Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Helpless


When we were living in Beijing, I was hired by the Political section to draft the Religious Freedom Report, and later, the Human Rights Report. Before I could do that, though, I needed to get my security clearance reinstated. And to do that, I had to go through an interview with Gordon.

Now, to put it bluntly: Gordon sort of terrified me. He was a retired Marine who had come to Beijing with his wife, Lindy, and found part time work in my husband's office. He was big and gruff and deep-voiced. He'd served in Vietnam, back in the day, and even now, in Beijing, he wore his white hair cropped close, military-style. He was always polite to me, but never chatty. So the idea of facing this fierce former Marine across the desk scared me just a little bit.

Of course I'm basically squeaky clean, but still these interviews freak me out a bit. I went to the interview at the appointed hour, records and files in tow, nervous despite myself.

He looked over the paperwork in silence for a few minutes before carefully sounding out my maiden name: Sca-Ra-Mas-Tra.

He narrowed his eyes at me as if he'd found the first problem, saying "Scaramastra, huh? I knew a Tommy Scaramastra, once. He was in the Coast Guard."

"That's my cousin!" I told him, and he broke out in a huge grin. Turns out he and my cousin were buddies, way back when. We spent the next hour chatting, Gordon and I, about his service in Vietnam and his friendship with my cousin and his wife and my husband and all of our kids. I left smiling. The man had totally charmed me.

A year went by, and we had a mutual friend at post who was facing a truly terrible medical situation. In an effort to alleviate some of her problems, her friends organized a fundraiser. We figured if we could gather $20 or so from each of her friends, we could help her out, if only a bit.

Then along came Gordon. He and his wife talked it over before he handed me a fat envelope, their contribution to the other family. It was beyond generous, what he gave. I sat there open-mouthed, staring at the stack of bills, before telling him no, that was too much for one family to give.

But Gordon wouldn't hear of donating less. He teared up as he told me his own tragedy, his own sad story of long-ago loss, still fresh in his memory. And that was that: he could give no less.

Gordon turned into one of my favorite people at post: a bit gruff on the outside, sure, but inside so full of joy, and compassion, and laughter. He and Lindy lit up every room they walked into, every single time. Both so special.

From Beijing, as you know, we came to Amman, and they moved on to further adventures in Kenya. We kept in touch infrequently, through facebook and mutual friends.

And so it happened that I heard today that Lindy and Gordon just left Kenya a few short weeks ago after he was diagnosed with cancer. He turned down chemo, determined to live out whatever few days he has left close to his kids, the kids he was always talking about in Beijing. Whenever he talked about those children of his, his face always lit up with pride, with joy. I never met his kids, but if I saw them today, I'd tell them just that: so fierce was his love for them that his whole self lit up from within whenever he talked about them.

I can't think of anything I can do for Gordon at this late stage. But all day long, ever since I heard that he is facing this final battle, I've been thinking, and wishing, and praying.

Those of you who knew Gordon and Lindy, in Beijing, in Kenya, in all of their other posts: you know what I'm talking about. Didn't they touch your lives? Didn't they make you smile? Didn't you ever find yourself wishing you held so much happiness in your heart as the two of them did?

Salt of the earth, I guess you'd call Gordon. He is everything that is right about America. He has spent his life serving his country, serving his community, serving his family and friends as best he could.

Whether you know the family or not, can I ask you to think of them in the coming weeks? To pray, if you have prayers to give? This man, this woman, this family - they are truly special people. I am honored to have served with them, and I am a better person for their example. I am praying that the whole family finds the peace they so richly deserve.

Thank you both, Gordon and Lindy. Prayers, hugs, and everything good your way, from all across this globe of ours. You are both so loved.

