THE DEATH OF INNOCENCE.
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 like children; they seem forever- young and naive. My students were kind, child-like, extremely-loving and... though they were mostly eighteen and nineteen years in age.... they seemed much younger because, like children, 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 to serve as her interpreter.
Trying to speak with little emotion, Michael explained that his classmate—Alicia—had recently killed herself by drinking a strong poison..used byChinese farmers... to kill rats, snakes, and dangerous animals. Apparently, Alicia’s death was slow and extremely 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 Muslim. Because she was Muslim, she must be buried within 24 hours of dying. I knew nothing about Muslims or their beliefs regarding death and burial---but--when facing a venture into the unknown-- I’d learned to closely-watch those around me and “follow their lead”.
My students were young and 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 unpleasant smell of 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, surrounded by her long black hair, looked abnormally-white; the gaping wounds left by the deadly poison continued to leak a reddish-colored liquid onto her white shroud.
My students were in shock. They’d never seen death "up-close and 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 full 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 experienced…minutes before.
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 a large wall of dirt. Alicia was now completely ensconced in a white drawstring bag. Nothing about the plain, hand-stitched bag identified it as the remains of a 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 just wanted to be noticed, treated special…and loved.
By now, each one of my students was crying. Both the reality and finality of death had touched my young students that day. They had no choice but face the brutal truth about life…and its very-temporary existence.
When the six men lifted Alicia’s burial bag from the platform and began stuffing it into a small opening in the large dirt wall, I knew it was time to leave the burial site. We had shown our respect and love for Alicia and now... there was nothing more we could do except never forget Alicia. Holding hands, bowing our heads and closing our eyes.. we pledged to carry her in our hearts from this moment and into the future.
Life can be brutal. Sometimes we don’t really want to see-- first-hand-- all of life’s brutal facts. But, unfortunately, most of us don’t have a choice.