Wheels up, David

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NPR photojournalist David Gilkey

NPR photojournalist David Gilkey sticks out his tongue and strikes a pose as he prepares to leave from Pittsburgh International Airport at 5:48 a.m. on Sunday, March 6, 2016. Gilkey was the opening night speaker at the Welcome a Stranger Journalism Conference and Multimedia Workshop at Allegheny College March 3-4 2016. Gilkey died on assignment in Helmand Province, Afghanistan on June 5, 2016. Photo by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2016, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Outside the Box, by Cheryl Hatch. Copyright 2016

Wheels up.

My friend David Gilkey sent me a text as he left Washington, D.C. last March. He’d already posted a photo of sunrise from his plane window as he sat at the gate waiting to taxi to takeoff.

David spoke and wrote in short, efficient phrases. Understood. Roger that. He’d covered the military for years and the precision and cadence stuck.

When I’d written him months earlier to invite him to speak at Allegheny College, he responded, “I’m in.”

David did not give many public lectures. He came because I asked him. He came because he’s my friend. He came because he said he would, despite the fact that he’d only just returned from three weeks on assignment for National Public Radio in scorched, ravaged South Sudan.

David was the keynote speaker on March 4, 2016, at our “Welcome the Stranger” journalism conference and multimedia workshop.

Three months later, on June 5, 2016, the Taliban killed David and his Afghan translator and friend, Zabihullah Tamanna, near Marjah in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

David and I had known each other since college. We both worked on our student daily newspaper. We both wanted to be photojournalists.

After college, I went overseas first. I went into conflict first—the civil war in Liberia. David followed and then, over the years, surpassed me. We worked in some of the same places—Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan. But we were never in the same place at the same time.

And when I eventually opted out of covering conflict, David hit his stride. In his youth, his anger, in part, drove him. As he matured, it was his indignation and resolve to witness; and, through his photographs, show the world the entire spectrum of what he’d witnessed. Depravity. Death. Joy. Resilience. Love.

David first visited Allegheny College via Skype. He was the subject of the news writing students’ interview for their final exam in December 2014. While he was talking with the students, he asked for a moment to take a call. He returned and finished the interview. He remained available for the students’ questions throughout the three-hour exam.

I had a question. Gilkey, what was the call? It was a notification: our friend and fellow photojournalist, Michel duCille, had died of a heart attack on assignment covering the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.

David was the first person I called when I started planning my trip to Liberia, scheduled for later that December. He’d already been one of the first journalists on the ground in Liberia and he’d traveled to Sierra Leone and Guinea to cover the epidemic. I asked for his advice.

Rubber boots, David said. Take rubber boots. And don’t get close, Cheryl. It can kill you.

David knew the risks of his work. He accepted them and mitigated them to the best of his ability. He wasn’t reckless by nature though he did love a good shot of adrenaline: downhill skiing, scuba diving. And covering conflict and natural disasters.

In March, we had four hours before we’d return to the airport to collect Carrie Kahn, another speaker and NPR correspondent in Mexico City. We headed to Primanti Brothers in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. David’s idea. He knew more about the city than I did and I’d be in Pennsylvania nearly four years. We ate the classic sandwich with fries wedged between the slices of bread. At David’s memorial service in July in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, his friends told stories of his love of food, from “street meat” to fine dining in pricey, celebrated restaurants.

That was David. He enjoyed the fine things in life: a pair of hand-stitched leather boots and first-class travel. And he could live in the most grim and challenging conditions. He could sleep in the dirt and cold and go for weeks without a shower.

When David and I met, we wouldn’t share war stories. On our last visit, we talked about our aging parents and our concern and love for them. We talked about our Humpty-Dumpty hearts, each shattered by a beloved. A sanctuary and sacred trust violated. For both of us, the betrayal marked a profound wounding and trauma that pierced us to our core and persisted.

David spoke about his work and legacy. He had a keen desire to see the bulk and span of his work in Afghanistan edited, collected, shared and preserved. David had traveled to Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. He humped through the country with Marines and soldiers at least once a year, often more, throughout the entire 14-year war, the longest in American history. He was committed to the story. And he died covering it, long after the gaze of the public and media had turned away.

