A Eulogy for Jacob
Unfortunately, in addition to the national tragedy, last week I also found out that Jacob, the child I was closest to at the Zambian orphanage (Kasisi) I was at last summer, just passed away. He was 13 years old and had full-blown AIDS. Although I’ve long expected this news, it has proven difficult to deal with.
Since I left Kasisi in summer of 2000, I planned to make a web page for the orphanage. I’ve drawn out the process as long as possible and just posted the page recently. I hadn’t been in touch with Sister Mariola, the head nun at Kasisi, since my birthday last November when I wrote last week to tell her the web site was finally posted. In the P.S. of her reply she mentioned that Jacob had passed away the past Friday—the same day I finally posted the webpage. What scares and saddens me the most is that his life was relegated to a P.S. He was a very special person I wish all of you could’ve met. I grieve for him and long for him to be remembered beyond the anonymity of an African AIDS death, beyond a P.S.
Jacob came to Kasisi very sick. He had been living with his aunt after the death of both of his parents; They both died of AIDS within a few years of each other. Jacob lived with them in their final years and watched as the virus slowly defeated them. When Jacob grew extremely ill and close to death, his aunt, unable to care for Jacob along with several other children and nieces and nephews, brought Jacob to Kasisi. After some time in the orphanage’s “House of Hope” and much TLC, Jacob’s condition greatly improved.
When I met Jacob, he was healthy enough to walk and play with the other kids, but he hadn’t yet returned to school. Because he wasn’t in school, he would spend a lot of time around the orphanage—wandering about, making no effort to draw attention to himself, but helping out however he could. He would frequently act as the silent negotiator of peace in little squabbles among his peers, approaching situations with a maturity beyond his years. Jacob would love to just hang out in Elizabeth and my room. He would revel in the opportunity to use my tape recorder—taping himself singing or making funny noises or making fun of me. He loved playing with my watch and using my mousse in his hair.
Sister Mariola wrote that Jacob was fighting for his life to the last minute. The cynic in me wonders what he truly had to fight for. No relatives and no future. And yet he never made a show of his pain—never whined or felt sorry for himself. If you watched carefully, you may catch a tear fall as he lay in bed sick in the House of Hope or notice a fallen face every now and then. Despite his bleak situation, he displayed a greater love of life and strength in his 13 years than I’ve been able to muster in my 20.
On the day I left Kasisi, Jacob was to come to the airport with me, but as we were leaving, I couldn’t find him. I ran back to his room and found him buttoning the cuff of a white dress shirt—dressed in his best clothes to see me off. I gave up fighting off the tears. Whether or not I wanted to admit it to myself at the time, I knew this wouldn’t be a temporary goodbye. In the minibus on the way to the airport, as I promised, I gave him my watch. (On the tightest notch it could’ve easily slipped off his hand.) Accepting it without comment, Jacob showed neither entitlement to the watch nor maudlin appreciation. I think we both knew time was more relevant and precious in his life than mine.
When I think of him, I picture him happy and joking. Only looking at pictures now, over a year later can I see the experience, maturity, and knowledge of pain in his demeanor. Eyes that saw his parents suffer and perish and a face that knew he had the same fate coming.
If you feel so inclined, financial donations to Kasisi in Jacob’s name would be an excellent way to give back to a place that gave Jacob so much life and love. However, it is far more important to me that you’ve read this and that Jacob’s life is known to others, to those I care about. And that his story is not forgotten.
Click here to go back to Jacob.