Sunday, March 19, 2017


Like the mountain hyacinth, the purple flower
That the shepherds trample to the ground…

Sappho’s voice must have been beautiful, though we can only guess. Her verse was meant to be sung, accompanied by the lyre, which looks something like a small, curved harp. She would have been seated before her audience, with the graceful instrument poised between her thighs, braced between armpit and breast, while her fingers plucked and stroked the strings above. How Sappho’s music sounded we will never know, only that her poetry is known to have made grown men weep.

The muses have filled my life
with delight.
And when I die I shall not be forgotten.

Of nine volumes written on papyrus scrolls and placed for safekeeping in the great library of Alexandria, only 250 fragments of Sappho remain. Fewer than 70 of those contain complete lines and some are just a few words, or just a single word. We can only imagine such beauty, the way a forensic scientist might be forced extrapolate a whole face, a whole identity, from a single molar.

Here now, again, Muses leaving the golden...

Two millennia pass, and now Lesbos gives us the most famous gravedigger of our time, the translator, Moustafa Dowa. Moustafa had never seen a dead body before he came to Lesbos. He had moved to Greece to study the classics; he knew Cairo, he knew Athens, he knew three languages, but he did not know death.

The moon is down.
The Pleiades. Midnight.
The hours flow on,
I lie, alone.
In Lesbos, he had planned to be of service as a translator for the thousands of Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis, who cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey, crowding into open boats and rubber dinghies, risking their lives on the turbulent water for a chance to reach safety.

Like the sweet apple reddening high on a branch
High on the highest, the apple pickers forgot—
Or not forgotten, but one they couldn’t reach…

            Before long, Moustafa sees the truth: the dead here need more help than the living. Moustafa brings a man to the morgue to help identify his sister. Forty-five bodies are stacked in a refrigerator, men and women together, some are naked. The morgue is full, the cemetery is full, and the dead keep coming. Some are carried to shore by survivors, others wash ashore battered by the rocks, disfigured by the sea, dismembered, without names.

Of all the stars, the loveliest…

            The town discusses the situation and Moustafa is given an olive grove. He digs the graves and teaches himself how to prepare the bodies for a proper Islamic burial.

I did 57 funerals in seven days. In one day I did 11.

            Moustafa buries a three-year-old boy alongside his brother and their parents after their boat capsizes. The child’s name is Adam Abu Jazar. He buries a small, headless girl who can’t be more than a year old; Moustafa crouches in the grave with her for a few minutes, unable to move. Her grave marker bears the inscription, Unknown, followed by the coroner’s file number, the date she washed ashore, and her presumed age.

Hesperus, you bring back again
What the dawn light scatters,
Bringing the sheep: bringing the kid
Bringing the little child back to its mother.

            One day there is just a foot, the foot of a 30-year-old man. On a white table, Moustafa ritually bathes the foot as he would the whole body, from right to left, top to bottom, three times. Usually family members perform this ritual.

Bismillah. In the name of Allah, the most Gracious, the most Merciful.

Moustafa binds the foot in a white shroud.

Allahu Akbar. God is great.

He buries the foot, without a casket, facing the olive trees and, further away, Mecca. Moustafa offers his prayer as all Muslims do, in song.

Allah, forgive our living and our dead, those present among us and those absent, our young and our old, our men and our women…

            He takes the precious fragments and imagines them whole.

And I say to you someone will remember us...

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Investigating My Mother's Disappearance

My mother wears tiny, elegant black velvet slippers embroidered with carved glass beads, but otherwise she favors loafers, and dull, earthy shades of khaki ("shit tones," is how she describes her palate). She hardly ever gets dressed anymore, so she might be in her nightgown—my mother is very specific about nightgowns. Sleeveless, lightweight, with the hemline reaching exactly to her knees. She's tiny, so she often has to shorten her nightgowns by hand. Her nightgowns are pretty, pale pinks and blues, and some are trimmed with tiny seed pearls, eyelet, or satin ribbon. Isn't it curious, that counterpoint of femininity and camouflage, night and day? I hadn't noticed before.

