My mother left this note on the kitchen bulletin board, and the rest of us are always struggling to explain to people whether or not she "really means" this.
"If I am taken hostage," the note says, "I do NOT want the family pleading with the US government to give in to the hostage-taker demands."
She even underlined the NOT.
"That would put other Americans at risk," she added. "I am taking the risk here."
She signed and dated the note, May 17, 2004, and then "re-affirmed" it in blue ink two years later, on April 2, 2006.
For more than four years now, it's been tacked there alongside childhood photos of my brother and me, postcards, and newspaper clippings from baseball games. We usually forget it's there, until someone comes over for the first time and notices it.
And, well, it's a long story. I can't remember if she wrote the note before she left for Afghanistan the first time, or maybe it was Tajikistan, or it could have been Kosovo. I was midway through college when my mother, an ambitious problem-solver with a fierce independent streak, announced that she was going to Kosovo for six months. Something about a pending election.
She had always held relatively normal jobs that I knew how to explain to my friends in a single word – lawyer, consultant, banker. Then, after 27 years of raising children, her youngest left home and she started this other career of hopping around to the world's messiest places. She helped register voters in Kosovo and supervised the construction of courthouses in Afghanistan. During the past year, she was in charge of aid money in Baghdad, where, inside her walled red-zone compound, she got a big kick out of weekly volleyball night.
Occasionally, she would e-mail home smiling photos of herself in a flak jacket.
We suddenly couldn't figure out what to get her for Christmas because she said she didn't really need anything, certainly not anything she would have to fit in her suitcase and lug back across the globe. She had to have extra pages put in her passport.
In one of the weirder developments, she began to ship back to the States carpets by the trunkload – Afghan rugs in deep cranberry reds, things you'd never find at Ikea, authentically irregular designs sometimes accompanied by photos of the 80-year-old mountain village woman who had woven them.
"Do you need more rugs?" she asks at the end of every Skype phone call or e-mail.
"Might as well stock up," she e-mailed me before we met for Christmas last year in Paris. "My theory on foreign shopping [like Afghan rugs] is if you like it, buy it. You never know when you will see it again, or be there again, or the street gets blown up."
She once sent me a jacket that I think was made out of chain mail, and she never seems to understand why I haven't worn it lately.
I was sitting at my desk at work several years ago when the security guard in the mailroom called up to ask if I was expecting a package from Afghanistan. They weren't going to open it unless I was. "Well, not really," I said, "but...." Inside was a sky-blue burqa that made me the most popular person in the newsroom that day.
My mother is proud that I've become like her – globetrotting and independent (or, maybe, somewhat reckless). But she recently encouraged me to do a brief tour in Baghdad, and when I decided against it, I realized that it is a unique situation to be less fearless than your 60-year-old mother. I am, oddly, proud of that, too.