Arrival: LAX

We shuffled, groggy and sluggish, toward the sounds of two voices — one shrill and female, one booming and male — that punched through the mumbling sea of other shuffling, groggy and sluggish passengers who’d just spilled out of our plane, down an escalator, and into this immigration hall.

Welcome to the Los Angeles International Airport.

Also known as LAX.

“YOU IS SITZIN’??!! KHMER!! YOU IS SITZIN’?!! KHMER!! UDDER, OVA DAY!!! UDDER, OVA DAY!!!”

Which was not what the smallish uniformed woman with a cinnamon-colored dye job was yelling, her arms flapping semaphore. But after 26 sleepless hours in transit from Singapore to Tokyo, and then from Tokyo to that crowded immigration hall in LAX, that’s what I heard.  I still had Cambodia on my brain, hence Khmer. And I had been sitzin’ for quite some time, true. As for why I heard udder and ova . . . your guess is as good as mine. Something hormonal, no doubt.

The man bellowed a translation:

“U.S. CITIZEN??!!! C’MERE. U.S. CITIZEN??! C’MERE. OTHER, OVER THERE!!! OTHER, OVER THERE!!”

He looked shrink-wrapped in the short-sleeved white shirt with the customs officials badge on the left pocket.  His silver hair bore perfectly greased comb tracks, making his head look like it was topped with gelatinous corduroy.  He was splitting his seams with maybe a dozen too many Krispy Kremes, a six-pack too many Red Bulls and enough good will to cheer even the grousiest of passengers.  Between his barking, he hummed and lifted himself up on his toes, arms swooping and pointing right, swooping and pointing left.

Right, lift, left, lift, right, lift, left, lift.

Yell, hum, swoop, hum, yell, hum, swoop, hum.

There was such a catchy choreography to it,  if he’d broken out in the moonwalk right there on the linoleum, it would’ve been the most natural thing in the world.

I ducked under the swoop so I could stand in the line for Sitzin’.  The gum-chawnking passport controller smiled and winked and asked where I was flying in from.

“Singapore, huh? Whew, well, lemmee tell you—” he flipped back through my passport, “Lemme tell you, uh, Melissa”, he looked at the picture, looked at me, looked again at the picture, “Bet you’re mighty glad to be home!”

When we checked our bags through to Salt Lake City, the handlers were a Late Flight Stand-Up team: one had shoulder-length corn rows with rainbow-colored beads on the tips of each braid; the other had byzantine tattoos that climbed from underneath his crew socks and wrapped all the way up his trunk-like legs to under the hem of his khaki shorts. Together, they were two of the friendliest, laughingest humans on the planet, and they worked the crowd, pretending to be vying for my baggage, the cornrowed guy grabbing my oversized suitcase from his partner while leaning toward me like we were long lost cousins at a family reunion.  He slapped me on the back then held his hand there on my shoulder.

“Don’t give him that big bag, lady! Looka him! He’s too old, it’ll kill him!”

“What you talkin’, Ray?” the tatooed man cocked his head then stuck out his chest, “I work OUT, man! Work OUT! Gimme that!”

“Work OUT?!” the first man shrieked, flipping a whole  rainbow of braids that made trinkling beady sounds as they hit his shoulders, “Leon, you EAT out, man’s what you do! EAT! OUT!”

Laughter, laughter. And more laughter.

As we left our bags and moved on toward our gate, I heard the banter rollicking behind me:

Ripped?!! Leon, only thing’s ripped ’bout you’s your underwear, man!” and then the follow-up whooping, the hollering, the flung-wide-open spectacle for the passing masses.

It’s then I thought of the Chens, a Singaporean couple I’d met during the flight.  He was a retired government official. She, a retired journalist. This, their first ever trip to the U.S., and they were going all-out: two-and-a-half months in a Winnebago going coast to coast, 31 states, twelve national parks, everything from Badlands to Baton Rouge, Boca Raton to the Berkshires.  Ending in the Big Apple.

What, I wondered (with the Dueling Baggage Handlers still yelping and hooting in the background, the passport controller still winking and chewing his gum, the customs greeter still swooping and humming), would the Chens make of LAX? After the hushed  plushness of Singapore’s Changi International Airport and the feathery reverence of Tokyo’s Narita? Where general solemnity reigns and decorum means restraint, soft but silent smiles, privacy, keeping the codes, minding the rules? Which means no unsolicited physical contact. No winking. No first names. And no public discourse about underwear.

How would they react?  How would they interpret the break-dancing of that customs official, not to mention the broken English of his female counterpart? What would they do with the gum-chewing looseness, back-slapping casualness, the anything goes-ness?

In that moment, if I could have found the Chens, would it have helped had I explained things a bit more thoroughly, offered a bit of a buffer? Told them, for starters, Welcome to the United States of America.

Also known as lax.

Er, I mean, relax.

Er, what I really mean is. . . Free.

**

Thoughts of the Chens have shadowed everything I’ve seen and done on my own trip this year to the American west. But I’ve thought of more people than just them. I’ve thought also of Norwegian, German, French, Austrian, Dutch, Botswanan, Chinese, Tanzanian, Japanese, Indian, Nigerian, Polish, Russian, Egyptian, Croatian, Lebanese, Australian, Korean, Cambodian and many other friends both western and eastern who, throughout these 20 years living outside of my native country, have helped me to see my homeland through their eyes. These friends and others have homes and lands at times strikingly — at times radically — different from mine. What a tremendous gift this has been.

The Scottish poet Robert Burns knew something about that gift. In his “To a Louse,” he writes,

“Oh would some power the gift to give us to see ourselves as others see us.”

That gift of seeing myself — my origins, my values, my behavior — through the eyes of others with different origins, values and behaviors has altered my vision, which vision has informed everything I do, including how I parent my children.  Including how I write and about what.  Including my upcoming book. In that particular work, those two disciplines — raising and writing — merge as I explore what it means to bring up our children to become global citizens.

(And this blog gives you a place to chime in.  Consider that a no-holds-barred invitation.  Feel free.)

**

So . . . how are the Chens faring right about now, do you think, two weeks into their pan-American road trip?

Before even leaving LAX, they saw people.  Lots of them.  They saw many colors, but unlike Singapore, the Californian population, even with its growing Asian and Hispanic demographic, is still heavily weighted to caucasians. The Chens saw all sizes, too, but unlike Singaporeans, these people are heavily weighted.  Like it or not, it’s what so many newcomers, not  just Singaporeans, mention as a first impression of America:  The largeness of us all.

By this, I’ve learned they mean more than the superficial largeness of height and girth, although I’m afraid they mean that, too.  They also mean a certain roominess in manner:  Americans, in general, tend to move loosely. We amble, our gait is ample, our gestures require a Wide Load sign, our personal space spills into others’ personal space, and our voices, like our fast food servings, are super-sized.  This isn’t necessarily bad. Unless you are in a Parisian subway and yours is the only voice to be heard for four subway cars.  Spaciousness of spirit can also be disarming, wonderfully inviting.  If the Chens needed help getting their rental car, for example, I imagine any number of large-hearted LAX people would have wrapped their large arms and broad conciliatory voices firmly around these lost newcomers and escorted them right to the big Alamo counter itself.

