Monday, January 31, 2011

the grief tour: stop no. 5

Bryan and I were blessed to have many longstanding mutual friends. Some of our dearest and best friendships, though, were made more recently.

I met JJ and Amber in college. My urban hippie friends with the endless tab at Good Beans, quick wits and compassionate intelligence. You need good friends to combat against the grim realities and encroaching miseries of Flint, and JJ and Amber are my favorite Flint folks. When Bryan and I reconnected, they quickly welcomed him into the fold. The Good Beans roundtable and the vegetarian dinner parties. And since Bryan died, they've mourned him with me. I could not have endured the last year without their constant goodness: their reminders of Bryan's wonderful qualities when all I could think of was the loss of him; their exquisite meals when I had little appetite; their epic Tours de Flint when bed seemed so much more inviting than the seat of my Schwinn.

My other favorite Flintite is Sue. Every girl needs a Sue: a beautiful person to check in on her and keep an eye on her spiritual needs. Sue lost her brother a few months before Bryan passed, and we have been allies in grief. Sue has given me the things I didn't know I needed, like stress-relieving yoga classes, walks in Formar and a weekly invitation to join her at church.

I wanted to leave a little bit of Bryan at JJ and Amber's home in Mott Park. So last night the four of us took the urn, the Kool Aid, a cup of coffee, and a jar of Daassa feathers out to the backyard. Under the tree, under the window of the living room and dining room where we spent many a night laughing and eating JJ's fabulous curries. A little more of Bryan committed to the Flint snow and soil.

"God gave us our relatives; thank God we can choose our friends"-- Ethel Mumford Watts.

the grief tour: stops nos 1-4

I've lived with Bryan's urn for months-- the sight of that neat black box with his name and date of death printed on the lid has become familiar, comfortable. The thought of opening it and confronting his remains has been frightening, however. I didn't want the first time I opened the urn to be in Morocco, alone. This week my friend Reid was in town and I proposed a Bryan tour of Flint: the places we think of him happiest, the settings of the memories we cherish most.

Friday, my sister, Reid and I took the urn and got in the car. I brought along the Kool Aid packets left in the kitchen when Bryan died. Kool Aid was one of his shameless indulgences, like box mac n' cheese and tacky classic rock songs on the radio. When he died, I couldn't bring myself to part with those packets. At each stop we would scatter a little bit of the ashes with a packet of Kool Aid.

no. 1: Augusta

 Bryan's family moved off Augusta and out of Flint years ago, after his father's remarriage. Through high school it was the place we gathered. Bryan and Reid and a shifting crew of others playing music in the basement, Parry and I on the steps. Bryan's eternally messy bedroom with the kitsch bird wallpaper and the posters of John Lennon and Bob Marley. Chance, the family's fat, asthmatic Maltese ever wheezing on the sofa. I had my first kiss in that house. My first "I love you."

The new owner kindly listened to us explain and gave us permission. We sprinkled the ashes (and Kool Aid) in the backyard.

no. 2: Doyle Ryder
According to legend, Bryan was kicked out of kindergarten his first day. "Don't bring him back here," the teacher told his anxious father. "There's nothing I can teach him." Bryan was sent to the Gifted Program at Doyle Ryder, where he famously cowrote a play about JFK in fifth grade, discovered Nirvana and created a series of ceramics called Hawaiian Grannies.

Reid chose the big tree at the far end of the play ground as our site. It was here, he said, their group made its beeline at every recess: the most secluded possible place to light matches and swear.

Through grief, I've enjoyed those moments I get to learn something about Bryan: memories I don't have, moments in Bryan's history I wasn't there. I like being given things to imagine.

  no. 3: Flint Farmers' Market
Bryan and I had our first and last dates here. When we began talking again the summer of 2009, he mentioned he had never been to the Farmers' Market. I insisted he had to. I remember little about the walk through the market, but I remember the walk across the parking lot. A car pulling out of a spot, Bryan walking in front of me, and how I reached out and touched the small of his back. The car was the excuse, but it was a necessary first move. A first touch daring a touch-back.

