The thing about running in Jerusalem is that every corner holds a memory. A news event, a traffic accident, a stone throwing episode, a protest, some kind of conflict over religious vs secular, a store owner pontificating over the light rail, or perhaps a profile of an interesting character. Suddenly you turn a corner and there it is: the Old City, those ancient walls hulking away, closed and cloistered to not let any modernization take place, holy yet claustrophobic, history seeping out of the cracks that we’ve tried to climb at night illegally as the police looked on and laughed.
Coming back to Jerusalem on Thursday to take care of some bureaucratic business, driving up Highway 1 with those familiar white stone buildings rising up over the hill, I felt the familiar dread that I used to feel every time heading back to Jerusalem. It was an interesting relationship I had with the city, an intimate one, because the city for me represented work, returning to the city meant returning to work.
Even though I’ve been out of work for a year, save for Russia, returning to Jerusalem still felt like I was returning to the daily grind, even though I no longer work here. Those white stone buildings that are the canvas for so much poetry about the city seemed oppressively uniform. Even the pink and red geraniums crowding out of window boxes seemed sad, almost, compared with the flowers bursting with butterflies in Laos or the dense foliage of Nicaragua.
“Oh god, I can’t believe I lived here for four years!” I lamented an old roommate on the phone as I walked the familiar route to the apartment we shared. I had signed up for my fourth rendition of the Jerusalem marathon – a 10k this year, in deference to the dengue – and considered skipping it and returning to Tel Aviv early.
But once I showed up at Saccher Park on Friday morning, which was teeming with flouresenct-clad runners of all shapes and sizes, I was swept up in the excitement once again. This race is intensely personal for me: my first (and only) two marathons, intertwined with terrorist attacks, a personal triumph of finishing when I really had no idea how to train for a marathon my first time around.
This route – I know this route so well. I have memories along so many of the alleyways and corners. This is where I almost got arrested for doing that story about ambulance motorcycles. This is where the homeless families camped out during the summer of Social Justice. This is where the Schalit family marched on the way to their vigil outside the Prime Minister’s residence.
After traveling the world over the past year and always acting the part of the stranger, the guest, here at the Jeursalem marathon I BELONGED. I couldn’t run five minutes without literally running into someone I knew, along the sidelines, a photographer I knew taking photographs, Marc from the Post of course, my therapist, who caught me walking up a hill, tons of friends, Michael from the running group, Rebecca my running buddy, the coffee guy, the lady from the garden store, Tovah and Steve from the Jerusalem Post who simultaneously asked me to come back and tried to guilt me for not freelancing for them from Sochi, Sara and people from the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Center, whose running group grew from me and Tammy in 2011 to more than 20 people in 2014. A friend at the finish line greeted me with the news that a mutual friend had been told the day before that she was officially in remission from cancer. Everywhere I turned there were people I knew. I am intertwined with these streets: they know me, and I know them. I’ve never had such a deep relationship with a physical place before.
I left Israel to capture the confidence that eluded me living in Jerusalem. I felt like I always had to prove myself to this country as a new immigrant. When things went wrong, I took it personally. Any negative issue was a personal message from 5,000 years of Jewish history that I had failed, that I was not fit to live here. I felt like I was fighting all the time – fighting Israelis so they wouldn’t take advantage of me, fighting Israel to find my place in this complicated country, fighting Jerusalem to create a niche for myself in this closed and cloistered city.
But now I have gained some distance from my life here in Israel, I can look at it without the immediate emotions clouding my vision. I have proved myself on five continents over the past year – biking, farming, comforting, reporting. I know that I no longer have to prove myself to Israel, this prickly place that won’t love me back, because, more importantly, I have proved myself to me. And that is really the only critic that matters.
Now I can look back objectively and see my bad days in Israel for exactly what they were: bad days, not a message that I’m somehow unworthy of this cultural identity. Like my favorite children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day taught me, there are terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days, even in Israel and even in Australia (and I had some of those myself in Australia).
I’ve barely spoken Hebrew in the past year save for a handful of Skype conversations, and I can feel those muscles have atrophied. I’m making the embarrassing language gaffes I thought were behind me, asking for lentils instead of lenses and conjugating verbs hopelessly wrong. But at one point in Russia I was deleting old files on my voice recorder to make room and I listened to myself interviewing a few people in Hebrew. After not hearing myself speak Hebrew for almost a year, I could listen objectively and think, yeah, I had pretty good Hebrew once upon a time, and I’m sure I will get back to that level eventually.
Another challenge, but I have the confidence to know that I can tackle this one the way I’ve tackled so many other challenges before.
After the race, I stayed in Jerusalem for the beginning of Shabbat, jumping up and down with excitement when the Shabbat siren went off. But when I caught the taxi shuttle to Tel Aviv the next morning, I was ready to head back to beaches and sunshine and coffee shops open on Saturday afternoon. It was fun to come back to Jerusalem, and fun to leave.
When I left Jerusalem exactly a year ago, I had no idea if I was making the right decision, for my career or my social life. But coming back after a year away, I have never been more certain that this was the right decision for me. I feel a bit at loose ends right now, jumping from couch to couch among my friends, not really sure what to do with my time as I consider my options. But I’ve had this feeling a few times over the past year, as I think about what comes next. The period of uncertainty and indecision is not easy, but it forces me to think about where my life is going, and good things usually come out of that.
