Instead of sitting by her side, helping her gently pass into the afterlife, when my grandma died, I was standing on a street corner in Thessaloniki, Greece, eating a cheese pie.
Since she was old and had complicated health, her death was an inevitability for which I tried to prepare myself. But never, when I imagined that fateful day, would I have guessed that on the bright morning my grandma, in her words, “flew away,” I’d be staring at the Greek sun, while halfway across the world, a Canadian one hadn’t yet broken.
I went to Greece to report on religion. While 95 percent of Greeks identify as Greek Orthodox, the refugee crisis has brought an influx of Muslims into the country. Combined with the economic depression, this makes room for many interesting stories.
My grandma—Baba, is what I called her—was the most religious person I knew. When I’d sleep over she’d dutifully help me say my prayers, tuck me into bed, and then retire to her kitchen table, where a small light illuminated her Bible. She underlined it while listening to a radio preacher.
My Baba had to quit high school to work on the farm, and always told me that she read slowly because of it. But somehow she managed to plow through piles of religious literature, studying about “that good old way.” When I was older, some nights she’d let me sit across the table in the dark and watch her. It filled me with such emotion that I’d get shivers. I’d borrow all her tracts and study them on my own to learn what she knew.
In Greece, I was going to visit Mars Hill, where Paul first spread the good news to the Greeks, and also to Thessaloniki, where he first preached after his conversion on the road to Damascus. I was going to write about how religion was affecting Greeks in the wake of the economic depression and the refugee crisis, and I was planning to come back home and tell Baba all about it.
On my way to the airport, before the trip, I phoned her to say goodbye. But when I called the phone rang, and rang.
“I hate leaving this city,” I said to my friend beside me. “Every time I do, I get anxious about what’s going to happen here when I’m gone.”
We both knew the last time I was overseas the man I had been seeing—who I thought was the love of my life—broke up with me in a text message.
“I want to cut his balls off,” Baba had said when I called her, crying, from Scotland. Age made her direct.
The experience scarred me and I was superstitious about going away. Soon I learned that superstition was not unfounded. This time my mom texted me: Baba was in the hospital. She needed surgery. They told my mom to summon the family.
Should I cancel the trip to Greece? I wondered. I had serious doubts about whether Baba’s frail body could survive surgery of any kind. She was a strong woman—a pioneer on the Canadian prairies who used to humor my romantic sensibilities by telling me stories of riding in a horse-drawn sleigh over the snowy fields to school. She could drive a tractor, pickle beets, and sew her own clothes. But hard work had taken its toll on her already-troubled body, and two years earlier she had been half-paralyzed by a stroke. She wasn’t her fighting self, to say the least.
Baba got on the phone, her words obscured by morphine. “Go to Greece and do good work,” she said. So I did.
My first stop in Greece was the capital, Athens, of the Acropolis and Olympic fame. Here I visited a makeshift refugee camp at an abandoned airport. Technically it’s not an official camp, but the government knows about it, and it’s serviced by NGOs from other nations, so it is more official than a squat, unsanctioned communities of refugees living together in abandoned structures, many of which have also appeared in Athens.
I’d never been inside a refugee camp before. The terminal, once a bustling hub of people leaving the country and coming back again, was converted into housing. The irony of being stuck in a building previously used to get people out of Greece must have felt like a slap in the face for the people living there.
The adults there were wary of journalists. It took a while before they warmed to us—only accomplished when their children circled us wanting to play. Our interpreter, who met us after prayer at an underground mosque, told us boredom is a refugee’s greatest enemy. He was a refugee too.
“I thought many times maybe I should…” he trailed off not knowing the words for “slit my wrists,” but showing me the action. He was 19 years old and graying.
I earmarked this story for Baba. It didn’t really fold into anything I was specifically reporting on, but I thought I would tell her about the children and the interpreter, and she would pray for them. Baba seemed to be doing alright during the first few days I was in Athens. She had made it through surgery and was awake, making everyone laugh with her enthusiasm for drugs.
So I kept reporting, thinking of her, and trying to learn as much as I could about religion in Greece. I wore a Lois Lane jacket. I carried a notebook and a pen. I chased down stories. I took a cab into the Athenian suburbs in the rain to interview a Greek shipping magnate’s son about the Orthodox Church. I met with an evangelical missionary about her work to convert refugees with clean laundry, hot showers, and Bible study.
I obtained a map to all the anarchist squats in Athens. I promptly followed it right to City Plaza Hotel, a squat for families. There I met a 23-year-old university student who was volunteering to keep the squat functioning.