Our last trip to the market was the Saturday before he died. When we pulled in Aerosmith's "Love in an Elevator" was on the radio, and Bryan insisted we stay in the car until it was finished. It was one of those songs Bryan sang to tease me-- the kind of thing I found unbearably bad. "Love in an elevator, living it up when I'm going down..."

Lunch break: Halo Burger, Saginaw Street.

no. 4: Montclair
Through our high school years, if we weren't at Bryan's house, we were at Parry's. In Bryan's last months, Parry was home again for a brief interlude before grad school, and it became a place to gather again.

Bryan passed away here, and for me, at least, it seemed appropriate. I met Bryan through Parry; I saw him the last time here. The circle of our brief years together closed in.

By the end of the day the ashes were less scary. Familiar now, comfortable. Scattered over stories, two of my favorite people laughing and remembering how good Bryan was to know. How good he was to grow up with.

I feel prepared to handle this alone.

Friday, January 28, 2011


 No account of my widow experience would be complete without a post dedicated to Daassa. (Though I think she needs no introduction-- surely half the people reading this have been nibbled by her).

My last semester at UM-Flint I had three classes with Dr. Matt, finishing up my Francophone Studies minor. When Dr. Matt passed mid-semester, Dr. Daassa took over those courses. A friend of my mom's had a brood of hand-weaned baby lovebirds up for adoption, I had maternal girl-in-love desires to indulge, and I thought Daassa was a nice name: I liked the francophone Arab connection, the personal tribute (we already had two zebra finches: Little Bree, named after a friend, and Danzig, attesting to both Polish history and punk rock pedigree). Daassa was our baby. If you've never encountered a hand-weaned lovebird, they're like tiny flying dogs. They want your attention. They want to play and sit on your lap and be stroked. They're loyal and jealous of anyone they have to share their master's attentions with (thus, all your patiently endured hookbill bites). 

Most of our domestic details were procured to satisfy my aforementioned maternal ends (the houseplants, the birds), but Bryan loved the hell out of Daassa. His dad likes to tell the story of my trip to North Carolina last March to visit the last of my grandfather's nine siblings, Uncle Brian and Aunt Barbara (who passed in November). I neglected to call for a few days, and Bryan nervously called his dad, worried that I'd fallen in love with a southern boy and taken off forever. "You think I can get custody of the birds, don't you?" he asked.

When Bryan died, Daassa grieved. She gave up her favorite hobbies (sitting in the windows of our Thomson St. apartment, yelling at the birds outside), growing quieter, more defensive. At night she'd fly to the back door and squawk, as if waiting for him to come in from work. Her year of napping in the hollow of his collarbone, preening him and flying around the apartment with his cigarettes was over. When we moved back to my mom's, she was harder and harder to coax back into her cage, and I eventually noticed she'd made a project of peeling off the bathroom wallpaper. We shared our grief, widow and semi-orphaned bird. One night she sat on my shoulder as I went through Bryan's things in the closet. After a while I noticed I had a tear-soaked lovebird pressed to me. 

In the months since she's returned to her happy, playful self. I find I worry about her more. Over the summer, Danzig the finch died and I gave his partner away on Craigslist. Bryan's things were given to his family or boxed up for Salvation Army. Daassa is the last relic of my life before April 11th. I have nightmares about her meeting cruel ends with ceiling fans and my sister's cats. I worry over her diet. It's imperative we survive together, bird and I. I worry she'll grieve for me when I'm away 6 weeks. And I'll miss waking up to her chirps and fixing her bowl of corn and peas and almonds while I wait for the kettle to boil.

