A Death in the Family

The expanse of the Mediterranea Sea


Death is an opening. It can break the hearts of those left behind. When the heart is truly broken, it stays open. Then there is no difference between one and the other one. Sometimes it is our own heart that is smashed. Sometimes we are the observer of the annihilation, the one standing by to represent life. There are places in the world where this breaking of the heart is still truly honored.

Sometime on Monday of last week, my son-in-law’s deeply cherished mother died in Tichy, Algeria, a small coastal town of the Kabyle region. Although she had been very ill for many years, she had lived on in their family home, the beating heart of a family of great dimensions, living both near and far.

My son-in-law was the child who had reluctantly ventured furthest, of necessity. He is the youngest son. Each year he traveled back to see her and his family, no matter the obstacles. Each weekend, there are hours spent on Skype, talking with family in France and, when their internet is working, in Algeria. Their conversations are woven into the mornings spent at home, keeping company as naturally as if they were in the room together.

Family for him is the core of everything, whether they grapple and disagree or act as best of friends. His plan had been to leave for his annual trip at the end of this week. Suddenly on that Saturday, he began getting calls from his siblings in the middle of the night. His mother had had some sort of medical crisis. It was hard for my daughter to piece together exactly what had happened from the flurries of intense conversation mostly in Kabyle, partially in French.

By Sunday night he could no longer sleep. He was trying to figure out how to get there quickly. His American passport was still at the Algerian Embassy in New York with an application for the visa he needed. His Algerian Passport had just expired. Calls were going back and forth across the huge expanse of geography. Nothing was clear. Then Monday early in the morning the call came amidst wailing and crying. His mother had died.

He was beside himself. I received the call at 5 am. “I’ll come right away,” was the only possible response.

Good fortune allowed me to drive in the one crack in the streams of morning traffic going from my place in the country towards the city. I was able to get to their apartment in Seattle before the crushing morning rush hour. My daughter, hugely pregnant, was already deeply absorbed in the process of trying to book a ticket to get him there the next day. My four-year-old granddaughter was playing quietly on the floor.

The funeral had to be held before the end of the second day. The family would be gathered at the house, grieving there together the entire day. The body would have to be buried before they slept. My daughter had already been on Skype pleading with his brother to postpone it one day. He couldn’t do it.

The only flight that would connect with Algeria on time to get him there left around 2 pm that day. It was now almost nine in the morning. She had already been working with a friend of his at the Algerian Embassy in New York to figure out whether the passport had already been sent. She had booked tickets the day before to New York so he could pick up his passport and visa at the embassy and then travel from there.

Now it appeared the visa had been sent on Friday by two-day mail. What time it would arrive was the mystery. Without the answer to this question, she couldn’t book the ticket. The friend at the embassy was able to get us the tracking number. It appeared it was at the local post-office, waiting to go out. If it were delivered with the regular mail, it wouldn’t arrive before the flight. I would go to the post-office just as it was opening and try to intercept it.

There I was, in the parking lot of the local post-office. A uniformed carrier was walking past me, on some final errand before leaving for the day. I called out to him,

“Can you help me?”

I hurriedly explained the situation, imploring—the sudden death in the family overseas, the passport and visa being sent from New York, the emergency.

“How can I catch the carrier who delivers to their address?”

Sweetly, he had stopped, packages in arms, to listen. He tsk-ed sympathetically and said the carriers hadn’t left yet. He motioned to the building and suggested I go in and talk to the people behind the desk and see if they could help.

I dashed in the front door. There was already a small line of three or four people and two staff behind the desk. My ancestral mother, born and bred in Brooklyn, was coaching me through from beyond the grave. I called out to the staff, brazenly,

“Can you help me catch a carrier before he leaves? I have an emergency. A passport. A death in the family overseas. Please?”

The woman behind the counter asked what I wanted them to do. Loudly I replied,

“I’m hoping we can intercept it before it leaves the building. If it gets delivered with the regular mail it will arrive too late to make the flight.”

