For war immigrants to Anywhere, the persistent pain of uprooting is much more poignant at the time of life’s momentous moments than it is otherwise. Births, Graduations, Marriages and Death (amongst other emotional events) seem to engender more tears and more touching expressions than on any other occasion – with Death taking the lead. I remember when my father passed away in London in 1987, just a few weeks before the Intifada happened. It seemed as if the whole Palestinian and Lebanese community came out to his funeral. He was one of the first Palestinians to die in London after the Lebanese Civil War managed to uproot hundreds of thousands of us and strew us all over the globe. The community came out more in solidarity, as an expression of support and empathy for our collective situation, than it did out of grief. It was with that same feeling that the community came out in support of the Samaha family when their young and beautiful daughter, Reema, was killed (with 31 other young students) at the Virginia Tech massacre on April 16, 2007. I felt the compelling need to attend that funeral, which I did, even though I did not know the young woman or her family. Yes, Death, more than any of life’s momentous events, seems to arouse so much more of our chagrin.
This November my husband and I would have been celebrating fifty years of marriage. Only, he passed away in July, a few months prior to this jubilee and a few months short of his eightieth birthday. He had been diabetic since the age of thirty and had been on kidney dialysis for the past eight years before he died. I still vividly remember that afternoon when his nephrologist came in, checked him out, turned to me and said: I gave the orders to dialyze him this evening. They will be taking him to insert a shaft this afternoon. Then, without further ado, she just left! Shaft? Dialysis? I was in a daze! Not that I was ignorant of dialysis. I had read a bit about it when one of his doctors had mentioned that it was a possibility on the horizon. However, I was not fully aware as to what it meant in his case; what the implications were? Hence began another trying phase of our life. He was so terribly stricken once he realized what his situation entailed! Overnight, this active and independent man, always cracking a joke, was required to go to a dialysis facility three times a week and spend a minimum of three hours hooked onto a machine that, basically, drained his whole supply of blood out of his body and filtered it out of unnecessary debris, since his kidneys (the body’s laboratory) couldn’t do that job anymore. Fascinating as this life-prolonging technology is, it also drained him of vital nutrients and energy. It was a grueling process that depressed him beyond words. Add to that a broken femur – very, very painful! – and hip replacement surgery that occurred during the first few years of his being on dialysis and you can imagine what a challenging situation it all was!
During all those eight long years we came to be well informed about his condition: End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD). We learnt that, while some renal failure patients can get transplants, in his case and at his age, it wasn’t possible. Certain death lay at the end of that miserable road. Fully cognizant and with his mental faculties intact, my husband went into total denial, and the few times when I tried to broach the subject with him, he would blow me off.
By the time we arrived to the stage – eight months before he passed – where he developed foot ulcers that no antibiotic would heal and that required an amputation of his leg to mid thigh – two months before he passed – his depression had become so pervasive that it emanated itself in an aura that enveloped our whole lives. Though he refused to discuss his fears, I knew that he knew that the end was near, and I knew that it was a matter of When and not If anymore as I grieved throughout these months – my grief often expressing itself in tears that flowed while I was hidden under the shower, and emotions – some recognizable, others becoming clear only in retrospect – that I had never experienced, and which I allowed myself to fully embrace, thus enabling them to begin washing my sadness at the inevitability away. I was thus mourning before the predictable fact which, in retrospect, made my bereavement much easier to grapple with.
He died at home with me and his four children, son-in-law and grandson around him. It was an amazing event, a very sad and very magical occurrence at the same time. Our four children lovingly coached my husband and spoke to him throughout his last hours as they held and kissed him and thanked him for having been such a good father. They were unbelievable and I was never prouder of them! I was also overcome with an immense feeling of tenderness for this man with whom I had lived for fifty years; a man whom I wanted to divorce at one time. During his last few days when he would fade in and out of awareness; when he couldn’t eat anymore; when his hands were moving about as if he was threading a needle, or taking something out of his pocket, or picking at something on his covers, I was overwhelmed with an incredible feeling of sorrow; the culmination of eight stressful years – for him even more than me – and eight despondent months. Looking at him on his deathbed, I did not want my memory of him to be clouded with this frail image. I felt that I wanted to remember him the way he was before he got so sick, before the unhappiness and frustrations that our uprooting had caused in our lives. I wanted to remember the man I fell in love with, the man I made love with, the man with whom I made four wonderful children, the man whom so many people loved, the exuberant personality, the man with whom I had shared so many experiences and without whom I wouldn’t, and couldn’t, have been who I am today.
