Thursday, November 5, 2015


There was a death in the Embassy community this week.

It happens sometimes, sadly, and when it does, a lot of people swing into action. The Marines are sometimes first responders, as is the medical team, of course, and the security team. The DCM often has the unenviable task of telling surviving family members, and then somebody else has to help family members figure out what’s next. Someone from GSO will have to clean up whatever mess is left behind. Someone from the office of the victim gets involved as well. Someone else has to tell the Ambassador, who in turn has to let the entire community know what happened before the rumors start flying. Washington gets involved too, as everyone works to get the body repatriated and to support any family members left behind.

In short, a death affects the entire Embassy community on some level.

This all happened right around the time that the school buses arrived on compound that afternoon. The buses pulled up; the kids hopped off and saw the waiting ambulance, flanked by Marines. They saw the entrances to the building blocked off by Marines who wouldn’t let anybody past, lest they wander into the tragedy as it was unfolding.

My boys came home first and asked me what was happening, but of course I didn’t yet know. Someone is probably hurt, I told them. We’ll hear about it eventually if it’s important. They accepted that and wandered upstairs to start their homework.

Then K burst through the front door, shouting “Where’s Daddy?”

I told her he was at work.  She started sobbing as she told me about the ambulance, with the Marines standing guard. She was convinced that something had happened to her dad.

I told her he was fine. That if something happened to her daddy, somebody from the Embassy would knock on the door and tell us.

But how do you know?, she asked. Have you talked to him? How do you know it isn’t him?

When he finally did call, to tell me he’d be home late (these things take a lot of time to resolve), she answered the phone and burst into tears again. She simply would not be convinced that her dad was safe, even after hearing his voice.

You know, I think it’s Baghdad that twisted her up this way. That, and the fact that, at 9 years old, she’s already been through several duck and cover events and intruder events that weren’t drills. 

She sees the Marines drilling periodically, moving through the Embassy in full gear as they practice various scenarios. This never bothers her in the slightest.  There are certain times during the week when they test the alarm system; by now she knows when these tests are coming, and she hardly notices them.

But the real emergencies reduce her to a quivering mass of tears.

Her first real duck and cover happened during a kids’ birthday party one warm weekend at the Embassy pool in Amman, when she was around 5 years old. She was swimming with friends when the alarm when off. Her dad, her birthday friend’s dad and all of the Marines and RSO staff around the pool took off for the main Embassy building to suit up for whatever was coming. Everyone else swarmed out of the pool and into a safe haven area, where the kids all shivered in the cold, towels left behind in the rush to get to safety. Kids were crying, adults were shushing, everyone was praying for the all-clear to sound.

She didn’t seem overly upset after it was over. But the next time the alarm went off, instead of following instructions, she collapsed into a heap on the playground and refused to move.

Then, of course, her dad went off to Baghdad and she turned into a real worrier. We all did, I guess, but K worst of all. Will he die? she wanted to know, and I told her no. He won’t die. And the fact that he is there means lots of other mommies and daddies won’t die, either.

He’s her hero. As she sees it, his job is to save lives. But she is old enough to understand that a person whose job is to save the lives of others is often called upon to put his own life at risk. And she is old enough to know that when she sees the Marines with their game faces on, it means her own daddy must be out there somewhere, too.

He still wasn’t home when she went to bed.  When she woke up the next morning, I told her what happened, and then a whole new set of questions erupted. Who was he?, she wanted to know. Do we know him? Does he have kids? What will happen to his kids?

On the school bus yesterday, all of the kids were talking about it, apparently, trying to sort out what it means that a person can be there one minute and gone the next. If it can happen to that person, they reason, what’s keeping my small family safe?

We talked about it more at bedtime. By now, she’d had time to process it, and her questions became bigger, more existential. She moved from will this happen to me? on to where does a person go when their body dies?

And then she started planning my funeral.

This was a bit uncomfortable for me, to say the least. She told me where she would bury me, and how, and what she would think of while she was doing it.  I know this is a normal process, this thinking about the worst things that could happen and then preparing yourself for them, mentally. Heck, mothers do it all the time. We see our kids climbing a tree, and in our mind’s eye we envision them falling to the ground. We picture the screaming, the pain, the ambulance, the beeping machines and serious-faced doctors.  We prepare ourselves mentally to rush them to the hospital, all before they’ve even reached that first high branch of the tree. Or perhaps that’s just me?

But still, it was a strange sensation to watch my daughter planning out my funeral, and to see that this activity was oddly calming for her. I think it gave her a sense of control. It gave her the idea that she could control life’s events rather than wait to be knocked over by fate.

Yesterday was a quiet day on compound, as news of what had happened spread. It was a holiday here in Russia, so the Embassy was closed, but the children were all in school. All was quiet. The hallways were empty, automatic lights shut off because so few people were walking through them.  In the gym, where he died, there was an empty space where once there had been workout equipment, all hauled away in the aftermath.

Bart and the other people who’d been at the scene seemed tired and sad. I know my husband has dealt with death many times in his career, with bloodshed and catastrophic injuries, with suicides and gunshot wounds and other things that I never want to have to think about. But that kind of thing doesn’t get easier on a person, does it?  We spent the holiday walking around foggy, grey-skied Moscow, talking quietly about the future and about our kids.

As we were heading home, we ran into the priest, who was wearing not his vestments but a heavy wool coat and a ski cap, looking just like an ordinary man. Bart stopped him, told him the man’s name, asked him to say a prayer. The priest solemnly repeated the man’s name and promised to send his prayers skyward. We continued on our way after that, both of us ready to be home, to wait for our children to join us.

Life is a fragile, terrible, beautiful thing. Brutiful, as Glennon always says.  Hold on tight while you have it. And say a prayer for this man, who died on Tuesday while serving his country here in Russia.


Liz Walsh said... [Reply]

Was Father Michael the priest? My kids and I miss him. I can imagine well the compound on such a sad occasion. There were two deaths of employees (one Russian and one American) while we were there. (2011-2014) It seemed so strange to me, as if accidents or death and other surreal goins-on were more common there than any other place (yes it was our first overseas post).

Please. Write your own stuff.