Category Archives: Grief on the Ganges

The Overstayer


Previously published in the Pearl S. Buck Literary Journal

I remember his eyes, the rims raw and red with fatigue and stung by air that was thick with sand and acrid, burning pollution. Tired and yellow where they should have been white, they held a deep copper-tinged gold ring around the brown iris. The tears welled quickly and steadied themselves for a few seconds before spilling over his lower lid and spreading, losing their edges as they bled into the veil of sweat that covered his face. He was an empath, this chai wallah, and from his tiny tea stall tucked between rows of dilapidated shops of aluminum scrap walls and crumbling plaster, his gaze looked over and beyond my shoulder. Fear and panic, defeat and grief all stabbed at one another in his expression.

I turned away from the shade of the awning and to the blinding street scene. Mid-day in midsummer Jeddah was unrelenting in its assault on the senses. The sun, unfiltered by even a passing feather of a cloud, showered steadily over the Kingdom and sucked up particles of pollution and dust from unpaved roads. Hundreds of billions of grains of sand that were carried in by long gone windstorms salted every surface. This area of the city, the Pakistani quarter that was home to many cab drivers, construction workers, and shopkeepers, was an undefined explosion of visual and respiratory pests.

A young man stood in the street, stopped on the order of two policemen who were gleeful with authority and hubris. Humble and submissive, he held his head low and his deep Persian skin glistened with the sweat that dripped from the wavy layers of black hair resting on his forehead. His fearful eyes were fixed on the ground just beyond his toes. Bony shoulders and a lean ribcage rounded forward to hug himself or to have a shorter distance to collapse with the next predictable slap on the side of his head. The long-sleeved button-down shirt he wore untucked was soaked and stained with several days’ wear. Threadbare khakis hung from his frame. He was a splinter of a man swimming in clothes and exhaustion.

The officers were not much older than their prey and while they had been deprived the gift of impressive height, thick beards and smug smiles camouflaged their shortcomings. The dull tan uniforms they wore were typically military and emblematic of the color of the desert. The sleeve’s green patch bearing the Saudi government insignia of crossed swords and a palm tree was reminiscent of the red armband and tilted swastika of Hitler’s Nazi party. It was a license to abuse their authority.

I asked my Bangladeshi colleague, Sammy, “What’s happening? What are they doing to him?”

“They have demanded to see his papers. His visa and sponsor papers. All the foreign laborers can be stopped anytime and asked to show their papers. If they cannot, they can be arrested and deported.”

“What do you mean, deported?”

Sammy squinted and took a draw on his cigarette as he leaned on the tea stall counter. He nodded to direct my attention to our surroundings.

“You see all these men walking about, having lunch and tea, standing out here in the sun? In the evening there will be even more hanging out here in the shops and streets. They live maybe 8 or 9 guys to a small apartment and try to work different shifts so they can take turns sleeping. The apartments have no AC so they stay outside as late as they can, so they aren’t all crowded inside together.”

My naivete and lack of comprehension was clear to Sammy. I was a 26-year-old flight attendant from Nixa, Missouri, with only 2 years of aviation and a few weeks of Saudi culture and residency under her belt. He was in his mid-50’s, a Bangladeshi- born flight engineer and business owner who emigrated from Pakistan to the US with $18 when he was in his early 20’s. We were testing the fates ourselves that day, by just socializing openly in public, a man and woman unmarried and unrelated.

He could at least blend in with the locals. His thick salt and pepper hair, dark olive skin, and command of Hindi and Urdu—along with a boundless ability to bamboozle and charm—rendered him a precious asset in Saudi Arabia. I, however, foolishly challenged my host country’s edicts every time I left my villa with my long blond hair uncovered by a hijab and my dazzling, if scandalous, hot pink abaya. Soon after arriving in Saudi for the year, we found common ground in deep conversations about human rights and religion. Later, these often occurred while smoking Cuban cigars on playground equipment.

I stole a glance at the chai wallah, and he shrank. He wanted to remain in the shadows and if the police were to notice me, he would draw their scrutiny as well. I froze. If they were about to cast a broader net in their harassment of these desperate beings, I did not want to be the one who exacerbated the scene.

Then there was noise, metal clanging on metal, a jingling, and a car door slam. Back on the street, one of the cops was bringing the laborer’s arms behind his back and placing handcuffs on him.  The “papers” that he had produced had not been satisfactory and the other officer wadded them, before throwing them to the ground and spitting on them. Both tipped their heads up high and heaved laughter. They had a bounty and they had an audience and it gave them insidious joy. Their subject was trembling and as they led him toward the government vehicle, his feet were heavy with dread and his legs nearly failed him. His knees buckled and bent, and he stumbled but his tormentors kept laughing as they pulled on him.

Sammy continued, his Hindi-laced accent requiring my concentration. The nature of his language had a melodic rising and falling of intonation and I strained to register the matter of his words against the sing-song nuance of his voice.

“Most of the people you will meet here are from other countries– third world countries. Many Saudis do not work. They get a stipend from the government and, especially if their own family is well-to-do, they do little. All these men that you see here–and most of the people that you see when you’re out in town and away from the hotel—came here for work,” Sammy explained. “Generally, the cabbies, manual laborers, and shopkeepers are Indian, Paki, or Egyptian, some African. Many maids and nurses are Filipino, and a lot of the schoolteachers are Egyptian ladies.”

I found the whole concept baffling. The occupations that Sammy mentioned were not those unique to Saudi Arabia such as specialized oil industry jobs with Saudi Aramco or engineering with Lockheed Martin. Jobs he named were common sources of livelihood in any society. I could not square why so many people would come to endure these less than desirable conditions for opportunities that existed in their own home countries.

“But why, Sammy?” I asked. “Why go through all this? What is different about the jobs here that makes it worth it? How is this better?”

“There are more people trying to get fewer jobs at their homes. So, they may not be able to find work. A three-year contract here– although the conditions here are rough—it’s better than they could do at home.”

My chest burned at the inequity of it all. Thinking of the choices that some people in this world had to make and suddenly realizing my privileged ignorance at its proximity to me was crushing. I wanted to shed my whiteness, my Americanness, my need-for-nothingness.

I asked Sammy, “So how does this work for them? How does this work from here?”

He said, “When you go shopping at the Souq, you will see these guys lined up at the phone cable office to wire their money home. What they earn here and send to their families sets them up to live better when they return. They may be paying for a parent’s well-being or a sibling’s education and hopefully there is still some saved when they get back there.”

My attention returned to the street to the captured man in cuffs. The officers continued to taunt and humiliate him, seemingly, just to occupy time. I was furious at their efforts to reduce his character, but I knew that interfering would have produced unthinkable consequences for everyone present.

“What are they going to do to him?”

“His visa is probably expired. He stayed undetected until now and maybe his sponsor will not pay his way home, so he may still be working but for lower pay. The sponsors know these guys will not complain because then their expired visas will be found out. The overstay fault will fall on the migrant worker, not the Saudi business owner. He may be arrested and thrown in jail until either the employer pays a bribe to get him out or he will have to wait in jail until the government sends him home, soon if he’s lucky. It is not good conditions, living in a Saudi jail. Overcrowding, sickness, heat, food, sanitation. Some men just disappear. Their families back home never know what became of them, why the money stopped coming, why they never came home.”

The gravity of this man’s situation sunk in and I became dizzy with the awareness that I was amid modern-day slavery. The chai wallah was silent. Sammy had just described his identical circumstances and we all knew that he could be met with the same fate at any time. This scene played out repeatedly many times before I came to work in Saudi and would likely occur many times after I returned to the US and my privileged blonde, white-skinned life.

The noises and kerfuffle quieted. Other brown skinned, cardamom and sweat-soaked men joined Sammy, the chai wallah and me as we watched the conclusion of the scene.

