Today, and to my own surprise, I stopped by the Barnes & Noble on Court Street; it was Baba’s favorite for some reason. He always had an affinity for Brooklyn and its Arab-filled neighborhoods. On my way home from work, the navigation’s recalculations led me away from the BQE’s traffic and right onto Atlantic Avenue.
There was something about seeing the Arabic writings on store fronts. It triggered childhood memories of walking up and down the avenue with Baba from store to mosque to car. Baba liked the mosque there, and its imam.
Everything slowed down, and the memories kept on coming one after the other. I saw my parents running to the car with bags of halal groceries on a rainy Ramadan night—long-gone memories, locked away with many others. They were buried one by one as I grew in years.
I had to stop the car. I couldn’t breathe. I needed to fill my lungs with cold air. It felt like death in the car—a feeling I would have welcomed not too long ago—and I had to stop, for everyone’s safety. I did it for Adam.
I got out of the car and walked around until I found myself purchasing a journal. I felt the urge to jot down those memories—they felt like a long-lost treasure. I spent much of my life running away from the family, and in doing so, I erased a lot of the memories. They returned, and I don’t want to lose them, ever again. They were full of love and warmth; they were full of Baba.
I never had the desire to write anything before. I am not one to share my secrets with anyone, and definitely not on paper where others can read it. I didn’t invest in a fancy journal; I opted for the most basic one, neon green and white.
I don’t know if it was the color that caught my eyes—since green is for go in traffic lights, I felt like it was my green light to unravel on paper. It seemed like the universe was leading me to this notebook. My watch read 7:11 p.m. and the date was 11/11, which according to Asmaa is a great number because it is her birthday. I thought about buying her something, but I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to celebrate birthdays with a death in the family just three days ago.
I also needed a place to put Baba’s letter, which had been in the glove compartment for two days. It needed a better and warmer home.
I don’t even know what I am supposed to write, or how to write a journal entry. Must I address the journal every time I put pen to paper?
It has been three days since Baba passed, and I really don’t know what to do with the pain, anger, regret, and whirlpool of other emotions that I can’t contain any longer.
Baba has, supposedly, trained me for this day, to be the man of the family.
Am I allowed to break down at my age? Am I allowed to cry out of nowhere because I remember that I can no longer hug my baba? Seriously, what is the etiquette of the mourning process? I don’t think I can burden anyone but lines on a paper with my scrambled thoughts. A journal seems like a good place to do so—after all, green is good, green is Mother Nature, green is heaven. Maybe I will find some heavenly solace in writing, since it seems like everyone else loves writing letters right before their death.
Why didn’t he tell me to my face everything he wrote?
Why did I have to find out this way?
Why couldn’t he confront me all those years?
When did he find out?
Why couldn’t he say something the last hours I spent with him in the hospital?
I sat there by his bedside the whole time as he talked about everything else but the one thing we both hid for so long. He spent his last waking hours telling me to take care of everyone else and listing all the things that should be done in case of his death. He knew he was dying. Mama knew he was dying—I saw it in the way she held and kissed him before she went home to rest. I knew my worst nightmare was about to unfold.
But why did he waste his last few breaths on telling me where he wanted to be buried and what he should be buried in?
I already knew all of this. I knew he wanted to be buried in New York, close to us, I knew he wanted to be buried in the same ihram cloth he wore to hajj. He even included all of that in his will. He could have talked to me like he used to when I was a little kid, he could have hinted or something. It would have been so much better to hear those words uttered by him rather than reading them in a letter from a lawyer.
I’ve never felt this lost and empty before. I have been running away from him all these years and avoiding any confrontation when all I wanted to do was run into his arms like I did when I was a child.
I feel like a total idiot for hiding all this time, but I didn’t want to disappoint him. I didn’t want to hurt him, the one man who has been there for me, within his capacity, every step of the way since my birth.
I always thought it was better to keep some things hidden from him, but why didn’t he tell me that he knew? Why didn’t he say something before it was too late?
Or did he try, and I didn’t pay attention? Or maybe he couldn’t try.
Maybe, he didn’t know how to do it.
In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful
If you are reading this letter, it means only one thing: that I have passed from this world and moved on to the next. I am sorry that I couldn’t keep my promise to always be there for you, but that is just the way life works—nothing lasts forever.
I am positive that I have not written a letter of such significance since I won your mother’s heart ages ago. Therefore, you must pardon my poor attempt to write you a heartfelt letter at a time like this. After all, I am only a surgeon.
As a surgeon, I delivered tragic news more times than I would have liked. My line of work somewhat desensitized me to death, which I learned to accept as an integral part of life’s cycle. Delivering such news to any of my patients and their families was the worst part of the job. Telling someone that their heart would expire in a few months exposed me to the vulnerability of human existence. I witnessed those who fell into the traps of depression upon receiving the news. I also experienced those who welcomed it, decided to accept the challenge, and marveled in the beauty of life. The latter taught me a great lesson; it taught me to appreciate every second I was given with my loved ones, doing the things I love.
With all the discoveries we made over the centuries that allowed us to control nearly every variable in life, we never came close to controlling the end of life. We, as scientists and doctors, try to prolong it, but we can’t alter el maktoob. Our moment of departure was written long ago, and we all must depart upon reaching the end of our book.
Do you remember when you came to Egypt a few years ago and I was in the hospital?
I knew back then of the severity of my condition as I came to. I knew that my days with you and the family would be cut short. I became one of my own patients who had an expiration date.
