Thursday, May 31, 2012

For Grandma

There are some things that by their very nature are incredibly difficult to write. While most writing derives from the brain, sometimes a writer must write from the heart, a practice that requires laying bare emotion and making words not only convey meaning, but also feeling. There are times when a writer must write for affect, not effect.

Although I’ve never considered writing for affect one of my strong points, this is one of those times.

Even before I was born, my grandmother had a profound impact on my life. According to my mother, my grandmother wanted her first grandson to bear the name “Michael”, and hence when I was born, I was given the name. Although being the first of nine grandsons has always meant a lot to me, it has meant as much if not more knowing that because of my place in that order, my name is directly because of my grandmother.

I never did thank her for that.

I grew up only about 15 minutes from my grandparents. I have many great memories of going to their house to eat. And eat. And eat. And eat. Being tall and skinny, my grandmother used to always tell me I had a “hollow leg” as the food surely wasn’t going to my stomach. What can I say? I was a growing boy.

While dinner during these visits was being prepared, I would often watch TV. My favorite thing to watch was Grandma’s recorded-from-HBO VHS version of Star Wars. Once my parents, grandparents, or anyone else old enough to work the VCR put in the tape and pushed the play button, I was transfixed. To this day, I firmly believe that one of the reasons I can recite all the lines to the movie is because I watched it every time we visited my grandparents’.

My grandparents moved to Florida in the mid-80s and my family followed a few years later. I didn’t know much about Florida, but I knew their house was in Inverness and Inverness had turtles. One of which my grandfather marked with a can of spray paint. Then there was the time I flipped over the front end of a bicycle and had both a concussion and a seizure. I don’t remember much of that for obvious reasons.

When my brother Eric needed to undergo cancer treatment at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Florida, he and my mother would be gone for days if not weeks at a time. While my Dad still had to work and my brother Bryan and I still had to go to school, both of my grandmothers stayed at our house at different times to fill the role of “mom”. As my father’s mother lived in NY, she didn’t know the normal rhythm of the house. During her visits I did what I could to avoid my household chores. But when my mother’s mother was there, these antics failed miserably, as I was forced to comb my hair, wear a jacket to school, take out the trash, do the dishes, and all my other normal duties. And when I tried the “mom doesn’t make me do that” line, my grandmother knew I was lying. She knew the standard my mother kept and there was no fooling her.

A few years later, I joined the Army and left home for the first time. After a few months of training, I was stationed in the middle of Texas, at Fort Hood. Although I kept in touch with family over the phone, I rarely saw anyone until I came back to Florida on my annual Christmas leave.

Except for my grandparents.

Every year, along their trek to Las Vegas, they would make a detour to Fort Hood to see me. Sometimes we went out for lunch or dinner, and other times we would see the sights of Fort Hood. I remember the first year they visited.  One of my commanding officers was kind enough to drive me to a landmark to meet them. Along the way, he asked if they were going to Vegas to get hitched. I laughed and told him how long they had been married (just short of 50 years at that point). He was quite impressed with both their longevity and their sense of adventure.

After my stint in the military, I came back to Florida for college. Although being back in the state meant family was only a drive away, Florida State University was a long five hours from my parents’ house. But it was only two and half hours from my grandparents’, whose house was conveniently located along the way of my drive.

Almost every time I went to my parents’ house, be it for a holiday or just a long weekend, I also visited my grandparents. Sometimes it was for a quick hello, and other times it extended into an overnight stay. More often than not, however, it was for dinner. And despite Grandpa’s insistence that the kitchen would be closed when I got there, or that there would only be bread and water available, my grandmother always had something cooked up for me to eat.

And my grandmother waited up no matter how late I was. With my habit for never being punctual, it got to the point where if I said I would be there for dinner, I think my grandmother would say they were eating an hour earlier than they actually were. This way when I walked in an hour late, I arrived right as dinner was being served.

I remember one time my friend Jamal and I didn’t get to my grandparents’ house for dinner until nearly 10pm as we – wait, no, just I – decided to take the slower backroads down the west coast of Florida instead of taking the much quicker interstate. While Grandpa was retired to his room for the night, it was my grandmother who stayed up, re-heated our dinner, and sat at the table talking with us while we ate.

Jamal wasn’t the only friend my grandmother made feel at home. She also provided beds for my college roommate and me so we had a place to sleep after seeing a rock concert that played an hour away from Inverness. Because she let us stay there, we only had to drive an hour to get some rest after a night of rock’n’roll festivities instead of driving nearly four hours back to Tallahassee in the dark wee hours of night.

Seeing my grandparents as often as I could has always been important to me. While they were always both very interested in my education and then my pursuit of a career, my grandmother would also ask me questions about my investments and whether or not I was saving my money. I would not be as smart with my money as I am now if not for my grandmother.