I’m not sure where the adventure will bring me next – if I will stay in Tel Aviv, make my way back to Jerusalem, or, fingers crossed, hopefully land a coveted fellowship and spend my next year in Colorado studying environmental journalism.
But here’s to the next chapter of the adventure, whatever happens. Here’s to having the confidence to follow the twists and turns that make up my life thus far. Here’s to life: L’chaim.
(PICTURES TO COME!) While the whole world was fixated on #SochiProblems – hotel rooms half-finished, various hilarious ills and construction issues – I was basking in my first Olympic moments. Every time I caught a glance of those five interlocking rings on the back of my jacket or on the flags dotting every available surface, I caught my breath, just thinking, ” holy crap, I am a journalist working at the Olympics.”
The journalist from Outside Magazine who recommended me for the job summed it up perfectly: “It’s an old axiom of journalism that the two best gigs ever are A) a Presidential election and B) an Olympic Games,” he wrote to me while I was preparing for my interview. “In these days of post-modern, Outside Magazine-fueled skepticism of Sochi (somewhat deserved, it seems), it can be easy to forget that for the athletes it is not a boondoggle. It is not a shit show. It is not a political dog and pony show. Not by a mile. It is the apotheosis of their entire lives, the ultimate opportunity for very real glory and transformation, and when you get there you will get caught up in that spirit, else you have no pulse. It’s pretty uplifting. From the outside, the games are a huge, Coca-Cola supersize commercialized spectacle, but when you’re literally inside the staff of the Games, you are part of the Olympic “mission”, and it’s pretty contagious.”
This opportunity came so suddenly and so perfectly into my life that not until I arrived in Sochi did I believe it was actually true. And I know there are many, many issues with the Olympics. The sheer size of this undertaking – I’m not even talking about the cost, but the amount of new buildings constructed for just two weeks of events – stadiums and hotel rooms, infrastructure that slashed through gorgeous mountain streams and displaced approximately 1,600 people. Who knows if this opportunity will bring the much-needed economic support into a forgotten corner of Russia, or be a hulking warning of the price of corruption and folly as it falls into disrepair and disuse over the coming years.
All I know is that every time the bus rounded a corner (and I spent many, many hours on buses, rounding many corners) into the Olympic Park and saw the Olympic flame thrusting up into the air, I couldn’t help but get a tear in my eye. For all the negative things that came out of Sochi 2014, and believe me, I experienced many of the #SochiProblems first hand, as someone who was there I saw another side as well. I saw 25,000 young volunteers coming from all over Russia for this opportunity, creating friendships across a vast country, working in the rain and snow and obnoxious uniforms for an unselfish cause in a country that does not really have a culture of volunteerism.
That cliché, about putting discrimination aside and focusing on pushing the human body to the depths of its ability? Celebrating the power of the human form that we all share? It’s real, and it’s beautiful.
My two months in Russia were at times trying and at times transcendent. I have never in my life been so ready to leave a country as I was ready to leave Russia. The bureaucracy and the unshakable practices in Russia got to be too much to bear at some points, and I think every journalist at the Olympic News Service had their own personal Russia breakdowns at various points. On the last day, I sent my parents a one-line postcard in capital letters: THANK GOD OUR ANCESTORS LEFT THIS PLACE.
But among the moments I wanted to tear out every hair from my head in frustration, there were also moments of beauty – funny experiences in translation across cultures, uplifting races when the good guys won, awe at the sport in front of me and the athletes performing it. So here are a few of my favorite moments from Sochi 2014:
My first interview with a snowboarder
The day before our first training at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, which would be my first experience in a mixed zone interviewing athletes, I was so nervous I could barely eat or sleep. I showed up at the mixed zone (the area at the end of the finish line, before arriving in Russia, I didn’t even know what a mixed zone was) and met some reporters from NBC News. They were the only two nice NBC employees I met during my entire time at the Olympics. They had no idea how to cover slopestyle, so I started explaining some of what I had learned about slopestyle during our two weeks of intense research leading up to the Olympics. Just then, the first snowboarders finished their first runs down the slopestyle course and started making their way through the mixed zone. Sharie, the NBC reporter, waved one of the Americans over.
“Who are you?” she asked him.
“I’m Sage,” he said.
“Great, Sage,” Sharie said. “Thanks for stopping. This is Mel, and she’s going to ask you a few questions for the camera.”
“UMM, WHAT????!!!” I thought to myself.
“Hey girlfriend, how you doing?” Sage said.
“I’m great, Sage,” I managed, trying to sound as cool as possible. “Can you tell me a little bit about the course? How are you finding the mountains in Russia?”
“Man, I’m stoked! The mountains in Russia are intense! They’re the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, they’re so spoicy! I’m just so super stoked to be here…” Sage Kotsenburg prattled on and on, barely needing prodding from me, though I asked a number of carefully rehearsed questions ready about the course conditions, which also happened to be exactly what NBC was looking for as well.
As nervous as I had been the day before, in an instant of talking with Sage I suddenly relaxed.
“Holy crap,” I thought to myself. “I’ve interviewed Bibi Netanyahu. I’ve covered bus bombings, the January 25th revolution, I’ve been spit at by haredi protesters and dodged tear gas canisters at Kalandiya. Why the hell was I nervous about interviewing 20-year-old snowboarders?”
And Sage? In addition to being my favorite snowboarder to interview for the rest of the slopestyle competition, who always told me how much he liked my sunglasses, he went on to win the first gold medal of the Olympics.
