Writer's note: I am a journalist in academia, a woman who has traveled among many cultures. I live outside the box and I like it — and I want to share my perspective with you.
Grief is a sneaker wave.
As a college student, a sign greeted me at the Oregon coast: Beware of sneaker waves. It had a design of a stick person being knocked over by a curling blue wave. I immediately had an image in my mind of a wave running to shore in Converse sneakers.
Turns out, sneaker waves are no joke. I was photographing at the coast — it’s called the coast, not the shore or the beach, for a good reason. It’s still a wild and untamed juncture where the ocean crashes into the land. I had scoffed at the warning and walked out to get closer to the surf. One minute I’m photographing on dry land, the next I’m up to my rib cage in cold Pacific water, dangling my cameras held high above my head. I turned and chugged toward land as quickly as I could. I was lucky another wave didn’t take me down. Or a random log didn’t knock me unconscious. Or the rush of water didn’t sweep me off my feet and under.
Grief has been sneaking up on me recently.
My Humpty-Dumpty heart has been shattered and cobbled together over the years. Wounded and healed again and again. Grief washes over and through me at unsuspected moments.
In my own life, I feel the loss of the children I wanted and never had. I have an abiding sorrow for the loss of the man I believed I’d spend the rest of my life with until he abandoned me. I still feel the loss of the people I’ve witnessed suffer and die in my long career as a journalist.
There’s been so much loss in my life in recent years. My friends felled by bullets and shrapnel in foreign lands. My friend who regularly questions why she should get out of bed in the morning after police assassinated her husband outside their home. I think of my friend whose mother beat back cancer several times and then decided enough was enough and crossed over surrounded by family in her daughter’s home. My friend mentioned how the deep pain of missing her mom show ups in all the “firsts” without her — Thanksgiving, Christmas, anniversaries, birthdays.
In February, I received a message from Brian Castner. We worked together covering the Ebola outbreak in Liberia in December 2014 and January 2015.
Prince Collins died.
Prince was a radio journalist. He’d been our fixer during our reporting and travels in Liberia. He’d arranged our press credentials and driver, Carton. He’d made introductions and connections for our sources and stories. He talked us through a checkpoint and dicey moment on New Year’s Eve returning to Monrovia. He always introduced us as his colleagues. He became our friend.
I sent Brian a text. “How are you feeling?”
“Surprisingly bad,” he responded. I felt the same.
Brian contacted the pastor at Prince’s church. He doesn’t know how Prince died. A sudden illness.
I hadn’t known Prince long; yet after a month covering the Ebola outbreak, we had shared meals and car rides, visited Ebola Treatment Units and attended funerals, watched rows of grave diggers carve deep rectangular holes in the red earth with pickaxes. Now I was viewing images of his casket and funeral on Facebook and reading the posted laments and remembrances of his friends, radio listeners and colleagues.
He left a young wife and family, who had welcomed us into their home at Firestone in Harbel. I liked Prince. I fully expected to see him and work with him again in Liberia.
On one of our last days in Liberia, Prince accompanied me as I shopped for gifts that Brian and I could bring home to our family and friends. We walked through tailor shops as I sought traditional handmade shirts. Prince offered advice on styles, patterns and colors. I wanted a saa saa, a hollow gourd with beads wrapped on its exterior with cotton thread, for my percussionist brother. We walked for a couple hours through the narrow, meandering alleys of the local markets. Prince made repeated inquiries until we found a vendor.
We shared our last meal at The Cape Hotel, looking out at the Atlantic. We celebrated the good work we’d done together and raised a glass to better days for Liberia.
And now Prince is gone.
During spring break, I was in Rhode Island. My mom sent me a text. It’s seven years ago today that Sis died, Mom wrote. I miss her.
Ruth was my mom’s twin sister and my godmother. My aunt once told me the story of how she’d been sunbathing on the roof of her dormitory at nursing school when she felt a sharp pain in her stomach. She said she knew immediately that my mother was giving birth to me.
My mom and aunt spoke of the powerful bond between twins and the deep knowing and communication that passes between them and transcends spoken words. And now my mom is the lone living twin these past seven years.
Whenever I’m in Rhode Island, I visit the graves of my ancestors. Sometimes I stop to say hello. Sometimes I stop to say thank you. I stop to honor and remember them.
When I visited the graves over spring break, winter had taken its toll. The fabric of the American flags staked in the earth was shredded. Only brittle twigs remained where plants had once blossomed.
The next day I went to the local nursery to purchase spring flowers. A pink hyacinth and violas for one grandmother. A blue hyacinth and pansies for another.
I fixed the wind chimes on Ruth’s grave and placed one half of a charcoal blue scallop shell on her headstone. I planted violas and a pink hyacinth on her grave. Ruth loved to garden. Her back and front porches were lined with chimes that tinkled and clinked when the wind blew through.
That day broke open bright, blue-sky sunny. I could feel the warmth of the sun and breath of the wind on my face.
Joy is a sneaker wave, too.
Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.