Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The first stage of grieving is Denial & Isolation. Isn’t that just fitting, for what better metaphor for what us nomad kids are going through then loss. And indeed we have lost. Our home. Our Afghanistan. And so just like in any case of loss, we begin the road to recovery, stumbling along the path of grief.

Autumn seems to mimic the isolation, the land around us begins to shrivel and decay, the leaves stripped from the trees and tossed upon the ground like a shedding of skin. Everyone running indoors to huddle for warmth, nothing but golden red leaves and gruesomely carved pumpkins in the empty streets. This stage of grief could not have fallen on a better time of year, in this weather we can keep to ourselves without sticking out. Everyone is dwelling in their own thoughts during autumn, not just us. The city is quiet and rainy, people scurrying from their cars to their houses as fast as they can, as if lingering even a moment will give the wicked wind a chance to frisk them away into the icy air, never to be heard of again. And so we get a break, a break from all the questions and eyes watching us. We get a very cold, fresh breath of air. 

Like Mumford & Sons says almost speaking from my soul, "And I'll find strength in pain/And I will change my ways/I'll know my name as it's called again." We just need the space and time to recover ourselves.

Sometimes the best solution to a broken heart is simply to let it hurt and hurt and hurt itself into a closed wound. Blood clots, skin heals, and the worst that is left is a faded scar to remind you of a time you wish to forget. But what is wonderful about nature is that it works regardless of how much you help it. Many of us nomad kids get the lectures and the advice and the “it will be okay”'s. But we don’t get the R&R. The two cents come without enticement, the people who love us will always notice when something is wrong, but sometimes I’d just like a refund. Keep your change and I’ll take back my feelings. Sitting with my mom during one such session of coin exchange, I finally blurted out what I felt would help her understand. “Mom,” I said, “If someone you loved just died, is the first thing you need to hear, ‘it’ll be okay’, or ‘it’s just temporary,  you’ll get over it’, or ‘you can move on’, or  ‘there are worse things that could have happened’? No. No, you just want to scream, and cry, and hurt, and pound your fists against a wall til they bleed, and feel the full weight of the grief slam into you. All the ways to recover, all the advice, that is meant for after the pain, when it is time to move on, when enough is enough. It’s the same concept for me leaving Kabul.” I would be in awe of the person who tried, “there are worse things that could have happened” on a woman who just lost her husband. Or even a few months after he’s passed. So why does everyone need to try it on us? An emotional or social or mental or spiritual wound is as important as the physical one. It needs the same kind of treatment, care, and time. Especially time. If denial is the first stage of grief, then let it be. Let it be and let it heal. For once that is through, and autumn has passed, and the leaves have crumbled away and those last tendrils of summer that we tried to cling onto so fast have slipped away with the rains into the gutter….then and only then will the first stage pass and the second begin.

As Halloween approaches, I watch the people of America rush to find themselves costumes with such enthusiasm and delight that it becomes quickly apparent how sacred these holidays are to their sanity. I find myself falling into the culture, for once upon a time in a land far away we had our own holidays where life stood still for a moment to let us dance and sing and celebrate. And even before that, I used to be a part of this culture too. I remember the last time I celebrated Halloween in America, seven years ago. Can you guess my costume?

I recall it vividly. It was a bright blue Afghan dress with sequins and mirrors embellishing the waist, sleeves large and exotic hanging around my elbows, the ching-ching of my ankle clad in a traditional Afghan anklet, bangles tumbling down my wrists and arms. A turquoise scarf clipped delicately to the top of my head so that I could pull it across my face and flutter my eyelashes at people from behind the veil. I told everyone I was a gypsy, for that is the closest thing I could relate my country to in my mind, and everyone marveled at the aura of my costume as if they knew nothing more exotic than that kind of Disney depiction of brown people. They saw Princess Jasmine, and Esmeralda the gypsy girl, and for that one day my pride was swollen to know what kind of wonder I could evoke from people with my heritage.

I wore that same dress two years ago to an Afghan wedding and an elderly Afghan lady asked me why I wasn't dressed up. 
She clicked her tongue at me and turned to watch the other more outrageous yet magnificent outfits the girls were wearing. 

How long ago it seems. Now I feel myself inclined to the festivities of Halloween, as if trying to recover lost years where I could have grown up simpler. A typical high school experience, prom and homecoming, trick or treating every year, Christmas lights decorating the house starting every November, a multitude of friends that may be shallow but are always in abundance to pick and choose from, concerts and shows, summer jobs, dating the boy next door, a hoard of clothes and shoes that have been carefully purchased over the years…..and a blissful ignorance to all the things in life that can make your older than you need to be. 

