Blindsided

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On Sunday, Oct. 28, I woke up and discovered I couldn’t see out of my left eye. My shooting eye.

Later that morning, I learned my friend Anthony died on Maui. At 48.

My eye. That was annoying. Frustrating. My friend’s death. That blindsided me.

It took a few days for the finality of Anthony’s death to sink in, for his loss to settle on my heart. When talking about Anthony, I mentioned my loss of vision to a friend. He suggested I get it checked immediately. He said it several times until the potential seriousness of my situation sunk in.

I am an optimist, though I have friends who’d probably tell you I make my tent awfully close to the border of the Land of Denial.

Between my morning photojournalism class and my afternoon news writing class, I went to see an ophthalmologist.

A troll. He belonged under a bridge not in a doctor’s office. He barely looked at me when he told me that he couldn’t see a thing and I’d have to see a specialist. He said I shouldn’t eat or drink after midnight since I might have to have surgery in the morning.

I returned and taught my afternoon class with sadness pushing against my heart, seeking escape.

My sadness deepened when I couldn’t find a ride to Erie. I realized I was alone in a new town. I wasn’t in Kuwait or Paris or Oregon or LA or Alaska anymore. I’ve discovered it’s easy to say “let us know if you need anything.” It’s a whole different matter to honor those words.

I called my parents and they called my eye doctor in Houston. He called me and said: “Cheryl, I’m so sorry this has happened to you. You just get down here and we’ll take care of you. It’s going to be OK.”

That’s all I needed to hear.

Long story short. I had the surgery two weeks ago. The doctor is surprised my sight hasn’t improved much though he said he wasn’t worried. My case was atypical. Something he hadn’t seen. Something he couldn’t explain. That’s something I’d already heard in the hospital in Kuwait. Atypical. We’ve never seen this before.

It would take more time to heal. It takes time to heal. That’s also taken a while to sink in.

I realized that I didn’t take the time I needed to rest and recover after my hospitalization in Kuwait. I did a job interview from my hospital bed. And another a day after I returned from the hospital. I jumped on a plane and did a two-day interview stateside then flew back to Alaska to cover the troops’ homecoming events. I left Alaska for Oregon, where I packed then drove across country and started my new job at Allegheny College.

All the while friends and family reminded me to rest. I didn’t. I plunged into my new job.

Losing my sight showed me that I had lost sight of what’s important.

We’ve all been blindsided this year. By unexpected illnesses. By the death of dear ones. By the cruelty of others, intended and unintended. By inexplicable violence: the brutal shooting of a school girl in Mingora, Pakistan and the murder of school children at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut.

Losing sight of what’s important can help us refocus. It’s often the things that are right in front of us, the things we cherish most, that we overlook.

Our friends. Our loved ones. Their steadiness in times of trouble. Their love and laughter in times of joy. The very breath we take and the life that infuses our body.

Our precious health and our days on this precious earth.

Tis the season. To be kind. To be thankful. To be there when your friends and family–even strangers–need you.

And to take the time to grieve what is lost–and give others the time to grieve–and heal.

Copyright 2012 Cheryl Hatch All RIghts Reserved

Remembering Anthony

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Anthony_Flute

Sunday, Oct. 28, I learned that my friend, Anthony Natividad, had died on Maui.

It took me a while to even hear the news. I thought: there must be some mistake. Not Anthony. So young. Such a beautiful man and bright spirit. A gifted healer. A musician. A man who signed all his messages “blessings.”

It’s taken me even longer to remember him in writing.  I am a private person, though I have shared many personal experiences on this blog. I needed time and space–private and profound–to carry Anthony in my heart for a while. As a mutual friend said of his death: It’s a loss for the planet.

Anthony Natividad blowing nose rings underwater in the ocean off his beloved Maui.

Anthony Natividad blowing nose rings underwater in the ocean off his beloved Maui.

When I was in Afghanistan, embedded with the 1-5 Infantry Battalion 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, Anthony would send me messages from Maui. He’d send me photos of the ocean, of dolphins, of him blowing nose rings under water in a deep, vast blue. He’d send pictures of rainbows over the green hills. And he always sent blessings.

