A Point of No Beginning

Lately, I have been preoccupied with the concept of second chances as opposed to coming face to face with finality. In other words, what sticky situations in life can be undone and what scenario could lead to "a point of no return"?

I think it is safe to say that many people in life rest their aspirations, their wishes and dreams, on the hope that if they infuse their actions with sufficient determination, motivation, effort and belief the things they envision will come to pass. When we go through rough periods in our lives, we keep our spirits from plummeting into an abyss by adopting the adage that "this too shall pass". When something desired and desirable seems to be vanishing into a fleeting distance, whether we encounter a roadblock in our career, experience creative constipation or go through periods of solitude, loneliness and abandonment, we look ahead and tell ourselves that something more encouraging will surely await us there.

After watching the movie "La Vie en Rose", which chronicles the tumultuous life of French songbird Edith Piaf, my mind kept revisiting the muted film scene revealing Edith's anguish at the news that her one time lover Marcel had died in an airplane crash. She went on to live several more years surrounded by a throng of admirers and sporting shiny new boy toys on her arm; however, the multitude never achieved to fill the void of the one. Her life became a composition of rejections, losses, and abandonment, which international fame and glory could not upstage, let alone erase. It appears that professional recognition, wealth, and adoration by the masses are not a fool proof stand in for intimacy and requited love, and so in the end the "poor little rich girl" dies alone and lonely, worn in a way that floods the viewer's heart with compassion and maybe elicits the question of: Why? Why did Edith endure so much hardship? Why didn't she get a break? Was there in fact a lack of determination, a lack of effort in obtaining what we she wanted out of life, whether it was romantic love, peace, contentment, a creative adagio, artistic enlightenment? Is it really true that "we can create what we see possible"? What if the possible lacks all color, is but one lackluster road through sullen, tear-sodden terrain? Whenever Edith Piaf's life seemed to be on the upturn, another personal tragedy would pull her toward greater indulgence, toward accumulated excesses that ended up ravaging her body, compromising her voice and shortening her life. 

I would like to believe that Edith Piaf took a liking to the song "Je ne regrette rien", that it meant she regretted nothing about the winding course her life took. Isn't it what we all want - to live life in a manner that in the end, if asked whether we would lead our lives the same way again if given a chance, we will say: "No doubt about it. I milked it for all it was worth". No loose ends that tug at the soul - How do personal losses fare in this scenario of loose ends? Physical losses, such as deaths, have their own grief process, their own journey toward acceptance and peace. Edith lost her one and only child, Marcelle, to sickness, when the little girl was a mere few years old. Edith was young at the time and making a bare-knuckle living performing on street corners and in hole-in-the-wall bars. The little girl died, and so did Marcel, whom Edith had begged to take the next possible plane to come see her. He died on his way to her. This is one possibility of facing a point of no return. Options literally pulverize. A chapter closes forever.

Every minute of every day we make decisions that could constitute a "point of no return". A client of the law firm I used to work for faced one such dead end. He used to be a colonel in the Ethiopian army, educated in the technical complexities of military planes and equipment. He returned to his homeland Eritrea after the country had gained its independence in 1993. Because of his military days in the Ethiopian army, our client became a target of the Eritrean government, which began relentlessly persecuting him. He was arrested twice and kept in isolated bunkers with no cooling system, no windows, receiving scraps for food and subjected to random torture. The situation kept escalating, as some of his family members as well received potent threats, a brother-in-law disappearing for months at a time after having been arrested. At this point, our client decided to flee the country and come to the United States, where some of his siblings had already settled down.

He came to the law office to discuss the possibility of requesting asylum on grounds of political persecution, and we drew up the necessary documents, which included a detailed account of the torture tactics he had been subjected to under the repressive Eritrean regime. His wife and children meanwhile were waiting to be granted derivative status upon approval of his asylum application. Our client was called in for an interview and after a few months, the notice of approval came in the mail, which allowed for the next part of the process to be underway - the follow to join for his wife and children. Their situation had become precarious. The government in retaliation for our client's departure had threatened jail time, and there were mounting concerns for the family's physical safety. Our client was living with one of his sisters, who accompanied him whenever he had an appointment at the office. She was always friendly, warm, eager to assist her brother with anything concerning his residency process. She would cry on the phone when mentioning her brother's wife and his sons and daughters.

When our client's asylum claim was approved, his sister brought presents for us. I received several colorful pairs of earrings that made me consider piercing my ears once more. At the end of June, she and her brother paid us a visit to discuss the next steps toward residency status for our client and his family. Throughout the month of July, our office tried to get in touch with them on several occasions, but to no avail. We left repeated messages asking for a call back, but nothing. After four weeks of complete silence on their end, we began to worry that something had in fact happened. Had our client been forced to return to Eritrea due to a family emergency over there? Was he injured, sick, lying in a hospital? We tried another number we found in his file, and reached a brother of his, who told us reluctantly that our client was in fact sitting in jail. Immediately we thought of the possible charges and whether they would constitute a deportable offense. We were wildly speculating as to what might have happened, but the brother remained discreet as to the nature of the legal trespass. Later that day, my boss received a phone call from another of our client's siblings, who disclosed the missing puzzle pieces to us.

