Season’s grieving

Hey, it’s all good, right? No, some of it is really, really bad.

Photo Illustration by Don Button

We spent Thanksgiving with extended family in their exclusive neighborhood, where 4,000-square-foot homes, deluxe built-in swimming pools and three-car garages are typical. In other words, about as far from the war zone in Iraq as you can get but where the need for large quantities of oil is obviously very great.

The problem is that I keep thinking about the troops and civilians who are getting killed and maimed in order to keep our governor’s Hummer running, so it’s difficult for me to focus on the trappings of the holiday season.

But I wanted to be a good sport. I wanted to show my husband and teenage sons that I’m capable of putting on a reasonable facade, even though I haven’t been doing very well since the presidential election. My side lost, despite—as one commentator noted—the Daily Show vote, the Eminem vote, the Howard Stern vote, the celebrity vote, the antiwar vote, the pro-choice vote, the gay vote, the humanitarian vote, the disenfranchised single woman vote, the immigrant vote and the environmentalist vote.

Yes, I’m a crybaby, but I’ve mostly managed to keep my bitter disappointment under control, with the exception of a few heated outbursts to those I trust. Maybe my use of the F word has escalated since Bush won, but sometimes there’s a certain catharsis in the use of foul language.

Unfortunately, I experienced one situation in which my attempt to keep my emotions on the back burner failed miserably. My half-sister in Missouri—right-wing, religious fundamentalist, anti-gay person that she is—made the mistake of writing me a routine, everything-is-fine-in-my-universe e-mail precisely one day after the election. No mention of her candidate’s victory, just a lot of mundane chitchat. Mentally unbalanced wreck that I was, I threw a fit and informed her I was too busy grieving for the country and the world to care about her smug little Midwestern life. Catch me next week, next month, next year. Needless to say, communication between us has come to a screeching halt.

That was the signal, the red flag, the glaring beacon. Things were not going to go well for me this holiday season with respect to relatives. In hindsight, I know it would have been better for everyone if I had stayed home on Thanksgiving Day, but I thought that as long as I controlled my liquor intake, I wouldn’t lose my sense of reason. Surely, I could stop brooding about Iraq for a few hours. Just because I get to enjoy a safe, comfortable existence while people in that country are enduring the horrible effects of war, that’s no reason to feel the kind of mortification that can ruin a holiday. I would put my guilt and shame on hold, even though I was the guest in a house that’s probably worth nearly a million dollars by California’s over-inflated real-estate standards. I would just sip some wine, engage in a little lighthearted banter, ignore the lavish surroundings … it should be easy.

Suddenly, while I sat and moped over my glass of chardonnay, our host burst in from the garage and yelled to everyone within hearing distance that my teenage kids had scratched the hood of his Volvo when they were getting a box of videos down from a shelf. His face was pale with anger, and he was visibly shaken. The party stalled.

In the fall of 2003, 9-year-old Saleh Khalaf picked up what looked like a toy ball near his home in an impoverished village in Nasiriya, Iraq. The object exploded, and Saleh lost his hands, his left eye and the skin holding his internal organs in place. His brother Dia, who was with him, was killed. Saleh was airlifted to Children’s Hospital in Oakland, where he eventually underwent 32 surgeries, suffering devastating physical and emotional pain. In the San Francisco Chronicle’s three-part series about Saleh’s ordeal, the paper’s headline borrowed the name Iraqi doctors had given Saleh: “Lion Heart.” Throughout his agonizing recovery, Saleh desperately missed his mother, who was still in Iraq. He also missed his carrier pigeons. I think that bit of information is what pushed me over the emotional edge. All I could do was imagine this little boy, this victim of war, living in abject poverty but finding happiness with his pet birds.

The image of Saleh Khalaf flashed through my mind as I listened to our enraged host. Everyone immediately tried to soothe him. The Volvo was examined, a discussion on buffing ensued, and the tension gradually subsided. Before long, the guests once again were warming themselves by the fire on the back patio, scrambling to pour more wine and offer another round of beer. The festive vibe was reborn.

I stayed inside and leafed through a copy of Nickelodeon magazine featuring SpongeBob SquarePants on the cover. I read about the cartoon character’s new movie, including zany comments by the celebrities who do the voices. I thought if I could get lost in trivia, I could keep my reasonable facade intact.

But the wine I was sipping tasted rancid. I put my glass in the sink, gave some lame excuse to my hostess and walked out front. I breathed in the cold night air and gazed at the pretty lights strung on the house across the street. I stood in the dark quiet in that posh, high-density housing tract and didn’t know what to do.

Obviously, Christmas could be a problem.