The night I learned my father had suffered a massive heart attack, I was driving downtown to meet R for dinner. I don’t know exactly why my step mom didn’t tell me that my father was rushed to the ER days before, had 3 stints placed on his heart and then went into shock when he tried to leave the hospital, but I do know my father is fiercely private about anything that indicates weakness. I am not friends with my father or his wife on Facebook in order to protect both of us: I cannot imagine it being comfortable for him to read all of my sex positive, radical liberal, sexually explicit writing. He does not want me to broadcast his declining health, and he does not want to worry his clients that he had since the 1970’s, but really, I think he doesn’t want my brother who is mentally unstable and often homeless to catch wind of his vulnerability. My brother could rob his office or attack him. My brother, an addict with untreated mental health issues, has been in and out of prison my entire life. So my father’s secret heart attack had happened days earlier and no one told me until I happened to call his landline.
R and I were both famished and everything was closed except for a new French place on 5th and Broadway. We weaved through the street hustlers asking for cash. R opened his palms to them and patted his empty pockets as if to say, “I got nothing.” Inside the restaurant, Nora Jones played that song about not knowing why she didn’t come. We sat on tall, uncomfortable stools. R bent over a tiny breadboard with three hard cheeses I couldn’t pronounce, tasty green olives and buttery skinned almonds. The restaurant was cozy and dim. Couples sat close and fussed over tiny piles of fig compote and prosciutto; held their wine in fat goblets and sipped as though there would be rivers of wine forever. My new relationship with R felt breakable and dangerous. I was afraid to thrash it with my heavy silent panic of losing another parent and the sudden news stung like a light too bright to look at directly and so I stared at the woman behind the counter while she sliced fruit on a breadboard the shape of a pig. I ate my olives and waited for R to say something, anything. Morbier. Rigotte de Condrieu. Gruyere.
My mother was my first close death and it changed the lighting in me for good. She died a few years ago from a cancer that shrunk her sturdy, horse-riding body into a mangled child’s frame. Losing her was like waking up without feet because I enjoyed her as a woman, mother and friend. After she died, I floated through my days and bumped into things like topless strip clubs, hotel rooms, handjob parlors and car accidents. The final blow of losing someone I loved made me feel so ripped open and enraged, I was consumed by a specific type of not giving a fuck that was freeing until the day when my anger settled into a still and quiet acceptance. The only choice was to pick up my scuffed stilettos and move forward.
During the years, Mom was sick, I quit jobs, delayed grad school and borrowed money last minute to zoom up north to wash her hair and listen to her breathe. For a while, she got stronger and went back to work. When her cancer returned after a brief remission, she died quickly. It was on one of these trips I stopped for gas at a gas station on the grapevine. It was snowing hard and a man walked up to me wearing a suit jacket, his business car held out like an offering. His story was that he was stranded and couldn’t reach his assistant. He asked me to give him a ride to his art gallery, which was somewhere in the valley. His clean cut appearance made him seem more sinister— a well groomed, polite serial killer approaching single women, looking for a mark in the snowy combination Taco Bell gas station. “Absolutely,” I said robotically and opened the passenger side door. Hours later, I dropped the man off at his actual art gallery and he offered me a small gift from his store since it was around Christmas, but I declined, disappointed he didn’t even try to hurt me and also relieved the same way haggard men are relieved to be handed their Maker’s Mark neat at the bar where I dance topless.
Lorrie Moore wrote “Every day there was something new to mourn and something old to celebrate” but in this age of emotional channel surfing, I wonder if we’ve forgotten how to do either. Is it because the onslaught of bad news has become too overwhelming or because it’s too easy to change our Twitter icons to black and keep consuming?
When James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines were beheaded on TV, I was reminded of that familiar, shocking sorrow and was filled with compassion for the mothers of the journalists who were beheaded. I’ve been thinking of them ever since but it seems like everyone else has forgotten.
That Shirley Sotloff and Diane Foley lost their sons was an incomprehensible sorrow and I cannot imagine how it felt to see their deaths in the media around the clock on news channels and YouTube. On one hand, the whole world witnessed their loss and was shocked alongside them. On the other hand, it seemed easily dismissed, like we moved on too quickly to resume dumping ice over our heads, and then raced to buy the new i-phone.
I’m not attacking any particular generation, but I would be lying to omit the fact that we live in a time of mass branding and its terminally seductive distractions. It’s not only inconvenient to feel—at times it’s impossible and I relate to that impossible numb.