He showed me photographs on his phone of his new home in D.C. It was a beautiful space, a photographer’s home, full of windows and light. My house is your house, Cheryl. You’re welcome any time, even if I’m not there. I told him I’d come see him as soon as he got back.

I was home sick and wide-awake the night of June 3, 2016. It would have been June 4 already in Afghanistan. On an impulse, I sent David a text, must have been the fever. I had no idea if it’d reach him. He responded immediately.

I was still in bed the next day when Carrie Kahn called me, sobbing. David’s dead.

Later, I checked my phone to see if I’d written “I love you” in that last text. I hadn’t.

I know I said it at the airport three months earlier. Since David’s death, I make a point to say I love you to friends and family, when I finish a phone call or part company. Some were uncomfortable with it at first. “It’s my tribute to David,” I would offer and they would understand.

Last March, we needed to leave Meadville at 3:30 a.m. for his 7 a.m. flight. You don’t need to take me, Cheryl. Get some hung-over student to drive me there. No way. I insisted.

We arrived bleary-eyed and laughing at 5:45 a.m. It wasn’t a long good-bye. David grabbed his bags. I grabbed a selfie. We hugged. I told him I’d see him in D.C.

With my phone, I snapped a couple frames of David in the dim light in front of the departure terminal. He kicked up his leg, stuck out his tongue. And left.

Wheels up, David.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/columns/outside-the-box-i-love-you-tribute-to-friend-killed/article_7d68b5c8-c179-11e6-b064-ab17766afd1e.html

Practice what we prize

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By Cheryl Hatch/Copyright 2016

 

“Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

 

When student journalists put the final fall issue of the college newspaper to bed last December, I breathed a sigh of relief. Incredibly, we’d made it through the semester without any threats. Challenges, yes. Threats, no.

 

They published their last issue for this academic year on Friday, April 29, 2016. We celebrated another award-winning year—and a full year unmarred by threats.

I’m the adviser for the student newspaper. I am also a career journalist who’s covered conflict in the Middle East and Africa. I came to the college in 2012 after completing assignments in Afghanistan.

 

In a decade of covering conflict, I’ve dealt with threats. I never expected to encounter threats on a small college campus.

 

In my first year as adviser, a student journalist wrote an article about a sex education workshop that generated some controversy—and threats, many from fellow students. Some of the threats were anonymous, through social media; others through the grapevine. Some threats implied bodily harm. The student’s mother said she was coming to remove her daughter from campus out of fear for her safety.

 

I spoke with the student’s mother, the counseling center and campus security. The dean of students joined the conversation. The student did not return to her dorm room that weekend. She stayed in a secure location with friends.

 

Another story reported the arrests of two students on multiple drug charges. After this story published, a group of students stormed the newsroom, shouting and throwing things. One of the frightened student journalists had 9-1-1 keyed on her cell phone. When another student journalist was walking across campus with a stack of newspapers for delivery, a passing student asked if she worked for the paper. She said yes, and the student spit on her.

 

After a story last year, a student was singled out in her class, bullied and intimidated solely for her participation on the newspaper. Despite the stress she felt in class, she didn’t file a complaint. She feared reprisal and further harassment. She feared her grade might suffer. I checked in with her in person or by text after nearly every class.

 

In the spring of 2015, a student objected to an opinion piece about snow removal. He wrote a lengthy, angry, threatening email to the student writer then later to the editors. He demanded the opinion piece be removed and he wanted an apology, though he was not the subject of the piece.

 

The student journalists offered the appropriate recourse for the aggrieved student. They told him that he could write a letter to the editor or his own guest column. He didn’t. He continued to intimidate the staff, primarily through email until one night he came into the newsroom uninvited and hovered over an editor.

 

I spoke with the counseling center multiple times and campus security. I discussed the situation with the student editors and they decided they would try to work through it before they asked the counseling center and administrators to intervene.

Next, I was called into a meeting and learned the angry student had filed a complaint against me. He was threatening legal action.

 

I explained the emails, the escalating, out-of-proportion behavior and the course of action I’d taken. I expressed my genuine concern for the safety and wellbeing of the student journalists and myself. The administrators blamed me for not meeting with the student. I said that I would not meet with a student who had threatened other students.