She pointed to the people waiting and said, with finality,

“We have to take care of them first. Then we’ll try to help you.”

The two people at the front of the line pointedly tried not to look at either me or the woman behind the counter. The man, forth in position, called out,

“Can’t you just help her?” and turned to me to say,

“The post-office! How hard they make things!” but made no move to step aside to let me go in front of him.

After waiting while one woman spent time telling the clerk a long story about a lost item of mail in an empty envelope someone had picked up on the street and brought to her, complete with commentary about the effrontery of certain people, after which the clerk disappeared into the wilds of the mail room behind her and while a man picked out the kind of stamps he wanted from two different batches the clerk put out on the desk, it was finally my turn.

She pretended to know nothing about what I wanted. I began my plea again from the beginning, patiently, calmly. She said,

“Well, is the package addressed to you?”

I said no, but I could have my daughter come with ID in moments if she found it. She looked extremely dubious. I gave her the tracking number my daughter had texted me and she insisted on looking it up again, although I had told her the system already had indicated it had arrived at the post-office. After much checking and re-checking and disappearances into the mail room, she told me that it had not, in fact, arrived yet, but was on its way. Since it was two-day delivery. It would go out as soon as it arrived. She had no idea when and the manager wouldn’t either.

Desperately, I called my daughter who had been on the phone to the central post-office number. They had insisted it had already arrived in the building and the manager would be the only one able to handle the situation.

I went back into the building, calling out once again that a central manager said it was in the building. Disgustedly, the woman behind the desk pointed a finger to the back of the line. This time I waited just a minute or two. The other clerk, a man, had the first opening. Although he could not have helped but hear the whole story as it unfolded, he, too, acted as if he had been in a sound proof bubble.

“How can I help you?” he asked.

Starting again from the beginning, I added the bit about the central manager and firmly asked to see their internal manager. He replied, “I’m the only one who is authorized to do this here. I’ll go check. The system still says it hasn’t yet arrived.”

Then he disappeared for a long interval.

Meanwhile, my daughter called again.

“It just arrived at our door! I don’t know how, but it’s here!” 

“The passport?” I asked. “The visa?”

“Yes, yes!”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes, yes, I have them here in my hand.”

“Buy the ticket!” I said. “I’ll be back in ten minutes!”

I stood, peering into the back where I could see tables and cubbies in the mail room, and called out once


Nothing. I turned to the women, still behind the desk. She shrugged.

Suddenly, he reappeared. Shaking his head.

“Just as I thought. Not here yet.”

Before he was finished, I was already shaking my own head and saying,

“It just was delivered to their door. Don’t know. Must be a miracle! Thanks! Bye!”

I pocketed my cell phone and dashed out the door, crossed the street and jumped into my car.

That was just the beginning. For another hour or so, my daughter and I compared flight paths from Paris and Amsterdam, Marseille and Lyon, arriving in Algiers or Bejaia. She spoke several times in the process to her brother and sister-in-law in France. Once to her brother-in-law in Tichy, Algeria. All in the slightly accented French of the Kabyle. Politely and patiently, she spoke to airlines and booked, canceled and re-booked tickets while my son-in-law spoke in Kabyle to his brothers in Algeria, eyes streaming, periodically rising to go to the balcony and smoke. Their four-year-old daughter somehow played quietly and happily in the midst of it all, going every once in a while to hug her father’s leg.

By the time we had the right combination all ready to go it was time. The process of getting everything together and getting out the door, usually a long one, happened quickly. Four-year-old shoes on, ready, passport, visa, keys, phones, ticket numbers, bag, all in the car. He, knowing the streets best, was able, even after several sleepless nights, to be his usual self long enough to drive. Somehow missing the exit at the last moment, we re-grouped quickly and lost only a few precious minutes.

