The Extra Layer

photo credit: favim.com

photo credit: favim.com

A mother I know lost her son this week, her oldest child. He was sixteen. First he was missing. Then he was found by a search team alongside the road where he had apparently been hit by a car in the early morning darkness. The details are still unclear. But do they really matter? He is gone. Somehow I imagine that knowing must be better than missing because missing means uncertainty. And in the face of uncertainty, we imagine the worst. And hope for the best. But in knowing, we reach the truth, the depth of death and loss that we all experience differently. And although we may sink into that pain like fresh mud, at least we are not floating away. And when we are ready, there is the pulling grace of goodbye, the loveliness of memories. The detail of the lips moving, the voice like honey, thick and soothing, buzzing still.

My husband’s cousin, a painter, did a series of works in which he illustrates that we each carry with us all the disappointments, cruelties and losses of our lives as bricks. The proverbial baggage. Some of these bricks fall away as we get older–the self-doubts, the useless criticisms, the rejections that no longer serve us. But I believe certain losses never leave us. We don’t “get over” them, we simply learn to lift ourselves up with them, walk with them, adapt to their weight and presence, perhaps occasionally forget they are there. Shift them about. Maybe even soar with them in a moment of laughter. But never, never put them down. I have always hated the saying “time heals all wounds,” which implies that we are responsible to open our eyes on some undetermined bright morning and find the wound scarred over, run our fingers over a place that was once raw and bottomless to find a bumpy ridge of dullness. The forgetting. I have not lost a child. But I have lost my father and a dear friend and I prefer to think of them as always with me, not as a burden of grief, but an extra layer.

This woman who lost her son is a friend of a friend. Someone you love by extension, because your friend does. I met and spent three days with her several years ago. We walked 49.5 miles together with several other friends to raise money for breast cancer. We crossed Chicago together. I guess when you walk that many miles with someone, the “getting to know you” process is accelerated. Sweat and blisters cut through the veil of appearances and you have no choice but to be yourself. I have a vivid image of Deborah, long legs and girlish braids, a glamorous Pippy Longstocking who I had trouble keeping up with. And although I haven’t kept in touch with her regularly or ever met her family, I know about them. Which is enough. It’s enough to know.

During our walk, we women shared the details of our lives, some mundane–what sports our kids played and how our husbands made us crazy, which recipes we’d tried lately, the music we liked, what we were like in college. And some more poignant–a birth story, relationship worries, a battle with cancer. The miles and the time passed until we reached the next rest point where we could stop and eat, drink water, stretch, rest. Getting up again was always the hardest part, exhaustion anchoring us to the ground, the grass, the dirt, the ants. Deborah was always the first to say, “Ok, time’s up, let’s get going.” And up she got, the rest of us struggling to our feet to catch up. Keep going.

The following year, another good friend who walked with us died unexpectedly of coronary thrombosis. I flew from Africa to her funeral in Michigan with the numbness of grief and no warm clothes. It was early January, deep drifts of snow covered the ground. Deborah sent me a sweater in the suitcase of our mutual friend — a long, soft, gray blanket of a sweater. A new sweater, an expensive sweater, which she pulled off the shelf of her clothing store–because she thought of me–which is an extraordinary gesture for many reasons and one I’ll never forget. I wore that sweater during the funeral, I slept in that sweater, wrapped it around my shoulders, my waist. It became both a shield and an embrace. I slipped it over my head on the airplane going back to Africa, not because I was cold, but because I needed to feel the familiar drape. It had become a different sort of extra layer, threads of comfort woven into the fibers. The comfort that comes from being with good friends who loved the person you miss, the talk, the smells, the touches and tears. Even the laugh that escapes unexpectedly and uncontrollably–that first inevitable laugh that feels like a betrayal, but is really the soul of your friend, or father, or son, or mother telling you it’s ok to live on.

When I woke up this morning, it was cool, maybe not worthy of a sweater, but I put it on anyway. The sleeves are now stretched past my fingertips and the hem is dotted with pilled knobs of worn wool. I sat on my bed and pulled the sweater over my knees and tried to send my thoughts across the ocean to someone who once showed me kindness. But the tragedy felt too large and far away, like I could travel and travel and never reach an understanding. A child gone. I thought that maybe I should send the sweater to Deborah, that somehow it would help. But what if it didn’t feel the same to her, if it didn’t fit, couldn’t comfort? In all the certain gestures of family, friends, neighbors and even strangers, I hope she’ll find her own extra layer. And when she does, it will make a small difference. It will.