On my second embed, when I returned to Afghanistan without my colleague and friend, JR Ancheta, I felt awfully alone. Some of my reporting was well received and appreciated. Some of the soldiers were never going to accept me. It was tough and lonely. Anthony’s bright light and love found me in the dark places. I always felt loved and happy when I’d receive a message from Anthony.

When he learned that I’d returned to Afghanistan to do a special in-depth assignment on the women soldiers of the Female Engagement Team for “The Christian Science Monitor,” Anthony sent me a message: “We must honor our women warriors.” And he asked me to share with them a photo of a rainbow that he was sending me. It took us hours to get the image to reach me in the MWR at Bravo Company in Sperwan Ghar.

Anthony later wrote: Did the women warriors like the photo I sent? Yes, they did.

After that second embed, when I was hospitalized in Kuwait, where I battled for my breath and life, Anthony texted me and sent me messages. I had a view of the ocean from my hospital window. That made Anthony happy when I told him. He sent me a photograph of humpback whales.

A photo of humpback whales that Anthony Natividad sent me, sharing his encounter with the mother and baby in the waters off Maui.

A photo of humpback whales that Anthony Natividad sent me, sharing his encounter with the mother and baby in the waters off Maui.

Once again, Anthony’s light and love had found me in a dark place and uplifted me. He joined all the angels and prayers that helped me heal.

I first met Anthony several years ago through a mutual friend. I was visiting friends on Maui and I called him. He invited me to see, Ulalena, a show in which he’d performed for years. He said he’d have a seat reserved for me. I loved the show so much, I went and saw the next performance. After the performance, Anthony introduced me to his wife, Jamie, and members of the cast. I watched as he played a double noseflute blessing for visitors.

And then he played one for me.

When my brother and his family visited Maui for Christmas one year, I insisted they see the show, and once again, Anthony reserved seats for us. My nephew was learning the flute. After the performance, Anthony played the blessing for my nephew then he let him hold one of the flutes and explained the power of the sacred breath. And my nephew played Anthony’s flute as we all watched. It’s a memory I’ll cherish.

The last time I saw Anthony was the day I was catching a flight to leave Maui. I called him in the morning and asked to meet before I left. He drove down from Lahaina and we went into the ocean we both love. He was teaching me to surf with a paddle board.

Neither one of us wore a watch. And we kept staying a bit longer. A bit longer. We didn’t want to leave the water. Heck, I didn’t want to leave the island.

When we got the boards to his car, I looked at the time on my phone. I barely had time to make my flight. We laughed and hugged then I jumped in my rental car and went straight to the airport, with wet hair and salt-crusted skin. And I couldn’t have been happier.

Anthony_Beach

The photo above is not mine; however, it’s exactly how I remember Anthony the last time I saw him.

When I learned that he’d died, I immediately went back through my emails to find a message from Anthony. None. I checked my Facebook messages. None. I checked my phone. None, though I still saw his name.

I had erased all our communications. Nothing left, I thought.

Then I thought, no. That’s exactly perfect. It is the shining example of Anthony’s life: there is nothing to hold on to. This planet with her deep waters and the life and energy that link us…they are gifts, fleeting and precious…to be valued and appreciated in the moment.

There is but the sacred breath we all share. We live, one breath at a time.

Blessings, Anthony.

I see angels

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In my deep fever, I was able to leave my body and fly. I did. It was a fever float. I distinctly remember flying over Kuwait, over the water, banking my arms, swooping. I flew to the jungle. I dived over the ocean.

In my fever, I was stripped raw, open. I felt my very being exposed, my emotions, my energy, my senses. And I could see and feel the light of people around me.

I’ve been in the hospital two weeks now. It’s only the last two or three days that I actually have a “clear” head. I’ve come out of the fever float. And I remember moments of incredible beauty and grace.

In the early days, I was subjected to multiple tests every day….x-rays, CAT scans, ultra sounds, echocardio.I was poked, prodded and injected. I was wheeled around on trolleys with an oxygen tank attached, clinging and clanging as we went. I’d stare at the ceiling and float.

