Tuesday, November 11, 2008

23. Hard Times: Eric

The next month brought its fair share of struggles! It was around that same time that Daniel was supposed to go to court for his rape, murder, and breaking and entering case.
That was the point when I had agreed to be his legal guardian because his mom refused to go to court and he was staying in a new shelter in Claremont, a suburb of Cape Town.
When I got to the shelter on the morning of his trial the childcare worker informed me that he had run away the night before. I called the court and told them and they said it was no problem and they understood.
I didn’t see my trip to the shelter as a total waste though because I saw Eric, a kid that I hadn’t seen in about five months.
Eric was one of the first kids I met in Claremont. I had built a close relationship with him.
I loved hanging out with him because he was always smiling, full of jokes and joy. He never failed to bring a smile to my face. That morning when I saw him at the shelter, he was proud to tell me that the reason I hadn’t seen him for five months was because he was off the streets and had been living in another shelter but he had just come to live in the new shelter in Claremont that had just opened that week.
It was great to see Eric! He looked great and he seemed to be in top spirits. I never would have guessed that would be the last time that I would ever see him again.
Three days after I had seen Eric I heard a rumor that a kid had died in the shelter from a “freak accident”. I called and spoke with the lady in charge and I was shocked and appalled at her lack of knowledge of the event and about the kid that had died. I asked her what his name was and she gave me a Xhosa name that was on his papers.
Most of the street kids will change their names or go by nicknames and I didn’t recognize the name that she told me.
I asked her if it was Eric and she said she wasn’t sure. I said that if it was Eric she would probably know because he had strolled in that area for about five years and everybody knew him.
She said, “Oh, well then no, it isn’t him. This kid just came last week.”
And I said, “Well, yes. I also saw Eric last week on the day he came there, and he had been out of the area for five months. But he also came there last week.”
She then said, “Oh, it must be him then.” She said I could come in and bring a picture of him if I wanted to be sure and I agreed to do so.
I went to the shelter the next day with a picture of Eric and found out that it was, in fact, Eric. They told me the story of exactly what had happened. And it definitely was a “freak” accident!
What happened was that Eric and another boy had gotten into an argument and, as the kids normally do, Eric picked up the closest object to him, which happened to be a shoe and threw it at the other boy.
The boy, in return, picked up the closest object to him and threw it back at Eric. The object that the other boy threw at Eric happened to be a paint roller, without the actual fluffy roller part on it, so the long bare pin was exposed.
The roller had been lying around because the shelter was still being painted and renovated.
When the boy threw the roller at Eric it came at a fast pace and all he could do was turn his head. The pin of the roller went straight into the back of Eric’s neck.
The childcare worker that was on duty at the time said that Eric did not fall to the ground, but he just slowly went down to his knees and then laid on his back.
He said that Eric laid there with a smile on his face, and because Eric was always playing around and the childcare worker had not seen everything thing that had gone on, he thought Eric was just joking around.
It was only when he saw the growing puddle of blood under Eric’s head that he realized that it was serious.
The boy that had thrown the roller frantically ran over to Eric and tried to pull it out as he sobbed and screamed for Eric to wake up. The childcare worker stopped him and they called an ambulance.
He then went over to Eric and saw that he had already died but he said when he put his hands on him and looked down at his smiling face, he experienced a peaceful feeling that he had never felt before and he felt as if the whole room was filled up with whiteness.
This whole matter was frustrating to me for several reasons. Accidents happen, and I can accept that. It is not always the accident that is the problem but the way it is handled afterwards.
The lady in charge of the shelter tried to cover up the situation for fear that if word got out about the accident, the new shelter would be shut down.
She had the boy that threw the roller arrested and put all of the blame on him. I couldn’t believe it.
When I asked where he was so I could visit him, she said she didn’t know. I haven’t seen him since then.
I expressed my feeling that he had not done it on purpose and that he was probably traumatized and to have to go to jail on top of that would only make things worse.
She responded by saying, “Well, he will probably get off with manslaughter and not murder.”
I was furious!
She also told the other boys in the shelter that what had happened was over and that they were not to talk about it anymore.
All but two boys ran away from the shelter that week.
I went there the evening before Eric’s funeral and was shocked to find them all out sitting on the sidewalk. They told me that she had told them that they were not allowed to go to the funeral unless they stayed in the shelter.
These are kids that had lived on the streets with Eric for years. They were his family! I fit all 13 of them into my small car and we went for a drive.
It was night and I just drove around and I ended up driving to the beach and we got out and sat and talked on the beach.
In that time they asked me all sorts of questions that they had not been allowed to ask.
Some of them were as simple as, “Where is Eric’s body?”
I answered all of their questions as best as possible and told them that as many of them as could fit in my car could ride with me to the funeral the next day.
I was asked to speak at the funeral because in the Xhosa tradition they like to have people stand up and speak at the funeral.
There will usually be someone to report how the person died, another to talk specifically about the person and honor them, and then a preacher to give the message.
The childcare worker was asked to talk about how he died. One of his teachers was asked to talk about his participation in a program he had gone to for the past five months and I was asked to speak about him in general.
None of his family members had seen him for about eight years and his mom came up to me after the funeral with tears in her eyes and thanked me for everything I had done for Eric and for sharing about him in the funeral. It was truly a huge honor for me!
At the gravesite, all the men go and shovel the dirt on by hand, taking turns, while singing.
After the burial, while I was standing near the grave a man came up to me. He asked me if I remembered him and I said that he did look familiar but I couldn’t figure out where I knew him from.
He then said that I probably didn’t recognize him because he didn’t have on his uniform. Then he explained that he was a police officer in town. I immediately remembered and also remembered that I had had one of my infamous “run ins” with him and his partner not too long ago.
It was actually his partner that gave me such a hard time and actually had gotten physical with me.
He explained that he was Eric’s brother and that he was really touched that I could come and speak because no one from the family knew him well enough to share about his life. He said he now realized how important the work I do with the kids is.
He then apologized for his partner being rude to me. It is such a small world.

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