Crossing by Myself
Updated: May 21, 2020
I wrote this travelogue-style essay in November 2018, while visiting my daughter Caroline during her service with Peace Corps Nepal. In March 2020, Caroline and more than 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) were evacuated from their posts without notice because of Covid-19. They returned home jobless and found themselves in weird self-quarantine situations.
Caroline was one of the last 43 PCVs evacuated on the last commercial flight to leave Kathmandu — a flight added at the 11th hour by Etihad Airways at 9:00 p.m. on March 23 — right before the airport shut down. As Friends of Nepal reported, it was the final flight to make it out of Kathmandu before the shutdown. Needless to say, I was glued to the FlightAware flight tracker, watching every moment of her trip home in real time.
This essay explores motherhood, mortality, and the wonders of Nepal. The photo shows Caroline crossing Lake Phewa in Pokhara.
I thought of my mother, that first night in Kathmandu, while I was race-walking behind my grown daughter Caroline. Leading the way, her long hair flapped beside her boyfriend’s broad shoulders. My mother would have loved the trip. She had died a year earlier.
Holiday lights dangled over the streets. A woman in an ornately patterned skirt counted potatoes. The air smelled of burning wood. Motorbikes fanned us with fumes, beeping. Shop owners stood sentinel, bored or hopeful in narrow rooms packed with Pashmina shawls, cell phones advertised by shifting green lasers, and raw meat on tables. Boxy trucks zoomed by.
“The trick is,” Caroline said, eyeing the far side of an even busier road, “cross when you see the Nepali people cross.”
A group strolled into traffic. I plunged into a swarm of motorcycles. Caroline grabbed my wrist, pulling me back with a firm grip. I felt five years old and she was me, roles reversed, as a much younger mother, vigilant, refusing to let go.
Dust shrouded the trees in Bhaktapur on Day Two of my visit to Nepal. When I blew my nose later, the tissue turned black, but vendors guarded acres of orange, black, and red beans, and stone-faced lions sold intricately carved temples. We inhaled a three-sixty view of an ancient place, crumbling after an earthquake.
In the square, wealthy tourists dined on rooftops, while on the street below, a boy of maybe ten balanced bags of pink cotton candy on a long stick instead of going to school. I was one of the wealthy tourists.
“We don’t know his whole story,” Caroline said, arguing against assumptions.
On the bus again, my only child tossed off a comment like a suffocating scarf. “I might want to stay and work here,” she said, meaning longer than her two-year service gig.
I felt choked by traffic. I couldn’t breathe.
I stepped in feces of an unknown type, on our way to another spiritual center in Patan, on the third day of my trip. Inside a museum, I read up on dome-like temples called chaityas and I worried about my shoes.
Outside, my daughter and her sweetheart at the time — let’s call him James* — sat under a flowering tree with braided limbs that looked like an upside-down basket. From the museum’s second floor, the window frame turned them into a postcard — young lovers under purple blossoms.
“Come on, dude,” I thought. “Win that heart.” I had brought “James” with me, all the way from the United States, to visit Caroline. I doubted he would ever want to live in Nepal. He didn’t like the haze at street level. If they married, she would have to move home.
Onward I plodded through the museum. Hinduism hinges on the gods Shiva and Vishnu and the Great Goddess, Devi, mother of all existence. Regardless of squat toilets or poop on my shoes, so long as I was with my daughter, I decided, I would be joyful — not like my mother at the end of her life, when she waved me off and cursed me, seemingly bored and irritated by the sound of my voice. When she died, a year before my Nepal trip, I fished through my memories, hungry for the sweet bits, but reeled in only sour moments. I know she loved me, in the unavoidable way mothers have to love their babies. She didn’t like me much.
Near our hotel, Caroline and Let’s-Call-Him-James craved noodles. I needed to lie down. At the intersection that I had nicknamed Mortality, we parted ways.
“Okay, Mama,” she said. “Can you make it across by yourself?” In the dimming light, her sweet, bare face glowed.
In Besisahar, the river ran green with glacial crystals, downstream to a curl in the channel. On the riverbank, James hopped from rock to rock while Caroline and I talked about men. I asked, hopeful, if she wanted to marry him.
