Monday November 21, 2022

My father died, somewhat unexpectedly, five weeks ago, though he had been sick for a long time. I tried many times to share this news, each time stopping short, as though committing to a public platform would make the surreal real. But the fact remains, my father is no longer of this world. I have written about my beloved Baba many times, yet each time I have sat with words since his passing, I have found them impossibly inadequate. His loss has been somatic: my teeth grind; my stomach wrenches; my heart, that unreliable narrator, climbs into every extremity and my pulse reverberates through the balls of my feet to the crown of my skull. Everything is sharp, a cold wind to the lungs. A cutting.

My father had Dementia with Lewy Bodies (DLB), a hard diagnosis arrived at after two misinterpretations, first Parkinson’s and then Atypical Parkinsonism. The tragedy of these misdiagnoses is that treating them escalated my father’s decline in DLB. I couldn’t keep up with how quickly he disappeared; we counted his presence in days, then hours, then minutes, then seconds. I try to remember the last conversation we had where he was really home in himself, and I cannot put my finger on it. This loss haunts me.

About four years into his diagnosis, my parents returned to Beit Sahour permanently. This was not a coy decision; my father had made it very clear that he didn’t want to die in anonymous, cold America. He wanted to die in his homeland, be buried with his family. If I am being frank with myself, I did not anticipate my father would live another four years. Each time I saw him I thought his condition could not get worse. But then it did, over and over. It was annihilating to watch the person largely responsible for my own personality become a different person, become a tame pond where he had been oceanic.

I want to narrate the story of my father’s life but I have not yet come to terms with his death. I found out my father passed on the airplane headed to see him. I was sitting in the aisle seat next to two men. The center seat was an older short man with a red chin strap beard. He spoke very little English; he also did not seem to speak a language others around us understood. In the window sat a younger man whose appearance was less notable than his voice: low and smooth, endlessly patient with the man in the center aisle; he helped the center seat figure out the wifi and the entertainment system; he communicated airline instructions and flight attendant questions. He was kind in a way you do not often see in the world. Generous.

When I learned my father died, I started to cry uncontrollably. My shoulders heaved with it. I tried to slow my breathing but it was gasping. I filled my mask with hot tears. I held my face in my hands. I keened. The man in the window seat reached across the center and rubbed my shoulder. He asked me what happened and I told him. He talked to me for the next five minutes, murmuring condolences, praying, telling me to cry as much as I needed. When I stopped, we all went back to our respective quiets. At the end of the flight, before we disembarked, the man from the window offered me two gifts handmade in Kenya, his home and where he was headed: the first a small gazelle, carved from wood; the second, tear drop blue beaded earrings. He told me he and his family would pray for me and mine. This small kindness–this gift of a human. I cannot explain to you how powerful this was to me–to be seen and held in a moment of devastation. To be alone but not invisible or ignored. To be witnessed by a stranger. It made me think there was still kindness in the world, and this is something I struggled to believe as I watched my father become sick and sicker.

In the coming weeks I held the gazelle in my hands many times, rubbed its smooth form. When I tell this story to my family, they tell me my father sent the man so that I wouldn’t be alone. That a gazelle, an animal indigenous to our lands and simultaneously a revered Arabic poetic form, could not be incidental. My father did not think of himself as a poet, but his grandfather was. Instead, my father was known for his sharp memory for music, his lyricality. He sang constantly, often at home, at family events, at weddings. He taught his kids to sing at a very young age. In my memory the lyrics of Palestinian folks songs precede the acquisition of banal daily language.

In the summer of 2018 I went to Palestine to see my parents. Earlier that summer I had participated in a poetry retreat, and had shared a lot of work about my dad. Someone in my writing group talked about sharing her writing with her family, and I thought I should do this while I still had the chance. I waited to be home alone with Baba, and I started to read him a poem. He became so visibly agitated as I read that I thought my voice or the content was irritating him. When I finished, he reached out for my hand and held it tight. By this time his capacity for speech was dwindling. He often stuttered and had difficulty completing words. Still, he gathered his voice and said “become my poet.” Though I cannot remember the last conversation we had, this is one of the last things I remember my father saying to me before he stopped speaking completely.

Today when I think of writing poems a gazelle lodges in my throat. How can I become in his absence? I am scared of words and the thousands of ways I have already disappointed myself. I am scared to fail him. What does become mean in this story? Many times I have wondered if the life I live is worthy of what my parents sacrificed to make it possible. My possibility underwritten by the 16 hour days my father worked in the convenience store. My graduate degree in lieu of the one he did not complete. My English poems his Arabic songs. Two gazelles in North America. One is a rusty translation, a suspect copy.

My father’s funeral takes place the Wednesday after his death. Ahead of the service the casket is brought to the house, and the women of the family sit around it and pray the rosary. After, the casket is carried to the church on the shoulders of men, who later take it to the burial site. When the coffin arrives at our home, my body and brain ring with unexpected relief. This is my father’s corporeal form, but this is not my father. He is not here anymore. I know this instantly and down to the bone. It is comforting but also wrecking. He is not here anymore. The women lead us through two sets of the rosary, which my father used to pray every night before bed and when he woke in the morning. He is buried with a rosary looped in his hands. I have long carried one of my father’s old rosaries with me everywhere I go. I keep a second in my car. A third in my home. My father is not here anymore but he is also everywhere.