I sat for half an hour in my car parked in a neighborhood, watching. Watching what could have been. The sunlight poured out over the trees. Trees that were red, and orange, and yellow, their leaves catching onto the cold wind and dancing away into the streets. Each house covered in Halloween décor, like a kind of neighborhood competition of ghosts and gremlins, pumpkins and skeletons, cobwebs and critters of the night, every kind of decoration you could imagine that would bring some magic into the children’s minds. Soccer mom vans revving up their engines in the mornings, the smoke wafting from the exhaust waiting to take their bundles of joy to school, where no doubt a teacher would teach them how to carve pumpkins, and they would decorate their autumn-themed coloring books with new, creamy crayons. Their eyes would sparkle with wonder listening to Mrs. Something or Other read them stories about Jack-o-Lanterns and witches on broomsticks, and they would rush home to jump on a broom and chase after black cats, counting down the days til Halloween.  I saw all this in that little neighborhood, and after realizing how creepy I looked parked there, simply gazing with misty eyes over the houses, I turned on the car and sighed. That sigh billowed up before me in the cold air, and as I drove away, it slipped through the window and stayed back there in a place and time I can never experience.

I was catapulted into the second stage of grief. But the grief was not for myself this time. It all started on a night that I wasn’t thinking about how much life sucks. Mostly because I was busy working.

The job I have is a kind of bittersweet haven. Bitter because I make falafel for a living. Sweet because I am not alone. A kind of almost ISK (International School of Kabul) culture exists in my workplace, with spats of drama, times of fun, times of hardship, and a kind of connection I thought I’d lost forever. It is, arguably, not the same. But honestly, when will it ever be? And if we sit here constantly waiting for it to be the same, we’ll miss out on all the things it could’ve been. Working at a Mediterranean restaurant already puts me closer to home, but the kind of place I work at is another advantage. Perhaps it is the fact that my boss is an Israeli Iranian Jew, or that I was only given an interview based on the knowledge that I was Afghan, or maybe because it is such a small place that I couldn’t help but work with immigrants and nomads like myself, but for whatever reason that the world spins on its axis, I was given a place to be a little bit more myself. I work with two Mexican ladies, one Iraqi girl, two girls from Ethiopia, one very hippie American woman, and one, well, white girl. I find myself in heated discussions about the world with the Ethiopian girls, who know the kind of poverty and corruption that exists outside of America. We spend hours just talking about things that we mutually are annoyed and disgusted by and wish to see changed. The Iraqi girl is even closer to me in this way, as she has seen the same kinds of harassment to her people, and knows the “real world” as I would call it. The Mexican ladies are so compassionate, and do what no one else does; they listen. Listen, understand, relate, and then they share their own pasts, their struggles with immigration and surviving in a foreign land for they went through the same process of loss. I see the way they speak of Mexico and the people they left behind, with a kind of fog across their expression as though there is a part of them no one can truly understand. And I smile because I know.

But we’ve veered off track. Here’s where the catapult comes in. I have spent… so. much. time. thinking and pondering and pining and complaining and just being totally oblivious to everything around me. 

One night, my co-worker got a call from her husband, and I almost reflexively asked her afterward how he proposed. I was waiting for the fairytale. It never came. She began in her quiet voice saying that she was pregnant, and so they got married, very simply put. I had automatically been pushed towards her since we first started working together because we are both quiet people. We need not fill the silences with idle useless chatter, and no moment is every awkward. We enjoy snippets of conversation, and they are always meaningful and genuine. What I have always loved was how much of a good, good person she was. She was always happy, always kind, and carried a kind of innocence that made you think she had never experienced a bad thing and you prayed she never would.

She adds that she met him at the restaurant we work in, years and years ago. She gave a shy, sad smile and shrugged. I didn’t know what to do with that and so I tried to relate, and said well my parents were pregnant before marriage, but it was after their engagement, and so it was okay, but my brother was born soon after they were married, and so they didn’t get a lot of time together and did she think she would’ve wanted more time? If I hadn’t been playing with my phone while talking to her, I may have noticed a glint in her eyes about something below the surface hitting home. But of course, when does anything work the way it should? And I didn’t notice. She began to speak about her marriage, and her children, and how she met her husband, she slipped in at one point that he yells a bit, and is a little jealous. She continues to talk about how they split up for a year, constantly shrugging shyly at these facts as though they are typical, and as if she is required by etiquette to be shy if I ask her these questions. 