We found parking, got everything together and made our way to the ticketing area, running where we could. There was, of course, some problem with getting the boarding pass at the machine, but my daughter somehow worked it through while I entertained my grand-daughter and kept my son-in-law from wandering off in search of a place to smoke.

Then the mad dash to the security lines. We were cutting it close. Too close. My daughter went off to find a security guard. When she returned, a uniformed man was following her. We ducked under the guide ropes and followed him at a run, me with grand-daughter on hip. He guided us under other ropes near the front, explaining briefly to the people waiting and moved us to the place where a guard was checking passports in front of the security machines.

Two families stood ahead of us, passports open, expectantly. My daughter asked the guard if her husband could be checked next. He indicated the people in front of us with a slight nod. She turned to them,

“His mother just died. He has to get on this plane to make the funeral. Please!”

After a moment’s hesitation, wife and husband exchanging a quick questioning glance, they made way for him, bowing their heads and gesturing.

My daughter and grand-daughter embraced my son-in-law, his daughter saying,

“Daddy I’ll miss you, but you’ll be with your family. I love you. They love you too.”

We all cried.

His passport checked, he moved into the security lines. Before he vanished on the other side of the TSA machines, he turned and waved. His plane was already boarding, moments to spare. My daughter called him to make sure he was heading directly to the plane, not distracted by his pressing need for a cigarette in the midst of all his sorrow and worry.

We drove back to their apartment, picked up the pieces, canceling tickets booked and now not needed, going on with the day of a four-year-old. There were calls to his brothers and sister-in-law to update plans. There were intimate moments sharing the grief my daughter had had to hold in check–memories of the time months she had spent in Tichy helping take care of his mom, the visits since–her beauty, her goodness, her wisdom.

It seemed he would be able to meet his brother, who was flying from France, at the airport in Algiers. From there they would take a taxi across the desert, infamous for its bandits, to the shores of the Mediterranean at the foot of the purple Atlas Mountains, to their small town, their parental home, to join their family of eight other siblings and countless grandchildren, cousins, uncles and aunts all in the throes of grief for this woman who had been the heart of it all.

We slept finally, at first a sleep of real repose after a seemingly impossible task was completed. In the middle of the night, I was awakened by the sound of a cell phone in my daughter’s room and the beginning of a conversation. She emerged, my grand-daughter miraculously still asleep.

It was two am and he was finally at the airport in Amsterdam, his plane from Seattle somehow having been delayed by four hours. The computers at the service desks at the airport were not operating well. He had to someone re-book his connections to arrive by the end of the day in Tichy. They were trying to get him booked on a flight to Marseille that would get him into Algiers in the evening. From there, it would be impossible to get to Tichy on time for the burial, but it seemed to be the only option. He had reconciled himself to the fact that his mother knew he was doing all he could to get to her. If he could not make it, she would understand.

We started up our computers. After several calls to agents of Air Algerie in France, who were used to the fact that it was mostly impossible to book tickets through their website, we were able to purchase him the ticket from Marseille to Algiers. He called back. He was booked to Marseille, but the flight was going to be late. He wouldn’t make the connection. The agents at the airport were trying to find other connections but their computers were still giving them trouble.

My daughter and I, with dueling laptops, set about finding all the various routes from Amsterdam to connecting cities and on to Bejaia or Algiers. After being on the verge of giving up several times, I found a link through Lyon to Bejaia that would actually get him there in the early evening, about a half-hour’s drive from his family home.

Madly, he worked with the agents there and we on our computers to book the tickets. Just as we had completed the purchase, the agents there told him he didn’t have enough time to make the connection in Lyon. We despaired. Back to the computers. Was there something to Algiers we’d missed? Would he just have to get there the next day and miss the funeral entirely?