Watching an Israeli compete
We had one day off during the Olympics with no training and no competitions. Debbie (the snowboarding sportswriter) and I scored free tickets to a short track speed skating competition, something I had really wanted to watch. In addition to the incredible adrenaline rush of the men’s relay – possibly the most intense six minutes of sport competition I’ve ever seen in my life – there was one incredible moment when the MC announced Vladislav Bykanov, from Israel. Though the crowd was silent – the majority Russian crowd at the Olympics really only cheered for the Russian athletes – I started going crazy. I had no idea we were going to see an Israeli compete and I became a one-woman cheering section screaming at the top of my lungs. He was actually leading for three of the five laps, but at the last second was pushed into third and didn’t make it into the quarter finals. Still, it was amazing to watch an Israeli compete at the Winter Olympics. I was proud we represented, though I lost my voice for the remainder of the day.
She’s still got it
Before leaving for Russia, I was incredibly nervous. I was just about as nervous as I was before leaving for Israel when I was 18. I’ll never forget walking through the gate and onto that El Al plane in 2003, knowing it was carrying me to a new adventure, terrified of what was to come.
Coming to Russia, I felt that familiar terror. I haven’t worked for 10 months, I told myself. What if I forget how to be a journalist? What if everything that I’ve learned at the Jerusalem Post is wrong? What if all the other journalists are so much more experienced than me?
Towards the end of the first day of training, Norwegian snowboarder Torgstein Horgmo, one of the major gold medal contenders for slopestyle, took a nasty fall at the top of the course and had to be evacuated on a stretcher. Without batting an eyelash, I slipped right back into my crisis reporter mode. Crashes are one time when the Olympic News Service is under a lot of pressure to get accurate information out as fast as possible. In my brightly colored uniform, I dashed to and fro, speaking with the medical staff, the Norwegian press attaché, other Norwegian snowboarders who witnessed the crash. Torgstein ended up breaking his collarbone and was unable to compete, and our ONS team got the story out before everyone. It was sad for Torgstein, who is very well-respected in the snowboarding world. But I realized, that reporting knack? I’ve still got it.
Between Torgstein’s crash, questions over the safety of the course, and Shaun White pulling out of the competition the day before, slopestyle was the biggest story at the start of the Olympics. Our snowboarding team worked hard. After three years covering the entire city of Jerusalem by myself, it was a joy to work as part of a well-oiled team, dividing duties, sharing the glory, devoting ample time to follow leads and interview almost all the athletes without feeling like my time would better be spent somewhere else. In one hour at ONS, I got more feedback, both positive and negative, than I did in an entire year at the Jerusalem Post. I left the Post because I wanted guidance and feedback on my writing. Working under Debbie, watching the way she crafted stories, and observing other experienced journalists at ONS was incredible training.
Watching Russia’s gold medals
The same guy who recommended me for this job warned me that the last competitions of alpine snowboarding, basically, racing to the bottom as in alpine skiing but on a snowboard, were perhaps the most boring event he’s ever covered. For the first three hours of competition, which consisted of time trials over and over again, I thought he was right. But in the alpine snowboarding competition, the far and away favorite was American Vic Wild, who married a Russian snowboarder, also competing in the same races, and took Russian citizenship in order to get funding from the Russian team (the US team barely funds the alpine snowboarders). Lesson learned from the Olympics and Paralympics: whatever Russia funds, Russia dominates. The Russian alpine snowboarders were cleaning up, and the overwhelmingly Russian crowd was going wild. Russian crowds really only care about Russian athletes. And Russians were not dominating in any of the other snowboarding events. So after a week and a half of not-so-enthusiastic crowd response, it was incredibly to watch the crowd going absolutely ballistic. Even better, Vic and his wife, Alena Zavarzina, won gold and bronze respectively. It was the first Russian gold in snowboarding. Vic also won a gold in the last event, so I got to witness two of Russia’s 12 golds from the Olympics. It was neat to be a part of history.
Sobolev says: call me, maybe
One of the first stories I got to write, and break for the English-speaking media, was about Russian slopestyler Alexei Sobolev, the one who had a Pussy Riot-themed snowboard (but refused to comment on it). Along with a Russian volunteer, we got him to talk about one of my favorite stories from the games: how he put his phone number on his helmet for the qualifying rounds and subsequently got thousands of text messages, some with pictures. He responded to them all, he said. The story I wrote after interviewing him got picked up around the world and made the round-up of the top quotes of the Olympics. Unfortunately, my headline “Sobolev says: call me, maybe” did not.
From Russia with Love
Though the Olympics were incredibly busy, I loved peaking at my Facebook feed at the end of the day. I loved seeing what my friends were writing about the Olympics and knowing that I was there. For a few weeks I was part of something larger than just me – I was part of this incredible international movement celebrating the possibilities of the human body. There was heartbreak and triumph and I was so close to everything – so close I could touch it. Literally. Touch it and report on it and share it with the world, and then watch the information I helped gather fly around the internet.
Brother Ben comes to Russia
When I told my brother that I had an interview for the Olympics gig, his first response was “Do you KNOW what kind of parties they’ll have there?!?” and his second response was “I’M COMING TOO!” Ben and I don’t get to spend a lot of time together since I’ve been living in Israel for the past few years. But being able to share this experience with him was priceless. We watched curling, having absolutely no idea what was going on. We watched ski cross (though my accreditation was cancelled that day and I almost had to miss it). Ben saw the women’s gold hockey game, and I bought him a ticket stand in the family area for the last day of snowboarding, when Russia won another gold medal.