          She craves strong, pungent flavors: sardines, lox, raw mussels on the half shell, sauerkraut, spicy chicken wings, mustard—not ketchup, red wine, liver braised with onions and vinegar, bleu cheese, Kalamata olives in brine.

          When her stomach is upset, she drinks beef broth, but when she has a cold, she always wants chicken soup. I prepare it the Armenian way, with a raw egg yolk and the juice of a lemon. 
          She drinks her coffee black with no sugar, two mugs every morning, while she reads The New York Times. In warm weather, she enjoys an Armenian drink called tahn, an iced mixture of plain yogurt thinned with water.

          My mother prefers specific fruits: pomegranates, blackberries, Concord grapes. She avoids bland, insipid sweets, such as shortbread, but she loves licorice, crystallized ginger, and tart key lime pie. 

          These little details, these specks of information, are important clues. I'm sure no one else possesses her exact constellation of habits and preferences. But of course you should know that her name is Roxanne—Araxie, in Armenian. She's been shrinking for years; now she's really quite small, about the size of a child of 9 or 10—but of course very old and stooped, although she prefers to lie down lately. Her eyes are a deep, penetrating brown, with an owlish gaze. Those eyes convey all her emotion, even when her words don't. And she has a Bronx accent.

          I'm not really a careless person. In fact for decades I don't recall losing anything more cherished than a single earring and, I suppose, my youth. Not until I was 51, the year my mother vanished.

Here my mother would interrupt me. I'm not lost, she'd say, I'm just dead. She was always the practical one. But I won't back down on this. I can retrace my steps exactly.

          I would tell a Private Eye that I sat at your bedside on the fifth floor of Princeton Hospital just before one a.m. on December 18, 2013. I was holding your left hand, which was quite warm. And a little swollen because your kidneys were failing. 

          Every breath you took was followed by a surprisingly loud, shameless gurgle, and an even longer silence. The silence was stretching, and your mouth was stretched in a long oval, like a fish out of water. Of course I couldn't help noticing your resemblance to my father. I would have been sharing this observation with you, except now it was actually happening to you, and we couldn't compare notes anymore.

          Do you believe this, I wanted to say. Did you ever imagine you'd end up like this? But there was no answer, not even in my imagination. 

          There was another deathbed moment you shared with my father. When your blank, fixed features contracted in a deep spasm, with brows knit, a vertical furrow appeared between your eyes—in all your life there had never been such a crease! It may have been a grimace of pain, but it looked even more like concentration.

          I had understood my father's grimace, years earlier, as the result of his effort to stop all systems, once and for all. The heart is so used to beating that to stop altogether must require almost as much strength as pumping. In his expression, I saw the harnessing of all his body's dwindling energies. When you winced like that I knew you would die very soon, but I couldn't keep my eyes open for another second.

          It's so hard to get comfortable in the hospital; the chair was so much lower than the bed, and even though I'd lowered the bedrail it was still dividing us. I couldn't seem to get close enough, but I managed to rest my head against your thigh. I focused on the solidity of your leg under my head rather than the coarse texture of the hospital blanket between us. With closed eyes, I timed the seconds between each gasp...12, 13, 14.

          When I woke up with a jolt you were gone. You had gripped my hand hard with your last strength. I felt it—or imagined I did. 

          I stood up and leaned across your body, pressing my fingers against the side of your throat. There was the faintest reverberation under the skin, and a succession of images flickered through my mind. A runner crosses the finish line and continues to run a few extra strides, stumbling a little, before coming to a full stop. After a performance, the drummer places his sticks against the rim of the drum and there is a tremor. Nighttime, raindrops.

        Once I was sure there was no more pulse I sat down beside you again and waited for the change. Before too long your skin turned a waxen yellow and it was no longer possible to imagine you were living. I hadn't let go of your hand and I would continue holding it for quite a while. I would sit with you till there was no more warmth. The absurd idea came to me that I might be transferring my own heat to you and, if so, we might hold this pose forever; but it was of no consequence. As long as your hand was warm, I held on.

