Migrations A Map of Lost Things: On Family, Grief, and the Meaning of Home
“A body always returns to the place that shaped it.”
When I was in the fourth grade in Portland, we spent three months studying the Chinook salmon, the Oregon state fish. Our unit culminated in a class field trip to a small creek off the Columbia River Gorge. At Eagle Creek, a small basin where the Columbia River runs into the Pacific, the Chinook salmon comes to spawn, having crossed thousands of miles of sea in a journey that takes many years. When the female salmon finds its way back to the same estuary of her birth, she will lay anywhere from 3,000 to 14,000 eggs before dying.
An estuary is where the river meets the sea. It is the collision of two worlds; it is where the new world meets the old world, where life crashes headfirst into death. Death is always the final act.
As we watched the salmon return to the estuaries they had left so many years ago, I was filled with a jealousy that hollowed out my chest. I envied the salmon and their bloated bodies, the way they shimmered under the water when the sun’s rays caught against their scales. I have returned to this same creek many times as an adult, and I still feel the same sense of jealousy I felt at nine years old. I sit on the wet earth and hold my knees against my chest as I watch the salmon spawn.
On clear nights at the creek, the moon floats just over the surface of the water. The landscape is blurred and distorted, hazy and untrue in the mirror of the water. I look at the moon against the river and feel a hunger crest in me. The salmon return at the same time every year: haggard, gray, molten. I envy the certainty of their journey.
Sometimes I run into hikers and tourists as I walk the trail to the creek. Where are you from? they will inevitably ask me.
I answer their question with a question of my own.
My last syllable lifts its head in desire.
Nobody leaves home thinking they will never return. I wonder what my parents would have taken with them when they left their home in Somalia in the late ’80s. Who might they have made amends with, what old haunts would they visit one last time if they knew they would never be back?
My parents ended up in Oregon, and by the time I was in middle school we had already lived in five different apartment complexes. When my teachers would ask me where I was from, I would shrug. I had already learned that to be part of diaspora was to live freely, to make no promises. In phone calls to faraway relatives my parents always swore they would return, but distance and time make liars of us all.
It was not that my family disliked Portland. We loved many things about the city—especially its spring days, warm and wet—but it was a cautious love. My parents had loved a place once before, and neither one of them had ever fully recovered from the war that had leveled Somalia in the early ’90s or its aftermath. How could they recover? War is not a cough, it is a cancer.
The Somali government officially collapsed in 1991. My parents, abroad at the time, found themselves unable to return. Newly married, my mother pregnant with me, they lived for a brief period of time in Canada. During their first winter in Edmonton, there was a devastating snowstorm. My mother had never seen snow before. Her lips and knuckles were always bleeding in the cold; everything in this new world was a small wound.
My father, previously a student, became a cab driver in this new country. It didn’t take him long before he no longer needed to use a map to take people to the places they needed to go: banks and doctor’s appointments, hair salons and shopping malls. Soon he knew his way around Alberta so well that, if he didn’t speak with an accent, one would have thought he was born and raised there. He knew which roads to take and which to avoid. He knew the fastest route to the airport, and where to find the back roads when the city closed around him like a fist.
My father always kept an atlas in the glove compartment of our family’s minivan. Before road trips, he would pull it out and lay it flat on the dashboard, showing us where we were going. He would run a finger back and forth between small streets and major roads, rivers and borders. My younger sister Ayan and I would fight over who would get the privilege of unfolding the map for him. When it was my turn, I savored the crinkle of the parchment, and the slow blooming of the world in front of me.
Maps held a type of magic for my father. In our living room he would pull out world maps, drag a finger through an ocean, point to Saudi Arabia, and say, “This is where my mother is.” Other times he would point to where his aunts and uncles and various cousins lived. Somalia, India, Denmark, Canada: hundreds and thousands of miles apart, but neighboring countries in his heart. My father knew how to get everywhere; it was what we always admired most about him. But even he who could name the capitals of countries all over the world could never figure out how to get back home.
After four years in Alberta, my parents arrived in Portland in 1996. They cobbled together a life, and gave birth to four more children. They did their best to raise us in a world they no longer recognized. Portland was nothing more than the city in which we lived until it became, suddenly and without warning, the city in which my sister died. The day after her funeral, my mother and I sat on the couch holding hands. “This was never supposed to be home,” she said through her tears. “But Ayan is here. How can we ever leave?” We buried my sister and we put down roots.