Walk With Me, Leah

IMG_3171I woke at dawn to the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to the mosque, as I do every morning. There is a rotation of three male voices and I never know which one will call me back to consciousness. To my relief, today it is the one I call “The Gregorian” because his chanting has a delicate, clear cadence, the kind that can ellicite calm and touch you in that small hollow under the breastplate, that odd place that beckons a quick breath. Certain Gospel voices can do this to me as well. There are lots of people who can sing, but not all of them get the message across. Like the other two muezzins, who are doing their job, but lack conviction and passion. On the mornings when they shout “Allah akbar” from the turret, it sounds like a call to obligation, but this morning, as I hear The Gregorian, I imagine the men in their robes, walking from all directions toward that voice and I am almost tempted to dress and walk to the mosque myself, just to see, to be led. But then I remember, women are not welcome in the main part. So instead I pick up the small notebook that sits beside my bed where I write down those “urgent” things that need to be recorded in the middle of the night and head to the kitchen for coffee.

Yesterday I was starting to feel the impending sadness that January 9th brings, because it is the day my close friend, Leah, died two years ago. Richard noticed and said, “Ellen, if you want to be happy, you have to start to forget.” I got angry and demanded how he could possibly ask me to forget her. He said, “What I mean is that you have to try to forget the sorrow. As long as you sit with the pain, she isn’t with you. But if you can figure out a way to honor her, she’ll be next to you.” Richard is not always so philosophical, but from time to time, he offers up just the right wisdom. Like small baubles which float to the surface, they have escaped the buried wreckage. Like all of us, he has had his own share of life’s collisions . So at some point in the middle of the night, I decided to write down the pain I felt over her loss. I wanted to let it out, get it down, so that I could think about how I would honor her instead. The small light on my phone wasn’t working, but I wrote anyway in the dark, scralling over the page, letting the tears come, knowing I would be able to decipher my own handwriting in the morning, as least get the meaning. But as I sat at the kitchen counter this morning, and opened the notebook, I saw that the page was blank. Only impressions were left. The ink in my pen had gotten caught on a philament of dust and all I had managed to record were scratches and traces. The page was scarred. I stared at it for a long time and then I began to write this piece.

I will honor Leah today by taking a long walk. One of my fondest and last memories of her was our Avon Walk for Breast Cancer in Chicago the year before she died. It had been some time since we’d seen each other and we had a lot of catching up to do. She had emailed me frequently during the training period. “Congrats on getting up to 6 miles . . .10 miles . . 15 miles . . . Don’t forget to buy dry-wick socks . . .I saw that you reached your fundraising goal, congrats . . . see you next week.” Leah was a life coach long before she put a professional label on it. She was all about setting goals, getting through the hard parts, laying stepping stones, celebrating victories. She was also someone who didn’t let you get away with much. I remember a Sunday at her apartment while we were at Duke. I was insecure, immature and ravenous for acceptance and approval. I started talking about one or another girl who I seemed to run into at all the parties, who was always perfectly quaffed, wore a different outfit every time and seemed to always say the right thing . . . but she wouldn’t give me the time of day. Leah stayed silent while she listened and then at one point looked off to the right and up to the ceiling as though she were waiting to devine the right response. Finally she looked right at me and said softly, “why are you spending so much time talking about this girl, when clearly she isn’t worth it? You’ve got plenty of friends who love you, you’re smart, you’re beautiful. It sounds to me like maybe you’re jealous, which you shouldn’t be. That’s all I’m saying.” And she didn’t mean,’ don’t read into it any further’, she meant ‘that’s all I’m saying’ as in, ‘end of conversation, ’cause I ain’t wasting any more time on this and neither are you.’ I called it the “Leah mirror.” She had a way of holding the truth up in front of you without making you feel judged or defensive and in a way, Richard did the same thing for me.