It'd be lovely if I could show her a map and let her go. "Meet me in Rabat. Tap three times on the window of my hotel room."  Unfortunately the only trick I've ever managed to teach her is "kissing" (I say "Kiss me, Daas!" and pucker my lips, and she presses her beak to them). Map reading and transatlantic flights are still beyond her.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

mal du pays/ homesickness

 When Bryan died, I lost more than him. I lost my home, my independence, and a sense of community and a grateful belief in life's balance. When we reunited, I was restlessly in college after two years off traveling, spiritually orphaned by the death of my grandfather. When he appeared it made a kind of sense to me: one witty man with a penchant for black coffee and crossword puzzles vanished, and in his place another appeared. One of Fate's exchanges. In a short story, I wrote this love song to Bryan and Flint:

"He was a coney island baby from the West side of town, his mother a waitress, his father a third shift cook. On his days off he went up to the restaurant and sat at the booth with the waitresses on their rotating breaks, drinking black coffee by the pot. He had no pretensions. He liked coleslaw and French fries slathered in ketchup. He liked Motown songs on the radio and sang along to Stevie Wonder and Martha and the Vandellas. Flint and I reconciled. The city took his shape for me-- all the melancholy and humor and greasy food and bus exhaust-- and I fell in love with it, and with him."

Through this last year, my old Flint enthusiasm has been dashed. There is no safe place in this town: there is nowhere to go that is not Bryan or Papa. The fires started just weeks before Bryan passed, and as they raged through the spring and summer, I privately sided with the arsonists. Burn this place down. I hated Flint for creating the kind of environment that left Bryan vulnerable; that left me with little resources to carry on living alone.

It's taken all these months to realize that community wasn't really lost, I just turned away from it. I could not have anticipated the amount of kindness people showed me. The generosity of my closest friends and their determination to save me from self-imposed exile. Deepened connections with other friends bearing griefs I hadn't fully understood before. Social workers at the Shelter happy to Facebook chat at 3 a.m. during my raw, sleepless nights. Despite a name change, elementary and high school teachers tracking me down to send kind words and good memories.

From this year of widowhood, I've experienced the funny minor celebrity of being a Flint writer, too. I always feel like my Broadside confessionals are written to satisfy me and give the Shelter a little publicity: I give little thought to anyone actually reading them. Surreal this summer when a Jehovah's Witness showed up on my mom's front porch and, after I told him my name, he said he had read my pieces in Broadside and that he was sorry for my loss. A similar response from my minister: I'd never told her about my writing, but after service one Sunday she stopped me and complimented me on my December piece. At a post-Christmas community clean-up organized by a friend, I was introduced to a group and received as a greeting from one woman, "I read your stuff. I hope to read more."

I have had to learn that if Bryan return to my life felt like a gift, it's no less a gift because it's gone. Flint's a little like that: I have to learn the many problems don't negate the blessings. So Flint and I have not really reconciled again, but I forget how many lovely people I know, how many things I love in this town, and how I'll end up homesick for it, like I always do, after a few weeks of strange beds and climates. Walking around England or Africa, daydreaming of Vernor's and the veggie club at Steady Eddy's with my friends and the solitary cycles out to Bluebell Beach.

Monday, January 24, 2011

papa's sea stories

I sometimes think my grandfather died when I had the most to say to him. At 25, I've accrued some of my own "sea stories." My opinions and aesthetic sensibilities are perhaps more refined. Though still when I encounter a reference to a moment in history or a philosopher or poem I know little about, I instinctively think of him and yearn for one of his encyclopedic lectures (my mother has said that while many people may think they knew everything, Papa was one of few people who knew a little about everything), I continue to get a little smarter, a little better read.

