the best laid plans

My dearest,

I am unable to quite say goodbye, because in many ways I’m still in denial that you’re gone. It was only a short time that you were in our lives, but the vacuum you have left in your absence is one that will take years to fill. Maybe you remind me of the child I should have had – intelligent, funny, peaceful, passionate, and loving. What wasn’t there to love about you? I had never actually seen you mad, despite your sisters’ taunts and the painful ordeal that took you away from us all.

It feels like yesterday that we heard that something wasn’t right. That something would never be right. And I cried that day for you. I was so afraid of what you must be thinking. To believe that something is wrong with you is something that I never wished for you. Someone so perfect shouldn’t leave this life thinking that they were wrong somehow. But, that was the case and you drew the short straw on health. Yet, in other things you were so rich. After all, you had me at hello and I decided that you’d be mine forever.

Forever was so short though. And I have not yet made peace enough to say goodbye. As the pastor said so rightly at your funeral, we all thought we’d see you lead this country. We had such high hopes for all that you’d bring to this world. In your eyes there were experiences that many ten times your age had never seen. And in that big brain of yours there was the imagination of a man who would bring us solutions. You always had an answer and, oddly enough, it was easy. Never harsh, always thoughtful, and so simple. Be nice and do the right thing.

But God had/s other plans for you that are bigger than our plans.

As tio told me as I sobbed, “you feel like destiny cheated you, right?” Well, I certainly could not have said it better. That’s exactly how I feel. I feel robbed. I feel mad and I feel wronged. I feel confused about where to direct my rage and my emptiness. And you, my love, aren’t here. I can’t imagine what your parents are feeling, because they saw this day well before we all did. I can’t imagine what they think of my outburst of emotion. I can’t imagine so many things, including a world without you and with it all the big plans we had.

When I heard you were gone I knew for sure that I’d have to revisit a conversation I had with God about this time three years ago. It’s an old wound that gets reopened on occasion, but after you – I’ll need stitches.

God and I had many a biting conversation at that time and in that ordeal I grew some level of respect, rather than fear for the big “G.” What I learned then is that peace is a painful process. It isn’t a simple resignation to allow events to occur around us. Instead, it’s a constant cerebral negotiation between logic and emotion, participation and recusal, love and loss. What all this pondering and crying brought me was an understanding that forgiveness is an act that I don’t need to engage in with humans. It is the one act that I reserve fully for God. With humans I come to peace, but with God I have to forgive.  Not that God needs my forgiveness, but much like with terrorists you can’t negotiate with God.  In my mind, that ends the conversation on peace.

The terms and conditions of peace are beyond me when the power dynamic is just so skewed.  There’s an end game that’s beyond this generation or the next. There are puzzle pieces that are unseen and there are reasons that are never articulated. In the end, peace is a game of war for equals. Forgiveness, however, is an individual and personal choice.

So, I knew the day that I heard you were gone, I would have to work privately to measure my forgiveness quotient again. I’d have to forgive God for taking you away, for cheating us of what you were supposed to become. I’d have to forgive God for thinking that you were more needed elsewhere, beyond where you were loved beyond words. I’d have to forgive God for making you leave this world in such a harsh way. And I’d have to forgive God for thinking that all of this was right, when it is so apparent to all of us who knew and loved you that this… this… was wrong.

So, while you’re up there and fraternizing with the big “G,” do me a solid. Maybe your being there is an opportunity to speak truth to power. In your easy, imaginative, solution minded way, could you explain that this really sucks for us? Empathy maybe is a human emotion that we expect God to share, but perhaps that’s a faulty assumption. Could you maybe explain it – in very simple terms of course? It hurts to lose someone you love. And it’s very little consolation to think they’ve gone on to heaven. Physical and emotional pain linger for all of us, not just the one taken. We live hamstrung by survivor’s guilt. We feel lost for a time. We never really get to say goodbye and our hearts are never fully at peace. By we, I mean I. But, I can’t be alone in this.

I hope you remember that we love you very much, present tense. Your 5 short years were so action packed that we’ll be talking about them the rest of our life time. We hope that you know that our absence from your life isn’t our choice and that your absence from ours is no one’s fault. That, my love, is your homework for the next life time. And we’ll all be very appreciative to you for it.

With that, I simply want to say that we love you. We can’t forget you. And I hope you’re simply not resting in peace. I hope you’re giving the next world all the greatness and joy you planned to give to us.  Such talent can’t be wasted and such love can’t be for naught.

Forever yours,

XOXO

P.S. #cancerisacoward

Miracles and Maybes in southern Africa

DSCF2492Last week was one of loss. A coworker lost her unborn child. One of my staff members lost his 8-year-old daughter (after having lost 2 daughters some years before). And a colleague lost her life and was laid to rest on Tuesday. I reached out to a woman who has been a priceless resource for my archival work and she recounted that she, too, had lost someone – her father.  As a distant bystander to it all, these past few days have taken a lot out of me, so I can only imagine the loss of those more immediate.