Leah wanted to come to Senegal. I will honor her by taking a long walk. I will show her. Maybe I will turn right and walk along the red dirt road that leads to the sacred Baobob trees, where the path is covered with fronds from the Flamboyants which have started to shed. It will be chilly at first and I will be sure to breathe in the scent of drying grasses and the small ground vines that hold purple wildflowers. I will smell the morning fires from the small Peul huts off to my left, wave to the women hunkered down over their steaming pots. I will listen to the “tchik, tchik” of the shepard leading his cattle to pasture. I will continue on until I reach the fields of bissap crops, ready to be harvested, those crimson petals that when boiled down to their essence, can heal. Or maybe I will turn left and walk through the brushland towards town. A fire last week burned all of the brush and the earth is scorched underfoot. It releases small clouds of black dust and shows my footprints perfectly. I have been here and I will go there. It will start to get hot, so I will take off my sweater and let the sun warm my shoulders and face. I will pass small groups of Senegalese children on their way to Koran school. Dressed in bright colors and carrying their Korans tightly to their chests, they will stop talking when they see me and smile. Some will say hello, others won’t. I will hear one of them say, “toubab denge Wolof”, the white woman speaks Wolof. I will smell their bread filled with spiced lentils, wrapped in brown paper, which they will eat outside on the stoop before entering the building. Next I will begin to see the houses that have been started and left unfinished until more money comes. They are signs of hope that the future will be built upon. Then, as I move further into the village, I will stop and talk to Samba, who owns the small bodega where I buy flour and potatoes, garlic, spices. He will be sitting just outside playing checkers with his friends at a rickety wooden table. He always wins and never cheats. I owe him 50 cents from a week ago, but he never has change, so I will buy something I don’t need and hand him $1.

I might even walk all the way to the sea, wind my way down the rubbled lane between the brown house with the orange roof and the green house with the brown roof. Then I will have to jump off the sea wall because the waves have eroded the stairs. I will stop for just a minute to take in the vast expanse of the ocean and sift through the shells that have been deposited by the tide. Pocketing my favorites, the welks, I will feel them against my leg as I walk. The vendors will be out by then and I’ll pass ancient women with skin like blue night carrying bundles of clothes, baskets of beaded necklaces and shell earings, African dolls, Pareos. I will stop and greet them. The wind will circle up under their long patterned skirts as we talk and I will catch a glimpe of foot, flat and smooth from decades of sand. I will buy something, a trinket, because they will walk much longer and further than me today. I will add it to the shells in my pocket as a reminder of today. Soon, as the tide rises, I’ll take off my shoes and walk in the water, which will be calm at that hour and starting to warm up. The salt will sting my skin as the water pulls away but each time it comes back, it will soothe.

As I head home, I’ll hear a song, that voice, the muezzin calling for mid-morning prayer, my breath catching again. Leah will hear it too because it is calling her. I’ll want her to come home with me, stay a little longer. But I’ll let her go, knowing there are many others who need to walk with her today, and always.

Can We Please Go Back?

 

 

A few days ago, Richard asked me how I wanted to celebrate my birthday this year. I snapped back that I didn’t want to have it at all, that I just wanted the day to pass by like any other day. My response was both indulgent and self-pitying, but he didn’t press the issue. He understood that I hadn’t said this out of any egotistical denial of aging, but rather an avoidance of the losses that this time of year represents. We buried my father after his long battle with cancer on this day over twelve years ago. In the days immediately following his death, I had been brought along on the strangely swift current of people coming and going, of the preparations that took place, the heating up of casseroles, of the details of his funeral, of the need to assure others that I was OK. And then there was the nature of our relationship to try to make sense of–it had been complicated, difficult at times. I had talked endlessly on the phone with my closest friends, hashing out once again the details of his illness and final few days. It wasn’t sudden, I reminded them. I was OK.

Until I no longer was. It wasn’t until the limousine pulled away from the grave site, until it was all “over”, until I looked back to see the coffin being mechanically lowered into the ground, that the loss of my father finally hit me. It occurred to me in that instant that he wouldn’t be able to breathe underground. There was no air. It would be dark. The weight of the earth. The depth. How would he breathe? We couldn’t just leave him there! Stop! He had no way to breathe. I don’t know if I said any of this aloud or not. I also don’t remember who (apart from Janet and my mother) or how many people were in the limousine with me. What I do remember is the feeling of suffocating and then being strangely ashamed that I had cried out, as though I had lost control of some intimate bodily function. We needed to go back. Can we please go back?

Because my father in the end was on heavy doses of morphine, he alternated between belligerence and extreme vulnerability (both uncharacteristic). He had been moved to the Gunnum Suites at the University of Richmond hospital, luxury quarters for terminally ill patients, which he mistook for a hotel (befittingly, given his career in the hotel industry) and had difficulty understanding why we were allowed to leave “the grounds” while he was confined to his hotel room. He complained often of the quality of the room service (with good reason) and balked at all visitors outside of the family, proclaiming the concierge highly incompetent. His management skills appeared intact, overriding all other derangements, real or imagined. On a visit to the hospital the week before he died, New Year’s Eve, he asked my mother and I if we would stay the night. He was afraid to be alone, he said, perhaps intuiting the approach of the end. Despite the circumstances, there had been champagne and hors d’oeuvres that we brought from home, candles and Glenn Miller. We rang in the New Year, the three of us, and it began to get late. My mother, who avoided driving at night, needed to be taken home. The nurse said they couldn’t accommodate both of us, but I could stay on the sofa if I liked. In the end, I went home with my mother. I often wonder what we would have done, my father and I, had I stayed. Would we have watched TV, talked about previously taboo subjects, like his impending death or our relationship? Would I have helped him into his pajamas, plumped his pillow, rubbed his feet, watched him sleep? I will never know. Can we please go back?

