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Living with Grief

“What are you going to do with him, Sergeant Williams?” asked Sergeant Rosado, looking concerned about the child.

“I’m gonna take this little motherfucker to the base and I’m gonna arrest him,” answered Williams as he started to put his gear back on. “That’s the only way these kids are ever going to learn not to throw rocks at us.”

An older man then started yelling at us from the gate to one of the houses, but Williams took no notice of him

“There you go, sergeant,” said Rosado, looking at Williams. “Let the old-timer take care of him; let the child go.”

Williams thought about it for a moment. No one was laughing anymore. I thought, Let him go, Williams, let the kid go. I was all the way with Rosado but kept my mouth shut. The older man stared at Williams with a desperate expression on his face. The child was now crying quietly, not looking at either the older man or at Williams.
“No,” was the final verdict.

“Man, that’s really fucked up,” Rosado muttered. No one else said a word.

Camilo Mejía
Road from Ar Ramadi

I was up early last Saturday morning, just a little after 4. The days had been brutally hot for most of the week with temperatures over 100 and our infamous Saint Louis humidity pushing the heat index well into the teens. Taking advantage of the relative cool of the predawn hours, I got back to work scraping and sanding the door that opens onto our second-floor back porch.

The work on the door had “mushroomed out of control” as a friend once said of another of my home improvement projects. What I had started earlier in the week as a simple paint job had evolved into an elaborate ritual that required chipping away layers of paint to free up the transom, removing the heavy brass hinges so they could be soaked and cleaned of the green, brown and white enamel that had been deposited over the years, and filling countless holes. Then, of course, the screen door had to come down to have its bottom planed and a few mending plates attached before I could take some satisfaction in discovering that the old door closer actually worked quite nicely, quietly sweeping the door tightly closed.

As is always the case, these endeavors provide my mind time for free play, and I had been doing a lot more meditating than fixing. I got to thinking about myself and this one crazy doorway of one old brick house in one pocket of Saint Louis. Thousands of houses like ours, built around the turn of the last century, have proven to be more valuable after being reduced to pallets of recycled brick than as places to live. I got to thinking about whoever had decided to put that first ugly green coat over the lovely brass, and smiled looking at the mustardy faux wood grained finish that the inexpensive pine of these working class houses had received decades ago when it was all the rage.

And then I got into a panic. How many hours can I spend on this one door! I’ve got to get this done so I can get to work!

Maybe it was the heat, because then Joshua Key floats into my head. He’s the young author of The Deserter’s Tale who found himself in Iraq in 2003. He told the Army he was good with his hands, so his job was to outfit an Iraqi family’s front door with plastic explosives and then jump back before his buddies blew it from its hinges and burst in upon their unsuspecting victims in search of insurgents. After he had helped invade 200 homes he got to thinking. Every male they had encountered who was 5 feet or over they had zip tied, hooded, and sent off. Where had they gone? And what was going on here, when after 200 houses they had discovered not a single insurgent, but only awakened terrified children and their parents.

And all those doors in splinters. How many hands had carefully tended them over the years? My door was a youngster by comparison, and still hanging safely on its hinges.

I took a break from the door to have coffee and a walk with Danny, a friend who lives across the alley. We laughed about these houses of ours. “We’ll never get them done,” he said. “No, we’ll be long dead,” I said, “and there will still be woodwork calling out for help.” We spent a good couple hours chatting about life and its demands. Houses and kids and the rest of the world. We resolved nothing.

A few hours later I was back on the ladder when the phone rang. Mark was calling to report in about his solo trek home from California. I had offered some suggestions about a route through central Nevada and Utah that my wife and two sons had traveled earlier this summer. Edward Abbey country that I knew Mark would thrill to as we had.

But then he tells me that Dan Horkheimer has just been shot and killed. I didn’t understand his words.

In a Saint Louis neighborhood just north of ours, that very same morning, Dan had been painting the front door of his house when a drive-by shooter took his life in a random act of violence. No suspects, no leads, no motive.