On their way there, they would have seen the same parade of Americans that I saw: hippies; aging rock stars; buffed bodies in neon wet swim trunks hauling surf boards; Hari Krishnas; what looked like a displaced circus acrobat; the bearded man in cowboy boots with a silo-sized Big Gulp in the crook of one arm and in the other a massive tray of ribs and fries from which he sampled as he sauntered; two shining Mormon missionaries; a woman in her 70’s dressed (or undressed) in a bikini, gauze skirt and platform sandals, her terra cotta skin a rippled tribute to several decades of California Dreaming, making her a walking topographical map, it seemed, of the Grand Canyon.

I told my boys not to stare.

I also told them not to stare at the next woman.  She was wearing several layers in varying colors and textures of filthiness, and was hunched next to her overloaded shopping cart. She wore no shoes.  Her feet looked like cracked animal hide, the toenails long and blackened. From beneath her wildly matted head of colorless hair, her head  bobbed back and forth, and from her mouth (she had no teeth) rose her hissing chant like steam from a manhole. In her lap (was I staring?) she clutched a stained yellow Tweetie Bird.

Did the Chens pass by her, too? What might they have thought, given that there is no such thing as “homeless” where they come from?

When they got on the road, I imagine they were floored by another kind of largeness: the wide-open-road-ness.  Even I am still drop-jawed every time I visit the States, at the sheer width of the roads. Freeways as wide as entire villages — eight lanes?! — trafficked by every conceivable size and condition of vehicle which might be driven by teenagers, all of whom, I have to conclude, are calling each other on their cell phones. Just holding your cell while driving costs you your driver’s license in Singapore, but these folks are texting and calling and gesticulating into them while weaving around the inevitable snarls. And while throwing trash out the window.  In Singapore, you’d be fined and imprisoned and when released, sent to community service where you wear a bright yellow reeducation vest while sweeping up public spaces.  Here, texting, like driving, is everyone’s right, I suppose.

Ah, that loose look of freedom.

Cars, in Singapore, can cost as much as a house, and Singaporean houses, meter for square meter, are among the most expensive in the world.  (It is an island, after all, and inflated automobile and real estate prices are intended to keep the number of either in check.) To get a Singaporean driver’s license is no easy deal — it is an ordeal, believe me — and of course no one but those 21 and older can even try.  License in hand? Good. Until you accumulate enough demerit points (for minor infractions like driving with your signal mistakenly left blinking) and then you have to start the whole license ordeal all over again. I don’t think I would’ve mentioned to the Chens that, in a state called Idaho, a child of 14 can get a license by taking an open-book test.  And that, to operate heavy farm equipment.

Only a certain echelon of drivers can operate large vehicles in Singapore, Switzerland, and to my knowledge all of central Europe.  What’s more, that equipment, like all vehicles, must be kept in tip-top shape.  This means there’s no such thing on Singaporean — or Swiss or French or German or Japanese — roads as rusting bumpers, dragging exhaust pipes, or duct-taped naugahyde Plymouth Duster roofs.   Because of this, I never mentioned anything to the Chens about buying freedom for your high school senior in the form of a “beater.”

I also thought it best not to mention a T.V. show called “Pimp Your Ride.”

Out on the freeway, the Chens would have also noticed how those roads, which seem to go on forever, are lined with billboards.  Which also go on forever.  The landscape would seem restless, even chaotic to them, I think, since it does to me. There are no billboards in Singapore. (Or Switzerland. Or the better part of the world I’ve visited, for that matter.)  They might have been puzzled, if not unnerved, by the sheer volume — amount as well as loudness —- of American billboards.  Everywhere you turn,  in all media read, listened to or watched , it seems someone is screaming for your attention:

REMOVE UNSIGHTLY VEINS!! REMOVE UNSIGHTLY HAIR!! FREE SCALP ANALYSIS WITH CONSULTATION!!

STOP PAYING THRU THE NOSE FOR DECENT RHINOPLASTY!

NEXT EXIT!! ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT TEXMEXITALIAN BUFFET!! $4.99!! KIDS AND SENIORS EAT FREE!! FREE REFILLS!! 

GUN SHOW!! FREE GUN GIVE AWAY!! NO LICENSE REQUIRED! $15.99 PISTOL WITH ANY PURCHASE OVER $100!!!

I doubt it would take long for the Chens to make the connection between freedom and free.  Bargains, slashed prices, special offers and  free gifts seem to be part of our national endowment. And coming from a place where you can’t even use a grocery shopping cart for free, that kind of free-dom probably seems magical to the Chens.

There are acres upon acres of  parking lots. And get this: you can park in them for free. If the Chens happen upon one of these lots, they’ve probably also happened upon a Walmart, a Super Target, or the Temple of the Bulk Buy: Costco. I didn’t warn them about these places but probably should have, since I remember well my first time in a Costco after about ten years of shopping in the tiny neighborhood grocers and weekly open markets of our homes in Europe. These were stores where my small rolling caddie, which could hold no more than the  essentials for the next couple of days, filled the width of an aisle.  These were also neighborhood gathering spots, places where the grocer was someone I knew and who knew my children, and who ordered a specific cheese (or sprout or bread or berry) with me in mind.

That first visit to Costco, I was on assignment to buy refreshments for a large church gathering, and had filled (with 200 obscenely swollen blueberry muffins and several crates of produce) a grocery cart the size of your average French car.  As I rounded a bend in the condiments aisle, I spied a can of black pitted olives so large, it could have been a nightstand had you slapped a doily on it.

(The doilies were in Home Furnishings, by the way.  Aisle 27.)

Something about that cavernous warehouse lined with towers of abundance, the nightstand-sized can of pitted olives and the 200 toppling muffins made my heart race and breathing grow shallow. I was having an Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole moment, so I gripped the handle of the cart, slammed shut my eyes, and tried to get my bearings.

And I did.  And I was fine. All good.

Until a voice spoke to me, a spritely voice, “Care for a sample?”, and I, being polite, opened my eyes to the biggest pyramid of tooth-picked cured meats I have ever seen in my life, shoved right under my nose on a plastic platter the circumference of Mercury’s orbit.

It took me years to ever go back.

And it took someone else to go back to Costco to retrieve the muffins I’d left when I ran out for air. And a sanity check on proportions.

I’ve since reformed, I want to tell you that up front. Just yesterday, in fact, I found myself in a Super Target (I had never been there before), and along about aisle 64, I realized I was swooning and growing dry-mouthed with delirium. “I love this country,” I found myself groaning under my breath, “I just love it.” Naturally, I had a whole stadium of non-American friends in mind, and wished-oh-wished I could show them all this phantasmagoria, this epicenter of the Land o’ Plenty.  But more than plenty, the easiness and comfort and convenience.  This under-one-roof monument to free enterprise. I thought of how many times newly arrived American expatriates in, say, Oslo or Vienna or Paris or Munich, complained to me about how long it took to just “get the basics done,” that they had to adjust their whole body clock and plan so much more strategically than they’d ever done before.