Unfortunately, we planned the trip to have ample “hang out” time between the Olympics and the Paralympics, before realizing that there is NOTHING TO DO in Sochi. NOTHING. Poor Ben, I could tell by the end of three days of “hanging out” in Russia he was bored out of his mind. I was sick and dreading the fact that I still had three weeks left to work at the Paralympics.
Bombing down the women’s super G course
I snagged an upgrade pass between the Olympics and Paralympics, which allowed me to go skiing at the Rosa Khutor resort, which was closed to the public (a poor play on Russia’s part, they should have been getting as many people up there as possible). After renting gear, I headed up to the top of the mountain with some other ONS staffers. We stopped at the top of the slopestyle course to help Diane take a few laps her first time on skis, and then we started heading up. And up. And up. I had only been at the snowboarding venue and the alpine skiing finish line, and I didn’t realize how big the mountain was.
Farther and farther up the mountain we climbed, four series of gondolas before we reached the top. And when we got to the top – wow. The vista took my breath away. The mountains where I’ve skiied in America you’re usually on the mountain, so when you look out you see the valley or the town below. But in Russia, the resort was just one part of the Caucus range. The mountains extended towards the horizon in every direction – stark, granite tops thrusting into the sky, snow-covered peaks as far as my eyes could see. In every direction I looked the mountains kept going and going, until in one direction, they gradually sloped into the sea.
It was one of the best skiing days of my life. First, because I had such low expectations. I figured the snow would be crap since we hadn’t had fresh snowfall on the bottom part of the mountain in two months. I figured there would only be a few runs down the side of the snowboard course, with rocks poking out of the snow. The New York Times had run a review of the ski resort and commented that Russians ski the way they drive. That is a frightening thought. (Interesting tidbit: in the week before the Games started, Sochi2014 employees totaled 21 cars and crashed many more).
Instead, we were greeted by empty, pristine runs. (A groomer I befriended later told me that the owner of the resort was visiting at the same time which is why everything looked so good.) Since the resort was closed to the public, there were just a handful of people skiing the entire mountain. Fresh snow had fallen a few days prior above 1500 m, and the tops of the runs still had some powder on them since no on had skiied there.
After a month of looking up to the mountain and watching people glide down, here I was in the middle of the snow, carving into the freshly-groomed tracks. I vowed to put half of my savings into an “extreme sport” fund. I love skiing so much and I don’t want to have another four-year period where I barely ski at all.
At one point, we disobeyed the stern warnings not to go down the Olympic course and bombed down the women’s slalom course. As I flew down the course into the 5,000-strong grandstand, I screamed out “watch those expert turns! See that amazing form (I have the worst form ever)! She’s about to set a course record, and yes, ladies and gentlemen, she’s done it!! Gold medal for Melanie Lidman!!!” I stopped in a spray of snow before the empty stands, arms raised high and firmly entrenched in the reverie of my own Olympic dream.
During the Paralympics I was based in the Main Press Center, covering the opening and closing ceremonies, and reporting on trend stories throughout the Games. It was definitely less exciting than being on venue, so I was always looking for stories to get me out of the office (additionally, the building was constructed with some kind of chemicals that made a lot of people feel sick while working in there). So I convinced my boss to let me write about the traditional Scottish bagpipers that play before all curling matches at the Olympics and Paralympics, as well as other locations around the Olympic Park. They made appearances at hockey, snowboarding, and a bunch of other venues, rocking out to amazing renditions of Beatles and AC/DC on bagpipe. I was all set to interview them and went up to their band leader to coordinate a time. But we could barely communicate. The Scottish bagpipers are… Russian?
The story I set out to write was about how the bagpipers – who play such physically demanding instruments – train for performing four times a day, in some challenging conditions, all over the Olympic Park. I thought it would be a tongue-in-cheek article along the lines of, you think the athletes train hard, what about the bagpipers?
But suddenly I had to scramble back to the curling venue press center to arrange translation services. Everyone else, like me, just assumed they were Scottish. It was a great interview with the bagpipers, because they were also frustrated that everyone thought they were Scottish as well (including Russian TV stations, who attempted to interview them in broken English at one point). It ended up being a great story about multiculturalism, Russian pride, and how to order kilts online.
Like a Rolling Stone
As I mentioned, I missed being on venue during the Paralympics. So I decided to adopt myself onto the wheelchair curling team and help out there as much as possible. My snowboard supervisor, Phil, was also the supervisor for wheelchair curling, and I know he was just thrilled to have me back on his team, haha. After finally understanding the game of curling (it took a few days to get the hang of it), I was transfixed. Some people denounce curling as shuffleboard on ice, but the sport is nail-bitingly addictive. Some parts were so tense and fraught with nerves I had to watch through my fingers.
The atmosphere was also different from snowboarding. We interviewed the same athletes every day – curling is a round-robin competition, so each team must play every other team – and were able to develop a rapport with them. Since the athletes were in wheelchairs, the mixed zone was very well-organized and accessible, with chairs for the reporters so we could interview them at the same height. And since there were many fewer reporters, the mixed zone was calm and collected.
