in the wake

i was talking to my father recently and he asked me when i was going to finish my Ph.D. of course i finished it almost two years ago now; he came to my dissertation defense, cried when my committee announced me as “doctor,” held me and congratulated me after. on my graduation day he sat in the auditorium and cheered my name, and at the after party, we danced together in the living room. all this, gone.

i have long been my father’s daughter–i traveled with him to jordan and falasteen when I was two. when i’d wake scared at night, he’d comfort me, advise me to pray. when we moved to falasteen, i switched from the american school to the arabic one to make him proud. when i made high scores, he took me to buy a jean vest my mother refused. when he traveled back to the  US periodically, leaving us in beit sahour, i wept loudly and profusely for days. the students in class would tease me about it–saying their fathers were gone all the time, and they weren’t bothered by it. when he drove me to my first day of high school in the US, he advised me to “just say no” if someone offered me drugs, and because i believed him, believed in him, i really did. at weddings i would watch him mesmerized; he captivated the whole room. he’d lead call and response, duck and dance and laugh, and people would lose it. he was the life of every party, the loudest, kindest, best man i knew. he is many of these things now, too, but he is also not the same at all.

i tell people i got my Ph.D. for my dad. he was a teacher, too. he studied in cairo as a young man, came back to falasteen to teach science and math in beit lehem. he moved to the US on a student visa to Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois. he was a master’s student for a while before the demands of living in the US with limited language and resources, and supporting my mother and two eldest sisters, undermined his scholarly trajectory. he stopped going to school, started working full time. we lived in illinois for some time; i was born in kankakee. we are still Cubs fans. i remember watching the world series in 1998, rooting for Sammy to take the home run record, devastated when they lost their wild card spot. this is a memory only possible because of my father.

so, i got my Ph.D. for my dad. his dream deferred. so ethnic of us, really, a classic immigrant story, where all the hopes and dreams are saddled onto your children. and i was a good kid: i never went out two nights in a row; i said no to drugs; i got good grades; i got out of the store circuit and hourly labor. i only fell from my father’s favor when i was in my mid twenties, when i returned from an M.A. program at OSU and didn’t resume living in my parent’s house. he was furious with me, disappointed. it was a long two years before i started a Ph.D. program and he and my mother changed their tune. during this time, i couldn’t do much of anything right. my father began harping on my spiritual life, worried that i was still unconfirmed as a catholic. he went to the E.R. for chest pain once. at his bedside he asked me if i was going to move home, and if i was going to get confirmed. he told me he’d ask me those same questions on his death bed, if necessary.

he doesn’t remember this promise. he doesn’t remember to tease me about one of my first published poems, a reflection on learning to drive with him. he doesn’t remember the time i slammed a door in his face, and he laughed in mine. he doesn’t remember all the verses to the samer or to ‘al rosana. he doesn’t remember the time he got so angry at me he called me names, and came to my room crying and apologizing minutes later. he doesn’t remember the time he woke up at 3am to pry my friend april out of her frozen car in our driveway. he doesn’t remember how i’d make supply runs with him to united before we switched to deliveries and a sam’s membership at the store. he doesn’t remember my name sometimes, can’t match it with my face.

sometimes, after a few minutes delay, my father will put together my face and my name and my whole self. he will remember who i am and where i am. he will ask “mejdu, baba, will you come home?”

i remember he called me the last time he and my mother were in falasteen for a visit. my mother was out of the house, and he just wanted to chat. he could still navigate the ipad then, used it to facetime me. he smiled a lot during that conversation, though i don’t remember what it was about. i remember thinking it was so strange–my mother has always been the contact parent. i remember feeling warmed and grateful he called me, thought to do it.

we live on piecemeal these days. moments of sterling recognition in the fog of forgetting. i am still my father’s daughter. i am still crying when he leaves because i do not know where he goes, and now, i do not know if he will come back.  i am still trying to make him proud. i go home whenever i can, while there is still a home in him to go to.

2 thoughts on “in the wake

  1. Margot says:

    God, this is beautiful and painful. I am so sorry for the ongoing loss of your father. Words feel very inadequate, and yet yours seem so powerful.

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