The student journalists handed over all the emails and explained their concerns. We were sure that would be the end of it.

 

I was called into another meeting and asked to sign a no-contact order, indicating that I would have no contact with the student. I didn’t understand. What is it? And why would I sign a no-contact order for a student with whom I’ve had no contact? Will he sign an order to have no contact with the student journalists and me? I declined to sign a no-contact order.

 

In the last meeting, the administrators told me the student had said I was harassing and following him, making him uncomfortable. I said that’s simply impossible since I didn’t know him. Noting details revealed in the conversation, I realized that the student knew my schedule and routine and he was following and observing me.

 

The administrators said they found him credible. I found a lawyer.

 

I followed my attorney’s advice. I wrote an “in-case-anything-should-happen-to-me” letter, tucked it in a drawer and informed a trusted friend of its content and my situation. She encouraged me to trust my intuition.

 

I stopped returning to my office at night. I changed my schedule and routine. We changed the open-door policy at the newsroom. The door now remains shut and locked when students are working.

 

On the advice of my attorney, I did not attend our college’s bicentennial graduation last May. I didn’t see students I’d come to respect and cherish, including several members of the newspaper staff, celebrate their accomplishments. I didn’t get to meet their families and pose for photographs. I left town.

 

After the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon last fall, my friend texted me: I couldn’t help but think of you spring semester.

 

Our college has a statement of community that offers students and employees “an inclusive, respectful and safe residential learning community that will actively confront and challenge racism, sexism, heterosexism, religious bigotry, and other forms of harassment and discrimination.”

 

I have not experienced this community.

It’s said that if students are going to be journalists, they should get used to criticism and learn to weather the tough spots. That’s true. A career in journalism will require a thick skin. As the late, iconic White House reporter Helen Thomas said: “We don’t go into journalism to be popular. It is our job to seek the truth and put constant pressure on our leaders until we get answers.”

 

It’s one thing for someone to object to a story in the college newspaper; it’s another to cross the line into bullying and threats. I want people to remember that the student journalists are first and foremost students. They are entitled to the rights and protections in their learning environment as outlined in the statement of community.

 

I understand this abusive intolerance is not unique to our campus. It’s become part of our political polemics. It’s voiced nationally and globally. We need to address the problem.

College is a place to learn to think critically and speak freely. Our college offers an annual prize of Civility in Public Life. Practicing civility on our campus would be a good start.

Let’s create a class that teaches students how to read the news and respond respectfully. Let’s learn to offer criticism without condemnation. Let’s teach students how to disagree without hurling toxic language, accusations and threats.

 

I’ve been warned that speaking up about these incidents could have repercussions. I also know I am a journalist and an educator. I teach in a newsroom and a classroom. I teach by example.

 

I will no longer be silent.

 

And I will attend graduation this year.

 

Note: This column was first published on The Huffington Post on May 5, 2016.

Emerald swings for the fences

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Emerald Wright-Collie climbs the stairs to the enter the auditorium at Allegheny College’s commencement ceremony on May 14, 2016 in the Wise Center. Wright-Collie graduated with a bachelor of arts in communication arts and a minor in journalism in the public interest. Photo by Cheryl Hatch/c. 2016

Outside the Box, by Cheryl Hatch, Copyright 2016

Each semester in our news writing class, I give students an assignment to interview a professional journalist. Below are the opening words of the assignment.

Have fun and aim high. This assignment is for you. It gives you an opportunity to network and learn from a professional journalist. Be bold. Prepare well. Ask thoughtful, intimate questions.

 I then ask a few students which journalist they’d like to interview. In my first semester at Allegheny, a woman in the back of the class said Anderson Cooper. A few students laughed, snickered possibly. I asked the student why she chose Cooper. She’d followed his coverage of Katrina. She admired him and his work.

She sent emails and called his office. She wrote a letter that I passed from a friend to a friend to a relative of Cooper’s. She worked all semester to score the interview. She didn’t get it. She did get the assignment and made the most of it. As a professor, I value and encourage that kind of failure.

That’s Emerald. She swings for the fences.