Sunday evening 50 or 60 friends and neighbors packed into the front rooms of the house that he and his wife Courtney shared. Dan was 29 and they had been married just a few years. Tony caught my eye, came over, and we embraced. “He was my best friend, Andrew. I thought he and Courtney and Julie and I were going to grow old together here. It’s not supposed to be this way.” Dan had ambitions as an architect and I saw the signs of the loving restoration of the house that looked a lot like our own, right down to the faux wood grain enamel.

Dan was a quiet, thoughtful and gentle soul. He was the director of the Immigration Law Project. His picture appears a few times in their recent newsletter. In one he poses with Osman, Mine and Aziza Cajlakovic, three of the 50 Bosnian refugees whose cases he helped rescue from limbo. All had requested medical waivers because of their physical and mental disabilities. In another he stands at the side of Noori Sandi, an Iraqi Kurd who was airlifted to Guam in 1991 after providing wartime assistance to the U.S. military and fearing for his life. Fifteen years later, Dan’s intervention had been instrumental in moving Sandi’s stalled naturalization process to a successful completion. Everyone was wondering who could be found to take on the 180 open cases Dan had been working on.

It was stiflingly hot in that house Sunday evening. And such intense grieving. One young man was dead, hundreds of us were devastated. What flashed into my head was the image of an Iraqi woman, shrouded in black, her head thrown back and hands lifted to the sides of her face in exquisite pain. One woman of millions. Who can even begin to do the horrid calculus that measures our collective tragedy when one death can pierce so deeply.

It has been a week of many connections. Before heading to Dan’s house on Sunday evening, some of us had attended a fundraising dinner for the Center for Survivors of Torture and War Trauma. The Center is a tiny, shoe-string operation whose therapists and counselors do the painstaking work of gently coaxing shattered humans back to life. Bosnians, Afghans, Iraqis-all of whom have arrived here more traumatized than I can even begin to image. [We raised a couple thousand dollars. Are we going to make it?] The dinner was meant as a celebration of the great work the Center does, but there was an inevitable pall cast over the meal as Dan’s legal work and the work of the therapists had intersected.

Tuesday evening was Dan’s wake. My wife and I didn’t stay long, and I avoided the open casket. More grief. Many good folks. Afterward I walked over to Left Bank Books to meet Camilo Mejía and listen to him read from his book, Road from Ar Ramadi. It was strangely soothing. He was honest, soft-spoken, direct. I had taken his book in small doses this summer. It’s written with such force and clarity that I found it impossible to digest large bites. The moment of his liberation, he said, was when he was taken into custody to begin serving his prison sentence for refusing to return to Iraq. Nothing flashy. He seemed a lot like Dan. Thursday morning I talked with him briefly at the Veterans for Peace conference. I thanked him for his voice and his courage, and I told him that his father’s music had been a constant companion and sustained me when I was in Nicaragua during the Contra war years of the mid 80s. He seemed pleased to hear it.

Seated in the audience at the reading Tuesday evening was Janis Karpinski. She spoke up during the question period, praising Camilo for his integrity and courage while lamenting the fact that she didn’t find those same virtues among the highest ranks of leaders in the military. “We need leaders who know how to lead.” On Thursday morning I drove with her out to the airport where she was catching a flight to Savannah and put some questions to her on the way. We talked about the 22,000 Iraqis who are now in U.S. custody without charge and without access to legal representation, a number that has grown dramatically over the past several months. All those males over 5 feet tall. We talked about her time at Abu Ghraib. She’s concerned for reservists who are guarding illegally detained prisoners in a war zone. They don’t have the training for it. She’s concerned about the Iraqis who are being held. “We make them our enemies,” I heard her tell someone else. Then I asked her about Iran. “You spoke the other day of the failure of leadership in the military. If an order were given this afternoon to launch an assault on Iran, are there high-ranking members of the military who would offer resistance?” “No,” she said, “but there isn’t resistance in the House and Senate either.”

Then I came home and got back on the ladder. I need to get this painting finished! Friday evening a young fifteen-year-old boy from Cairo joined our family for the year. He’s going to be attending high school with our older son. Perhaps this is our year to learn Arabic.

ANDREW WIMMER is a member of the Center for Theology and Social Analysis in Saint Louis, MO. He has been involved with Stop Torture Now and the Occupation Project. He welcomes your comments at awimmer@newcommunities.net.

 

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