A bombing in Boston, an explosion in Texas, poisoned mail, complete suspension of civil liberty in Watertown, and those are just the ones with the most news coverage. This post is dark. That’s because it’s about a dark time and dark events, not unlike the last week of catastrophe. It’s also my life (as much as I which I could erase it).
In 2000, being in the Foreign Service was a pretty amazing profession. There was a history of danger, yes. Not only from terrorist actions, like those in Iran, but of “small” hazards like cerebral malaria. I knew I was in foreign airports when I saw airport officials with semi-automatic weapons slung over their shoulders*. I took seriously, but admittedly not too seriously, the admonitions to vary my route to and from work and to stay off public transportation. This was only in the dangerous cities, of course. In Brazil. In Ethiopia. In South Africa. In Mozambique. Places that are now comparatively safe and the average robbery at gunpoint includes tea and crumpets.**
And then, September 11th. If I could, I would post an image here of my reaction to the event. It was mid-afternoon in Africa. There wasn’t internet, per se. My African colleagues nervously shared the news. I spent a long time staring out my window (do you care? the sky was sharp, blue, clear, unripped) before an armored vehicle picked me up and took me to the Embassy. There’s more to that story – you can fill in the gaps from your own experience. It left me fragile.
Two weeks later, in order to to relax and disconnect from the continual stress and lockdowns, half of the embassy took a “getaway” trip to a remote river. It was also a brilliantly sunny blue day (I have learned the sky has no bearing on reality) as we took boats to stop at a collection of huts for the night. There were canoes. There were no cell phones or radios. No television. Just 16 people who wanted to live, just a little bit, as they had before. Until two of our embassy marines took a canoe to the other side of the river. It tipped. They sank while we watched. I watched closely, having sped over in a boat and tossing a life preserver to suddenly empty space.
One week later, I drove one of my friends to the morgue. I kept him company while he waited under a sheet for his plane ride home. There are so many details of open air morgues you can’t unhear. I am crippled by flies.
Two weeks later, we received a mail shipment full of Halloween candy, packages from Amazon, letters from home, new credit cards, birthday cards, and care packages. We also received news that it either contained or had been touching anthrax-laced letters. As the officer in charge of the facility, it fell to me to remove the mail and soak the room in bleach. The airtight suit and gas mask were hard to breathe in. The packages to our dead friends were burned along with everything else. I had no spirit left.
The Foreign Service sees more tragedy now. Daily. New places are a disaster and the danger pay my friends receive to go there (and keep returning there) isn’t enough to patch them up. They do it for patriotism, because it’s a job, because it’s a sure way to promotion, for freedom. Many of the joined because of September 11th. Even as they do it, the dangers in the “safe” places continue. Including at home.
I have been taking every opportunity to practice compartmentalizing my personal damage, knowing that I will, someday, need to explain tragedy to my daughter. When I do it, I need these memories need to be locked safely away. There’s no time and place for this. I don’t know how or if those of you with kids are doing it. Relying on Mr. Rogers (a person who my child won’t know or understand)? Limiting the news? Filtering events? How do we keep our own sprits whole enough to grow a child’s?
* I have since seen this at home.
** These rules still exist and for good reason. Carjackings are not atypical for my friends. Bombing happen but aren’t covered by our news. Entire buses full of people face murder and rape.