At the snowboarding venue, the athletes had complained about the snow conditions, saying “it’s not like a curling venue, where the ice is always the same.” One article I helped out with I interviewed the ice maker, since so many athletes were complaining about the ice. It turns out the Russian contractors hadn’t put in enough de-humidifier to deal with the deluge of rain that fell in the middle of the Paralympics, so the ice was actually not ideal and the athletes had some valid complaints (though, to be fair, all the athletes were dealing with the same difficulties on the ice). It was just fascinating to learn about how much the smallest intricacies can affect performance when people are competing at such a high level they’re looking for the smallest razor-thin advantages.
I was captivated by the strategy involved in curling, and the immense skill needed to play. After the gold medal game the team went onto the ice to try our hand at playing a few games and we all flopped all over the ice trying to throw the 42-pound stones. It was a blast.
There were so many other moments throughout the Olympics and Paralympics – watching the emotional closing ceremony at the Paralympics, or attending the USA – Russia sledge hockey game (I think sledge hockey is so much more exciting than standing hockey, since the athletes are sitting there’s a whole new dynamic to the game where they can flip the puck OVER other players), when my favorite guys won the slopestyle snowboard event, even thought I’m not supposed to have favorites, obviously everyone does, or making friends with the snowboard cross athletes, who were older and more eloquent than the young punks of slopestyle and halfpipe, or running along a newly constructed promenade on the Black Sea, with the sea on one side and beautiful vistas of the mountains stretching towards Georgia on the other. The first strains of the music from the flower ceremony, which never failed to move me, conversations with athletes who had made so many sacrifices to pursue the things they love. The montage of images that comes on at the beginning of each event, with a pounding base line that you can’t help but feel enthralled as the countdown commences.
Sochi2014 had a very strange motto: Hot. Cool. Yours. (Let’s hope it sounds better in Russian).
Working at Sochi 2014 was an incredible experience, one I am supremely grateful to have had as I embark on the next chapter of my life.
In the timeless words of halpipe gold medal winner Iouri Podlatchikov (iPod): “It’s hot. It’s cool. And it’s f&%*ing mine!”
This year, as I’ve mentioned earlier, has been a crazy amount of ups and downs. The month of my grandfather’s hospice was made even more difficult by the dengue. I wasn’t so sick from the dengue any more, but I needed so much emotional strength to be there for my grandmother and take care of the logistics, and I just had no reserves to draw upon. I was exhausted from the moment I got up. Even sleeping ten hours wasn’t enough. I felt like the heaviness of exhaustion behind my eyes would never go away.
But in that first week of hospice, just as I felt so sad and so physically ill, so adrift and not knowing what came next for me in life, I got an incredible email. While I was in Nicaragua, I had spent one full day at an internet cafe sending off resumes for possible short-term jobs to get back into the world of journalism. In the course of a day, I had applied for jobs in Africa, New Mexico, and Russia. All of them were reaches, especially Russia. I saw a Facebook post on group for people who’ve worked at Outside Magazine for a job as a reporter at the Winter Olympics. Fat chance, I thought.
Then, while I was sitting in my grandfather’s hospice room, I got an email from Sochi 2014, asking when I’d be available for an interview. And would I be interested in covering the Paralympics as well?
My Skype interview was a week later, 2 AM Philadelphia time, 11 AM Moscow time. Somehow I convinced them that writing one blog post about Lindsey Vonn five years ago during an internship at Outside Magazine qualified me with “extensive experience” to cover skiing and snowboarding. Before I knew it, I was assigned to the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park – freestyle skiing and snowboarding, including aerials, moguls, halfpipe, and a whole lot of bragging rights. Here’s the hilarious uniform I’ll be wearing:
I’ll be working for the Olympics for their in-house wire service, providing extensive coverage of my events for journalism outlets that won’t be able to send reporters to all of the qualifying rounds for each event.
The job came at an absolute perfect time. The mid-January start date meant I got to spend plenty of time with my grandmother after the funeral, helping her get settled. Financially, I’ll be making more at the Olympics than I made in my salary for the Jerusalem Post, so that was a huge weight off my shoulders as well. I find it hilarious that I quit my job, traveled for ten months to five continents, worked for two months, and will end up richer than I started.
Also, my grandfather was still conscious when I got the news. I waltzed into his room that day with the Olympic theme song playing, a piece of paper with the Olympic rings, and a big grin on my face. It was all the more special being able to share the news with him while he was still able to appreciate it.
It also gave me something to look forward to during a difficult time, to know that my life had some direction just as I was dealing with a lot of unknown relatives wanting to know when I’ll settle down. “I’m working at the Olympics” doesn’t inspire the same Jewish naches as “I’m marrying a doctor/lawyer and we’re going to have 2.8 beautiful babies and a white picket fence,” but it sure sounds cool.
And the best part? When I was out in Philly, going up to the bar and ordering a bunch of Russian vodka shots for me and my friends. And I told the bartender the truth: “I need them, you see. I’m training for the Olympics.”
Among the things that my family most loved about Grandfather were his dietary rules. “Butter is unhealthy, you should never use butter, you should only use olive oil,” he would tell us when we were served bread at a restaurant, while he was smothering his roll in enormously massive amounts of olive oil. “I’m on a diet, I always eat very healthy,” he would tell us at the height of seriousness in the morning, over his bowl of Trix sugary cereal, the neon colors the artificial fruit reflected in his glasses. But in the end, Grandfather was mostly healthy and certainly happy until the age of 91, so he was obviously doing something right.
