It’s like this:
All your life while you’re growing up, every year that passes you learn a little bit more. You learn about how your life in a gleaming metropolis is shrink-wrapped in squeaky and sanitary plastic, and every so often the cover is peeled back, exposing you to the detritus outside.
You are born of the rot, and you see where you come from, where people die from the sickness, kept from entering shiny metropolises by their plastic, sanitary coatings and men in suits whose eyes gleam with green. It’s beautiful and terrible, when you go Out, into the world, into what people always tell you is wilderness, is jungle.
You grow up and you learn about death and sickness and septic limbs; you grow up and you learn about how people slip through the cracks, except its more like falling off a balance beam. How years of life are snatched from children. You grow up and you become sad and you become angry and you take the journey of Siddartha, but you never reach nirvana, because you still feel the sadness and the anger.
You grow up and you learn that the plastic wrap is useless, that every time that you peel it to escape or peel it to enter, that the rotting detritus they try so hard to keep out is already there, that really, the shining metropolises, the gleaming emerald cities, are themselves built on their own heaps and landfills and mountains of rotting detritus, they are built on slave ships and on blood and war and they fight with redness in their eyes to keep it that way, to keep out what they only ever let in to die.
And you are shocked to find that all your life you’ve been sold the lie of commercial ambition and academic success and that if you work hard enough, if you get rich enough, maybe, you can peel off the wrapping plastic, that maybe you can build up something soft and healing instead of shiny and sharp. You look out with bloodshot eyes through the film of plastic, out into what they call the jungle, and you see your sister staring back at you, getting smaller and farther away, and finally gone. You see how easily it could have been you there and she here; you are told what opportunities you have been given, how you must use them for Their Sake, and this is the only thing you know how, commercial ambition, academic success. What can you do, when all you know is this, when you’ve been told that working hard is always for the benefit of your family, for the benefit of the sick, for the benefit of the dying, for the benefit of the poor.
So all you do, in the end, is you keep working hard and you keep losing sleep and you welcome for once the life-shortening effects of these, and you keep pursuing that ingrained carrot of commercial ambition and academic success because this is the only way you know how, this is the only thing you can do in the name of the family, and the sick, and the dying, and you are gasping for breath and gasping for breath and gasping for breath and clawing at an iron door, looking at it through a wet film.
I am sorry that I am an ocean away from you, and that I couldn’t be there. Taa qittiboonne. I am sorry that I am not better at Kafa No’no. I am sorry that I was born a world away. I am sorry that this happened to you, at ten years old, and that it didn’t happen to me instead. Someone told me it was the hospital’s fault, that it wasn’t good or that the surgeon wasn’t competent, and if that’s true I’m sorry too. I’m sorry that even if I wanted I can never say this very eloquently in any language besides English. I can only say taa cooaa. Nee shunoo. I hope prayers to heaven transcend language, so this gets to you in a way you understand. I’m sorry for being selfish and writing this down, when maybe it shouldn’t be written. I’m sorry it wasn’t me instead. I don’t know what to do or how to help, or if that is even the thing to think. I don’t know what to think. I hope you are playing there, with a tropical flower. That’s what you’re doing in this video that I have saved of you, you are playing with a flower and then Surafiel snatches it from you and runs away. You are throwing rocks at the ground, you are avoiding my gaze, I am laughing, and you have your gap-toothed smile and a purple, flowery dress. You always wanted to run around everywhere. I hope you are running
I understand why my father invokes death so often now. I see how he grew up in such a place, where death comes early and indiscriminately. I don’t know if this is always because of the life there–maybe it’s really because of the abundance of life, the abundance of children. What a jarring feeling it is to hold a child close, to clap with them or play with their hands or even sleep by their side, and then…
Their disappearance feels so disturbing and sudden, like a match. A flash of light and a wisp of trailing smoke. They go as suddenly as they arrive.
I hate this existence sometimes. I feel like I’m literally stretched thin, with a hand pinned in one country and a foot pulled, extracted out over miles to another piece of land. I hate how fleeting it is, how I only see people in glimpses and snaspshots and brief moments, month-long trips. I don’t know what the solution is–maybe to go back, to live there? Maybe I could do that, at least for a while, even if I’m pinned here too.
It’s so strange to feel so much love and heartbreak over people who, if I’m honest with myself, I have never spent much time with. What does it mean to know someone? Is it only in the time you spend together? Maybe the time is shorter but richer because you’re aware of it, and you open up your heart wide to feel the touch of theirs.
It’s so sad, is all I know. It’s so frustrating. I am so angry at what was taken. Would it have been the same, the stories of my soul scream, the stories in my lineage, if it were not for wars and opium and slave ships and tobacco. But still it could have happened.
(Written 03.14.2018, after my cousin, Ruth, passed away at 10 years old, in the Ethiopian countryside, from a brain tumor.)