During our “Story Next Door” journalism conference in 2014, Emerald studied the work of the speakers and made sure to meet each of them. She didn’t know about f-stops and exposure, but she knew she wanted to learn more about photojournalism. She sought out Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Michael Williamson of The Washington Post and spent an afternoon with him on the Ernst Trail, learning to see light and moments.

At our conference this year, Emerald took a point-and-shoot camera to Erie and documented the arrival of a refugee family from Somalia and the neighbors who welcomed them to their new home. Her photo of 8-year-old Adna Hirsi ran in the Erie Times-News.

When she was exploring media relations as a career path, she followed a lead and contacted an Allegheny alumnus who worked in marketing for the Miami Heat. She met with him over her summer break. When she wanted to learn more about sports reporting, Emerald contacted an Associated Press reporter who covers the Marlins and studied him as he covered a Major League game.

Emerald also swings and misses. She missed deadlines. She missed classes. She missed appointments.

We started meeting every Friday.

We talked about the internship she was completing at The Meadville Tribune. During these conversations, I realized Emerald was up against some tough odds and demanding circumstances. Allegheny can be a challenging environment inside the classroom and outside it. Each year, nearly every semester, Emerald had an obstacle to surmount outside her college life—outside her control. She persevered.

There were a few semesters when she wasn’t sure she would return. And she always returned.

People think I’m stupid, Emerald said, during one of our conversations. They act surprised when I say something intelligent.

I assured her that I’d had the same challenges in my career. I told her I consider it a tactical advantage when people misjudge and underestimate me. I carry Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote in my head for just such occasions: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

As an educator now, I follow the example of professors who made a difference in my college career. Dr. Rob, who died earlier this year. When I was knocked off balance and off course my sophomore year, his words and strong presence helped me right myself.

And Jim, my adviser and photojournalism professor. I got a B+ on one of my first photojournalism assignments. I asked him what I had to do to get an A. He asked why I wanted an A. Because it’s there, I thought. Because an A is the best score, I said.

He told me my prints were too flat, not enough contrast. No true white or true black, not enough tonal range. I spent hours in the darkroom and went through boxes of photo paper on each assignment. By the end of the semester, I knew how to print. And I earned that A.

That’s one of the reasons I treasure Emerald. She never gave up—even when the going got tough. She pursued her education with grit and gusto.

I tell students that how they show up in the classroom is how they’ll show up in life.

Emerald shows up. She keeps showing up.

She reminds me a bit of me. I swing for the fences, too.

Emerald has smarts. No doubt about it. She also possesses the skills and qualities that I can’t teach, skills I deem valuable in a career and life. Emerald has moxie. She shows determination, resourcefulness and undaunted initiative. She can read a room and read people. And call b.s. from a mile away.

With her family in attendance, Emerald will graduate on Saturday with a degree in communication arts and a minor in journalism in the public interest. With her senior composition, she tied together all her interests: media studies, journalism, basketball, social justice. In her comp entitled “James the Savior: An Analysis of the Construction of a Cultural Myth in his Return to Cleveland,” she analyzed the messages that LeBron James embodies in photographs.

Emerald’s got game. And she’s got a job. After graduation, she’s moving to New York.

While she’s there, I bet she’ll score that interview with Anderson Cooper.

 

Note: I offer my congratulations to the 2016 Allegheny College students who’ll graduate Saturday. I want to especially acknowledge and thank Emerald, Christina, Meghan, Becca and Chloe; we all started at Allegheny together, and it has been my privilege to work with and learn from you. Congratulations to the parents, family members, friends, professors and staff who helped you cross the finish line, the stage and the threshold to your new lives and careers.

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Emerald Wright-Collie greets President Jim Mullen as she receives her diploma at Allegheny College’s commencement ceremony on May 14, 2016 in the Wise Center. Photo by Cheryl Hatch/c. 2016

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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My mother is strong, fierce—and fragile

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Outside the Box, a column by Cheryl Hatch/copyright 2016

I am not a mother.

I have not known the joy of bringing a life into this world or the pain of watching my child leave it.

As a photographer, I have witnessed a birth in a home on a farm in Ohio. I stood in that scared, translucent space where love and new life mingle, as a child slipped from his mother’s womb into his father’s waiting hands.