So right there, in those few minutes between closing my eyes and opening them, my mother had vanished. She vanished while I held her hand. 

          My mother doesn't believe in God, she believes in annihilation. She told me often that death is The End. She said it a little smugly, to be honest, as if she was the more rational, reasonable person who refused to be duped or mollified. But it's not reasonable to vanish.

I'm sure you would see that now if you were still here. And even the PI, if he were to materialize, would help me search. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

In Arabic

When I was learning numbers, it was hard for me to recognize sifr.

          One and nine look like themselves, as you can see, except they lean a bit to the left. Two, three, and six look like variations of our number seven, four looks like our three, five like our zero, and seven and eight resemble the letter V and its inverse. I learned by relating each number to something familiar.

          Till I learned sifr, I had been accustomed to the expansiveness of zero and its reassuring visual reference to infinity, where 'all' and 'nothing' connect. But in Arabic, zero isn't an endless loop whose generous curves skim the line above and the line below. Arabic represents zero with a speck—a speck that's come unmoored from its lines and lists a bit to the left. A trivial mark, sifr could easily go unnoticed, in the way nothingness does. At the same time, sifr is a full stop, the same way a period ends a sentence.

          Only because of its very foreignness and irreducibility has sifr stayed with me. It's the only number I can remember now.

          What a beautiful word for such a miserable speck. Sifr. It starts like the moist hiss of a wave breaking on a shore, the anticipation rolling into a prolonged purr before trailing off into the fulfillment of silence. Listen:

          We whisper it like a sweet nothing, and this is fitting because sifr is absence. As long as we remember the disappeared, absence is our constant companion. We even make room for it, pushing grief aside and assembling memories like a welcoming committee.

          Our word 'cipher' comes from the Arabic sifr, but conveys the paradox of non-being more explicitly with its double meaning, 'nonentity' and 'a key to a secret, coded language.' How do we make the inexplicable meaningful and how do we find meaning in emptiness? If absence always relates to presence—to what once was and now is not, or what might be but now is not—the reverse must also be true: in some way, being always signifies non-being.

          Four thousand years ago, nfr was the word Egyptians used to signify not only 'zero,' but also 'beauty' and 'complete.' Its hieroglyph is an abstraction of the human windpipe, heart, and lungs,

and was used in the construction of the pyramids as a reference point to indicate 'above' or 'below.' Without it we are disoriented, above and below have no meaning and all directions share the same empty space.

          I think of all this now because I have begun to notice that I miss my mother more, not less, as time separates us. I'm preoccupied by her absence and find myself searching for a different alphabet, a secret language, that will allow communication between living and dead, above and below. Finally we are left with something indivisible, beyond symmetry, more a living part of our being than our pumping blood or the air we breathe, but at the same time independent from us. Zero multiplied by even the greatest number is still zero. Over and over, the closest I get to my mother's presence is when I'm conscious of her absence.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


I'm in the kitchen, filling a shopping bag with black-and-white photographs—of people I don't know posing in places I've never been—pretending to be unmoved. I'm a grownup, after all, with a life of my own, and I want to unclutter and unfetter. I'm wise enough to recognize that it's the memories of my father I cherish, not objects. And so it becomes easier to discard all the flotsam. All of it's flotsam now. Although I admit I do love the heavy gold ring that my father always wore and that I rarely take off. But even if I lost the ring or pictures of my father that I particularly love, I know these things are not my father. They're just reminders—miraculously tangible reminders—of someone I won't see again.

          I regard each photo my father took before stuffing it into the bag, and when the bag is full I jiggle the contents around so I can cram more in. Her face bobs up out of the flotsam, a smiling stranger. Instead of pushing her down, I edge more of the picture out. She's young and quite lovely, looks intelligent. Instead of pushing her down, I arrange her just so, get my camera, and take her picture. Then I continue to fill up the bag.

