Heretical Grief!

The reasons why I left the US in 1994 and went back to Syria after a 9-year long absence are many, but one of the contributing factors was the fear of losing one or both of my parents while I was abroad. This fear stemmed from two facts: I lost my paternal grandmother who doubled as my nanny really when I was studying in the Moscow in 1984, and all the phone calls that I made in 93-94 to my parents featured announcements of someone close dying: my step grandfather, my younger uncle (a gregarious life-embracing fellow – by far my favorite uncle), and two close family friends, one of whom, the late Syrian actor Yusuf Hanna, was like a second father to me.
Not wanting to face another such loss while abroad, I chose to get back to Syria and stay there so I can deal with whatever loss as it happens and be there for those who need me, in both body and spirit, and so that I can take in the loss as well. After all, the passing of my grandma was something that haunted me for many years, my mind kept on treating her as though she was still alive and waiting for me back in her old-style Damascene house hugging Mount Qasayoun.

But then, when my father passed away in 2004, and though I was there for him throughout all his final night on earth, it didn’t feel like I was really there at all, not for him anyway. The vacant look in his eyes should have told me that he was dying, and should have compelled me to stay next to him and chat with him about anything and everything, but it did not. I just checked on him every now and then, throughout that night, taking a small nap in between, and allowing myself to be fooled by the look of recognition in his eyes and the smile that got painted on his face each time I entered his room. He was dying, and I did not want to see it. To top it off, next day noon, I left his side and went to the office, leaving him to the loving care of my mother and Khawla. A couple of hours later I received a call from Khawla telling me that they need me back, I didn’t ask why. I didn’t think why. But I soon learned that my father had passed away. So, I wasn’t really there after all, was I?

Still, when I think of my father these days, and it’s only natural that I should think of him at this point in time, after all January 17 marks the anniversary of his passing (not to mention my anniversary with Khawla), I have no delusions that he is still alive – I know he is gone, I can feel the void. Is that what it means to be there, or almost there?

Perhaps indeed this is the best that can be achieved in the face of such loss. Which, somehow, means that I am now back to square one, having left Syria once again, no matter how involuntary.

This morning, there was another phone call and a brief announcement. A maternal aunt has passed away. Ghada Wassef, 55, a small time actress, diabetic, overweight, gregarious, life-embracing, people’s person, helpful, kind, definitely my favorite aunt, passed away in her sleep due to kidney failure. She had already been admitted to a hospital on the previous day for a sudden increase in blood sugar, a routine occurrence in her case, just as death is part of life’s daily routine, I guess.

And I wasn’t there for her, or for that increasingly lonely mother I left behind. This is another facet of exile with which I have to deal. I can never be there to anyone anymore. Not that being there was any help, to others that is.

I am one of thousands in this situation, I know, yet this knowledge does not matter in the least. My choices in life will continue to bedevil and haunt me, and everyone around me for the rest of my life, and perhaps beyond – an enduring legacy of pain and abandonment. When will they ever make a difference, I wonder, or at least begin haunting those who deserve to be thus haunted?

Will my choices in life ever be justified, or do I have to stumble on blindly to my last days hoping that the path, semi-chosen if not self-inflicted, is, somehow by some reasonable standard of decency, right?