My dad died Monday morning (July 20) around 3 a.m., ending a five-and-a-half-year battle with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
I won’t elaborate on the details. They’re not necessary for the content of this post, and they’re too fresh to process, let alone express.
My dad was 51. According to the World Bank, the average life expectancy in the States is around 79 (78.74, to be exact, forgive me for rounding up). In Ethiopia, life expectancy is around 63 (62.97, to be exact).
To an Ethiopian, my dad died old. If we want to look at the age he was diagnosed, 46, and blot out the years he lived sick — the years he couldn’t work, the years where he spent months in and out of hospitals — and, forgive my crass, please, forgive my crass, consider that as his final year of active life, then to an Ethiopian, my dad still died old.
In a country where people are born malnourished, born with bodies fighting to stay alive, diseases that ravish anyone — diseases like typhoid, typhus and malaria, not to mention the swing of acute upper respiratory infections and tuberculosis — thrash the body harder, more mercilessly. Antibiotics flush most of these diseases out of the body, especially if you catch the signs early enough and can find your way to a health post or health center.
You can be sick for a short amount of time, then get better, or you can be sick for a short amount of time and die. You can be chronically weak and snap.
To say living in poverty is fierce and heartbreaking goes without saying.
The aforementioned diseases are preventable. Peace Corps volunteers across all sectors — it’s not just a health volunteer’s priority, although we do focus on teaching and enacting prevention methods more closely than other sectors by the nature of our project framework — spend the duration of service identifying members of the community to train as trainers to keep the flow of knowledge alive, to keep people alive.
Those diseases are preventable, and there is nothing more I want to see than Ethiopians stop dying in the numbers they do from those diseases. Loss brings too much pain, too much shock value and short-term paralysis, things no person should have to experience, let alone repeatedly. They can have better lives because they deserve better lives, and day by day, they’re discovering they have the tools within their own homes to lead those lives.
Ethiopians are not immune to death and the grief that comes attached to loss. Whereas we hide from it, they have a public mourning process. Tents go up outside of the deceased’s home, family members and community members alike notice this visible sign of loss, and they stop to pay their respect. Most towns have a community-based organization designed to help families finance funeral services and burials, and in some circumstances, help keep the family afloat for a short period of time following the death.
Death will happen, here, there and everywhere. We can run from it, or we can know it will happen and stand together as a community to assist each other when the blow comes. Ethiopians do the latter.
It’s that open embrace of a very private, very personal experience, that look of understanding and empathy rather than the loss-of-words look of sympathy that reassures me returning to Ethiopia will be okay.
Why, then, do I feel such hostility to any comments that might suggest he died old?
Culture. Cultural differences. Because while it seems he lived into old age in one part of the world, in the part of the world where I grew up, he didn’t. He died young. He died young and without the opportunity to live his life. (Though I say this, and every single one of his brothers and sisters tells me his greatest joy was his kids. I believe that, but I also believe he got cut off entirely too early.)
Peace Corps envelops itself in cross-cultural activity, it’s the foundation of the organization. It’s rare to have the chance to discuss such a personal, intense part of life while living within another culture, and that’s what I need to remember. Sugarcoating aside, this situation sucks, but it doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn from it.