Grief transforms the topography of land. On a map I can point to the intersection where the car accident that took my sister’s life happened, the street where the funeral home is located, the cemetery where she is buried. But a map doesn’t show the blood pooling on the pavement, the glass scattered at the edge of the road, the skid marks, the acrid smell of burning rubber.
A map does not proclaim that the United States is Indian country, occupied land. On a map, someone can trace a finger from one Anglicized city name to another and forget these lands were and are known by other names. Maps are a polite fiction. They never tell the whole story. They don’t mark important things, like graves or genocides.
Thirty years after the end of British and Italian colonialism, a civil war erupted in Somalia, a volcano turning the country to ash. The northern region declared itself an autonomous state called Somaliland. We are our own country , they proclaimed as the war raged on. They drew the cloak of British borders tight around themselves.
When the colonists came, they committed our edges to paper; they tried to cage us with their borders. A country is impossible to contain; a people are impossible to boil to the silt of parchment. A map is only one story. It is not the most important story. The most important story is the one a people tell about themselves.
I visit Hargeisa, capital of Somaliland, for the first time in 2012. The northern region of Somalia had remained relatively stable and peaceful since the mid-’90s, even as the southern region was besieged by Al-Shabab and US drone strikes.
I imagine my parents’ first airplane ride, their racing hearts and quick breathing. Maybe they dug their fingers into their thighs, their nails marking half-moons on their skin. I am not the first to cross an ocean in search of something elusive and intangible. I think of the war and the period of mass exodus when everyone who was able to flee the country left. Only those who were too poor or too old or too full of hope stayed behind. Hope makes children of us all, foolish, and reckless, and devout.
Hargeisa is not what I expect it will be, but the things we wait the longest for seldom are. The city is dry and the air crackles. The dirt is fine and coats clothes and skin. The trees are scraggly and flimsy. Everywhere I look there are buildings collapsing in on themselves, piles of concrete and empty houses.
Hargeisa is the city of my mother’s birth, the city where my grandmother cut her teeth on the rough realities of womanhood. My grandmother, who lived with us for a few years in Portland before moving back home because she missed it so much, shows me around the city. She is embarrassed by the men in FC Barcelona shirts and the way they shuffle, dragging donkeys down dirt roads, hustling lukewarm water in enormous canteens. She is embarrassed by the piles of trash that stink in the blazing heat of a Hargeisa afternoon. It is an embarrassment that is tempered by her love for this place.
Even here in the land of my ancestors, I wear my foreignness like an ill-fitting dress. When I go to the market with my grandmother, shopkeepers leer at me and call me “the American Girl.” I wonder what part of my body has betrayed me. I wonder in what way I am branded. They wink at me and wave their products in my face: Spend your American dollars here!
Somalis call those of us who return to visit dhaqan-celis . It is a story in two parts: dhaqan means culture; celis is a return. We are a roving tribe of wanderers, scattered siblings, lost youth, reluctant expatriates, victims of impossible and auspicious circumstances. Everyone looks at us like we are lost. They ask us what we have come to find. We have no answers.
A body always returns to the place that shaped it.
A body always returns to its ghosts.
For years, scientists have speculated as to how salmon found their way back to their natal streams. One widely accepted hypothesis states that when salmon are young, they imprint on the pattern of the Earth’s magnetic field where they are born. Years later, this memory serves as an internal GPS.
The last stretch of a salmon’s journey is the most dangerous. The closer they get to home, the more perilous the trek becomes. Sailors used to call salmon the leaping fish. They launch their bodies over entire waterfalls, and sometimes land directly in the mouths of waiting bears.
Today the Chinook salmon is on the endangered species list. Fluctuating sea temperatures, man-made dams, and declining water levels make the journey home nearly impossible. Every spring, fish biologists report increasingly high numbers of salmon carcasses in local rivers. According to a study conducted by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Oregon salmon are slowly being pushed north toward Alaska as a direct result of climate change. As oceanic temperatures continue to rise, salmon will seek out waters that better mirror the conditions they’ve adapted to. In time, some species of salmon may disappear completely from the west coast.