But I haven’t asked. Not for half an hour. I haven’t said a word, and though she is blushing, she continues without any questions, and little by little as she speaks I realize perhaps she’s been waiting her whole life to say these things. She still speaks softly but with a faster pace, and smiles sadly, and continues on about her life, and how she was always a quiet girl, and how an assertive man asked her on a date once, and got her pregnant months later when they had dated a while, and how she had only had sex with him once and yet was pregnant, and she continues on how he promises to support her and how the nuptials come to be, nothing romantic but all pragmatic. And she speaks of how he started to be a shouter, how she would sleep in a separate room with the baby so that she could keep them quiet always for her husband hates the crying. She tells me of how she is pregnant again, and jokes that he did it to keep her there forever, smiling sadly again. Shrugging again.

Half an hour becomes an hour and a half, yet I haven’t said a word, I simply watch the woman before me unfurl and lay before me all the horrors of her life. The shouting becomes hitting. She tells me with a little conventional laugh how her daughter would just sit in the corner with her thumb in her mouth and her hand covering her ears. Sad smile. Shrug. She tells me she would plead with him not to hit her in front of the kids at least. Smile. Shrug. It’s been two hours. My awkward smile to make the situation less tense has long faded, and I no longer try to keep a wall between us. But she continues the shrugs and smiles and I wait for it. Here it comes. 

She begins with the same determination to keep it all together, but her words form into a tale of how one day, her four year old son stood between her and her husbands upraised fist and told him to sto-….and on this word, her smile breaks into a sob, and that face that for three months I have only ever seen in a perpetual expression of joy cracks into a wimpering broken reflection of her soul. The glimpse is momentary. She quickly reaches for a napkin and tries a very feeble smile, rolling her eyes and saying how this always happens when she talks about it. But I don’t allow it, I do what I would in any situation, the same thing I did to console my Afghan friend who lost his little brother last winter, or to any other soul I have supported, and I wrapped her in my arms and didn’t let her try to build that wall back up again.  I would not smile for her. I would not make a change of topic. I would not give her that chance to save the distance between us as people. I did not give her the option to still put me back in a category of “acquaintances” for as much as she needed for so long a person to listen, I have needed for so long now a person to be real.

The next week I watched her and the other Mexican lady discussing Halloween costumes for their kids. I watch her tangle her fingers lovingly into her son’s hair, and I watch him bury his face shyly into his mother’s lap as if he didn’t even know how to speak, let alone protect. What kind of horrors could provoke the shiest kid in the world to become a little soldier? And it is now that I see everything I did not see before. Just like how you won’t notice someone’s obnoxious chewing until someone points it out, and then you hear every single munch….I went through the same phase with my co-worker. Suddenly I was aware now of those calls she gets almost ten times a day, and how I can just hear a deep voice yelling on the other side though she presses the volume button down so that no one can hear this part of her life. Suddenly I see her eyes wracked with depression certain days she comes to work, though the smile just on the other side of her face masks it all. Suddenly I question why her kids come into work so often, and it doesn’t seem so normal anymore. And she knows that I see it all. To some degree I think she is embarrassed that she let me in, and that now I can recognize all the symptoms that I used to be blind to. But I also see the relief, that in those moments we catch each other’s eyes when her phone rings, or when I am gazing at her son in silent awe, that somebody knows what she deals with every day. And someone cares.

Suddenly Halloween is a survival tactic of Americans. Of the women and men who suffer abuse, loneliness, depression, stress, and hurt. Everyone is rushing to buy costumes, no….masks. Masks to hide the different kinds of horrors they see in their private lives. Here comes a sexy witch on a broomstick hiding the fact that she can’t be or have fun without the alcohol coursing through her system. Watch the Plug and Socket couple smiling with the wittiness that masks the loss of romance and intimacy they have felt since their kids were born. Observe the Miley Cyrus look-a-likes that prance around with that infamous foam finger in the hopes that the joke on the celebrity will veer attention away from their own vices. See the boy dressed as a firefighter covering up the need in his soul to be something stronger so maybe one day he can truly protect his mother from his father. The ghosts, superheroes, sluts, nuns, jokes, ironies, zombies, celebrities, nobodies, characters, sorcerers, masquerades, as they pass you by with their baskets for candy, see if perhaps what is created on the outside is a cry for help on the inside. See if you can see through the one night of celebration into the other 364 days of struggle that they are trying to hide in a closet where no one can see it. What mask will you don? For I have seen them all. And as the countdown draws closer to All Hallow’s Eve, everyone is waiting to see the masks. I, on the other hand, am waiting to see everyone’s true faces.

So far I have seen one, and it haunts me. As I hand the restaurant phone over to hers the other night and hear the muffled rage that bounces out at her ear, I am thrown from my Denial & Isolation into the next level.

I look down at my costume for Halloween and smile wryly at the utter perfection of how life fits every piece into its place at the right time; it’s just waiting for us to see the patterns.

I decided to be one of the deadly sins. Welcome to the second stage of grief.

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