The handcuffed man was thrown into the back of the jail wagon about the size of a mail truck. Its windowless interior was empty but for him and the wheel wells. There were no seats, no benches, no dividers in the suffocating metal box—nothing to brace himself against or use to support himself upright for the ride. The two back doors were slammed shut and the jubilant officers flashed brilliant white smiles to the spectators as they got into their seats and closed their doors, igniting the engine and revving it noisily in a final flaunt of supremacy.

Tears burned my eyes and bile rose in my gut as they sped away, weaving and dodging from one side of the street to the other and back as I envisioned the doomed and broken man tossing and crashing violently against the walls of his dark, steel box.



All Grown Up


This is the first Memorial Day with my father in the ground. The first Memorial Day that one of my parents is in a grave that needs to be decorated, and I cannot be there to do it. I am one-thousand, one-hundred and ten miles away, and it hurts to be missing out on this simple gesture — a punctuation at the end of the last few years of Awful.

I was there to hire a lawyer when he wanted to divorce the spouse who he suspected was harming him. I was there to buy the clothes that he liked, Western shirts with snaps, no buttons due to his arthritis. She left him at the nursing home with nothing but sweatpants and a few white T-shirts. He was embarrassed to go to the dining hall because he felt that he was wearing pajamas in public.

I was there to get the forensic tests that alarmed the prosecuting attorney and initiated a criminal inquiry. I was there to show the judge enough red flags to quickly rule in my favor and order him protection. I was there to find the bank account that she bled of his inheritance four days after he fell gravely ill.

But I am not there to bring him flowers today.

I bought him a phone so that he could connect to the friends and family from whom she gradually cut him off, systematically isolating him. I was there to file a missing person’s report when he could not be reached by calls or email. I was there to learn that she had moved my father, 20 years her senior, to a town two hours away, and kept it a secret from his loved ones. The group of retired federal corrections officers that met for breakfast once a month was missing him.

I spoke up for him at court when his lawyers failed to. I demanded to be allowed to advocate for him when his legal guardian refused to — and again the court ruled in my favor. I was awarded access to his medical records to scrutinize and found lies and inaction — and again the court ruled in my favor over his guardian’s objection.

And when it was over, during the four-day blur that followed his death, I chose the casket, a prettier and more expensive one than his guardian dictated. I wrote the funeral program, published the obituary, and ordered a glorious floral spray in autumn colors –he died in October, the same month as his birth. I procured the DD214 that secured his place of honor at the Missouri Veterans Cemetery, a basic record that his spouse and his guardian had refused to request despite my multiple pleadings over the course of three years.

I have not seen Dad’s grave since the day he was laid to rest. That evening, my husband and I went to see where he was buried. The gold, red, and orange flowers burst brightly against the dark fresh dirt. Grass certainly covers it by now. I have not seen the simple white marker that the cemetery engraved with his name, birthdate-hyphen-death date, Marine Corp, Korea, and the cherub emblem according to the form I filled out.

I filled it out. It is my name on the government forms, my signature, my address that the memorial certificate was mailed to. Nary a squeak of protest from the still barely legal spouse who had nothing more to gain. No proclamations of innocence nor demands to participate in his funeral. How quietly the guilty go…

The graveyard grounds are beautiful, well-suited for the final resting place of thousands who wore the uniform and traveled the world to make our own country stronger and safer. Far too many modest white markers stab the earth here, including one for my mother’s parents, marked with Grandpa’s service in France and Belgium.

Dad lies amongst those he revered the most for the rigors of combat and sacrifices that they endured, but he was spared during his enlistment. Still, I know that he was glowing with pride as he felt the Honor Guard ceremonially remove his casket from the hearse, stepping in time to the shouted commands.

Loved ones who live nearby will wander the bucolic field today to find their veteran’s graves. Kids will play hide and seek amongst the trees and white upright slabs, too young and restless to understand how the dead there were once young and restless as well.

Respectful grown-ups will daintily lay flowers on the grave of a parent, friend, or other loved one. Another layer of melancholy will fall on them at the sight of all the undecorated, unflowered stones. The cemetery caretakers will stake obligatory tiny flags on every plot but many of the dead will not feel the heat of green plastic stems melting in the sun and polyester roses that bloom perfectly fluffy, rain or shine.

I should be there, traveling along the picturesque road that winds by the river’s side where tendrils of creeping jasmine and tangles of trumpet vine cling to the oaks and elms. I should be driving under the shade of the dense canopy of those trees. I should be approaching the entrance to the cemetery with the handsome iron gates that close at dusk, tucking in for the night those who rest in its grounds.

I was there for all the other Awful.




A Fleecing in Mumbai


The breeze is heavy with heat and stench. It carries particles of pollution and garbage, microscopic ashes from fires that never fully extinguish. Dark foamy water laps at the seawall, gagging on rotten hot fish.

I am smothering and squinting in the scorching India sun and my head throbs from the cacophony of horns and motors from cars, lorries and mopeds. Every moment in India is a violent assault on the senses.

The Port of Mumbai is home to the ornate Gateway to India, a monument that commemorates the first visit to India by a British monarch. King George and his Queen Mary entered the colony at this spot in 1911. Immense and ornate with intricate carvings, the stone arch and surrounding promenade is abuzz with tourists and darting children. Street merchants compete against their friends to sell their postcards, viscose scarves, and Rajasthan marionettes. Mocha skinned ladies with long black hair in plaits wear saris in every brilliant color and the metallic embroidery shimmers as the fabric floats in step. Its neighbor is the majestic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel that regularly hosts world dignitaries and celebrities.

“Miss! Miss!”

I heard her before I saw her. This is the most unpleasant thing about India—the moral conflict regarding beggars. It is impossible to deny a begging child, but there is a societal push to discourage supporting them on the streets in efforts to lure them into school. But I don’t have the time to get caught up in a flurry of distractors, 25 more pairs of outstretched arms, if others were to see me fill her hands, a lesson learned when I was based in New Delhi and Jeddah. I have an hour long road trip back to the hotel and am working an early flight to China in the morning.

“Miss!” She is striking in her bright yellow billowing chiffon salwar. Her black eyes are lined with kohl, giving her the appearance of a tiny, more mature woman. I dig in my purse for a few rupees.

“No! No! I don’t want money. But, can you buy my sister some rice? Are you Christian?”

And there is the hook. Oh, she’s good. She learned at a tender age how to ensnare White Privilege.

Her hand reaches out to me, cupped and open, like a baby bird’s beak, ravenous and trusting that feeding is imminent. She has a red string around her wrist, a Hindu symbol of a brother’s commitment to protect his sister. But she also has two colorful pendants hanging from a black strand around her neck. One is the Virgin Mary. The other is Shiva, the Hindu deity who creates and destroys the world. She’s got several of the world religions covered. Pretty clever to enhance her income at this popular touristy spot.

“Habibti, I really don’t have much time. I’ll just give you some money to buy the rice?”

“No. no. I cannot take your money. The store is very close. My sister is hungry. Please. Can you?” Her speech is melodic with the lilting Hindi accent and her little head gently wags from side to side as she pleads.

She seems desperate for food but determined to not take my money. I of course, cannot resist.

The store was not so close, and she led me through some alleys and turns and I am feeling foolish and anxious for continuing with her. I look back to take a mental picture that will find my way back if we go too much farther. There are fewer and fewer tourists and every turn finds an emptier and more narrow passage. Every time she senses my hesitation and reassures me, “It’s just right here.” We round another corner and she disappears; she has stepped into the store.

It is smaller than a closet. Really just a booth in the sprawling web of shops in this part of Colaba, its walls painted a bright, peeling robin-egg blue. The man minding it sees her and scolds her with a glare. She silently responds to him with a satisfied expression, like the retriever who drops the wounded pheasant at his master’s feet. His scowl softens and looks to me.

“May I help, Miss?”

I look at the girl and ask her, “What do you need?”