Instead of having those friends with me, I had my daughter Claire with as guide and human shield should we encounter random roving platters of cured meats.  We had exactly two hours to move systematically through a list of supplies she and the boys need for the coming year. Moving from left to right through this megastore, we also moved top to bottom right down our list.  We started in groceries, rolled on to cosmetics, glided straight through into clothing, (girl’s, boy’s. men’s, teens, women’s maternity, animal’s, sports, nightwear, footwear) then turned a corner for jewelry and other accessories.  Aisle by well-stocked aisle, we were plucking our way right down her list.  There were shower curtains, backpacks, stuffed animals and  leftover July 4th (Patriotic Prices!!) decorations.  Another bend and we plowed straight into Nikons, Blu Ray and HDTV’s, Yamaha keyboards, Yakima bike trailers, inflatable backyard pools. There seemed to be 50 of every item offered, 50% Value Added to those 50 things, and 50% off of their ticketed price. There was also a photo developer, passport photo booth, a video rental counter, a corner sit-down deli, a pharmacy, and a giant spread of magazines, some of which offered 50 % More Photos! Or Last Month’s Issue, Free!

Free press.

It made me giddy.  And dizzy.  Under a single roof and under two hours, I’d ticked off my list. And then some. Unfathomable.

But it was in the “and then some” that I felt that old slinky clutch tease at my appetites, that powerful seduction of the Extra Large, More is Better, Buy Now, Satisfy Your Whim, $19.99 Hyperconsumerism of the Land of the Free.  I empathized better with my Chinese teacher who, during her trip to the U.S., braved a full day in a Greyhound just to get from LAX to Las Vegas. Why? Well, not for Wayne Newton. She’d read there was something called “outlets” on the Vegas fringe. And she’d brought two empty suitcases to fill.

While traveling in the U.S., my Russian friend never hit Vegas or its outlets, and never entered a Super Target.  But she did discover a Phoenix Walmart when she needed pain medication at 3:00 a.m. The hotel clerk called her a cab, who waited for her outside the Walmart front entrance while she joined what to her was the surreal world of shopping in the pit of the night.  “My mother in Moscow eventually believed Mount Rushmore,” this friend told me later, “But I never got her to believe Walmart.”

That friend, like so many — and like the Chens — would have a hard time believing that not just material conveniences but American kids are so free: free to ride skateboards and bicycles on public roads with neither adult supervision nor helmets; free to sell lemonade on the street corner or to mow their neighbor’s lawns or to set up a car wash fund raiser, all without an official government permit. Free to drive, as I’ve mentioned, so that they can get to something called a “summer job.” Or to not get to a job at all because they are free to spend their summer camping, playing Frisbee, or splashing at a waterpark.  (This, as opposed to sitting for hours of daily structured tutoring so they can keep up with their classmates, who are also studying all summer long.) Free to dream big billowing dreams. Free to fail.  Free to start over.

Are American adults just as free? And if so, what does that freedom look like? Are we truly “free” the way we have allowed ourselves to be depicted in the media images exported to the world through “Sex in the City”, “Desperate Housewives” and “Jersey Shore”? Free to throw away whatever no longer fills us, be it last year’s fashions, yesterday’s food,  a lifetime with a spouse? Are we any worse? Are we much better?  Is greed one of the colors on the underbelly of abundance? Is waste?

A concise anecdote to illustrate when I started wondering about these things: When we lived in Norway, the public garbage collectors came once a week to take away our trash.  It was just one fifty-liter garbage can.  Anything beyond those fifty liters we had to hand carry ourselves many miles away to a public dump, where a guard patrolled how well we separated colored glass from clear glass, paper from cardboard from plastic from metal from compost. Until Norway, I didn’t think twice about waste.  If a municipal service was going to come every day to take my junk from my sight, I felt free to throw away whatever I wanted. To waste was normal.  My freedoms permitted it.

Another anecdote from Norway that taught me to check what I thought was normal. It was a while ago, in the early-’90’s, but that’s still not so long ago as to make this story irrelevant. Anders Breivik notwithstanding, Norway is still, statistically speaking, one of the least deadly places to live on this earth. So to my final story:

Our friend, Elsie Bakken, was visibly shaken by something she’d read in the Aftenposten, the daily newspaper.

“It was gruesome,”  she shuddered, “Just gruesome.  Inhuman.” She folded her hands over her heart and patted her own fingers, as if to settle herself.

I was afraid to ask what had happened, what could have been “gruesome” in a country as peaceful — sleepy, even — as Norway.

“What was it? What happened?” I asked, bracing myself by folding both hands in my lap.

Elsie shifted her weight in her chair. “It was in a convenience store.”

“Yes?”

“And a man came in. . .”

“Yes. . .”

“A man came in holding a gun under his sweater.”

“A gun?”

“Yes. A gun! Can you imagine? Among people? And he was holding it like this.” She pointed from underneath her apron, making a barrel of a small gun with her index finger.

“He held a gun like that?”

“Yes.”

“. . .And?”

“He then told the woman behind the counter to lie on the floor. To lie face down. Flat on the floor.”

“Yes?. . .”

“And she lay there on the floor. . .”

“While he had the gun under his sweater, right?. . .”

“Yes.”

“And then. . .?”

“And then. . .and then the man emptied out all the money from the register. . .”

“While the woman is lying face down on the floor. . .?”

“Yes. Oh, it is so gruesome!”

“Right. And then. . .?”

“And then. . .and then he took the money and stuffed it in a bag.  The whole time she had to lie there.”

“And?”

“And. . .” Elsie’s eyes searched mine. Then she closed them. “And then. . .then he left.”

“He left.”

“He left.”

“He left?”

“Yes. He just left her there on her face, lying on the floor —  the inhumanity — left with all the money.  Gruesome, isn’t it? Just gruesome. What is happening to this country?”

**

Somewhere over the Pacific, and while standing in the dim cabin light, the Chens outlined their elaborate travel route for me.  I took only mental, not literal, notes, so I had a general idea of where they would be, without any particulars.  When Denver made front page headlines last week, however, I recalled with a full body chill that they had planned on visiting the Mile High City sometime in July. I have thought at length about where the Chens, newcomers in this land of freedom, were when a gunman bearing multiple weapons entered a movie house and open fired. Since that massacre, I’ve wondered daily about that gentle and genteel couple who come from a place where such a thing is impossible, where that kind of random violence points to a profound illness in a civilization, to a lack, really, of one of the basic freedoms: freedom from fear.

I’ll admit to having not pored over the media reports. I’ve avoided them.  They are too disheartening, too infuriating and too dissonant with how I want  to see my homeland and how I want others the world over to see it.

Lax. Too much so.

And, if there can be such a thing, too devastatingly free.

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

A Girl, a Bowl, and a Python

“Un-dow-laaaah-un-dow-laaaah-un-dow-laaaah-un-dow-laaaah??!! Un-dow-laaaah-un-dow-laaaah-un-dow-laaaah-un-dow-laaaah-un-dow-laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah??!!”

Her voice is plaintive, frantic in pitch but mechanical in rhythm, and her spindly arms with brown claw hands scratch at the sticky air between where she and I sit. She bobs on the water in an oversized aluminum mixing bowl, while I sit under the shade of the canopy that tops our eight-man boat, knees tucked primly together, my fingers spread out on them.  Those fingers rest no more than a meter from where her fingers grope toward me.

I re-adjust a fraction of an inch. But I have nowhere to hide.

And honestly, I have nothing to give her. Not “one dollar,” for which she begs, nor Cambodian riel, for which she is not, oddly to me, begging.  I don’t have her native currency either, the Vietnamese dong.

