Life in Limbo: The Ahmed and Shafeka Khan Story

Eyes speak. That morning at the Limburg refugee camp, I heard volumes.

“Guten Tag,” I said, tipping my head toward the man sitting alone. One of the dozens I’d met while volunteering as a German teacher in refugee camps near Frankfurt, he had drawn my attention more than once.

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Some of my students/friends at a previous refugee camp.

 

Hard to miss: Shoulders nearly as broad as the end of the table at which we sat; Ring with blue stone on his left hand; Vividly colored mandalas he’d painted on art day; Fantastical flying stegosaurus he’d fashioned with felt tip markers. The steady, weighted gaze from under the brim of his baseball cap gave him the air of a once-imposing but now-cowering animal, bruised from serial blows.

His eyes had been watching, speaking while I worked. Two minutes earlier, a dozen or so children and I had been rowdily chant-singing “Kopf, Schulter, Knie, und Fuß”, our laughter spraying like lemon yellow microbursts into the slate gray camp atmosphere. But the kids had lost interest after an hour and had run off the instant there was a lull in the rhythm.

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Only one child, Sultan, had stayed. Now he moved down the table, dragging a leftover piece of my big roll of work paper in front of him, and took his seat next to the man in the cap. The man placed his hand on the boy’s back, patting twice. It was then I saw these two had the same eyes; moss green, mournful.

“Guten Tag,” the man said to me, his smile lifting the corners of his mouth, but not the edges of his eyes, which were fixed and, though shining, heavy.

Deutsch? Englisch?” I asked.

He raised his meaty fingers, making a pinch, “English. Little.” The man pointed to Sultan, “My son. He speaks little English. Also little German.”

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A woman joined us, slipped in, silently, sat with hands folded. Veiled in soft gold and brown patterned cotton, maybe forty, she moved gracefully, cautiously into the chair between Sultan and his father. Affection and sorrow spread across three faces in front of me, with hers a rounded portrait of weathered beauty centered in clear, wise eyes.

Sultan, whose slick black hair had been trimmed recently, piped up, tipping his head to one side: “Mother, die Mutter,” then the other side, “Father, der Vater.” Then be busied himself, writing.

Und woher kommen Sie?” I spoke directly to the father, asking where they were from, and launching an interview disguised as a German conversation lesson.

The mother understood nothing. Sultan whispered, translating. The father nodded, pointed to himself, his wife, his son. “We: Afghanistan.”

Und was schreibst du, Sultan? What are you writing?” I asked.

“Family. Die Familie Khan. Meine Familie. ”

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Always seeking common ground, I said, “I have a husband. We have four children.” And I scribbled our family and ages, pretending this once that my eldest child was still alive, so 27 years old.

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“For fünf-und-zwanzig Jahren we’ve moved a lot, too.” I wrote that above our heads, then continued, listing the countries, nine in total.

It was the “too” that felt wrong, a barb in my throat. I suppose that in another setting full of folks for whom international travel and residency are givens, “moved a lot” might have drawn a line of connection. Someone might have said, “Oh, we loved Hong Kong, too,” or “Really? We were in Vienna for three years,” or, “Which arrondissement of Paris?”

But did our moves as corporate expatriates and the Khans’ flight as terror-driven refugees have anything in common? Anything except perhaps geographic displacement? Mine was a superficial, even ridiculous, comparison. So my voice cracked with unease, trailed off in apology.

Trying to recover, I looked into Shafeka’s eyes. “It has not always been … easy.” Sultan translated the words, and I hoped this woman would read the real story behind my eyes, the one I couldn’t quite splice into the narrative, the one explaining how we had buried our firstborn, our eldest son, during that ragged borderland of moving between countries. Instead of that, I said it was hard because, “Every time, you know, another new language.”

Language acquisition was an obvious point of contact. I listed my few tidy European tongues and what’s left of my dormant Mandarin. Ahmed’s brow stayed flat. He then asked me to spread out both my hands, palms up, as one-by-one he bent my fingers closed, ticking off his ten languages: Farsi, Turkman, Uzbek, Tajiki, Balochi, Ormuri, Pashto, Pashayi, Dari, Krygyz. I didn’t even recognize half of them. “And little English,” he shrugged.

Then four young women approached. I recognized two; Summiyya and Safia from previous interaction, and knew they spoke exceptional English and had refined, discreet manners. “My daughters,” Ahmed said. And I was not surprised.

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From bottom left: Some of the Khan family: Ahmed, Shafeka (veiled), Summiyya (veiled) , a friend, Safia (veiled), another friend, myself, friend Samir in the blue hoodie, and Sultan in red stripes.

“Now you learn German together as a family,” I said, trying to cheer them on. “You must work hard. Moving and learning languages is hard.”

Those last words petered out into yet another pool of shame. Those words could not stand before this man’s face, this woman’s face, this son’s and these daughters’ faces with eyes that have seen “hard” and horrors my eyes have only read of.

Nothing about our experiences with “hard” was similar. I’d moved from comfort to comfort, willingly, eagerly, with every possible advantage, every conceivable yellow brick already patted into place along the road forward. Suitcases in the multiples. Air shipments. Sea shipments. Jet planes. Eye masks and earplugs while grumbling about economy legroom. Hotels. Taxis. Relocation services. Rental homes, per diem, restaurants, facile passport stamps, schools awaiting along with piano, drum, clarinet, flute, horseback riding lessons. Freedom behind me. Abundance around me. Safety ahead of me. All as far as my eyes could see.

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Art work with one of the many children in Limburg.

In contrast, here are the scraps of the Khan family saga:

The Khans’ world has always been at war. For generations, in fact, Afghanistan has been the stage of end-to-end conflicts, coups, rebellions, reforms, radicalization, insurgencies, the widespread violence of mass bombings, and the personalized atrocity of public executions. Once part of the intellectual elite, Shafeka’s father, a brilliant aeronautics engineer, had been executed by the Taliban. She looked away as she spoke and Ahmed translated, both wincing while tears sprang then streamed freely.

With their family surrounded by mounting violence and constant fear, Ahmed and Shafeka knew fleeing was the only option to preserve their family. They fled leaving everything; relatives, friends, home, neighborhood, mother tongue, all that had been their history, everything they had planned for their future, including the antique business Ahmed had built up over two decades.

And they fled on foot.

With their seven children, Ahmed and Shafeka traveled from central Afghanistan to central Germany (a distance of over 5000 kilometers or over 3000 miles.) That is roughly the distance from Oslo, Norway to the Italian island of Sicily. Or from London across the Atlantic to Boston. Or from New York City to Denver, Colorado, and back to New York City again. This odyssey, which they undertook during winter, took four months.

They began by looping southward to Pakistan but were detained there by police who forced them to return home. They fled again, this time through Iran, where they were detained again and sent home. Again they fled, though I don’t know exactly how or by what route in order to avoid police. This time instead of being sent home, guards shot Ahmed in the feet.

(I’ve heard of this tactic used by police/guards/ border control officers from more sources than Ahmed. Shooting anywhere in the legs doesn’t kill, so a guard cannot be seen as inhumane, and a war council couldn’t prosecute. From the hips down can be counted as a misfire. Still it stops literally in their tracks those who are fleeing, and it intimidates others.)

Injured feet could not keep the Khans in Afghanistan. Carrying only what they could sling on their backs and hold in their arms, they left home again. Hiking in mountains, hiding day and night, going days without food, they survived that life-threatening trudge to that infamous Turkish coast and beyond. The daily, sometimes hourly, threat of violence. A father’s fear for his youngest. A mother’s anxiety for her precious daughters. Vigilantes now line the well-trodden route between the Middle East and Central Europe. Hundreds and even thousands of refugees, especially children, have simply “gone missing.”

Under moonlight, smugglers took too much of the Khans’ money to load them (and a pile of other desperates, including unaccompanied children) onto an inflatable raft. They lurched in the pitch black across even darker waters, arriving predawn on the shores of Greece.

Safia and Summiyya added their memories: “There was no bath, no water.” “Tired, so tired and sometimes sick.” “Afraid, always afraid.” “Where to find food? Where to sleep?” “Which person to trust? How to stay warm?”

As Ahmed and his daughters recounted this, Sultan stopped writing and raised those sea green, radiant eyes, and Shafeka shut hers, shook her head now hanging low, pressing her crossed arms to her rib cage. Then everyone’s eyes met mine, as if saying, “This is our truth. We deny none of it. We are here only because we have survived.”