In a hospital in Somalia, I have been in that equally sacred space where life slips away on one last breath. In Iraq, I watched a Kurdish mother caress the dirt over her infant’s grave, running her fingers through the soil the way she might have one day run her fingers through her daughter’s curls.

My mother’s mother did not want her to marry my father. She feared she’d waste the college education purchased so dearly just a few decades after the Great Depression. My mother, usually the good girl, defied her mother and married my father. “I love him,” she said.

Dad graduated a year ahead of my mother with a commission in the U.S. Army. He flew back from overseas for their June wedding. There would be no honeymoon. Dad had to be at his station and the Army wouldn’t pay for Mom’s ticket. They saved their quarters, literally, so the bride could purchase a plane ticket and accompany her husband to their new home.

Mom got settled in a room above the barn in a German farmhouse and Dad promptly left for the field. At 21, my mother was alone; an ocean away from the small island where she’d lived her entire life. No friends. No family. And no German language skills.

Soon mom was pregnant with me.

There would be five children—one who did not survive. 26 moves. Twenty-six times my mother would pack and unpack an entire household, usually alone. Dad was either already at his next post, in the field or away at war.

When my father left for his second tour in Vietnam, my mother was still in her twenties, with four children, my youngest brother not yet 1 year old.

When I look back, I marvel at how my mother held it all together. I think sometimes she didn’t.

My mother did not have a home of her own again until she was nearly 50. But she made do and made a home each and every day for my often-absent soldier father and their four children.

Mom grew up at a time when women had two career choices: teacher or nurse. My mom wanted to be a physical education teacher. That course of studies would have cost more money, so my mother became an elementary school teacher.

My mom is athletic and as competitive as they come. She played basketball and volleyball in high school. She came of age before Title IX and the opportunities it offered girls and women, so she set sports aside in college.

She played tennis when she could, until her back had other plans. She took up golf at 50. She’s had a couple hole-in-ones. And even now, when she’s putting well, she can score in the mid-40s for nine holes.

She started piano lessons in her late 60s. She writes poems. She’ll wake up in the middle of the night and put pen to paper. Every once in a while, I’ll get an envelope in the mail with a poem my mom wrote for me.

My mother is smart and tough and gifted with languages. She’s athletic and adventurous. She has an artist’s soul. She’s thoughtful and kind—to a degree that can leave her wounded by the thoughtlessness of others.

I have discovered that I am my mother’s daughter.

I rowed crew at a Division I university and earned a Pac-10 championship. I am a writer and photographer. I have traveled the world.

It’s no accident that in my work I have quietly raged against the patriarchal systems that suppress, stifle and dismiss women. The military. Journalism. Now academia.

Early in my career, I focused my camera and energy on women and children who had been displaced, caught in the crossfire of the men who made war and made the decisions.

Like my mother, I have been too nice. Too polite. Unfailingly thoughtful and long-suffering. To the detriment of my spirit and health.

Like my mother, later in my life, I have found my voice. I have given myself permission to speak my mind and my truth. Now, as an educator, I encourage other women to find and use their voices and talents.

When someone asks me where I’m from, I’m always challenged to find an accurate answer. One of my brothers says planet earth.

I have no home in the traditional sense. There’s the place I was born. The place I live now. The place I’ve lived the longest.

There has been one constant in my peripatetic life, my mother. The one fixed point in my moving life. She has held it—and us—together these many years.

My mother is strong, fierce—and fragile. I suspect all mothers are.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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Walking a fine line

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Outside the Box, a column by Cheryl Hatch/copyright 2016

Allegheny College is losing a treasure this week.

Director of Campus Communications Kathy Roos retires on April 29, 2016, after 19 years of service.

When I first met Kathy four years ago, I joked with her. You work for the dark side, I said. Public relations and journalism use the same skills for distinctly different objectives. Both tell stories. Sometimes we’re on the same page. Sometimes we’re not.

In my career as a professional journalist, I’ve encountered many public relations professionals who assume an adversarial or hostile approach to members of the media with whom they need to work. I can think of software giants who hire entire firms to craft their image and message, complete with stylists and wordsmiths who want to manage press conferences and photo opportunities. Politicians, the United States military, sports teams and colleges and universities all have public relations professionals on the payroll to help members of the media see things their way.