This, I thought to myself, was how people should die: at home, in their beds, with their family around them. And, during those first dreaded days after the funeral, I was surrounded constantly by a very loving family, by my adorable adopted daughters (not legally) and wonderful friends whose presence was more amazing than I had ever experienced. The outpouring of love and care that enveloped my entire being were absolutely incredible; the phone calls from family and friends overseas – some from whom I had not heard in many years – were astounding, and the emails and cards kept coming in – again, sometimes from people I had not heard from in years. These affections and support were immeasurable! I have rarely in my lifetime felt so loved, honored and appreciated as I did during that time and I will forever be grateful for all those who made me feel that way.
Dying is a fact of life. It is inevitable for all of us. However, in this fast-paced, ever evolving and chaotic world of ours, I came to realize that some of the traditions associated with these events must, and should be, upheld. Not only to honor the dead, not only to celebrate their life but, also, to pass on to one’s children and to the younger generations how some traditions, though updated and altered a bit as time goes by, are very much worth keeping and treasuring. And, for immigrants, this becomes even more vital. The uprooting, the wrenching from one’s culture – rudely, in our case, because we did not do this by choice but, rather, due to our geographical position on the political chessboard that moves us without a backward look at the emotional damage that cold-blooded military and political decisions cause – becomes much more heartrending during life’s crucial moments.
Time has passed since my husband exhaled his last wrenching breath as we said our goodbyes and as I paused to think that while he was comfortable throughout his sickness and last days, there are hundreds of thousands dying by merciless sniper bullets; being blown to smithereens by pitiless bombs; being suffocated by heartless chemicals; being trafficked and raped; tortured; being abused; being subjected to cruel political, military and corporate decisions whose consequences endanger and catapult thousands upon thousands of human beings; the pervasiveness of lies, hypocrisy, egotism and corruption; the chilled Silent Majority all over the world that abhors and detests all of this, but either does not dare upset its status quo by vociferously protesting and daringly speaking out, or is helpless due to the threat of torture, bullets and surveillance!
Yes, Death is inevitable. Yes, the world has always been very messy. Yes, evil and ruthlessness were always part of our DNA. Yes, war has always been a constant. However, never has there been this astounding degree of immaturity and sheer recklessness with which our leaders are conducting our affairs. While incredibly wonderful inventions, technologies and events are happening every day, the dangers that lurk in our tomorrows have never been as dire: politically, environmentally, financially, educationally and in every other aspect.
Amidst all the sadness and in an effort to come to terms with my situation, I slowly began to assess what had kept me going and given me the fortitude, the patience and self-denial during all those eight years and, especially, during those last draining and exasperating months. What was that common thread that tied me to all those wonderful strangers that I had met during the course of my husband’s eight years of illness at the various hospitals, emergency rooms, dialysis facilities and doctor’s offices? Those women taking care of sick husbands like me, or those taking care of parents, siblings and, sometimes, neighbors? I realized that it was most of all an overwhelming sense of moral responsibility that we all shared; that, at the end of the day, this is what drives and compels us to exert the selfless efforts that such situations demand. And isn’t that, after all and in a nutshell, what my three Middle Eastern Religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam instruct me to do? It is that sense of moral responsibility that our world leaders have for long abandoned and one that has allowed The Powerful to be conducting our, and the whole world’s, affairs with relentless negligence, ignorance and greed.
The death of a spouse with whom one has spent fifty years is a daunting experience. It could cause us to imagine that life can’t go on, that happiness is not ours to feel anymore, that the void in our lives can never be filled. But life certainly does go on, just as the world goes on with all its joys and sorrows, with all its ups and downs and with its eternal promise of a better tomorrow. Perhaps, that’s what makes it easier for all of us who go through this to reach out and to hold on to that eternal promise – the promise that tomorrow we might find our own joy, that we will leave a better place for our children and grandchildren and that the world will find its peace. And maybe that is what makes us emerge out of our sadness and compels us to go out of ourselves and go do our part. Perhaps this is only a plea, a wish, a fervent hope that events, such as death, can cause us to feel more passionately about than ever.
Perhaps! Perhaps! Perhaps . . . it is why I will wake up tomorrow, wipe away my tears and face the world with my hopeful smile!