The question is interpreted as an open-ended offer. The modest request for a bit of biryani for her sibling expands to add a large can of powdered milk. She stands on her tippy toes and pulls herself up to put her chin on the counter and tilts her head to look at me sideways, measuring her catch.

“Ahn-yahn?” A sweetly sly grin slowly appears when she detects no opposition. The man puts an onion on the counter.

“Two, please, “ I add.

“Ool!” Emboldened and excited, her smile broadened, and she jumped up and down, Cooking oil for the burner stove.

“Okay, that’s good. How much?” I fumble with the tangled wad of cash in my bag, careful to not expose the entire amount or risk buying the rest of the shop’s inventory.

The man hands her a bag of rice and the onions and sets the oil and milk to the side for her return. She disappears running, heavy and gleeful with her booty.

Frazzled, I give him the charged amount and leave in a rush, clueless on the prices I just paid because I can barely add in dollars, let alone convert to rupees.

“You know what she’s doing with that, don’t you?” I turn to see a woman who apparently witnessed the transaction. She is also Western, possibly Australian, and her bobbed gray hair sticks to her sunburned neck and face, matted with perspiration. She looks like she belongs here, clad in her hippie-style flowing chambray skirt and white t-shirt.

“Well, it’s food. She’s poor. It will tie her family for a few meals,” I replied. The woman sounded annoyed by what she had seen. I wondered if I would ever sound so blasé and desensitized to a young girl begging for food for her hungry baby sister.

“She wouldn’t take your money. Asked you to buy things for her instead and took you to her family’s store. That big bag of rice? She will divide it into smaller portions and sell it. It’s their new scheme. They think it looks less like begging if they have you buy food rather than hand them money. The government is cracking down on the beggars in the cities, especially in tourist areas.”

I am momentarily offended. Well, that little…! I had lived in India for several months—I thought I was more street smart! How did I just get fleeced by a kid? Indian merchants practice liberal pricing on their wares. There is the Indian price that a local will pay and there is the foreigner price that is inflicted upon the naïve visitor. I am quite sure of which scale determined my purchases.

And then, the flush of punishing shame rains over me. I think of the incomprehensible disparity that lies between this impoverished little girl and the immense wealth of the client who brought me here.

I recall the untouched, obscenely expensive catering that I threw away at the end of the 9-hour flight on a fifty million-dollar jet. Perfectly picked, artistically shaped slices of fresh mango, cantaloupe, and pineapple arranged over ruffled green and amethyst kale on a silver tray, garnished with pink and white plumeria blossoms. A carton of 2% and skim milk and a liter of tangy orange juice. Brilliant, hand-painted dishes of colorful chopped vegetables for dipping ordered for, then left unconsumed by the single passenger on the flight from Athens to Mumbai. Tender sesame-glazed chicken skewers–10 pieces in tin foil for reheating. A quart each of minestrone, seafood bisque, and creamy tomato basil gourmet soup. It was all wasted and is only a representative portion of the food that found its way from the galley to a landfill that day.

In my grocery store in the Midwest, one hundred dollars would buy all the items to assemble the menu for this single flight, but the CEO who travels by private jet effortlessly pays one thousand five hundred dollars. One…thousand…five…hundred…dollars. Invulnerable to the growling beast of poverty, why would he care that the amount he paid for 9 hours of provisions would cover the cost of my sister’s rent for 3 months?

I let the Aussie get a few steps ahead of me but keep her in my sights assuming that she is going to the bustling harbor, and I need to be guided out of this mess of back alleys. I imagine the girl laboring at a small table in a cramped room separating portions of rice into smaller muslin bags, tying them off with a piece of green yarn from an unraveled sweater. She should be in school, but for the poorest families of India, even the smallest pittance of an income is indispensable. Dowries are costly and crippling. A man’s monetary burden of securing a suitable husband for his daughter begins at her birth. It torments the exhausted father like a vulture pecking and tearing at an injured, not-yet-dead cub.

As I approach the end of a building row, the alley widens and the chaotic clamor of car and moped horns welcomes me back to the cafes and shops of Colaba, where displays of postcards, textiles, and cases full of dull metal Bohemian jewelry lure souvenir hunters. The banging dishes and blaring Hindi music replace the quieter back alleys behind me.

The harbor’s paved open area in front of the Gateway is crowded with locals on lunch breaks, Asian and European tourists. Almond eyed ladies in a dazzling smattering of saris chatter as they pass by me, staring, smiling and I am treated to the endearing Indian head waggle that says hello, goodbye, I don’t know, and yes and no. A skinny teenage boy in a tea-stained white shirt rushes by, nearly toppling his tray of 5 cups of hot chai. He stops and rebalances it, checks for spills and continues with more caution toward the group of police officers standing close to the monument.

I turn from the Gateway. The colossal Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is before me. A grand ruby hued dome adorns the top of the magnificent edifice, an homage to the building’s inspiration. By day, she is beautiful. At night, her lighting is radiant. Glittering windows and a curved, fanciful façade separate the marble floors and crystal chandeliers from the filth of the city. Shiny onyx Bentleys and chrome clad Rolls Royce autos line the front, bringing international diplomats and top-level executives for high tea over which business deals amounting in the billions will be discussed. It is the most historic and opulent hotel in this part of Mumbai, where Bollywood celebrities choose to see and be seen, just because they can. Graceful bellmen emanate royalty from their white turbans, the front twist adorned with a tall peacock feather secured behind a large jewel. They are impeccably handsome in their magenta dinner coats with gold stripes at the cuffs and stand ready to greet guests and to open the palatial glass doors where beyond, everything sparkles.

Through the din of the bustling crowd, I hear her familiar shouts.

“Sir! Madame! Madame!” The kohl-eyed enterpriser in the canary yellow salwar kameez has already returned. She has selected a mature couple wearing straw hats and matching khaki pants to repeat her shrewd business acumen and bolster her cottage industry.

“No, no. I cannot take your money…” She follows her script and resumes hoodwinking her hunger away. The little shop with the bright, peeling, robin-egg blue paint is just a two-minute walk from here.

Grief on the Ganges


I came to Varanasi, India, the city held as holiest by Hindus to immerse myself in the issue of death and for an intimate view of how grief is manifested in such different personalities. I wanted to observe the parallels as well as stark contradictions within a variegated culture and then try to clarify my own beliefs by viewing life and death through this filter. Originally, I had planned to focus on life from the perspective of a Hindu woman; how a young girl is raised until her marriage is arranged, her expectations and worries surrounding leaving her family, and the trials that transpire if, God forbid, her worst fear is realized: widowhood. But events transpired over the course of the months spent in preparation and research and by the time the actual journey was upon me, that cold outline that existed of interviews with women of diverse demographics in Indian society had sunk so deep into a quagmire of other issues that it was nearly impalpable.

Shreds of painful memories pierced the story I thought I was yearning for, leaving it a deflated dream that wasn’t meant to be seen to its end, at least not for now. As if a mirror, the size of a life itself, were to come unhinged and shatter into millions of splintered pieces on the floor, every silver shard is a reminiscence that slices the skin and makes the spirit of the heart bleed and weep.

Summer Interrupted

 The hall bell rang indicating the beginning of Drivers Ed class, the two week course all sophomores take the summer before we were to get our licenses. A few kids were still straggling in nonchalantly, unable to reconcile entering the school building in the middle of summer vacation. The basketball coach teaching the class appeared equally unconcerned with the tardiness and continued to read the newspaper glancing up now and then to gauge a lull in the activity when he may bother to get our attention.

“Have you all heard about the girl from Nixa who’s missing?” he asked a room full of fifteen year olds. It was 1985 and there were no iPhones, Blackberries or any other means of instant information overload that is commonplace today. Cable TV had just been introduced to the area the year before and the new 24 hour news networks held no appeal to us when measured against MTV and multiple movie channels. We had been out of school for over a month, well into the practice of sleeping in until we absolutely had to wake up and get going to school for this brief interruption of our vacation. Of course none of us had bothered to watch the local news that morning.