India was full of near tragedies. Almost collisions were saved in the nick of time by a ‘Sai Ba Ba’ or a ‘Hail Mary.’ Lives lost had some kind of meaning – disease or illness or some sick twisted bastards brought together by male bonding turned on its head. Senseless death is something I understood from Newark, not from New Delhi. Some idiot with a gun can steal you away in an instant. A misfit with a death wish can definitely take you with him or her whenever they so choose. But, even that kind of death still has an explanation that you can sleep with at night. Wrong place, wrong time, but there is surely someone to blame. Those deaths leave a cause in their wake – something to fight for, or better yet, something to fight against.

Random death, however, with no explanation or sense of understanding, is not something I’ve ever known until I arrived here.

On my very first visit to Maputo, I was greeted by what would soon (-er than they thought) become my family. Drunk on laughter and cheap South African wine, we awoke jet lagged the next day to hear that a cousin – who had been present just the night before – had woken this morning only to lose her life just hours later. In a battle with what exactly? No one seems to know. Just in her third decade of life and with only so much as a stomach ache to show as a preamble to death, she was snuffed out and there was no one to blame. There was no autopsy to understand. There were no inquiries to explain. We never found a smoking gun. She was gone in an instant and everyone seem to accept it without question. The requisite week long death ceremonies began at once.

I had forgotten that sense of emptiness and fatigue. But it all came back with a vengeance.

What can you say to someone who lost an 8-year-old to a choking accident? Do you blame the maid who wasn’t watching? Or the mom who decided to leave for the market and thought she could trust the maid for just a few short hours? (Can you ever really trust the maid?) Do you blame the object itself and risk blaming the kid in the process?

There is no cause to rally behind except, perhaps teaching the Heimlich in grade schools. But, then again, most school-going 5 year olds here don’t recognize even one letter from the alphabet, so that’s an idiotic ambition. You get no peace no matter which way you manipulate your well-intentioned mind and your dear creative heart.

Here in Mozambique, I find people who are deeply religious and deeply reckless. There is the sense that you can go at any time and it will be when you least expect it, and probably for reasons you least deserve. You can be taken for reasons that have nothing to do with your will to live or your exposure to nefarious elements or your contribution to society. Mozambicans aren’t likely to die from some senseless act of preventable gun violence, like their African neighbors to the South. Actually, with the proliferation of free ARTs, Mozambicans are more likely to thrive with HIV than to die of AIDS than ever before in the nation’s history.  So, when death does come it comes like a thief in the night, into the homes of people who until that moment thought they were too poor to steal from.

In a place with no police protection; where ambulances are only available from private clinics and, even then, it’s a taxi for a gurney not a life saving vehicle; where power cuts plague the country, but the government is negotiating to export electricity to South Africa; where Julius Nyerere Road looks like the pock-marked face of a hormonal 14 year old boy with acne, rosacea and eczema topped off with sunburn… people pray.

They pray for everything and nothing, at the same time.

This is a place where luck, steeped in religion, lives supreme. Every day that one wakes up alive, is a day worth celebrating to the tilt. Those that drink until the wee hours of the morning in celebration, also tend to wake up at the crack of dawn to pray. They find their solace in believing that a God somewhere has spared them. These people have a faith unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s not about knowing God, or even loving God – really. It’s about begging for an other worldly protection, since it sure as hell isn’t going to come from the living.

I’ve heard people ask if God has forsaken Africa. For their sakes (maybe our sakes?), I have to hope not, but my own observation leaves me pondering.  Until I came here I didn’t fully understand the question.

Of all the quick saves. All the split second decisions. All the life saving measures that I’ve seen spare human life its final phase. I’ve never seen it happen here – not ever. Not once have I heard someone say, “You won’t believe what happened…” end with a positive outcome. Every car accident I almost saw happen, happened. Every coma wasn’t followed by an other-worldly recovery. In my humble experience, miracles don’t exist for Mozambicans.

Why not here? Why not now? Why not these people?

There have been so many maybes in our whirlwind of goodbyes.
Now I understand the question.

IMG_1819

Descanse em paz nossa Rabeca e Teresa

Too Close for Kenya

Flor da Kangra, Dharmsala, India 2013The terror attacks in Kenya have weighed heavy on my heart. So much so that it’s taken til  now and with great deliberation to even discuss my disdain for the entire affair. My peripheral intersection with the events in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall have left me grieving — perhaps for a sense of youthful immortality that has, apparently, died a quiet death.