In the summer of 2015, one year after my sister’s death, my parents, my four siblings, and I take a trip back to Edmonton, Alberta. Canada is our shared ground zero, my family’s original sin. My father has made the trip enough times that he has committed the route to memory. There is no need to consult a map. I now wonder if maps have lost their magic for him; if he too has recognized that the places we are most desperate to return to might not exist at all.
Driving south on I-90 there is a small stretch of unincorporated land between the United States and Canada. I ask my father to pull over and I get out of the car. I cry on the side of the road. I am mourning my sister, our shared childhood, the unfamiliarity of the world that now beckons me forward. One foot in Canada, one in the United States, I am a woman like the women before me, legs spread indecently, straddling worlds, caught between cities and countries and continents.
On that strip of land between the United States and Canada, I realize I have always belonged everywhere at once: on the road; in liminal spaces; in the uncontested land between Somalia and Ethiopia where my father spent the ragged days of his youth. I have always belonged at the beginning of the world, and where it seems to end, where the sky meets the sea, where the sea meets the land, on a plane when the two become indistinguishable from one another and you can no longer tell if you are going home or leaving it.
Where are you from ? people still ask me, but the answer is not simple. I am from a place beyond the scope of any map or road atlas. I am from a house of borrowed things, a land of irreconcilable and devastating losses, a terrain marked by grief. I am from nomads who moved in search of water, carving a home wherever they ended up like water carves its shape into rock. I am from a wild hope, a blinding courage, a blur and madness uncharted by any cartographer. I am from a land unmapped and entirely my own.
When I visit Somaliland for the first time, I stay long enough to imagine I will be there forever. Friends from Portland call me and ask me when I will return home. Their questions jar me . As I pack to leave, my grandmother asks me to stay with her. I tell her I will return soon. We are always making promises we cannot keep. Go or stay, either way something is lost.
Home is not an answer to a question. It is my grandmother’s front porch where I first saw how dark the night was supposed to be. It is the swimming pool in our first apartment complex in Portland where I learned to see without looking, underwater with my eyes closed like the mermaid I knew I was. It is the spot where my sister is buried. It is Eagle Creek where the salmon spawn and then die, using their last reserve of energy to protect their eggs. The journey home is arduous. Surviving costs something. Returning costs something more.
Will I return to the creek when the Chinook Salmon no longer swim in these too warm waters? These days the creek fills me with sadness, as fewer and fewer salmon survive the journey each year. The world is changing, and I am trying not to be leveled by it. I am trying to find my place in it.
A part of me will always be the girl that watched the salmon return, even when there comes a day when they do not. Where my sister used to be there is only her memory. Soon, where the salmon used to spawn, there will only be their ghost. To love a thing is to steel yourself against its eventual absence. I am learning to mourn a thing before it is lost.
Two months after I get my driver’s license, my parents finally let me drive to my friend Sarah’s house alone. She doesn’t live far away, and I won’t need to take a highway to get there. It is winter and it gets dark early. I promise them I’ll be home before the sun sets.
On my way home, I take a wrong turn. I do not realize it until I find myself in a part of Portland I do not recognize. At night the city is strange and unfamiliar, cloaked in its own uncertainty. The fog swallows what little light my car pitches against the dark. I look around for a landmark, a breadcrumb, anything that will lead me home, but I find nothing. I am always getting lost. I think it is because I have no point of reference. My heart can’t spin itself like a top and tell me what direction to go in.
I am sixteen and easily roused to panic. I call my father. I put him on speaker and leave the phone on my lap as I continue to take wrong turn after wrong turn. My grip on the steering wheel tightens. I begin to cry as soon as I hear his voice. I am stuttering and my words tumble over each other in their haste to get out of my mouth. I hear my mother in the background: “Is she crying?” “What happened?” “Is she okay?” I hear her decibel level rising with each question.
My father has always been the calm to my mother’s wild panic. “Are you driving?” he asks me. “Pull over.”
I pull into the parking lot of an abandoned building. I tell him I am lost. He asks me for the name of the street I am on, and then instructs me to wait in my car with the doors locked. I do as he asks, and eventually he pulls up beside me in the battered white minivan we have had for way too long. I roll down my window and snivel.
“Follow me,” he says, and I do. I follow him all the way home.