We were all growing up in a town of only 2,000 people which approximated no more than 80 kids in each class. Almost everyone knew one another or had a connection to each other’s families through school or church. The class stirred and we all looked around as if repeating the question without actually saying anything. There was an immediate unease; it was just a given that no matter who the girl was, many of us would know her. Coach Gray hadn’t had to say much. His sober expression communicated that he was struggling with how much information to share with the class.

“Jackie Johns. Her car was found on the side of the road this morning and she was last seen right after she got off from waitressing at the sale barn café last night.”

Everyone knew Jackie. She was 5 years older than our group in class that day and although she had graduated a couple of years prior, everyone knew the beautiful, gregarious Jackie for she was involved in just about every school activity available. She was a cheerleader, Prom Queen and Homecoming Queen. She played basketball, softball and volleyball and drove a black Camaro with a license plate that read, “JACKI 1”. As was the style of the mid 1980’s, her face was always made up prominently with glamorous eye shadows, heavy mascara and glistening lipstick and always carried a bottle of aerosol hair spray in her purse that kept her highlighted layers in a gravity defying lift. She was a living doll but her most galvanizing traits were her constant genuine smile and cheerful eyes.

The room was quiet and I searched my memory for every vision I could conjure up of Jackie and her smile. Cheering at the boys’ varsity games. Diving to catch a ground ball for her softball team. No matter how many times she had to don or take the mitt off, her nail polish was never less than impeccable. The last time I had seen her she was riding in a friend’s convertible in her cheerleading uniform, squealing as they peeled out of the Dairy Queen drive-through, turning past our house on Main Street.  She waved and yelled at my mother on our front porch, “Hi, Myra!” and I heard her laughter until the muffler and the distance drowned her out.

Having no more information than what Coach had just told us, it was as if the silence was enshrouding some vague prayers and hopes as our conscious thoughts tried to absorb what was happening to this lovely girl who had just turned 20 a couple of weeks earlier.

“There, uh,” the coach started and had to clear his throat. “There was blood in the car. It doesn’t look good.”

And hearts sank.

A Birthday

My childhood best friend had gone into labor a couple of days before her due date and delivered a healthy baby boy on Monday morning. Just before the weekend we had joked about the possibility of her having him one day early so that he and I could share a birthday and it had actually happened. I found this out while on my way home from dinner with friends when I just had a thought, “She had a doctor’s appointment today and I never heard from her. She was so uncomfortable the past couple of weeks, maybe I’ll just call the hospital so see if he may have chosen to induce her today.”

Tracey and I had been inseparable as children and it carried on throughout high school and beyond but a few years into college, I picked up on a lark and moved 700 miles away for a change of scenery. I hadn’t intended to drop out of her life but I grew poorer and poorer at keeping in touch due to personal issues of my own that I let chase me away from home and the distractions that a new life offered. Every now and then I would call her up out of the blue and we’d catch up on each other’s lives and she would fill me in on the latest hometown and classmate news. When we were in our mid-twenties she got married and I was thrilled when she asked me to be a bridesmaid in her wedding; I felt a validation that our bond was still strong even with the miles between us and lapses of correspondence.

A few years later I found out that the marriage had recently ended and I called my dear friend. This spirited, vibrant woman I once knew was not there. She sounded nothing like the girl I grew up with, camping out and playing Truth or Dare in a tent on an empty lot next to her house and following boys around at the mall. Her wry wit that offered up side-splitting one-liners that rendered us all breathless was trampled by the heartbreak of having to accept that she couldn’t fix this man or her marriage. Then there was that all too common self-blame that is experienced by most of the women who find themselves in love with an abusive drunk. No matter how many times I told her, “Tracey, you are not responsible for his bad choices,” her soft replies of, “Yes, I know…but…” it was painful to know that I hadn’t been there where I could have seen what was going on and to encourage and help her heal sooner.

The baby was born to Tracey and her new husband a few years later, a healthy baby boy they named after her and her husband’s fathers. Time and a deep conviction in her faith had healed her heart allowing her to marry again and the love for God that they shared swaddled her in bliss. She was happier than she could have ever imagined.

When the receptionist answered I gave her Tracey’s name and explained that I was looking for a patient who was due anytime but that I wasn’t even sure she was admitted yet, I was just checking. Then that eerie question came.

“Are you family?” the woman on the other end of the line asked and there was a note of uncertainty in her tone.

I felt the seconds stop ticking. My mind didn’t immediately go to an assumption of awful but farther back in there, behind that mind’s eye, something was telling me to brace for something that wasn’t quite right.

“Well…” suddenly my eyes were blurred and the words came out in staccato, very succinctly one at a time as I tried to gather my thoughts between each one. “We were best friends from childhood.” As if that would carry any weight to someone obligated to adhere to patient confidentiality. A moment or two of silence, a click on the line and the next voice answered.

“Intensive Care waiting room.”


It had now been nearly 5 years since Tracey’s death from complications following childbirth and while time had mercifully granted enough emotional buoyancy for me to manage my life without daily crying jags, she was still ever present. Every day I saw her smile, her flawless, silky olive complexion surrounding her pretty blue eyes and heard her laugh. She had the kind of laugh that was light and airy yet robust at the same time, a giggle that was contagious to anyone within earshot. Visions of her from every angle came to me throughout the days and this puzzled me for awhile. At first I thought it was odd that I was seeing her in so often and so clearly when it had been years since we were really immersed in each other’s lives. I finally decided that when you lose someone you were once so close to, spent so much time with and knew so familiarly, the mind holds fast to every moment spent together in the living years and with no regard for the memories we prefer, it chooses the ones to regurgitate and when. This was the rationale I used to explain why sometimes I replayed conversations we had shared in our twenties over broken hearts when at other times I’d see her as she looked at my fourteenth birthday party.

Just four weeks before departing for Varanasi, the only person of interest there had ever been in the case of Jackie’s disappearance twenty five years earlier was tried and convicted of both aggravated rape and first degree murder. Her body was found in the lake after 5 days and the one man the authorities honed in on was able to elude charges for lack of evidence. Things turned around one day in 2007 when a new detective was given the file and took advantage of advances in DNA technology that hadn’t been available in 1985. Remarkably, even after being submersed in murky water for nearly a week, evidence collected in the rape kit provided the match needed to indict the most hated man in Nixa, a man who by this time was rumored to be responsible for several other women’s disappearances and deaths.

I’ve always accepted that my grief for Tracey would last the rest of my life and that the severity of it would ebb and flow around certain dates. The birthday I share with her son, her birthday, the anniversary of her death and funeral all fall into the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I also knew when the trial was going to be held and that barring a delay or mistrial it would have seen its conclusion before my visit to this city that is intricately painted by death and the beliefs and rituals that define it.

What I hadn’t anticipated when I booked the trip was the emotional assault that this incredible undertaking that I spent 7 months planning and memories of past events were all congealing to perform. The unfathomable loss of Tracey and the re-opening of wounds suffered during the trial for Jackie’s murder would all become heartbreakingly entwined in India.

New Delhi

Landing in New Delhi is like landing on another planet in an entirely different universe. Day or night, the haze of filth and pollution is visible on descent and by the time the aircraft is roughly 1000 feet above ground, your eyes seem to be looking at the cabin of the plane through a filtered lens that blurs perfect lines. You blink a few times trying to clear the view that you think is just brought on by the fatigue and dehydration of the long flight before acknowledging that the haze is actually inside the plane and settling into your eyes. The burning starts and your body’s own defense mechanisms kick in to attempt to stave off any further discomfort by stimulating the tear ducts to irrigate and rinse the eyeballs. This inevitably leads to rubbing them with tired hands contaminated with the countless bacteria picked up in the cabin and lavatories of a jumbo jet that circles  the earth and sets down in various environments, which only serves to further exacerbate the burning and itching.

