I was on a roll, blogging about my big walk in September. Feeling more balanced in my new, single life; beginning to believe that I would not have to live a diminished life now that Mark is gone; settling into my little rental house in North Portland, Oregon.

This picture was taken six or seven years ago at  a family Thanksgiving at the farm where Mark and I lived. I hope we treasured the time!

This picture was taken six or seven years ago at a family Thanksgiving at the farm where Mark and I lived. I hope we treasured the time!

Then my brother-in-law Bob’s health plunged. It wasn’t a surprise that he was sick—he’d gotten a terminal cancer diagnosis in February. But he’d outlived the prognosis with no pain and fairly good energy. He’d been learning auto body work from an online community of car guys in order to renovate his old MG—(is that what you do to cars, or am I borrowing terminology from Mark’s field of carpentry and building?)—well, he was bringing the MG back to life. He’d been in the shop or in the yard, working with my sister, all summer. To all of our surprise, he started seeing a Chinese doctor, having acupuncture, and cheerfully drinking a bitter tasting brew of healing herbs (this is Bob, a Vietnam vet who was raised Irish Catholic on the south side of Chicago!)

Then he woke one Saturday in late September feeling as though someone had kicked him in the liver. I’m guessing ice crystals began to form around Cathy’s heart that day.

Tylenol didn’t work for long for the pain. Soon Bob was on the same hydrocodone medication Mark started out on. The hospice policy of requiring a six month prognosis and stopping all curative care keeps people from signing up in time to really get the help they need, so more and more hospitals are experimenting with “transition care” or “palliative care” that allows families to get pain management help sooner. Cathy got them signed up.

Bob was no longer driving, so I took him to that appointment, and Cathy left work early to meet him there. I saw the gray in his complexion—was it the opiates, or the pain, or the cancer? I knew that look too well.

Bob insisted that I drop him off at a spot away from the main entrance of the building, but facing a direction from which I could conveniently get headed back home. He moved slowly, pulling himself up and out of the car seat. He walked stiffly, bravely down the sidewalk. I sat where I’d parked and cried.

I got used to it again, that gray, pinched look, and became Bob’s favorite driver for what became daily trips for acupuncture. This was a surprise to all of us—Bob had been crusty about feisty, independent women (though he was married to one, isn’t that the way it is!) and did I mention Viet Nam and Chicago’s South Side? It probably didn’t help to be Catholic in such a determinedly Presbyterian family. On those drives, Bob and I learned to appreciate each other before we had to say good bye. I asked his advice for minor home repairs I was making in my new single life and he loved being in a position to help me. He talked to me about his feelings about death. We often drove in silence. Everyone in the family laughed that I was at the top of his list of drivers.

In November, after a bout in the emergency room, which brought us all to the hospital to say good-bye to him, Bob recovered enough to get home by ambulance to a hospital bed in the living room. Friends and his brother came to say good-bye. Cathy gave her guests a tour of the kitchen and said she could only take care of Bob and herself, they’d be on their own. Her daughters and their boyfriends began to spend all there free time at the house, cooking, playing card games, sitting by Bob’s bed talking, sorting through pictures, listening to stories they’d never heard before.

But as Bob’s pain got more intense his medication had to be increased, and he was awake less and less of the time. By Thanksgiving week he was mostly “away,” and every day we thought we’d lose him. I took to stopping by Cathy’s house any time I was out, sometimes staying to talk or play games. Sometimes just giving hugs and heading back to my own quiet house, the place I live alone now that I had gone through what they were facing.

All my plans for blogging, all my concentration, all my interest in the walk I’d taken and the thoughts I’d had while I walked evaporated.

Bob began to struggle to breathe. He sometimes woke confused and tried to get up—he’d been a survivor. A scrapper.

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, I woke to a text that Bob was breathing peacefully at last. I dressed and ran down. I must have walked into the house minutes after he had taken his last breath. Cathy, her girls and their boyfriends were nested in the couches around Bob’s hospital bed. I crawled in with them and we held each other. We cried. We talked. Our brother Chris came over later with his guitar and we sang a few songs. Bob wasn’t a singer, but he liked that part of the Kurtz ethos, and we sang a couple of old anti-war songs for him. “The boyfriends” went shopping and made a two-dozen-egg omelette for us. It was about eleven o’clock but it felt like only an hour had passed.

After the funeral home collected his body, at about three in the afternoon, I walked through a wet and drippy afternoon back to my house. It seemed dim and desolate. In the middle of my storm of tears I was able to reassure myself that I hadn’t gone back into the cave I’d been in after Mark’s death. This was a strong memory trigger, but for my own grief, it was only memory, and I’d get back quickly to the balance I’d come to in the intervening year.