I listened to him for 22 years, though, and I know all his stories. One of 9 in an Irish Catholic family from Detroit, born the year of the Sit-Down Strikes. His mother's "all-American boy." I know his first sensation of beauty (at 7, admiring a rainbow in a puddle of oil on the driveway). I know the vibrant Downtown Flint of his youth-- the Vernors and Kewpee Burgers, the chic department stores, the fire escapes begging to be clambered up, the movie theaters and the bread factory near the Ronan house on Newton Place, its luring smells. But his travel memories, his so-called "sea stories," were always my favorite. Water skiing in Lebanon. Black cabs, drizzle and post-war devastation in London. The Pigalle nightlife and the history and grandeur of Paris, and affording it all selling American cigarettes on the black market. The disappointment of bad spaghetti in Italy.

And of course, Morocco.

Pvt. Dennis Ronan, Port Lyautey, Morocco
My favorite. I love the stoic grace of the donkeys in Morocco.

Papa was a radio operator. I think that's him in the photo.

turbans and djellabas.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

the shelter

I leave in 10 days. Perhaps more than I've been daydreaming about trekking the Sahara or following the tightly knotted medina streets of Tangier and Marrakesh, I've been thinking of Flint. Taking inventory of things I've lost and the precious things I've gained. I've left Flint before, and always without much sentiment or reluctance. When I was 18 I backpacked five months across Europe, from Britain to the eastern border of Poland. At 20, I took a year off college for volunteer work: first at a homeless shelter in Cork, Ireland, and then at an Oxfam thrift store in Banbury, England. Then, of course, at 23, Bryan and I made our epic journey across Europe and North Africa. But for the first time I'm aware that when I fly back to Michigan, it won't be for long. In the spring the letters from graduate schools will come in and I'll begin again somewhere else. New projects, new apartment, new city, new friends.

Yesterday I did my last interview for East Village Magazine with the director of Shelter of Flint. She knew who I was, about the workshop I've run for the last two years, but we hadn't met. She asked about my grad school applications and how it feels to know I'll be leaving Flint soon. I told her one of my greatest reservations about leaving is the Shelter project. I began it myself, I figured out how to do it myself, and I've developed great rapports with my students. Since Bryan's death, going to the Shelter a few nights a week has shifted from a community service project to a trade between me and the kids. I teach them how to read and write. They make me laugh and keep me from the vanity of self-pity. They remind me what fun there is when life's at it's worst and how many simple satisfactions are still to be found-- like helping an 8 year old sound out a tough word or spell the message in a Christmas card for his mom. I'll miss that deeply.

The director smiled at me and said, "You don't need to miss us. We'll still be here when you come home."

My piece from the December Broadside below.

In April, you may have driven by the block one weekend and seen the tribute: Don’t worry Bryan, you won’t be a zombie. It was painted by my friends after the funeral of my fiancé. Bryan, connoisseur of tacky horror B-movies and paranormal A.M. radio call-in shows, often insisted that when he died he wanted to be cremated so he couldn’t come back as a zombie. I promised if he went first I’d make sure it happened. It was a promise made in jest, but fulfilled all the same, and far sooner than I ever  imagined.

Bryan died just weeks after the City announced the lay-offs in public safety and through my grief, a lot of other familiar things were reduced to ash. I’ve watched my hometown disappear in chunks as Flint’s arsonists strike over and over. Vehicleless in the Vehicle City, I ride my bike around town, pedaling past the ruins. Whether visiting friends in Mott Park, heading downtown or over to Carriage Town for my Good Beans fix, I pass the charred rubble and naked foundations. On my most dolorous days, I feel as if I’m living in a graveyard.

One of my routine bike routes is the five mile trek from my West Side home to Shelter of Flint, an emergency facility for women and children nestled in the East Side’s state streets. For two years I’ve run a creative writing workshop for teens at the Shelter. I’m often surprised and impressed by my students, but I was especially taken aback when Lauren suggested we write a play for Halloween.