“I don’t know what’s next for me,” she said, glancing unconcerned at the stunts I feared would land him in a Nepali hospital. “I mean, I can’t imagine my life without him. I love him. He’s my best friend.”
Headed back uphill, a group of smiling boys shook our hands, practicing English and their formal manners. “Hello! Nice to meet you! Where are you from?” A white goat danced. Women in red dresses walked by. I remembered my mother and grandmother taking me to Cozumel, Mexico, when I was 13. My mother loved adventure.
“For our engagement,” James told Caroline, “let’s have a party on a boat, with a tiger.”
At dinner with her Peace Corps colleagues, we talked about fruit trees, beer, and Bollywood movies. Against the black sky, mountainside homes blinked like stars.
On Day Six, riding three hours over a road made of rocks to reach Suryapaal, I made myself as small as possible, squeezed between the Jeep’s driver and a woman lugging both a baby and a live chicken. The driver tapped my knee, indicating I should raise it, each time he needed to shift gears. A thirty-minute hike uphill through rice fields followed the drive.
My daughter lived in a painted wooden rectangle flanked by a small animal pen and an outhouse. Plastic barrels held water. She showed me her garden, which we watered by hand. The grandmother in her Nepali host family grabbed a baby goat by the neck and hind leg before tossing it back into its pen. I thought of my mother’s hugs, when I was little. A child could melt into her shoulder, tenderized, and fall fast asleep. When her heart stopped, at eighty-four, the end seemed too sudden.
“You take my bed, Mama,” Caroline said, and I did, although this meant she and James would have to sleep in a cavernous room above the animal pen.
I climbed under the mosquito net draped around her bed like the pink princess canopy of her youth. On the wall beside her pillow, she had pinned old photos — baby Caroline dozing with a pacifier in her mouth; as a toddler at the beach, smiling from a pack on my back; propped on pillows, watching sports with her dad.
The tiny room, lined with black tarp stapled to the walls, enveloped me. The pillow felt like homemade bread smells, warm from the oven. Closing my eyes, I was gone in an instant.
An early death chased me in Pokhara. Caroline and I were near the end of a twenty-nine-mile bicycle ride around Phewa Lake. Whenever she disappeared around a bend, I leaned over my handlebars and cried, certain a heart attack or stroke would strike with unimaginable biting force.
I would at least die swiftly, doing something I loved, but for her, trauma would linger if I left, at fifty-eight, before her first published book, marriage, or babies.
We saw orange monkeys, terraced rice fields under the sideways-slanting sun, and sprawling views of Pokhara’s colorful buildings jammed against the lake. Each time I imagined a downward slope around the corner, the road rose again, meaner and more pitted than before.
“Have [James] retrieve my corpse,” I said since he was back at the hotel. “I can’t do this anymore.”
“Well, Mama,” she said, “you keep saying you can’t do it, but you are doing it.”
I remembered my mother, at seventy, marching all over London, the time she babysat Caroline while I worked. She walked for days, with bad hips and knees and only one fully functional shoulder, hauling her granddaughter to see the sights. Her shirt and hair dripped, embarrassing me. If she feared death, she never complained. She marveled at the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, and an amphibious tourist boat that rode far too low in the water.
Finally, Caroline and I reached Pokhara’s Peace Pagoda. Back at the hotel, she declared us “pretty much badass.”
At sunrise the next day, the Himalayan range, foggy at first, brightened while we watched, turning pink, orange, and white, austere and full of promise.
In my dream, the baby’s suckling seemed too delicate, on my last night in Nepal.
“Oh,” I thought, amused because of my age, “this will never work,” but before long, she looked milk-drunk – a dark-haired baby sighing with contentment. Clearly not my pale-haired daughter, the child looked suspiciously like me as a newborn.
In my mother’s dream house, I set her dining table, decked with holly.
My father was there. “It’s up to you now,” he said. “You’ll have to keep your mother’s house in order.”
At the airport the next morning, Caroline held us, reluctant to let go. She stood outside the security checkpoint in a puffy purple coat, watching us shuffle in switch-back fashion through a cordoned line, eyes filling, hand raised, until she was suddenly as absent as a phantom limb.
*The man I’m calling “James” broke up with Caroline, long distance, some months after our trip to Nepal. I didn't feel comfortable using his real name.