Updated to add: a few short hours after I hit "publish" on this post, I received word that Gordon had died. The world lost a beautiful soul.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Blurred vision

Sometimes, you know, the world gets blurry. Pastpresentfuture all run together til you can't tell what's what anymore. Perhaps it's merely a by-product of getting older. Perhaps everyone goes through this, after a certain number of years lived on this earth. I think, though, that it might be a disease of the foreign service. Or maybe the foreign service just makes the symptoms stronger. Who knows?

All I know is today I read a sad, sad story. If you're a mom, if you're on facebook, you probably read it too. It's making the rounds. I read it, and of course my world went blurry. Not just because of tears, mind you, though I defy you to read it without crying. It sent me back to distant Kazakhstan, to my own bright lights and ambulance. I sort of held on to that for awhile, and then I flashed forward to Beijing, to my beautiful friend Jenn, and to her small Lily. There are others, of course. There are always others. I remember sitting on a couch next to the biggest, strongest Marine you can imagine, and he held his head in his hands as he sobbed, just sobbed, and told me his own story, worse than mine. Always so much worse than mine.

Then out of the blue, I got an email from my dear friend Laura, one of my best pals in Armenia. We kept each other afloat there, she and I. She'd read the story, too, and so she was thinking of me today. We exchanged messages, she on one continent and I on another, making plans to meet up in DC this summer, maybe, possibly. And I thought, after talking to Laura: I need to find Jenn, to tell her I love her, just in case she read that story too. If she did, she'll need me today, need someone. She just left the middle east for a year in Washington. She'll be needing a friend. And other friends, friends who maybe don't want me naming them on this blog, but they'll need me too, in places as distant as Tokyo and Virginia.

From Kazakhstan to Beijing to Armenia to Virginia, in the tear-filled blink of an eye. It's amazing, the places I've been today. That was a bad thing that happened to me, back in Kazakhstan. I'm sad about it, still. But it's part of me now, and when I look at what I have, I know I'd have none of it, nothing the same, if it hadn't been for that brief moment of awfulness. No Aidan. No Kyra. No Ainsley. It's the sad things that make you, sometimes. And the sad things that make you a better friend to others.

I'm thinking of so many friends today, on so many continents, from so many different periods in my life. Everything runs together as I think of things, awful things, that brought me closer to so many special people.





Thursday, November 7, 2013

Which historical figures, past or present, would you most want to have dinner with?

You know that meme, right? The one where you list the people with whom you'd most want to sit down at the dinner table, and you're supposed to say "Gandhi and Doestoyevskii," or something smart like that?

I've been thinking about that recently, and it occurs to me that I have 4 historical figures I want to hang with right about now. You might never have heard of these people, because they belong to my history, but likely not yours. But if you did know them, if you'd had a chance to meet them, your life would be so much better right now. And so I'm going to tell you about these four historical figures of mine.

Moscow: 1999. It was our first overseas post together, and my husband was low man on the totem pole - a brand new assistant regional security officer, first time out. He had a boss, who had a boss, who had a boss, who also had a boss, and so on up the food chain. The head RSO at the time was a guy named John. His wife was Paula. The two of them might have been the kindest people on the planet. John was probably the best boss my husband could have hoped for his first time out. He was smart, hard-working, a linguist and a diplomat - and he never asked anyone to do anything he wasn't willing to do himself. I think he probably taught my husband most of what he knows about how-to-be-an-RSO.

And Paula let me be her sidekick - she'd take me shopping at the Ramstore, or we'd hang out at the rynok together. We had a lot of laughs together, Paula and I. But she was serious about the lifestyle - you FS spouses know what I'm saying here. She didn't complain about the hardships. She didn't whine about her husband's long hours at work. She didn't gossip about the things she heard him discussing over the phone. And she was always ready to step in and help someone in need. Once, Bart got seriously ill just after we'd returned from R&R. We had baby Shay by then, but he was just a few months old - still barely on solid foods. I got a call from the medical unit telling me they were loading Bart on an ambulance, and if I wanted to go to the hospital, where he'd be having surgery, I needed to get there in five minutes. I had no babysitter. I had no diapers. I had no food. I had no idea what was happening. But Paula took my house keys and took my baby and told me to run.