Kathy and I have both been around long enough that we realize that a working relationship can be built on respect and professionalism without thwarting our separate—and often disparate­—objectives.

In the four years I’ve had the privilege to work with Kathy at Allegheny, she’s been nothing but a pro—and unceasingly kind.

I often gauge people by the way they treat students, particularly student journalists at The Campus newspaper.

Kathy reads the student newspaper and has sent email messages complimenting the students on stories. I pass these messages to the students, where they serve as a kind of salve on the sting of remarks and rebukes they also receive.

This is an indication of a consummate communications pro. She can do her job while working with and respecting members of the media.

Last year, Sam Stephenson and Meghan Hayman won first place in the Society of Professional Journalists Region 1 Mark of Excellence Awards. This was a first for The Campus and a high achievement. The students earned the award for their coverage of the Kirk Nesset arrest.

Kathy wrote the press release and didn’t go into the details of the story that won the award. She highlighted the students’ accomplishment without citing the title of the news story, which would have brought renewed, potentially negative attention to the college.

In August 2013, Kathy responded to a request from community members and The Campus. A number of Meadville residents asked if the paper could include notices of campus events so they could attend. Kathy began compiling a weekly calendar of events at Allegheny College, which now fills a third of a news page in The Campus each week.

Two weeks ago, the student journalists hosted a surprise farewell party for Kathy in the newsroom, complete with balloons, cards and pizza. Christina Bryson, the editor-in-chief, offered her a prized Campus coffee mug, a gift of gratitude and respect.

Kathy, in turn, offered her congratulations to the students on their 2016 awards and commended them on their improved coverage.

I wrote part of this column Monday morning in the Market House Grille. I looked up to see a man tucked under a ball cap at a table next to the big frig. He was reading The Campus and I watched him study the page with the calendar of events.

Thank you, Kathy.

Since I arrived at Allegheny College, my goal has been to raise an awareness and understanding of journalism and its role on campus and in our community and democracy. I believe Kathy and I have been partners in this endeavor. We know and respect the limits of the partnership and honor the instances when we can collaborate.

Kathy attended every Ida Tarbell birthday party The Campus staff hosted. She wrote excellent releases for all the journalism in the public interest and Campus events, particularly our annual journalism conference and multimedia workshop. She wrote press releases that served faculty, staff and students from all parts of the Allegheny community.

Her good work brought local, regional and national media attention to the college.

Most mornings I look out my kitchen window and see Kathy and her husband of 42 years, Bob, walking to campus, often hand-in-hand. Bob, a professor of computer science, will retire, too.

On Monday morning, the smell of fresh-cut grass hung in the air as I backed my car out of the driveway. I saw Kathy and Bob walking down the brick road.

I stopped the car and jumped out. Not many more days, I called to Kathy.

She held up her right hand, showing five fingers.

I crashed their morning walk for a short distance, savoring a few moments of conversation.

I will miss Kathy Roos. The Campus journalists will miss her.

She walked the fine line between our two worlds with professionalism, dedication and respect. And she always walked that line with a gentle reverence for the integrity of words and importance of impeccable communication.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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Grief is a sneaker wave

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Outside the Box, by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2016

Grief is a sneaker wave.

As a college student, a sign greeted me at the Oregon coast: Beware of sneaker waves. It had a design of stick person being knocked over by a curling blue wave. I immediately had an image in my mind of a wave running to shore in Converse sneakers.

Turns out, sneaker waves are no joke. I was photographing at the coast—it’s called the coast, not the shore or the beach, for a good reason. It’s still a wild and untamed juncture where the ocean crashes into the land. I had scoffed at the warning and walked out to get closer to the surf. One minute I’m photographing on dry land, the next I’m up to my rib cage in cold Pacific water, dangling my cameras held high above my head. I turned and chugged toward land as quickly as I could. I was lucky another wave didn’t take me down. Or a random log didn’t knock me unconscious. Or the rush of water didn’t sweep me off my feet and under.

Grief has been sneaking up on me recently.

My Humpty-Dumpty heart has been shattered and cobbled together over the years. Wounded and healed again and again. Grief washes over and through me at unsuspected moments.

