THE REALITY AND FINALITY OF DEATH.
In 1993, after an Arkansas State Trooper “outed” me as one of Bill Clinton’s intimate “friends”—I accepted an invitation from Chinese Leaders to serve as their first Foreign Communication Specialist.
By May, 1994, I was teaching Chinese students at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute. Chinese of all ages are very kind people. My students were all kind, child-like, extremely-loving and though they were mostly eighteen and nineteen years in age, they seemed much younger because they liked to hold hands, hug, and share everything with each other. My students were a close-knit family who took care of each other.
When the Institute’s Director, Madame Lu knocked on my door late one evening, I knew immediately something was wrong. Due to her limited English, one of my brightest students….who called himself Michael…had accompanied the Director as her interpreter.
Trying to speak with little emotion, Michael explained that his classmate—Alicia—had killed herself by drinking a strong poison that Chinese farmers used to kill rats, snakes, and dangerous animals. Apparently, Alicia’s death was slow and agonizingly painful. She drank the poison in the early morning hours and….after suffering extreme vomiting, horrendous cramps, and bleeding from every orifice…frantically called her parents for help.
By the time the hospital staff saw her, Alicia was too-far-gone to save. The poison had eaten away the lower part of her face, her neck, and her intestines. A few hours after Doctors sedated her, Alicia went into a deep coma then died.
The Institute’s Director had secured a small bus so my students and I could attend Alicia’s Burial the next morning. That’s when I learned that Alicia-- like her parents--was a Muslim. Because she was Muslim, she must be buried within 24 hours of dying. I knew nothing about Muslims or their beliefs regarding death…or burials but… I’ve always believed in closely-watching those around me and “following their lead”.
My students were young, naïve, and had never lost a friend or loved one through death. Together, we entered the stark, whitish-colored barn with a dirt floor and the smell of mud and mildew. People were slowly circling a large rug in the center of the room and we were encouraged to join the circle.
Lying in the center of the circle--on a wooden door-like platform-- was Alicia. She was wrapped in a piece of white fabric with only her head and neck exposed. Her face and neck, framed by her long black hair, looked abnormally-white; the gaping wounds left by the deadly poison continued leaking a reddish-colored liquid onto the white shroud.
My students were in shock. They’d never seen death up-close and so personal. Any one of us could have reached over and touched Alicia. Nothing separated us—the living—from Alicia and her death.
After completing one circle of the room, we returned to the bus. No one spoke; each of us was replaying our own version of the nightmare we’d just experienced-- minutes earlier.
When we arrived at the burial site, I was shocked to see nothing but mounds of dirt-- no headstones or markers. Six men-- their heads covered, lifted the wooden platform with Alicia’s body resting on top-- from the back of an old van and began carrying it toward the largest wall of dirt. Alicia was now completely ensconced in a white drawstring bag. Nothing about the plain, hand-stitched bag described it as holding the remains of a once-vibrant young girl who had loved life; a spoiled-only child who’d been indulged at every turn; a little-girl in an adult body who wanted to punish her parents for not liking her new boyfriend; a sad, little rich girl who called herself by the American name “Alicia” and simply wanted to be noticed, treated special…and loved.
By now, each one of my students was crying. The reality and finality of death had branded them that day. They had no choice but absorb life's brutal truth…and its temporary existence.
When the six men lifted Alicia’s burial bag from the platform and began stuffing it into a small opening in the hard dirt wall, I knew it was time to leave the burial site. As her teacher and as her classmates, we’d merged as one to shown our respect and love for Alicia. There was nothing any of us could do now but to carry her in our hearts and...into the future.
Life can be brutal. Sometimes we don’t really want to see, first-hand, life’s brutal facts. But--all too often---we don’t have a choice.