Victoria. It is sad that all of that happened to her. But she found a way to survive without her dad. The neighbor and other people took care of her. It kind of makes me less afraid of what would happen if you died.”
The kid makes good point. One which I hadn’t thought of before I told him about Victoria. Talking to my kids about death is also talking to them about life and how to live it.
So here’s to you, Fat Stanley.
And to you, Kevin Bacon.
I honor your memory and the time you spent with us.