Since the day they stepped off a train, (what Ahmed calls “so big luck” from the Austrian border to Frankfurt), they have all been here in Limburg –– or in Limbo, as I call it –– a refugee camp under a train overpass that shakes and shrieks like the bombs that fell back home. People, mostly strangers to one another, are waylaid in overcrowded, utilitarian spaces for months on end, not knowing when they will be moved to another camp, where that camp might be, or if they might be denied asylum altogether and be deported. That threat hangs perpetually in the air.

So in limbo they stay. No school, work, routine, private space, even shower stalls. Children grow bored, mischievous, withdrawn, or aggressive. Or remain miraculously sweet. Adults grow limp from aimlessness, rabid with restlessness. Or remain miraculously civil.

Everyone agrees it is stressful. Hearts skitter, tempers sometimes flare, despair spreads its paralyzing poison. Ahmed’s high blood pressure worries Shafeka. Shafeka’s low blood pressure worries Ahmed.

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But back to Afghanistan? To Iran? Iraq? Syria? To hell? As bleak as life might sometimes feel in limbo, life in hell is worse. Ahmed schooled me, his eyes narrowing and darkening. “War was terrible, terrible. No words. Terrible.” And his eyes scanned the hall full of refugees around us, all people I’ve grown to know, many whom I consider my friends. “All. All have dead because war. These people,” he was pointing,  “dead father, dead mother, dead brother, dead children.”

I know all of my losses combined cannot touch the edge of what Ahmed and Shafeka have known, but I offer my one truth. I share with them––though it is hard to speak the words and I speak only with great restraint––a short version of how we lost our son, the one who is not more than a stick figure on paper, the one I said was 27 but is forever 18. “I know the feeling of losing someone you love with your whole heart. I know that feeling.”

Then I quickly add, “But I do not know this,” and I write the words with a vengeance. “I know nothing about this.”

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Our conversation ended there. The multipurpose hall had to be set up as a cafeteria. All of us ­–– Sultan, Safia, Summiyya, Shafeka, Ahmed the Afghani antique dealer, and their American German teacher –– had shared scraps of our stories. Those stories, I reflected as I packed up my belongings, are as far from each other as are our countries. A seemingly inestimable expanse between us.

Or is it so? Now we were here, we had connected. In Limburg. In limbo. Maybe somehow all stories connect if you follow them deeply and far enough. And it could be that it is our stories of loss that connect us all.  Don’t we fuse where we have been shot through, whether in foot or in spirit? Don’t we bond on our broken edges?

And where do we sense these bonding stories more poignantly than face-to-face, eye-to-eye, spirit to spirit? How do we better understand? When do we truly see each other?

What I saw as I  walked under the train overpass to my parked car was a bunch of refugees, maybe forty, milling about on the gravel, waiting for “Mittagessen,” lunchtime. Among them, I spotted an Afghani antique dealer, father of seven, husband to Shafeka, a survivor named Ahmed Khan. He stood there behind the chain link fence, and not far behind him stood a son named Sultan. Both had their hands in their pockets, Ahmed with his black cap , Sultan with black bangs, both with magnificent eyes.

Those eyes. Those storied eyes. I stopped, turned, looked longer, closer. The general became specific, the “bunch of refugees, maybe forty” became particularized, human. So many eyes. So many stories. Eyes glinting in early afternoon sunlight. Eyes blinking back a world of lived darkness.  Eyes behind which the sacred and unspeakable are known and preserved. Eyes in front of which limbo either looms or opens up as a bright and promising horizon.

 

 

 

2015 Review: Featuring an Italian Wedding, a British Mission, a Swiss Ceremony, a German Flood, an American Visa, a Syrian Exodus, and How They Intersect

Since 2007, the year that forever split my life into Before and After, it’s been impossible for me to write a year-end summary. Here we are again, March, and I realize I’ve still not lined up year 2015 and given an accounting.

That’s partially because I fear provincialism. I fear losing sight, even for a moment, of the global context in which my private story plays out. I’ve become aware this year more than any other in my life of how tidy, how survivable, even how irrelevant my personal dramas are in light of the immense complexities rolling out across our global panorama, across huge swaths of humanity. And so  anything I say about my life, I feel, has to be said with the big backdrop in mind.

But here, a quick and dirty recap of 2015. Consider it a preface to my next book.

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Il Matrimonio (The Wedding)

In this post I announced that our Claire got engaged to  be married to her amore, Alessandro. Their courtship had been unconventional; their engagement and wedding followed suit.

After a year of long-distance yearning and reams of letters in Italian while she was finishing her Uni studies in the US and he was finishing his full time service as a missionary for our church in southern Italy, the two were married in a big Italian farm wedding outside of Pavia, Italy. True to the Global Mom story line, it was a multicultural reunion around sumptuous tables (the food!!), with languages flying in as many directions as were friends, who came in from France, the US, all over Italy, and Singapore. I’m still verklempt as I reflect on everyone’s thereness, the way we actually pulled off an otherwise logistically impossible event.

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Swiss Zeremonie

Following the civil wedding, we trundled to Switzerland to join closest friends in a small, intimate ceremony referred to in our religion as  a temple sealing. In contrast to the party in Italy, this rite was simple, quiet, other-worldly. The couple dressed in head-to-toe white for the brief ceremony attended only by closest Italian friends of our faith, and were given profound promises regarding their future together, which we believe extends beyond death.11700901_10153505302157400_7725458925579834161_o

A horse farm reception followed later in Heber Valley, Utah, and we left immediately for a family honeymoon through southern Utah to the southern California coast.

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British Mission

Missing from all these festivities was Parker, of course. That absence doesn’t get easier, but we’re growing in gratitude and perspective and capacity to love life though broken and limping. Our Dalton, too, was far away, because in August of 2015, upon our arrival in Frankfurt, he’d turned right around to fly to England to launch his 2-year full time mission for our church in South London. He’s now been serving for over 19 months.

He’s serving now in an area known as Little Nigeria, working on that accent. He’s never been happier and bemoans that the end is in sight, wishing he could extend his service by a month or two, but is scheduled to enter Uni only shortly after relinquishing his badge.

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German Flood

Underneath (literally) the marriage, the ceremony, the mission,  was The Flood. For nearly nine months, our home was an oceanscape and construction site after an external water distribution system went amok during our absence and…We returned to a bayou that sloshed over our shoes. The entire ground floor of the home had to be decimated, and after jackhammers and turbo ventilators, it became a bombed-out concrete carcass.

Then it flooded again. And again. Workers found leaks inside walls…More than a few times, I hid in my car during the day to escape the deafening noise, and otherwise played hostess to a total of 80+ construction and insurance folks tramping through my door. Month after month. After month.

Yes, we survived it. Just fine. And we were happy that everything was completed the week the newlyweds arrived to live with us for a year. They’re doing this to save money while taking college/grad school entrance exams, working multiple jobs, and applying through the Frankfurt consulate for a US Green Card for Alessandro.

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American Visa

A major part of 2015 and now the prime focus of 2016 has been this US Visa for our Alessandro. For those of you out there who’ve ever navigated the bureaucracy, you have my reverence and respect. I hear you groaning and see you holding your shaking head in your hands right now. Thanks for commiserating.

Now try jumping those same multiple hoops in two foreign languages. Every interview (and form and phone call and interview and returned form and repeated phone call and follow-up interview) has had to be translated from English and Italian to German  and back in reverse. In all of this, Claire and Alessandro have been  good-natured  and unflappable. They’re learning about patience, work, consistency, and faith.

As I type this, they are sitting in Frankfurt’s US consulate in their final, all-determining, face-to-face interview. Claire flies to the US next week for her final face-to-face law school interview, and Alessandro is finishing his college entrance essays for admission to a US Uni in the fall.

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Syrian Exodus

And all this – floods, reconstruction, Visas, marriages, missions, work, everything – is tempered by the bigger context in which we live. Because while we’ve been marrying and missioning, while we’ve been bailing water and applying for universities, while we’ve been fighting for Visas and begging for work, Syria (and surrounding populations) have been under siege.  In desperation, hundreds of thousands of the distressed and traumatized have spilled into Europe, bringing in their wake a humanitarian nightmare unknown in modern history.

