The Day When Everything Changed

November 15, Day 472

Geez, I just need a day to relax. I haven’t done that in a long time! I wake up still tired and text Catherine that I’m not going to come into the office and will take a community day today to just be in the community.

She says that’s okay because she’s not at work today anyways, she’s at the hospital with her mother.

Cool.

Sleep until about 8 am. Yoga and meditation.

Go into the living room and work on the Peace Corps newsletter for a bit. There are a few things I need to edit before I send it off for approval to publish.

Olive is on the front porch, so I go outside and sip coffee and play with him for a little bit. Water my plants.

I need to go into the office quickly to drop off some of the equipment I borrowed for my class last night. I’ve decided that I need to take more time to capacity build my counterpart in public speaking a bit, though he did a great job.

However, this was my idea and I need to step in and take control and help with the teaching to bring up the energy. Otherwise I fear my counterpart will burn out learning all this content and teaching it all at once.

Perform the almighty bucket bath task. Get dressed. I decide to wear jeans and a t-shirt today since I’m not working.

Ride to work, and Olive runs alongside me with his little tongue hanging out, ecstatic that I let him tag along.

Lock up my bike in my parking spot in the parking lot. Walk to the office.

When I arrive, Bontle is there.

“Hi Bontle! Wa reng? Have you heard from Mma Molomo?” I ask.

“Eish,” Bontle says, shaking her head. “That woman’s mother is sick, Abbie. She’s really not well.”

Alarm spreads all over my body. I feel that this is serious. I knew her Mom was sick, but didn’t think it was that bad because I saw her mother just a few days ago and she was perfectly fine, looked healthy and was energetic.

I immediately call Catherine to check on her. She says her mother has been diagnosed with pneumonia, and she has been sitting on this one bench since 7 am this morning waiting to see the doctor and she won’t leave the hospital until she does. I ask her if she needs anything. Has she eaten today?

“Abbie, I am so hungry I could eat you. I haven’t eaten anything!” She says.

Hang up the phone. Just then, Mabe arrives in the office. I tell him I am going to go get Catherine some food and bring it to her at the hospital. Mabe says he’ll drive me because he wants to visit her, too.

Jump in the car. Poor Olive wants to come along but cannot. He stays back at the office. We drive to Mr. Pie to get Catherine a pie.

As I get out of the car, I see Mma Seiphiri, who is a dikgosi in my village and has done some public speaking for our office to discuss being HIV positive. She always does a great job.

She tells me she would like me to buy her a Coca Cola. Usually I don’t buy anything for people to avoid the perception that I am wealthy, but this is a village chief and I think it would be the respectful thing to do to get her a Coke.

Go inside and discover they are out of pies, but buy the Coke. Give it to the chief and then get back in the car with Mabe.

Drive to Choppies and get Catherine’s pie there. Of course, since I’m obsessed with chicken peri peri pies (the one meat I eat) I get one for myself and some bananas for Mabe. He says he wants to get some yogurt at Sefalana, so I wait in the car and munch on my pie while he is gone.

A few minutes later, he comes back and we drive to the hospital. I see Catherine sitting on the bench outside of the general ward with Mma Bimbo and give her the food.

Mabe, Mma Bimbo and I all sit silently on the bench to comfort Catherine. We all seem to know this is a serious situation.

“The lord is good. The lord will take care of her and all of us,” Mma Bimbo keeps saying.

“Do you want me to go in there and be a pushy New Yorker and get those doctors off their butts to come help you? Maybe if they see me they’ll get all nervous,” I say. Catherine laughs and says no, let’s just all wait together.

A few minutes later, the nurse comes and tells Catherine to go into the room with her mother. Catherine returns about 10 minutes later and looks shaken.

I hear her tell Mma Bimbo something in Setswana and Mma Bimbo gets quiet.

Catherine turns to me. “I think my mother almost just died just now. She went into seizures and I had her in my arms.”

“Is she okay now?” I ask.

“Yes, she is better,” Catherine says.

I hold her hand. We sit quietly.

A few minutes later, Mma Bimbo gets up and asks me if I want to go and see Catherine’s mother with her. I tell her yes.

We walk down the long hallway of the hospital. The hospital in my village is one floor, only a ground floor and very old. All of the doors to the hospital remain open to the outside. There are maybe 20 rooms for patients in the general ward, and a few random small houses with one room around the grounds of the hospital that are used for an overflow to the ward.

The entire time we are at the hospital, there is a very old man in a house by himself directly across from where we are sitting. He is pacing in circles walking in and out of the house. I can see there is a bed in an empty room inside the house.

We arrive at Catherine’s mother’s room and enter. She is laying on the hospital bed naked with a top sheet covering her from the waist down and an air mask over her face. I am immediately struck by the unnatural position she is laying, sort of perched with her neck stretched and her head back.

She is not moving.

Mma Bimbo greets her. No response.

It occurs to me that we are not looking at someone who is alive. My instincts say maybe we just watched her pass away.

I’m in denial. Surely this isn’t the case. Maybe she’s just sleeping, I tell myself. After all, why are there no machines hooked to her taking her pulse? No beeping noises? Surely if she was not alive the nurses would know and be rushing around to perform CPR or something?

We leave the room and walk outside. I sit next to Catherine. I see a nurse walk casually out of her mother’s hospital room and go into the main hospital and return with an air pump. I imagine if she was about to pass away, they would be running?

