Monday, April 05, 2021

For Tam

When I received an email with my friend's name in the subject line, from someone sharing her last name, a chill ran through my body.  I knew something was wrong as I clicked open the message, which was from her sister.  The feeling of dread was unfortunately not misplaced:  Tamara was gone, having died unexpectedly some months before.

As her sister was cleaning out her apartment, she had found a stack of the Christmas cards I had sent Tam over the years.  Her sister had set these aside to deal with them later, and then the 2020 card arrived.  It was a card that Tam would never see.  Like the others, this card included my email address, and her sister used it to contact me.

Tam and I met randomly in Ethiopia in 2006 when we were checking in for our flight from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv.  She was an engaging young woman, and we hit it off immediately in the check-in line.  And once we both had our boarding passes, we kept right on chatting. 

While we weren't on the inaugural flight on this route, it was still fairly new at the time, and it had yet to build up a profitable passenger load.  There were probably only 10 passengers on the whole plane, a jumbo jet of some variety, and I found my seat, a window on the left side toward the front.  Disregarding her own seat assignment, Tam took the seat next to me so we could continue the conversation.

A few minutes later, a man approached us.

"Excuse me," he interrupted. "You're in my seat."  He was looking at Tam.

"Are you kidding me?" she asked him.  "The whole plane is empty!  I think you can find somewhere else to sit."

This was possibly an Israeli security agent sent to shadow me, as can happen, and he protested for a second.

"Listen, if this seat is really that important to you," Tam told him, "we will move elsewhere."  At that point, he backed down and left us.

As we talked, we naturally discussed our time in Ethiopia.  Tam recounted her experience, and it was peppered with annoyances and hassles.  Then it was my turn, and my trip had been particularly colorful.  As I told my tales - how my hotel had caught on fire and how upon evacuating I had ended up walking the streets of the capital at 4 AM, how I had walked through the bowels of the Markato, East Africa's largest market, brazenly carrying my expensive camera, and especially how two guys had plotted to kill me - Tam was gobsmacked.

"You live the most exciting life on Earth!" she exclaimed.

Over the years, she would tell me this on numerous occasions.

Tam was an Air Canada ground handler, but I met her while she was pursuing her side-gig as a freelance journalist.  She was also a travel junkie, and we had a running joke over the years about which of us was traveling more.  We both always accused the other of winning this "competition".

When the plane landed at Ben Gurion Airport, Tam and I joined the handful of other passengers on our flight as we all underwent arrival formalities.  I was on diplomatic assignment in Israel at the time, and I had my credentials handy.  Coincidentally, my entry went very smoothly.  For Tam, however, things were not so convenient.  She had a few marks against her from the get-go including an erratic travel itinerary, her desire to visit the West Bank, and the fact that she was a journalist.  Predictably, she was pulled into secondary questioning.

The curious thing was that I was also brought into secondary with her.  I can only assume that the security official who chaperoned us must have pegged us for couple and not just two random people who had only met six hours before.

Whatever he was thinking, I stood with Tam for an hour in that room while they inspected every little thing in her possession and asked her numerous, often repetitive, questions.  The officer addressed me once or twice, but mostly I stood quietly in the background.

In hindsight, maybe Tam shouldn't have told my minder on the plane to take a hike. 

When there were no more questions to ask and no more explosive-residue tests to perform on the luggage, we were both released.  We exchanged emails and said good-bye.  I headed to my apartment in Tel Aviv, and Tam caught a mini-bus to Jerusalem.  

Tam was a great fan of my stories and my writing, and she began to follow my blog, this blog, after we parted ways.  She offered comments on many stories, always wanting me to do more with them, to write a book, or even better, make a movie of my life.  Others have similarly encouraged me, but Tam took it one step further.  When she read my blog about getting hijacked in Albania, she was convinced it needed to be published.  She actually took my multi-page account, which was never intended for publication, cut it down to 1,500 words, and sent it to an editor (with my permission).  As a journalist herself, she had such connections.  That story got front-page billing in a Canadian publication, and when I received my check for CAD$85, my first payday ever from writing, it was thanks to Tam.  

Half a year after we met, I included Tam on my Christmas card list, and she loved those as well.  She told me once my cards were one of the few things she had to look forward to at Christmastime, and even though they were often months late, she always kept an eye out for them to arrive.  As with my stories, she encouraged me to produce a line of cards to sell, but the cards were a little too personal for that.

The years rolled by, and one day I was applying for my next assignment.  I told Tam I was tempted to go back to Ethiopia for work.

"Have you lost your mind?" she asked me, recalling both of our experiences in 2006.

I ended up spending three years in Addis after that and loved it.  Tam, the world traveler, was even tempted to give it another try, but somehow three years goes by in an instant when you are busy making plans.

Tam also started planning trips to see me in Papua New Guinea, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan, but those plans also withered and died for various reasons.  In the case of Papua New Guinea, her boyfriend mucked things up, and I felt terrible for her.  In the case of Afghanistan, she wanted to put on her war-correspondent hat, and she asked me about the conditions on the ground.

I gave her the scoop, and she got the message loud and clear.  She pulled the plug on her trip.

"You know you have the right to refuse unsafe working conditions," she told me.  "Come home!"

I had to smile at the 180 she had pulled.  In no time flat, she had gone from wanting to be a war tourist to wanting both of us out of there.

As far as visiting goes, I didn't do any better.  Tam invited me to visit her in Calgary several times.

"We've got world class hiking and skiing," she offered me like a worm on a hook, but it was the Calgary Stampede that got my attention.  It's hard not to get excited about "The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth".  That too wasn't meant to be, though.

We would never see each other again after our day together in 2006.

As the years went by, Tam lost interest in writing, and by 2013, she had basically hung up her press pass.

"There's no money in it," she told me.

She spent her time instead sailing and supporting animal rights, a passion of hers.  Her love for animals landed me in slightly hot water in 2017 when she received my Christmas card that year.  On the front of the card, I'm standing in an Uzbek market, and the description mentions some of the products in view, including horse sausage.  Tam didn't freak out about it, but she did send me pages of material about the horrors of the horse-meat industry, sprinkled with photos, videos, and links.  She seems to have been legitimately disturbed by this card.  When her sister found the stack of cards in her apartment, 2017 was not among them.

A few years ago, Tam added another feather to her cap.  As part of her job at Air Canada, she produced a welcome video for the new hires in training.  She wanted to use a KISS song for the video, which she successfully did after several months of negotiations.  KISS was so impressed in the end that they retained her as Media Rep, and she worked on their "End of the Road" tour in 2019. 

After she had passed and her sister contacted me, she asked me, "Were you close?  Did you know Tamara well?"

Our relationship basically amounted to the eight hours we had spent together in 2006, about 100 emails, 15 Christmas cards from me to her, and about five cards in the opposite direction.  But, I had decided that I wanted Tam in my life, and she had decided the same about me.

Did I know her well?  I knew her well enough, and I miss her. 

Rest in peace, friend.