I am sitting here watching the Academy Awards and they just rolled the part where they remember all those who’ve died this past year. “In Memoriam.” I always liked that term, the way it sounds and looks in print. You almost never hear it spoken. That’s probably as it should be.
I’m glad to see 2011 go away and I am waiting for it to fade. I’m sorry to see all those people gone, but I don’t miss the year. It was the worst year of my life.
Now, you say a thing like that and everyone wants to know lots of details. And I’m not giving them up. This isn’t the spot for that and it’s not really what you want. But it was my worst year.
I bring it up because everyone always tells me what a great job I have. And I DO have a great job. I work really hard at it and I’m part of a tremendous team. But there are times when it is excruciatingly sad.
Following me, you know I bounce around a lot. My passport is a rainbow of stamps and visas. I love it. It is a prized possession. But a lot of those stamps represent dark images that I know won’t ever leave me. But maybe, like 2011, they’ll eventually fade. Maybe.
India is an amazing place. We had the chance to roll out of the teeming cities and into the rugged countryside. I sat in the sun and ate delicious samosas that were handmade by the grandmother of Priyanka Rani Pandey, a student we were following. Her family is from this tiny spot on the map. The story was about how she was awarded a Schoenl grant through the Honors College to have some water pumps and purification gear installed. They’re making people healthier in a place where the water can kill you. It was good news and people around us were smiling. A woman nearby was holding a cute little baby girl, all wrapped in colorful cloth.
“What’s her name?”
“She doesn’t have one,” came the answer.
“She’s only a few months old. We don’t name our children until they are at least three or four. Because they don’t always live that long.”
It was said so matter-of-factly that I almost missed it.
It was a few months earlier and I was in Cambodia. It was a trip where we followed Greg Jones, a college junior who was also awarded a Schoenl Grant, is raising money for a rough village in very rural Cambodia. Everyone knows Greg. The work he’s doing and the money he is raising is building a school, a health center and a water purification system. I’m sure I can’t spell the word for saint in Cambodian, but I heard it.
We stayed in a very nice hotel in Phnom Penh because there was no way to charge our batteries and keep all our gear safe in the villages where we had to work. Each day we’d get up and drive the long, bumpy roads to the village. I’d been enjoying the trip and the company of the people we were with. One morning we stopped to drive back into the ferry that took our truck across the river. People were crowded on the docks with hands full of stuff. Food, candy, CDs and DVDs…and on and on. They were hoping we’d buy something. We didn’t. But it was a festive scene and relaxing, just sitting in the truck, looking at the river.
Then I saw a very small girl leading an older man very gently by the hand. He was disheveled and his open eyes were clearly damaged. I heard her talk through a nearby open car window, “This is my father. He’s no see. But he sing.” And with that the man started a tune, softly at first then growing. I watched as the window powered up and shut him out. The little girl pulled his hand and they walked slowly to another car. Where she began to speak the same lines again. I pushed a button and my window closed. I closed my eyes and thought of my children.
We rolled into the village that day with the radio on. Our driver was from the area and loved old American pop music. I remember riding over dirt roads, between thatched huts and half-starved looking kids and “We Are the World” spilled out of the speakers. Are we the world? Does it matter?
I’m looking at my passport. It’s a tangible reminder that evokes wispy memories I adore and sometimes don’t want to remember. But that’s the deal. Memories are with you until they’re not. And you can’t hit “delete” or choose not to remember. Instead, they do the choosing. And they hit you when you aren’t expecting it.
It has been while since I posted anything here. I’ve been busy. I’ve been sick. I’ve been distracted. All true. But mostly I just haven’t been able to find the words. There has been a long stretch where I just haven’t known what to say. I’m a journalist, and here, I write about what I see and live. And a lot of that just hasn’t been something I wanted to write about.
Around the holidays I was sitting in my house, in front of the fire. I was staring into the flames with a drink in my hand. My dad was visiting and we were just sitting quietly together. His phone started to buzz. He reached into his pocket and got his reading glasses, then dug out his phone. “Oh, my God. I think Bob just killed himself.”
It was how my year ended. This was a man who taught me a lot about life and a lot about writing and news. He was one of the first people I called when I was looking at journalism schools. An award winning, veteran reporter, he reviewed my early work and helped me find my voice in telling stories about other people. But Bob got to a place where he couldn’t find the use in any more words. He couldn’t find the way through this life that he needed to spend another day living it.
“Bob was a man who took big steps.” Those words came from another dear friend who was very close to Bob. Another of the “uncles” who helped raise the restless boy I was. Bob did take big steps, but he was happy to have you walking next to him. And, as a little kid, I appreciated how he shortened his stride so I could match his pace. In some ways I have tried to match the pace he set in my work. To tell a good story and to always tell it true.
It’s not possible to tell a happy story without some sadness. Shakespeare said something about needing to make people laugh before you can make them cry. Just as there is no courage without fear, there is no good story without some rough parts.
Sitting here on my couch watching the names and faces of those who passed away reminds me of those I miss. That list gets longer and longer. Tonight the world remembers Whitney Houston and Elizabeth Taylor. I keep thinking about Bob. A man who took giant steps. A man who would always wait for me. I wish he had waited just a little longer. I wish I could have told him one more story.
And I wish I could have told him good-bye.