Like 9/11, Nairobi’s attacks affected me around the edges in a way that some might say have shaped me. When those four planes headed West ward they departed from both a town I’m from and a town I was residing in at the time. Only years later when I moved to New York for almost 7 years would I associate those events with those towers. My fears, at the time, weren’t for people in the WTC, but for people possibly on those planes. Had my aunt Trudy traveled for work that week? Wasn’t a friend’s parent traveling from Logan? Such were my thoughts then and thankfully my people weren’t on those planes. I wasn’t touched – some might say – because they weren’t touched. Yet, sealed in that close call somewhere was the feeling that if it could happen so close to home and spare me and mine, perhaps this would always be the case.

Kenya undid all of that. For the reality is that as the events unfolded, I quickly thought “Of course, I don’t know anyone in Nairobi.” The same way I’d thought, “I don’t know anyone in Libya,” “in Syria,” “in Afghanistan”… But I did know someone in Kenya. I knew someone in Nairobi. I knew someone in Westgate Mall. In fact, I knew two someones – one who lived and one who died.

The irony that these two people would be my two people, in the same place at the same terrible time, is haunting. They’ve been part of an interwoven story in my life that’s left me speechless and afflicted with writer’s block since the realization dawned on me.

She hosted me at Barnard on prospective weekend. In deciding if I’d chose Barnard over Hopkins, over UNC, over… I’d slept on her floor and tried to live her life and be one of her friends. In deciding to choose the college, I chose her shadow – taking courses she had taken, being similarly disappointed with the administration’s ‘color blind’ shenanigans, sharing a suite with her my junior year. The cake may have been that, but the icing and the irony is that she went to Ghana in 2004. On an otherwise unprecedented trip led by British novelist Caryl Phillips, she and a cohort of Barnard women made the reverse transatlantic journey. From what I hear it was chocked full of white girl guilt trips and Black girl breakdowns. Soon after, she graduated and headed for Harvard Law, as she’d always planned. And I headed into my final year.

I, too, joined Caryl’s course and I also went to Ghana. In 2005. Similar tales resulted, except that my cohort upped the ante with multiracial girl ambivalence. I, too, met with Ghanaian students, had an amazing Ghanaian tour guide, and spoke with Ghanaian intellectuals – one of whom was Kofi Awoonor.

He met our group throughout the ten day trip. He introduced us to the students of University of Ghana’s Cape Coast campus. He dined with us and entertained us with diplomatic war stories at an Ivorian restaurant in Accra. And he even took us out to a resto-bar overlooking the Atlantic. Or maybe I’m mixing up my boys born on Friday and he only went to the dinner with us.  Or maybe there are other punctuations I should remember, but don’t now. Nevertheless, he was a figure and remains a phantom – tireless and effervescent – in my Ghanaian memories and my West African dreams.

Just shy of 7 years have passed since that trip. And in those 7 years of separation, I’m sure he’d long since forgotten us – she from ’04, me from ’05.

Some twist of fate made these two individuals, my people, show up in Westgate Mall that day.  One could say it was no coincidence. Neither are Kenyan. Months earlier, maybe even weeks earlier, neither was even in the country – much less in the mall!  I bet they didn’t even know that the other was there. I suspect that even if they’d passed one another, they wouldn’t even have recognized each other by name or face. But there they were, fighting for their lives.

Unfortunately, he lost.

There are requiems that must be written for the loss of such lives like his. But you could google such memorials and they’d be more intimate than anything I could produce.  Yet her shattered serenity I know more dearly and could argue that it too deserves commemoration of its own. I could pity these two people and praise their bravery or simply honor their greatness – tragedy not withstanding.

What these events have raised in me is the nagging knock of mortality at my own door, followed by – not the fear that life is too short – but the fear that the world is frighteningly small.

I know people in Libya. I know people in Nigeria. In Afghanistan. In Iraq. And in Washington, DC. Safety has become its own mirage, now more than ever. It’s trigger finger, though, remains brilliantly, divinely, randomized.

Perhaps if it weren’t these two people, these uniquely separate individuals, whose lives intersected almost a decade ago for just ten days…

If they could find themselves deeply entangled in danger in a foreign country, far from, distant from, their own…

Were it not them, were it not now, maybe I’d still feel spared the disruption of the world’s violent explosions so closely to home…

Ifs and buts get us nowhere…

So it was them. So it is now. So far, but so close.

I wish we were close enough to hug, but weren’t not. We’re just close enough for tragedy, but not enough for comfort. I’d like to hug her to let her know that I love her and that I’ve always appreciated her shadow. I haven’t the words to express both condolences and respectful distance. I haven’t the vocabulary to say that I’m happy she walked away, bruised but breathing. That these events aren’t hers alone to suffer. For, we are all utterly too close, too shamefully close to a Kenyan mall near you.

And I am so sorry, so deeply sorry, for her loss and for the loss of Kofi.

…We’ll always have Ghana.