After about a half an hour, he called again. They thought he could make it. He was boarding the plane to Lyon. My daughter and I embraced. Maybe he really was going to get there on time. She called his brother in Tichy where people were keening and wailing in the background. They would be able to postpone the burial until he arrived if there were no other delays. She called his sister-in-law in France with the change of plans. We embraced and went back to our beds for a short hour or two.

In the morning, we had not heard from him. My daughter, after several calls, discovered that he had made it to the house just in time to see his mother’s body. His brother from France had arrived at almost the same time. The grand-daughter who was left at the house confirmed they had all gone to the burial in the mountains just above the house. They were returning the body to the place where her life had begun, tending goats in view of the endless expanse of the turquoise sea.

Connections to Algeria can be very spotty. Internet service is sometimes available, sometimes not. My daughter wasn’t able to contact him for several hours. We spent the time canceling flights, buying flight insurance, taking care of my grand-daughter, cleaning and cooking, and talking together about his family and the things they’d been through.

After her nap, I took my granddaughter to the playground. On our way back, my phone lit up with my son-in-law’s name. Calling me from Algeria? I answered. He hadn’t been able to reach his wife. He was okay. I gave the phone to his daughter. She told him she loved him and missed him and she had just been to the playground. I took back the phone.

“Are you okay? How did it go?” questions that as soon as they were uttered felt totally inane and inadequate.

“I got to see her. I got to embrace her. I was the one who buried her. It was right. I got here.”

Soon he will travel back from that world to this. The flow of love does not cease with death. It breaks open the heart. It can transform those still warm with breath, awake to greet their grief. We have known this since we all began to see the thoughts that form in that space of our mind, those thousands and thousands of years ago.

In the Mountains Above the Sea

Tribute to the Friendship of Mothers

A few days ago it was my daughter’s birthday. Somehow we old women delight in thinking of the adults we still call our children as the babies they were, bald and plump, eyes shining. Even now that these same adults have extraordinary interiors about which we gain only a clue now and then, we love to think of the very beginning, the seeming essence of what they are now, their very beings.

All those years ago when I was five years younger than she is now, I walked with her most evenings, she tucked in against my chest in one of those demin Snugli carriers, then a novelty, through the streets of our new home in Long Beach, California. I left the house almost every day in that interlude an hour or so before her father came home from work when she was a bit fussy from the fatigue of being alive and I, restless.

It was autumn in Southern California, still hot in the afternoons, every morning a bit grey until ten and then clear blue until sunset. The Camellias were still blooming. Annuals of all kinds still grew in the gardens of the old part of town where we lived. Lemons still hung on trees. The air was fragrant, soft and clear. On the weekends, we would still go swimming in the warm water of the bay and lie in the sun on the beach.

It was all still so improbable that only a few short months before we had lived in the fast pace of Washington DC where the heat of the summer was oppressive, everyone worked seventy hours a week and walked ardently from office to car and drove home late in the evening to Maryland or Virginia to watch an episode of the Jeffersons or Dallas, go to bed and repeat. Here, actual adults lounged on the beach or in outdoor restaurants dressed only in shorts, tank tops and flip-flops at all hours of the day. They appeared to have incomes of some sort since their clothes were stylish and they could afford a high-priced hamburger at two o’clock but there was no visible evidence of employment. Were they all living off royalties from screen plays or did they work only a few hours in the morning?

That afternoon, I walked with her in the pack down a now-familiar street past small older houses with gardens and lawns, the streets lined with Jacarandas, Crape Myrtles, Palms and Eucalyptus trees. Her cheek resting against the middle of my chest, from time to time I drew in breaths of the warm sweet scent of her head as she watched things go by. The small ecstasies of having a baby were still fairly fresh, everything in the world now new because of her presence in it.

We had crossed the street and were in the middle of the block, heading towards the ocean and the pier. There I’d take her out of the pack to see the waves and the sea gulls and we’d talk to the old people and kids fishing over the railings.  As we approached a grey stucco house I’d seen many times before, I was curious to see what could be called by no other name than a perambulator standing on the sidewalk in front of the house, complete with woollen baby blankets draped over the edge, ready to receive a baby in great comfort.