Then the smells start to permeate; with each foot of descent they change and change again, one moment being a stench of something burning, the next of unsanitary toilet conditions, nearby raw sewage, then back again to a faint burning whose source and substance is indiscernible. Is it just a combination of all the industrial development and lack of environmental controls that has caused the immediate assault on the senses or did the government raze part of the slums adjacent to the airport that day? Albeit a crude form of zoning and population control, it is a method frequently utilized in this country by the authorities who use bulldozers to demolish shanties and huts of cardboard and corrugated tin sheets. Most are homes in which the sole method of cooking and heating water is with a kerosene burner so fires are a common by product of this measure. There’s rarely much effort by any emergency services to control these fires; they seem to assist the government in spreading the destruction, death and homelessness by engulfing in flames large areas of the communities that neighbor the areas actually flattened by the heavy equipment.

As unwelcoming as it all sounds, India held my heart from the first time I resided there, and at the moment I once again smelled that rancid odor and felt the burn in my eyes, a sensation of contentment and resolve overwhelmed me. During the months of planning, I had repeatedly resisted the urges to chicken out and cancel the endeavor. Every hour spent studying the ancient holy city of Varanasi and reading about other travelers’ experiences only stirred up more anxiety than excitement. I wondered if I was taking on something that I wasn’t at that time emotionally equipped to deal with.

Learning of the significance of Varanasi in Hinduism and its role in the soul’s perfect departure from this earth left all my loved ones who had already passed on dancing in my mind questioning if, and hoping that I would, feel them there. I wanted to feel Tracey. I yearned for a connection with her to see where she was, how she was, and perhaps be able to comprehend –at least grasp an atom of understanding –why she was gone. It was a reverberating ache, this thought that I may see her in some way if I just believed it and I latched onto it, took possession, as if that would will it to be so.

When I thought of Jackie, I imagined seeing her come out of the darkness and into a soft light. During the 25 years that her killer was living his privileged life with no repercussions, I saw her in the dark, not a bad place, but just a quiet darkness like someone who sits up at night settled into a chair in the corner of a room with the lights turned out. Nothing could bring her back or undo the crimes against her but the trial changed the way I thought of her spirit. Now it felt like she could emerge from that wait and go into the comforting light to let her face feel the warmth and she could see ahead to truly pass on. She could have some peace; she could rest now that she had helped catch the monster that killed her.

I liked that for once I thought of her being in a more comfortable place than those of us still living. I didn’t feel that peace for us. So many had said, “Now her family has some closure,” when the verdicts were announced and that beast would be made to pay for what horrors he had put her through. But I don’t believe there is any closure possible when it comes to murder. A mere human was so saturated with evil that he took it upon himself to end her life in a way that tortured her family and friends and broke the heart of a small town that loved her. He could be sentenced to death by the courts or he could die a thousand deaths at the hands of others as devilish as himself but nothing offers closure on that kind of wound. Closure for a murder can only come when everyone who knew the victim is gone. Only when everyone who knew everyone who knew everyone who loved her is gone. Only when everyone who was touched by her story is also dead and gone can closure be possible because until there is that buffer zone of a generation with no personal attachment to the lost, someone will still be grieving. True closure isn’t sealed until the last tear has been cried.

The exhaustion that had been left by all this turmoil showed hints of starting to lift once I boarded the 15 hour flight from Chicago. I knew that I was doing what I needed to do and that while it may not have been the best idea for some, it was right for me. Rather than waiting for a more appropriate time when I would be feeling stronger, I started to see that this was how it was meant to be. It’s the more challenging experiences that allow us the greatest opportunity for growth. It’s the greatest flames that purify and cause elements to change form—the entire point of cremation. Those who put off feeling emotions until they feel more emotionally ready miss the whole experience. Those are the people who make their hotel beds before letting the housekeeper in or who paint their toenails before a pedicure. This incredibly spiritual journey was destined to be one of healing. The bounce of the landing gear on the runway was validation that I was exactly where I was meant to be.


There were multiple breathtaking moments that I experienced in Varanasi. Many were a sudden gasp at a near miss from being struck by a lorry or a very large cow but most were provoked by tuk-tuks, the black and yellow motorized tricycles covered with a canopy but otherwise open air that topped out at a maximum speed of about 35mph. What they lack in speed, they make up for in mobility and convenience and are the most popular form of transportation in Varanasi, a city of 2 million, mostly poor devout Hindus.

The roads in India would laugh contemptuously at the appearance of the highways to which most Westerners are accustomed. Where our traffic primarily travels in organized lanes and orderly processions, the same road that we divide into 2 lanes would, in India, be wasted space where it’s assumed perfectly reasonable for tuk-tuks, motorcycles and automobiles to be crowded into creating 6 or 7 lanes that fade into one another as the drivers of these vehicles maneuver their carriages in a chaotic dance. Sprinkled into the mix are the labor intensive rickshaws which are best described as adult sized tricycles that offer no protective barrier for the pedaling operator or the passengers were anyone’s brakes to fail. The lofty riders’ seat that sits about 4 feet off the ground and tall skeletal wheels lend a feeling that the contraption is always perilously close to capsizing. Of the many road accidents that do occur, one is astonished at not witnessing them more frequently given the density and disorder of the whole affair.

Traffic signals do little more than provide mere suggestions as to who is to progress through an intersection. A red light is acknowledged by few drivers and they only become obstacles to everyone else who chooses to employ tunnel vision, ignore periphery and to pretend not to see the crowd of vehicles swarming toward the inter-section. Brake lights illuminate intermittently and most of the vehicles are the tuk-tuks which have no turn signals therefore forcing the operators to use hand signals and reach outside the frame of the canopy—at great risk of losing the appendage—to signal that he’s turning or edging a different direction.

The intersection takes on the appearance of an orchestrated dance floor. From each direction many small movements from so many participants, all taking turns, moving forward, some three steps and some two at a time, others standing still, blocked in at the moment that should have been theirs to proceed.  It’s like a waltz at a royal ball in which the dancers know each step and every so often reach out to change partners and directions; however, one who is a spectator and unfamiliar with the procession can never anticipate the next turn and can’t help but be amused at the uninterrupted flow of the sequence.  The simple task of getting out of passenger pickup area of the airport and to a hotel just a few hundred meters away becomes a chess game in which you are an unwilling pawn and the player’s (your driver) poor strategy could cause you serious injury or, at the very least, quite elevated anxiety.

The horns. The ever constant bleeping and brain rattling cacophony of horns! Rather than turn indicators, there is the honking of horns. For every brake tap there are bleeps. For every acceleration there are bleeps that shout, “My turn! My turn!” In the hundreds of autos, bikes and mopeds attempting to conquer just one traffic light, every movement provokes multiple bleeps and it’s unfeasible to make a distinction between who bleeped their announced next steps and who are the responders making their objections known. Pedestrians and desperate, darting children are the recipients of scolding shrieks of brakes at the first hint of a step off the curb, saving them from certain collision by sheer millimeters. The Lorries that share the roads with the rickshaws, taxis, and tuk-tuks literally request horn honking from other drivers to indicate they are approaching the truck in the rear or coming up beside them. On the tailgate of the large vehicle will be artistic script painting in bright Hindu art colors stating, “Horn Please”, in Hindi and English, and Indian drivers are clearly more than willing to oblige. In fact, hugging the horn would appear to be the one rule in India that is adhered to unfalteringly.

The first damned horns started blaring at about three o’clock in the morning. At first there were just a few sporadic ones off in the distance, most likely in the direction away from the river and toward the busier streets that bore the business commuters and Lorries. It had been a less than restful first night. The mattress was just a couple of inches thick and the sheet that was stretched over it was so thin that the floral pattern on the mattress shown right through. Two pillows with no cases were at the head of the bed and there was no top sheet or covers of any kind. It was still in the 80’s at night so I didn’t think asking for blankets was necessary but in the middle of the night I ended up pulling clothes out of my luggage  and slept with a couple of shirts draped over me.