I ran.

While I sat with Bart at the hospital for hours and hours and hours, she bought diapers and found baby food and entertained my tiny baby until late in the night so I wouldn't have to worry. She and John (and their kids) were our angels that night, and every day throughout our tour.

And not just our angels. There was a crazy Russian lady who used to sit every day in the perekhod, the underpass near the Embassy - a filthy drunk who was missing her legs. She sat there and swore at anyone who happened by if they didn't give her money. She was mean and terrifying - and did I mention filthy and drunk? Whenever I passed her, I scooted to the other side of the perekhod, out of reach of her crutches, scurrying on by while her curses rang in my ears.

One day, though, Paula called me with an amazing story. Their teenaged daughter wandered into the perekhod one morning and found the dirty drunk lady crying. Their daughter - this young girl - did what I wouldn't have had the courage to do. She stopped to try and figure out what was wrong. It seems someone had stolen the woman's crutches, and without them she was stuck in the underpass. Laurie wasn't sure what to do, but she knew who would know. And so she called her dad - one of the busiest, most important people at the Embassy - and asked him to come help.

He stopped what he was doing, listened to her story, and ran to the perekhod. And then he called Paula to come help, too.

Next thing you know, the whole family carried this woman, this dirt-streaked, legless woman, out of the underpass and into their car. They brought her to a homeless shelter at which they'd been volunteering and convinced the nuns at the shelter to take this woman in.

Paula was calling me because she wanted to go check on the woman, and she was hoping I could help translate. I went with her, across town, more curious than anything. There was the woman, all cleaned up, hair shining silver in the sun from the window, wearing faded pajamas, sitting in a small bed next to a vase of flowers. I didn't recognize her. She cried as she clutched Paula's hand and thanked her, over and over, in Russian.

Still, to this day, I am amazed at their daughter, who stopped to help, and the parents, who also came to the rescue, when most anyone else would have walked right past. John was so busy, that day and every day. The simple thing to do would've been to tell his daughter to come home, to forget all about it. But instead they changed that woman's life. They changed mine, too. They taught me something about compassion and hard work and friendship. Every day they taught me. John taught Bart how to be a fantastic RSO. And Paula taught me how to support him without losing myself. She taught me how to be a mom, too, just as I was starting out. And she taught me how to be the best kind of foreign service friend. I still don't reach their level - nowhere close. But I see where I'm supposed to be, thanks to them.

There was another guy named John there, too. He was the #2 guy at the Embassy - one of the biggest and most complicated Embassies in the world. Now, normally, in such a huge, important Embassy, there is no way that the new ARSO would have more than a passing acquaintance with the DCM. Not a chance - there are just too many layers between them. But for reasons I still don't quite understand - maybe he saw a spark of something in my husband? - John took Bart under his wing. And his wife, Maryjo, took care of me. Maryjo would take baby Shay off my hands and hold him for a bit, just to give me a break. She always knew just the perfect "new mom" story to tell when I was frustrated. And she was just always so happy to see me! She made me feel special, even though I was nobody in the hierarchy, and she was one seriously important woman. There is a hierarchy at a post like Moscow: there are senior diplomats' wives and oil tycoon wives and businesswomen. I can't count how many times I'd meet someone new, but when I told them who my husband was, their eyes would sort of glaze over and they'd scan the room for someone better to chat with. He was nobody special, and by extension, neither was I. Maryjo wasn't like this. If she liked you, she liked YOU - not your position. She was honest in everything - she never pretended her job was easy, but she didn't whine, either, about her role as entertainer, mom, wife of important man.

My parents came to visit once. In the days before they arrived, I mentioned to Maryjo that I didn't think my parents quite understood what my husband did. Security? What's that, exactly? (It's a problem lots of DS folks have, explaining what they do. People either picture them with a nightstick and a flashlight guarding a parking garage somewhere, or they think of James Bond. Neither is true. But how to explain what it means, to be in charge of security for an Embassy?) I casually mentioned to Maryjo that I hoped my parents would see, when they got to Moscow, what a big job my husband was doing.