One morning, I was lying on the trolley staring at the ceiling, waiting for my ultrasound. A tall woman in a black veil followed a trolley out of the room. She was accompanying her elderly mother who just had an ultrasound. She paused as she passed me and put her hand on my chest, lingering just a moment and saying something in Arabic. Then she lifted her hand and returned to her mother, moving quickly down the hallway out of my range of vision.

What did she say, I asked?

She asked for blessings on your health.

Imagine. Caring for her own sick mother, she took a moment to bless a stranger.

On another day, a dark day, I was again in the hallway, facing the ceiling, waiting for a test. During this test, the doctor would take a needle, push it between my ribs and drain fluid from outside my lung. I was too out of it to know I was scared. I was just waiting for another test.

A cleaning woman came to the side of my trolley. She had a beautiful, round dark face. She grabbed the railing of my trolley and smiled at me. She beamed at me with her eyes and smile and held my gaze with hers for long minutes. I felt her pouring her light into me. I saw her pouring her light into me. The words “you are an angel” went through my mind in that moment. I cannot tell you how blessed I felt. She had given me love and strength. She floated up to me then floated away…and I will remember her smile and all that light always.

On one dark day, a doctor from the ICU came to see me. My friend Sarah was visiting me. He said that my team of doctors was worried about my deteriorating health and they might need to take me to ICU. He spoke with a calm, professional tone. He was tall, broad in the shoulders, curly salt-and-pepper air. Handsome. He stood confident though gentle. He explained my condition and what might happen. Then he asked about me. About my work in Afghanistan. He said he’d be interested to see my photographs and stories, to see what I’ve done.

The whole time he was talking he was radiating light. He glowed. He was beaming light at me. I could see and feel it.

After he left, I said to Sarah: He was radiant. He was a radiant being. Did you see it? Did you feel it?

Sarah agreed. Yes, very strong, beautiful energy. Beaming.

Out of the fever fog, it seems strange to read the words…that I could see and feel people’s energy, that I knew people were pouring love and light on me.

Again and again and again, I was the recipient of acts of kindness and caring. The woman who brings my tea each day places her hand over her heart and blesses my health. The cleaning women who sweep and mop the floor around my bed always stop and raise their hands to the sky and offer a prayer for me.

Late one night, I was coughing so hard I started to vomit. A veiled woman sitting vigil at the bed across from me called a nurse to bring me a bowl…such a beautiful gesture in the middle of a lonely night of fever. She stops to see me every day now and asks about my health and blesses me.

These are just a few examples of the many gestures of kindness I have received from total strangers. And then there are friends and family who have burned candles in Oregon, Paris, California and Alaska for me. My family and friends have lifted me up with their unwavering love and care.

In my fever I lived what I’ve always known: we are always surrounded by love and light, always held in it, blessed by it.

And angels are everywhere.

Endings

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The lead of a story is crucial. It’s the opening words, the first paragraph that must rouse a reader’s curiosity, take her hand, tug and say “come with me.”

Once I have my lead, I’m off. The story can flow from it. The words from one paragraph pour into the next and carry the reader along.

To me, the ending is just as important. I like an ending that brings a story full circle, wraps the narrative up in a bow and offers it to the reader as a gift to unwrap. I often have an ending in mind when I start though I’m always ready to go where the story leads. Endings change as the story writes itself.

I started the story of the soldiers of the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team and their families in the fall of 2010. In Oct. 2010, I watched the soldiers train in mock Afghan villages in Alaska. In February 2011, I took three UAF students to the Mojave Desert and we witnessed “the scenario,” where the soldiers ran a seven-day training exercise at the National Training Center as their final preparation before deployment to Afghanistan in April last year.

I went to farewell events: a potlatch where Alaska Native elders blessed the troops, a private gathering for BBQ and fish fry with a soldier’s family and friends, a church service where soldiers renewed their wedding vows. JR Ancheta and I did portrait sessions for some soldiers and their loved ones. I attended the official deployment ceremony with the casing of the colors.

