No Nepenthe

I technically started my job in the Office of Children’s Issues (CI) – part of the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ Office of Overseas Citizen Services at the State Department – back in early March after my home leave ended. The position is as a country officer working on international parental child abduction (IPCA) cases; CI functions as the U.S. Central Authority for the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.

In a nutshell, the convention is a treaty whereby the U.S. and other countries agree that matters of custody and visitation of minor children between parents should be decided in countries where children are habitually resident, without one parent removing the child to a different country in order to prevent or limit access by the other. In other words, we want to avoid or remedy situations where one parent abducts their child to (incoming) or from (outgoing) the United States.

More on that work at a future date, but for the time being, suffice it to say between training and onboarding, the time it took to receive a regional portfolio assignment, and various technical difficulties with getting up and running with the database access I needed to begin actually doing my job, the first several weeks weren’t as productive on my part as I’d expected. I felt guilty my colleagues were so busy while I largely spent March and April waiting to start working. I felt like I burned up a lot of time doing online webinars and bugging IT folks, and walking around my neighborhood at lunchtime only to return to an empty inbox.

It was a very strange experience for someone who had only recently returned from an incredibly busy overseas assignment managing one crisis after another, and who was used to being… needed. But I suppose it was fortuitous that the time people needed me the least also came at a time when I really had the least to give.

And I suppose all of it – the ambiguity, delays, and disconnects – necessitated the patience of the pandemic-era environment in which I’ve now begun my second consecutive Foreign Service tour (and my fourth tour overall).

I couldn’t have hardly imagined a stranger past couple of years than a global pandemic that would completely shift our work culture and many aspects of my life, especially in terms of how I saw myself safely fitting into society and the workplace as an immunocompromised person. The past year has been especially trying for me as longer-term readers of the blog have likely picked up on from my posts.

Coming back to Virginia this past January I felt detached, angry about the way working-age people with lower immune function find ourselves more vulnerable and with less protected rights to safety as the health landscape shifts in public and work spaces, and financially penalized by the unnecessary choice between ceding either my basic needs or my overseas pay. My perception that the immunocompromised have to wait until our more able-bodied colleagues are deemed at risk to try and derive some collateral policy benefit from measures put into place to protect them, while trying to avoid becoming collateral damage of every whiplash loosening of safety precautions that signal our transition from valued colleague to acceptable loss in the meanwhile had left me feeling dazed, unmotivated, and demoralized.

Despite my best efforts to concentrate on work, connect with others, and pull myself out of the thyroid fog that was already making life fuzzy around the edges, I found myself still struggling to focus, retain information, and feel “normal.” I mixed up days bills were due. I left the house with my keys hanging out of the front door. I would suddenly realize I’d been staring vacantly into space while I was supposed to be drafting a work email, unsure for how long.

All of this behavior was completely out of character. I tried to snap out of it. I ate well. I got plenty of sleep and exercise. I met with my primary care doctor and endocrinologist. I had advanced medical testing conducted. I went to all the online resiliency talks and wore my mask in public to avoid becoming sick(er). A lot of it was probably some kind of trauma response to the months of feeling unsafe and like my life didn’t even matter to people I had to deal with every day. The constant adrenaline and “fight or flight” feeling in my body had exhausted me completely and wrecked my attention span.

And then one late April afternoon, after insomnia had stolen nearly the entirety of a night’s sleep, I got a song stuck in my head. It reminded me of a former boyfriend, T, who I had met at 19 and dated off and on until I was 23. T, my second love, the second boyfriend I’d ever had after my first relationship lasted nearly five years, but still claiming many firsts in my newly young adult life. Our relationship had been positive overall, evolving through different seasons and having such a profound effect on me that I can still see evidence of it threaded through my thoughts and behavior almost 25 years later. We’d stayed in touch over the years, mostly through Facebook, and considered each other old friends.

Wondering what he was up to, I opened our Facebook Messenger thread, and was startled to see he hadn’t read my previous messages… from nearly a year prior. It was odd I’d never noticed it. It suddenly dawned on me he hadn’t wished me a happy birthday last October either. Frowning, I realized I had probably missed his birthday in January too in the stress of our overland move back to the States.

I went to his wall, even knowing in 12 years he had hardly used his Facebook account and had connected to less than two dozen friends there; it wasn’t usually a reliable source of anything new and mostly consisted of years of my posts wishing him a happy birthday, asking him how he was, and an avalanche of photos of his dog he had posted in 2017.

But my heart sank into my stomach as I saw the latest post was from one of his friends back in January saying she was glad to have had him in her life and that he had been the best. I felt my stomach twist into a knot. Did something happen?

I Googled him. First name, last name. Nothing. I added the town where I thought he had most recently lived. I didn’t see anything. I started to panic, adding his middle name, birth month and year, and even combinations of words like “obituary” and “missing.” After more than a dozen tries, a sickening slew of results loaded.