Next thing I knew, we got a formal invitation in the mail, on fancy letterhead. The Deputy Chief of Mission and his wife were inviting us, along with my parents, to lunch at their house. John came home from work at lunchtime to meet my parents, and the six of us sat down to the fanciest lunch you can imagine, with waiters and fancy silverware and a special vegetarian meal for my husband. The two of them charmed the heck out of my parents - in fact, my dad later said it was his favorite thing that he did in his whole visit.

They didn't have to do that. They had so much to do, both of them, and yet they took the time to make my parents - and me - feel special. They did so much for us, throughout our tour. When we had to leave in a hurry after one particularly scary night, DS didn't want us to go back - too risky. But Bart wanted to go back, and I wanted to go back, so John moved mountains to make it happen. When we got kicked out for good by the Russians after our two governments got in a little spat, John helped Bart get an onward assignment. Coincidentally, a few months after we got there, John became the Ambassador there. And so we had a chance to serve together again. And one more time after that.

I ran into our Ambassador to Jordan today at the airport. He mentioned that he'd just seen Ambassador John at a work conference for super important people in the Foreign Service, and my name had come up. It made me smile, knowing that he's still looking out for us, all these years later, putting in a good word for us where he can.

John and Paula have retired from the Foreign Service, but some of their kids have since joined up. Those kids who played with my baby all those years ago in Moscow have babies of their own now. Bart is getting ready to return to Moscow, to move into John's old job in the RSO shop. And don't I have big shoes to fill, too?

That's my history, then. John and John and Paula and Maryjo. Those are the people I'd most like to sit with today, if I could. They smoothed the path for us, showed us a way forward. They were always my example of the best of the Foreign Service. I think absolutely everything would have been different for us if these four people hadn't shown an interest in us all those years ago, and I still feel so fortunate to have met them when I did. They supported me and my family, made us feel special, important, needed. They showed me what the Foreign Service is supposed to be about: hard work, brains, laughter and compassion.

Everyone needs people like these in their history, don't you think?

I miss them still.






Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Leaving Already?

I went down to the mail room today to ship out the visa application for our next post. "We will miss the whole Gorman family," the mail room clerk said to me, slowly shaking his head.

We're not leaving for 7 months!  Theoretically, that's far away.

Except when it's not.

It is far away in terms of how long we have to wait until our Baghdad tour is over and done.

But it is soon - too soon, really, when it comes to the goodbyes that are just around the corner. And I am very, very bad at goodbyes. We'll meet up in DC, people say. We'll write, we'll call, we'll Skype, they sayBut it won't be the same.

Shipping that visa packet out today - well, it needed to be done. But it set me on that goodbye path somehow, and made it feel really real that we'll be leaving this place, and these friends, forever.

I'm not ready. I'm never ready.

But okay. I am ready to find out whether we'll get a visa to our next hypothetical post. If not, it's on to Plan B, whatever that is.

Even the monotony of mailing an envelope is somehow made stranger in the FS.

Monday, November 4, 2013

There are days...

There are days in the Foreign Service when you think to yourself "I cannot believe I get paid to do this!!!"

And then there are days like today.

Oh, how I wish I had an anonymous blog....

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Halloween. Again.

Every year the school hosts a huge "Spooktacular" event to celebrate Halloween. The kids all love it: cotton candy, and games, and bouncy castles and everything exciting.

It was supposed to be yesterday, but the freak storm that blew through ruined that, so they rescheduled for today. (That storm I mentioned yesterday? It was no joke. The picture in this article was taken not far from my house. Go look. I'll wait.)

