As I sit in my studio apartment, cut off from the world outside, my attention all too captured by the incessant coronavirus coverage on Facebook, and by my panic-search for a job to replace all jobs I’ve lost in the past week, I can’t help but think back on all the other moments like this in my life, the familiarity feeling strangely calming in this sea of chaos.
I think of a May morning in 1992, when, still half-asleep and with not much more than a “because we say so” explanation, I stumble down the eerily empty freeway towards the small airport on the outskirts of my hometown of Banja Luka, Bosnia, my parents hurrying me along, quietly, lest someone hears us and puts an end to this (what I learned later to be an) escape. I clutch to my backpack, holding but a couple of books and my diary, my dad carrying my suitcase, barely big enough for some summer clothes I was told to pack, hastily, late the night before. We walk by a sea of missiles all facing the same direction (later I’m told they‘re aimed at the city I’m fleeing to), this man-made horror in sheer contrast to a field of wildflowers and buzzing bees opposite it. I focus too much on the missiles and ignore the bees — it will take me many more years to learn the salvation is in the opposite direction.
By the time we reach the airport, it’s engulfed in thousands of panicked parents trying to get their kids to safety. I’m whisked into the frenzy, pushed to the front — the only chance of making it is to be in the front — no time to say a proper goodbye to my parents before the door to a small military airplane opens up and hundreds of children run, run, run, cries and screams, not of joy, but of panic and fear. By the time I make it to Croatia, some 5 days later, I know that life as I knew it will never be the same. For once, I now hold a label of a “refugee”, a word I didn’t even know the meaning of until it was applied to me. I will also not see my mom for 9 months and my dad for many years to come, and will have to survive the hostile waters ahead of me, alone, not knowing if any of it will ever get better. I’m 14.
I think also of an all-too-humid August night two years later, when my mom, my 8-year-old brother, and I landed in Tampa, Florida, after 24 hours of grueling travel that saw me throwing up the whole time, leaving me delirious and unable to lift even myself, let alone the two suitcases we were allowed to bring by the U.S. government who granted us the asylum. The Indonesian man who was sent to get us wore a dirty wife-beater, cut-off shorts, and plastic flip-flops, his feet covered in caked-up dust, his demeanor cranky. He yells at us the whole time (in his native tongue) as we stumble our way across the airport to the parking lot (dragging those suitcases like the weight of a life long dead), and try not to panic when he eventually leads us to a beat-up van with no seats in the back and no license plate. A van like this took people away in our hometown during the war, never to be seen again. A van like this is also what every serial killer drives on every crime show I’d ever seen. It’s midnight. In a place where we don’t know a soul. My mom looks at me and says, “he’s skinny, there are two of us, if anything should happen, we can take him” and so we climb into the back, and sit at the ready for the whole 40-min drive. We arrive at a small motel in the worst part of town, with no a/c, no lock on the door, and more roaches than I’ve ever seen in my life. And so our American life begins.
I think also of another August, some 16 years later, when, once again barely awake, I answer a call from my dad where he tries to tell me through earth-shattering sobs that my only brother is dead. Somehow, I manage to buy a ticket, get myself to the airport, and fly all the way from NYC to Florida, clutching a bag I packed for a week, but which (it turns out) contained but one change of clothes and a toothbrush. I remember people, lots of people, offering condolences, help, sympathy. I remember, too, the anger, the sheer anger at the fact that it was not supposed to be this way. Out of all of us, he was supposed to die last, being the youngest! I remember my then-boyfriend, a white American man of privilege, commenting on my dad’s inability to tell a story earlier that evening because of his broken English, not realizing that my dad’s language skills had nothing to do with why he kept stopping and breathing hard throughout.
I think on all those instances of chaos, instability, uncertainty, and panic, so much panic, from myself and others all around me. And then I remember, deep down, in the deepest depths of my soul, that this is Life. A giant roller-coaster that sometimes turns us upside down and we scream, our primal fears unearthed, gripping onto whatever safety we might find, panicking when those nets suddenly start disintegrating. And yet, we collectively keep surviving, over and over again, even in the midst of a turn that (we claim) is sure to kill us all.
I think of my mom, who with no English and 2 underage kids, found a way to make money and rebuild our lives from a total zero to a comfortable middle class, and I stop worrying about my ability to find work once all this is over.
I think of my dad and his ad-hock humanitarian group who were hunted by the Serbs the whole time of the war as they tried to save whoever they could, barely surviving with limited food and no water, electricity, or heat, through 3 long and hard winters. I think of millions of other people who have been surviving similar war zones (sometimes in peace) throughout the world, and centuries. And I am grateful for my little gas fireplace that makes me feel rich even in the midst of a job loss, for TV shows and movies that not only entertain me but also keep me hopeful that my job as a writer and a director is still relevant (in times like this what saves us all is storytelling), and for my local grocery store that still has plenty of fruits and vegetables, a luxury most of us are not even aware of.
Finally, I think, too, of those individuals who do not survive and whose lives become just a number in a sea of numbers that stop losing their meaning as more and more people die. I think of how my brother’s sudden death ripped through my little family, nearly taking us all with it, and I feel deep sorrow for every single one of those thousands of deaths reporting in the news these days, and the pain it will cause for each of their families. It is so easy to forget this fact when all the news talks about is numbers, as if a smaller number indicates a smaller loss for those left behind. Every number is another sea of sadness. Let us all remember that, and try, as much as we can, stop them from turning into a giant ocean, however we can.
For me it means staying put in my little studio apartment (as a service for the more vulnerable members of our community), watching too much Netflix, looking for jobs that are disappearing in front of my eyes, and remembering, through all the noise, and the panic, and my privilege of boredom, that this too shall pass, one way or another. We have (all of us) lived through worse.