          My father took all but two of the pictures, so when I come across a photograph of him peering down into his Rolleiflex, I pause. I guess he's just taking a light reading, but he's standing in an open field, dressed in his habitual suit and tie, with elegant cufflinks, and at first glance he seems to be taking a picture of a paper bag. His face is barely visible; it's clearly another throw-away picture. I shove the photograph into the bag and observe the way he seems to pop out, like a jack-in-the-box. I get my camera again. This time I photograph my father in the bag, photographing a bag.
          And then I give in.

          And I take out all the pictures, one by one.

          This is my father's profile. Without a doubt, this is my father's shadow. See how textured his shadow is, with long, dry grass and pebbles embedded in the hard dirt? Feel the blackness bristle? It's a picture of my father, but also a picture of his absence. The index finger lifts—to beckon, to point, to pause? A vaporous shadow wafts from his head like the mist of a migrating soul, escaping in wisps, like thought or heat. Breath, life. But it's just a tree casting a dappled shadow. 

           It's tempting to rearrange the photographs to resemble a clear narrative. This man has a boring face but he's so attractive. His mouth, and the proportions of each feature to the others, the precise way his ear is poised above his jawline, a pictograph of listening, directly across from his flared nostril, breathing. The way the fleshy chin, below, balances his bristling hair and sharp gaze, above. A gaze that penetrates something we can't see. (The thought forms, No one has ever looked at me that way.) 

          I might be tempted to put these pictures last, the sharp photo followed by the overexposed one. Suggesting, perhaps, how we fade away, but also how we endure. But then the impact of this tide of images would diminish. Its force comes from its mystery, the collection of apparently random moments.


          In black-and-white, sculpture looks more natural in its surroundings, no longer incongruous, as if a nude old man were really reclining on a boulder in the middle of a plaza, thinking hard about something, disinterested in passersby. The scalloped curtains hanging in the balcony windows contrast with his bare flesh, making the old man appear more naked and alive, and the windows more empty. 

          I'm not sure, but this may have been the dilapidated villa where my father and his students stayed while they studied art history in Rome. It hardly matters to me, those details I miss. Never mind that I don't know the story of the house or its inhabitants. That's the part of the wreckage that sinks first. What floats to the surface is just this moment in life when my father paused. When we see what he saw.

          One might look at these cacti as as an ode to memory and the passing of time—and continuity—before and after, and now long after. The photographer made a decision to return to the tree after its bloom had faded. He was telling himself a story. Now I tell a story.

          A story that is his story, but also not. He must have known this woman and this garden. In my story, this is a picture of an old woman posing in a garden of statues. She has no past or future, she simply poses, plantlike, sculptural. 

          This may or may not have been the pet goose of my father's first wife, in Italy. It's purpose is fading, out of context, or maybe it's being restored to a purer existence, free of association. But that's a lie. As long as there is someone to look at it, it will mean something. It's a picture of a goose and a moment in my father's life which has passed, but which we can still experience in this form. Like the way a star's light travels to us long after its death. 

          I love this picture because of the glasses. Are they dirty or simply so illuminated that the subject's eyes are obscured. What's reflected? He sees out, but we can't see in. I like the way my father cropped this picture down to its essential components, a face and glasses, an impenetrable gaze.

          I imagine my father directing this nervous young girl to sit just so, and the girl's mechanical compliance becomes a turning point. She experiences the thrill of how it feels to be looked at, really seen.



          Spanish moss hangs from the trees on Ossabaw Island, catching most of the light. Although the trees' growth is slowed, they manage to survive anyway, quite beautifully. Spanish moss isn't parasitic, nor is it really a moss or even a lichen, but something called an epiphyte, which is rootless and takes its nourishment from air and rainfall. The Latin name, which might have mildly interested my father, as a Latinist, is Tillandsia usneoides, but it's more commonly called 'air plant.' A home to rat snakes, several varieties of bats, and jumping spiders. Such facts were uninteresting to my father. What interested him was a different kind of drama—not nature, but something resulting from his own interpretation.


          We're always so fascinated by ruins. Why do we find them so beautiful? Instead of being frightened by the demise of a civilization, we'e awed. We are awed to participate in history, to witness something that connects us to what is long gone. We're awed as much by the ravage of time as by the fact that, for the moment, we survive.