My plea is to give pause—to honor James Foley, Steven Sotloff and their surviving mothers, Shirley Sotloff and Diane Foley in order to lift the weight of their grief in a meaningful way that says we are sorry for your loss instead of “I got nothing.”
The first half of the summer, everyone was embroiled in arguments over Gaza, and still are. And then a series of disturbing cases came to light, where white cops killed Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man, in Ferguson where racial tension had been brewing for years, sparking a Watts Rebellion Redux 50 years after the fact, a rude awakening to the realization we hadn’t come far at all with regard to civil rights. Then NFL running back Ray Rice punched out his wife in an elevator and it was captured on a security camera and spread like viral wildfire followed by Olympic athlete “Blade runner” Oscar Pastoris, who fatally shot his girlfriend in South Africa last year and was let off lightly.
The second half of this summer brought more human tragedy as entertainment in the shock hungry media.
Most notable, a New Yorker article featured captured journalist Steven Sotloff’s mother, Shirley Sotloff ‘s public plea to ISIL leaders asking to spare her son’s life and to grant her what every mother wants: to see her children’s children. “My son is in your hands,” she said, to the camera, her steely gaze clear and blazing.
Soon after that, Steven Sotloff was beheaded on film. His execution was badly staged in a video including the signature orange jumpsuit, violent wind in the background, and a knife to his throat by a hooded British man and threats recited under duress directly to President Obama. This video was sandwiched between Foley’s and British aid worker, David Gaines’ beheading. The videos were regurgitated on YouTube excessively and all of the other media outlets; the images of terror flashed: Bewildered Son. Wind. Knife. Orange jumpsuit. Bad sound. Foley, Sotloff an then Gaines reciting lines in creepy drone voice. Beheading. Repeat.
When something as horrible as a beheading of our own citizens happens following on the heels of wars abroad and domestic that have captivated and devastated us, many of the same organizations who would ordinarily be outraged and empathetic, reaching out to the surviving parents/mothers/families seem to have suddenly disappeared.
Our unfortunate collective inaction may be an issue of emotional enervation and exhaustion. Unfortunately, the casualties aren’t only the men killed by ISIL but the families left behind.
Perhaps we just all felt helpless.
By the end of August, maybe people felt numb and it was just hard to get out of bed in the morning. I’ll bet Diane Foley and Shirley Sotloff felt that way and wonder how they will be able to move forward while those images haunt their days.
In addition to losing her son in a public display, Diane Foley claimed that she did not know what the government was doing to help him. When she expressed concern, she was not only dismissed by the Government and treated like a nuisance; she was threatened with prosecution if her family attempted to gather funds in order to attempt to help him. She was told that her son’s situation was the highest priority, then scolded, silenced and brushed aside to make room for trendy, flashier news: Beyonce and Jay-Z on tour together.
I’m well acquainted with loss. I know there are no words to console a mother who outlived her son who was one of the good guys—a journalist seeking the truth in dangerous circumstances who was unlucky enough to be unarmed and attacked, but I also know that perhaps in these dark times that it is comforting to know that one is not alone in their grief.
Once again, I zoomed up the 101 to eat turkey with my dad who is thankfully still alive and I felt extraordinarily lucky and I stayed in my mother’s house and plucked heirloom tomatoes from her greenhouse and popped them in my mouth and remembered her. I choose to not avert my eyes from the loss of her, for I cannot be reminded of her enough.
I have no idea what to do for mothers who have lost their sons so I offer them this letter from Abe Lincoln.
I view James Foley and Steven Sotloff similar to our service men and women; soldiers fighting for freedom. Therefore, Diane Foley and Shirley Sotloff are considered Gold State Mothers (a WWII reference to mothers who lost sons in the war) deserving of the upmost honor and empathy. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln wrote to Mrs. Bixby who lost five sons in the Civil War fighting to preserve the Union. The letter demonstrates the bottomless agony of a mother’s loss and a commander’s search for any words to address so compelling a loss.
Abe Lincoln knew there were no words that would suffice—no escape from the dismal grief from this type of loss and that no small act would heal the pain, however, it’s not too much to ask that consider the mothers who lost their sons, all of the mothers who have lost sons from unpopular wars and to remember their grief by acknowledging them and remembering them by holding their grief in our hearts before flipping through the channels.
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.
I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.
I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,
ALC is a writer in Los Angeles. She teaches Creative Writing to incarcerated teenage girls and publishes their amazing words.
Thank you for writing this. So many of your words hit home and I especially love the phrase about holding their grief in our hearts before flipping channels.