The day’s heat and mugginess — it is mid-July and this is middle Cambodia — and the persistence of her nasal chanting weakens my patience.  I ask Randall, “Didn’t we bring anything?”  He mouths, “Only a fifty.”

She’s leaning precariously in that bowl, and the waters reach all the way to its upper rim. Again, out of nowhere, that grinding hate I feel toward water. I’m thinking through what I’ll drop — handbag, cell phone — to jump in when she flips over.

The boat driver snaps something at her that silences her for two beats. Then she resumes, a Vietnamese refugee cum auctioneer in the last seconds of a bid that’s going nowhere. This all produces a wilted bill from our tour guide’s breast pocket, which his limp hand draws out and his tilted head offers, crossing right in front of my eyes. He crumples the paper, leans toward the boat edge, and her fingers — unwashed for months, probably — grab the wad.

While trying to stuff it in the pocket of her sodden and oversized yellow pajama bottoms, she adjusts something I only now see is wrapped around her left leg and is lying across her lap. It could be a deflated bike tire or a waxy rope. But bike tires and ropes usually don’t have grayish-green geometric patterns. And they don’t slither.

Without ceremony, the girl whips the python up over her shoulder in order to grab what is the more important object of the moment to her; a very large wooden spoon paddle. With a quick flick of her shoulders, she adjusts the snake like another kid the same age might adjust the hood of a sweatshirt, and plunges the paddle into the water ahead of her.  The serpentine figure-eights she finesses through water as murky and foamy as my father’s winter mugs of Postum.

She’s elegant.  Feisty. Proficient. Gritty.

And she’s outta there. There’s another boat approaching.

“Un-dow-laaaah-un-dow-laaaah-un-dow-laaaah-un-dow-laaaah??!! Un-dow-laaaah-un-dow-laaaah-un-dow-laaaaaaaaaaaah??!!”

**

There are different types of passage, and in this blog, I write of what I have learned from those passages with which I’m intimately acquainted.

The passage from life to death has been by far the most radical teaching experience I have ever known.  It continues to teach me something new every day.  Surviving the death of your beloved drags your living heart along the cutting edge of the veil causing the kind of spiritual injury that either destroys inch-wise or teaches endless much. It can teach you something about suffering.

Something.

I thought I’d learned something when I was sliced wide out of the insularity of illusion in which I’d lived, that cozy idea that my family and I were somehow safe, that tragedy only happened to other people and always “in another country,” as a fine poet has written.  My small corner of agony connected me viscerally, I thought, with the whole map of humanity and history and with some private corners of hell and heaven, too. Personal pain has been a grim but thorough tutor.  I have learned something.

Something.

But it has not taught me everything or enough. I know I still have much to learn.

Another passage, the geographic passage from west to east has, luckily, continued the tutorial.  One of the bitter blessings of living in Singapore — an oasis of plenty in South East Asia  — has been the immediate access to the surrounding countries where there is exquisite cultural variety and historical wonder, but also frequent extremes of poverty, disease and corruption. You can mark “Exposure To So Much of Asia” as #8 on my list of things I will really miss from Singapore. (My brother Aaron will miss the exposure, too, since he came and visited with his family. Totally converted. Many of these photos are courtesy of him.  Thanks, Aaron.)

Over these two years and in the crowded orphanages and prisons, contaminated inner cities, unlit mud huts, rotted rice paddies, refugee camps, filthy and poorly staffed hospitals, inhumane juvenile detention centers, ill-equipped school shacks and cinder block women’s shelters I have stood in  — and in the Vietnamese refugee villages on Tonle Sap lake in central Cambodia I have floated in— I have seen suffering and bleakness that overstretch my writerly powers of description.

But let me be quick to be clear.  Though I know something about suffering, I can only claim to know of one kind.  About the countless other forms of pain and loss like those I’ve just alluded to in the last paragraph, I know nothing.  It would be ludicrous — offensive — for me to suggest that by being a “poverty tourist” I could know about poverty. I can no more know about the poverty and suffering of refugee life from staring into the face of that girl in the aluminum bowl than I can know about the realities of cancer by visiting a girl in a cancer ward. The experience is vicarious and therefore escapable. I stay in my boat.   Get back to air con.  Sleep in clean sheets.  Eat until I’m full. And catch a flight home.  Because the experience of observing extreme poverty is escapable for me, the lessons, however deeply felt in the moment, are too easily unlearned.

(Just wanted to put that out flat on the table, if we’re all good with that.)

So if I cannot know about the suffering of these people I have visited unless I enter fully into their lives — valuable question: am I truly willing to have their lives? And what good is achieved if we are all impoverished? — what, then, can I learn from this girl? Better put, what must I learn?

Lesson #1: Who is this girl?

Her age is hard to tell, but judging from the proportions of everyone else (our boney twelve-year-old Luc out-sizes most adult Cambodians I’ve seen this week), this girl who looks eight for western standards is probably closer to Luc’s age.  Still a child.

This means she is the same age as my Indonesian friend’s daughter, who for four days went missing in the countryside of central Indonesia. When she finally staggered into the family village, she was dazed, her manner and countenance darkened. Where had she been? Even she couldn’t tell anyone. She retold what she remembered: riding her bicycle close to the beach; men in a car asking for help; walking closer to help them; a cloth with a bad smell over her face; then awakening far from where she remembered having last been. Disoriented and petrified by every passing car, she wandered home by following the sea coast, all the while adjusting her clothing, which had been dirtied and, for lack of a better term, rearranged.

The scenario was so typical for a girl in Indonesia that the family thought it useless to cause a fuss by calling the local police. Best to forget it. At least she was one of the ones who came back.

If this story feels too sensational, it’s enough for me to suggest here that the girl in the bowl stands a very good chance of being abducted, abused, and/or sold into the sex trade which is rampant and prefers poor Vietnamese, Cambodian and Thai female children. Even our guide, when I asked what the biggest threat to local children was, said, without a pause, “Being sold or abducted into human trafficking.”

Malnutrition (including lack of potable water), slim chances to be educated, few suitable job opportunities, or even the inaccessibility of adequate medical care were all secondary, in his estimation, to the burgeoning business of child pornography and forced prostitution for which Bangkok and Phnom Pehn are hot spots. For either of the last two fates, the girl in the bowl would be a sitting target.

She is also a sitting target for the virulent strain of hand-foot-and mouth disease killing dozens of children in Cambodia even as I write. Since April, 59 children have fallen ill, of whom 52 are dead. The virus, a form of EV-17, is spread by body fluids and feces. The water in which the girl paddles her bowl is not only her work space, but is where the floating village sewage is dumped, where clothing and dishes are washed, where fish (a dietary mainstay) are caught, and where the children bathe and swim.

Will a girl in an aluminum bowl, if she is not sold or stolen into the grisly world of child prostitution, be correctly diagnosed should she fall ill with such a lethal virus? Will she be taken to a doctor? Has she ever, in her life, even seen a doctor?

Lesson #2: What is this bowl?

Most probably, the bowl is vital to this girl’s and her family’s survival. If I were cynical, I might say the bowl is a means to keep her grandfather in his pack-a-day habit. But it’s more than likely she needs that bowl to beg that one dollar, and that one dollar will buy a bag of rice, food for a family for a month.  In a country where the average annual income is between $700 and $800, a dollar is a windfall. A bowl the difference between life and death.