And then I went again and again to the base where the soldiers said farewell to their families. Lots of hugs, tears and photos. The soldiers would file toward buses. Sometimes family members followed, stood below the windows and waved. A father reached his hands out the window and his wife passed their infant son to him and he kissed him and held him one last time.

I went to Afghanistan in December with JR at the invitation of 1-5 Battalion Commander LTC Brian Payne to spend the holidays with the troops and send their stories home. I returned alone this February and spent another month.

I knew the ending for this story: the homecoming. Military band, kids with “welcome home” signs, flags waving, hugs, tears, kisses, chaos of joy. I knew where the story was going.

Then it took a turn I never saw coming.

I was supposed to in the United States in late March.  I wasn’t.

I didn’t see Dylan meet Ashley in person for the first time.  I didn’t see the FET soldiers return. I doubt I’ll see any of the “welcome home” ceremonies. The whole brigade will probably be home before I am.

I’m in a hospital in Kuwait. I ran a high fever for two weeks. The doctors ran all kinds of tests and asked questions. Where did you sleep in Afghanistan? What did you eat? What local foods did you eat? Were you around any sick people? Were you exposed to any chemicals on the military base? Were you bitten by any bugs? The tests yielded no answers, only created more questions. I refused to go to the hospital.

It’s called a Fever of Unknown Origin, an FUO. I laughed. It reminded me of the R.O.U.S in “The Princess Bride.” And I thought, isn’t it perfect? Even the disease I picked up on my embed has an acronym.

Last Thursday, after I’d endured two weeks of unrelenting fever, Ali, my friend, came home. “Cheryl, look. I would take this decision for my wife, for my sister, for my daughters. You’re going to the hospital.”

I let go. I decided to drift.

My favorite kind of dive is a drift dive. The best drift dives are in strong current along a steep wall of a reef or atoll. I love drifts because the fish love current: big schools of fish and sharks. A diver must be able to maintain buoyancy and monitor her depth. It’s too easy to go too deep with nothing but big blue below you.

So now I’m drifting. I let the doctors run their tests while my body and her fever warriors fight some unidentified and mighty sneaky, fierce invader.

And while they work, I’m writing a different ending for the story.

I’ll leave the hospital fever-free. I’ll restore my health and rebuild my strength. I’ll make it to the 1-5 Military Ball and I’ll watch my students graduate at UAF. The 10-miler, though, is probably a no-go.

After Alaska, there will be time with friends and family. There will be lots of dancing and real drift diving. Time in the ocean, in the surf, with the fish.

That’ll be my homecoming.

Ready or not

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I’m writing this blog post with my Mac on my lap as I ride through the Kuwaiti desert in the big white bus I affectionately call Moby Dick. I’m heading back to Ali Al Salem en route to Afghanistan…again. I’m returning to embed with the soldiers of the 1/25th Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Kandahar Province.

The Kuwaiti people—any Arab—pronounces it Ali al SA-lem, stress on the “a,” like ahhh, in the first syllable. The Americans pronounce it Ali al Sa-LEEM, with the stress on the last syllable with a long “e,” like scream.

And so begins the transition from one culture to another.

Doug, from Fort Wayne, Ind., is serving as tour guide.

“Lots of beach sand. No water. I got to get another travel agent,” he says.

I started my rituals of departure last night. I spent time with my friends, Sarah, Ali and their daughters, Leah and Selma. Sarah and I went shopping yesterday. She bought fresh salmon, mustard and French cheeses for her trip to Baghdad. On our way to the store, she said, let’s check out the shoes at Michael Kors.

A sweet pair of heels called to me from the shelf. Sarah asked the saleswoman, Roxanne, for my size. She had one pair left, in my size, on sale. What does any woman do before an embed in Afghanistan? Buy heels, or course. I have a promise of dancing when I return, so these shoes are just the ticket. And actually, I can’t put a price on the memory of laughing and shopping with a dear friend who has already shared so many adventures with me.