Here’s where our quaint family summary connects to the Big Picture. If 2015 began with a house flood, it ended with a world flood. The inconvenience of a  house under jackhammer reconstruction is practically charming compared with the real bombs obliterating Homs, Aleppo and Damascus. Multicultural marriages and missions have their challenges, but are infused with hope and celebration because we have freedom, assets, peace, abundance, and every possible advantage life can offer.

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While helping Ale and Claire with their German residency, I’ve been sitting in government hallways, elbow to elbow with threadbare and disoriented refugees fresh from their harrowing journey, seeking asylum. While editing my daughter’s and son-in-law’s essays for US universities, I’ve also been sitting  in Frankfurt’s University for Applied Sciences, helping my Iranian and Afghani refugee friends apply for courses in mechanical engineering and intensive German language instruction.

These friends figure among the dozens with whom I’ve been working in local refugee camps since the floodgates broke in the early fall of 2015, and Germany welcomed an unprecedented 1 mill+ refugees (mostly Syrian, but also Iranian, Iraqi, and Afghani) across its borders.

The statistics and complexity are beyond staggering. The human stories are heart- rending and breathtaking. Because this is such a proximate and personal reality for me, you should expect to see more of my posts (and all my other social media platforms) weighted with these stories.

As I see it, 2015 and 2016 is where not just my tidy little family tale, but world history splits: Before and After.  The saga will not be the type we can share in a Year End Summary. It is destined to color the future of humanity, everywhere. And it might be where Global Mom and On Loss and Living Onward intersect, inviting both the next book of my career and a focused direction for the remaining chapters of my life.

 

Shell Shocked or Shelled? What Happened in the Face of Death

I continue my February posts where I draw from files (my early book drafts never published, correspondence, study notes, my journals).

Why would I do this? Because it’s February, and our Parker, gone at 18, would be 27 next week. I’m paddling, (most days with the muscle of deliberate joy and the oars of gratitude), against a familiar downward suction.

As much as for Parker,  I’m here because I’m not done sharing with you what I’ve learned. And I would never want you to leave any interaction with me (in my books, my interviews, my public addresses, my social media presence, even chatting on the street) misled to believe that major loss is either a dead end – you’re captive in this killer swirl forever – or a hurdle you can spring over. Like bungee jumping over the valley of the shadow of death.

No way.

Grief gets its way in my writings. It’s an Orc. Raging, violent, terrifying, devastating. Ugly.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

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But grief, as I’ve experienced it, is mostly something else. It can be this:

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What I’ve learned is that it does no good to share the first image without some promise of the second. You’d discount me as hyperbolic, melodramatic, dark-spirited.

And it does no good to share the second image without some acknowledgement of the first. You’d incorrectly believe that the entirety of grief has fluid lines and feathered shoulders. Knowing grief yourself, you’d maybe discount me as a prettifier. Or not knowing grief, you might, from my writings, be poorly informed when you face others’ grief. “Uh….It wasn’t supposed to be this messy,” you’d think when your grieving friend acts like he’s stalked by Azog the Defiler.

So I give you both. Here, I continue in the ICU, where our son lay in a deep coma:

Pocatello, Idaho, Portneuf Regional Medical Center: 11:30 a.m., Friday, July 20

By late Friday morning our other three children arrived, brought by loving family and friends. The waiting room was overflowing. I didn’t go out there, though, but once, I think.

Claire I kept close to me while Kristiina [Sorensen] and Sharon [Leigh] sheltered Dalton and Luc in a waiting room far down the hall, away from things that hung in suspended animation. I cannot write about Claire. It’s beyond painful. She and Parker were soul mates, our inseparable two from Norway’s barnepark, the team that then confronted French together, shared the same friends, understood one another on a level I’m sure we parents never even approached. We’d sent Parker a care package two days earlier–candy bars, funny dollar gifts, love notes, laughing and joking, imagining his reactions – and now we huddled, whispered, stared at the side of his gurney. Slumped into one another’s arms, we half-reclined in a vinyl recliner, arms wrapped around our shared human furnace of horror.

Pocatello, Idaho, Portneuf Regional Medical Center: 7:30 p.m., Friday, July 20

Randall landed at the Pocatello airport and his brother brought him straight to Portneuf. Pallid and panting, he burst through the doors. I first embraced him, then braced him, and then he cried out softly, “Parker. Oh, sweet, sweet son. . .”

My relief was immediate. My sorrow compounded. My heart, having raced to this instant, now skidded to a standstill. This father, squeezing his eyes closed, carefully placed his hands on his son’s exposed ankle then slowly walked those hands up the sheet over the calf and thigh. I zeroed in on those hands, wide and thick, like his son’s, hands which now rested delicately, tentatively, on the son’s lower back. He spread his fingers on that sheet then took his son’s limp hand with its half-opened fist and slipped his own fingers in between Parker’s. His shoulders drew up as if to hold the horror weighing down his head. His face seemed over a hundred years old. And he then turned that face, eyes now closed, upward. Then those eyes, mirrors of devastation, opened to meet mine.

Some things are simply too cruel.

I’ve heard people describe “shell shock.” The traumatized are obliterated, rendered incapable of reason and normal function, stunned into catatonic silence. They fold in on themselves like inexpensive, soaked pocket umbrellas, or go rigid and blank, chalk-like. They splutter and mumble and rock violently back and forth. They heave an armchair or themselves through a window.

“Shell shock” was part of what we felt. No question. We were shocked. Scorched. Thunderstruck. In the weeks and even a couple of months that followed, in fact, we would bear medically diagnosable signs of being mildly concussed, of having had our nerve-endings singed, their pathways rerouted. We routinely asked what year we were living in. What month. What world.

But being “shell shocked” was not all we felt. We felt “shelled,” too, encased in holiness. More electrified than obliterated, enclosed in a sanctuary suspended between two vibrating realms – here and there, earth and heaven – in a small ICU space where we were buoyed up by a rare liquid luminosity.

There was, in that protected realm, also a slight opening, a pinpoint in the center of my closed-eye, closed-ear world. It was very still and very light. I concentrated on that spot. It was warm and steady and streamed forth love and safety. When I felt my way there, I sensed how the entire room filled, like with a rising tide, with that love. With that tide came understanding, a brief glimpse into the crystalline, high-resolution Big Picture. Such love and understanding released rays of purposefulness, which rose like basement light through the planks of an old floor, illuminating things from all angles, crowding and cradling the room.

(To be continued…)

Refugees in Germany: Must-Read Latest Feature Article

We stand at the crux of history in the making. Under our feet, the ground is groaning, convulsing under the weight and roil of a crisis— or better yet, a quaking pileup of crises — unparalleled in recent history.

Young girl with elderly woman disembark from boat at Lesvos, Greece ©UNHCR/Hereward Holland

Young girl with elderly woman disembark from boat at Lesvos, Greece ©UNHCR/Hereward Holland

What is our moral responsibility? Should we aid the growing millions of our displaced and distressed brothers and sisters? If so, how? Who, as winter encases this saga in ice, should generate the needed human heat that could save the exiled? And how can we keep our and others’ hearts from freezing over with fear or suspicion, especially given the chaos, premeditated violence and sexual assaults of New Year’s Eve in Cologne, Germany?

Newly arrived refugees struggle to make it ashore in Greece © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis

Newly arrived refugees struggle to make it ashore in Greece © UNHCR/Achilleas Zavallis

==

This is the introduction I wrote for my latest feature hot off the press at Inspirelle. I beg you, friends, click on those last underlined words to read every word and to leave some of your own words here in my comment box, or in Inspirelle’s comment thread. Or, ideally, in both places.

These are historic times we inhabit. Get involved.

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December 23rd with Kayra (front left in black), visiting refugees at camp in Frankfurt

Holy Friday Procession, Warsaw

My last post from Easter Week in Poland.

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Poland (March 2013) 048

Why was I determined to bring my family to Poland during Easter? From a previous post, you know we’d considered going to a warmer, closer place for that week. Italy, for instance. Just across the fence from where we live in Switzerland. Or Spain, only an eight hour drive. Southern France, four hours even with a couple of rest stops. There were clearly options.

But I was set on Poland. Colder, farther, reputedly austere, and expecting an unseasonably late squall.

