Mingalabar, the customary greeting here, was the only word we ever spoke to each other. But we spoke it often, as I passed her home on the way to a walk around the lake in the late afternoon and again as I made my way home through her neighborhood. The simple greeting was usually accompanied by big smiles on both her face and mine, and waving with two hands (a sign of respect) by both of us. We couldn’t speak to each other, but we clearly could connect.
She was obviously sick. Most nights in October and November she lay quietly outside our her home, getting a bit of fresh air, and watching whatever activity happened on the out of the way street. Her house was simple. Members of her multigenerational family were always coming and going. Her husband often stood at the end of the street and silently looked into the distance. When we came back in January he began responding to our greetings as we passed him there. His wife, however, was no longer outside. We could see her lying listlessly on the floor inside, turned away from the door with her face towards the illuminated television. We always called out, “Mingalaba!” and when she could, she would turn and exchange the greeting.
Yesterday, we noticed a change when we approached the home. People were talking in loud voices, sounding upset. We called out our usual greeting, but the older man didn’t even hear or see us, even though he was looking directly at us. A woman, sitting in the chair that the our friend had usually occupied, was crying. We stopped, but lacked the ability to do more that try to express with our faces that we understood something bad was happening. Feeling the powerlessness of being able to communicate more, we continued on.
Then suddenly, we heard the shriek that needs no translation. Women all over the world make the same sound when someone they love has died. It pierced the quiet of the neighborhood. Then, a woman, emerging from the home, ran to other women who were standing on the corner, her wailing growing louder and expressing more of the grief she was experiencing.
Feeling helpless but very concerned, we looked on. Our hearts, joined to this family by nightly greetings, felt a longing to help in some way, to be present in this experience of pain. But we could say nothing comprehensible and we were unaware of the appropriate cultural protocol. “This isn’t our place,” was all I could think to say to Tim. We turned and walked on in silence, reaching the pathway that skirts the lake, feeling what comes so naturally when one encounters the reality of death. Quietness, resistance, sadness for those who are left behind, and general disorientation overtook us. After some time, we shared our thoughts, memories, and concern.
As we headed home about forty minutes later, we once again passed the family’s home. Fourteen women sat silently in the porch area. I thought of the church ladies in the movie Lars and the Real Girl, who came to sit with Lars when his beloved was dying. “This is what we do,” one said, “we wait together.” The husband, standing to the side, greeted us with a weak, “Mingalaba” which we returned, along with an English sentence expressing our concern (the words which of course he didn’t understand). We wanted to communicate that we understood that something very sad had taken place and that we cared. Thank heavens communication is approximately 93% non-verbal.
As we continued on, we encountered a young woman who spoke a little English. She told us that the woman had just died of a heart problem. We asked that she express our sadness to the family. She thanked us for our kindness. We told her we would pray for them, folding our hands in front our hearts to show what we meant. She assumed the same prayer position, and we bowed to one another.
One word is enough to bring relationship into being.
One word is enough to create a bridge of mutual care.
I never took a photo of our friend. I was waiting. I wanted our greetings to create more connection so that when I did take her photo it would be a portrait, not a snap shot. I wanted that image to express the beauty that I experienced in her greetings. I wanted it to speak of her living and her dying. Interestingly, I do not regret never having taken that picture. Her image is imprinted in my heart, which is enough.
And it all started and ended with one word.
Prayer: God, may the words I speak create bridges over which I can travel to others and over which they can travel to me. Amen.