“I want to suggest that anthropologists, and other vulnerable observers, can and should write about loss. But we must do so with a different awareness, an awareness of how excruciating are the paradoxes of attachment and displacement. Above all, I think we need to be absolutely pitiless with ourselves.”
Ruth Behar, “Death and Memory,” The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart.
On September 19, my mother’s dog, Zeke, died unexpectedly. Yona, my nine-year-old, adored Zeke. My mother told Yona about Zeke’s death via skype. His grief was thick. Sitting on our bed, he leaned into me, stared at my mother’s tiny image on the phone screen and wailed– long, low and loud. It was the kind of sound that makes you remember every sadness you’ve ever felt. My husband, my mother and I all started sobbing. His keening continued after we ended the call and went on all evening, long tears rolling down his face. He repeated a mantra of mourning over and over again: “Zeke was the best dog. He never did anything wrong. He was a good dog. Now I’ll never see him again.” Once in a while, he punctuated his mantra with a new revelation or memory: “He helped me open my Christmas presents with his nose. I was looking forward to spending Christmas with him. Now I’ll never see him again.” “He was a good dog. He never gave up. He kept chasing the ball.” “He was a good dog. He never tried to hurt anyone.”
I’ve had a hard time bringing myself to write about this sad evening, but this deep mourning is so central to so much of what I—we— have struggled with on this side of the world. My son’s sharp grief for a dog that he loved and lost leads me to meditate on the nature of long distance mourning, the condition of exile and our recent loss of America.
In many ways, I am post-dog. For much of my life, I liked dogs more than people. Now I can’t bring myself to care for one. Certainly part of the reason for this shift is pragmatic– I have small children who demand much of much of my emotional and physical energy. Many who dearly loved their pets pre-child find they can’t summon the same enthusiasm for them after children are born.
Still, I always assumed that one day I’d return to my dog-loving self, but I don’t think I will. This is partly due to personal, ethical issues with the treatment of pets in America in contrast to the treatment of people in much of the world. I cannot reconcile that dogs in my country have better health care available to them than my family members in Africa. The hard truth is that if my (Eritrean) in-laws had had the same level of health care available to them as my (American) family pets, they would probably still be alive today. I usually keep these kinds of thoughts to myself out of sensitivity for people’s emotional attachments to their relatives and their animals. I am sympathetic to a love of animals, but the paradox of animal love in the face of global, human, inequality certainly frames my post-dog self.
But, if I’m honest with myself, my inability to love dogs is wrapped up with the condition of exile and the ultimately unresolved nature of mourning long distance.
The day after Zeke died, I found myself thinking of the last dog I had. When we lived in Eritrea we had a puppy who we named Leflafi. We named her Leflafi, which means talkative, because she barked incessantly. She was not a great dog, but she was the dog I got when I wasn’t sure I could have children; she filled an emotional hole and I loved her for that. Her genes were feral; she was rather aggressive and snapped at people. She liked people, and expressed this boisterously, but did not seek the company of people when she was distressed, scared or hurt, preferring to huddle up out of sight, outside, like a wild animal.
We left her with Ermias’ family when we left Eritrean ten years ago. Leaving Eritrea was an emotional cacophony. (I have written about it in more detail in this online essay and in the conclusion to my book, also available online, so won’t recount it here.) My memory is blurred, but there are three images that remain crystal clear from that evening—Leflafi running in circles around us and refusing to come to me as I climbed into the car that would take us to the airport; my mother-in-law’s strong, gentle hands encircling mine; and my father-in-law gazing out towards us across the tarmac through the fog as we climbed the stairs towards our aircraft. I have not, and will not, ever see any of them again.
Living in Eritrea taught me how to mourn. There, people come and sit with the bereaved for days, sometimes weeks. No one has to talk or make people feel better or cry. No one feels awkward. You are there to just sit, to be present, to be a community. At first I found this practice odd, but now it makes sense. Death is disconcerting. Having people around– the presence of other live bodies– makes it feel real and also grounds us.
Mourning long distance is unnatural. It disrupts rituals oriented towards the physical details of bodies, earth and ashes. These rituals matter because without the physicality of death, some part of our psychology always rejects it. We need to see the body or at least be close to where it is buried or burned or where the ashes are scattered. Even more importantly, mourning long distance runs counter to our need for community in times of grief.
I have far too much experience with mourning long distance. Two of my grandparents died while I was doing fieldwork in Eritrea. And my mother and father in law both died in Eritrea after we had moved to the US. We could not return to Eritrea to mourn them because we are exiles. We are exiles in part because of my choice to publish the findings of the same fieldwork that kept me away when my grandparents died.
Somehow I knew that my in-laws would pass away before we could go back to Eritrea. Still, my father-in-law’s death came as a surprise. I’d always dreaded, and imagined, receiving a phone call telling me he’d passed away. Ermias’ cousin called me and told me to share the news with Ermias. This is common. Traditionally, it is customary to tell someone about the death of a family member in the company of a group close friends and family. When you learn of death long distance, the one who receives the call should gather friends and family who will then sit with the bereaved so that he won’t be alone in his grief. But I was alone when I told Ermias that his father died. That day was supposed to be Yona’s first day of school, but there was an historically unprecedented flood that day, so he did not go to school because the roads were impassable. We stayed home and cried and then my dad and Ermias set to work bailing out our basement.