Still, when it came to changing my ticket to Ethiopia and Kenya, where I was going to stay with Miriam and her family for Christmas, I couldn’t face, and chose to miss Bob’s memorial service. It didn’t occur to me until later—how strong the impulses are from childhood, and I was trained to be independent and self-reliant—that I could have invited an unrelated friend to attend with me, to be my support, that I wouldn’t have needed to go as support for Cathy. At the time, all I knew was that it was too soon to go to another memorial service. I knew I would only cry, and then go home alone. I needed to get away from death and grief for a while, to my sunny, dry-season eastern African home.

When I came back to Portland in January, my sister Janie welcomed me back to a season where “no one is actively dying,” though another brother-in-law’s cancer is advancing and we’re all bracing ourselves for another bout of grief and memories. Janie’s been a hero, constantly reminding us that it may feel as though there’s not enough attention and love to go around, but actually there  is. None of us need to be a martyr or do without. We can all continue to live rich and joy-filled lives even as we face these hard times together.

And so I go social dancing (Salsa and West Coast Swing) several nights a week. Cathy has taken up rock climbing, which she does with her daughters and the boyfriends. And Janie lives up to the plaque I found for her, “Garden Diva.” We cover for Mom’s care so that Chris and his wife can go to the cafe to work on Saturday and Sunday mornings. We sisters go to yoga together and we gather to sing around the piano on Sunday nights at Mom’s house. And we hug each other a lot.   

Angel Voices in the Dizi Language

"Mish kids" borrow from the culture around them! I was about this age when I made my Dizi language dictionary.

I grew up hearing people “sing” to each other from the hillsides around Maji.  Their language is a tonal language, and common conversation has a musical quality to it.  When people walked from market home, or spent the day out with the cattle on the hillsides, they called to each other,  mellow and sweet.  Or they played gourd flutes with five tones, and the flutes sounded much like their calling.

 Sagu, one of the school boys who worked for Mom to earn enough for school clothes and notebooks and pencils, loved to teach us girls words in his language.  I “nationalized” a tiny spiral notebook and started a dictionary when I was about eight.  Listening to sermons in the two to three languages of every Sunday morning in Maji (English sometimes, Amharic Sagu, right, with Dad and Mom and the Maji health department head (I think). Sagu went from the Maji school to end up with two Masters degrees!always, Dizi always) I grabbed a word in English or Amharic that was repeated, then listened for some repeated word in the Dizi translation, and wrote it down.  I dreamed that I would someday be the only white person to speak the language of the people of Maji.


When I was in Maji this January, a small choir came up from the town of Tum to sing in church.  We guests all stayed in one of the old mission houses; I woke on Sunday morning before light to soft voices singing and the sound of soft picking on the traditional instrument called the krar.  It was Ethiopian Christmas morning, and in my half-dream state, I thought at first I was hearing angel voices.  When one sang, the others respond over and around and with her melody.  I lay and prayed while the Dizi choir from Tum practiced in the next room.

It turned out that the lead singer (right, below) had been a shaman.  They told me she had been possessed by twelve evil spirits until Jesus set her free.  Her daughter (left) plays the krar, and  her husband is a skilled drummer.

Ethiopian Christmas morning in the Maji church--praises in the Dizi language and musical style

This woman is composing songs in the Dizi spiritual tradition.  She is composing the kinds of songs she used to sing to the chief, or in honor of the spirits she served.  These are the kinds of songs the Dizi people grow up singing when they try to appease the spirits and guard against the evil eye, only now she sings in praise of a God who showed his face in Jesus, and who is stronger than all the spirits who have haunted her people.

The choir sang three songs that day.  One was much like Psalm 106, an ancient Hebrew hymn of remembrance, praising all the mighty works of God.  But it was her last song that made the hairs on my arms stand up.  The packed church was completely silent as she sang to the krar accompaniment.  She looked down, swayed from side to side and sang in a high, reedy voice.  At the end of every line she let her voice trail off.  She was almost wailing, and she added a tremulo, something I have never heard the likes of.  I knew I was hearing a song deep in the spiritual traditions of the Dizi people, from a place foreigners had never been allowed into.

People listen intently to "cultural" music in church

People listen intently to “cultural” music in church

I knew I was seeing deep contextualization taking place–people taking their experience with Jesus and pulling it into the continuity of their lives and cultures, making it their own.  They don’t have to move into anyone else’s culture, they don’t have to use anyone else’s hymns or praise songs, they know their own style of worship can be turned in the direction of Jesus and used to praise God.  When this happens, we know that the Spirit of God is working with them and will help them communicate their experiences in such a way that their message truly is good news to those who hear.

