Mlungisi Mzobe was buried on a Saturday in October, in between the morning sunshine and afternoon storms of springtime in South Africa. He was just eighteen years old.
I only spent a few scattered hours with him here and there; the funeral was the most time Mlungisi and I ever spent together. During the strike, when Becky was visiting, we helped Mary-Kate bring a few of the healthier patients from the Respite Centre to the shopping centre for ice cream. Becky and I sat with two guys, both named Mlungisi- one older and one younger. They both insisted on large plain vanilla soft-serve but with the chilly August wind blowing in through the door of the shop, were too cold to finish. We got lids and they brought their ice creams back to put in the fridge for later. Mlungisi was happy to answer the simple questions we asked him about where he came from and his family, and when he asked about my life, he could not for the life of him understand why I would want to be a teacher in Molweni.
The next few times I saw Mlungisi, he was in bed at the Respite. I remember he had the most graceful, slender fingers that would rest on the blanket of his bed.
When he got moved to a private room, he knew the outlook wasn't good; patients didn't just get moved to private rooms for increased privacy.
I would run in to pick up Mary-Kate or Meg from work and go to say hello. Once we had to run out to Spar to pick up some Sprite for him. He never failed to request food or drink from the careworkers-- there was the time he asked for a pineapple and just kept it by his bedside. I don't think he ever ate it. Or when someone would make a run to KFC; he couldn't eat fried chicken, but he'd order something and just have it next to him on the bed. It always reminded me of a book I read as a child, where a man who couldn't afford food would satiate his hunger on the smell of dinners being prepared in the alleys behind restaurants.
A couple of weeks ago, after he'd been moved out of the private room and back into a regular bed, Mlungisi was discharged from the Respite and transferred to St. Mary's Hospital. I was sad that I wouldn't get to see him anymore, but hopeful that the transfer meant that all his hard work was paying off; that his CDC count was climbing, that his TB wasn't the dreaded MDR variety and that he was finally back in control of his own body.
He died on October 14th.
All the other people who had come to say goodbye were doing so to a body they no longer recognized. Though his smile and those long, slender fingers were the same, the sickness had sunken his eyes, shrunken his skin, and worst of all, frightened such a kind, caring young man. That's what upset me the most-- Mlungisi was terrified of dying. I think that's what kept him fighting and hanging on.
In the photo that his family placed on his beautiful coffin, I hardly recognized Mlungisi's face. I'd never seen him look so healthy. But it served as a reminder that no matter how sad I felt at Mlungisi's funeral, my grief was minor in comparison to that of his gogos and siblings, the friends he grew up with, his fellow students who came in their uniforms. School uniforms don't belong at a funeral.
Mlungisi Mzobe will never be a father, never watch another soccer match, never run around causing trouble with his friends again. And he never did eat his pineapple... but I'm pretty sure that they have pineapples in heaven.
Phumula no thula, Mlungisi.