Before dinner, Ali took me to buy an iPod—yes, I’ve managed to live this long without one. He insisted I could not go to Kandahar without music. He spent the evening filling my pink Nano from his amazing eclectic collection: Arabic, French, African, jazz, blues, classic rock, pop. I am wired for sound now.

I asked Selma, 15, to hold my duffel bag while I stuffed my body armor in it. After dinner, Sarah and I mused about the example we were setting for the girls: their mom heading to Baghdad and their friend heading to Kandahar. I like to think it’s a good example.

I hugged Baghdad-bound Sarah before she left in the middle of the night.

This morning I woke and watched the sun rise and paint the clouds over the Gulf a flamingo pink. I watched the girls go off to school and had breakfast with Ali. He made some last-minute additions of Indian music to my iPod. I took a long, hot shower, making a point to enjoy the smell of the coconut shampoo and the girls’ strawberry body scrub. I put on clean clothes. No telling when I’ll be this clean again.

I’m grateful for the ride and the transit at the American base. It’s like an air lock in a space ship, or the decompression chamber after a dive. I leave my friends and family and the luxury of walks on the beach, clean sheets and running water and step into the air lock, Ali Al Salem. When the air lock opens, I’m inside the fortress and yet always an outsider. It’s a new language, new rules—and lots of them—and I mentally shift. It’s the difference between powering myself up the Willamette River in a rowing shell and dropping in with an inner tube and drifting downstream on the current. I power down and go with the flow. I grew up inside the fortress…I know—as with the Borg in Star Trek—resistance is futile.

When it comes to heading to Kandahar though, I’m definitely swimming against the current. The soldiers are looking forward to leaving. I got out and I’m heading back in.

Throughout my career I’ve swum against the current. I run toward the burning building, toward the sound of gunfire. I am the one on the road walking in the opposite direction of the civilians fleeing the mayhem of civil war.

And yet, I am an island girl and I know how to handle a rip current. Earlier in my career, I probably overestimated my endurance and stuck in the rip too long. Now I’d like to believe I know when to shift and swim parallel to shore.

The hardest part of leaving is the leaving. The loneliness of going it alone. It’s the crossing the threshold, entering the air lock. It’s like standing on the high diving board for the first time: it requires a deep breath and a willingness to step away from the solid board under the feet and take the plunge. Once I’m in the water, it’s all good. (and kindly forgive the mixed metaphors…though I imagine entering outer space or a body of water are similar sensations.)

This morning Selma hugged me and said: “Try not to die.”

I said: “Cross my heart, Selma.”

I’ve got a sweet pair of new heels and a date to go dancing.

.

Lifting the veil

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Yesterday I went for a long walk along the corniche in Kuwait City.

The day marked one week since I’d left Afghanistan. I’d spent much of that time inside, behind a desk as I finished my fourth story for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

I wanted to move. I wanted to feel grounded. I wanted to feel the sun on my face and the wind move through me. I walked and I kept on walking.

I walked past the iconic Kuwait Towers. I passed an amusement park behind the towers.  At first all I saw was the two big guns…not much amusing about that. Then I realized that it was a Paintball Park.

I walked past coffee shops and restaurants encased in glass, like big aquariums, where I could gaze inside at the men gathered at different tables, eating lunch. Not a woman in sight.

I have spent a chunk of my life in the Arab world, in the Middle East. I’ve had some of the best times of my life with my friends in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Kuwait. And yet, it’s tough for me to feel at ease. I feel the eyes, the judgments on me…imagined or real. I feel my foreignness, my white, exposed skin.

I walk to embrace who I am and find a way to be comfortable. My body moves.  My mind floats. I liberate myself a bit more with each step.

I passed people. If they were men, I lowered my eyes. It’s an old, old habit born of tough years in Saudi Arabia. I passed a group of teenagers: two boys, two girls. The girls covered their hair with black hijabs with sparkles and sequins, though they wore snug blue jeans and laughed and joked with the boys. I passed a family….a man in traditional robe and headdress, swinging his amber prayer beads as he walked. His wife, I assume, in a full black abaya, and his children followed behind him. The young boy had a Flip video camera and he was filming. He swung around to film me.