The things I most closely associate with Grandfather are his insistence on backing into parking spaces – so as not to run over little children – and the way he would know exactly what he wanted at all of his favorite haunts. “I don’t need to see a menu,” he would boast to us, and the hostess would always greet him by name and already know his order.
In this last difficult month of hospice, a hospice rabbi gave us a book called “A Book of Jewish Curiosities.” The random collection of Jewish knowledge wasn’t exactly the comforting liturgy I had in mind, but there was one section that grabbed me. In the 12th century, the rabbis published a book dealing with the intricacies of the physical body called Sefer Shaashuim. This is what 12th century Jewish mystics had to say about the eye: “Of all the nerves in the body, the optic nerves are the only ones which are hollow, to allow the power of light to pass through them from the brain to the retina.”
I read this tidbit as I saw Grandfather, a source of light for so many people, lying in the hospice bed. I’ll never understand optometry as intimately or as deeply as he did, but those 12th century mystics captured something in that verse: that vision, or learning how to correct vision, is about harnessing that power of light.
One of my favorite stories about Grandfather that I heard from Nana during this past month was when she went to have him check her eyes at a Sears store in the Willow Grove Mall, where he was filling in temporarily. As she waited her turn in the waiting room, a patient came out of Grandfather’s examining room beaming. “Does everybody come out of there laughing?” the patient asked the secretary.
For so many people, Grandfather was the power of light. With his corny jokes, and their punchlines all written in precise and minute handwriting on a 3×5 index card he kept in his breast pocket. The way he continued working with joy, until the amazing age of 89. Neil calculated that over the years, Grandfather has done approximately 250,000 eye exams. That’s an astounding half a million eyes that see better thanks to Grandfather. When I emailed the staff of the Philly Inquirer and suggested they do an article about his retirement at 89, the columnists were so impressed they started fighting via email over who got to do the story.
Though sometimes his stubborn habits and viewpoints were vexing, and his relationship with my family was never perfect, Grandfather brought so much light into our lives.
And most of all he brought light into my Nana’s life. Throughout this last terrible month I have seen their love hold strong right until the very end. Even when he lost the ability to speak, he would purse his lips just slightly and she knew he was looking for a kiss. His whole face would brighten whenever she came into the room. Even as he got closer to the end and seemed more and more gaunt, that irresistible smile and those beautiful blue eyes, full of light, didn’t change.
Nana told me over and over again how lucky she was to find true love not once but twice in her life. There was always enough room in both of their hearts for Rhoda and for my Pop-Pop Richard, and that never took away from the love that they had for each other. They had space for everyone.
“We knew every single day was a gift,” Nana has told me over and over. “I mean, who gets married at 75?” From their cruises and railroad trips, to frequent trips down the Shore where they basked in the perks of being treated like rich people at the casinos, they squeezed the most out of each day. “Or even when we were just sitting in the family room watching TV, we’d say to each other, you know, there is absolutely nowhere else in the world I would rather be right now,” Nana says. What I learned from Nana and Grandfather is the beautiful things that happen when you take that risk to live each day full of light and love.
So I want to thank you, Grandfather, for teaching me how to see things in their full light. I want to thank you for bringing so much light into the lives of the people around you, your patients, your friends, your family.
On Friday morning, after they called to tell us you had passed, I sat at the table and poured myself a big bowl of Trix in your honor. And you know what? It was terrible.
Grandfather always loved pictures – his apartment was full of them. He loved when I took pictures of him with the family his last month, and always had a big smile and looked right at the camera. For me, making this project was a way to distance myself from some of the emotional pain of watching someone you love die slowly, to look at it as I would approach any story, with a bit of distance and neutrality. Here’s what I made.
It’s only half-time and already they’ve dubbed this football game “The Snow Bowl,” calling it “a game for the ages,” four hours of watching the Philly Eagles and the Detroit Lions frolic like boys in a schoolyard through half a foot of snow on the field. In a beige room in a strip mall 21 miles from the stadium, the snow falls and clings to the window in the same pattern as the helmets of the football players. We watch them slip and slide with wide grins on their faces as my grandfather clings to life, watching his beloved Eagles play for one last time.
Sanitizing the dying process at a spotless hospice with soft lighting, soothing hallway carpets, and Christmas carols piped into the dining room doesn’t make it any easier. Even a comfortable goodbye is still a goodbye, 91 years ending in the indignity of Depends and Nectar® food thickening paste after liquids become too difficult to swallow. Each day, we come in to find a little less of grandfather and a little more hospital bed, a slow decline as autonomous parts of the body fail one by one, a heartbreaking process with only one outcome.
Down by 14-0 at halftime, the Eagles seem poised to lose, though I desperately want them to win for grandfather. Each touchdown takes on more urgency because you never know if that’ll be the last of the game and perhaps the last one ever for my grandfather the optometrist, who’s lived in Philadelphia his whole life and loves the Phillies even more than the Eagles.
They’re both in shortsleeves – the football players, their bare muscles rippling against the snow, and my grandfather, in a patterned blue polo that matches his eyes. Each day his skin gets thinner and thinner and now you can watch the blood pulsing through each individual vein. It’s strange to see the same snow covering both scenes – snowflakes on those strong vibrant football players and snowflakes on the bare tree outside my grandfather’s dying room.