It’s been over sixty years since Presbyterian missionaries Fred and Daisy Russell first went  to Maji, and now it looks as though the good Kingdom of God, the Shalom of the Beatitudes and of Jesus’ introduction of his ministry–to heal people, to loose the bonds of the captives, and set the prisoners free–will begin at last to come to the Dizi people.


I’m rattled for a few weeks after I come home from a trip to Ethiopia. Thrown into confusion about who I am and where I belong. An Ethiopian friend once tried to convince me to buy land and build myself a home in Addis Ababa. “You speak Amharic,” she said. “You belong here. You need to come home every summer, and then retire here.” And I come back to the US feeling the same: I speak Amharic, don’t I belong there?

This trip was particularly rattling because I visited the town of Maji, in SW Ethiopia, where I grew up. I slept and ate and met with Maji church leaders in the former mission compound. I stood in the living room of my childhood home, so clear in my memory—the Franklin stove where we melted crayon bits on the sly, because the drops of shiny color

The house I grew up in--it used to look so much bigger!

The house I grew up in–it used to look so much bigger!

were like jewels; the funky green rug; the platform rocker Mom and Dad took with them from Portland, Oregon; bookshelves lining every wall. It sits empty now, as the church folks try to figure out how to use the space to serve the community somehow. One of their ideas is to start a literacy center for Dizi children—they do much better in school if they learn to read first in their own language.

In what used to be our dining room sits a hand pump wrapped in burlap. Bags of cement lie in the corner, bundles of pipe along the wall under the window, where the dining table used to sit. The pump has been donated, a new well has been dug, and they will plaster the sides with cement and install the pump this spring. I hand carried the donation they needed to get the job finished, and it sat on the table in flickering candle light as we talked together about plans.

The electric and water systems my dad installed were destroyed decades ago in the fever of “Yankee-go-home” socialism. Every other time I’ve visited I’ve had to remind the church leaders that missionaries from the US won’t be coming back with their mechanical know-how and lots of cash from headquarters to back them up. It seems to have sunk in: the church leaders know they will have to come up with their own, locally sustainable systems now. The hand pump will be a good first step.

A woman who brought her sick baby to the clinic

A woman who brought her sick baby to the clinic

Another encouraging sign—the old mission clinic is back in service and was crowded the weekend I was there. A few months ago the church held a fund raiser and people donated cash, quintals of grain, sheep, whatever they had, and hired a nurse. He looks about eighteen. I was thrilled to learn he’s a Dizi himself.





And now, here I am back in Oregon, thinking of Maji. I can’t seem to shake it, the love I have for those hills, that sunset sky, eucalyptus smoke in the air, the lilting musical

Looking from the new apple orchard toward the old mission compound.

Looking from the new apple orchard toward the old mission compound.

language, wooden cowbells going tonk with every step the cows take, grazing on the hillsides across from the mission. I’ll be rattled for a few more weeks before I get my heart all the way back home.

On going and coming at Christmas time

I’m caught in time and space on Christmas evening, the eve of  leaving for Ethiopia and Malawitorn between eagerness to see my daughter Miriam, her family, and Ethiopian friends, and hating to leave my home and Mark.  Wishing I could be both places without missing either.

We Skyped Miriam this morning (evening in Malawi) to wish her a Merry Christmas.

Mom and three daughters in London, 1955

Polly Kurtz, Caroline, Janie and Joy in London 1955

She said my parents never imagined the generational flow of separations they were setting up as they left New York harbor in 1955 by freighter taking three little girls through the snow of London and south, to arrive at the height of dry season in Ethiopia. 


Four grandkids, all Buckeyes fans!



Mom and Dad took us away from our grandparents and half-way around the world.  We took our kids  from them for years at a time, and now Mark and I are grandparents propping up the new picture of our grandkids so we can look at them while we eat our simple Christmas lunch of soup and muffins.

At Christmas we celebrate the closing of the huge gap that separated imperfect humans from a perfect God.  Maybe we absorb that message as children, even through all the clutter of paper and ribbons and toys.  By the time we’ve grown up,  we’ve learned to long to be with those we love most at Christmas.  We rail against separation today more than any other day of the year.

The best promise of Christmas is that God wants us all to be together someday in a glorious and divine unity.  St. John saw it in his vision–a day and a place where there will be no more tears, no sighing, no pain.  All John could do to describe the wonder of that day was to talk about gems and light.  Come Lord Jesus!