A few weeks ago, I attended a talk given by author, activist and former Sierra Leone child soldier, Ishmael Beah. As soon as I saw it advertised through the website of a local bookstore, and despite the fact that I hadn't yet read Beah's memoir, I knew I had to be there. Seeking out stories of suffering, and in particular, stories of child suffering and death, of parental grief, seems to be one of the ways I'm coping with Zachary's death. I seem to need to hear, over and over again, that despite the cacophony of rainbows and butterflies that disorient me day in and day out, Yes, it IS that bad. I need to see my disillusionment, my rage at Zachary's suffering and death, reflected back to me in the lives of others. I want to reach out and touch the tragedies and traumas of others, observe how (and why) those who remain go on with life. I need to know that I am not crazy.
For background (having now actually read the book)...
Beah's first book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, which is now required reading in at least some U.S. high schools, painfully recalls how his peaceful childhood dissolves when rebel forces sweep across the Sierra Leone countryside in 1993. He is left orphaned and wandering alone, at age twelve. For months, he struggles to find food and shelter, to keep moving to escape the violence, as he comes to terms with the fate of his parents and siblings. By age thirteen, Beah is picked up by the "government" army who ultimately forces him, and several other orphaned boys (one as young as seven), to become soldiers, under the brainwashing that they must serve their country and avenge the deaths of their families. The boys are given drugs to ensure they don't tire, and to numb any lingering fear about killing or being killed. They are haphazardly trained and sent out to ambush, then to confiscate the ammunition and supplies of, groups of rebels and civilians. It is a kill or be killed environment. Trying to live to see the next minute becomes status quo for Beah and his child peers.
After three years of drugs and brutal violence, sixteen year old Beah, and others easily identified as children, are removed from the fighting by UNICEF. Severely battered, with virtually no humanity left in them, these children are "rehabilitated" and then thrust back into society with distant relatives or bounced around in foster homes. Beah eventually has an opportunity to represent the plight of the children of war (in Sierra Leone) at the United Nations, in New York City. After that trip, while still a child, Beah begins the lengthy struggle to escape his war-torn country and to start a new life in America.
With the opportunity to hear him speak first-hand, I was really hoping to hear how Beah copes, how he is able to truly participate in life after the loss and traumatic experiences of his childhood. I wanted to know: How do you live in this world, live a normal-ish life in a country that is not your own, a life amongst innocents, when your entire family has been murdered in the midst of war? When, as a child, you were forced to slaughter other human beings? How do you live in the after?
As I suspected, and really this point seems too obvious to acknowledge, the loss and trauma of Beah's childhood is absolutely the lens through which everything is seen and approached. There are nightmares and insomnia that must be battled. There is frustration with others' perceptions and uninformed, unsolicited opinions about his home country, his family, the war, his experience as a child soldier and his memoir. There is deep lasting sorrow and debilitating guilt. It is difficult to form real relationships, to trust. There is no easy way to start a conversation with people, to allow information about family and history to be conveyed simply and succinctly.
Beah attributes his ability to survive and thrive in the after to the resilience of his youth at the time of his escape. Over time, he begins to feel safe again and learns to cope by embracing and educating others about the horror of his past. By writing, by speaking out on behalf of children affected by war, and by helping former child soldiers reintegrate into society through his own foundation. While it might seem like this is the rationalized "something good" that has come from Beah's suffering, he was quick to share that in 2014, there are still thousands of child soldiers being forced to fight, in up to 50 conflicts around the world. It is staggering and sickening and we are, in our first world busyness, so incredibly insulated from the cold hard reality of the situation and from the individual people and families affected by it.
B and I ask each other daily how we will cope and live beyond Zachary's death. The life and hope we created from scratch in the years after B.W.'s death has been blasted to bits again. We are stripped bare, with nothing recognizable except for C.T., our home and the family and friends who have not given up on us.
I am too paralyzed with grief to think deeply about how my life will matter, how I will thrive, after Zachary's death. When I make too many plans, someone in my family (one of my children) usually dies. So, I'm going to play it safe for now and continue to simply cope, day by day. And if you're a bereaved parent, you know that is a daily struggle and commitment. I'm going to allow the morsels of survival and hard-earned hope I see in stories like Beah's, in the stories of other bereaved parents, to ruminate in me and see if, over time, something of value, something beyond survival, emerges.
For now, eight months out (and almost eight years out), the after is truly about putting one foot in front of the other.