love letter for my dad’s 74th year

2018 has been hard. historically, the lenten season is not my best time of year. perhaps this is a holdover from catholicism– for years fasting hid the ways i punished myself for my excess, most readily understood, though not exclusively, through my fatness. but winter is its own kind of denial: short days punctuated by precipitation and dark clouds both geologic and political enact an eclipse on my perspective. hope becomes a receding horizon while the impossibility of right now looms ominous in the foreground. i have asked myself over and over again two related, difficult questions: is this the future my immigrant father imagined? and how do i live generously when i feel such scarcity?

my father is sick. he and my mother have returned to live in palestine permanently, a dream he spoke of often in his time in the US. this is the kindest version of the story to tell. it is heavy with redactions. my father has dementia. most minutes he is not himself, or maybe anyone. his presence is counted like that, in minutes, if you round up. sometimes we only exchange a sentence or a glance. i like best to hold his hand, let him lay his head on my shoulder, wrap my arm around him.  once i kissed his palm, and he came back to me, said “you made my day.” this physical recognition is one i have especially grieved since his move. the intimate space between our bodies cannot be enacted across the atlantic. to get to him now it takes a flight to jordan, traveling across three borders, and that harrowing drive through wadi il nar. as his brain forgets me, will his body remember? even this is a redaction, of course. there are many more devastating things in his departure than his memory of me.

i started asking myself if this was the future my father dreamt about two years into his diagnosis. by that point my father had seen me achieve my PhD, a dream we held together. by the time i introduced my partner to him, he had a limited capacity for incorporating new memories into his archive. once, when kb was reminding me to get my glasses prescription filled, my father looked past her and said “does he take care of you?” i told him yes. he seemed relieved–another long time wish of his, that i find someone to share my life with, at last met. over the holidays, we were dancing in the living room and my father pulled kb and me up off the couch and pushed our bodies together. i consider that moment my zeffa.

in these broad strokes, it is easy to imagine my father’s fulfillment. but sometimes after five days without showering or sleeping, my depression and imposter syndrome reducing me to a dirty, exhausted blob in the bed, i wonder: is this what we came here for? my father, with his 16 hour days, seven days a week, still singing to me before bed. would he read this as my cruelest self does, as the narcissistic indulgence of a first (and a half) generation immigrant who has the luxury of not working for five days? or is this strange space of emotional reckoning, the moment to process all those years of compartmentalized intergenerational trauma, a future he could never have foretold, but one inescapable just the same?

in my most generous moments, i call up my father’s compassion. his desire to see his family safe and happy, his desire to help people. how he gave money and time and food to everyone–the church, my uncles, his nieces and nephews. i remember how he’d welcome my friends to our house, how some of them called him baba. i remember the stories of how he’d help his mother in the kitchen as a young man, and how he helped my mother, and how he helped me with my homework. sometimes he helped and advised against people’s desire–overloading people with the obligation he felt to them. sometimes he helped people against his own interests–seeing the best in people, investing in them emotionally and financially, only to be gravely disappointed and financially strained. so this question of generosity in scarcity, of how to call up grace from the deficit, is one i have watched him reckon with, and one i reckon with now. am i like my father, giving from nothing? am i supposed to be? if i am not, would he for(give) me?

i have wanted to give freely, without the expectation of return. i have understood that as love. but here and now, this heart feels tighter and tighter. i feel emptied by my grief, altered from my self. my anxiety courses through my body like caffeine. i sleep for 3-4 fitful hours a night, eventually giving in and getting up to research housing laws in baltimore, or scroll through listings, or play candy crush while my brain worries where i will live next month and if this house is really killing me. an aside that is not aside—my house leaks water from the roof and the mold is climbing up the walls of the basement. we’ve had the sewer line back up twice in as many months and still the owner repairs nothing. i have been looking for a new place to live. is this what my immigrant father imagined my degrees would bring me? how can i live generously from a place of scarcity?

i have been thinking often about principles of openness, reciprocity, and gratitude and how they might be a more useful frameworks for me than that of generosity. i want openness that is made sustainable by principles of reciprocity. i want to understand reciprocity through gratitude over returns. here are some of the things i think that means:

believing myself: one of the most radical things i’ve learned in the last five years of my life is that the people who are cruel to you or abuse you do not abuse everyone. it can be hard to imagine that your close friend’s close friend is actually a bad friend for you, or that someone others have positive interactions with always leaves you feeling stupid and small. but it’s true. this cognitive dissonance is written into the hierarchical order, the multiple discriminatory structures of our culture. i have seen in the treatment of some of my friends and acquaintances to my partner, and in the treatment of some of my friends’ friends to me, and countless times in my academic circles. i had to learn to believe myself when i saw those cruelties play out, and refuse to ignore how they made me feel when i interacted with those people: hurt, anxious, uncomfortable, and a thing i hate more than anything, like i needed to record and score our interactions: i did or/said x things, but they only did y, or nothing at all. i hate for intimacy to feel transactional. i had to believe myself and my feeling that things were off, and if i couldn’t resolve that offness in conversation, simply remove myself from the conversation. or, in some cases, remove myself without it.