I thought I’d try to ignore the noise by convincing myself that I was still sleeping and perhaps incorporate the sounds into a dream in an effort to steal another hour or so of much needed rest but it was no use.  I lay there on my dandy little prison style bed and began to consciously prepare myself for what I’d be seeing again when the sun brought my reality back to light. Nighttime in Varanasi had already become personified, taking on the characteristics of someone I looked forward to seeing, a dark ghost who provided an escape for just a few hours—yet a spiteful visitor who laughed as he left me and found amusement in watching me struggle through the day.

The ceiling fan roared and stirred the air just so that even in the high India temperatures, some kind of cover was needed on the bed to ward off a chill and the teasing of the hair on my arms that became an annoying tickle. As long as my sleep aid was in its early shift of potency, this was subtle enough to not be bothersome but once it had started to wear off and I began to feel my limbs again it felt like gnats were crawling all over me. It was the loudest ceiling fan I’ve ever heard and sounded much more like a lumbering old window mounted air conditioner but I was grateful for that for it was the only thing that helped cope with all the city noise by drowning out what could not even be touched by ear plugs or an iPod. I thought for a moment that I could have used a noise canceling headset but I’m sure even the highest end Bose set would have been about as useless in Varanasi as tits on a warthog. What was really necessary to defeat the racket was at the very least an egg of Silly Putty to cram into each ear, stuffed in bit by bit to plug up the auditory canals. After that I could don the headset but even that would have to be outfitted with mechanisms on each earpiece that mimicked that sound of jet engines. I have no doubt that I would still hear horns.

God bless the pharmaceutical company that makes Ambien. It’s well known that sleep deprivation and excessive noise are both widely recognized forms of torture and my Ambi-candy treats them both. Of course it doesn’t actually affect my hearing or make the environment any less noisy; it just renders me so barely conscious that for a few hours it’s like flipping the bird to all the chaos. That little orange prescription bottle is worth more to me than gold bullion. Picking up a refill is like Christmas, only better because I get refills a lot more than once a year.

I hadn’t yet purchased any figurines of Ganesh, Shiva, or Ram, but with those gods as my witnesses, this is how I felt about my little orange Ambien bottle: it was my chosen diety. In Hindu homes you’ll find shrines and altars dedicated to the deities that particular household are devotees to. This is usually a prominent place in the general living area where there are statues of their most important gods set upon a shelf or mantle surrounded by beautiful textiles, flowers and candles. To complete the altar there are often paintings of the primary diety of the household that creates a backdrop. In Puja (worship) the deities are adorned with fragrances, garlands of marigolds and offerings of sweet treats while prayers of thanksgiving and blessings are offered as well as petitions for wellbeing and protection. I didn’t have to be in Varanasi very long in order to realize that my Ambi-baby bottle was deserving of that kind of adoration. Remember the old Bugs Bunny cartoon that had him disguising Daffy Duck as a rabbit and bequeathing him to some big ogre of a creature who clumsily grabbed him and hugged him so hard his little eyeballs popped out?

“I will hug him, and squeeze him and call him George,” said the oaf. As said I to my ten milligram gods every night in Varanasi. The few hours that those little white pills helped to dispel of the racket and allow some recharging rest were the sweet nectar of life.

Resigned to the fact that my opportunity for sleep for the night had concluded, I opened my eyes to the glare of a streetlight shining through the window of the room. Actually it was more of a hole than a window for it was a large square opening cut out of the wall high up near the ceiling and it had no glass panes, just a couple of iron bars spaced just right so that only a small child could fit through them if someone hoisted him up about 9 feet. They may have kept hooligans out but they did nothing to discourage the lizards from visiting me every morning and with regard to my phobia of reptiles, I’d rather take my chances with a hooligan.

They were just little gecko type creatures which, when in Hawaii or Florida, I find amusing but thrown into the mix of my sensual bombardment here, not so much. On more than one occasion, I awoke to a couple of them hanging out on the ceiling directly above me prompting a rapid roll and leap out of bed for fear of them dropping onto my face. It didn’t escape my thoughts that in that initial moment of sheer panic, I gasped so forcefully that I’m lucky I didn’t suck one clean off the ceiling and inhale it. That would have been a less than glamorous way to go after all the precautions that had been taken over the past several months. I had gotten all the immunizations for hepatitis, typhoid, the adult polio booster, yellow fever, tetanus, took the anti-malarial pills that wreak havoc on the digestive system, flew to Varanasi, ate the food and didn’t get sick, drank the water and still held my own and I practically bathed in Deep Woods OFF and Germ-X alternately. Damned if aspirating a lizard was going to be my undoing.

It was still completely dark outside at four o’clock in the morning and as I came to the bottom of the stairs and into the simple lobby of the Ganesh Guest House, I found that the two staffers were still sleeping on the gray tiled floor, no pillows or covers. Just to the side of the doorway, an ancient computer that was touted on the establishment’s business cards to have “free internet” for the guests clicked and clattered randomly as those obsolete machines do, and cyclically the fan inside would whir for a few seconds at a time. The little green power light blinked weakly as the machine wheezed and rattled as if trying to communicate that it still had a will to compute, to outlive dial up service and grow up to be a big boy with a router and DSL. The same two young men were manning lobby every day and night, Abbas and Ravi.  Ideally, I would have sneaked past without disturbing these poor sweet men who work such tiresome hours but the entrance to the hotel was locked by a large iron accordion-style gate secured with an impressive padlock. I looked around for any other way to leave without having to wake them but that was the only access or egress I could see which led me to wonder how we were to get out in case of an emergency. In India fire exits are viewed as nuisances, not necessities, whose only purpose is providing one more entrance for thieves and beggars.

I debated returning to my room for just a little while longer till I started hearing more activity, thinking that I’d rather let one of the other guests be responsible for deciding that it was time for them to start their day when one of the men stirred and lifted his head a bit to try to focus his sleepy eyes. Offering an apologetic smile and an Indian head waggle that I was still trying to master, I put my hands to heart in prayer and nodded at him.

I whispered, “Namaste, so sorry to wake you—do you mind?” and glanced toward the gate to imply a request for it to be unlocked. He smiled and waggled in response and willed his thin frame to lift him to nearly standing. Sleeping on the cold floor had clearly left the poor man too stiff and sore to straighten out of a stoop. I scolded myself for having found the 3 inch thick mattress on my bed so inadequate when offered up against the discomfort so many have to endure every second of every minute of every hour of every day is beyond comprehension. Abbas’ heavy keychain jangled against the baby blue painted steel as he inserted an oversized, very archaic looking key into the lock and then leaned against the gate having to use most of his weight to push it open. The metal squealed in protest as its joints were forced to fold back into themselves and the bottom rim scraped against the polished tile.

I walked down the few steps from the guest house entrance and stopped to look in both directions in the alley so I didn’t step directly into the path of anything oncoming and then looked down at my feet to watch for piles of cow shit to avoid. The only thing on the pavement that was more plentiful than cow pies were potholes and I had visions of stepping into a pile of shit, slipping, and tripping into a gaping hole in the street and breaking my leg. The thought of needing an emergency room in this town was far from appealing.

I stopped again at the end of the alley before turning into the street and as I stood there taking in the rhythm of activity that was waking up, I felt something push me from behind. My foot slipped on the uneven pavement and I leaned into the outside wall of the corner shop as an enormous cow claimed her right to the slim passage. She wasn’t intentionally demonstrating aggression; she was simply looking ahead and saw where she wanted to go, lowering her head to the ground every few steps to investigate possible food sources. She was blissfully unaware of her girth past her head. I braced myself against the building and sucked in my breath as much as possible to allow her to lumber past me, chewing on a decaying banana peel, her massive ribcage pressing me until she narrowed again at her flanks.

