Regrets

A couple of days ago, my  daughter asked me, “Do you ever have regrets?”

She asked me this in the bathroom, as I was drying my hair.  No matter what I am doing, my two youngest kids seem to hover around me, fluttering like moths to a flame.  The lack of privacy – not to mention personal space – doesn’t really bother me anymore.  And often, as on this particular morning, it provides the opportunity to talk about whatever is bubbling to the surface of  their young minds.

I weighed my possible responses. My daughter just turned eight. What could a second-grader possibly know about regret?  In the end, I answered that, in general, my regrets were not about things that I had done but rather about things that I had NOT done.

“Do YOU have any regrets?” I asked.

After a pause, she admitted, “Sometimes I’m not so nice to some kids at school.”

“But recognizing that you aren’t always nice means that you can do something about it,” I pointed out.  “Right?”

She shrugged and wandered off with her American Girl doll.  Maybe the message would sink in.

But for me,  a question remained, left hanging in the humid, post-shower bathroom air.

What do you do when you have regrets but you know that there is not a thing in the world that you can do about them?

The truth is that my daughter’s question brought me back to a conversation that I had in a very different context.  Several years ago, I spent some time in the Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana. I was with a team taking statements from Liberian refugees for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia.  It was almost exactly six years ago – May 2007 – and it was grueling, emotional work.  I interviewed more than 40 people that week and every single one of them  had suffered multiple layers of trauma and unimaginably tragic loss.  One after another, in family groups and as individuals, they sat before me in a small, cramped office.  Sometimes there was power for the ceiling  fan to move the hot, heavy air; sometimes there was not.  Each one of them was a survivor of horror, a testifier to the nightmare of war.  (I’ve written about some of them before in Talking To My Kids About Death.)

Even though they had left their homeland of Liberia, what they had experienced was still very much with them.  Even if they could push it down deep during the day, the terrors they witnessed would return to haunt their dreams.   Many people I interviewed told me of how the nightmares startled them awake at night, sweating and crying.  Many more told me of hearing others screaming in the night, neighbors who were trapped in their own PTSD- induced nightmares. There is no privacy in a refugee camp.

There was one woman who has always stayed with me.  She was middle-aged, calm and collected.  She told me her story in detail, almost scientifically exact.  Clearly, she had relived the events many times over.  She told me of her life before the war, the fighting and chaos that separated her from her husband and some of her children, the desperate weeks when she, her youngest children, and their neighbors hid in the bush, the treacherous journey to the border. The years – more than a decade- of limbo in this refugee camp.

At the end of any interview, I always ask, “Is there anything else you would like to tell me?”

This woman told me of that the only true regret that she had, the only regret of her life, was about something that she had not been able to do. What she told me went something like this:

We were hiding in the bush and the rebels passed close by.  They attacked a village there.  They didn’t see us, but we saw them.   They killed a lot of people.  We were too afraid to move, so afraid they would hear us.  There was a baby crying; they must have killed the mother.  The baby kept crying and crying and crying.  I wanted to go get that baby, but what could I do?  I knew the baby’s crying would give us all away to the rebels. The baby kept crying and crying and crying, all night long.  And then it stopped.  I knew that the baby had died.  In the morning, we saw that the rebels had moved on and we left our hiding place.  Now I hear that poor baby crying every night in my dreams.

Most people will never be put in a position like this, this untenable Hobson’s Choice.  Most of us will never be faced with having to make the choice between our own life -and that of our children and neighbors – and that of an innocent baby.  Many of us would like to assume that we would find a way to not make the choice; that we would find a way to save that baby.

I knew I could not save that baby.  I wanted to, so much, but I knew I could not.  Even so, I have always felt bad about it. I have never told anyone – not one single person – about this before. Just telling you now – it makes me feel better.

I don’t have any answers here, just as I had nothing to say to this woman other than “I am so sorry.”  I can’t change the world.   I can’t promise my daughter that she won’t experience pain or sorrow or guilt or regret.  I don’t even have an image to go along with this post.

But if there is one thing that I took away from that hot, cramped interview room in that refugee camp in Ghana, it is that there is a value in bearing witness.  I had worked with refugees and torture survivors for years, but it took this one woman to bring that point home to me.  There is a value in simply listening,  and in confirming for someone who suffered injustice that, “It is not right and I’m sorry that this happened to you.”

It may seem insignificant, but it is not.  And it is a reminder that when you come in contact with someone who is suffering, in either a big or a small way, there is always something that you can do. You can listen.

So do it.

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Talking To My Kids About Death

Pet Graveyard

The recent demise of Fat Stanley was met with far fewer tears than that of Kevin Bacon (the gerbil) and definitely far less anguish than that of Tub-Tub, our first dearly departed rodent pet.  It did however, necessitate a discussion about death with my three children.   The easiest answer to the question “Where is Stanley now?” would have been to describe a dwarf hamster heaven, where Stanley roams freely among a vast surfeit of yogurt treats and well-oiled wheels.  While it was somewhat tempting to give them an easy and soothing answer, I can not  in good conscience pitch that pablum to my kids.  You see, in my line of work, I talk to people about death all the time.

As a human rights lawyer, my job is to document human rights abuses.   So there have been many days over the course of my career when I have asked  people to describe to me in very precise detail how someone they loved died.  In one week alone in 2007, I took statements from more than 45 Liberian refugees at Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana for Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  The very first person I interviewed at Buduburam was a teacher.  The teacher was wearing a pink polo shirt that was remarkably clean and crisp, given the hot, dusty conditions on the camp.  He had come into the Refugee Welfare Office, where we were piloting the interview process, to watch a football match on the TV.  When I asked if he wanted to give a statement, he said, “Sure.  Why not?”

