It is early November 2015. My friend Alison Terry-Evans posts a Facebook photo of volunteers wading into the Aegean Sea to rescue hundreds of terrified refugees packed into a tiny fishing boat that is quickly capsizing. Alison is one of those volunteers. By this time she is driving two hours to the north coast of the Greek Island of Lesvos and sleeping in her car two nights a week so she can launder the refugees’ soaking wet clothing.
One month later a man and a woman enter a county facility just down the road from me in San Bernardino and murder fourteen people in a senseless act of extremist politics. There is a raging war in Syria that no one can clearly explain, and if we attack ISIS they retaliate twice over by bombing the subway or blowing up a soccer stadium. And now there is a stream of refugees paying thousands of dollars to risk their lives crossing a six mile strait from Turkey to Lesvos when they could be taking a ferry across the same water, safely, for twenty Euros. People are dying who don’t need to die.
In the face of hopelessness there really is only one response and that is to do something, anything. So when I show Alison’s Facebook feed to a friend and she says, What can we do? We should do something! it is immediately obvious. I will go to Lesvos for one month and do what I can. At the very least, Alison won’t have to sleep in her car if I find lodging.
I’d been traveling when I made my decision and as my return flight lands in Los Angeles I receive a text from Barb — the ex-girlfriend of my oldest and dearest friend William — asking me to call her. My heart sinks because I know that means only one thing. William is dead.
And now I have to go to Wisconsin and oversee the cremation, and then there is the memorial service. But before we can even do that, Barb and I have to burn the couch William had been lying on for weeks before the police found him. It takes a while to realize that of course, the couch will be soaked in body fluids and we have to do something about that, we can’t just leave it out back of the house. We surely make a mess of it, starting the fire before we pour gas on the couch, and forgetting a gas soaked tarp when we leave, but we manage to push the couch over onto the bonfire and start it up, and within an hour the only thing left are the metal springs.
William was a recluse, I knew this was possible. Still, it feels awful that he was lying there hidden for so long, like I’d failed him terribly.
Before I can even begin to process these feelings, it is time to leave for Lesvos.
At the end of the driveway is the Aegean Sea. We turn right and quickly reach the rutted dirt road to the fishing village of Skala Sykamineas. Every rise and fall reveals another gorgeous view of the coastal farmland. Across the strait the Turkish coast looks so close you could reach out and touch it. There are piles of discarded life jackets on the beach and lookouts on the cliffs night and day. With their long distance binoculars, lookouts can pinpoint a boat and text the location to rescue boats who sail out and accompany the boats to shore.
As we arrive at the Lighthouse Refugee camp in Skala, two rescue boats direct the fourth boat of the day to the beach across the street from the camp. Volunteers push the dinghy up onto the beach and lift the children to safety. Fifty refugees may crowd into a dinghy designed for fifteen, so the boat sits low and takes on water. Women and children sit in the middle of the boat where water gathers and are usually drenched and in danger of hypothermia by the time they reach shore. My travel partner joins in but I go to the red clothing tent in the camp. I haven’t been trained yet and I don’t want to get in the way.
More truthfully, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now Syria, are here in the presence of the refugees. War is no longer over there or on a video screen of one size or another, but just across the muddy street from where I stand. I am not yet ready to face it.
We’ve been given the job of insulating the clothing tent with discarded life jackets. I’m laying lifejackets side by side on the floor when an older woman, dressed entirely in black, opens the flap and enters. She is dripping wet and pulls on her skirt repeatedly to show me she needs dry clothes, now! I don’t know what to do. I’m surrounded by large plastic bags of clothes but I don’t know what clothes are where, and some bags are labeled in Greek. I’m pulling clothes out of bags randomly and feeling more hopeless by the minute when a volunteer comes in and tells me to take her to the women’s changing room.
I gently take the woman’s hand and carefully guide her down the steps outside the tent and up the gravel path. When we reach the changing room she walks right up to the volunteers handing out clothes, but there’s a large group of women and children waiting so everyone shouts at her to go to the back of the line. Not only have I failed to be helpful but now people are shouting at her. Another person I have failed to help.
My friend William often went through periods of depression, three months say, when all he could do was sit in a chair and eat when necessary – his way of getting through the depression without killing himself. This episode, in 2007, was much longer.
It started when he sent me a YouTube animation. In the opening scene an adorable kiwi strains mightily to pull a rope up and over a cliff with his beak. At the other end of the rope is a tall tree he has just lowered over the edge until it is perpendicular to the face of the cliff. He slides down the rope onto the trunk of the tree and hammers its roots into the side of the cliff using his feet. This last tree of many now in place, he scampers back to the top and peeks over the edge at his handiwork. Below is a lush forest sprouting from the cliffside as far as the eye can see. He puts on his aviator cap, takes a running start, and jumps into the sky. The video frame now moves from vertical to horizontal and our kiwi has become a bird in glorious free flight over the treetops.
I don’t think I understood the animation the first few times I watched it. I may even have made a joke about it in my email response to William. I didn’t fully understand until William had been out of touch for months and I went back and looked at it again. As the camera closes in we see the the kiwi’s tiny vestigial wings pop out and he flaps them as he soars over the treetops. He is ecstatic. He is no longer an anomaly, a misfit. He is no longer a flightless bird. Then he closes his eyes and this time I saw it. A tear rushes past his cheek blown backwards by the wind. And something else: the soft muffled crash as the frame fades to black. The kiwi has reached the end of his glorious flight. He has just traded his life for the very thing that gave his life meaning.