My mother-in-law’s death was even more of a surprise even though we knew she’d been sick. This time, Ermias’ brother called him directly. The death of a second parent is harder. It leaves you orphaned, adrift, alone. We had a few dear friends come over to spend time with us. And Ermias received days of phone calls. But overall, the condition of mourning long distance is a lonely one. Always unresolved, scattered, fragmented.
When our elders die something is lost that cannot be replaced. Rituals around death draw community close, transforming this loss and infusing the spirit of the loved one into the community. But when we mourn long distance, crying and remembering over skype, facebook chat or phone, we become so keenly aware that community is scattered, fragmented. Something deeper is lost– some way of knowing the world and wisdom to cope with deep sadness.
We mourned Ermias parents long distance because we cannot go to Eritrea. One reason for this is that we are not sure the government will let Ermias leave again. Another is because the government may not take kindly to my writing which sets out to honestly portray conditions in Eritrea during the time of my fieldwork.
The condition of exile has become common. The so-called refugee “crisis” shows us just how many exiles are drifting around the world seeking a new home. Many Eritreans live in exile. The community that we had in Eritrea no longer exists. Most of our friends and family have left the country. They are scattered around the world.
Here in Ethiopia, I am researching refugees and finding it extremely difficult. It hits too close to home. Not only does the study of refugees bring you into close proximity with the most horrific capacities of human beings, but it is a constant testament to impermanence and the loss of community. Refugees are adept at building community. They are constantly doing so. But the ultimate futility of doing so, the incessantly impermanent condition of being a refugee, feels tragic to me.
I think of the community that I knew before everyone left Eritrea, the communities I know the refugees had back home before those communities became impossible to live in. I think of friendships, long evenings, long afternoons and long conversations. I think of the shared baptisms, weddings, holidays, funerals and mourning that makes community. But is this my loss or theirs? Are they, too, nostalgic for the past or happy to have moved on?
Cuban-American anthropologist Ruth Behar’s essay, “Death and Memory” is both comforting and challenging to me. The essay recounts her own experiences as she travels to Spain to research death and mourning practices while her own grandfather lay on his death bed back home. The pain and the paradox of choosing fieldwork over family resonates deeply with me. My grandparents died while I was doing fieldwork. I, too, left my grandfather on his death bed. Even more poignantly, my in-laws died and we could not be there to mourn them in person, in large part because of my writing based on that field work.
In “Death and Mourning” Behar quotes a mentor who commented on her struggles with this project: “‘It is a deeply felt tragedy for us as anthropologists when those communities as we have known them cease to exist, not because we lose our subject matter (we don’t), but because we fear the total loss of that rooted and continuous and meaningful life which we had sought outside our own. That may be why we feel these changes as more tragic than the villagers do.” When we mourn long distance, we think we are mourning for our lost loved ones, but we are also mourning for our lost community. But are we really mourning for the community or feeling the keen and unsated loss, again and again, for our own condition of exile?
On November 8, 2016, my community in America mourned for the loss of the country we thought we lived in. As I watched the election returns come in on the morning of November 9th in Ethiopia, I was shocked as one is stunned by death even when you know that the deceased had been critically ill. My experience of the “death” of America was not unlike my experience of my mother-in-law’s death. I was shocked even though I knew it was coming. I was the one who knew and still denied the inevitable. I cried, tried to have a stiff upper lip, and then descended into depression.
Many people in the US are trying to move through the stages of grief—from shock to sadness to anger to action. But our grief here is stunted because we have no community to mourn with. It was a lonely, stunned, week. But, as with my grief for our loss of community in Eritrea, is this grief nostalgic? Does it create a memory of an America that never existed but that in the face of our loss we need to remember?
Writing about Zeke’s death has been hard because the immateriality of long distance mourning evokes the evening we left Eritrea, but also the loss of my in-laws and the loss of country and community. It is as if all that loss was locked in my memory of Leflafi’s jumping body, scurrying away from me barking incessantly at us as we drove away. It is as if Yona’s keening released all the emotion locked in that memory and began to make those losses material.
I have tried many ways to end this essay. I have tried to write positively about how Trump’s election has become a great conversation starter leading me to befriend people I otherwise would not have. I have tried to write about how all loss leads to rebirth and maybe this will lead to the birth of new political selves. I have tried to write about how the condition of exile, sad and empty as it is, yields new revelations and ways of being. But none of it rings entirely true.
I have strayed very far here from my children’s eyes and my children’s way of seeing the world, so perhaps, in closing it is best to return to my children. The children went to school before we knew the election result on November 9th. That afternoon, they picked me up from work in the university. As I walked up to the little blue and white taxi, I saw Yona waving an American flag that he had drawn alongside a sign that said “Hilery.” I was surprised, not quite realizing that I’d raised such a patriotic child. Then I remembered eight years ago, pulling him out of bed and putting an American flag in his hand. He has grown up in a world where his face is the face of America. The flag belongs to him in a way it never belonged to me. I broke the news to him that Hillary had lost. He asked how this happened and was quiet for most of the ride home. He was surprised, shocked even, but he wasn’t sad.
When we got back to our house, he asked, “Mommy, how can I get to be president?”
Children are not nostalgic (at least mine is not). Perhaps it is because he has not been alive long enough to construct or reconstruct his memories or to feel the loss of what he has constructed. They live very much in the present, accepting realities with pragmatism. Dogs die and can never be replaced. But, paradoxically, new puppies are purchased and quickly fill the gap albeit in new ways with new dispositions. Yona will, of course, always miss Zeke, but his intensely painful grief had dissipated by the next day. Now, he is looking forward to playing with the new puppy named Max when we return to Philadelphia.