If you’re new to this blog, you might think I wanted to visit Poland because it’s overwhelmingly Catholic, and given my dozens upon dozens of cathedral photos – Oh. You noticed all the cathedrals? – you think I must be Catholic, too.

I’m not.

(Devoted Christian and by nature something my close friends call “spiritual.” But not Catholic.)

Complete cathedral carved by hand and out of rock salt hundreds of meters below the earth's surface.

Complete cathedral carved by hand and out of rock salt hundreds of meters below the earth’s surface. Largest salt mines on earth lie outside of Krakow.

Neither am I Jewish. Although you’d think from all the posts on my fascination with things Jewish that I must have been bat mitzvahed. I’ve spent much of my adult life studying Jewish history and literature, particularly literature born of the Holocaust, (and yes, I’ve sung at my share of bat mitzvahs), but no, I’m not Jewish. I didn’t go to Poland only because of its once considerable Jewish population.

Warsaw's Monument to the Ghetto Uprising. On Palm Sunday, dozens of busloads of Israeli youth gathered here for a memorial service.

Warsaw’s Monument to the Ghetto Uprising. On Palm Sunday, dozens of busloads of Israeli youth gathered here for a memorial service.

Next morning, we went there again with the boys.

Next morning, we went there again with the boys.

Umschlagplatz, where over 300,000 Jews were herded into crowded freight cars, which took them to Treblinka and other camps

Umschlagplatz, where over 300,000 Jews were herded into freight cars, which took them to Treblinka and other death camps

Common Jewish names, memorialized on the Umschalgplatz monument

Common Jewish names, memorialized on the Umschalgplatz monument

My youngest two, entering Auschwitz

My youngest two, entering Auschwitz

I went to Poland because my spirit feels drawn to the history – both devoutly Christian and devoutly Jewish – and the energetic culture that has arisen from that complex, contrapuntal foundation. Through the week spent traveling, I revisited my archives of Polish and eastern European writings associated with the Holocaust. Late on Holy Friday evening in Warsaw, in fact, I was sitting in my pajamas in bed in our hotel room reading some of these poems. The boys were over there, listening to iTunes; Randall was over there, working on his lap top. And I was in the middle of this especially sparse verse:

Crucifixion
Anna Akhmatova
Translated from the Russian by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward
1940-1943

I
A choir of angels glorified the hour,
the vault of heaven was dissolved in fire.
“Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?
Mother, I beg you, do not weep for me. . .”

II
Mary Magdalene beat her breasts and sobbed,
His dear disciple, stone-faced, stared.
His mother stood apart. No other looked
into her secret eyes. Nobody dared.

**

. . .And right about there from somewhere behind or above or outside, I heard (I thought) an angelic chorus.

In my head?

(Okay.  I’m not that spiritual.)

“Hon?” I spoke lowly. “Are you hearing – ?”

My husband looked up from his work. “Whuh?”

“You hearing. . .? Okay seriously. Are you…? Hearing. . .Is it just me?”

Then I heard a full musical phrase. Randall, however, did not.

So I swung my legs out of bed, and ran to the window. I waved to Randall to come quickly.  Bring his iPhone. We saw this:

Dalton rushed out the door pulling on his coat and slinging a camera around his neck. He arrived at ground level just as this happened:

From the street, he was able to capture these images:

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In the context of all we were ingesting, with the backdrop of all I have shared in the last posts – Final Solutions, genocide, death marches, gas chambers, freight trains and firing walls, toppled statues and draped Swastika banners – against that incomprehensibly murderous epoch, what can we make of this street scene?

What meaning or relative value is there in a procession where hundreds of people, strangers to one another mostly, simply drop to their knees and worship? On the icy asphalt, in some odd splotch of street lamp, a child in the arms or crutches under the arms – what practical, verifiable, enduring, elevating purpose is there in getting down on one’s knees? In bowing one’s head? In submitting oneself to something as “insubstantial”  (again, considering the immeasurable loss and the evil engendered by the Holocaust) something as impractical, one might say, as is faith?

I will not answer that here.

But I’ll leave you with this poem. First, the poet’s notes:

In 1945, during the big resettlements of population at the end of World War II, my family left Lithuania and was assigned quarters near Danzig (Gdansk [in northern Poland]) in a house belonging to a German peasant family. Only one old German woman remained in the house. She fell ill with typhus and there was nobody to take care of her. In spite of admonitions motivated partly by universal hatred for the Germans, my mother nursed her, became ill herself, and died.

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With Her
Czeslaw Milosz
translated from the Polish by Robert Hass and Czeslaw Milosz

Those poor, arthritically swollen knees
Of my mother in an absent country.
I think of them on my seventy-fourth birthday
As I attend early Mass at St. Mary Magdalen in Berkeley.
A reading this Sunday from the Book of Wisdom
About how God has not made death
And does not rejoice in the annihilation of the living.
A reading from the Gospel according to Mark
About a little girl to whom He said: “Talitha cumi!”
This is for me. To make me rise from the dead
And repeat the hope of those who lived before me,
in a fearful unity with her, with her pain of dying,
In a village near Danzig, in a dark November,
When both the mournful Germans, old men and women,
And the evacuees from Lithuania would fall ill with typhus.
Be with me, I say to her, my time has been short.
Your words are now mine, deep inside me:
“It all seems now to have been a dream.”

Auschwitz: Images and Words

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"Macht" is the conjugated German verb, "to make". It is also a noun: "Power".

“Macht” is the conjugated German verb, “to make or render.”  It is also a noun: “Power.”

Our group, entering the camp.

Our group, entering the camp

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Who Says
Julia Hartwig
Translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

While the innocents were being massacred who says
that flowers didn’t bloom, that the air didn’t breathe bewildering
scents
that birds didn’t rise to the heights of their most accomplished
songs
that young lovers didn’t twine in love’s embraces
But would it have been fitting if a scribe of the time had shown
this
and not the monstrous uproar on the street drenched with blood
the wild screams of the mothers with infants torn from their arms
the scuffling, the senseless laughter of soliders
aroused by the touch of women’s bodies and young breast warm
with milk
Flaming torches tumbled down stone steps
there seemed no hope of rescues
and violent horror soon gave way to the still more awful
numbness of despair
At that moment covered by the southern night’s light shadow
a bearded man leaning on a staff
and a girl with a child in her arms
were fleeing lands ruled by the cruel tyrant
carrying the world’s hope to a safer place
beneath silent stars in which these events
had been recorded centuries ago.

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 Prisoners' collected belongings – here, prosthetics.

Prisoners’ collected belongings.  Here, prosthetics

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Massacre of the Boys
Tadeusz Rozewicz
Translated from the Polish by Adam Czerniawski

The children cried, “Mummy!
But we have been good!
It’s dark in here! Dark!”

See them They are going to the bottom
See the small feet
they went to the bottom Do you see
that print
of a small foot here and there

pockets bulging
with string and stones
and little horses made of wire

A great plain closed
like a figure of geometry
and a tree of black smoke
a vertical
dead tree
with no star in its crown.

[The Museum, Auschwitz, 1948]

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Death Block, where prisoners were hanged or brought before the execution wall within a gated courtyard

Death Block, where prisoners were hanged or brought before the execution wall within a gated courtyard

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Execution wall with memorial stones and prayer papers

Execution wall with memorial stones and prayer papers

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It was odd and uncomfortable to walk out of that execution courtyard

The strangeness of walking out of that execution courtyard

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Passion of Ravensbrück
Janos Pilinsky
Translated from the Hungarian by Janos Csokits and Ted Hughes

He steps out from the others.
He stands in the square silence.
The prison garb, the convict’s skull
blink like projection.

He is horribly alone.
His pores are visible.
Everything about him is so gigantic,
everything is so tiny.

And this is all.
The rest–––
the rest was simply
that he forgot to cry out
before he collapsed.

Lock on door to bunker with gas chambers and furnaces

Lock on door to bunker with gas chambers and furnaces

Observation hole in door to bunker

Observation hole in door to gassing and burning bunker

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Leaving. . .

Leaving. . .

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Fashions of the Cross

Text and all images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013

Text and all images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013

When I told my friend our family was taking a quick day trip to Milan, she clucked, “Ooooo, Milan! Shopping, right?”

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Milan is known throughout the world as one of the major fashion pulse centers. Over the last few decades, this northern Italian city has become a formidable haute couture-opolis, one that makes Parisians quake in their Louboutins, Londoners tip their Vivienne Westwood hats, and New Yorkers bend a Donna Karan knee or two.