I’ve seen bowls a lot like this one before.  At bobbing-for-apple contests. At church parties where they’re filled with Jell-O marshmallow salad. At double baby showers, filled with dozens of fingernail polish party favors. Full of caramel popcorn at a teenager’s movie marathon. Filled with fertilized soil to plant window pansies.  Puffing over with dough enough for eight loaves of bread for the middle school bake-off.

One man’s eight-loaf bake-off entry.

Another’s daily bread.

Lesson #3: What is a python?

That snake gives her power. Near superpower.  The boys were wowed by the snake, amazed at the spectacle, and later, when we passed a mother holding up her child while shoving a live python’s head into her child’s mouth, our normally talkative two were left speechless. Could there be, for a western audience, a better show of super powers?

What power did we, in turn, have? Simple: we were white. To be white, our guide explained, is to have power, and to be white and to speak English, he added, was to have superpower. I tried to assure him that there are places in America that are very, very poor and where people die, too, of malnutrition, lack of adequate medical care, violence, contaminated water.  But he just stared at me, smiling broadly at what he was sure was a joke.

“Prosperity, it seems, speaks English.” So writes Russ Rymer, and as I noted the several television antennae and the few satellite dishes perched atop these floating homes — satellite dishes powered by car generators so these Vietnamese can pull in western programs, our guide explained, and many from the U.S.— I understood clearly Rymer’s observation about some eastern cultures that idolize the west: “The arrival of television, with its glamorized global materialism, its luxury-consumption proselytizing, is … irresistible.”

Even if she only speaks two English words —“one dollar”— those words are, in the mind of the girl with the python, the only ones she needs. They mean super power.

Lesson #4: What is this water between us?

Beside the differences, there is one watertight similarity between the girl and me: the girl in the bowl and the woman in the boat are all floating in the same water.  Humans, both of us, either one of us can capsize, perish.  That’s a given. But the wake from the larger vessel has a disproportionate effect on the viability of the smaller one.

I am at relative ease. While she’s paddling her guts out.

I somehow feel I bear a responsibility for her welfare. Does she feel that about me, too?

What keeps her in her bowl, then, and me in my boat?

(I don’t need to answer that question, I don’t think, because if you’ve read this far, I suspect you’ve formulated an intelligent opinion. And I would just love to hear it. Please feel free to comment at the end.)

Just let me admit to something, first.  It happened right here while I was typing out this post.

As I described the place of these floating villages, I typed the name of the vast body of water whose tributaries house these communities of refugees. Its name is Tonle Sap.  T-O-N-L-E. S-A-P.  You might have seen that.

What you did not see, however, is what my fingers— white, clean, soft and privileged — wrote first. Another one of my ingenious typos:

Tonie Spa.

Freud himself couldn’t have forced a more incriminating slip.

**

There is so much more than water that separates me from the girl in the bowl. There is the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, his killing fields, the Vietnam War, all subsequent governments both American and Vietnamese and Cambodian.  There is more water than the whole of Tonle Sap, in fact.

But I know as I watch her paddle away from my boat, metal bowl swirling in the brown water, arms flicking as if dancing, paddle churning like a rudder, and snake sliding noiselessly down her back, “There I go.  There goes my sister.”

“Un-dow-laaaah-un-dow-laaaah-un-dow-laaaah-un-dow-laaaah??!!”

If she beats the many odds stacked against her and most of the children of her culture and gender, her life might stretch out for a few decades yet.  But it will be a life of material scarcity, likely abuse and probable illness. She will scrape by every day, barely eking out survival for herself and for her family. She will know the kinds of lack and loss that would, I know, drain the very blood from every speck of my being. If she one day has a child, and if he actually survives to eighteen, and she then loses him to death —loses him, let’s say, in a water accident on Tonle Sap — that loss will probably be just one of the litany of losses she will endure. She will suffer a black grief then, I imagine, but that blackness will be felt against her life’s general backdrop of charcoal gray, her maternal grief just a few more degrees of saturation.

With each loss, that polished face with its steely determination of youth will grow lines of surrender, will bloom the grooves and drapes of defeat.  And she will finish her brief passage of life — at least the passage I’m picturing here— thoroughly intimate with suffering.

Which brings me, as such reflection always does, to thoughts of another who is intimate with sorrow, well-versed in grief.

How modest that description has always seemed to me: “A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.”

How self-effacing for a King.

How self-controlled for a God who groaned under the load of all creation’s many faces of suffering:

Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit — and would that I might no drink the bitter cup, and shrink — Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.

How graceful for a Son, to suffer as such.

How moving for this sister, to know a Brother suffered it all.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Aninut

I got the email this morning. Sitting predawn on the chilly tile of our bathroom floor in a hotel, I read it in the brief window of spotty Internet access I could eke out here in Cambodia.  I was unprepared for what lay beneath my friend’s subject line, “Sad News.”

The email was not an easy read.

This post won’t be much easier.

She wrote to tell me that her friend’s son — a beautiful, golden child, not yet school age — had died.  This child, a living cherub in the local news images, a whole universe packed into roundness and dimples in his parents’ hearts, had lost his life in an inexplicable and crushing blow of fate.

(I nearly wrote here, “in one of those inexplicable and crushing blows of fate, ” but that would have been crass, horrible.  That bad choice of words would have plopped this unique tragedy in some generic slot in a parade of what an onlooker might consider “similar” stories of blows of fate.  But no matter how incessant the procession of tragic losses might seem, not a one is ever merely “one of those.” Loss is unique the way life is. Death, like DNA, is one-of-kind, ultimate, defining.)

It takes only seconds to read the first few sentences of my friend’s email, then to click on the link to the local news story (and to click it off because I cannot bear it), then to reread the sentence that describes what happened, close my eyes so I can breathe, then reopen them to reread that hellish, impossible sentence about the death — the death sentence — a third time. By then, a physical change has overtaken me and my teeth have begun chattering. I lean my head against the wall, holding quite still as the thoracic compression sets in.

Then I allow myself to slide — dive headlong, really — down, down deep. Toward bedrock.

Down there where things are thickly layered with meaning, my thoughts fire in a thousand directions. I am thinking of the family of this boy, imagining, mostly, the parents. As I think of them, I am also remembering. I see flashes and hear phrases of the local television news footage of our own son’s accident, how the spot was squashed between shrill commercials for used cars and pioneer day firework displays. How strangers with synthetic voices were speaking my son’s name, the name we had given him, which naming was the first step we parents took in claiming new life as our stewardship. As ours.

I re-felt the confusion: we had never been contacted about a television station’s right to speak his name, to speak of this accident at all, to put on the airwaves precipitous details that were misleading and false, that there was an unrecognizable photo of him, my son, filling a screen. That I watched stone still but inwardly crazed: Who took that shot? And who gave it?

And then that moment when, just hours removed from an ICU where I had watched my son die, I took in the terrible truth that, as dead, my boy was now common property.  Common. Generic. “One of those.”

