Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Week of Endings

This past week, I would rather have been at home. It’s not that my vague desire to return home, which is always with me, suddenly welled up to form something more concrete or resolute. It’s not that anything in particular happened here that was bad—just the usual garden-variety stuff for a fairly garden-variety semester. In fact, things are good. My job is going well. I enjoy a flexible schedule that most people my age would love to have. Reading and writing comprise huge chunks of my life, just as I always wanted them to. I work out a lot and I’m getting into pretty good shape. Even my psoriasis is in recession.

But, well, there are times when I feel a tangible tug to be at home—to stand in solidarity with others in honoring a mentor, or in mourning an uncle. That was this week. I learned last Sunday that my uncle had died of pneumonia. He was 41 and suffered from a fairly severe form of Down’s syndrome. He had been living in a group home for many years now—I only remember him from my childhood, when my family would make the begrudging trek down south to visit my grandmother. At that age, I was scared of my uncle. He was unable to speak, but he made grunting noises mixed with high-pitched squeals. He was almost 9 years older than me, a lot larger, and he didn’t know his own strength. More than once had I been caught in his smothering, forceful embrace, as he squeezed more tightly, refusing to let me go until my grandmother or my father forced his arms away.

Still, when I heard the news of his death, I felt the loss. My family was one person less than it had been. I called my father and roused him from Xanax-enhanced dreams, and he told me that he and another of my uncles, Tom, had been in the room when Kelly had died in his sleep. There was no bucking, no death rattles. He just stopped breathing, the end result of his final illness. My father was…sad, in a way that is difficult to characterize. He clearly felt a loss, too, even though Down’s syndrome had rendered my uncle Kelly unable to maintain familial relationships in the conventional sense—although his mother, my grandmother, visited him every Sunday, took him to Ponderosa, and let him wander the aisles of Wal-Mart before returning him to the group home. None of us really knew him because he was locked inside Down’s syndrome, and yet it was clearly a blow to my father, who had lost his half-brother, to my uncle Tom, to my aunt Darlene, and most of all to my grandmother, for whom my father felt genuine sympathy—remarkable if you knew anything about the history of their relationship.

When I talked to my father, I told him I wished I could attend my uncle’s funeral. I felt wrong carrying on with the business of work while my father’s side of the family gathered en masse to mourn, and just like when a childhood friend died in 2006, I spent the day wishing I was at home. I felt the stirrings of a kind of solidarity that have taken root only since I moved here.

In other news, in another stratosphere of life, one of my mentors is retiring at the end of the school year, and yesterday was her surprise party. She is the director of Wittenberg’s Writing Center, has been for nearly 30 years, and writing tutors from all eras descended upon campus yesterday to surprise her with a show of support and appreciation. I was not there. This bothered me a great deal because, well, Maureen was one of the first people to take me seriously. She did so without ceremony, without any of the bluster you see in corny teacher-changed-my-life movies: no howling Morgan Freeman, no streetwise Michelle Pfeiffer. I think this is one of the most important things a mentor can do for a student: you can take that student seriously. Too many teachers are self-absorbed, or burnt-out, or otherwise ill-suited to this aspect of the profession, but Maureen, she was selfless. There was nothing grandiose or self-serving in her taking me seriously. I think she saw a young man—a boy of 18, really—who wanted to be taken seriously. She recognized what it was even before I recognized it myself, although, in looking back over old essays from freshman year, I see a boy trying on words too large for him, striving to show he belonged. Maureen had at least an inkling of this, and that alone is more than you get from most teachers. It’s something I’ve been mindful of lately, in my own teaching: only this week I encountered work from a student who clearly wants to be taken seriously, and I tried to follow Maureen’s lead, by giving this student’s work serious, rigorous and fair treatment. I think this is one of the ways you take a student seriously—you reciprocate that seriousness in your approach to their work, without assailing their rookie mistakes, lack of perspective, or adolescent bluster. These things, one hopes, will pass on their own. My job is to show them another path, just as I was shown. I only needed somebody to recognize that I was searching for that other path, and Maureen was among the first.

This is something I would have liked to tell Maureen in person yesterday. Instead, I am left to deposit this missive ruminating on her and on my dead uncle, shouting at them both from a far distance (in the case of my uncle, a far, far distance). This is something about life abroad I hadn’t considered, the curious immobility of being away. It’s the opposite of conventional wisdom, that life abroad is the ultimate independence. Sometimes it’s about being on the run, or taking refuge, or starting anew after one thread in life has run its course or been ruined. I’ve seen such things in the expatriates here. All of these paths begin with an impulse toward liberation, but they have their own deterministic pitfalls. Me? I can feel the constraints of the ex-pat life this week, keenly. And I know I would have to go on living with these constraints if I were to stay here much longer.

James

6 comments:

urbansocrates said...

I am enjoying your entries, even as I debate taking a teaching job in Maadi. I have misgivings about it; I'm unsure of how I'd manage in Egypt. And, like you, I would be missing things that are happening at home.

And you are right, that "sometimes it's about being on the run." I'm at a stage in life when one thread in life has been cut off; isn't that what the Fates do? So the idea of taking up somewhere new for a couple of years has its appeal, especially when decisions made to stay here seem like they would be much more permanent.

Anonymous said...

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Melissa said...

James,

I'm sorry about your Uncle Kelly. I read his obituary in the local newspaper last week.

Missy Danner

American_in_Cairo said...

Thanks, Missy. And I will respond to your e-mail soon--I haven't forgotten!

James.

American_in_Cairo said...

Urban,

It's not a bad choice, starting anew in a different place. I know lots of folks around here who have done just that: reinvented themselves as professional expats.

Maadi is a nice town; we live there. Have you visited before?

Victoria said...

James,

I am sorry about the loss of you uncle. I just lost my mother to cancer in February before I came to Egypt. Mourning a loved one abroad can be a tricky thing. I tried to google the Korean school here in Cairo but instead of finding that I found your blog. I am an ESL teacher from the States who is new in town, married to an Egyptian and looking for work. When I saw that you were a teacher, I thought I would write you as I know I am a bit late in my job search and frankly, need all the help I can get. Also, I would love to meet some fellow American teachers! I could forward you my resume if you had time. Any and all contacts, leads, or hints would be so appreciated. I hope I am not being presumptuous! Best Regards, Victoria Kennedy victoriaskennedy@gmail.com