30 October 2012

Six Degrees of Separation From Caring

I was in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Goose Creek, S.C. when my cell phone rang. It was my roommate from my sophomore year in college, Natalie. We hadn't seen much of one another over the past three years as her study abroad and my graduation a year before her had put literal and figurative distance between us. It stuck me as a bit odd that she was calling out of the blue and even more odd that she was crying.

"I don't know how to tell you this... Gianni was in Bali," she said. 

The statement seemed incomplete. Gianni was my ex-boyfriend. He was from Switzerland. We met at the start of the year, as Natalie, a freshman, was dating Gianni's best friend Gian who was the son of one of her father's business contacts. Gian came from Switzerland to visit Natalie. Gianni, working in Chicago, came down to see Gian. Gianni and I found ourselves often shut out of the dorm room, so spent hours sitting out on the stairwell talking. Just before he left, we traded numbers, but he was due to return to Switzerland in only two weeks time. I didn't think much about any possibilities; however, we talked for hours by phone for each of the five nights following. On the sixth night he called and said, "I've just booked a ticket from Chicago to come see you. I hope that's okay." Four of his last five days in America were spent with me.

Gifted with Frequent Flyer miles and a mother with a romantic heart, I travelled to Switzerland that Christmas break. Natalie was supposed to go with me, but she and Gian hadn't lasted. I flew into Milan, spent the night at Gianni's family's vacation home in Northern Italy before winding through the Alps to his tiny village where I learned to snowboard, ate real fondue, and unwrapped presents around a tree lit with candles. Gianni's family spoke Romansch, one of four national language in Switzerland, derived from Latin and French, yet still not close enough to French to allow me to have any clue of what was being said around me. Thankfully, Gianni spoke seven languages to varying degrees, though his English—honed in Chicago—born a mid-western Yankee accent, while his brother, who studied in Australia, sounded decidedly different. Gianni's sister was kind and knew enough English to help me when I appeared completely lost, but Gianni's cousin—whose English was better than my German—refused to speak to me in anything other than French, which we both had only a moderate command of but nonetheless used to discuss Gaudi architecture while in a snowboarders bar in Davos. It was all very international and chic. Gianni's friends told me that they'd never seen him be as serious about a girl as he was with me. We rang in the year 2000 at a giant bash in Tschierv, hung out in St. Moritz watching fireworks over the lake, wound down the trip with Gianni's return to work with a economics group associated with the University of St. Gallen, and I flew out of Zurich under the watchful eye of guards armed with AK-47s.

Unfortunately, I proved not to be much good at a Transatlantic relationship. There was much back and forth, too many words taken out of context via online chats, and not enough time together. Gianni went to India for work—we were living entirely separate lives. He was able to visit in May for a family beach trip, but by June we were no longer together. It had been a good run. I had a grand story to tell. Gianni, I knew, would continue to travel the world, there was even talk of going back to India. 

When Natalie called two years later, nothing made sense. "Gianni was in Bali," she said. I blinked at the rows of cars lining the asphalt parking lot and was silent. "OK... I don't know what that means," I replied. Natalie's voice cracked, "Haven't you seen the news?" I hadn't. My association with Bali was that it was a pretty nice place to be. Natalie explained there had been a bombing at a nightclub. There were many casualties. Gianni had been there with a friend. The friend escaped but rescuers couldn't even find Gianni's body. There was nothing to confirm his death other than the circumstances of time, and place, and the fact that there was nothing left to bury. 

The bombing, which occurred on Oct. 12, 2002, was the deadliest act of terrorism in Indonesia's history, killing 202 and injuring another 240. Members of the Jemaah Islamiyah group, a violent Islamic group, were convicted in the killings that included a car bomb, a suicide bomber with a backpack bomb, and a smaller bomb outside the U.S. consulate in Denpasar. It has been reported that via tape recording, Osama Bin Laden stated the attacks were the direct result for support of the United States' war on terror and Australia's role in liberating East Timor.  

At first, I had no emotion. I was hollow. I was confused. And then, I was guilty. If we hadn't broken up, Gianni wouldn't have been in Bali. At least, that's what I told myself. My self-blame was a delusion of control. As if I could have prognosticated two years into the future... As if in that two years' time we would have remained a couple... As the militant hatred of a terrorist leader never existed... As if the flutter of a butterfly's wings had no effect...

I followed the story for years—through the naming of victims, through the funerals, through the investigations and arrests, to the eventual death sentences for three of the group's leaders. It was all I could do. The Swiss government had given Gianni a state funeral, even though there wasn't a body. I didn't go. I didn't call. I didn't send a card. I was just the ex-girlfriend. I didn't want to intrude. But at the same time I wondered if they would blame me too—that silly American girl... if only she hadn't broken up with him, none of this would have happened. My acceptance of blame was the closest I could come to willing the situation to change.

There were, of course in America, no yellow ribbons. There were no candle light vigils or memorial services. Six degrees of separation seemed to fail me, and I felt exceedingly alone in my mourning for this act of terror halfway around the world. The deaths were unimportant. They did not effect us — the U.S. of us — and therefore they did not exist. The headlines came and went with little to do. And people moved on. And people forgot. 

Such is our way in times of crisis. We who are not directly affected may turn a blind eye. We may keep going. We may carry on while others are burdened and broken. The fact of the matter is that we can not be everything to everyone all the time. We can not individually reach out our hand to every other hand in need. But where is the line? When do we get involved and when do we determine that it is not our burden to carry? How will our decisions affect the decisions of those in the future when we find ourselves to be the ones in need? We are our brother's keeper only to the extent we wish our brother to keep us. 

I can't help but still look for Gianni. In large crowds, in foreign cities, on public transportation, I imagine that I will see his face, and that after all these years, he will have only been suffering from amnesia. Unsure of his own identity, he will need only to be recognized, and that I will be able to do the one thing that no one else has been able to do... give his mother back her eldest son.

(Written with thoughts of Aldon Hynes and family who lost one of their own in Hurricane Sandy.)

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"We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world." — Buddha

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