But fashion was the last thing on my mind when I traveled there on Friday.

What was?

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You.

Well, you and Emily Dickinson.

Alright. You, Dickinson, and all of humanity.

Okay. You, Dickinson, all of humanity, and the cathedral of Milan.

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Il duomo, as this famous cathedral is known, put Milan on the map long before the Prada brothers Mario and Martino opened a leather goods shop in 1913 in the famous Galleria Vittoria Emanuel II, one of the world’s original shopping malls dating from the 1860’s.

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As a matter of fact, the cathedral’s unparalleled architectural phantasmagoria dates to the 1300’s, when its nearly six centuries of construction began.

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It’s true; while traveling to Milan, I was thinking of you and the recent discussion we’ve been having in this blog about types of grief. Dickinson called these variations on sorrow the “fashions of the cross” in her poem on grief I shared in a recent post.

It was these fashions, and not fashion-fashion that preoccupied my thoughts as Randall, Luc and I boarded our crack-of-dawn train and chugged from Switzerland into neighboring Italy.

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Along the way, and while anticipating visiting il duomo, I quizzed Randall on all we knew personally about various “fashions of the cross”. Specifically, we discussed varieties of suffering we’re acquainted with close-up, from within our two combined families, the Daltons and the Bradfords, and from our most intimate circle of friends.

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Because I’ve been writing about “sorrow that the eye can’t see”, we two were concentrating on those sorrows which, for whatever reasons, are grieved privately, sorrows no casual outside observer could necessarily identify or would even recognize without some guidance, sorrows which are sometimes intentionally shrouded in secrecy.

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By the time we reached Milan’s stazione centrale, we’d had a sobering conversation. We’d also compiled quite the list. What hidden or unspeakable sorrows have marked our two families and our closest circle of friends? What private crosses are being born within a community of responsible citizens, solid families, folks with access to education, running water, vitamin supplements, several pairs of shoes? People who stay out of the tabloids, off of the Most Wanted wall in the post office, well under any FBI radar?

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As I said, the list is sobering. Still, I’m convinced we’re what you’d call a normal bunch. Maybe your normal bunch is a little like ours.

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I mentally scrolled through this long list of sorrows as we made our pilgrimage all the way from the central train station to this, the city’s heart.

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Here, at the piazza del duomo, or the place of the cathedral, we came upon a kind of buzzing epicenter. The cathedral, which dominates and draws everyone to this open place is symbolic of paradise – entering its huge carved doors and crossing over its threshold into its cross-shaped floor plan is supposed to symbolize approaching God’s throne.

Now here it stands like so many cathedrals today, like the celestial city of God right in the core of the urban city of man. Three steps out its front door is a bustling commons where all of humanity seems to be sharing in one big party.

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It’s here where I, list in mind and camera at eye, watched this human pageant. I had one question in mind: who here might be bearing invisible sorrows like those from my list?

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Chronic unemployment

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Fraud, larceny, imprisonment

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Falsified credentials, falsified identity

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Abuse (sexual, emotional,verbal, physical) either as perpetrator or as victim

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Social humiliation

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Substance abuse or addiction

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Paranoid schizophrenia

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Borderline personality disorder

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Anxiety disorder

Debilitating phobias

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Cutting/scarring

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Eating disorders that flourish in secrecy like anorexia, bulimia

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Bipolar disorder, depression, manic depression

Suicidal tendencies

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Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

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Aspergers Syndrome

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Sexual dysfunction

Uncertainty of sexual orientation

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Chronic and/or terminal illness

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Incontinence, bladder or bowel

A loved one with dementia

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A loved one with advanced Alzheimer’s

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Spiritual decline or apostasy

Unforgiveness, grudges, vengeance

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Estrangement from family or friends

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Abandonment

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Loneliness, hopelessness

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Isolation, prejudice

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Somewhere around my hundredth photo, all this sorrow I was imagining started pressing on me. I felt its cold weight. I stopped shooting and let my camera dangle on its strap around my neck. For a moment I stood still.

Then came a minuscule epiphany – an epiphanette – scratching on my spirit, gerbil-like.

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Or maybe it wasn’t a scratch as much as it was the itch that comes with the thaw of cold.

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Was I smiling? I know I was. I sensed warmth seeping from the cathedral out over the plaza, radiating in an astral pattern like the roads do from the piazza del duomo itself. The warmth moved in all directions over the milling human bodies spinning and toitering like asteroids in some inscrutably ordered chaos. Bumping. Fumbling. Stumbling across the square. The too-brief moment on this crowded mortal square.

It was there, a humming warmth, and it saturated all this jumbled humanness. From its darkest secret sorrows to its brightest hopes for relief, everything was accounted for, comprehended, absorbed.

With noontime clarity, I understood this is the nature of things. Holy presence. Human Plaza. The two indissoluble. Eternally one.

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The late afternoon crowd wasn’t transformed by what I was sensing in the moment. But my experience was. The hundreds remained hunched inward, backs close to but turned away from the cathedral entry. Every last one seated right on the verge. Less than a hair’s breadth from that blazing, light-gushing threshold.

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“Hey,” Luc hopped onto my train of thought, “You ever coming inside to see your cathedral? We’ve already done the whole tour.”

“Coming,” I said, replacing the lens cap and reentering reality. “Whew, sorry! I just got a little carried–”

“While you go check out the stained glass and the statue of that one Saint guy who was skinned alive, we’re going shopping, kay?”

He lifted his eyebrows and half-smiled while reaching over and removing the lens cap I’d just clicked into place. “You’ll want to take lots of pictures in there. Lots. Like for at least an hour, right?”

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Next post, I’ll take you on that tour.

Comparing: Sorrow That The Eye Can’t See

Text and images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013

Text and images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013

Their holiday greeting cards? Picture perfect, every last one. Fifteen years ago, all in matching pastels romping in the surf at Cape Cod. Ten years ago, all four kids plus Mom and Dad swinging in the arms of their backyard maple tree. A couple of years after that, rumpled and ruddy-cheeked vogueness in a glittery snowscape with that year’s added essential; Bogart, the Labrador retriever.

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Because she is more sister than friend to me, I’d known for some time what kind of patchy reality lay beneath the airbrush of these annual images. In fact, I knew the moment when there wouldn’t be any more holiday cards. Well, not for a while, at least. In any event, never another one with Dad.

“Melissa, I’ve found. . .found out something. It is terrible. Something so terrible. . .”

Her voice on the phone dissolved into darkened tones that barely rose above a whisper. I had to hold one hand over my eyes to block out the sunshine that ricocheted off the blunt blows she narrated through restrained anguish.

She’d discovered a lie. The lie. Then more lies. Lies that revealed a separate apartment. A hidden bank account. His falsified business trips.  His serial affairs.

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I had to sit down. My legs were liquid.

“How long has–?”

Years, Melissa. I think this has been going on. . .I can’t. . . I’m having a hard. . .it’s hard just breathe–”

“And you’ve got proof–”

“It’s all right here. I’m holding it in my hands. Receipts. From his pocket when I was supposed to take his jacket to the cleaners. And I started tracing where he was making bank withdrawals. They weren’t where he said he was traveling. And then I found the messages left on the cell he forgot in the car when I dropped him at the airport. I had this haunting feeling and so I. . .there were those expenses he couldn’t explain. . .the erratic behavior. . and all his lavish gifts for me when he’d stay away an extra weekend. . .Penance payment, I see that now. Oh, Melissa, what am I –”

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Her voice, usually smooth and thick as fresh cream, erupted in one jagged sob. She sucked in the breath of someone going under for a long time. I had to lean back flat on the sofa to get enough breath myself; my lungs cramped so I folded over onto my side and cried along with her. We talked for two hours straight.

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What did they all mean, her twenty-something years of steady devotion?  Supporting him through grad studies? Having and raising babies while he climbed the ladder? Four preteens then teens then getting the eldest off to college? Where did I go wrong, she kept asking me, Did I misread his tension, she asked, Every marriage has its stretches of tension, I said, But all these recent inexplicable blow-ups, she told me, Did I do something? Put too much pressure on him, she’d asked, and No wonder he was at the gym every free hour, it seemed, getting fit. Lean. Buff. He told me I should be grateful he was keeping healthy. Not letting himself go. 