As one of Flint’s many struggling young bohemians I support our local thespians, but with great reservation and-- I confess-- some squirming distaste. I know how to write and teach poems, stories and essays-- quiet, solitary efforts lacking what my playwright friend Megan refers to as the “Hey! Look at this!” demand of theater. My own theater career consists of a green sweatsuited turn as an elf in the Christmas play at Eisenhower Elementary and one pained Hamlet recitation in college. The people staring at you? The exaggerated gestures? The unnatural enunciations? The appeal of drama eludes me. But to my dismay, Lauren’s idea for a Halloween play incited an immediate chorus of “Yeah!” and “Can we, Miss Kelsey?” I prepared myself for a compromise.

“What would this play be about?” I asked.

“Zombies,” Lauren said emphatically.

In the basement of a homeless shelter in the rubble of Flint, my students needed their widowed, theater-dreading teacher to help craft a play about the undead. I suggested witches and werewolves but to no avail. They were already out of their seats giggling and busting “Thriller” moves.

For weeks we wrote and rehearsed. I had no idea how playwrights operate, but luckily my students threw themselves into the project and I observed the  process, occasionally inserting myself to scale back the more drastic of their ideas (I thought the Shelter staff might not approve of us throwing raw hamburger to simulate guts). Characters were developed and scenes were improved until we had a script. Roles were cast and recast as actors moved on to permanent housing. The Shelter’s little ones auditioned for parts in the zombie canaille. Artistic temperaments flared and zombies exorcised their excitement by running, shouting and shoving their way through rehearsals. I biked my five miles home every night, past the charred remains of the East Side, through Kearsley Park and the burgeoning vibrancy downtown, along Chevy-in-the-Hole and across Court. 

The play, Halloween Gone Bad, opened on a Friday night to a living room full of moms, staff and little brothers and sisters. Zombies were slathered in make-up and draped in ripped bed sheets. Ingénues wore their prettiest outfits and sparkly pink lip gloss. Cobwebs were hung and familiar sofas were draped in white sheets to transform the space into a haunted house.

It was utter chaos. Face paint found its way over clothes and walls. Zombies waiting in the wings giggled, yelled and shoved and missed their cue; the unsuspecting stars walking through the haunted house had to stop and hiss to the zombies to attack them. Lines were forgotten. But the audience laughed appreciatively when Kyndal wailed, “I’m going to be grounded for the rest of my life if my little sister gets eaten by zombies!” and no one can resist the cuteness of 7 year old zombies, on cue or not. After our final scene ended to the sounds of “Thriller,” one mom got up and taught the cast the famous dance. The furniture was dragged back into place, the stage returned to a living room, and the cast demolished a tray of orange and black Oreos before running upstairs to wash off their make-up and get into their pajamas.

Their director got back on her bike, grinning to herself as she pedaled across Flint’s alternating life and ruin in the chill October dark.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

writing things down

There's a quote from Yann Martel's Life of Pi I keep tacked above my desk:

"For fear, real fear, such as shakes you to your foundation, such as you feel when you are brought face to face with your mortal end, nestles in your memory like a gangrene: it seeks to rot everything, even the words with which to speak of it. So you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don't, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you."

I don't think writing is any panacea. But I think it's a great advantage to be able to access your thoughts and express them precisely. When Bryan died I wrote constantly. Letters, emails. I wanted to be left alone to explain everything. At the funeral home, many people came up to me and offered, "You know, you're a writer, you could write about Bryan..." As if it hadn't occurred to me. I've been writing about Bryan for years. Describing him has always been an impossible but infinitely satisfying task. His many contradictions. His peculiar genius and quick wit. His thicket of eyebrows and long beautiful fingers.

(A few years ago I gave a mutual friend a bundle of short stories I'd written. When I next saw him I asked what he thought. He grinned and said, "I like when you describe how handsome you think Bryan is.")

For two years I've taught writing to kids at a homeless shelter, and I always try to impress upon them that spelling and grammar aren't really the thing. Any word processor can fine tune that. What matters is you can say what you mean. That language doesn't intimidate you.

I reached the 9 month point of widowhood yesterday. I still write about Bryan everyday.

