Deziree and Me
By Amy Eldon
Deziree was the only constant woman in my brother’s life. Unlike Dan’s other women-sexy, exotic and shy-Deziree was big, obstinate and loud. She was demanding, expensive and prone to breakdowns. Deziree, Dan’s topless Land Rover, was adorned with treasures Dan collected from around the world. The buffalo skull perched on the hood distracted policemen who might otherwise notice the lack of registration on this 22 year old antique with “Fight the Power” painted on the steering wheel.
As co-pilot, I had to push while Dan pumped the clutch and Deziree roared into life, then fling myself into the back. We would soar off, with everything from opera and reggae to classical music and Zairean rock blasting from the stereo. As soon as Deziree bounced into any town she was greeted by cheers, waves and smiles. Dan would leap out and almost dance around town, stopping in shops to develop photos and flirting with shy waitresses in street cafes, while he shopped for odds and ends considered strange enough to be attached to Deziree’s frame.
One day I followed Dan through Nairobi. He was greeted by friends everywhere: a beggar whose legs were grotesquely swollen with elephantiasis, wide-eyed street children permanently high on glue, Masai tribesmen wrapped in red togas, and the thick spicy smell of incense pouring out of shop keeper’s dukas. Dan disregarded external differences and focused only on a person’s spirit.
Dan was no saint and as flawed as any human being. Like me, he was criminally bad at math; he couldn’t tell the difference between a parabola and a tuna fish. He was a slob, and turned his room into an archaeological dig, layered with dirty t-shirts, art supplies, snake skins, African artifacts and gray sheets. Dan referred to his room as his “depot” in order to deflect my parents’ constant protests. He had tempestuous relationships with crazy women and he teased me, his “little sister,” mercilessly.
But he was my hero. When Dan was a college student in America, he organized a group of 15 students to raise $17,000 for a rollicking safari across five African countries to a refugee camp in Malawi. We earned money by selling t-shirts, belts, bracelets-virtually everything short of our own bodies. With the proceeds we bought a Land Rover, which we donated to the Save the Children Fund in Malawi, brought blankets for the children’s ward in a simple bush hospital, and funded the building of two wells for a refugee village.Not only did we learn from the dignity of the starving people we met, but we also learned how to manage ourselves-a group of demanding students from very different backgrounds and seven countries.
One sticky night in Malawi as we roasted a can of beans over a makeshift fire, we noticed a group of refugees arranging skewers of neatly strung pieces of meat over their fire. “What are you cooking?” I asked one of the young boys who seemed to be the chef. “Mbewa,” he said, and tore off a piece for me. It tasted like slimy chicken and could have been improved with a dollop of hollandaise sauce. “Not bad,” I smiled. “What does mbewa mean?” “Rat,” replied the chef.
Dan’s life was an eternal adventure. By the age of 22 he had attended four colleges, set up a T-shirt and postcard business and had seen his photos appear in Time, Newsweek, and other newspapers and magazines around the world. Dan was one of the first photojournalists to use powerful images to call attention to the horror taking place in Somalia. He felt responsible for communicating truth through his compelling images.
I stopped typing when my friend handed me the phone. I knew something was terribly wrong from the way she stood close to me as if waiting for me to fall. My mother’s voice echoed down the line. She sounded weak. “Amy, I have horrible news. Dan has been killed in Somalia.”
I managed to whisper, “It’s not true. I don’t believe you.” My mother sounded stronger now. “I’m sorry, darling, I’m so sorry.” I fell to the floor wailing, “No, no, not my brother, not my Dan.”
Before his 23rd birthday, on July 12th, 1993, an angry mob beat and stoned my brother and his three colleagues to death in Mogadishu. The mere thought of Dan being afraid made me furious. I could see him falling onto the dusty street, being beaten and kicked, but I could not see the expression on his face.