Today also marks the one year anniversary of the death of one of my closest friends, Leah. I learned of her passing on my birthday last year, two days after her death. My friend Hester had tried in vain to contact me several times in Senegal over those two days, having bravely taken on the task of informing many of Leah’s friends. I’ll never forget her words: “El, I’m sorry, but I’m not calling to wish you a happy birthday. Leah died.” In that moment, I lost all sense of the way the world was supposed to function, of the natural order of things. Friends didn’t die. Friends went along the parallel time line with you, sometimes moving ahead, sometimes lingering behind, but ultimately arriving at the same points in time when we could look back together and take stock of both our shared experiences and our separate worlds. This had always been my assumption and I had counted on it fiercely, had envisioned it clearly, had lived it several times: a New Year’s Eve in New York (I don’t remember the year), a Duke reunion, several weddings including my own, a girls’ weekend in Savannah, a walk for Breast Cancer (a shared success and one of the best and sadly last memories I have of Leah.) Leah, if she had the time and the financial means, was always up for taking a plane to wherever she needed to be for these gatherings. I realized after she died that I had made few such efforts in her direction. Although I think she would say I was a good friend to her, I had been very much on the receiving end of our friendship. For this reason and for the more selfish one of needing to see her one last time, I flew from Senegal to Michigan for her funeral. I thought of how my mother used to insist, in my adolescent days when friends came by the dozen, that I would be lucky to count my closest friends on one hand when I reached adulthood. She was right and I had just lost one of my rare and treasured five. Can we please go back?

My memories of Leah sometimes get jumbled up. I have no sense of direction and a continuum sense of time, which makes it impossible to give exact dates, only general periods to my memories. The details are crystal clear, but the time is vague. When I think of her, it reminds me of the six-week tour of Europe I took with my friend Janet before college–a new city or countryside, art museum or monument every few days. All those privileges–I remember them all, I just can’t tell you where they took place. I am saturated with years of memories of Leah, which leaves me with a strong sense of her, an essence really, that I carry with me. This essence of Leah can be distilled even further into a constant but gentle reminder to be more like her, to be kinder and more patient, to push myself, to push obstacles out of my way, to move forward, at my own pace, but certainly to move forward. Take our house here in Senegal, for instance. “Keur Leah”, as it was named long before it was begun, though it was nearly ruined, is going back up, one brick, one mud frame, one day at a time. It has reinvented itself. How closely it resembles Leah’s persistence, how apt it’s name. Still, when I first saw the devastation upon our return, it felt so final, like we had failed. What if we had stayed through the rainy season? What if we had taken more precautions, protected it’s walls, anticipated more accurately? Can we please go back?

My illogical thinking, in wanting to avoid my birthday, was this: if my birthday wasn’t approaching, then I wouldn’t have to think of my father. If I didn’t celebrate my birthday, then Leah didn’t die a year ago, Hester didn’t call to tell me, I didn’t fall to pieces and board a plane to say goodbye. I could just let the anniversary pass and the day after, well, it would be the day after. Can we please skip forward? Because today I can’t breathe. The answer is no. Neither can we go back. I feel this acutely as I think of Leah today. I feel her absence, mourn her loss, as I will every year, and not just on this day. But there is that essence of her again, calming me, getting me past and through the pain. Were she here with me, she would say something along the lines of, “remember but don’t dwell.” She would also say, about milestones and even ordinary days, “celebrate me, celebrate you.”

Keur Leah

 

 


Construction on our house is coming to an end. In a few short weeks, Richard and the earth team will stop the building process and begin the laborious procedure of covering the walls with layer upon layer of lyme and palm oil. The long awaited rainy season is imminent. It will give clues to it’s arrival, they tell us, with thicker air, softer skin, fewer micro-dust tunnels whirling down the open corridors, and skies that will fade from blue to a full spectrum of grey. It will tease those who have planted their crops, anxious for the first drops to inaugurate the growing and feeding cycle. The abundance of produce will help relieve the absence of money from tourists. One day someone will say “today, it will rain,” and inevitably, it will. We will be gone by then and so our job is to protect what we have built so that, when we return, we can continue. The growth will resume.

