My Missionary Son Returns, Refugee Sons Don’t

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Teaching German to a smaller group of refugee men in a hot, stuffy, but practical converted camping wagon. Photo Aaron Dalton ©

I told my German students yesterday that, sorry, I’d be taking a two week break from teaching. Why? My son is entering university, I explained, and I am flying with him to the USA to get him settled in an apartment, buy him his textbooks, all the normal––

I stopped on “normal”. With “university” my voice had caught, and then it had faded at “flying.” By “apartment” I was whispering. They are trigger words, hard for refugees to hear.

No Private Homes, No Travel Over Borders, No Further Education

A few months ago, I’d have tra-la-laed right through that sentence, never thinking of those words as extraordinary — even painfully extraordinary for some. That is because several months ago I hadn’t known the world of Middle Eastern refugees who had fled bombed-out lives to trudge weeks or months westward where they would have to survive months on end in tents, shared facilities, or, as with my current students, in small camping caravans.

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Afghani, Syrian, both dedicated students of German. Photo Aaron Dalton ©

Some of my students, due to perpetual political unrest, resultant poverty, or the terror waged by extremist groups, have only limited education, and a few have never learned to read or write. Some have advanced university degrees, which they are now unable to use, and yearn to enter the work force or German university. That might still be years off.

For them and for now, the closest thing to furthering their education is this class I offer a couple of mornings a week in a former pub on the other side of the chain link fence from their dusty camp. A far cry from university, and leagues from Ivy League, but a small, cool oasis of hope.

This is why the mere mention of apartments (or hopping on planes, or enrolling in university) makes them sometimes sigh or even wince with longing. And it makes me scramble for other points of connection.

Separation is Where We Connect

Where do we connect? Every last refugee I have known has had to leave family members behind. Separation is our point of connection. So I explained in that conversation yesterday that this son with whom I’m flying to the States, I had not seen for two years straight.

Eyes widened.

And, I explained: I have only spoken with him via Skype four brief moments in those two years. We exchange emails once a week, yes, but we’ve had no phone calls. I have missed him. Deeply.

They asked where he has been.

In another country. In … England. (I hesitated before that trigger word.)

England. Wince.

England is some refugees’ Shangri-la. At least that’s the rumor. They talk about how much easier it is supposed to be there compared to here in Germany. This student from Kabul had an uncle who fled to Manchester in the ‘80s. He has residency, a real home, and his children got an education! This woman from Damascus has a brother whose kebab shop in Liverpool is doing well. And English! So much easier than this (as she points to my whiteboard of German grammar.)

I explained that my son has been in England for work. (Another word that hurts. How desperately these friends of mine want the right to work.) I didn’t mention of course that that work has been as a full-time volunteer for his faith – he’s been a Christian missionary — as any discussion about religion is strictly forbidden in camps. So I skirted that topic and flipped through a few pictures he’d sent that I’ve stored on my phone.

Sharing Photos, Seeing Contrast

Strangely, some of his shots are stored in between photos a Syrian refugee friend sent me of her fourteen-year-old son living in Istanbul. He’s been stuck there for nearly a year now, working slave labor to feed his father and two brothers who couldn’t get any farther on the exodus west. Their mother, by some border guard glitch, was able to go ahead with the youngest, who is eight. Both made it to Germany where they are living in a shelter.

I scrolled through the shots:

Dalton eating ice cream with Elder McCappin (Woolwich - Oct 2015)

This son of mine is always smiling.

Hers looks bleak.

Mine is hardy, well-dressed.

Hers looks weakened, and the clothing is borrowed.

Mine has probably taken those mega-vitamins I sent him in that huge care package.

Hers is sallow, rail thin, eating rice cross legged on a bare floor.

Mine is lighthearted in every shot, sometimes playful.

Hers stands like a  war prisoner.

This one is taken of mine in a shiny, bright apartment. Everything looks bathed in light.

Hers is a grainy shot of a grayed space where her son stands listlessly against a shadowed wall.

