“Mandy, I need you to come over,” she screamed over the phone.
She knew her boyfriend wasn't feeling well. Instead of a nice dinner out, she just thought they would stay home and have a quiet, homemade dinner and maybe dance in the kitchen and later snuggle on the couch for a movie. Instead, she faced a nightmare, 6,521 miles away from home.
These are not the words one expects to hear when jolted awake at 5 a.m. by a phone call, nor was this the Valentine's Day my friend and colleague expected.
When I arrived at her house 15 minutes later, I expected to see an ambulance; however, there was no ambulance, only the car of a friend who lived close by. In spite of no traffic at an early hour, the ambulance was not yet there. I beat the ambulance, I thought. I let myself in, walked upstairs, and gave my devastated friend a hug when I saw her. What do you say during a time like this? "I'm so sorry" were the only words I could muster. Then I saw him there. He was lying on their bed, a friend checking his pulse; his beautiful Italian eyes were closed, not to be seen again. Our friend, a former ER nurse practitioner, shook her head at me and mouthed, “Oh my god.” She was the one who was sort of used to this, but she was also in shock and also felt helpless.
Thirty minutes later, about an hour after I had gotten the phone call, the ambulance arrived. The four ambulance attendants walked upstairs. One guy pulled out a heart monitor with a printer. He attached the heart monitor to my friend's chest, and the piece of paper that soon printed out not surprisingly showed a flatline. The doctor said in English that she was sorry but he was dead. We knew that. She was just doing her job by telling us this, but "Doctor, we knew he was dead."
The next ten hours were a blur. Trying to contact his Italian-speaking family to share the horrible news of their son’s death. Dealing with the local morgue, the medical insurance company in the States and the Italian Embassy in Kazakhstan. Trying to be supportive of our grieving friend while not really knowing what to say or do.
None of us were prepared for that tragedy.
The three of us who received the early morning phone calls stayed close by and took on different roles for the next five days. I coordinated getting his body back to Italy, not an easy feat in a country where corruption is very high. (Disclaimer: I took on this role, not in an official capacity or anything related to my work. My support was personal, an effort to support my friend and his family.) Fortunately, I had the support of my girlfriend who is Russian-speaking and who knew how to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops — with the local representative from the Italian Embassy, the funeral company who organized the shipping of his remains and the head of the morgue whom we needed a death certificate from. We had to pay extra to the morgue official to lessen the time from 30 days or more for a death certificate, which is what was needed for him to be returned to his devastated family in Italy. It took five days from when he died to when he was on the plane, which, according to friends who have done Consular work in other countries, was pretty quick. However, it was a long, agonizing five days for our friend and for her boyfriend's family who was waiting patiently in Italy for some closure.
The autopsy results said what we knew, which is that his heart stopped; however, his family will never know what made his heart stop. We know that there were underlying health concerns that he tried to address while in Italy, but the tests were inconclusive. No one thought a 40-year-old man could be that sick. He didn't even he think he was that sick. According to our medical friends, even if the ambulance could have arrived sooner, it seemed unlikely that he would have survived.
I am writing about this experience because it's an experience that sheds light on some of the more difficult realities of living overseas and being far away from home. Many people think that Foreign Service officers have a grand life -- that every night, we wine and dine with foreign officials on U.S. taxpayer dollars, and every weekend we climb mountains that most will never see. Ninety-nine percent of my nights aren't filled with parties and wining and dining; 99% of my nights are fairly ordinary. I often work long days, and I am usually super exhausted by the time I get home. And some nights, early mornings or days, though fortunately very few and rare, involve supporting people you don't know very well through personal nightmares or tragedies such as these.
I never would have met this wonderful man if it hadn't been for this career of mine. He was so, so good. He was always smiling and laughing. He was introspective and thoughtful. My favorite memory was dancing with him at the Marine Ball; he twirled me around the dance floor, and we laughed and laughed. He also made Italian dinners for us that were way too spicy. He was charming, and as cliché as this sounds, he was someone who reminded you to live, laugh and love. His time on earth was short, but he seemed to live a full life. In fact, I would say he lived more than most people might with more time.
That's what living overseas does for me. It gives me a full life of experiences -- wonderful, good, hard, beautiful, awe-inspiring, mind-blowing, joyous and even tragic -- in a short time. I'm grateful for my career, even when it presents hardships.
Salute, R. Riposa in pace.