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Mizna, Volume 9, Issue 2
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Losing My Father
I lost my father in the middle of the night one night. Oh, he died at 1:00 in the afternoon, really, a few minutes after 1:00, two days later. But I lost him that night, in the middle of the night. Two nights before his passing, he sat up at the edge of his hospital bed, the bed we had tucked in one corner of the living room, right in front of the long wall of shelves with all the pictures, dating back to the sixties. My sister Helen’s graduation picture. The photograph was interesting; it seems these breathy pink sweeps of color on each cheek were rubbed on, almost an afterthought, a doctoring-up. The picture of Albert in his army captain’s cap, and the crisp jacket with the gold buttons and decorated tags along the line of his shoulders. This thirteen-year-old immigrant from Syria soon found his way into Vietnam through the letter that found its way into our American house, requesting his presence, no RSVP required. Then there were all the wedding pictures. The long white gowns, the mantillas that reached the ground, the traditional veils, some of the sisters gloved, some of the sisters-in-law as well. My favorite picture when I was a child sat on the top shelf, my sister-in-law, Annette, glamorous, the soft sweep of hair, the cheekbones, something from a movie. And there’s a picture of the entire family taken at an old downtown studio. There’s my grandmother sitting in the front row, in front of all of us, the four rows, and me there, the youngest of my siblings, six years old and standing in front. Lori was a toddler then, sitting in her mother’s lap. And here are the uncles from Syria and Germany that I have never met. Salim, Fahim, and the ones I know, Hannah, Braheem. Father spent his last days here, his last months, in front of these images, almost a choir of motionless voices, a wall of glass with the faces underneath. Framed and kept, even the dying who had left, were still here, faces hovering above my father’s deflowering body.

It was that night—less than forty-eight hours before his death— that I lost him. He could not find comfort, the body not knowing where to sit, not able to move itself into its desired spaces, not able to hold itself up; even his head dangled, unable to keep an eye up. We’d try to help him find positions that would keep comfort at hand, or find it. My brothers, Bryan and Gus, would lift and carry him, the heft of his thin body, dead weight, from one couch to the other, from the bed to the armchair, the armchair to the recliner, a rotation of sorts. Almost clock-like, a modern dance. Always the body trying to find the one spot that would work. The saddest thing, really, occurs when the body cannot find itself anymore.

The night I lost my father, the real night of his leaving, for me, was when not one sister, not one brother, or my mother, none of them, could comfort him. Someone had swept his legs over the side of the bed, propped his torso up, but he could not hold it there, dropping his head into the chest or ribcage of one of us. And even though he had thinned, only bones covered in loose skin, we struggled to lift the weight of them—all inside the cage, the body, with his shallow breathing, and his heavy head. Muneera, my sister, tried her hardest to hold him up. All of us had tried, but we could not bear the weight for long.

This is when I came up, allowed my body to be the soft wall he clung to, his sweaty hands clasping the back of my knees. I remember stroking his hair, what he had left of it, and humming softly, and from somewhere inside, I found peace, strange as it was. I sang him the song he had sung to all of us back when we learned to walk. “Dad-dy, yula, yimshay. Dad-dy, latt ba‘kebb shay,” going back to the days when he had taught us to stand, to not wobble, to hold ourselves up. I sang it and sang it, I did. He quieted. No more moaning; the groans had gone. He rocked there, with me, at peace, and quietly. I held him up for hours. Me with my bad knee. The body finds strength. And here, the weakest body of all, mine, the one that is not made to hold things heavier than the heart, lifted him up, carried him, really, for those hours. Standing there, as if I were strong.

The night I lost my father, he looked up, and he asked, “Unna buthay moot?” Am I going to die? I said, “Yes, Daddy, you are.” I told him, “La tifzeh.” Don’t be afraid. I told him of the resurrection of the body we believe in. I told him, “You believe, you taught us to believe,” and I reminded him of the prayers he mouthed aloud or mutely all his days, the favorite Psalm: “Irhummnay ya Allah, kama atheem rahimmtekk.” Have mercy on me, for great is your mercy.