His funeral and memorial take place in Arabic. I understand enough but not all. My mother and aunts tell me the service is good. I prepare a short, inadequate eulogy to give at the funeral but am not invited to give it. Instead, I am told those kinds of remarks happen at the third or seventh, two days marked for memorial, counted from the days since his death. I asked my aunt why these dates are significant, but no one is sure. Maybe something to do with Jesus’ resurrection and ascension? This is the exact kind of thing I would have asked my dad, and he would have explained it in seriousness and I would have made fun of it. Then he would probably have laughed a little with me, because we are both right: it is real and constructed. I give my eulogy in English at the third/seventh memorial, celebrated the fifth day from his death–these numbers now being more metaphorical than literal.

We also celebrate the fortieth day, minus the number of children the dead person had– because no one who has children truly dies (or so I am told). I ask about the number forty, and someone says that’s how long he has for his soul to go to heaven. Because of his kids, my father’s fortieth is thirty-five. That day is today, a tidy five weeks from the day of his death, though they held the memorial on Friday; these numbers are now just suggestions. I wonder if this means he only has thirty five days to get to heaven. Is my father taking the scenic route? Maybe he is driving to Canada and getting lost in Ohio, like he did when we were kids. On road trips we would beg my dad to take us to get McDonald’s, and when we were ten minutes from home, he would say we could get fast food if we were in the car for another half hour. He was a trickster like this, joyful and playful. If heaven is real I am sure my father is in it, but he slid in just under the wire, relishing the world in death as he did in life.

After these services we line up in the church hall and people come to offer condolences. Their sympathies are delivered robotically, many look above my head and never in my eyes. Many don’t know who I am–my strangeness from living in the US is exacerbated by being the only fat sister. They cannot recognize him in me largely because they aren’t looking. Occasionally my aunt or mom or sister will correct a drive-by griever and they will double take and double back. I don’t laugh but everything is absurd. During the azza people are served black coffee, mourning buns, mercy muffins, grieving grains. These are not the names in any language, but this is what I call them in my head. They all taste pretty good which is surprising because I am bitter and angry and full of resentment. I am empty and full all at once.

On the days between his passing and the services, various families bring us dinner. In these circumstances, there is only one acceptable meal: roasted lamb with rice. It is cooked in old copper pots that have decades full of flavor, and while families used to cook it at home, it has now been farmed out to caterers. We eat this meal three times over four days. For the fourth meal, my sisters’ in-laws break tradition and order chicken, and this decision occupies a lot of conversation. What does chicken say about the family providing, about the man lost? Can only lamb communicate it? I don’t remember these meals from the deaths I experienced in childhood, but I am sure they happened. Instead I remember this: people would bring the bereaved non-perishable goods. Coffee, rice, sugar, flour. During my uncle’s funeral I remember massive bags stacked in the kitchen–high and wide enough to sit on. This tradition has phased out, but I like its symbolism.

My sister reminds me that we may feel however we feel about the grieving process here but it is what my father wanted. I know this but I cannot shake the feeling I had the moment I saw his coffin: He is not here anymore. When we lived in the US my father came home from his mother’s funeral and announced he would not go back for any more funerals. Only weddings, only joy. He wanted to spend more time celebrating life than grieving death. Still, there is death and there is dying alone in amreeka. So he goes back for one more funeral after all. His funeral has not felt to me like a celebration of life, and I cannot even connect it to his death. I feel there is no good way to die, no correct way to grieve. I don’t begrudge these rituals for those to whom they are meaningful. But I am dissociated from what happens. I haven’t yet come to terms.

My father’s DLB held him between realms for so long. I never knew how present he was in his body in the last few years of his life, particularly when he lost the capacity for speech and movement. Where did he go? Did he travel time? Was he free? Is he free now? I knew he was often not there, but I also did not think he was gone. I cannot comprehend the finality of his death given the last few years of suspension. It is surreal, impossible. I know he is not here anymore, but I also do not. I have anticipated this moment, this shift, but my anticipation was muddy and fractional. The totality of his absence is breathtaking–like someone seeing the milky way when they had only looked as far as the power lines above head.

I leave Palestine on a Friday morning and my partner picks me up at the airport on Saturday. On Monday I go back to my job, exactly two weeks since his death. I teach my classes–though I cannot tell you what we covered or why. I am here but I am not. On Wednesday I finished grading the materials I started on the day I found out my father was actively dying: A call on Saturday, then a plane on Sunday night, then a death on Monday. Because of the apartheid state, I arrive in Palestine Tuesday morning. I am in a time loop–every Monday he dies, and every Tuesday I am too late. Every Wednesday a funeral. Thursday at his burial site. Every Friday the memorial. Time is real and not. I am here and not. My father is not here and not gone–he cannot be gone. I rub the gazelle like a talisman, worry his rosaries. I do my job and spend most of my free time at the ceramics studio. Pottery over poetry. I cannot be still with myself or with my words. I hear my father’s voice and see his face in my head. If I don’t write it, it’s not true. If I do not become, he cannot be gone.

I want to narrate the story of my father’s life but I have not yet come to terms with his death. DLB, like other forms of dementia, undermines memory. First the short term, then eventually all. My father started to forget. I regret, like many kids do, not asking him enough about himself. All the things I didn’t know about him, all the things that disappeared in the dimming of his gray matter–those lewy body deposits on his brain absorbing his secrets until it was all spots, no secrets. Or perhaps, secrets in their final, most impossible form. My father became unknowable and I have only my memories of him. An incomplete record. I have imagined recording, writing, as a kind of immortality. To become in order to remain. The written evidence of being insures its memory. But simultaneously the record is one of loss, of absence. All my life I have been scared and enthralled with the archive. What it holds and what it hides. I have loved my father, what I know and what I cannot. What has remained and what is gone.

My father died five weeks ago. What be/comes next?

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