On my hotel bathroom floor and feeling the solidity of bedrock under my spirits, I think more of this family, strangers to me but also new enlistees in this sorrowful procession of tragic losses, and wonder if the parents have even seen that news flash, or if they have been able to open their eyes to each new day as life keeps dawning, insisting upon itself. If they have been able to take a bite of food for days.  Or drink something.  If they are standing up without their knees buckling, or if, at 2:00 a.m., they are walking their now-alien neighborhood streets barefoot and in their pajamas, tearless — the tears having stopped for this one hour — yet gulping for air.

Then the others. I start seeing them.  The child who fell off of his father’s lap and under the wheels of heavy farm equipment.  And that other one, an only child, ill for most of his eight years of life with leukemia, who toppled off the edge of an apartment balcony after he said he needed more air. The one riding her birthday bicycle while the proud family trailed her in their car, close enough to see her wave back at them just as a sideway blast of a moving vehicle hit her, killing her instantly.

The child who did not revive from the coma after a fall from a skateboard. The whiz-kid downhill skier who hit a tree and expired there in the snow.  The other, shot point blank and at close range by another child in a neighbor’s basement.  The one found in his bed, drowned in a shallow pool of his own vomit. The cheerleader whose bulimic habit culminated in a fatal heart attack in a public bathroom.

The teenager whose headaches weren’t from too much reading, but from an aggressive brain tumor.  The twenty-something who lost control of her car. The one who, while serving his mission, was intentionally run over by a car. The other missionaries whose gas space heater put them into a sleep from which they did not awaken. The girl who collapsed on a church hike. The seven-year-old who choked on Halloween candy but no one saw in time, since her gagging was hidden behind her Sleeping Beauty mask. She went unconscious then died on her own front lawn while the other children watched, thinking she was just playing her part.

The infant neglected by the babysitter. The lacrosse star who one moment, was laughing at a sitcom and the next just stopped breathing.  The one who slipped on ice. The other who fell through. And the one who drowned in a hidden whirlpool the locals call “The Meat Grinder,” but a foreigner like himself only knew as the place where his classmate was trapped and would die if someone didn’t try to get him out.

With that funeral march crossing my thoughts, I am hearing afresh the litany of questions that play and replay and loop like slow accompanying music all around these one-of-a-kind stories of loss. They are heavy, both the cosmic questions and the life-and-death stories, and what I am certain of is that the final word on both is not given in this little sliver of existence we call mortality. While people in their zeal and habit for efficiency will inevitably offer lite answers to the heavy questions, our ears might hear them, but our hearts need not heed them. It has been my experience that heaven alone answers the heavy questions.

To speak to the heaviness of loss, I include the following poem.  Its title is the Hebrew term for the first phase of formal mourning which, according to Jewish tradition, is the week between death and burial.  My own experience was hardly so tidy.  That first week was indeed intense and irretrievable —an incubator for revelation — but far heavier mourning lasted for months on end, and the aching has spiked at times over the years.  Now, at five years from the zero point, there are moments — a day or so — when I simply fold down. Or there might be a morning when I am sitting on a bathroom floor in Cambodia and get word of another tragedy. Then it’s boulders in the soul-pockets and I sink right down to bedrock all over again.

This poem I wrote between Christmas and New Year’s of 2007/2008.  That year, we did not want be in Munich where Parker was to have come to us and prepare for his mission departure slated for February. So we were in Utah at his gravesite, which, like all of Utah, had suffered an early winter so his ice-encrusted mound had no tall marble marker yet.  Just a moon to spotlight the empty space. Otherwise, it was the most insignificant rise of earth in all of Utah.

Just one of those, you know?

 

Aninut

Heavier than Something is Nothing.

Gravity-like, Nothing drives to the ground, leveling

Compressing, leaning with ghostly force upon the upright

(Or the bent or the already broken) reducing,

Grinding cheekbone flat into bedrock.

Louder than Presence is Absence,

Its throbbing thickness a vacuumy summing behind the eyes.

Breath-holding.

Fermata.

For size, Loss is more sweeping than any found

Thing beyond price or words.

(Words, with their toothpicked approximations.)

Dearth, more impenetrable than lead.

Death, more devouring than light.

Tonight the crook of my pale arm strains under the weight of emptiness:

Mass, Abyss, Anvil, Black.

Tonight my muteness rasps along

This night sky hung like three-hundred-sixty degrees blown glass

vaulted vacancy

Drilled through with one insouciant marbled moon

Or the white point punctuating black flatness, pinning infinity in place,

Demarcating this spatial phraseology of blank verse.

Threatening, gaping,

Big and billowing oxygen, enough to suffocate as

I crouch on this graveyard dirt,

Yoke’s edge cutting into the nape of my neck,

Hands over my head in submission.

All this cosmos.

Every endless inch empty of my child.

Let me say it now or

Hold my bluegray breath in silence,

Hands high, head low,

Cupped on every side in black.

I am parentheses.

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

Friends To Gather

A woman asked me two months after Parker died, (meaning just six weeks, maybe, after we had arrived for the first time in Germany), whether our simultaneous move from Paris to Munich as well as from wholeness to bereavement, was making our grief over the loss of our son “more complicated.”

“More complicated?” I asked, thinking she meant messy, (which grief always is), or complex, (which burying your child cannot but feel like), or far-reaching, (which it was since it surpassed anything and everything we had felt in our lives), or tragic, (which the loss of promising life in a violent twist of irony surely is and will always be.)

“Yes, complicated.” she said, “After all, you know, you had to leave Paris.”

I listened, head steady.  I didn’t understand what she meant.

“I mean, you are so sad,” she continued, “because. . .I’m thinking. . .because you miss the monuments, right? The cafés? Cobblestones?”

One of my eyebrows twitched.

“All the bridges, you know, and those romantic gardens. You miss Paris. Is that the problem?”

Was that the problem?

I didn’t respond intelligibly, I don’t think.  In my state of mind at the time I probably lacked the emotional distance and energy to walk this well-meaning but mistaken observer of grief through the difference between the loss of lifestyle and loss of life.  Between the passage of place and passage of life. Between moving or remodeling house and the type of demolition I tried to express in the poem, “House for Rent.” That my longing for my child was obliterating, suffocating, that it so sucked the oxygen out of the universe that I was having quite a time feeling much of anything but a protracted, cramping gasp.

That I had not mourned for an instant the loss of Paris the city.  Not her dead monuments. Nor her dead cobblestones. Nor her gloriously grand but dead façades.

That what I did miss, and painfully, were living faces.

I missed Renée and Lala and Ophélie and Claudine.  I missed Valérie and Anastasie and Mary and Anne and Marie-Anne.  Aaron, Chris, Craig, Cathy. Michel and Martine, Phillipe and Lauren, Annicke and Isabelle. Church family. School family. Work family. Neighborhood family.  What Paris had that Munich did not, was neither the historic Arc de Triomphe nor the Louvre, but people who had our history. I missed eyes behind which howled the acknowledgement that forever history would not be right, that it had been bombed straight through.

Eyes that knew.

You’re lucky if you aren’t left to search for understanding only in the eyes of strangers. During that first year, we were lucky. Family and friends made visits to us in Munich. With those visits, we had face-to-face contact with people who knew.  Every so often, in other words, we had community, a gorgeous word that says, literally: “Come. Come be one.”