Now that the mounds of dirt and wells of mud have reunited to form their walls as Richard intended, I can see a real house, imagine walking from room to room, living a life there. Before we leave, this house, which started as an idea and now has a presence, needs a name. There are no street names or numbers to identify homes here in Senegal. The wealthy French give their large beach-front villas monikers like “Eucalyptus Shores”, and their friends successfully pick their way along the sandy lanes until they see the large, bold letters on the surrounding walls outside the security gate. The locals simply identify their homes by their family name. “Keur” in Wolof means both “heart” and “home”, so a typical Senegalese house might have a small sign outside the front door which says “Keur Diop” or the heart and home of the Diop family. We first started thinking of names for the house when it was still Richard’s dream drawn up on paper, before we ever set foot in Senegal. But the hard lines of a computer rendered plan couldn’t possibly have hinted at the soul of this house, couldn’t have told me how I would feel standing in it’s rooms, envisioning it’s future.

When we first decided to come to Senegal, I remember calling my friend Leah to tell her. Senegal was a place that was important to Leah. Her love of Africa was immense and she wanted to discover as much of it as possible. Among her many accomplishments, she had served as Director of Development for Asheshi University Foundation in Ghana. She had done substantial fundraising from their offices in Seattle and had visited the University in Ghana as a strategic consultant. We had long, in-depth phone calls during which she reiterated her desire to be a political ambassador to Africa one day, a role I feel would have fit her perfectly. Ciss, her boyfriend of many years, was a native of Senegal (a lovely fact that has never been lost on me) and together, we concocted dreams of long visits split between his family and our house, converging the coincidences of her world. She was the most diplomatic person I have ever known. She was optimistic, pragmatic and yet a dreamer in the most extraordinary ways. That’s why I knew she would be a champion of our project. In addition to her desire to experience Senegal, Leah was very sensitive to the environment. Her dream was to one day build an eco-house with a small footprint, a house that was a responsible reflection of who she was–solar panels, geo-thermal heating, a green roof planted with water filtering species. A house of her own that was comfortable and beautiful on the inside, discreet and unpretentious on the outside. Much like Leah herself.

“That is just soooo cool,” she said when I told her on the phone. I could feel her smile. “An earth house, I’m just so impressed. When can I come? No, first I want to hear all about it.” I knew she meant it. She was the person who taught me how to listen–patiently, lovingly listen. She interrupted me only when she couldn’t contain herself and needed to know something in further detail. “Now wait. So explain how the bricks are made.” After an hour, I hung up feeling like we had made the best decision of our lives, her support and enthusiasm lifting me up to a place where all my nagging doubts lay in a puddle in the past. I could only envision our future as Leah saw it–and it no longer felt scary. She had brought sense to it, extracted it’s virtues and grandness and held them up for me to see.

This was perhaps Leah’s greatest attribute–her ability to break down what felt like huge barriers to our dreams and successes. How many people did she help realize their potential? I hope to find out one day. She made her living as a life and business coach, but those of us who were fortunate enough to know her as a true friend, or sister, or daughter, know that she served as a catalyst for great change in our lives at least once. Helping me put aside my fears about this adventure in Africa and promising it’s success was her last great gift to me. She passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly, on January 9th, three weeks after I arrived in Senegal.

There are days now, very few, when I don’t think of her. That’s what time and our ability to heal will do. Then there are those moments in the void, when I realize she will never come to Senegal, that I will never see her again, and I feel cheated, for me and for her. But mostly, I sense her spirit near, in the way I look at things differently since her death. I think less about what I have lost and more about what she gave me in the 25 years I knew and loved her. All those collective memories, conversations, shared experiences, inspirations that make up a friendship are like a pleasant aura that stays with me. All I have to do is turn to it and she is there, reassuring me once again that it will all be ok, that ideas and dreams are meant to be lived. I feel her spirit every time I sit down to write and the words just won’t come. “Well, you can’t just give up,” I hear her say. And so I don’t.

And neither does Richard when the work gets hard and the days get long. It all seems so obvious now in a way it couldn’t have before we lost Leah. Our house here, with it’s simplicity and bare beauty, it’s openness to possibility, feels to me like the essence of Leah, like I could turn the corner and she would be there, admiring the openings toward the sky. It is our sanctuary, her sanctuary in Africa. In her honor, and with the promise that its walls will echo with her laughter and its doors will welcome with her arms, our house will be called “Keur Leah”–Leah’s heart, Leah’s home. It was built from the earth, and one day, many years from now, when it is no longer inhabited, it will be broken down to it’s basic components, back to the earth. I think Leah would have liked that idea.

“When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.”
~Mary Elizabeth Frye