Mine is always in the company of other smiling, well-fed, well-dressed, vitamin-taking, lighthearted, light-bathed young people.

Dalton & Daniel Rainer

Hers is the portrait of The Terrified, The Mournful, The Stalked.

The Separated Among the Separated.

What Separation from Family Can Look Like

And what no one sees in any of these shots, what lies outside of the frame, but struck me with sudden and brass knuckle force, is that I have never seriously, frantically feared for my son’s life, my sons’ lives. Though separated from me, half my family has not been in peril. None of mine have lacked for food, shelter, clothing. And none have been living in the very city where the violence of a recent attempted coup left scores of people dead in the streets.

I scrolled, showing these refugees, all of whom are separated from family, my son from whom I’ve been separated, the son with whom I’ll be reunited in just a few hours. He will land on a jet plane. I will be on my toes at the arrivals gate. I will strain at every blond head coming my direction. My heart will thud, my palms will sweat, my voice will jitter, my eyes will tear up. And then I will see his face, his dimples, his smile, his whole healthy self. And I will run, arms flung wide.

When my friends will be able to do the same, none of us can guess.

That is part of the separation in humanity’s different separations. I’ve never had to weigh the possibility that a two-year separation could have easily turned into several years of separation, or even the ultimate separation of death. I have lived buffered from a whole other world of separation. Separated from it.

DAlton and Elder DeKock Because I'm Happy

They looked at these pictures. I could not read their thoughts exactly, but the weight of their thought bubbles ––the ones filled with loving memories of togetherness and the stinging, exquisite hunger to be united with beloveds in one safe place –– crowded the air around us. If I was quiet and receptive, I sensed how those thoughts pressed us together, bending us toward that common plane where we are all most vulnerable, most fierce: along our family lines. Thin lines made thick through separation.

With new eyes I return to teaching German grammar to refugees. And they, in turn, keep teaching everything else to me.

 

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© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2016.  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.

 

 

 

 

 

Protect Then Push: How a Sanctuary and Service Helped My Grief

“Protect then push. Protect, protect, protect, protect. Then one day, you’ll need to push.”

The woman advising us knew what she was talking about. Joyce Ashton was a bereaved mother herself as well as a professional grief counselor who’d written and lectured with her husband Dennis about major loss and bereavement. We were sitting in their living room in December, five months after our 18 year old son’s burial.

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The gravesite without its stone. The ground was frozen. We waited for a spring thaw.

All our years –– over 15 at that time –– of living outside the US, yet it had never once occurred to us to spend the holidays anywhere but the country in which we lived “abroad.” Until now. We fled our drafty Munich monastery with hastily packed carry-ons and flew a world away from isolation that weighed like a glacier on our spirits. We arrived in the Rocky Mountains of the American west where family waited to take us in.

The children needed levity. I couldn’t even give them a strand of cheap tinsel. Randall was down thirty pounds (12 kilos) since July, ashen, his eyes sunken. I moved like a burn victim released from a year in solitary confinement. My five months of deliberate retreat from human interaction and the terrifying world out there had left me, when I now stepped off the airplane, blinking at lights, recoiling from sounds. Brittle and liquefied, jittery and ready to melt into any caring arms. I was both.

As we sat in the Ashton’s living room speaking short hand known to the grief-stricken, I knew Joyce’s advice to “protect then push” was right. And that Balzac was wrong. “Give to a wounded heart seclusion,” he’d written, “consolation nor reason ever effected anything in such a case.”

At least Balzac was partially wrong. Seclusion had been a gift to my heart. A severe gift. But just that afternoon while meditating a clear inner voice instructed me: “Retreat was a gift to you. But you can’t stay there. If you do, you might never emerge. And if you wait too long to emerge, too much will have died in the meantime. You must go out.”