Below is the article I wrote for Broadside after Bryan's death.

Since January 2009 I’ve lead a creative writing workshop for homeless youth at Shelter of Flint. I began the group with a love of writing and a belief in community: as someone who’s grown up in Flint with a single mother and free school lunches, I felt a sense of solidarity with these kids. That solidarity has deepened since the group formed, and in ways I never anticipated.

Autumn 2009 my boyfriend, Bryan, and I backpacked Europe and Africa. I had just graduated from college and wanted an adventure before sending out resumes and grad school applications. We wandered through Paris art museums and picnicked on baguettes and Nutella. We sniffled together in the Anne Frank House, Amsterdam and got lost in the maze of canals. We made cheesy Beatles pilgrimages in England and squeezed ourselves into the tight press of bodies on the London Underground.

We were in Essaouira, Morocco when Bryan dropped the change purse with all our cash and credit cards in the back of a taxi. We were homeless, penniless and hungry: two lost Flint kids with bad French in a dusty, sun-baked town on Africa’s Atlantic coast.

We explained what happened to policemen and taxi drivers; we beseeched the hotel proprietor to let us have the room we had reserved on the faith a Western Union transfer would come soon. The girls at the internet café allowed us to run up a tab as we sent our SOS home and waited for word our transfer was sent. We walked the ancient streets of the medina, listening to the muezzin call the prayer, and sat on the ramparts, looking over the vast sweep of the ocean. We went to bed sunburnt and exhausted, desperate for bread and cigarettes.

At my first workshop at the Shelter, my group included three teenage girls who had walked in off the street just minutes before I arrived with my notebooks and pens. They were visibly anxious and reluctant to answer my ice breaker questions. Though the group is exclusive to under eighteens, their mother quietly sat at the far end of the room. I brought cookies for the workshop, and at the end of the workshop I told the girls they were welcome to take the leftovers. They bundled the cookies in napkins and stuffed them in their coats, handing a few bundles to their mom.

After three days of hunger and anxiety, our transfer came through and Bryan and I went straight to a café to fill our growling bellies. I thought of those girls, and wondered how long they had been hungry.

April 11th, Bryan died. The life I anticipated was dashed, and the life I knew was pulled out from under me. A year before I was graduating college and planning a trip with my boyfriend; now I found myself widowed, unemployed and moving my life box by box back to my mother’s house.

I canceled the group for three weeks. When I returned to the Shelter I had a new group awaiting me. The group is constantly shifting shape as families transition into new homes and new lives. When I have a new set of students I return to introductory exercises. Easy, open-ended prompts to get kids to write. “Write about yourself,” I usually say. “In a poem, a personal essay, a letter: write what’s important about you, whatever you want people to know about you.”

I always participate in the exercises, and for the first time I didn’t know what to write. Before I wrote variations on the same autobiography: I’m a Flint writer living with her boyfriend and birds, looking for a job and trying to write the Great American Novel in the reading room of the Flint Public Library. But what could I write now? Who are you when everything you know changes? So many times I had gently chided a resistant new member of the group for his or her silence-- the task had always seemed so easy-- but now I couldn’t manage it either. At that moment, I understood the pain of uncertainty and sudden loss. How daunting the task of explaining yourself to a room full of strangers is when you’re no longer sure who you are.

I looked around the room and found the expected: pens absently tapped on notebooks, a few short lines and scribbles. Chins in hands, staring into laps.

“Let’s do something else,” I announced. “Let’s write fiction.”

I asked them to each begin a short story in first person. To conjure up some new and fantastical “I.” Then to pass it to the next person and let them continue it.

We wrote. We passed our notebooks and continued each other’s stories. There was a teacher who lived in a house made out of garbage with her husband, and made a moat of vomit and rotting food around the house so no one would intrude on their happiness. A girl raised by famous jewel thieves who grew up in hiding in the basement of a Chinatown restaurant. A kid who roamed the world’s zoos with a monkey named Brownie, seeking vengeance on zoo security guards.