With eyes closed, I listened. Their manicured holiday cards pulsed and swirled on the screen of my mind.  And I remembered her phone voice from a year earlier, telling me he’s started getting mani-pedis, Melissa, body waxing, weekly massages. 

Oh, these men and their midlife crises, she’d said.

And I’d said, Uh. . . not the crises I know. What’s going on? You’d better find out.

Then she’d released the single, heavy pant of a work horse.

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“Honey, looks like I’ll have to stay over here another weekend,” he’d sighed when calling from New York. Or San Francisco. Or London. Or was it Bangkok this time? “This new CEO’s got me on this huge project and, well. . .You know.”

Somewhere along the way he’d developed a new laugh. It was a shrink-wrapped kind of cackle. She’d hardly recognized it as his, had hardly recognized who he seemed to be.

Yes, that was it.  He seemed to be someone. His presence, less frequent but more theatrical, made her uneasy. Why do you need all these new designer carry-ons? She’d asked that once. He’d nearly blinded her with his flippant, anger-propelled spittle, and that time he left before the weekend at home was even over. Sooner than planned. Sooner than promised.

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When she found him out, when she told him his betrayal was exposed, he was indignant. And then he was utterly infuriated that she would “humiliate” him like this. Then, as quickly as he’d spiked in a rage, he’d softened.  He’d cleared his throat, dredging up an apology. He’d asked,”Why can’t we just stay together? For the sake of propriety?” He would keep his “other side” quiet, he said. Not disturb the children with it. That way, there would be no public shame.  “We can keep things clean and tidy.”

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In any case, she shouldn’t tell her parents about this, he warned, his ears pinned back. And his parents? He strictly forbade her to speak a word. The tip of his index finger thudded with each syllable into the countertop as he made. his. point.

The day she told the children was the same day she filed.

And then she fled.

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Within a month and without raising her head or her voice, she’d sold the house and moved to a place far away. She would start over there, she hoped, start over after two decades living the only life she knew. She would start over wearing the safe sheath of anonymity. She could create a new identity in a network that she prayed would hold up the bundle of rubble that was now her life.  The rest of her life.

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Severed  by several hours on a plane from him didn’t remove her from the whole blistering distress that she now realized had dragged on for years. A desert of a marriage. Parched.  So arid it made her throat dry and her lips crack even though sometimes she was crying and sobbing lying on her side on the floor of her closet in this old basement rental. And now that the legal process was in full swing, that shrink-wrapped persona of his was showing signs of splitting at the seams. He warned her she’d not only mess up everyone’s lives, but she’d never make it in the world on her own. “Look at you,” she heard his voice sneering over the phone, “Do you have any skills?” He warned her that she was unmarketable.

Or had he said, “Unremarkable”?

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With verbal sleight-of-hand, he turned the children against her, planting suspicion and blame in their hearts. He softly undermined her, and then with spite and fear hissing through his incisors, told her she was acting ungrateful for all the years of service he’d poured into her.

And what about my gifts? He asked in a call where she finally had to give him her lawyer’s name because from now on all communication would go through that office. You’re sure not acting very grateful for all my gifts.  There was that pout again. He had mastered it and other methods of manipulation. Or so he thought. She was growing Teflon shoulder blades off of which these machinations were sliding.

She lowered herself into the sofa they’d bought together so many years ago. Times like this, she did question herself. Where did I go wrong? Were we ever in love? Wrong for each other from the very start? What does he mean? We had loved each other. This sofa. That time he held me in his arms, passion and loyalty igniting us like thirsty kindling.

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As the tale often seems to go, he’d conveniently and quickly all but drained their joint bank account. That, while her lawyers’ fees were accumulating, so finances forced her to give up on the basic requests for financial support.  And now he was claiming “emotional devastation” that rendered him unable to work, so naturally he couldn’t possibly pay alimony or child support or help with a mortgage. But he swooped by when he could, Dad did, dipping in and out of the family’s world like a pelican, scooping the surface with his big beak, dripping and losing things as he flapped away through the air.

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To fill in for his absence, he posted Facebook images with him smiling broadly at the theater or on a seaside junket with his new single friends.

“Recovering” was the subtitle he wrote.

Recovering is what she was still fighting toward when, in the middle of the night, she got the call about our son Parker’s accident.  And now my sister-friend was at my side, comforting me.

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**

This woman could be a composite of many of my divorced sisters and brothers.  Many of them, hearts widened from private excavation, have stood silent vigil during our family’s great sorrow, praying and figuratively stroking my back with their long, swan-like gestures. We hardly need words, these friends and I. The magnetic pull of pain links our hearts, locks our eyes. We each know something about death.

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As I’ve observed the residual, cumulative, compounding effects of so many marriage-death stories, I think of something I read from Gerald Sittser.

For context, Sittser lost his wife of 20 years, his young daughter and his mother all in a random lone-road accident for which the other driver, who was drunk, escaped prosecution. (To pour a ladle of acid on that sizzling pile of shock: in that same head-on accident, that driver also killed his own pregnant wife). We’ll agree, I think, that Sittser can speak with authority about cataclysms:

My own loss was sudden and traumatic, as if an atomic blast went off, leaving the landscape of my life a wasteland. Likewise, my suffering was immediate and intense, and I plunged into it as if I had fallen over a cliff. Still, the consequences of the tragedy were clear. It was obvious what had happened and what I was up against. I could therefore quickly plot a course of action for my family and me. Within a few days of the accident I sat down with family and friends to discusss how I was going to face my grief, manage my home, raise my children. …

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My divorced friends face an entirely different kind of loss. They have lost relationships they never had but wanted, or had but gradually lost. Though they may feel relieved by the divorce, they still wish things had been different. They look back on lost years, on bitter conflicts and betrayal, on the death of a marriage. Anger, guilt, and regret well up when they remember a disappointing past that they will never be able to forget or escape. My break was clean; theirs was messy. I have been able to continue following a direction in life I set twenty years ago; they have had to change their direction. Again the question surfaces: It is possible to determine whose loss is worse?
-Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 31-32

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**

This year our family, like yours, received lots of holiday cards. Many of them have images of picture perfect families. I love these people (and cherish their pictures).  I’m grateful for them all.

The images that hold my stare the longest are the ones whose current private stories I know best. It’s that intimate knowledge that allows me to see through a glossy likeness to reality.  In some pictures there are gaping holes or percolating anxieties. I see them.  There are also hidden triumphs – survival stories, stories of super human change – that even the best photographer can’t simulate.  These pictures remind me to focus there in my chest for the low rumble of “sorrow that the eye can’t see.”

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Now here’s a card.  Handsome children I’ve known most their lives, and their beautiful mother I’ve known from all the previous holiday cards, the sister-friend I’ve known through her great grief and through mine.  The father? Long gone, although featured, I assume, on another airbrushed holiday card that’s gone elsewhere in the world. In this card in my hand, the mother’s unfussed good looks are arresting, enough to stop the eye mid-scan.  Enough to stop a train.

There’s something more than cosmetic beauty there, however, can you see it? It’s so much more than gleaming teeth, her best profile or well-lit features. In her eyes shines something the eye untrained for depth won’t see.  Part softness and sorrow, part hope and courage, there is something my eye zeros in on that keeps me there and makes me swell toward her in closeness.

There is – I think I can describe it now – there is a density of wisdom, a laser look.   But it’s even more than that. There is an intensity of light, the sort many might ask for or even try to superimpose or edit into their image at whatever the price. But the real thing, the real light, few would ever willingly pay for.  It’s that sharp-sweet serenity gained on a level far below shiny surfaces, hidden well beneath the thick lid of images: it is down here, I know it, beneath the comfortable pace of daily breath and at a place so interior only great time and effort will attain it, right there at the invisible and excruciating scraped-off surface of the soul’s bone.

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Who am I to judge another

When I walk imperfectly?

In the quiet heart is hidden

Sorrow that the eye can’t see.

Who am I to judge another?

Lord, I would follow thee.
__
Susan Evans McCloud

Comparing: Grief Olympics

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My friend Andrea is a prodigious athlete.  She runs for speed as well as for endurance. She fenced in college (she’s a wizard with weapons), then took up competitive running long ago, and has since finished or placed in I cannot tell you how many biathlons and triathlons.

The gal frightens me.

