Feet in Nepal, head at home

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LONDON — On a quiet morning, I stood on a bridge over the canal in Little Venice with an umbrella keeping me dry. The late-spring rain pattered on the surface of this waterway that bends its way from West to East London, hidden for much of the way by homes and warehouses and tunnels. I was early for my appointment with the therapist whose office was in the tall, white-painted Georgian house overlooking the canal. I had stood here before, more than 30 years ago, holding my mother’s hand as I looked down through the metal railings at one of the broad, low boats that take tourists through the city. I must have been two or three years old. It is the first thing I remember.

But I had few other memories of London, purely because I was too young to remember much. We left when I was three, for Edinburgh, where I grew up.

After college I moved to the United States and soon after became a newspaper reporter. My newspaper sent me to the Middle East, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, and I went gladly — went just about anywhere there was a conflict, anywhere I could dive into the pain of others and feel alive and invigorated by the most extreme experiences human beings go through.

After the invasion of Iraq and the increasingly bloody summer of 2003, however, an unstoppable impulse returned me to London, a city that I barely knew but that now seemed like the only place in the world I could live. My mother, my sister, my closest friends all lived in London. This was where my family, many years before, had been whole and happy. But though I had now lived there for more than a year, it was still a city I barely knew, because for much of that time I had been in Iraq or another country. I still needed the A to Z to find my way around, to find the neighborhood where I’d spent my first three years. I knew Jerusalem and Baghdad much better than I knew London.

I turned my eyes from the water and moved toward the large white house. The trees along the canal were the yellow-green of high spring, and I had an urge to touch them and be surrounded in greenery. I had been running a lot in recent days, searching out the lushest, most life-filled parks I could find. I wanted to roll in deep grass. I wanted to lie down sideways at the top of a grassy slope and roll down, over and over, until I’d reach the bottom all dizzy and be steadied by my mother, who would be waiting there.

I had not met the therapist before, but I knew he was a former foreign correspondent, which meant that there would be so much less to explain. He had helped other war-buffeted correspondents, their numbers growing quickly in the years of unending conflict since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and I was hoping he could help me. I had an important assignment for my newspaper coming up, and I needed to be a bit more functional than I was.

We sat down in his office and he asked how he could help me.

He was immediately likable.

“I’m supposed to go on a trip to Nepal, to track down the Maoists, and I don’t know if I really feel up to it,” I said. I had not made a single phone call. I had not set up a single interview. I was leaving very soon. “It’s not like it’s dangerous there, but I don’t really want to go.”

“How long’s the trip?”

“A month or so. I’m kind of exhausted. I mean, loads of us are in this situation, the post-9/11 endless-war thing. Afghanistan, Iraq, you know. Perhaps I have post-traumatic stress disorder.”

“Are you having flashbacks or nightmares?”

“Not really.”

“Do you get irrationally angry?”


He didn’t look too worried about me. Perhaps his being a former correspondent made him wise to the whining of someone who had chosen, entirely of his own accord, to do what was essentially a very stupid job.

To me, my gloom seemed to have this screamingly obvious source: cumulative war, perhaps accented by my mother’s death.

The battle of Fallujah, in which I had been embedded with American troops, had taken place only seven months before, in November 2004. It had been the most intense combat the U.S. military had engaged in since the Vietnam War. It had been particularly terrifying.

“Also,” I said, “my mother died three weeks ago.”

“Oh,” said the therapist, his face shifting with sudden interest.

“No wonder you feel terrible. I’m so sorry.”

I told him about wanting to be surrounded by greenery. He said that was common.

I filled out a questionnaire designed to test whether I had the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the results showed that I was perfectly okay. The source of my virtual paralysis had nothing to do with war, he said. The problem was a bit less glamorous and quite ordinary, really: My mom was dead.

I was surprised by his conclusion. All mothers die sooner or later, don’t they?

“There’s some research that’s shown that mothers and sons have particularly close bonds,” the therapist told me. “This is going to be very difficult.”

I appreciated his sympathy and his insistence that my sadness was to be expected, but I still felt that my recent howling, animalistic fits of grief were disproportionate, that they somehow didn’t match up to what had just happened. I had lost my mother — an extremely common event that conformed to the natural sequence of life and death. Billions of mothers had died. Millions, I figured, died every year. Even if sons and mothers are particularly close — and I suspect fathers and daughters and mothers and daughters might contest that — a son’s losing his mother was one of the world’s great unoriginal misfortunes. Besides, parents are meant to go before their children. And at 62 , my mother, who had lived an unhealthy life for decades, was not exceptionally young to die. Off and on, I had been expecting her death for more than half of my own life.

The therapist suggested two ways I might help myself. I should read some books on grieving, and I should know, impossible as it might now seem to me, that time tempers grief. The first anniversary would likely be punishing; the second surprisingly less so.

I thanked him and walked along the canal in the rain to buy dinner in the shops on Clifton Road where my mother used to shop when I was a baby.

A week later I was in the skies above the Kathmandu Valley, the plane swooping down through the clouds to a city that seemed calm but was teetering on the verge of catastrophe. Nepal was a country of one anachronism piled on top of another, where an autocratic king was considered by his more religious and loyal subjects to be a reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu and where some of the country’s dispossessed had taken to the hills in a Maoist insurgency.

It took three-and-a-half days of hiking through the hills, treading through paddy fields and alongside rivers, to reach the Maoist capital of Thabang, which was really just a slightly larger village than most others in the region.

In the evening, I asked the most senior Maoist leader in the town about his plans for the new society that he and his comrades would create once the revolution was victorious. We sat in a dark room and he promised me they would be merciful when they took Kathmandu.

And then it was three-and-a-half days back along the same path, single-file hiking for hour after hour. When it rained, we sheltered under rocks. When we reached the end of each morning, we found a guesthouse where we slept for an hour and ate rice and dal off metal plates. In one place, close by a river, we ate finger-sized fish, and the rice was flavored with hot lemon pickle.

We took our boots and pants off and waded into the strong river, rubbing three days of sweat from our bodies as the sun baked our faces.

In the rhythm and the repetition of those days of walking and refueling on rice, my messy grief sorted itself out so that all that was left was the same question and plea that had first appeared in my mind in the confusion of immediate grief. There was a clarity to it now. I wanted to know where my mother was, and I wanted her to come back.

I was surprised by the persistence of these two thoughts. I knew she was gone forever and I knew she wasn’t coming back. But that seemed unbearable. I had to do something to find out where she was and to bring her back to me. I needed to work the problem and find a solution. We hiked back to where the road began and made our way back to Kathmandu.

Read additional excerpts from Matt McAllester's recently released memoir, "Bittersweet: Lessons From My Mother's Kitchen":

Introduction: Wartime Cravings

Part 2: Hardship Cooking

Part 3: Souring on war

Matt McAllester's website has recipes and additional photos.

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