I couldn’t understand what I was reading. My eyes were seeing the words, but I couldn’t connect them to him. I read and reread a dozen articles. They all said the same thing. His name, his age. Reported missing. Skeletal remains discovered in the woods by a hiker. Cause of death pending autopsy. It was him. It couldn’t be, but it was.

My mind struggled to make sense of the fragments. These articles were almost four months old. This isn’t real. It doesn’t matter because I can talk to someone or just ask him and we’ll figure out this is a misunderstanding. I forwarded one of the articles to my best friend from high school who was there the first time he and I ever hung out outside of work, in 1998 at a Chico house party I’d brought him to for the weekend. She responded immediately with the appropriate level of WTF.

A million memories and images of him as a boyfriend and a friend flashed rapidly through my mind all out of chronological order – the vulnerable expression on his face when he brought me flowers for the first time, his aggressive reaction to realizing his truck had been broken into while we were at an Incubus show in Sacramento, him standing on a river rock and powerfully hurtling a fetch stick for his Rottweiler, him taking his gloves off on the chairlift at Northstar to light a cigarette and then holding my hand instead of putting them back on, us walking down a long gravel hill and talking about our families, him trying to get out of a phone conversation he didn’t want to be in by telling me he had “phone ear,” him laughing at me for wanting to wash his hair when it was well past his shoulders but soon deciding he wanted me to, him leaning up against my Mustang on a sunny day that made his eyes look so green, him telling me he wished we could trade places for a day so we could really know and understand everything about each other, his need to be accepted the way he was without anyone trying to change him: something he reciprocated entirely.

Skeletal remains? I felt like I couldn’t take a breath. How was it that I hadn’t checked on someone so important to me, who I thought of on a regular basis, and who had been such a good friend, for such a long time that he could have been dead for months and I completely missed it?

Then I turned around and vomited into my sink before I sat down on my bathroom rug and cried. I have no idea how long I stayed there because I was afraid if I got up I wouldn’t be able to stand.

I spent the next few weeks in a significant state of shock. His sister sent me photos of his graveside service, where only his immediate family and former longtime partner had been present. I saw his brother putting the box of his ashes into the ground, but it wouldn’t compute. I wrote T repeated messages, none of which he read. Even after I ordered an informational copy of his death certificate, which are public records in California, and learned he had taken his own life, I still had a hard time accepting he was gone. I checked my missed calls from September, hoping he had tried to call me somehow. Nothing. I had nightmares about him lying in the woods undiscovered for three months. I looked up the weather for every day he had been out there. I had more questions than answers. So, I got in my car and drove to California to try and say goodbye myself.

The specifics of the situation aren’t something I will write about publicly, out of respect for him and the people who love him, and because it is upsetting for me personally. I did get to go to the place where he died and also to his grave to say goodbye in person, which was tremendously cathartic. I found it very difficult to leave when it was time to go, so I collected a lot of pinecones from trees in the cemetery and that was comforting and allowed me to leave on my third attempt without returning and breaking down.

I will probably write in the future about my trip, as well as grief, suicide loss, and related topics whether they are traditionally outside the scope of this blog or not because they have occupied a tremendous amount of my brain and heart space lately. I also want to make some reflections about the incredible loneliness and detachment many of us are living with as we passively observe curated social media feeds from our friends in lieu of actually connecting with them. Thanks for reading.

Solo road trip to California, May 28-31, 2022 with 2,723 total miles / 4,382 km. Each stop is a leg. (Ciudad Juárez is still marked with a green flag from when we used to live there)

… For T.

– – – – –

I’m thinking of my soul’s sovereignty

And I know everything you hate in me

Fill me up with over-pious badgerings

To throw them up, one of my favorite things

Too bad the things that make you mad are my favorite things

My favorite things

Remember all the lessons fed to me

And me the young sponge, so ready to agree

Years have gone, I recognize the walking dead

Now aware that I’m alive and way ahead

Too bad the things that make you mad are my favorite things

Hey yeah, oh yeah and I’m so happy

I see you looking, I know that you’re thinking that I’ll never go anywhere

The things that I’ve done and the things that I’ve seen I don’t really expect you to care, go!

Too bad the things that make you mad are my favorite things

Hey yeah, woah yeah and I’m so happy, yeah

Too bad the things that make you mad are my favorite –

Too bad the things that make you mad are my favorite things

– Incubus, “Favorite Things” ~ S.C.I.E.N.C.E. (1997)

2 Corinthians 5:4

For truly, we who are in this tent do give out cries of weariness, for the weight of care which is on us; not because we are desiring to be free from the body, but so that we may have our new body, and death may be overcome by life.

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