When I moved to Tampa in 2006, visits to my grandparents decreased in frequency but increased in time. They were no longer along the route to my parents’ house, but they were only an hour and a half away. That meant I could talk and hang out with them for as long as they would have me, or as long as Grandpa kept the kitchen open.

In 1991, my father was in Saudi Arabia working with the US government doing a job similar to what I am doing now in Afghanistan. A short time after he left, my brother Eric succumbed to his long battle with cancer. I’ve thought about my Dad’s situation a lot since hearing the news of my grandmother. I can’t imagine how tough it was for my Dad to lose a son while thousands of miles from home. For me, losing a grandmother is difficult enough.

Rest in Peace, Marilyn Walicki. I’ll miss you, Grandma.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Sick Little Afghan Boy

A few weeks ago, I had a wicked chest cold. Unfortunately, chest colds are not uncommon here in this part of Afghanistan as the weather is a bit cool, it rains often, the air is thin, and there is a severely unhealthy amount of pollution in the air. Almost everyone gets sick at some point during the beginning of their deployment here. It is almost a right of passage. In my case, however, the environment plus the dungeonesque open bay living area I was temporarily housed in made my first weeks a tough burden on my respiratory system.

Thanks to the chest cold and my near constant coughing, sleep became difficult for a few nights. I knew I was waking not only my roommates but the entire barracks with my coughing fits. So one night, at the height of my bronchial blight, I decided to do something about it. When a fit of coughing woke me at 4am, I rolled out of bed, put on a jacket, and walked to our base clinic. As it was four in the morning, the only section of the medical facility open was the emergency room. And of course, going to the emergency room meant the doctors were going to check for everything, even if that meant giving me chest x-rays and hooking me up to an EKG.

By the time I was completely scanned, screened, poked, and prodded, it was close to 8am. With my results in hand, the Czech doctor prescribed me some antibiotics and sent me on my way. Before I could check out however, I had to walk from the emergency wing to the routine admission wing to pay for my visit.

(As a contractor, I have  to pay. Military folks get free health care. They also get paid a lot less than I do. Fair is fair.)

As I sat awaiting to pay for my medicine, I saw several local Afghans sitting on nearby benches. I heard the hospital tended to locals, but as my workplace is on the other side of the base, I never saw the medical staff in action nor anyone from the community arrive.

Although we all had a definite language barrier - my English, their Dari, and the medical staff's French - we all seemed to understand the basic process of what was going on in the waiting area. All except an elderly Afghan man with a wicked cough who wandered past the staff desk and started walking down the hall towards the patient rooms. He was quickly caught, herded back to the waiting area, and a bi-lingual staff member instructed him on the proper protocol.

While the elderly man sat to my immediate right, to my immediate left sat a young father and his three children. The father appeared to be in his late 20s, and his children looked to be somewhere around the ages of ten, seven, and maybe three. They were dressed in typical Afghan garb, with flowing robe-like outfits, sandals, and scarves wrapped around their necks. The girl of course had her scarf up on her head to cover her hair as is the custom.

It didn't take long for me to realize why the young family was in the hospital that day. They were there because of the youngest boy. Not only did he look fatigued, and his cheeks were a rosy red, but like me he also had a wicked cough, although his sounded much more meager than mine. No doubt he was hurting.

As the other two children bantered, the young boy sat quietly besides his father. The man wrapped his arm around the boy's shoulders and held him close. I could see the young father was concerned and I felt for him. While I watched the boy the father's eyes moved from his sick son to me, I wanted to tell him that his son was about the same age as my nephew; perhaps we could have built a bond. But I could tell his English was limited, and of course my Dari is non-existent.  So I just smiled and he smiled back.

After about 10 minutes of all of us waiting, the young father's healthy children started to get impatient. Seeing they needed something to occupy their interest and something that might cheer up the young boy until he could finally be seen, a French nurse brought the children a handful of beanie babies. The eyes of the sick young boy lit up with presented with the gift. I saw him smile for the first time, temporarily forgetting his illness. His brother and sister, seeing his happiness, started to engage him with their beanie babies and the young boy started laughing, before another cough stifled his fun and reminded us all why he was there.

Eventually, after only 35 minutes of sitting in the waiting area, I was finally able to pay my bill and leave. A few moments before I walked out, however, it was the little boy's turn to be seen. As his siblings remained in the waiting room, the sick little Afghan boy took his father's hand with one hand and clung tightly to his new beanie baby with the other. The pair followed another French nurse down the hall and into one of the patient rooms.

I walked out of the clinic wondering about the sick little Afghan boy. Were they able to give him something to cure him? Did he only have a common cold or the flu or was it something much worse? Did he have a capable home life where he could take his medicine, get plenty of rest, and eat and drink what he needed to stay healthy? What if international military forces weren't in Afghanistan? Where would his father have taken him?

There is a lot of talk about why the international community needs to leave Afghanistan. They say support for international presence in Afghanistan is at an all-time low. But I am positive on that day a few weeks ago, the young father of the sick little Afghan boy was among one of our greatest supporters.