A friend routed his business trips through Munich.  Another friend, herself in the throes of a cruel divorce, flew to us on two different occasions, bringing with her a powerfully sensitive spirit. Another soft soul came for a week and helped unpack dozens of Paris-to-Munich moving boxes I’d left untouched for many weeks — months — readying myself for a hoped-for (but never executed) move back to Paris, a move back to faces. My brother brought his daughter, my mother brought my father, my sister brought her violin. Parker’s own high school friends, even, brought each other.

With them they brought story after story of Parker.

“And then he just ran — like bounded, you know how he could just bound?” Christina lit up as she spoke, we three others nodding, half-smiling. “Yeah, he’s just bounding to me, like galloping right across the Place Victor Hugo, and he’s waving his arms in the air like this, yelling to me, then he grabs me, he’s panting like this, and tells me,” Christina coughs on a laugh tinged with tears, “he’d forgotten to hug me goodbye.”

She fell silent for a moment.  Megan and Sarah dropped their eyes.  I heard myself swallow.

“Just wanted to make sure he’d said bye to his best bud,” she added, trailing off.

Silence hovered between all four of us.  “Oh, man, I just love that guy.”

“Then you remember that championship volleyball game?” Megan said, “He had his drum — you know that little, uh, that small steel drum he called, what was it? He called it his ‘baby’.”

Christina and Sarah’s “yeahs” tumbled over each other.

“I bought it for him,” I said, “It was. . . so — too — cheap,” I closed my eyes. “I’m so sad —mad!—so sorry, I didn’t get him a really good —-”

“Hey, Mrs. Bradford, it was perfect. Don’t regret it,” Sarah’s eyes fired up.

“Uh-huh,” Christina pulled at a little strand in the carpet, “It was perfect for all those games. It was. You shouldn’t. . .”

Megan and Sarah looked at Christina, who brushed her bangs from her forehead.

Then Sarah reached out to two spots on the floor on either side of her legs and patted them, her palms flat. Patted them softly then louder, Parker-like, post-basketball-victory trill.  The rhythm filled a silence impossible to fill with words.

We talked — or were speechless — like that until 2:00 a.m.

What was this, all this story-telling? And all this silence?  Sitting in our pajamas, cross-legged in the near-dark, on the floor of that Munich hallway, Parker’s Mom and three of his best high school girl friends, all of us talking so eagerly and easily only about one thing. What was all this talking?

Was it brooding? Dwelling? Wallowing?

Or was it what it was? Storytelling.

Telling his story.

Telling history.

Telling history requires knowing and caring passionately about things, which, though visibly absent, undergird the present.  By telling history, we identify and give identity to all those things no longer seen, drawing them into this world of words and speaking, into the current of current events. Bringing them, if not literally back to life, at least into it.

But there are absences for which no language is fitting.  There is at times nothing more apt for great absence than resounding silence.  Resounding silence, however, is not retreating silence. It is not the silence of disengagement, fear, preoccupation or judgment. It is not driven by self-protection, but flows from the pure awe felt at an other’s pain. Resounding silence can be one of the most fluent languages of compassion.

Author Anna Qunidlen, observes the following about speaking or falling silent in the face of loss:

Maybe we do not speak of it because death will mark all of us, sooner or later. Or maybe it is unspoken because grief is only the first part of it. After a time it becomes something less sharp but larger, too, a more enduring thing we call loss.

Perhaps that is why this is the least explored passage: because it has no end. The world loves closure, loves a thing that can, as they say, be gotten through. This is why it comes as a great surprise to find that loss is forever, that two decades after the event there are those occasions when something in you cries out at the continual presence of absence. . . . I write my obituaries carefully and think about how little the facts suffice, not only to describe the dead but to tell what they will mean to the living all the rest of our lives. We are defined by whom we have lost.

—“Public & Private; Life After Death,” The New York Times

Resounding silence requires closeness. It is what happens when you get close enough to the bereaved to hear the echo in his chest as his heart thrashes helplessly in its mortal cage. Or as the bereaved beats his fists on his own bones. At such close range, you feel those blows vibrating in your chest, too.

Even Job’s friends, who eventually make a famous mess of things, begin, at least, with the right impulse:

And when [Job’s three friends] lifted up their eyes afar off, and knew him not, they lifted up their voice, and wept; and they rent everyone his mantle. And sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great.

—Job 2:12,13

This resounding silence speaks wordlessly but wisely.  Its posture is open, like the drop-jawed gaping mouth of disbelief. Or its posture is bowed — prostrate, at times— in front of the blackening threat of oblivion we human beings all face if oblivion is, in the end, what death means to us.

When Jennifer and Olivier, friends from Paris, took the train down to visit us in Munich, there was a moment Randall and I will never forget. It rings and resounds in our memories as loudly as anything we have known in grief.  Jennifer walked across the threshold of our home, set down her bags on the wooden floor of our entryway, and before we could even turn to get her a drink from the kitchen, she froze midstride. Eyes suddenly wide, searching, glazed with tears, she said, “He is not here. I feel it. He is gone.”

With that, we all stood still.

Silence.

Community.

What telling history means, I now understand, is not just talking for talking’s sake, “patching grief with proverbs”, as Shakespeare knows one should not because it kills community.  Nor is it charting methodically through some timeline in order to make a graph so as to pinpoint key events or scientific equations behind tragedy.  Grief is no time for sterile intellectuality because, when things are raw, it is the heart, not the brain, that says “Come be one.”

Telling history means summoning community —come, be one—and when one, one in word as one in silence.  It is the needful practice of narrating and listening, of gathering the debris of something broken and reordering it, blank spaces and all.

No doubt Toni Morrison says this all better than I. In Beloved, and in the words of Sixo who here is describing his friend and lover to Paul D, is a passage maybe you’ve already run across somewhere else.  It has long captured for me the essence of communing, of entering into one another’s hearts, or here, minds:

“She is a friend of my mind.  She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”

Five years, nearly, of gathering and piecing lie behind us.  All along that broken and patched route have been friends willing to enter into the story, forming our community.  They’ve searched with us for pieces, picking up some here some there, fumbling with them, fingering the cutting edges. They have spoken carefully of the one who is absent, referencing and even reverencing him by name.  Together, sitting cross-legged in the hallway after midnight, we have held up a few fragments of what was, peering at them in the shared light, breathing in unison as one shard shines, heaving as we turn it around, feeling the shape, bearing the weight.

We have also clutched that weight in hands hanging bluntly at our sides as if we’ve just dropped our baggage. We have stood there, all of us, frozen and wordless in our entryway.

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

#7: Feast of Friends

I’ve got this quiet cold tide of dread climbing up my torso, a pre-sorrow about leaving my friends — my community — from Singapore. Above all that I’ve listed and will yet list, they will be what I’ll miss the most from here.

Examples? More than I’d dare share here or anywhere, there are so many and they’re so personal. But to give an idea, there have been the extreme kindnesses, like the texts or emails from one friend who seems to remember every single month that it is the 19th, the day of Parker’s accident. Or the other, who digitally designed an up-to-date family photo, into which she masterfully — magically — added Parker’s 18-year-old face. And then the friend who spent months painting our boy’s portrait from a photo, one of the last ever taken of him.

There have been the subtle acknowledgements, like from the friend who has somehow noted what Parker’s favorite hymn was, and glances at me across the chapel whenever it’s sung. The woman who drops me a short email on Mother’s Day, asking, “You doing okay?” Another, who wraps her arms firmly around my daughter, loving her, including her, encouraging her. And still the other, who sweeps my boys into her oversized heart.