“We’re trying to show solidarity with the refugees,” he said, before describing what had happened when the government tried to dissolve some of the camps where refugees at this squat had been staying previously.
“They didn’t give them shelter, they just put them on the streets,” he said. Another thing Baba would pray about.
A few days into our trip we drove up to Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece. I was interviewing the founder of a fair-trade jewelry startup when I noticed my mom’s text: “Can you call when you have a moment?”
“Is Baba alive?” I asked. I’ve always been one to get straight to the point. “I am in the middle of an interview.”
“Yes,” my mom said, “but when you are able please call.”
And then, immediately following: “How soon until you call?”
Okay, so it was an emergency. I excused myself from the interview and walked out into the Greek sunlight.
Thessaloniki is a pedestrian-centric city and the street was a collision of different realities. Motorbikes whirred past, a gypsy man hobbled by me, and students giggled as they traipsed down the sidewalk. I guessed they were headed to a cafe or bar along the waterfront. No matter what time of day it was, there always seemed to be young people in the cafes. There was no corner to hide in, so I turned my face toward a brick wall and added one more sound to the cacophony—soft crying. My mom put the phone to Baba’s ear so I could say goodbye.
She had been doing fine after her surgery but overnight she had a stroke. She was still breathing, but unconscious, and they weren’t sure how close the end was, but it was coming soon.
It took me two tries to say anything worthwhile. Then I hung up, mad at myself for being in Greece, for having nothing to say, for being unable to hold her hand and kiss her cheeks while they were still warm. I wiped the running mascara from my eyes and went back to finish my interview.
As the sun was setting that day I strolled along the waterfront. Thessaloniki is a gritty city with a choose-your-own-adventure kind of charm. In recent years it has seen growth as a tourist destination for Muslims and Jews seeking their family history, because of its importance to the Ottoman Empire, and also because it was once home to a vibrant Jewish community, dubbed “Mother of Israel,” before the Holocaust. Thessaloniki’s Jewish community perished in Auschwitz. Out of the few who survived, most moved to Israel, although a remnant still remains in the city. Now it’s a place to search for ghosts. Memories of family lines.
It would also hold a piece of my history, I was discovering: the place I was when my Baba died. My tears embarrassed me. I didn’t want the old Greek selling nuts on the boardwalk to see them. Or the Nigerian hawking his wares. Or the university students out having a laugh.
But I could not hide my sorrow. I found a slab of concrete by the water and faced the ocean for anonymity. Baba was the first person with whom I went into the ocean. She was the one who made me love music, religion, travel—and as I looked up at the Greek sun I thanked God that, at least for a few hours more, we still lived underneath it together.
Not long after that, I would eat a cheese pastry on the street while my Baba lay in her hospital bed, surrounded by her children, about to receive the “heavenly crown” she always prayed she’d get.
A few days later, back in Athens, Baba would be gone and I would lose my composure. I would call all my siblings to calmly coach them through their grief; as the oldest sister, it felt like my responsibility to make sure they were managing. But then I would find that I needed someone to look after me.
I would find myself dissolving into tears and miscalculating the time change. That would lead to me spending a day in bed relentlessly calling the man who broke my heart, until he woke up, so I could have someone with whom to cry. It took seven tries before he answered. But it was worth it, he knew what to say.
Baba wouldn’t yet have been in her grave, and I’m not sure if you can “roll over” pre-grave. But if you can, I assure you, my Baba found a way to do it at that moment. She was not a woman who asked for help. Especially not from men whose balls she wanted to cut off.
I would feel trapped in Greece and worry about my family, grieving without me. I would talk to refugees about feeling trapped in Greece. “Do you worry about your family in Afghanistan?” I asked one of them, who had been in Greece for over a year, without any hope of resettlement in Europe, and not knowing what would come next for him.
“All the time,” he said, before adding that, despite missing his family desperately, he was happy at the moment, because someone had helped him find a warm, safe place to stay. Before, he had been in a camp where he shared a leaky tent with 12 people and needed to walk out into the forest to relieve himself.
That’s how I learned about religion in Greece, you see. I learned what religion meant in Greece. Reporting on religion, visiting refugees, calling desperately for help until the phone was answered, missing my Baba like I’ve never missed anyone before, I realized that pure and unblemished religion is this: to look after people in their time of distress and to not let the world make you evil.
Or something like that. I may have heard it on the radio somewhere. But I learned it in Greece.
Jolene Latimer is a freelance writer from Los Angeles by way of Canada. She holds a M.A. from the University of Southern California in Specialized Journalism and covers everything from religion to entertainment.