It was late May and the equatorial sun had beat down relentlessly all day long.  As we went into one of the private offices to do the interview, however, a pleasantly cool late afternoon breeze was coming through the barred window.  I discovered later that the location of the camp was very close to the Prime Meridian, as well as  the notional center of the world – 0°, 0°.  The sun sets early and fast near the equator.  As we talked, the shafts of light from the setting sun were low and long, glinting off the gold in his round, wire-framed glasses.

I had an interview protocol to follow and certain biographical data to collect.  We talked about what he did in Liberia, where he had lived.  It was going well.  We established a rapport, buzzing through the facts of his life.  I’ve done many similar interviews with the survivors of human rights abuses. You know immediately when a question is going to cause someone to break down.  But the trigger questions are not always the obvious ones and usually you can only tell as you ask the question.  As you see the pain  in their eyes, the anguish in the lines of their mouth.   The moment I asked the teacher if he had ever been married, I knew.  I knew we would both soon be crying.

People who have experienced trauma and loss often think it is behind them, that they have put it in the past.  But of course, that is never really possible.  The teacher and his fiance were not yet married when the fighting came to Monrovia in July 1990.  When Charles Taylor’s NPFL rebels came to their neighborhood, they separated the men from the women. She talked back.  He yelled for her to hold her tongue, to just cooperate!  He didn’t know if she heard him.  The teacher had been herded into the back of a pick-up truck with other young men.  It was from that vantage point – above and unable to help – that he saw the rebel hit her with the butt of his rifle.  He knocked her to the ground, turned the gun around and shot her.  The whole thing happened fast, so fast.  Then the truck pulled away.

There was much more to his story.  He escaped the rebels eventually, made his way onto a leaky tanker with thousands of other refugees, made it to safety in Ghana.  Got a teaching job and lived in a refugee camp for 17 years.  But those parts of his story came later, after he had wiped the tears from his glasses.  After we took the time to honor the memory of his fiance.  To dedicate his statement to her, so that her story would not be lost among all the others in the terrible Liberian civil war.

As a parent, I know there is a natural impulse to try to shield our children from the sad and terrible details of both life and death.  I believe each parent has to make his or her own decision about what is best for their children, so I am not presuming to give advice.  I do believe in God and the potential of an afterlife, but I have no idea what actually happens after you die.  But I know that bad things – terrible things – happen all the time and, as my kids grow into their tweens and teens, I think I would be doing a disservice to them not to be honest about that.  And I am absolutely certain that, like the teacher, you carry your loved ones in your heart long after they leave this life.  The best thing you can do when you lose someone you love is to keep their memory close and honor them in whatever way you feel is right.

Sometime shortly after my third child was born, I gave up trying to be the perfect parent.  I made peace with the fact that the best I can do is try – try as hard as possible – to do my best.  I stopped obsessively reading parenting books and desperately seeking “expert” advice on how to do things like talk to my kids about serious issues like death.   I started following my own parenting guidestar.  For lack of a better way to put it, I started listening to my gut instincts.

So when my 9 year old son asked me to tell him a story from my work, I looked at him silently for a while as I listened to that little voice inside my head. It was telling  me that he was ready to hear the story of Victoria.

Victoria was the last refugee I interviewed at Buduburam on that trip in 2007.  She was a poised and intelligent young woman who rushed back to the camp from her classes at nursing school in Accra in order to give her statement.  We sat outside, away from the buildings on the edge of the camp, face to face with each other on white plastic chairs set on the hard-packed red dirt.  Victoria’s mother had died when she was young, so as a child in Liberia she had lived alone with her father.  Her story began later than the teacher’s; two civil wars raged in Liberia between 1989 and 2003.  She was only 8 or 9 – the same age as my son – when the fighting reached her house.

Her father told her to hide in the bushes by the side of the house while he went out to talk to the rebels.  She lay on her belly in the bushes, saw the rebels argue with her father.  She watched as they shot him in the head and he fell to the ground, unmoving.  The rebels went into the house and took food and anything of value.  But they didn’t find Victoria in her hiding place and eventually they lit the house on fire and left.   “I didn’t know what to do,” Victoria told me.  “My father never moved so I knew he was dead.  I just didn’t know what to do next.   So I stayed in the bushes, crying, near my father’s body all night.”   The next day, as the sun rose, she kissed her father goodbye and went to a neighbor’s house.  The neighbor brought Victoria with her to Ghana.

After Victoria told me her story and left for her home, I sat for a long time on that white plastic chair, on the edge of a refugee camp near the latitudinal and longitudinal center of the world.  A cool breeze stirred the sweat-damp hair on the back of my neck as the sun sank rapidly. The sunset was brilliant with colors – the muted pink of an impossibly crisp polo shirt, the bright orange of my small son’s hair, the deep purple of a bruise left by a rifle butt.

My son had listened to the story quietly.  I hadn’t been sure how he would react, so it was a surprise when he said.  “That was interesting.  I feel sorry for Victoria.  It is sad that all of that happened to her.  But she found a way to survive without her dad.  The neighbor and other people took care of her.  It kind of makes me less afraid of what would happen if you died.”

The kid makes good point.  One which I hadn’t thought of before I told him about Victoria.   Talking to my kids about death is also talking to them about life and how to live it.

So here’s to you, Fat Stanley.

And to you,  Kevin Bacon.


 

I honor your memory and the time you spent with us.