Our client had been in jail for a couple of weeks on first-degree murder charges. Shock immediately settled in, disbelief following on its heel. I went to Google, plugged in his name, and there it was: a mugshot of him in prison clothes. We pulled up the articles that had appeared in the local papers, and we found out that our client had gotten into a late night argument with his sister over medical bills, and that at some point in the verbal dispute he had grabbed a knife and stabbed her multiple times in the chest and legs in front of her four children, who ran out the door and dispersed into the neighborhood calling out for help. When police arrived on the scene, our client had fled the home and was found a couple of blocks farther down covered in blood. His sister, still alive, was air lifted to the nearest hospital, where she died around four a.m. on the operating table.

I have had a hard time getting what happened out of my head. In a moment of what is commonly termed "temporary insanity" several lives reached points of no return. Of course, we will never know what our client's life was exactly like while he was serving in the Ethiopian and later Eritrean army. We don't know to what extent the torture he endured paved the way toward the horrible act he committed. We don't know for sure whether the country's and the people's struggle for independence, the violence that surrounds any claim to sovereignty, contributed in large parts to his violent reaction. Fact is that he is being held in jail without bond and whether tried in the United States or deported back to his country, his life, the dream of rebuilding a life here is done for. His wife and children, for whom he served as lifeline, have lost their option of entering this country in derivative asylum status. The four children who witnessed their mother's murder at the hands of their uncle will have to live with these horrid images for the rest of their lives, and the sister who succumbed to the multiple knife wounds our client inflicted on her, lost hers.

What this tragedy reveals is that from one moment to the next, any life can take a drastic turn to a place where options go up in smokes. What a terrible thought to realize that we as humans are capable of such atrocities, when the "wrong" buttons are pushed. Our client seemed to be a very gentle man, demure, polite, always cooperating with us in the most pleasant way possible. He was one of our most agreeable clients, and yet here he was, a man driven to despair or a man harboring a violent streak that was lured out of latency by repeated frustrations and fights over financial matters. I wonder what his thoughts are these days while awaiting the verdict of his confessed crime. What is there to look forward to at this point? What hope, expectations can a person like our client have for his future? Next to having lost his physical freedom, he has to live with the guilt of having caused long term, possibly irreparable psychological and physical harm to those closest to him. When thinking of our client, I wish we had a system that included a pre-crime unit like the one Philip K. Dick thought up in his book "Minority Report". Ten lives could have been spared.

A Point of no Return - or rather A Point of No Beginning, a notion that struck me while reading Khaled Hosseini's beautifully crafted "A Thousand Splendid Suns". The novel details the lives of two unrelated women, leading separate lives that later intertwine on account of war and personal tragedy. Their destinies unfold against a backdrop of an Afghanistan in constant upheaval. The book follows these two women from the early 1970s to the new millennium and along the way provides a stark mental picture of the continuous plight of the Afghani people bracing against foreign invasion, feuding warlords, and extreme Taliban rule. The older of the two women starts out her life as a "Harami", a bastard, deprived of a comfortable life with a rich father, who had fooled around with one of his servants, a dishonorable act that was covered up at the expense of the victim - the little girl. From the very beginning, this young girl's life is one of deprivation. And the sad part is, it never stops being a life of deprivation. Parental rejection, early abandonment, and continued loss collide; they provide a poignant tune that soon becomes a blatant leitmotif. After she is married off to a much older man and loses her first child through miscarriage, she doesn't see much possibility ahead. Year after year, she endures physical and emotional abuse, crushing solitude, a life solely centered on trying to please an increasingly cruel husband. The title of the book takes the form of purest irony - it was lifted from a poem about Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, which has seen one thousand splendid suns benevolently shining down on its roofs - yet, the city of recent days is one of accumulated debris, dust, and death.

Both women, whose lives are thrust into close proximity during war time, experience small slices of redemption, as they fuse in their joint desire for freedom. Their growing friendship reflects a multifaceted love - the love of a mother for a daughter, of one sister for another, of oppressed women for a horribly deprived gender - their love is hopeful; it is one of unexpected beauty amid a crumbling reality where possibilities intermittently percolate. Yet ultimately, what started in tragedy, pain, loss - an initial "lack" - ends in such. Life does not readily stand on its head in an elegant 180 degree turn. The once little girl, Mariam, born with so many limits placed on her life...what could she have possibly created for herself, when potential was stripped from her at the hour of conception?

These days, I am thinking a lot about options, about second, or maybe better put, repeated chances, and about roads that end with no means of turning back. It makes me want to tread carefully, to speak cautiously, to think greatly before speaking up, all the while thanking nature for all that I've got. I don't know how many options I have already robbed myself of, but maybe with these examples in mind, I will walk my path gently. I am afraid of finality, as I would assume many of us are, and it comes in many guises throughout life. Why some of us are luckier (if that is in fact the proper word) than others, I have not figured out yet - unless I rely on the ready-made explanations provided by religious doctrines in regards to our varied sufferings and personal trials. I always hope for betterment, for another chance...these examples, however, show me, as others have before them, that such belief does not necessarily translate into another day, another opportunity, no matter how much we want to see it possible.

A Thousand Splendid Suns...they drag along shadows!