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From the US, I wrote this email to a friend:

You worry about my withdrawal. Don’t. I know that every tale of spiritual rebirth is a tale of withdrawal:  to the wilderness, into a whale, into a vessel, into a tomb, into a mountaintop, into a grove. . .This is no surprise, as mortal life itself is a descent from the light and warmth of preexistence into a dark and isolated womb followed by the stressful entrance into a world of blaze and clatter. (No wonder infants howl at birth!) Right now, I’m in gestation, huddling tightly in a womb. I will learn everything this sanctuary can teach me.

I also wrote in my journal about Christ’s model of protecting and pushing:

Been studying Matthew 14.  Many careful readings.  Christ’s love of his cousin John the Baptist, Christ’s grief at JB’s violent, cold-blooded murder. Some of Christ’s disciples had been John’s disciples, so they were grieving, too.  How He longed to go into a desert place apart – isolation – to grieve, (did He commune with the Father there? With the Baptist?) but He couldn’t tarry there long because so many needed Him.  And how Christ turns in compassion to the throngs needing His blessing. None of their burdens was as great as his. Lame? Blind? Leprous?Just hungry? He was bearing all of them, and more. He bore it all. Still, he didn’t dismiss them. Was his compassion awakened/enlarged due to His  “acquaintance with grief” (Isaiah), his sudden loss, a loss foreshadowing His imminent crucifixion? He actively turns towards others as an extension – completion? – of his grieving process.  And what happens? The great miracle of loaves and fishes, itself a type and shadow of the Last Supper. 

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A week after seeing the Ashtons, getting that inner voice public service announcement, and reading Matthew 14, I sat in another room, this time in Germany. I’d contacted the gentleman who oversaw our church congregation in Munich, telling him I needed to meet with him as soon as we were back in town.

That man (whom we call our bishop) was a truly good soul, a sympathetic, soft-spoken young father and first-time expatriate doing his utmost to lead our scrappy little gaggle of members. And I had the distinct feeling that we terrified him. Or at least really worried him. Or presented him with a peculiar challenge.

From the start we signaled we wanted no visits, no leadership responsibilities, in spite of two decades of back-to-back leadership “callings” in our congregations everywhere we’d lived. In fact, I’d told our bishop to please not even call on me to pray aloud in meetings. Not because I couldn’t or didn’t want to pray (what else was I doing all week long, anyway?), but because every time I bowed my head –– I knew this –– I poured out tears like a jug gushes water.

As a couple and family we were working so hard every day and night all week long to just keep breathing, to keep ourselves together, to access spiritual strength and get the divine guidance we craved, not to mention to deal with the many unanswered questions about Parker’s accident, the fallout in the lives of others involved in that accident, and the potential legal implications. Every day was dire. Every day was a face-to-face encounter with The Big Issues.

And we’d just arrived in a new country. So there was that.

But Sundays. They weren’t like the sanctuary that was my weekday world, not much like our makeshift monastery. What could be, though, but a morgue? At church we tried to swerve around but couldn’t help but hear the normal chit-chat, those hallway conversations about how tough it was to not have 24-hour pharmacy drive-throughs. How irritating to not find diapers sold in bulk. How annoying that there weren’t more cinemas that showed movies in English. And how hard it was to send a son off to university, or on a mission, or to some place without decent WIFI.

And this all made us feel like we were aliens, sensitive to the point of being skinless, flinching and wincing at normal human behavior: glibness, facile answers, chirpiness, glee, dogma-as-bandage, platitudes.

We regularly side-stepped out.

People side-stepped around us.

I’m surprised they tolerated us as much as they did. Mourning, especially with strangers, takes super human patience and a divine dose of sympathy. I know everyone was doing their human best.

What resulted, though, was a vacuum-packed existential isolation, a loneliness-to-the-point-of-desperation I’d never felt before in my lifetime exacerbated by the fact that it was happening exactly where we’d always felt most at home: in our faith community.

So as I was saying … I asked for an interview.

“You wanted to talk, Sister Bradford?” my bishop asked, his eyes open and soft.

“Well, not really. I don’t want to talk. But I know I need to.” I think I was already crying.