The sun and the smell of the salt water filled me. As I returned, I passed two women on a wall at the edge of the water. Such an image. The bright blue water and these two dark silhouettes. They were covered in their black abayas. The one on the left was standing. She was younger, perhaps the daughter or daughter-in-law of the older woman seated at right. They were both gazing out at the water.

A voice in me said: Say hello Cheryl. I tried to deny it for half a heartbeat. Don’t talk to the women, Cheryl. Don’t disturb them. It’s not done here. This is the fearful voice I have to banish when she chirps in with her negative commentary. It was a sunny day. My story was finished. I had walked a long way and I was happy.

I looked at the women and I said Assalamu Aleikum, raised my right hand and waved.

The women turned and looked at me. Not a second of hesitation. The older woman  raised her left arm and held it high, palm toward me.

Her abaya fell away and I could see the orange-brown henna patterns on her hand and arm and the gold bracelets that clinked on her wrist.

Salaam, she said, in a strong voice, a voice I liked instantly. The young woman echoed her greeting.

Their rapid, enthusiastic response touched me deeply.

I realized in that moment that I judge, too. I harbor resentment toward that dark veil and what it means to me. The abaya did not confine or define the woman who raised her hand to greet me.

I realized I wear a veil, too, layers of veils. Just not one that’s visible.

As I walked away from the two women, I had one thought pass through my mind.

Lift your veil.

Phone Home

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It’s a call I didn’t want to make.  It’s a call I debated making. It’s a call I didn’t make until I was about to board my flight.

Dad answered the phone.  “Hey, it sounds really clear. What’s new?” I asked if Mom were home and he said yes. I asked him to put her on the line, too.

“I’m doing well. Tired.”

 I’d flown from Portland, Oregon to Amsterdam to Kuwait with six-hour layovers at each destination. They knew I’d traveled to Kuwait to visit a friend. They weren’t excited about it, though they accepted and supported my decision.

“I’m flying to Afghanistan tonight.”

“Oh Cher,” my mom said. Long silence from dad.

I explained my decision. I’d started this story, covering the soldiers and their families of the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, when I was teaching at University of Alaska Fairbanks. Last February, three students accompanied me on an embed to document the soldiers training at NTC in the Mojave Desert for their deployment. At that time, Brigade Commander Col. Wood and  1-5 Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Brian Payne invited us to visit them downrange. Many soldiers invited us to join them in Afghanistan. They’d planted a seed.

My former student, JR Ancheta, and I discussed the possibility over the summer. I began looking into the possibility in earnest in the fall. We took baby steps: an Afghan visa, embed credentials and authorizations. Next came the search for contacts and a flight from Ali Al Salem base in Kuwait. Once we secured the ITO (Invitational Travel Order) for Kuwait and press credentials, I scouted for tickets. $2,000 for RT airfare. $1,100 for “war zone” medical and accident, death and dismemberment insurance (more on that later.) We bought our tickets on Wednesday, Dec. 7. We bought the insurance on Dec. 12 and we flew out on Dec. 14.

I wasn’t going to tell my parents. I didn’t want to spoil their holidays. I didn’t want them to worry. As the time got closer to our potential flight departure, I decided I wanted to tell them. I know I’d cause them plenty of worry over the years…a Christmas years ago in Mogadishu comes to mind. Dad mentioned it in our conversation.

Mom and Dad said they were glad I’d told them. They’d keep me and JR in their prayers. They’re going to worry…and I’m going to worry a bit about them worrying. And then we’ll press on…all of us. It’s an Army tradition, a Hatch tradition.

Here’s the email I found waiting for me an hour after my call:

“We’re glad you told us but are concerned about your safety. However, we have confidence in your decisions and common sense. I am sure you will listen to those who have agreed to take care of you, particularly that Lt. Col and his Sgt Major. I’m very proud of your  commitment to visit with those in harm’s ways. Our prayers are with you. In my eyes  you have earned every bit of care and protection the good Lord provides to you. GOD BLESS Cher. Love, from a very proud dad.”