Does a long goodbye make it any easier? A person is wired to get used to anything. Two weeks in and you’ve already acclimated to the new situation of “dying” – even normalized a bit to get into a “dying routine” of visiting the nursing home, chatting with the cleaning staff, taking breaks to pillage the salad bar at Whole Foods. But even as you’ve absorbed this new change somehow it’s just not possible to grasp the idea that at the end of the dying comes the death.
As the snow comes down, my grandfather, agitated now, even though the Eagles have won, struggles against the bed and the blankets and the indignities of slowly dying. Perhaps the next time the Eagles play this room will be empty – a harsh December wind tearing at a window looking in on an empty bed, where just last week a 91-year-old optometrist watched the Eagles play in the snow like children.
This year has been an incredible rollercoaster of events – going back to Egypt for the third anniversary of the Jan 25 Revolution, quitting my job, packing up my life, going back to the US with no plans for this coming year except to travel. Jetting off for Australia, basically on a whim, checking off a life bucket list by WWOOFing and taking an incredible solo hike for my birthday. Biking in terrible weather through Australia’s monsoon season (who knew Australia even HAD a moon season?) for some stunning coastline with my best friend from college. Then meeting a stranger online and biking through Vietnam together – then challenging myself to bike by myself through Laos and Cambodia. Back home for my grandparents’ 70th anniversary, and then, again on a whim, heading to Nicaragua for more WWOOFing.
My last week on the farm was bittersweet. I was frustrated that physically there were so many things I couldn’t do, and I felt so weak doing things I had been able to do easily just a week earlier, like use a machete to chip off kindle for firewood or bring water from the well. Still, it was wonderful to be back on the farm, I really felt like there were so many wonderful relationships I made there, with the workers and Miguel and the people who live in the village. I decided to donate school and art supplies so that hopefully when future volunteers come to the farm, they will have the materials to easily lead recreation for the kids. Matagalpa doesn’t have the best selection of books (most of them are poorly translated Disney knockoffs where the plots don’t even make sense – in Pinnochio, the nose doesn’t even grow!). Still, the kids gobbled them up. We’d start every day with a few games like “Red Light/Green Light” London Bridge is Falling Down (made more culturally appropriate by ‘Matagalpa bridge’) or some songs with funny hand movements. But eventually the kids would start complaining. “Can we stop playing and start reading already?”
Even more exciting, some of the teenagers started showing up as well, at first just to watch from the sides, and then they started asking for books as well. Some of them can read at a lower level, so even though I had only bought children’s books it was a good fit for them. The kids also went nuts over two puzzles I brought, though I doubt those will keep all their pieces for long.
Starting these recreation sessions is definitely the achievement I am most proud of this year. With the materials, I’m hoping future volunteers at Miguel’s farm will be able to continue the “classes” so it will be sustainable. I’m not expecting these sessions to make a huge difference in their lives, but these kids have so little stimulation I think any kind of organized recreation will at least make them happy and encourage them to learn to read.
For my “despedida” (goodbye party) I bought a chicken to kill for a big meal for all the farm workers. The owner Miguel also donated a chicken so we would have enough to eat. The chickens, however, had other plans.
I stayed as late as I could at the farm, heading back to Matagalpa at the last possible second. I did, however, have enough time in Matagalpa to do a few medical tests. While I tested negative for Chagas (thank god) I did discover that I had a parasite (I mean really, given the events of the past year, that’s not a big surprise, just a pain in the ass). When I got those results back I just threw up my hands and was like, “Ok, Nicaragua, you’ve got me. I’m going back to America to get healthy. I give up.”
When I got back to Matagalpa and finally called my parents, there was some terrible news waiting at home. During my last week on the farm, my grandfather’s prostate cancer had metastasized. He’d been struggling with pain in his lower spine for the past six months, and they finally realized that the cancer had spread to his spine and through the rest of his body. My mother had desperately been trying to get in touch with me while I was on the farm, but I was unreachable. After some difficult decisions in the emergency room, the family decided to move my grandfather to a nursing home for hospice care. Doctors gave him a few weeks to live. I decided rather than staying in Boston to figure out my next step, I would move in with my grandmother in Philly to help her during the hospice and after the funeral.
So within 72 hours, I had hiked out of the farm, gone for a few goodbye beers in Matagalpa, flew back to America at a terrible 2 am flight, missed my connecting flight from Florida to Boston due to a nasty TSA official in customs getting back into the US, had a nervous dengue-inspired hysterical breakdown when I realized I’d have to pay $400 for a new flight to Boston (you suck, TSA), eventually made it to Boston, slept in my bed for 13 hours, and got on a train for Philadelphia. The shock of changing cultures so dramatically and so radically smacked me around even further when I saw my grandfather, emaciated, in the hospital bed in the nursing home.
It sure has been a rollercoaster of a year – highs and lows, life-affirming happiness, and now struggling to deal with the terribleness of a slow decline towards death.
THAT’S JUST THE DENGUE TALKING.
At first, it just felt like a regular head cold. I’ve spent most of my time in Nicaragua dealing with one health malaise or another – if it’s not some stomache problem from the food or the water, then it’s a cold or a sore throat from being constantly damp and never drying out, or some weird skin reaction to an insect or plant or impenetrable rubber boots from living in the campo or life in general.
So when I started getting sick on Saturday, the day before I was supposed to head back out ot the farm where I am volunteering in rural Matagalpa, I didn’t think much of it. I popped some vitamin C, guzzled some fake orange juice, and continued about my night. Throughout the course of the night, I started feeling worse and worse. But we were making a feast at a friend’s house, and I figured I could just tough it out.