This was a goodbye from William. He’d finally accepted a diagnosis of anhedonia, he said in one of his last emails, though he’d been resisting it for years. Anhedonia is an inability to feel pleasure – he seldom cried as a child he offered as evidence. This was news to me, though it certainly explained his depression and his lack of sexual desire. Each new day’s portion of joy would have to be manufactured, made up, rather than felt deeply in his heart – a brutal requirement for remaining among the living.
And William worked hard to remain among the living because he knew his purpose in life: to be in service to others. He was a gifted clairvoyant and dedicated teacher who helped many people navigate their way through life. A short question about the mind/body connection could easily generate a five page response. I miss those conversations most of all.
Four years after he’d last been in contact, William answered one of my emails. He was still weak and I worried about his health, but for the next four and a half years we stayed in touch through email and Skype and I visited him on my way to a conference in 2014. He grew stronger but remained reclusive.
And then he died, as far as we know, of natural causes. The body had decomposed too much for an autopsy.
A few weeks after the woman came into the clothing tent, I see a refugee standing alone on an entrance path to the camp. As other refugees gather in small groups along the main path, he stands off to the side struggling to remove the layers of plastic wrapped around his passport and cellphone. Because what is the first thing refugees always do if they finish their journey? They call their loved ones, those left behind who are desperately hoping their child or grandchild or cousin has arrived safely.
I walk up to him and ask where’s he’s from. Afghanistan, he says, as he impatiently tears at the plastic. I find a pair of scissors in the clothing tent and help him cut through his makeshift waterproofing and realize that I am no longer at a safe remove from war. It is here full blast in the form of the man standing in front of me, with all its suffering and loss. What horrors has he seen? How many family members has he lost? Will he ever see his family again? The only thing I’m sure of is that whatever horrors he left behind are worse than the possibility of losing his life, and that much horror overwhelms me. It is more than I can bear.
I talk my travel partner into going to Athens for the weekend because I need a break. When we arrive at the airport there is a young man standing in the middle of the concourse leading to baggage claim. Clearly he wants to speak to us.
He is a young Muslim from Britain and he buries the bodies on the island. I know there is a refugee graveyard though I don’t know where, and I’ve read about Muslim volunteers who wash the bodies and shroud them in white then bury them in graves facing towards Mecca. And I know that some of the bodies are children with no parents to bury them. His eyes are sad as he speaks to us. He never thought he would be doing such work, that anyone would have to do such work, especially burying the children. He wants to tell us what he does because it is lonely heartbreaking work.
There is no safe remove.
When I return to Lesvos I have only two days before I fly home. I go to Moria refugee camp because that is the toughest place on the island to work – it’s overcrowded and the conditions there are the worst. The camp is a bumpy ungraded mud pack. A group of refugees crowd around a barrel fire and the porta-potties are almost unusable. There aren’t enough tents for everyone so refugees do their best to stay covered until, after waiting for days, they receive the papers they need to board the ferry to Athens. How much farther they get depends on how long countries keep their borders open or whether they have family in other parts of the world.
I go to the volunteer tent to ask where I am needed and they send me to the clothing tent. Yet again, the clothing tent. This, then, is the best we can do in the face of an overwhelming situation: guide the refugees to safety and give them warm dry clothing. Wooden planks cover mud pools outside the clothing tent and refugees stand in line at the entrance pulling blankets close to their bodies as they wait for new clothes. At the end of the day, I stand outside the gate waiting for my ride as families of refugees stream past. By the time my ride arrives, I am cold to the bone.
When I return home to Los Angeles I’m barely able to function. I no longer remember if I have slept or, if I have, for how long. I am in a stupor. I pass the time scrolling mindlessly through the Facebook page for Lesvos volunteers where I come across footage of an underwater museum off the coast of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. Museo Atlantico was created by artist Jason deCaires Taylor and is dedicated to climate change and migration. One of the sculptures in the museum is titled Raft of the Lampedusa, a reference to 360 refugees who drowned off the coast of Lampedusa, a small island off the coast of Italy.
There is only one entrance to this museum. There is no escalator here nor steps, and surely no gift shop. To see the show, it is necessary to dive down to the sea below, there is no other way. At first the sea is blue then bluer, and finally bodies come into view. A small rubber dinghy is filled with refugees, and in the distance an army of migrants walks in loose formation toward the next continent, seemingly oblivious to the sea level that has risen far above their heads.
Where do you go when you drown? Do you drop to the bottom of the sea? If you drop to the bottom do you stay there? And how deep is the Aegean Sea anyway? On average, just over a thousand feet, and if you drown, yes, you drop all the way to the bottom. And if you don’t get eaten by something or trapped in the sunken boat, you do not stay there. You are dead but your body keeps going. The bacteria in your body eats your organs which produces gas that bloats your body and brings you to the surface from where you will float, in one direction or the other, until you wash up on shore.
I never saw the bodies. Fishermen sometimes bring them up in their nets, and after I left the island a baby girl washed up on the shore of Skala Sykamineas. I imagine many people on the island suffer through persistent low grade depression because grieving requires time and distance – it is something that comes after. But there is no after here, just a constant stream of refugees and bodies. Stopping is a luxury no one has.
And now that I have stopped, it is time to put aside my feelings of guilt and failure which, in the beginning, moved me to action, but have now become a way of resisting loss. It is time to summon my grief for William, who lay hidden for so long, and the refugees who drown. Leave it to an artist to show you what your psyche has been trying to tell you meanwhile: grieving is unavoidable. It is necessary to dive down to where the bodies lie and bring them to the surface, along with the grief, so that grieving is possible.