“Please. Please, tell me what’s on your mind, on your heart. How can I help you?”

He was tall with a visible goldenness to him, this man. He held his hands folded on his desk. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

How could you help me? Ideally, I thought, ideally … you could weep long and hard with me about our son. Or not even cry. You might ask about him. But I won’t beg you or any of my brothers and sisters here to feign interest, pretend heartache. No, can’t do that. Solicit sorrow?

“I’m …” I interrupted my own freight train of thought, “I think I’m ready to help. I’m ready to reach out and do something here. Do you have something I can do, something you need me to do?”

Bishop: “You want to serve here at church?”

I nodded, still crying into my lap. A box of tissues came from his hand.

I looked up from my lap. He was gracious, silent.

Then he took a long breath. “Well. That is interesting, Sister Bradford.”

Me: “??”

He went on: “We’ve been praying and fasting and discussing over the holidays while your family was away how we could serve you, how we could possibly help your grieving family. And we got the impression that as soon as you were ready, Sister Bradford, you would tell us. And when you would tell us, we would have work for you to do.”

Me again: “??”

“How ready are you to serve, Sister Bradford? What can you take on? I want to be very sensitive to––”

I remember in that moment feeling a single rusty engine rev exactly once in my lower thoracic region. I butted in:

“––Whatever … whatever you need me to do. I am ready. I want to share what we’ve learned, what we’re learning.”

He leaned back in his chair. He smiled. Then he leaned forward: “We’d like to ask you to teach the teenagers. Sunday School.”

I nodded.

“And … seminary.” (An extra weekly  youth instruction.)

I nodded.

“And would you teach the women’s class?”

Nod.

“Once or twice a month?”

Nod. Nod.

“Would you be able to teach the adult gospel doctrine class?”

Nod. Smile. Two engines churned. Maybe a third.

“Every week?”

Nod. Smile. Joy-heat rising.

“And there is … one special and wonderful sister, a shut-in for years, serious health problems. But she lives 45 minutes away. You have a car. Can you visit her?”

Slow nod. Big eyes. Little sniffles.

“Every week?”

Nod.

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Once I got that  gig up and running, a couple of months later I also began team-teaching mid-weekly evening classes –– what we Mormons call Institute ––a gospel study course for all young adults in the greater Munich region.

You might say I found “push.”

I also found loss. By that I mean that as I pushed myself in an effort to serve others, I connected with people and  there found more loss than I had previously known existed among us. It was everywhere, in all forms. (I could make a list here, but you know as well as I do that that list would use up all my battery and yours.)

Before major loss became my personal story and not someone else’s fiction, I was oblivious to much of its world, its look, its contours, its devils.  The hook is this: Once loss was my story it wouldn’t have been enough––in fact it would have been a reverberating secondary loss and a dead end story –– to remain withdrawn in that narrative cul de sac for good. That wise inner voice had instructed me: Don’t let your sanctuary become your sarcophagus. I had to push.

So strengthened from my months in retreat, I now served. As much as could. And at the same time, so many, many people served our family. We wept three years later when we left our community in Munich.

If I lost my monastic retreat, it was never meant to be my permanent residence. Because outside its protection I found life.

And Inspiration. Power. Friendship. Help. Wisdom. Answers. Guidance. Comfort. Love. Tenderness. Meaning. Hope. Compassion. Holiness. Visions. Answers. Strength. Light. Vigor. Humor. Resilience. Relief. Brothers. Sisters. Community.

Loaves. Fishes. Miraculous Nourishment. God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Global Family: The Next Generation

Let’s go to Italy. Sicily, to be specific. It is late summer 2013, our daughter Claire is wearing a name tag that identifies her as a full time missionary or sorella (sister) Bradford, and she’s just been transferred from Rome, the northern south, to Palermo, southern south.