Writing this letter is taking me back to the moment when I saw the worry on your face. It was the look I saw many times on the faces of families who would do just about anything to appease their loved ones in their moment of weakness. It was a look of pure unconditional love. It also made me think of how selfish I was then. I made you do things that I thought would make me happy. I was not thinking of your happiness. It was not fair of me to push you into doing things against your own will, knowing that you wouldn’t refuse your dying father’s wish.
Yes, Habibi, that was the reason I made my wish right there and then. The urgency of the condition called for extreme action. It triggered every fear a parent feels for a child from the moment we are informed of the pregnancy. It is something which I am sure you felt when you heard of your own son’s arrival. As a parent, you will find yourself worrying about the smallest of details. You will think of all the ways to protect that little piece of you from the world. We go above and beyond to protect our own offspring from external factors, but we forget to protect them from ourselves.
And in our case, it is very true. I tried to do right by you, and in doing so, I failed you.
Like my father before me, I thought I knew what was best for you. I failed you when I didn’t accept you for who you are and the choices you make. I imposed my own choices on you, knowing very well that you would comply. I didn’t trust you to make the right choices for yourself. It is never an easy task for a parent to admit fault to their own kids, it rarely happens. Yet here I am admitting mine in hopes that you can forgive me. I was wrong when I found out about your biggest struggle in life and didn’t broach the subject with you. I wanted to fix your broken pieces, but I wasn’t there for you as a father or as the friend I promised myself to be. I guess it is right what Egyptians say: When your son gets older, treat him like a brother. I didn’t do that.
I failed you in life, and I refuse to do so in death. I know the last few years were rough, and we kept some distance between us—a distance which was an act of love, respect, and fear. I feared losing you to many things, but I never thought I would lose you because of life choices. I didn’t want things between us to have the same fate as they did many years ago with my father. I knew of your struggles ever since Nora passed; I knew of your relationship with her. I knew many things, but I didn’t have a clue how to deal with the whole situation. I didn’t know how to be there for you without losing you. I let my own views and beliefs come between us. In my mind, you were wrong. You were at fault for everything that unfolded then. I was ashamed, angry, hurt, and confused. I let all of that stop me from being there for you when you needed me most, and I am truly sorry. I just didn’t know how to react to any of it. I couldn’t believe that my only son, dear to me above all else, would be the cause of the deepest of wounds to my heart. I did attempt a few times to approach you, but I failed miserably. I let my pride and cultural barriers stand between us every time.
I know that I made you do things against your will, because I knew how much you cared for your mother and for me. I knew that you would do anything to placate us; I knew that you would do anything to keep your secret safe. I knew which buttons to press to get you to do the things I wanted you to do. I just knew you too well, and I want to say I am sorry for each and every time I forced you to do something against your will. I wish I can take it all back. I wish I could do it all over again and be there for you every step of the way as a supportive friend rather than a father who did nothing while his only son was hurting the most.
It is a parent’s duty to provide the kids with a safe and loving environment where they can openly express their thoughts, emotions, and fears. It was a duty that I unsuccessfully fulfilled. You didn’t feel safe talking to me, just as your sister didn’t in her time of trouble. In case you are wondering if I wrote Asmaa a letter too, the answer is no. I didn’t write her one. Asmaa and I made amends years ago. She was the one who pushed for a closure. She never appreciated the fact that I exiled the two of you to solve the conundrum we faced. She demanded both my forgiveness for her wrongdoing, and an apology for my own wrongdoing.
I did as I was programmed to do. I did my best to shelter my kids. I thought controlling them would keep them safe. Like most parents, I spent my time telling you and your sisters what to do or not to do. I tried to pass my knowledge on to you. I think we are the only creatures who try to control their own offspring. I can’t imagine a bird doing more than providing a nest, food, and flying lessons to its young. I can’t imagine a bird, or any other animal for that matter, forcing their young to marry a lighter-color bird instead of a darker one. Animals teach their offspring the basic survival skills then set them free to learn through trial and error. You will never see a bird carrying its young on its back to teach it how to fly. A cat gives its kittens a nudge to help them stand, and that is all. Yet we push our babies in carriages until they are five years old.
In a way, I think we cripple ourselves. There was a time when kids weren’t so sheltered. With indigenous tribes and their rite-of-passage celebrations, the young are welcomed as functional members of the tribe at a much earlier age. In our modern society, we don’t trust our young until they are well into their 20s. We overload them with cultural and religious rules, and we add some more legal rules to mold them into something out of a catalogue. We are told to be unique and free, but we are taught to fit in.
I know that I taught you much throughout your life, but you managed somehow to teach me the ultimate lesson of my life. You taught me how to love someone unconditionally. Yes, Osama, you taught me that lesson, but I was never able to express it or show it in the way you might have wanted me to. I hope that you can find it in that big heart of yours to forgive me for failing to give and show you my unconditional love and support. I hope that you can forgive me for making you do things that I saw as best for you but, in reality, were only to satisfy my selfish desire to turn you into what I wanted you to be, rather than giving you the tools to be you.
Last, but not least, I want you to know that I always loved you, from the moment the doctor placed you in my arms and I welcomed you into this world, to the moment my body is lowered into the ground. I also want you to know that I was always proud of you and your accomplishments. I am proud of the man you turned out to be. I hope that one day your son makes you as proud as you made me. I hope that he loves you just as much as you love me. Teach him everything you know, teach him everything I once taught you, and let him fly high and soar freely.
I love you,