Only 38 hours had elapsed since the drive from the Varanasi airport and I felt a crushing anxiety already. It was just too overwhelming to comprehend being able to endure the entire 4 weeks I had planned to stay and I was already about ninety-nine percent sure that I would be cutting the trip short. However, I was there and I’d spent months planning this adventure and before admitting defeat I was first going to force myself to do something here that I was terrified to do, something that could not be experienced anywhere else in the world; take a dawn boat ride down the Ganges to see the famous banks including the burning ghats where the majority of the city’s cremations take place.

It is believed that if you die in Varanasi or at least have your body cremated there on the ghats (the banks of steps leading down into the river) and your remains are put into the Ganges that you achieve moksha, meaning, you are released from the turmoil of samsara which is the cycle of death and rebirth and you go to Paradise or Heaven. For this reason, the city has grown to a population of over 2 million people who take comfort in knowing that this is their last life on this earth. To die in Varanasi means that the misery of all physical life is over; no amount of bad karma can cause you to be born into a more miserable next life and you no longer have to strive so hard to build up good karma for a favorable next life. This illustrates the appeal that it holds for the large number of widows. The widow’s existence becomes so challenging after her identity dies along with her husband’s that hundreds make their way there every day to live out the rest of their days often actively praying for death. If, however, you foolishly cross the Ganges and happen to die while on the other bank, you will be reborn as a donkey.

Rounding the corner the river came into view and the full moon reflected on the surface illuminating the ghat just enough for the boats at the water’s edge to be made out and the dark figures of the oarsmen started to stir as they saw business opportunities arriving. I braced for an onslaught of hecklers and touts but the crowd was much more docile than what I had experienced in Delhi and Mumbai. The men made themselves available by passive eye contact and polite offers of boat rides but they were refreshingly non-aggressive. Even with the poverty and a daily struggle for survival, the people of Varanasi were welcoming and non-threatening. Their faith avows that in the holy city limits, any crime committed is weighted a thousand times more heavily and the desire to avoid bad karma is palpable.

I wanted to give my business to a younger boatman and Deepak approached me at just that thought. He looked to be in his mid to late teens, lean and muscular with teeth so white that they and his eyes were what I could see the most clearly in the dim moonlight.

“Boat, Miss? Boat, Miss? You come in my boat?”

I waggled my head in agreement and asked, “How much?”

“Five hundred rupees.” About eleven dollars US for my own guided boat tour with a single oarsmen rowing about a mile upstream and back. The ride would take about 2 hours and by the time we’d return to Assi Ghat the sun and heat would be too great for him to do another tour until the evening. Even then it wasn’t guaranteed that he’d get another fare so it was possible that what he made off me would be his only income of the day.

Deepak took my hand and guided me to his boat with the aid of other men whose boats were all crowded together on the shore and led me to use them all as bridges and stepping stones to get to the one we’d be taking up the river. They all looked the same and I wondered how they could distinguish one from another in the dark as they were all suffering from faded paint and no real identifying marks. It was quickly apparent that I needed to pay close attention to Deepak’s instructions and step only where he did for several boats looked less than seaworthy and even when he indicated we had found his, he reached down to adjust a couple of the floor slats, sliding them into place so that I had a firm place to step into the vessel.  I took one of the seats and checked around to see how it settled with my weight, noting the rotting pieces that seemed to cry out wanting to detach from one another. I am nearly as afraid of water as I am of snakes and was about to float out into the Ganges, arguably one of the most polluted waterways on the planet, in the dark, in a rickety old rowboat that looked like it could have been built by Christ himself. Well, I thought, if I die at least it was while doing something cool.

I was getting settled in when I looked up and saw a beautiful little girl running toward us. She had something in her hands and a determined expression on her face and I knew that she had found in me an obvious sucker who would buy her wares even if she had been selling baby cobras.

“Madam! Diyahs! Good karma, long life! Madam!” She leapt with quick agility over the boats to get to me. Deepak tried to shoo her away to discourage the pestering that most of his customers surely tire of.

I said to him, “No, it’s ok. I don’t mind. I was meaning to get a few of them anyway to set out on the water.”

The little girl was selling diyahs, small offerings constructed of a waterproof paper bowl that looks somewhat like wood parquet. In it is placed a pool of ghee or oil, marigold blossoms and flower petals and a long wick. They are to be lit and then set afloat as a prayer for favorable karma but they are also symbolic of leading a departed soul’s way across the river to progress on to Paradise. I bought 3 of them from her and she ran away to proudly show her profits to her brothers.

This was the primary task I had set for myself to complete before anything else could be absorbed on the journey. There was something so beautiful about the gesture of the setting of diyahs on the water and I wanted to light one for Tracey, one for Jackie, and one for Austin, a 17 year old boy from home whose sudden death a couple of months ago had shaken the high school football team on the first day of summer practice. I didn’t know him but felt connected to his mother who was my age and with whom I shared mutual friends. My heart broke for her and although we had never actually met, we corresponded through emails and I felt an intimate connection with her. Ironically, her name was Tracey. The diyahs had been on my mind since I left home. They were to be like a last hug and kiss to the 3 of these people who were all struck down in the primes of their lives, a sort of letting go, and I wished that their family members could have been there instead of my feeling like I was cheating them. It was an experience that they had much more right to than I.

As Deepak labored and rowed us upstream and past the adjoining ghats, I listened to the worshippers as they rang their chimes, splashed and bathed in the river, chanted and prayed. I was amazed that I wanted to breathe deeply to take in the morning air, which was bafflingly without stench. How could it be that all the sewage, death and pollution of the city is offered into the Ganges flowing downstream to meet us yet out on the water was the one place that offered a respite from the odor of shit and rot that engulfed the rest of the town?  I mentioned this to Deepak.

“The Ganga is not dirty. It is our Mother. The no smell is part of the mystery of her Divine,” he smiled, straightening me out. “You wish to light diyahs?”

I did want to see them before the dark was gone so he stopped paddling and pulled a matchbook out of his pant pocket. I wanted the whole event to slow down so that I could feel every rock of the boat, listen to the fizz of the matches igniting the three diyahs one by one and meditate on distinct prayers for Jackie, Tracey and Austin individually, but that would risk missing the greater moment. I knew that their concept of time was now on a different plane than mine and that no matter how much of a blur it was to me, they would still feel the energy.

All three diyhas flames were now flickering and I stared at them on the floor of the boat.  The still air let them dance daintily to the distant bells and priestly chants. One at a time I scooped them up and attached a name to them.

Austin. Austin, I’m so sorry I never met you. I’m here for your mother right now and at this moment on the other side of the world I want you to know you’re thought of, how far your life reached. I wish we knew why you were taken. How did that one seemingly simple choice lead to such excruciating agony for those you left here so young? I set his diyah on the water and watched the tiny light till it disappeared on the current.

Tracey. My dearest childhood friend Tracey who had solidified a relationship with her God and Jesus and while my own beliefs were scattered, there was no other place I could imagine her but exactly where she believed she would be. I hoped that she could at least see me from where she was to know she was being remembered at that very moment. I was still in the dark on the Ganges but I only saw her in comforting sunlight standing in a field of brightly colored flowers with white rays of Heaven shining down all around her, clearly she was with the God who holds her heart. I miss you so much. At times I think I understand why you’re gone but those brief thoughts don’t erase the moments that flash now and then when I nearly reach for the phone to call you to tell you about something I just saw. I lose track of seasons and years in those moments. Losing you crushed my faith. Your mother, father and brother are shattered but they still have a piece of you in the little baby you made. He is their lifeline to you and I wonder if he will ever comprehend exactly what that means. It was hard to let Tracey’s diyah go and it floated off as quickly as Austin’s.

I may not have known Jackie but it was when I set her diyah on the water that I felt the wind purge from my lungs. Maybe it was being able to turn the page of injustice for those 25 years in which her killer paid no price and now it felt like Jackie had won. It was another stitch in the seam of the collective heart that had been ripped apart that night and while it can never be completely repaired there was a genuine feeling of one more stone turned upright in the world. Her mother had passed just a few years after her murder but her father and 4 sisters were still living on and as her diyah drifted away I hoped that they had felt at least some comfort that her killer would live out the rest of his miserable days as a cursed evil marked for death far from the luxuries he had known most of his life.