Palermo at night

Palermo at night

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As an earnest sorella, she’s been asked to serve as something known as a Sister Training Leader (she counsels and coaches other sorelle in her mission), and is focused on introducing her brand new sister companion who’s just arrived from the States to Sicily. Lots to learn, loads of responsibility, house to set up, people to get to know, networks to build, a local dialect to decipher, and a muggy, sweltering summer that makes all these layers of emotional weight even stickier and heavier than the sodden shirts that cling to the sorelles’ backs as they tromp Sicilian cobblestones.

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To get her bearings, La Sorella meets the anziani, or male missionaries, at Palermo’s Stazione Centrale. Among these young men is her “district leader.” (Missionaries always serve in companionships. Companionships are grouped geographically into districts. Districts are grouped in zones. And zones are overseen by a volunteer mission president and his wife, who sit in Rome.) This district leader is an Italian –The Italian — and maintains an appropriate professional distance with La Sorella and her companion. His voice, warm and round as a viola, makes him seem much older than his 22 years.  His accent is from the north. He extends his hand to shake hers, which he does just once and without the slightest frill of ceremony:

“Sei Sorella Bradford?”

“Si.”

And the missionaries go to work.

In Monreale, outside Palermo, at at pranzo that was as long and love-filled as this table

In Monreale, outside Palermo, at at pranzo as long and love-filled as this table


Weeks pass.

For 6 months, The Italian remains, as does La Sorella, in Palermo — teaching, leading, (he becomes a zone leader, she continues as a sister training leader),  serving, organizing, befriending, baptizing, watching one another in some unpleasant and soul-revealing circumstances, observing the other making sacrifices, making peace, and making the occasional liter of The Italian’s specialty (and La Sorella’s favorite food), homemade pesto. Mutual respect grows to mutual confidence, which grows over time into a strong friendship.

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Then Rome happens. The Italian is transferred to The Eternal City the same day La Sorella is to have her final interview with her mission president before flying home the next morning to her family in Switzerland. On that same evening before her return to civilian life, The Italian slips her a letter (more like a hand-written novella) which she’s to open only after she reaches home.

As you’ve already figured out, a protracted year of weekly novellas stacks up: Italy –>Geneva, Geneva –> Italy. Italy–>Utah, Utah –> Italy. Italy–>Frankfurt, Frankfurt–>Italy. Italy–>Utah … over and over again, week in and week out. While The Italian and La Sorella keep up the intense correspondence, there are also our road trips to Milan to visit The Italian’s Famiglia south of Milan…

Eating again. Several courses at a traditional family table in Lombardy, Italy.

Several courses at their traditional family table in Lombardy

Trips the Famiglia makes to Geneva to visit La Sorella’s Family…

The Famiglia's first fondue, Gruyères, Switzerland

The Famiglia’s first fondue, Gruyères, Switzerland


And enough Skype calls between Sorella and Famiglia, Family and Famiglia, to assure us we all have a future as friends.

Meeting The Italian for the first time, Piazza del Popolo, Rome, Easter, 2014

Meeting The Italian for the first time, Rome, Easter, 2014

 

The Italian and his missionary companions and a friend of the church on their one free day in the week, pedal carting through Rome's Borghese Gardens

The Italian, his missionary companions, and a friend of the church on their one free day in the week, pedal carting through Rome’s Borghese Gardens

And just in time.

Because this week, 18 months since La Sorella and The Italian first met as missionaries, he has come home. La Sorella has made special arrangements to leave her last (intense) semester of university studies for 10 days to be in Italy awaiting him. Not at the Milan’s Stazione Centrale like Palermo’s Stazione where this story began.  But at his home in a Lombardian village south of Milan. After being officially released from his missionary title, The Italian — now Alessandro — comes through his front door. The Sorella — now Claire –is waiting there, practically hyperventilating. He leaves his suitcases at the door. He falls to a knee. “Claire?…”

She manages to release a single word up through that sweet, warm pooling of anticipation and affection.

“Si. . .!”

Now the love birds go to work.

Alessandro and Claire

Alessandro and Claire, yesterday.