At that moment, Catherine tells me she needs to write a few savingrams before the end of the day. She asks me to go to the office and write them for her and send her a picture, and then have Mabe deliver them. I agree.

Walk back to the hospital, sit down and write the letters she requested. Olive is a good boy and waited for me at the office. He comes and lays down on the floor next to the computer while I work.

Send a picture of the letters requested to Catherine.

After a few minutes of no response, I call her. Mabe answers the phone.

“Abigail, Catherine’s mother has passed away. She’s gone. We are at her house,” he says.

My heart sinks.

“Okay, I’m on my way,” I say.

Immediately get up, rush outside and get on my bike. I bike and bike and bike as fast as I can. Olive tries to chase behind me but can’t keep up and I lose him.

Arrive at Catherine’s house and I see the gate wide open. I see her aunt and cousin sitting outside by the water jojo smoking a cigarette and greet them.

Go inside, where Mabe and Mma Bimbo are sitting in the living room with a few other family members. They tell me Catherine is in the bedroom telling her daughter that her grandmother just passed away.

Catherine comes out of the room, and her daughter bursts into tears. Her cousin picks her up and he takes her outside to comfort her.

I give Catherine a long and tight hug. We cry together. I really loved her mother and I cannot believe she is gone. She always took care of my plants for me when I would go out of town. And I just saw her last week! This is shocking.

There are American children’s cartoons playing on the television while everyone sits somberly in the living room. Her daughter comes inside and watches the cartoons.

I sit quietly unsure of what is happening and what is being said around me, but know that my presence is what matters, not what I say. I just need to be here.

After a few minutes, a man who I believe is an uncle arrives with a 2 liter bottle of Coke and puts it in the freezer. An act which indicates to me he wants it to be cold in order to serve to everyone in a few minutes.

Everyone gathers into a circle and we hold hands while the uncle prays in Afrikaans.

Afterward, Catherine tells me she must go to the hospital and get the death certificate for her mother. I take this as a signal that I should go.

“Just let me do what needs to be done. I will be in communication,” she says.

“Of course, I completely understand. Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you. Anything at all,” I reply, and give her a hug.

As I leave the house, Mabe tells me that I have to go to the office and cancel meetings for Catherine and call the chairperson of the men’s sector and tell him. I agree.

Get on my bike and ride to the office. When I arrive, Mabe is there, too. He says he’s going to tell Catherine’s bosses that she will be out for a while to handle her mother’s death.

I make the calls I need to make, and realize that I have committed to making muffins and bringing coffee to a mini-regionals tomorrow for Peace Corps volunteers.

I am in no mood to do this. I am sad, but I know I have to hold my promise.

Walk over to the grocery store. As soon as I walk inside, my phone rings. It’s the head of the Peace Corps in Botswana, who wants to chit chat about mini-regionals.

My mind is in no state to be thinking about mini-regionals, but I pretend along with her. Suddenly, Mabe arrives in the store and grabs my arm and says he must speak to me urgently. I tell the woman from the Peace Corps that I have an urgent situation to attend to and will call her back.

Mabe puts my basket of food on the ground and says I can come back to get it, but that we must talk.

We go outside.

“Abigail, with Catherine gone, you must be the District AIDS Coordinator now. You must do her job,” he says.

“But Mabe, I’m just a volunteer. How can I be the DAC? Do you think she’s even going to come back, or will she go straight to maternity leave and never come back to the office?” I ask.

“I do not know. But you and I will work together. You must run the office now,” he says.

“Understood,” I reply.

Go back into the grocery store and suddenly the weight of the situation hits me. Catherine is a single mother who is eight months pregnant and supposed to go on maternity leave next week. She was really counting on her mother to help raise the baby while she went back to work, and now her mother is gone.

That means Catherine could never come back from her mother passing away and go straight to maternity leave for 7 months. She is both my supervisor and counterpart. Usually a volunteer is supposed to have two people they work with, but she is both of those people for me because they never hired anyone after Watota left last year and she has been doing two jobs.

I may have just lost my counterpart, and if that is the case, I just lost my job. I’m a capacity building volunteer, which means I have to capacity build a counterpart and now I have no one. It is a huge deal for a Peace Corps volunteer to change counterparts or organization this deep into their service.

I realize that at this exact moment my entire Peace Corps service just changed. It will never be the same.

I look around in the grocery store and discover that my basket of food has been taken. So, I go get another basket and stand in the fruit aisle and call my program manager from the Peace Corps and tell her what happened.

I assure my program manager that I will be okay with no counterpart. After all, I consider myself a community volunteer and can just work with people in the community instead of a counterpart. I suggest that if Catherine doesn’t come back, I could maybe go work at BOCAIP to help them. She agrees that this is the best way to go.

Get stuff for the stupid muffins and ride my bike home. Olive is waiting for me in the yard and can sense that I’m sad and is being super cute. Just as I step into my yard, the woman from the Peace Corps calls again.

So, even though I am not in the headspace to worry about mini-regionals (it’s a yearly exercise to practice what to do if we have to evacuate our village in an emergency) I stay on the phone for 45 minutes to discuss the logistics of tomorrow.

We finish the conversation and I go inside.

I’m exhausted and did not see today going like this. I’ve never seen someone die before.

Clean my kitchen. Bake a dozen muffins and cut up fruit for tomorrow morning.

Go to bed at 1 am, knowing that today is a new day and it will all be okay. Nothing will be the same again in my service, but I’ll be okay. Lord knows I’ve been through worse.

Boroko 🌙

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