While contemplating the grief process one night I was trying to find a thread of reason to grasp that I could use to reel myself to a place where I understood how to feel from the moment of tragedy to the stage of acceptance and moving on. As a child I would crawl under the covers and cry unendingly because I didn’t yet have the ability to see that the pain would alleviate and I would be able to compartmentalize this experience and move on. But now, after enduring painful events and being able to clearly reflect upon them and acknowledge getting past them all, I wanted an understanding of the time in between. I wanted to know how I would counsel my ten year old self in a time of loss with the lessons learned with age.

It slowly came to me that I may have chosen to hold onto and continue hurting over some painful memories where others I easily processed and let go. Contrary to popular psychiatric protocol, I don’t believe that we have all that ability to choose our thoughts and dismiss the hurtful remembrances that hold us back, but I can’t explain why we’re able to slough off some more easily than others. It seems that if we could take in information (such as the news of the death of a loved one) and embrace the lesson and wisdom that the experience has to offer, yet not feel the pain or sadness, we would be a much stronger and emotionally healthy culture.

That may be possible in a science fiction story but in humanity it simply isn’t. We have to feel the gamut of emotions for the experience to be complete. A sob not released and a tear not spilled from the eye short circuits the lesson that will at some point impart a measure of comfort. I remember a line from a book of devotionals I was gifted years ago in a time of stifling grief; “Breaded corn is broken”. In order for a cake to be made or a loaf of bread to be kneaded, one of the main ingredients has to be taken from its purest and most complete form and picked off the stalk, have the husk ripped away and separate the kernels from the cob. Then each piece is pummeled and ground into a fine powder no longer recognizable as that solid outgrowth from the six foot tall plant. What starts as a kernel has to be crushed into flour, a workable form before it can be the largest ingredient in bread.

An image started to develop that, to me, became a moving picture to illustrate the confusion of this life experience.

I saw a long, gently curving cobblestone road ahead of me, a memory of one of the streets of Varanasi. It was fairly level and didn’t appear to meet with any changing grade going uphill or down; it just snaked on ahead in even waves from the left to the right. The stones were slightly varying in shape but similar in size and closely set in an irregular yet flowing pattern so that it had an aesthetic appearance that kept the eye interested. The lighting was even as if the sky were overcast or the entire road was shadowed and the one consistency in the stones was their color; that of a dark sienna brown. The space between the stones was minimal and just enough to see where to differentiate one stone from the next by the grooves where the depths escaped what little light was on the surface of the pavers.

I was taking it all in as a peaceful, dream like vision that felt like that last hazy moment before falling into sleep, when the picture started morphing. As I let my eyes gaze farther and farther down the road, in my peripheral vision I started to notice something changing. I looked down at my feet and one at a time, some of the stones before me softly illuminated and then faded out again in a single subtle blink. I looked behind me and more of them were doing the same thing randomly and never in unison but graciously taking turns. It wasn’t done in rapid succession but very slowly so that perhaps for a second or two there would be none that were changed and then from much farther behind me one would take its turn. They were communicating, somehow orchestrating the arrangement in which each chose when to rest and if or when to glow. They were allowing one another to breathe its complete illumination and then return back to its unlit state before the next would commence its glow.

A stone behind me took just a few moments to go from that deep brown to a muted shade of glowing green– not a bright and fast blink but more like a light that was filtered through fog. The gaps between the stones kept their darkness but the brown color of the rock itself gradually faded giving way for the green that slowly bled in from the edges until it showed through most directly in the center of the stone. It maintained its faint glow for a brief time and then came back into rest much in the same way that a candle is snuffed out.

All along the road from the area directly beneath my feet to as far in the distance that I could see in either direction, many stones took turns undergoing the same metamorphosis but through different colors. There were flickers of blue, mauve, green, or gray and although they were hazy and subtle, the image was in no way lackluster. The sequence of the dancing colors varied so that I couldn’t anticipate where the next changing stone rested, instead it would catch my eye as it lit and went out again. Looking behind me and all around, I saw something like a soft, slow motion strobe-effect. As each stone stopped glowing and faded back to opaque, it retained the color that it had changed into. The light’s life span quickly passed but the stone was left permanently changed in its color. The ones that had glowed blue became a darker hue of blue, the luminescent mauve altered to a darker mauve, and so on with all the stones that had shown themselves lit.

This road of changing stones was a metaphor. The road was a life. The stones were all the components and experiences of a life. Some of the stones were people whose paths we cross, friends, family members, even acquaintances.  Some were events that placed themselves in this life, those that brought profound sadness and those that offered inexplicable joy. The moment my dear friend received a call that her brother was critically injured in an accident and most probably would not survive. He did, but each surgery, each step forward and each setback in his recovery resulted in colored stones. A couple of years later, another stone lit when someone else she was very fond of was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Each tearful interaction, each conversation filled with sobbing, every opportunity taken to commiserate with her would be another stone kilned to color on the path. She chose to see colors on her road one day when she committed to accompanying him to his chemotherapy appointments. She could have chosen not to do it and avoid coming face to face with the rigors of cancer treatment and take the less painful direction that would leave stones as they are.  Not everyone would endure this with a friend—a spouse or child, yes, but not always a friend. Fully aware of the horrors of cancer and its remedies, sharing the anguish of the sweats and chills, the vomiting, the “should I even go on” moments that her friend will inevitably go through, I know she will be with him every time, the fact that it means frequent travel notwithstanding. As painful as they will be, she is choosing to share this experience and create these memories.  She will one day be looking back at an incredible mosaic of her life.

Some of the stones were specific conversations with persons that no matter how brief the exchange of words, were meant to leave a lasting impression.

“You’ll never leave me. You’re such a little girl. A little Daddy’s girl and you’ll never be strong enough to just pick up and leave. I can do anything to you—and what are you going to do? You’ll never leave me.” Such was the claim of the emotionally abusive and controlling individual I endured for a year in my early 20’s. The memory of that conversation is a stone that changed the course of my life. Within three months of leaving him I went from being an unemployed student living with and financially dependent upon him to pursuing my first flying job, traveling the world and buying my first house. I was never tempted to look back, to reconnect or even just “catch up”. That stone stayed put and stayed a solid muddy color of the darkest brown while all the stones adjacent shone in all those other heavenly colors.

As each stone that would go through the metamorphosis was a moment experienced or a chance grasped, those were the stones that would feel the warmth of my foot. Thinking about life in this imagery made me want to tap my toe onto as many of them as I could without losing my balance and falling, allowing as few as possible to go untouched. From this point on, I would attempt to live consciously, try to recognize the potential lesson in every moment. In spite of this, I had no regrets over the stones behind me that had never changed. I reasoned that one that I had come so close to stepping on– but then didn’t– had been loosely embedded in mud and would have slipped out of its place. Another one may have looked like all the other beautiful stones but was actually quite weakened by decay and rot. Stepping on either of these could have caused me to fall as they shifted under my weight. Those stones are not missed or ignored opportunities over which to be remorseful; they simply lie beside the stone that was the better choice at the time. The stone that provided the firmest footing.

No unchanged stone was representative of regret; some were never meant to be touched but were meant to be there to buttress the stones that were stepped upon. When I turn around to look back at the portion of the road that I’ve already traveled, I see a beautiful path of perfectly coordinated stones. And while even the ones that were never changed from that unsightly appearance of a mud brick certainly do serve a purpose, it’s the others, the ones that felt the questioning touch of life and are forever embellished with color, that really make the road worth traveling.

Touch stone.

A special thank you to the family members of Tracey, Austin and Jackie who gave their blessings for me to write about their loved ones and the enormous impact their lives had on this journey.