In my own life, I feel the loss of the children I wanted and never had. I have an abiding sorrow for the loss of the man I believed I’d spend the rest of my life with until he abandoned me. I still feel the loss of the people I’ve witnessed suffer and die in my long career as a journalist.

There’s been so much loss in my life in recent years. My friends felled by bullets and shrapnel in foreign lands. My friend who regularly questions why she should get out of bed in the morning after police assassinated her husband outside their home. I think of my friend whose mother beat back cancer several times and then decided enough was enough and crossed over surrounded by family in her daughter’s home. My friend mentioned how the deep pain of missing her mom show ups in all the “firsts” without her—Thanksgiving, Christmas, anniversaries, birthdays.

In February, I received a message from Brian Castner. We worked together covering the Ebola outbreak in Liberia in December 2014 and January 2015.

Prince Collins died.

Prince was a radio journalist. He’d been our fixer during our reporting and travels in Liberia. He’d arranged our press credentials and driver, Carton. He’d made introductions and connections for our sources and stories. He talked us through a checkpoint and dicey moment on New Year’s Eve returning to Monrovia. He always introduced us as his colleagues. He became our friend.

I sent Brian a text. “How are you feeling?”

“Surprisingly bad,” he responded. I felt the same.

Brian contacted the pastor at Prince’s church. He doesn’t know how Prince died. A sudden illness.

I hadn’t known Prince long; yet after a month covering the Ebola outbreak, we had shared meals and car rides, visited Ebola Treatment Units and attended funerals, watched rows of grave diggers carve deep rectangular holes in the red earth with pickaxes. Now I was viewing images of his casket and funeral on Facebook and reading the posted laments and remembrances of his friends, radio listeners and colleagues.

He left a young wife and family, who had welcomed us into their home at Firestone in Harbel. I liked Prince. I fully expected to see him and work with him again in Liberia.

On one of our last days in Liberia, Prince accompanied me as I shopped for gifts that Brian and I could bring home to our family and friends. We walked through tailor shops as I sought traditional handmade shirts. Prince offered advice on styles, patterns and colors. I wanted a saa saa, a hollow gourd with beads wrapped on its exterior with cotton thread, for my percussionist brother. We walked for a couple hours through the narrow, meandering alleys of the local markets. Prince made repeated inquiries until we found a vendor.

We shared our last meal at The Cape Hotel, looking out at the Atlantic. We celebrated the good work we’d done together and raised a glass to better days for Liberia.

And now Prince is gone.

Sneaker wave.

During spring break, I was in Rhode Island. My mom sent me a text. It’s seven years ago today that Sis died, Mom wrote. I miss her.

Ruth was my mom’s twin sister and my godmother. My aunt once told me the story of how she’d been sunbathing on the roof of her dormitory at nursing school when she felt a sharp pain in her stomach. She said she knew immediately that my mother was giving birth to me.

My mom and aunt spoke of the powerful bond between twins and the deep knowing and communication that passes between them and transcends spoken words. And now my mom is the lone living twin these past seven years.

Whenever I’m in Rhode Island, I visit the graves of my ancestors. Sometimes I stop to say hello. Sometimes I stop to say thank you. I stop to honor and remember them.

When I visited the graves over spring break, winter had taken its toll. The fabric of the American flags staked in the earth was shredded. Only brittle twigs remained where plants had once blossomed.

The next day I went to the local nursery to purchase spring flowers. A pink hyacinth and violas for one grandmother. A blue hyacinth and pansies for another.

I fixed the wind chimes on Ruth’s grave and placed one half of a charcoal blue scallop shell on her headstone. I planted violas and a pink hyacinth on her grave. Ruth loved to garden. Her back and front porches were lined with chimes that tinkled and clinked when the wind blew through.

That day broke open bright, blue-sky sunny. I could feel the warmth of the sun and breath of the wind on my face.

Joy is a sneaker wave, too.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/columns/column-grief-has-been-a-sneaker-wave-for-me-recently/article_1e70eb3f-7505-501f-b192-e51b356b5526.html

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Let’s keep our eyes, ears and hearts open

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Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch/copyright 2015

Before the Thanksgiving break, I asked students in our journalism class what they had planned for the holiday. Most were heading home to be with family.

A student visiting from Germany said she had no plans.

