Exactly one month ago, we admitted a 15 year old boy to our Respite Unit. Today, after spending over four incredible and impacting weeks with him, I find myself sitting at his bedside, holding his hand as he takes what are likely some of his last breaths. I know that Njabulo has been in a lot of pain lately, and that his passing will bring him peace and freedom, but I can also feel my heart growing heavy with grief, and so I think about how I came to love this boy so much.
On April 3, 2013 Njabulo was brought into the Unit by his aunt, who he began staying with after his mother passed away. He was walking on his own, but he was very weak and in pain and weighed only 65 pounds. His head (barring his face) was wrapped up in a bandage, and we discovered that in addition to AIDS, Njabulo also had Squamous Cell Carcinoma.
When Thami, one of our caretakers who is also in charge of making memory books/boxes with patients, asked him if he understood what was happening in his body, Njabulo said yes he does. He said he knows he has stage 4 cancer and that it can’t be cured. He also went on to say that he is not afraid of dying because no one can live forever, and everyone goes at some point. His unbelievable courage, both in life and in the face of death, touched me at my core. He is just the bravest little boy, and when I think of all the suffering and adversity he has faced in life, it makes me want to cry.
Njabulo has continued to display his courage and strength every day since addressing his prognosis. He never cries or screams when his head is dressed and bandaged. The bandages cover the numerous and painful sores the cancer has caused on his head, and are changed twice daily. Nor does he weep or complain when his family does not come and visit him. On the contrary he tells the staff how much he loves his family, and, with Thami’s help, he made a memory book and box so his future family could still know him. He is remarkably humble and unassuming as well. Every morning during rounds, Mary-Ann asks him how he’s doing, and every single morning, Njabulo replies, “I’m fine.” One day he and all the other patients went to the beach to get out of the Unit for a day. After dipping his feet in the ocean (he couldn’t swim because of his head), he became fatigued by the outing and the sun. Instead of whining or asking to go back, he quietly told Thami that he needed to go rest in the car and let all the other patients carry on with their beach day.
When I think of these instances, and Njabulo’ character in general, it’s easy to forget that he is just a 15 year old boy. But he is just that, and I can’t help but smile through tears as I think of the childhood he’s lost to become prematurely adult, but was able to enjoy bike riding, beach outings, ice creams and other outings, simply enjoying his youth. During Njabulo’s time here, we’ve also had another 14 year old boy staying in the Unit named Mandla. These two boys, usually accompanied and supervised by Thami, often sit together in the sunshine, link arms while walking to the store, or take turns riding a bike in the Respite parking lot. They both love to draw, and kept a set of markers between their beds before Njabulo moved to a different side of the ward. It was so cute to watch their friendship grow and see how they looked out for each other. As Njabulo got weaker, Mandla would often speak up for him and let me know if Njabulo needed anything. He also told Thami that they need to use brighter colours when colouring so Njabulo can see the pictures easier. They also helped each other with math and schoolwork, which wasn’t assigned, but they did anyway, to stimulate their brains.
Njabulo is an amazing human being. He is kind-hearted, clever, polite, brave, and a truly good person. He said he wants to be a doctor when he grows up so he can understand what’s happening to him. My heart aches as I sit here beside him, and I am overcome with sadness as I realize these memories will soon be all I have of Njabulo. His life, full of potential and prospects of a brighter future, are being so unfairly cut short at the age of 15. I don’t understand it, and I doubt I ever will, but the courage he has shown, and the attitude with which he has faced his fate, have inspired me. He has quietly and gently carved out a space in my heart, and I will keep him there and carry him with me as I go forward. He is a hero and a gift to all who know him, and though his life has been one short chapter in the larger story of the universe, I feel so privileged to have been able to read it. I will miss him so much when he goes, but take comfort in the knowledge that he will be finally be free.