The shiny black buggy had big metal wheels, hefty springs and a big cave of a sun shade from the top of which hung some kind of bunny toy, dangling down where a baby lying on its back could reach up and bounce it. Even back then, the anachronism of this wonderful contraption was captivating.
Just then, a tall woman with dark hair walked came out the front door with a baby in her arms and closed the door behind her. As she turned to come down the stairs to the walkway, she caught my eye. She sparkled. I can’t say what sparkled. It could have been her eyes, but it seems that something traveled through the air.

“Oh! Hello!” she said, with a rare kind of gaiety. “You have a baby, too!”
Her sound of her voice, something that would become familiar over the next years, was novel, clear, with a slight upward lilt that was hard to place in any geography of accents.

We walked towards each other, joining on the sidewalk next to the baby buggy, remarking on each others’ babies with that ease of two new mothers. She put her daughter down in the “pram” as she called it and excitedly gave me a run down of the features of this marvel of a vehicle.

It was evidently the Rolls Royce of prams, with exquisite suspension provided by heavy-duty steel springs, a mattress that would have delighted royalty, an adjustable handle and many other features now beyond recall but wondrous nonetheless. She asked if I’d like company on my walk and we set off together toward the pier.

As we walked, conversation flowed with charming ease, her ready laugh light and warming. We learned enough about each other to cement a friendship. She was originally from England. The pram had been a gift from her father who still lived there. She and her mother had come over on the Queen Mary when she was a child. She had a four-year-old daughter in addition to the new baby, now happily playing till dinner at friend’s house across the street. Her husband was a doctor with a specialty in oncology who worked in a big hospital in Los Angeles. She had been a nurse but hadn’t practiced since she was pregnant with her first child. She was an “older mom”, in her mid-thirties. I gave her a sketch of my own life. We told a couple of our important stories, laughed together and listened seriously.

When we reached the pier, she bounced the pram over the boards to the end where we took out the babies, bought a ice pop each from the tiny store and sat on a bench with babies on our laps, watching people perched on their ice chests, fitting bait to their hooks.

As the babies grabbed at each other and bounced on our knees, we kept up an easy flow of conversation about the fabric of our days as mothers, what the babies were doing, talked about pediatricians and friends. Still talking, we walked back along the pier and over the sidewalks back to her house, where, now fast friends, we hugged good-bye, promising a walk again the next day, she going across the street to get her older daughter and I to walk the few blocks back to the house we’d rented with an olive tree in front and oleanders along the driveway.

That evening I was content in a way I hadn’t been since the move across the country. The acts of making dinner, sitting in the back garden in the cooler evening air and putting the baby to bed now fit into a flow. The delight of finding a friend of like mind and temperament, the prospect of all the connections that might branch out from this encounter and the knowledge of what went on in one of those other houses I’d passed every day grounded me in a way I hadn’t felt for years. The only-child always present in me felt whole again.

It wasn’t until years later that she told me that our first meeting, seemingly so serendipitous, had been planned. She had been watching me go by her house with the baby for a few days in a row and thought that I looked like someone who could become a friend. She had kept watch that day out her big front window in order to spring out when she saw me coming, hoping to appear, as if by chance, at just the right moment to join me on my walk.

We’ve been friends all the years since, even though I left for the Northwest when those two babies were just three years old. We call and share the important events in our lives, talking hungrily about details no one else would love to hear.

We were pregnant with our last children at the same time. There’s a photo of us somewhere in one of those old photo albums with PVC pages that I can’t take with me to France. It shows two tall women, one in her mid-thirties, one forty, facing the camera and laughing, their two huge bellies touching in the middle, belly button to belly button.


As friendship grew



The smoke blew down from Canada.  In the heat of the summer, fires were burning in the forests of British Columbia. For a day or so, people went about their business, wondering a bit why the sky was grey when the sun seemed hot behind it. But grey was a familiar sky.

