Be Thankful for Each Day

August 19, 2008

I have not had much to say since I returned from my vacation in part because I’ve been preoccupied with a tragedy that befell my daughter’s room mate. (For her privacy I”ll not use her name, but with her permission I may use people’s names later.)

My daughter Amy shares an apartment in Washington D.C. with a couple of other young (mid to late-twenties) professional women. One of her roommates is a second generation American, her parents having immigrated here some time ago from India. Her other room mate is from Africa, but was educated here and met Amy in graduate school. She’s now back home in Mauritius after completing a one year contract for the World Bank.

Amy’s Indian-American (that’s right isn’t it?) room mate is from a family in Maryland. Her father, like most first generation immigrants, sought to preserve the culture of his homeland in his adopted country.

For the last quarter century or so he has been giving lessons in classical Indian music, inviting students to his home where he would cook breakfast on Saturday morning for the group, spend the day giving instruction, then concluding with dinner for the group. He would not consider taking money; this was done for his love of his culture and his students. He was a valued member of the local Indian community.

Amy’s friend, like most second generation immigrants, engaged more with American culture. She sang, not classical Indian music, but experimental music with a band in venues around town. She accepted both American and Indian cultures and is equally comfortable in each of them.

Her two little sisters, not yet in high school, lived in the traditional Indian household of the family, but they were thrilled by their older sister’s “exotic” life, living and working in Washington D.C., with other professional women.

One evening, Amy heard a ruckus outside her room. When she opened the door, she was nearly knocked over by the embrace of the two little sisters. They told Amy that they had heard so much about her that they already loved her. Amy was not sure that she had ever seen such love of life and raw energy.

There are also two disabled boys, the older brother with cerebral palsy who cannot help himself or communicate verbally and a twelve year old with autism. These disabled kids were fully functional family members. They were taken most everywhere with the family, incorporated in every activity and as thoroughly loved and appreciated as any children.

Two or threef months ago the family was going on vacation to India. Amy’s friend declined to go because she could not afford the time off from work, so the family came to the apartment for a get together before leaving.

About six weeks later (a couple of weeks or so before my arrival there) Amy’s friend got a call: Everyone in her family except her brothers had been killed in a car accident. Her youngest brother was in a coma, the older was fine, and the rest of the family had been killed while being driven to the airport to go home. Their driver had fallen asleep and his van had drifted into on-coming traffic.

Amy’s room mate borrowed enough money to fly to India and to pay for funeral arrangements there for her father, step mother and two sisters. She was hoping that friends could help her with additional expenses that would come up. She had no idea how she could get her brothers back to the U.S.

This began a nightmare of a different sort. First, she was required to identify the bodies which had neither been preserved nor much cleaned up. This was like a horror film. Then the people performing the Hindu funeral ceremonies became very demanding and, apparently because she was American, tried to charge her ten times the usual price for things.

Her youngest brother came out of the coma and somehow she got everyone back to Maryland. Someone however had gotten into the house and picked the interior locks, including a safe and rooms that were kept under lock and key.

Friends arranged for someone to come in 12 hours a day to help with her oldest brother. She discovered that she cannot afford the mortgage on the family home. A friend wrote to the bank, asking it not to foreclose while things were being sorted out.

She can’t sell the house because there is an unfinished addition to it. The family was building an addition so that the two girls could have their own rooms for the first time. Not being familiar with local customs and being rather trusting by nature, they had paid the contractor in full and in advance. The addition was not finished and the contractor was gone. Amy’s room mate found out that the contractor was neither licensed nor bonded.

She is the only person in the world that her brothers have to care for them. She is receiving wonderful support from family friends and personal friends, as well as her father’s former students and people from the community. It is inspiring to see how these people are caring for the three surviving members of the family. People help with meals; someone is there every night; there is a great deal of love in the house. But know one knows what is going to happen.

Amy’s friend, after returning from Indian, stayed in her room a lot and did not go out of the house for two or three weeks. She’s still struggling and will of course for some time.

Her youngest brother and I became friends. He is a beautiful, gentle little boy with olive skin, enormous deer-like eyes, and a soft voice. He’d ask me to give him a hug when he went to bed and occasionally during the day. The last time we saw each other, we hugged, then he wispered to me “How old are you?” When I told him that I was sixty, he pulled back, looked me earnestly in the eye and gravely said “You are very, very, very, very old.”
I had to agree, then he said “Please don’t let anything bad happen to you; I couldn’t stand any more bad things.” Then he hugged me. I was the one though who needed the hug at that time.