As she does anyone who gets in front of her on the track, because – eh-hem, move over – this is one driven creature.

That she’s also a scientist frightens me, too. (We already know how I feel about things numerical, and I recall science requires a few numbers here and there, and so we’ll just move swiftly along from that topic so I don’t break out in isosceles-trapezoidal boils.)

But what gets my attention more than anything Andrea is or has done, more than her fencing jumpsuit or orange lycra shorts for her latest what-have-you-thalon or even her mad scientist lab coat, is the heavy cloak she wears as a mother.

She has three boys and one of them, her firstborn, Ethan, is severely handicapped.

Family Rediske

Ethan suffered hypoxic brain injury at birth. This left him with cerebral palsy, epilepsy, severe developmental delay, no purposeful movement.  He cannot form words, he cannot crawl, sit up straight or walk, he cannot care for himself in any way, he cannot see. He is ten years old but his developmental equivalency is measured in months. His unending medical needs make Andrea and her husband Chris’ home a battle zone with concourses of nurses and therapists trudging in and out both day and night.

Then there are those wars with school systems. The wars with insurance companies. The wars with the armies of medical professionals.  The wars within Andrea’s own chest cavity. The list of assaults goes on.

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My firstborn, on the other hand, was ill precisely three times in his whole 18-year-and-five-months of mortality. A few hours total of illness, I’d wager. Maybe twenty hours, tops.  A mild allergic reaction to citrus juice. A normal inner ear infection.  And of course that one time I gave him food poisoning with a bad batch of bolognese. All that night, my 12-year-old convulsed and heaved between polite color commentary, assuring me from his crouched position over the toilet that it was (barf) not my fault (buuuurrrrrlch) and that he (puke) would be okay for (whaaagh) basketball (hurl) tomorrow.

That, in a nutshell, is what my son knew of illness. That’s all I witnessed of my firstborn son’s conscious suffering.

In the time we’ve known each other, Andrea and I have exchanged notes on the nature of major loss. In these exchanges, I have never felt that she has pitted this grueling day-to-day loss of her son against another loss she does not know, the sudden death of my son. She has never even intimated there’s competition between the two, a sort of Grief Olympics, you might call it. And I try, I do, to give her and her stunningly beautiful Ethan the same respect. I hope she senses that. I readily admit to not knowing the air pressure of the kind of galaxy Andrea and her family inhabit.

andrea ethan 2

But layer by exhausting layer, her story has given me the gift of beginning to understand something I did not understand five and a half years ago, at a time when I swore to heaven I wanted to experience Andrea’s galaxy firsthand.

andrea ethan 3

It was that first night I stood in the ICU over the body of my robust, muscular, athletic but comatose son.  That was the night I poured out my tears to my Father in Heaven and vowed that if He would let my child live – in any state whatsoever, just live – I would care faithfully for this child of mine. I would consecrate all I was and would ever be to caring for my boy as God would.

Let me keep my son,” I wept and pled and begged and insisted. I picked a fingertip-deep hole in the naugahyde arm of the metal-legged chair, I remember, drilling the idea into Divinity’s head. “I can already see in my mind where we’ll set up his hospital bed in the Munich apartment. Right there. I know where I can find daily medical care. I’ll educate myself, I’ll suction his lungs, adjust his oxygen, do nothing else in life besides care for him, stay with him. Read him Goethe and play him Brahms and stroke his stoney limbs.  God in heaven, don’t take him from us. We’ll all die.  I need him. I’ll die. . .”

They were furious prayers. I get sweaty just writing them.

What was I asking for? I didn’t know then in my breathless desperation. Andrea has an idea.  But I did not.  In that moment, I couldn’t imagine anything beyond the cliff that we were standing on that had us dangling over the abyss. Had God granted those pleas, I don’t know what person I would be now, stroking the arms of whatever remained of my son, herding strangers in and out of my home, funneling every nanogram of energy and every last cent into sustaining a life that is disintegrating before my eyes anyway. I’ll tell you: I’m quite sure I wouldn’t be writing books. Or writing this blog you are reading right now. I would have no surplus anything for such an undertaking. I would maybe have to take up running really hard and really fast for the sole purpose of  metabolizing the raging hurricane that bangs relentlessly in my thoracic cavity. Maybe I would become a triathlete. Maybe I would crop my hair to a snappy-sleek black Powerwoman ‘do.

And I would wield some real as well as some figurative swords. Maybe.  But can I know? Can any of us know what we would do with someone else’s lot? Maybe instead of becoming stronger I would cave. Maybe my whole family would die and I would die, too. I would hope not, but really: how can I know?

andrea ethan 4

Observing Andrea, I get a flimsy, fleeting glimpse of just a corner of only the slightest edge of an expansive world I was asking for that night in the ICU. And I marvel, thinking I wouldn’t make it.

But then I think, well.  . . I ‘ve made it this far through something else. . .

And finally, I must digest the plain reality that my fate and my loss have been of another sort.

ehtan red

“Isn’t it odd?” Andrea wrote in a treasured email exchange, “You’re grieving the son you once had and lost.  And I’m grieving the son I never had but am losing every day.”

And she will lose him. She knows that. Which makes the enormous effort in keeping him alive that much more – how can I describe this? – that much more godly, in my eyes.  Andrea moves hour after hour after week after month after year along that crazy split path that reminds me of two side-by-side moving sidewalks, the kind you’ve stood on in airports – with one going quickly in this direction,  and the other going quickly in the other direction – she straddles that impossibly schizophrenic and simultaneous divergence of both frantically sustaining and inevitably losing the life of this beloved, perfect son.

rediske ethan

Now you tell me: is there any harder race than the isometric marathon of the soul?

So my friend Andrea, a weapon-wielding, race-running, warrior of a mother would be the last to say she’s in some competition about whose loss is worse. As if, with all that she and her family are dealing with, she has bandwidth for enlisting in some sort of Grief Olympics.

But she does have an Olympian’s spirit, which her oldest son, who coos like Chewbacca and sighs like the newest initiate to Mount Olympus, has inherited in full.

ehtan alone smiling

For starkly beautiful descriptions of Andrea’s ongoing life with Ethan, go here and here and here.

Comparing: The Heartchip

weights measures

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes–
I wonder if It weighs like Mine–
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long–
Or did it just begin–
I could not tell the Date of Mine–
It feels so old a pain–

I wonder if it hurts to live–
And if They have to try–
And whether–could They choose between–
It would not be–to die–

I note that Some–gone patient long–
At length, renew their smile–
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil–

I wonder if when Years have piled–
Some Thousands–on the Harm–
That hurt them early–such a lapse
Could give them any Balm–

Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve–
Enlightened to a larger Pain–
In Contrast with the Love–

The Grieved–are many–I am told–
There is the various Cause–
Death–is but one–and comes but once–
And only nails the eyes–

There’s Grief of Want–and grief of Cold–
A sort they call “Despair”–
There’s Banishment from native Eyes–
In Sight of Native Air–

And though I may not guess the kind–
Correctly–yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary–

To note the fashions–of the Cross–
And how they’re mostly worn–
Still fascinated to presume
That Some–are like My Own–

-Emily Dickinson

scale adn weights

Let me begin with a story I’ve told in parts elsewhere.

With this story, I want to launch a multi-post discussion about “Comparing”, a sticky issue and one of the most complicated “C’s” with regards to loss, grief and co-mourning.

PEEJ

Little Parker (aka Petit Parker, or “P. J.” for Parker John ,or also “Peej”) is Renée and John Hall’s son. He and his twin sister, Penelope, were conceived a few short months after our Parker’s funeral, which Renée attended. She’d flown to Utah from her home in Paris, which is where we Halls and Bradfords lived and loved each other, and where our strapping “Big” Parker had been assigned with Randall to be what we in our church call “home teachers.” That assignment means that once a month, son and father hopped on the family scooter to zip across town to check in on the Halls, one of their several stewardships in our congregation.
Back then when Big Parker was alive to visit them, the Halls had three girls under the age of six; Abby, Hannah and Axelle. These princesses always donned their pink net tutus and fairy wands, tiaras and pastel feather boas to greet their home teachers, then showered them with squeals of love and laughter. Big Parker was the monthly celebrity in their home.

Our Parker picking up his brothers Dalton and Luc and the gates of their school with Abby and Hannah Hall. Photo taken by Renée.