There was a fortune teller. I burst into laughter when she looked at Ainsley's hand and said she was "active." Really, fortune teller lady? No one should have to pay for that. But okay. Kyra was excited to learn that one day she'll have two kids of her own, a boy and a girl. Ainsley was told she'll have two boys. "Two boys?" she whined, disgusted.

The girls ate way too much cotton candy. (I might have helped.) I'm not sure about the boys. They both volunteered to help run the games for the first half of the event, and after that mostly they disappeared until the end.

Tomorrow is a school day, a work day. But I still need a weekend to relax. And this week is going to be crazy busy. I'm pretty sure you'll see us in the news soon. Good times.

Enjoy the photos.  I'm working off of the blogger app on my iPad (because my evil iMac refuses to connect to the Internet anymore), and I can't figure out how to caption the photos. Anyone out there have any ideas? Oh, well, you'll just have to guess who's who. G'night!





Friday, November 1, 2013

When it Rains, it Pours

I know, right? I'm getting to be a bit much with the dumb weather references in my titles. In this case, the title is simultaneously metaphorical and non-metaphorical.

I spent much of the day with the GlobeHoppers, who graciously agreed to take me computer shopping after my eldest dropped his computer and broke it at school. In case you are wondering, he dropped it from a height not greater than his waist, while walking to get his computer case, which would of course protect it in the case of an accidental drop, if he were using it. Which he wasn't. But "I'm really, really sorry mom." So there's that.

Mr. GlobeHopper is - and how does one say this politely? - sort of a computer nerd. A computer nerd who takes his commitment to American Citizen Services seriously. So when he volunteered to spend his Friday morning helping this American citizen find a cheap but good replacement computer, I hopped right on that offer before he could remember that he'd really rather be sleeping in on a Friday morning. 

We tracked down some options and then decided to compare them with amazon choices in the afternoon. But first: coffee. So the GlobeHoppers and I whiled away a pleasant morning drinking coffee and talking about practically everything we could think of, from kids to schools to work to computers and back again.

Then we went back to my house, where Mr. GH took a look at my troublesome iMac and pronounced it dead. (Worst computer ever - like an evil puppy, it hasn't liked me since the day I brought it home.) So now I'm apparently in the market for two computers. But okay. I go on my iPad to order the computer he recommended on amazon, but amazon turns me down cold. Not to the pouch, not to the DPO. They won't ship me a computer. Why must you be this way, amazon? I am quite possibly your best customer ever, and yet you reject me in my hour of need.

Okay. I turn instead to the effort to back up the photos and writing on my iMac onto an external hard drive, so I can take the iMac out back and shoot it. But it senses what I'm planning and refuses to allow the transfer of data. Not only that but it throws some random empty folders into iPhoto, just to spite me. 

I sigh in frustration and look out the window, only to notice - it's starting to sprinkle. I remember I have kids to pick up and kids to drop off so I give up on the computer and load a few random kids in my car to start my rounds. By the time I reach my destination, just two minutes up the road, the rain is dropping in sheets. There is thunder. There is lightning. There is hail. I am sure my iMac has summoned this weather in a effort to kill me. 

Kids jump out; kids jump in. I drive on. I've been in the car for all of ten minutes but the road is already flooded. Like, is that river too deep to drive through? flooded. The hail is smashing down when I hit the traffic circle, and the car spins wildly as I try to make it around. I make it home safely, but I still have to back into my driveway, and the sidewalk is so covered in ice that it takes several tries to back in.

Seriously. This was the craziest storm ever. It is now six hours later and the back yard is still covered in ice pellets - this despite the fact that the outside temperature is in the high 50s/low 60s. I guess it hasn't melted because there is just so much of it piled up.

Oh, and the back of the house flooded, as it does whenever it rains.

To recap: Shay's computer is dead. My computer is possessed. My house is flooded and my yard is covered in ice. But on the plus side, I got to spend the better part of the day with the lovely GlobeHoppers. All in all, I'd have to pronounce this day a win.



Please. Write your own stuff.