A dawning realization spread towards the end of the day, moving from person to person. Those who were spending the day working inside began to hear it from those who were outside. These were not the grey skies of the often cloudy northwest, but skies filled with a cover of smoke. There was no real smell of smoke, no real choking sensation, no sharp sting in the eyes to let you know it was there. Many people continued living their lives without real awareness. Perhaps they noticed a dryness in their throats and a cough when they settled down to sleep, wondering if it were some new kind of summer allergy.

As the days of grey skies went on, day after day, even those ignoring the signs began to feel an uncertain, inchoate longing for the blue skies of July, the white of puffs of clouds in the openness. They longed for vastness. Although they might not feel a choking sensation in their throats, something within them seemed to be gasping for expanse. Their spirits were confined, dulled, a bit desperate. Each day they woke up to a hazy white sun, each evening watched the globe of that same sun, now still high on the other side of the sky, turned red and a bit blue. Each night, they thought certainly they would wake to a sun rising in the light blue sky of early summer morning, but the grey and the strange light went on.

They began to look for signs in the sky, some small opening into the blue beyond. They pointed out to each other some thinnings in the cover, places where it began to look as it does when a fog that has blown in from the sea begins to burn off in the sun of late morning. For a few moments, the thick haze seemed to be slowly dissolving, becoming blue. Then the layer of grey closed over again.

The air seemed dead and quiet. The sounds of chirping birds and the choruses of morning and evening were all but gone. Even the roosters seemed silenced. It was a restless stillness, cooler than July should be. It was a Sunday quieter than Sunday, no lawn mowers, weed whackers, no grindng tractors. Only one or two motorcycles zoomed down the road during the day. Even those seemed muffled.

Even in the dullness of the days as they stretched on one after another, in the pervasiveness of the yellowish-green light, many seemed oblivious. Perhaps it was a kind of optimism, perhaps a dullness in their own spirit that matched the haze hanging over, a shade of compatibility. Exercise outside became taxing, contributing to the dullness. Occasional shadows on the grass, summer light penetrating briefly, produced moments of joy, sudden and fleeting relief from the dinginess and the luminous gloom.

There began to be murmurings that the much anticipated solar eclipse, approaching in just two weeks’ time, would prove to be an anti-climax, a disappointment after all this daytime darkness. From somewhere in the subconscious a nagging worry began to gnaw its way through into some part of awareness that the rest of the summer would pass away without the blue of the skies. This strange greyness would just blend into the long, familiar greyness of winter without the needed dose of sun, cheated of the storing away of the light.

There had been times before this, once the year before I was born, when, for a day or two at a time, fires from Canada had blanketed parts of the US and even Europe with darkness. This, then, was rare, but not unique. In addition to the burning of hundreds or even thousands of square miles of forest, the intensity of the smoke that summer long ago came from burning grasslands and the intensification of slow-burning peat fires in British Columbia. Street lamps came on in the middle of the day as far away as Florida. The plume of smoke may have been carried all the way around the globe by the patterns in the wind. Communication was spotty in those days. Since, as now, the smoke plume was high, there was no smell of smoke as darkness descended during the day. People thought perhaps it was Armageddon or nuclear blasts or both. It was uncanny as this grey is uncanny. Eight years later, the fires of 1958 burned over 3300 square miles of forest by the end of the fire season. So far, the fires now burning to the north in British Columbia had consumed about half that and it was not yet mid-August.

These days of sombre summer leave me restless, as if gathering energy to burst out above the haze to somehow bathe in the blue again. It is the same energy that fuels the desire to break through the fog blanketing so much of the human spirit.

As with the shifts in the wind and weather that are sure to come, I sense there is a deeper shifting that has already begun.  We will have to ride skillfully on that wind and see what haze it can dispel, what skies it will reveal.