By the time we closed our notebooks, we were running 20 minutes over and my cheeks hurt from grinning and laughing.

We entered the room burdened by our hard luck, down and out stories, but we helped each other conjure new worlds. For that brief time in the basement of the Shelter, we experienced that mercy peculiar to artists-- of reinventing and reclaiming ourselves.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

coup de soleil

After Bryan died, his father told me about how the family handled the death of Bryan's mother in 2002. Kyle, 11 at the time, asked his dad if they could just think she went Up North on vacation, and that she'd be back sometime. His dad agreed-- it was a nice thing to think.

When I look at my pictures of Bryan in Morocco, I sometimes get the curious sensation they're a window into his afterlife. Bryan on vacation. Sunburnt and smoking. Dressed like a bum in raggedy Chucks and letting his Ali Baba beard grow wild.

On the rooftop of our Marrakesh riad, washing clothes.

Contemplating the medina walls. B said Morocco felt "holy."

tea and cigarettes-- staples of the Moroccan diet.

A tourist-trap moment in the Djemaa el Fna. B wasn't pleased about this. ("I just felt bad for that monkey.")

From the balcony of our hotel in Gueliz.

A Lawrence of Arabia moment.

In Essaouira, B would sit at the cafes on the promenade, smoking and writing and sucking down Coca Colas everyday while I swam. It drove me crazy. "We're on the Atlantic Coast. In Africa. And you won't even get in the water," I scolded him, daily. Finally, exasperated, he snapped back, "Look. I took off my shoes, I rolled up my pants, I did the beach thing." It still makes me laugh.                   

Thursday, January 6, 2011

the way things begin

April 11, 2010, my boyfriend died. We lived together the last two years, but our shared history was much longer, much richer. We knew each other so long I'm not sure when we actually met. Sometime in middle school: I can picture his sullen look and plague of acne, his thick glasses and lingering baby fat. We both grew up on Flint's West Side, behind Corunna Road's coney islands and pawn shops. When he was 18, his mother died and we began dating. We were together two years before I left for Europe and Bryan moved to Ann Arbor.

In the summer of 2008, my grandfather passed. Papa was my mentor. Poet of the Ford assembly lines, storyteller, world traveler. Bryan saw the obituary and sent his condolences through the funeral home. I invited him over and he pulled his mother's obituary from his wallet. His mother and my grandfather died the same day, 6 years apart. A second funeral brought us together again. It felt like an impossible gift.
After I graduated from University of Michigan-Flint in 2009, Bryan and I backpacked for two months across Europe and North Africa. We slated two weeks in Morocco, to explore the place so vivid and luring in Papa's stories. In the 1950s, as France handed independence back to the Moroccans, my grandfather served as a Peace Keeper, stationed at Port Lyautey (now Kenitra), Morocco. Papa told fascinating stories about the Moroccan tank drivers stopping to roll their prayer mats over the sand and pray toward Mecca. The sun and minarets and the mysterious women behind their veils.
Bryan and I made it from Marrakech to Essaouira, where Bryan dropped a small bag containing all our money and credit cards in the back of a taxi. We waited out exhausted, hungry days for our Western Union transfer. We never made it to Kenitra.
 Of our journey, Bryan and I talked about Morocco the most. It was the place that demanded the most of us (rather than fighting, the threat of homelessness and starvation in Africa strengthened our solidarity). And neither of us had experienced something so wonderfully Other: the muezzin calling the prayer. The narrow sun-baked streets. The constant, strangely intoxicating smell of dust and blood and mint tea. We loved it. Of the many letters Bryan wrote me, one of my favorites was penned just weeks before he died and says, "I wish I could take you to Morocco and you'd have the biggest smile."

I'm going back to Morocco, alone. To make it to Kenitra, for Papa, and to Essaouira, to scatter Bryan's ashes.