saying no: i recall very little about day to day life in the aftermath of kb’s accident. i automated to survival mode, pushing through mechanically for almost a full year, the time it took to see her come back to herself from her near death. all the feelings i didn’t feel have returned now. it is so tempting to defer them even further. but i have learned that sometimes it’s ok to say no to things that make you feel differently than how you want to feel. sometimes it’s ok to not prioritize an activity that will shift your mood in order to live through that mood, maybe really process it. in a related way, it’s ok to turn down things that take more than you have to give. it’s ok to say, i’m at capacity right now. i know this isn’t particularly radical news, even to me, but for a long time i thought my giving was supposed to be limitless. i learned first at work that wasn’t feasible, because the academy like all institutions, will suck you dry and then discard you. it was easier for me to draw my boundaries against the faceless institution, unless of course it had a face. it is so much harder to turn away what you perceive as need, and even harder to turn away people who feel entitled to your time and energy. i have learned this lesson over and over: you cannot give against your own survival, and you cannot satisfy entitled people. they will always imagine they deserve everything.

saying yes: in the starkest moments of my depression, i have felt that nothing or no one could reach me. i have said no to things that would have enriched my life and my experiences, either because the limits of my imagination foreclosed the possibilities, or because i was not yet prepared to grow. many times i have said no because the calculus of transactional intimacy made me feel like i could not accept something without needing to give it right back, or back later with interest. or because i felt that what was offered was not equal to what i had given. i have also said no because the tyranny of consistency—if i could not sustain the habit or friendship or feeling indefinitely, than i should not be allowed to experience it. but, it turns out, it is ok to only go for a walk once that week. it’s ok to let people love you how they love you. to let them give you what they want to give you, provided you want to receive it. and i do. i just didn’t think i deserved it. i have been working on cultivating the spirit of openness that would allow me to say yes with the trust that it is offered freely, that i am free to change and adapt, and that the alternative to yes is an entrenchment into a stark and bitter landscape.

letting go: i think there must be some perfect balance between respecting the impact trauma has had on my person and the desire to release those injuries—to not hold on to them as the singular defining characteristics of my personhood or of a relationship. it took me about six years to recover, truly, from the simultaneous end of my first queer relationship and the dissolution of one of my most formative friendships. the impact those breaks had on my intimate ethic reverberated through my relationships and friendships in surprising and painful ways. it was only through a sustained attention to that intimate ethic, in the form of vulnerability and conversation with trusted new friends and lovers (and one great therapist), that i was finally able to release those people from the punitive position they held on my heart and really love them again. but loving them didn’t mean having them back in my life. it just meant letting them go and accepting without resentment the lessons i learned in our time together. letting go is also about saying yes, seeing what will fill the space vacated of the familiar, safe pain.

practicing gratitude: one thing that i am profoundly skilled at is gathering all my complaints until they form a swirling vortex of bad feelings that carries me away from any potential perspective or light. i go through every aspect of my life and find the faults with it, i fixate on and amplify the negatives until i can’t recall anything beyond them. i have been trying to focus on the positives in my life and say thank you more often. gratitude for my chosen family. gratitude for my stable employment. gratitude for the love of my partner. gratitude for my menagerie of weirdos. gratitude for the privilege to teach people and be taught in return. gratitude for the privilege to write and feel and think for a living. gratitude to arab american writers. gratitude to poets i don’t know but whose work knows me. gratitude to the poets i know. gratitude for the people who sustain me on the internet, in text, in email, in phone calls, in ground mail. gratitude for queers of color, for feminists, for activists. gratitude for femmes. gratitude for palestine. gratitude for my siblings, my champions. gratitude for my mother who gave me the gift of the world. gratitude for my father who taught me to live in it. gratitude for his 74 years on this earth so far.

if there is any relief from the questions of futures and scarcity, i suppose it is this—gratitude against lack. gratitude as limitless capacity. gratitude as the condition of openness and reciprocity. gratitude as a kind of love. gratitude for his dreams forged in scarcity. gratitude for the future he imagined and the one beyond our imagination. gratitude for the future he enacted, and the potential to build from it. gratitude for the new dreams that sustain us.

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