“Daddy, there is nothing to be afraid of. Stepping over the line is all. You will see Nawal, and Wutfa, the long-gone sisters; you will see Sittay, your mother. They will be waiting for you there. And we, we will be here, holding your hands as you cross. We will carry you with us. This is the heaven you’ve been waiting for, Baba, the one you’ve told us of. Dad-dy, yula, yimshay. Dad-dy, latt ba‘kebb shay.” Rocking there, quiet, he was afraid, but then calmed. The pain seemed as if it were gone. Then the heavy breathing, the night sweats. I’d place a cool damp cloth on his forehead, not missing a beat, rocking, rocking, and stroking his head. I’ve never had a child. Never known the absence or the departure of one. But I know this: my Baba was my child that night, in the dark room-light, the whole family watching him rock and quiet down. My mother said, “Neeyaleek.” You are so fortunate. She meant, You are so lucky he spent his last hours in your arms. She had tried to rise, told him, “Irtikkay alayay.” Lean on me. He lifted his head up, for the first time, with strength, and looked at her as if her stepping up to bear him were forbidden. He knew she could hardly stand; these were the days when she only used a cane, before she herself sat in a wheelchair, not long after, being hoisted from bed to chair to toilet.

Mama, only years ago, you wanted to hold him up, you thought you could, but he looked up and forbade it. He knew your body could not hold the weight. Mama, I could feel your sadness in having me hold him up instead, you wanting to be the wall that solidified his rest. Baba left me thatnight. The next day, he hardly spoke, and Gus sat much by his side. I wish I’d spent more time there, by the bed, this second night. Wishes don’t lie. But I finally left to my brother’s house to sleep. The next morning I woke, almost denying. I made calls, spoke for hours on the phone out in the back yard, catching up with old friends. What was I thinking? That he would live awhile? Something then prodded me to get up, to make my way out, and as I left the door, heading for my car, the phone rang. It was Tamra, my niece, announcing, “Jido’s leaving. He’s turning blue.” I sped; it didn’t seemed fast enough. I sprinted up the many stairs to find them all standing around his bed, Bryan crying, though trying not to, his wife rubbing his shoulders. We all looked down at his face. “Baba, Baba, I love you!” “Anna hannee.” I am here. I can’t remember if I kissed his face; I can’t remember much, only that, minutes later, maybe two, he was gone, lying on his back, looking up. And then they came to wash the body, to prop his head up, his neck really. The room smelled sweet, the ketonic scent of the body that lingers and fills rooms.

The priest came, and so did the cousins; we watched the body and cried. Mama finally went and put on her black clothes, her black scarf. She came back in and sat by the bed, closest to his head. She spoke to him, and wept, touching his hard face, rocking back and forth. “Salim. Salim. Rihett?” You’re gone? Then they came to take him, or the priest said to call them to come, “them” being the people that pick the bodies up. Mother cried, “No, a few more hours.” Khalee ishway. “Leave him awhile longer.” Sa‘ah’l lakh, sa‘sah’l l a k h. “One more hour. One more hour.” The priest was tired, I know, but my father was leaving his house, leaving his body, leaving his wife. Mama cried, “Khaloo ishway.” So we did, but it felt rushed. The van came; I remember a dark-green blanket. They rolled the gurney out, and we all marched outside with them, standing there, a conglomeration of mourners at the open back doors of the van. Baba’s body had already been slid in, and there were the feet, the feet that peeked out of the dark-green blanket. My mother kissed them, said, “Dakh-eell ij-rrekk.” The precious feet. I think we all kissed them. It’s hard to remember what passed, only that my father’s feet, stiff as boards, were facing the house, before the doors were shut, before they drove him away. I preferred them facing the house, as if pointing to the place that carried him, as if arriving.
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