Dan never showed fear but exuded a sense of invincibility and inner power. He was the one who found fears in other people and helped them to overcome them. His method was to face fear head-on. I remember Dan coaxing me to be brave as I posed by a cheetah while he snapped pictures at a safe distance. He confessed later that he would have never sat so close. But my brother could convince anyone to do just about anything.
He was like a Pied Piper, using funny hats, masks and even a pair of stuffed iguana feet, to delight and win people over. He worked his magic in over 40 countries, including Romania, Mozambique, Japan, and Ethiopia. I was left alone with Deziree. Dan was no longer around to take me on adventures.
Now I had to initiate them. I wasn’t ready to drive Deziree without Dan. I floated around letting others make decisions while I sobbed, raged and searched for answers. “Why Dan? Why me? When will I see him again? I knew I would never be able to laugh again without my best friend and brother. No matter how many people cared about me, I still felt utterly alone.
I wanted to hold onto everything Dan had touched. When Dan’s bag was sent back from Somalia, I sat cradling it for hours. I rummaged through it and found his toothbrush. I wanted to keep this dirty, old artifact until I snapped back into reality and knew Dan would have giggled at my foolishness.
After a while, I stopped grieving for Dan and started grieving for myself. I had been abandoned by my most avid supporter and I was beginning to realize that now I was the only one in control of my destiny. This sudden sense of independence terrified me. It felt too big. I cursed Dan for leaving me and I lacked the energy and the drive to move on. I numbly watched myself go through the motions of daily life. I was often dazed and several times found myself in the men’s bathroom at college without even noticing how I got there. As I curled up in bed each night, I would congratulate myself for achieving the impossible-for making it through another day.
Eventually I tired of hurting, so I decided to make a new beginning. I took the bus from my college into New York and walked into an expensive hair salon. I confronted the hairdresser who stared greedily at my long hair. “Take it all off! I said defiantly. “What happened?” whispered the hairdresser sympathetically. “It was a man, wasn’t it? “Yes,” I said. “He left me.”
Practically bald and minus $100, I found I could laugh again. I shifted my focus from Dan’s death to Dan’s life and tried to live as he would have. I took more chances. I left my college, which suddenly felt claustrophobic. I applied to Columbia University and Boston University, and knew Dan would have been proud when I got in. I started having fun again, even treating myself to large pieces of chocolate cake, justifying my decadence by thinking, “Dan would have wanted me to!”
I still needed a sign from Dan, something which could make me want to be alive again. I sat watching birds, waiting for one to wink and say, “Hey Amy, it’s me, Dan.” The sign never came.
But I found Dan’s spirit in the world around me, in the warmth of my friends, and in myself when I began to reach out to others. I started volunteering at a hospital and gave my energy to children who were suffering. I felt I could understand their pain. I also discovered how few things seemed really important in life. Petty arguments, parking tickets and lousy boyfriends didn’t matter so much to me anymore. I found that honesty and love for the people around me were more important. I decided that if I were to die unexpectedly, I would make sure I resolved everything with those I loved. I didn’t want to have any regrets. In time I found the pain visited less frequently, and when the sorrow washed through me, it wasn’t quite as deep or intense as it used to be.
When I felt happy, it was bliss because I had known the extremes of sadness. I was reborn through my pain, and was profoundly aware of how precious life really is. I knew that my home could burn down and my fingers could be cut off, but after dealing with Dan’s death, I could survive just about anything. My worst nightmare had become reality and I survived.
Even now, as a whole day passes without my eyes welling up, I panic. I have to tell myself that I am not betraying Dan if I don’t think about him all the time. I am still afraid that when I am old enough to have my children on my lap and tell them tales about their nutty Uncle Dan, I won’t be able to visualize his face or hear his voice as clearly as I do now. I am losing details and specific memories of my brother, but I will always remember his essence.
Dan’s bright, powerful light will continue to guide me through milieu until I meet him at the gates of Heaven and we go off dancing again. Meanwhile, Deziree and I are becoming good friends. I’ve bought maps and a compass and have re-painted the words on the steering wheel to read: “Be the Power.”