Tennis partners for my husband and yoga and hiking pals for me. My cherished Mandarin lesson partner, and our patient Mandarin instructor herself. Travel guides, travel comrades, girls’ camp counselors, my own personal IT specialist, my several extraordinary music partners, the lawyer gal who has given me brilliant (and free) legal advice, all these gourmet gurus, general geniuses, people with wit and savvy and simple, trustworthy, durable goodness.

Schoolteachers and friends of my children; teachers who have been friends, friends who have been teachers. The young men and young women whom I’ve taught at church and all the inspiring leaders with whom I’ve taught them.

These are delightful, diverse people who came from all over the globe to Singapore either a couple of generations or a couple of years ago, for work, for love, for escape, for a while.  But I say they came — whenever it was, but luckily while we were here — just so my family could know them and claim them as lifelong friends.

There is a recent example of such friendship that lends itself well to this space, I think.

Please meet Mateo, Lindsay and Sarah.

Mateo and Sarah are a couple, and Luciana, whom you can not see in this shot because she is sound asleep in her baby seat in a corner on the floor, is their fifth (and two-week-old) child. That Sarah and Mateo just received Luciana into their family makes it that much more remarkable (and heart-melting) that they would pull off an elegantly prepared and exquisitely presented nine-course dégustation menu celebratory surprise farewell dinner for our family. They called it the “overture to the next curtain-hoist in the Bradfords’ life.”

Mateo and Sarah are invested in our move to Geneva since, of the places they have raised their young family — Singapore, Paris and Geneva, making us riveted to them in three key places – Geneva is more their home than anywhere. Sarah, who is Filipina, was raised in Geneva, that is where Mateo was a full-time missionary for our church, and they keep a home base there. Mateo and Sarah enlisted the help of our church congregation member and local rock star chef Lindsay, to create this quietly spectacular send-off.

Lindsay hails from Utah, as do Randall and I, and graduated from the same high school as did we, which makes her a Provo High Bulldog, although her graduating year lags behind ours by about three decades.

In off moments, (like while sitting in a hydrofoil on our way to Indonesia, or while sleeping on mats in a yurt in Bali), Lindsay and I have been known to break into a full-throttle rendition of the Provo High fight song, “Oh, hail Provo High/To thee our hearts will e’er be true. . .” complete with flag twirler movements. (Lindsay’s are real. Mine, knock-off.) Lindsay is terribly gifted, alarmingly creative, adorable and pure and even more authentic than the ingredients she searches out to make marvels like this dinner.

It is her profession in the highly competitive world of the culinary arts that has brought her with her husband, Ben, to Singapore. (Okay, her boss thinks it’s the little pesky job thing. But I know it’s only to become my lifelong friend.)

This is Astrid, Randall, and Jeff.

Astrid is also Filipina. Randall is mine, and Jeff is Astrid’s. Astrid and Jeff met in Boston while studying at Harvard, but Randall and I claim to have known and loved Astrid first, when she taught Russian and we taught German to missionaries in the same hallway at our church’s Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. Randall and I were newly-returned missionaries ourselves back then, but in those pioneering days before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of perestroika and glasnost, there were no LDS missionaries in what was then the U.S.S.R. There were missionaries called, however, to Chicago, New York City and Seattle.

So 19-year-old, almost 5-feet-tall, scarcely 30 kilo Astrid (who had never served a mission, by the way, but had burning faith and sizzling Russian), was recruited by Randall to be the Russian-speaking missionaries’ only full-time instructor, to hold that handful of pioneers in her dainty iron fist.  Jeff is equally packed with engrossing stories, believe me, but I will just say that for this particular international farewell dinner his right to be at the table was because he is a genuinely loving friend and. . .he served as a missionary in, you guessed it: Geneva.

This is our Claire with Sarah. Claire loves and has been loved by these and many other of our friends in Singapore. Claire glows. In one month she will leave to spend eight weeks in that Missionary Training Center all we adults here  love so much, on her way to Italy where she’ll serve for about  a year-and-a-half. We are all openly happy for and proud of Claire (and even just the slightest bit jealous), and  Lindsay is already making plans for an emergency reconnaissance gastronomical excursion to Rome over the next, oh, year-and-a-half or so.

And this is how the Feast of Friends begins:

Lindsay’s choice of appetizer was inspired by the our origins — Randall’s, Lindsay’s and mine: Provo High. The school colors are green and white, (as you’ve seen above), hence the green leaf atop this petite croustillante floating on a pool of tangy lemon butter curd.

Randall and Melissa’s next phase of life, our missionary service in Germany and Austria, was foundational to our lives.  It brought us together as a duo, cemented our passion for All Things German, and was revisited when we moved to Vienna as a young couple, then, two decades later, to Munich with our three youngest children. So Lindsay created his foundational dish: an organic twelve grain German pilaf with the suggestion of red cabbage, beets, braised wild mushrooms and goat cheese. Hearty, wholesome, stick-to-the-ribs-and-spirits.

Six weeks after the birth of our first child, Parker, we moved to Hong Kong, and so Lindsay’s menu continued with a dim sum dumpling with slivered Asian vegetables soaked in miso soup. Guests were instructed to pour on the boiling miso sauce quickly or it would drip off side of the glass and scald you, a nod to our stay in Hong Kong, Lindsay explained, which had been quick (five months) and intense (it was the summer of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, a very hot summer in all respects.)

This dish featured Norwegian salmon, a tribute to our Norway years. Norwegian salmon is the best, Lindsay told all the guests. The cleanest, healthiest, and most expensive.

Ja. Ja. And ja.

The conventional cooking time for this baby lobster and tomato dish (lobster long, tomatoes short), Lindsay inverted to represent the unmet expectation of coming to Singapore for what was supposed to be a long time, but which ended up being much, much shorter.

Still, scrumptious.

Which is why Lindsay inserted this pre-dessert: two years is just too short a time, so we have to draw out the end as much as possible. The black sticky rice is dense and nutty, an Asian specialty. The gooseberry and round of mango sorbet, and the passionfruit coulis, a whim.

And oooooo. . . for the dessert-dessert, a creation symbolizing the runway between Singapore and Switzerland. At the Singapore end, (in the foreground), a small, lightly-perfumed scoop of rose and orchid ice cream. At the Swiss end, a moelleux au chocolat (warm chocolate fondant) topped with a square of Swiss Lindt chocolate, (which had been hand-carried by Mateo from Geneva for the occasion.) Lindsay wanted to underscore that although the distance between Switzerland and Singapore is over ten thousand kilometers, we’ll never be completely out of reach.

It was all, as you can tell, pretty special.

Spectacular.

At least that’s what I’m told.

You see, like baby Luciana, I spent that evening curled up in a corner.

By late afternoon, I’d let a random headache blossom to one of the four migraines I’ve ever experienced in my life, and by evening it had swat me flat on my back. The very thought of raising a fork to my mouth made my whole world whirl.

So instead of nine course dégustation with my friends, I spent nine hours disgusted with myself.

When the sun rose the next morning, regret covered the sky.  And when I saw these photos and heard the descriptions, I ached with love for these people whose friendship — like their ingenuity, like their talent, like their humor, like their hearts — is deep and true.

 

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.