When I finally stumbled into my bed that night, I knew I was seriously sick. I was feverish, I had a pounding headache. Oh great, the flu, I thought. I rummaged in my mold-covered medicine bag and extracted the last two generic sudafed from Bangkok that hadn’t disintigrated with the Nicaraguan moisture, and hoped I’d feel better in the morning.
Plans the next morning to make French toast were cancelled. “I can barely move,” I told Anna and Tracy the next morning when I still hadn’t sent them smoke signals at the ungodly late hour of 9:30 AM. “I can’t do anything.”
I’ve never been sick like this before. I spent the day shivering in bed, as my fever would alternately rocket through the roof and then break, leaving me drenched in sweat. Lying still hurt my bones, a deep ache that I had never experienced before. I cancelled plans to go back to the farm. “Are you hungover?” the farm owner asked me via SMS. “God, I wish,” I replied. The pain seemed to originate in my bones, then travel up towards my head, gathering strength and steam before exploding outwards.
That night, my friends came over to the hostel where I was staying to cook me dinner, concerned by my state of health. “Does it feel like you have pain shooting out of your eyeballs?” Tracy asked at one point. “Oh my god, that’s exactly what it feels like!” I exclaimed. “Yep, it’s probably dengue,” she replied.
But the next morning I awakened feeling much better, still with a fever and aches but much less intense. I tried to convinced myself that it was just a 24 hour flu, but decided to get it checked out at the clinic just in case. A long day spent in the Clinica Santa Fe waiting room, however, dashed my hopes.
De-de-de-dengue, the results came back. Apparently it’s typical for the disease to back off in the second day before it restrikes with a vengence for the rest of the “critical period” of approximately five days.
I spent most of the next few days in a horizontal position. I think as a defense mechanism my brain has blocked out memories of how bad the dengue pain was, but I vaguely remember lying in bed and whimpering because it hurt to lie down.
But the symptoms passed, as symptoms do. I believe my dengue was much milder than it could have been, as already on the fourth and fifth day I was starting to feel better, just incredibly exhausted. A half hour trip to get batidos at the Palacio de Batidos suddenly necessitated a three hour nap to recover. Walking to the Supermarket La Matagalpa required mustering energy for an entire morning beforehand.
I was lucky, both with the relative mildness of my dengue and my access to medical care and ability to pay for it. A same-day doctor’s consult at a private clinic, bloodwork, and medicine to deal both with my fever and cold symptoms set me back a whopping $13.75, a laughable amount for any Westerner. Returning to the farm, when I explained to the members of the community that dengue had caused my unplanned absence, I heard horror stories from other residents about their own dealings with the disease. One mother matter-of-factly told me that the year before her youngest son had had hemorrhaging dengue, a much more dangerous strain of the disease. With little emotion she described watching blood pour out of every orifice on his face as his fever shot up, but not having the means or the money to get out of the community to get medical help. Luckily, the boy survived.
While I was certainly on the mend, what I wasn’t prepared for was a side effect of the dengue: homesickness. Back on the farm, I sat under my mosquito net in the mud floor hut and felt a little guilty as I wished hard for Indian food and hot showers and everything that America offers – pizza and central heating and access to a car. The dengue hit during my last two weeks in Nicaragua, and I spent my last week in the country mobile but with an overwhelming exhaustion settled behind my eyes and deep in my bones. That, I knew, was a result of the dengue. But inside the dengue was a small voice whispering something I had barely heard in a decade of travel: “I want to go home.”
I haven’t spent longer than a month in America in five years. I’ve been on the move since I was 18, chasing one adventure after another and cobbling together odd jobs in my free time to supplement this obsession with travel. I’ve lived on four different continents, traveled 10,000 km by bicycle through eight countries. I’ve been thoroughly lucky to have avoided strange and tropical diseases until the dengue of Nicaragua started up with this strange chorus: “time to go home.” Perhaps the dengue is right? My grandfather is dying. I’m worried I don’t even know my brother anymore, and that my family doesn’t think they can depend on me.
And then I’m confused. How much of this is the dengue talking, and how much of this is the real Melanie struggling to get heard, her defenses weakened by a tropical virus to the point where she’s actually listening to her body struggling with the exhaustion of constantly moving?
Five days into the dengue, I met a volunteer with a gorgeously illustrated shark tattoo and asked what it meant. “It’s because I love travel,” she explained. “And sharks can never stop moving, or they will die.” “Even when they sleep?” I asked, incredulous. “Even when they sleep.” A month ago I would have loved that explanation, would have thought about incorporating more shark imagery into my own wanderings. But suddenly her tattoo exhausted me. Perhaps that was the dengue talking, moving quickly through my veins in the early days of the disease. Because I can’t suddenly be ready to settle down just because of a nasty mosquito bite.
I write this just a few hours before my plane takes off from Managua to Florida. In less than 24 hours, I’ll be wrapped in a comforter in my childhood bed outside of Boston. According to the experts, the virus will still be wending it’s way through my body for the next two to four weeks, even as I enjoy the perks of washing machines and Keurig coffee makers. So I’ve promised myself no big decisions, just time in limbo to sleep, reconnect with my family, rest, eat Indian food. There will be a time to make a decision about what comes next in my life, whether I trade my backpack for a steadier job, or my life abroad for American familiarity. But I’m not rushing anything, because I want to make sure that it’s the real me making the decisions, and not the dengue talking.