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rachel sontag

rachel sontag
It was July 1991. Mom was teaching an art-therapy course in Wisconsin. I had come home from work at 6 PM, which was unusually early. Rachel was leaving the next morning for an adventurous one-month bicycle trip through Ireland with a group of her peers. She was really excited. The plane was leaving at 7 AM the next morning from O'hare, but we had to be at the airport two hours earlier. We were fairly well set, with only three major goals.


  • to organize her backpack
  • to dismantle the bicycle and pack it into a cardboard box
  • to get to the bank to purchase traveler’s checks, sign them and obtain the mandatory $100 in cash.

The letter from the tour organizers was clear. Without the $100.00 in cash or the signed traveler’s checks, your kid does not get on that plane, you forfeit everything, and there are no refunds. The trip was paid in full. It was 6:15 PM. The bank closed in 45 minutes. If you wanted cash in the pre-ATM days, you had better be at the bank before it closes.

We were both in great spirits and having a blast. The setting could not have been more perfect. It was one of those moments – happiness, a feeling of harmony, and a sense of satisfaction - that confirmed the notion that you don’t need drugs to get high.

We were walking out the door when the phone rang. Rachel’s friend would pick her up and together they would go to the Taste of Chicago. Rachel had agreed. At first, I thought she was kidding. But Rachel was not kidding, and that feeling of harmony and satisfaction quickly gave way to disbelief. Rachel was willing to sacrifice all the work we had invested and jeopardize her entire 4-week bike trip for a sudden, unplanned one-evening jaunt with her friend at the Taste of Chicago.

I am not sure whether I was more stunned or more disappointed. One way or the other, however, I knew that Rachel had to follow through with her original commitment and plans. As I tried to reason why we had to get to the bank, I began to see trouble. I told her we had to leave now. And then, it happened. In a period of less than a few minutes, Rachel went from a joking, excited happy teen about to venture out on a journey that no 16-year old would refuse to a person you don’t want to know: rapid breathing, profuse sweating, a blistering red face, pounding carotid pulses and then the blaring profanities so vile that I decided to back off. I locked the back door, stood at the front door, and as Rachel banged on the table and walls, prayed the attack would subside. As the minutes ticked away, I thought of going alone to the bank. I would have done anything to secure the checks and the cash that was necessary for the trip. It was not a matter of teaching responsibility, of ego, of right and wrong, or of anything else. I knew that the child had to sign the checks at the bank in front of the teller or they would not be granted. I could not chance going alone. With 10 minutes left, I quietly and gently whispered to Rachel, “Let’s go!” With her face still red, still sweating and angry, she walked out the door and into the car. We arrived at the bank as they were locking the doors, but they kindly listened to our impassioned plea. They saved the trip.

By midnight, things had returned to a tolerable level. Although not back to the perfect harmony state, Rachel was at least eating my specially popped popcorn and talking. She then went to bed, and perhaps (at least I wanted to believe) was even looking forward to her adventure. I did not even try to sleep, but that never was a problem for me.

I am not a person who has trouble making decisions. Sometimes they are right. Sometimes they are wrong. I do the best I can.

I am not a person who is easily scared. My days of quality time bonding in Africa with the Egyptian Army, the Eritrean Liberation Front, the Congo (Democratic Republic of) militias and mercenaries, and the Palestine Liberation Army (original name) as well as my weeks in the African jungles and Sahel deserts, the time spent with the Gypsy communities of Romania and Yugoslavia, and inspiring moments with the Harijan of the Indian subcontinent have taught me a great deal about people. For the most part, life can be swept away without a moment’s notice. On the other hand, there is so much one can do to prevent it – or at least try to prevent it.

Nor am I a person who is prone to depression. The last time I remember being really depressed was in the eighth grade, when I lost a street flight. It wasn’t because I was beaten to a pulp, or because my face was swollen and bloody, or because it hurt to breathe. No, I could handle that stuff as long as I could keep my mother from learning about it. It was the fact that I had let down the guys – the guys who expected me to win. A white had lost to a Puerto Rican, and it was my fault. I let it happen. I was depressed, but I was never scared. 

I am not a newcomer to human suffering. Sometimes the suffering resolves. Sometimes it ends in death. And sometimes it just goes on and on…. I had watched starving babies suckle on the dry breasts of their almost dead mothers. I had seen men beaten to death with rifle butts at warring borders. On a 50-year old dilapidated bus, I helped a very sick boy hold his intestines that were extruding from his abdomen after he was gored by his bull 2 days earlier. I had seen thousands of children who never had and never would have a decent, let alone happy, life.

I had little preparation for the events of this night. I was glad that Rachel went to sleep. Whatever incidents occurred in my younger years had always concerned my fate and mine only. If I were forever lost or dead, few people would have cared. Many would probably have rejoiced. But now, this was someone who was part of me, and I felt powerless. I did not know what to do. I admit that I was scared – like never before.

I never told Rachel’s mom about that night. She would have ample opportunity to experience similar events. I do not like talking about such happenings. I do not even like thinking about them.

We made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare. The dismantled bike and Rachel’s luggage were taken to the airline baggage center. I remember asking Rachel if she had brought her English-Irish Dictionary. I also remember her laugh, which was really what I wanted to hear more than anything else in the world.

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