Our Parker picking up his brothers Dalton and Luc at the gates of their school with Abby, Hannah and Axelle Hall. Photo by Renée.

When word was official that our Parker did not survive his coma, John Hall was the second person in the world to call us. He phoned Utah standing surrounded by members of our church congregation in the courtyard in front of our meeting place in the heart of Paris.

“But. . .”, I could hear his usually voluminous voice shrivel to a whimper, “But, how can. . .how. . .how can this be true? I’m so. . .just. . .” His voice kept cracking. “We love you guys so much,” he said, every syllable pressed dense with sadness.

If you can imagine Jeremiah Johnson weeping and stammering through a phrase, you’ve got an image of our friend John grieving.

I remember virtually everything about the moment Renée took me aside during one of our visits to Paris that first year. Her blonde shoulder length hair was tucked behind one ear. She was wearing fire engine red. The sun was pouring in the window behind me on the right. Many others were in the room. And she took me over to a chair, whispering with joy dipped in sadness, “Melissa, no one knows yet, but John and I decided to have one more child.” She touched her stomach and shrugged, “And it’s two.

I reached and took her forearm, smiling with my brows furrowed.

“And if one’s a boy,” Renée said, her bright grin starting to tremble in its edges, “We’ll name him Parker. Is that okay with you guys?”

The first time we met Little Parker.  Major Parisian rainstorm outside, but we felt familiar refuge at the Halls'.

The first time we met Little Parker. Major Parisian rainstorm outside, but we felt familiar refuge at the Halls’. This ia a picture of a perfectly healthy baby.

When Parker and Penelope came into the world, they made the perfect sparkly disco spotlight over an equally snazzified family complete with ultra-octane parents and those three twirling princesses. At the Hall home things were kept at a rollicking clip with high-froth-quotient parties, spontaneous dance-a-thons, theme picnics in the local parks, and frequent excursions to Euro Disney.
And Euro Disney is, in fact, exactly where the Halls were on February 20, 2009. That date would have been Big Parker’s twentieth birthday. That was the day Parker Hall (just eight months old) contracted pneumococcal meningitis.

parker post op

When I got the phone call in Munich that Little Parker was in a medically induced coma and probably wouldn’t make it another day, I caught the next plane to Paris. Folding and refolding the waxy white airplane napkin, I couldn’t block out possible scenes of an ashen-faced Renée folding up baby boy clothes to be boxed or given away. I tried to suppress the impossible notion of my boy’s name being a curse. I foresaw the fragility that would invade and potentially reduce these mighty parents, this magnificent family. I narrated to myself the story of loss Renée would yearn to tell. And I feared all the ears that wouldn’t want to hear it, that would never ask to hear it, that sacred but scary story of the dead child. The story that so few can acknowledge straight on. The phantom child that makes the parent a specter, a bitter jinx in life’s otherwise carbonated cocktail mix.

At l’Hôpital Necker Enfants Malades and cloaked in paper gowns, masks, and gloves, Renée and I entered the isolation booth where her Parker lay motionless, his swollen head and listless body wrapped in gauze and sterile cotton, the hospital staff avoiding eye contact while attempting light conversation.

It was a still life (nature morte) of unspeakable but crashing familiarity. The volume of my pleading inner dialogue with God and with Big Parker—“Make him live! Strong brain! Strong lungs, strong, strong!!”—was so loud, I was sure the staff would ask me—s’il vous plait!—to keep my thoughts down.
From that weeklong coma Little Parker did miraculously return to life. But it was not a strong life.

Cerebral meningitis had ravaged his system leaving him deaf, hydrocephalic, convulsive, shunted, and cut and sewn so many times his head looked like a Spirograph drawing. He was gravely compromised neurologically, his gravitational vector was shot, he was droopy and unresponsive, and he had to be fit with cochlear implants in order to retrieve – 10%? 5% of his hearing? – if any hearing at all.

halls normandy
John and Renée and their four girls began teaching themselves sign language—both in English and in French. They also began a family journey of fortitude and despair, faith and disappointment, a journey whose description I dare not even touch. I’d do it injustice, get the essentials all wrong, flatten it to a cheap little subtitle. Who am I to tread on such hallowed ground? So, for firsthand descriptions of their ongoing challenges, you’ll want to go here.

Renée, like Melissa, writes full-bodied e-mails. Over these past years, we’ve tracked one another’s experience with loss, amassing volumes that describe heaven’s severe but benevolent teaching methods, the wonder of small joys, the isolation and irony that come with the most defining trials in life, the sharp and bruising contours of grief’s landscape, the deepening spiritual experiences hardly transferable by written word, and our love and hope and yearning and passion for our two Parkers.

twins picture

With Renée I am confident I can unload my private pain liberally, and she’ll scoop it up and hold it right there, against her gut. As a matter of fact, I think she holds it within her gut, because her own burden has carved out room for feeling something of its weight. She’ll weigh my burden there, absorbing it within her own. This is how I envision it.

strollers

There, in her gut, when she carries all she can of my burden, does she feel its entire weight? She’d be the first to say, no.

And, no, I cannot feel or understand the entirety of the weight of her burden, either.

scale

We’re both sensitive and sympathetic people. And we share a common, eternal bond. But we sister-friends cannot fully feel the weight of one another’s hardship.

Or “heartchip”, as my Luc once called it.

kilos

And there’s something more, some thing vitally wise about how Renée weighs my heartchip. She doesn’t deposit my heartchip on one side of a scale and deposit her heartchip on the other side, waiting with Dickinson’s “narrow, probing eyes”, sizing up whose – Renée’s? Or Mélissa’s? – is the heavier of the two.

Whose scale sinks lower.

Who of the two of us deserves more sympathy.

Who wins at Sufferier Than Thou.

halls temple

While every bit as analytical as mine, Renée’s eyes don’t seem focused on tit for tat, ledger-keeping competition, on who wins in this ponderous loss lottery. She only wants to understand, I know this fabulous thing about her, and in that focus outward, she accepts that both our burdens of loss are simply unique and therefore the losses weigh differently.

hall girls beach

Heavily.

Constantly.

But differently.

santa and halls kids

She also knows that what we two sister-friends have lost imposes a tonnage that changes life forever. Knowing that seems to be more than enough for her to bear.

4 year old Parker in chair

By choosing to hold my heartchip next to her own heartchip instead of pitting them against each other, she frees herself from a few things.

First, she frees herself from the corrosive effects of self-pity. If you were to meet Renée on the street, you’d call her the joie de vivre lady, as the policeman in her Parisian neighborhood does. Blondely buoyant with a vibrant red-lipped smile, neon lime green rubber boots, all her kids piled willy-nilly on a doggoned circus act of a double stroller, her life percolates with merriment as if painted, carpeted, wall-papered and wardrobed all in Merimekko.

parker H on stairsRenée also frees her heart from the weight of harsh judgement. Sure, she gets impatient (as do I) when folks call petty things tragique! and when mere inconvenience – a basic blip – makes some people rage, stamp and whine.

(Confession time, everybody? I get more than impatient. I get rabid. But I realize, too, that that was once me.)

But Renée’s heart remains supple, juicy. Hers is the kind of heart the Arapahoe Indians call the moist heart, which, in their tradition, is the sign of a fully developed heart. Pardon the cuteness, but her own heartchip has not made her heart into a chip.

parker homeschool

And she frees herself from carrying resentment towards others. (You are right if you sense more cuteness coming.) There might be substantial, ongoing, cumulative heartchip, but look here: Do you see a chip on this lovely shoulder?

**

renee and parker

The very attempt we often make in quantifying losses only exacerbates the loss by driving us to two unhealthy extremes. On the one hand, those coming out on the losing end of the comparison are deprived of the validation they need to identify and experience the loss for the bad thing it is. He sometimes feels like the little boy who just scratched his finger but cried too hard to receive much sympathy. Their loss is dismissed as unworthy of attention or recognition. On the other hand, those coming out on the winning end convince themselves that no one has suffered as much as they have, that no one will ever understand them, and that no one can offer lasting help. They are the ultimate victims. So they indulge themselves with their pain and gain a strange kind of pleasure in their misery.”—Gerald Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 32-33

Big Parker, age 10, at a Parisian amusement park with his Mom.

Big Parker, age 10, on a Parisian amusement park ride with his Mom.