What? No one has invited you to share Thanksgiving? That can’t be right.

She shook her head. She said the dining hall would have a special meal. She and her fellow German exchange student would dine in the dorm instead of sharing the most American of holidays with a family.

I couldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t accept it. I called my landlord, John.

John, would you and Ellena be willing to have two German students join you for Thanksgiving? I explained the situation, that they had not received an invitation and had nowhere to go, that I would have hosted them, but I was traveling.

Gosh, Cheryl, I’d love to, but Lena’s not cooking this year. We’re having dinner with my sister’s family.

Less than 30 minutes later, I got a text from Ellena. Cheryl, I would love to invite the young women to join us for Thanksgiving. Change of plan and venue. Ellena went shopping.

On Thanksgiving afternoon, Ellena welcomed the students to her home with a monster turkey and all the trimmings. The students brought mulled wine they’d made as their Thanksgiving offering. Ellena, John and his son, Nick, and the guests from Germany ate, laughed and talked until 11 p.m.

My first semester at Allegheny, I went blind in my left eye. I was alone, new in town, fresh from recovery from a life-threatening illness. I needed help and I turned to people at work. I made a couple requests for assistance at the college—to no avail.

Far from friends and family, I was bereft. As a last resort, I asked my landlord, John, if he could give me a ride to my appointment with the specialist. John wasn’t available, but his girlfriend, Ellena, who I had not yet met, would take me. She switched her appointments with business clients that day and drove me to Erie. She was waiting for me when I returned, sad and scared, after learning that I would need surgery on my eye.

I am not good at asking for help. It doesn’t run in my family. I come from stoic New England stock, cross-pollinated with a stern military upbringing. We don’t whine. We don’t cry. And we sure as heck don’t ask for help. We don’t trouble people with our troubles. When we fall, we get back on our feet. We grit our teeth and persevere. We find a way or make one.

This semester, I noticed I was having trouble seeing. I bought drugstore eyeglasses so I could read the tiny vowel markings on my Arabic homework. Students would wave at me from a distance and I couldn’t recognize them. I had difficulty some days reading the board from the back of the classroom. In yoga class and the weight room, I found it hard at times to hold my balance.

I went back to the eye doctor. I was blind in my right eye.

I asked the students in our classes and on The Campus newspaper staff for their help and understanding. I explained that I have limited vision, that if they approach from the right, I might not see them. If they wave, I’ll probably ask them to identify themselves. I told them that I might feel awkward sometimes in front of the classroom, unbalanced. I told them that I would do my best.

These past few weeks, I’ve been finding myself in moments of joyful sadness when I reflect on the bumps in the road and the blessings in my life. As a photographer, I’ve been knocked off balance twice by the loss of my eyesight. And yet, I am so thankful that I have access to medical care and can afford the surgery that will restore my sight. Without either, I would now be blind.

I am thankful for my friends, John and Ellena, who have always responded with kindness and empathy when I’ve asked for their help. Through their generosity of heart and hearth, they made two strangers feel welcome in our country on the day when we celebrate our bounty and blessings.

My entire life I have been blessed by the kindness of strangers in trying times. Working in Africa and the Middle East, I’ve had people offer me food, shelter and safety when they barely had any for themselves.

A few weeks ago in church, the gospel reading was from Mark 12:38-44. It’s one of my favorite stories. Jesus is watching people put money into the treasury. Many rich people put down large sums and a poor widow walks by and offers two small coins. Jesus said the widow had given the most. The others contributed a small amount from their abundance. Out of her poverty, she gave everything she had, all she had to live on.

I read a story in The Washington Post recently about Guilford College in North Carolina. Headline: “What if every U.S. college campus offered a house to a Syrian refugee family?” What if Allegheny College did? What if Meadville did?

I’m a journalist. I read the headlines. I hear the stories. Of the politics of bullying and shaming. Of bombs that shatter legs, lives and dreams. Of suffering that drives families apart and far from home. Of a blatant disregard for the gifts of this planet.

There are other stories to tell.

We all need help at times in our lives. We all have the capacity to offer that help. A Thanksgiving meal. A few coins. A home and sanctuary.

Let’s keep our eyes, ears and hearts open. A chance to help will present itself.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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