I have a dismal memory. That is the main reason that I write yearly birthday letters to my family. It is also the one birthday gift that I expect from my three sons and daughter. My husband is not as easily coercible. But I write because I am scared that the longer I wait, the more the past will blur. The selfish endgame that I pound into my kids is that the gift will always be there.
Lucas, you hit the double digits on March 4th in Nepal and you already have nine of my yearly letters in hard copy, on your Aunt Vinny’s hard drive in New York and not on one but on two external hard drives (our entire lives on “earthquake back-ups” since we live in Kathmandu, the land of potential cataclysmic earthquakes.) Yes – I overcompensate and over prepare but someone in our family has to right?
The other night, your beloved and huge dog Biko woke me up at 2AM, whining and moaning and in need of dashing out to our lawn regardless of the torrential rain storm buffeting the Kathmandu Valley. No doubt a race induced by my feeding him a large portion of raw water buffalo for lunch. In hindsight, I admit I was overzealous with a potentially misguided desire to appeal to his carnivorous ancestry. I then tossed awake for hours, incapable of mindful mindlessness, while you lay asleep near me. For over a year, Dad has had to live in Dhaka, trying to come home for short weekends to visit us in Kathmandu. You never complain though on occasion you’ll whisper that you miss him. Part rational philosopher and part charming manipulator who knows my earthquake anxieties well, you reasoned with me that it was best for us to share a bed as Kathmandu winters are bitter cold and its better to be together if the earthquake hits us in the middle of the night. I acquiesced as you slip back into your bed with a snake’s ease when Dad’s in town.
Our family size has been slowly shrinking year by year as your siblings headed off to college and boarding school in North America and this year I noticed how much we had also become companions. We share this quirky intense world that is Kathmandu. You get it. You love it. Somewhere in between your obsession with war planes, the Marine Corps and LHAs (Landing Helicopter Assault ships – admittedly I did introduce to you The Belleau Wood, the LHA that I was on as a reporter in 1995), you have an innate ability to live in the instant which I know keeps me grounded. We think its normal to have open sewers on our street and we share a mutual exasperation about the ubiquitously dumped garbage. You walk shot gun with a bamboo lathi keeping stray street dogs at bay when we take Biko for long weekend hikes and you don’t mind that we live in the Kathmandu Valley urban boondocks which makes visiting friends a bit complicated. “It’s good that we live here on a ridge,” you explained to me the other day. “This way we are above most of the pollution and the black carbon here will only shorten my life by a few days.”
Some might say that I am an over protective mother. I am not keen on heading out of town and leaving you with friends. Yep – that damn earthquake phobia again. But I don’t think age should decide whether or not you witness the realities of life around us. I took you to Pashupatinath where you saw not one but three on-going cremations up close and personal. We have a cremation site down the road from us and when in use, you’ll point out that it “smells of BBQ” when we drive by. Like the open air butcher shacks, the ubiquitous Hindu shrines and even the occasional elephant strolling among whizzing motorcycles with half a tree on his back, it is all now a normal routine. I find it ironic that you were baptized a Catholic and both Dad and I used to be practicing believers but you seem to know more about Shiva and Laxmi, Ganesh and Vishnu (the Nag and the roiling sea of milk) than about the bible. You’ll point to a motorcyclist dressed all in white and say with your British-Nepali lilt: “Mum, that man is in his 13-day mourning period for his father.” You cheer up on days when the Maoists declare city-wide, non vehicular traffic strikes because it means biking to school. Every week you watch all the New York Times on line videos (using up all my iPad battery power) and on Dad visits, World War II has taken up entire afternoons drawing out the siege of Stalingrad and then the fall of Europe on restaurant paper under-plates.
You are my reason and my excuse to explore. I owe you a debt of gratitude. This year, two trips have deeply influenced how you feel about living so far away from the rest of the family. You and I and our friends, Milan and Kunda, trekked the Annapurna Circuit past the horrific tourist traffic jams to the isolated refuge of Dobato, surrounded by the Annapurna and Machhapuchre peaks. Maybe it was the Zen-provoking feeling of hiking upto eight-hours-a day (with your heavy day back) though all I felt was sore feet, or the hours with nothing to do but watch the 8000meter peaks through sunshine, snow and hail, the ubiquitous runny dal bhat or the frigid nights, wearing all our ski clothes. You had only one sentence for the aches and pains I suffered: “Trekking is really the best Mum.”
On our agenda for this new year of yours: we still have to work on convincing Dad to trek. I also learned that as a nine-year-old, you – unlike your mother – are a gifted diplomat. Thank you for voting with me to visit the Rub’al Khali desert in Oman and overriding Dad’s veto. And thank you for deftly manipulating the tension between the two of us as the sun went down on the desert dunes and Dad informed us he really did not want to be there. Then at dawn the next morning, with our legs shin deep in frigid fine red sand, you turned to me and just said: “I could stay here forever.”
On March 4th, you turn 10 years old. There are constants you bring with you: daily Facetime with Dad, your dog Biko, guaranteed wild summers with siblings and cousins and living with me. Everything else is an unknown adventure. With that in mind: March Forth.