Sunday, March 13, 2016

Three Funerals And A Wedding: On Love And Loss

The movie Four Weddings and a Funeral came out the year I graduated from college, and I distinctly remember wanting to jump through the screen and be transported directly into that world.  It was a place where somewhat awkward British singles were navigating the complex world of love and loss, all while attending lavish social occasions and overnighting in castles and pubs. This was Hugh Grant at his quirky, bumbling, finest- pre-Divine Brown self, surrounded by a group that blurred the lines between friends and family. It seemed, at the time, to be the perfect portrait of a group of ordinary people dealing with the extraordinary burden that can only come from genuine love and heartache.

Fast forward more than two decades and I am happily married to my very own floppy-haired dreamboat with no scandals that I'm aware of. We have three children we love, a large, loud, extended family that brings us immeasurable joy and just enough crazy to keep things interesting, and a circle of friends, both old and new, we can count on for both laughter and support. If I had to sum it up in movie terms, I'd say our life is My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Egyptian version meets Steel Magnolias, Midwestern Edition, with heavy notes of Toy Story drizzled on top.

But last week, my wish to dive into Four Weddings and a Funeral almost became a reality...just backwards. In one of life's stranger plot lines, I found myself having to attend three funerals and a wedding, all within the span of 5 days.

First, I heard of the passing of my friend's mother who had been quite ill for some time. Then, two days later, another friend's mother was laid to rest after a brave battle with Alzheimer's. The next day, I learned that a former colleague had lost his wife. I became fearful of even logging on to Facebook, since my newsfeed seemed to be stuck on heartbreak mode.

To say the week was a bit strange is like saying Gigli was a bit of a bummer. I'd spend a typical summer day with the kids, delivering them to swim practice, Vacation Bible School and the like, all scramble to get my own work done, and then quickly shed my "Mom uniform" of shorts and a tee for a simple black dress the minute my husband came home. As I headed out to watch two daughters, now moms themselves, say a final goodbye to their own mothers, my eyes filled with tears as my own little girl hugged me tightly and said, "Come right back, Mama."

In one of the most bizarre moments of the whole week, we actually stopped at the third funeral on the way to the wedding. Within the span of one hour, we witnessed one man promise to love, honor, and cherish until death do them part, and another one grieve that it had done just that. It was a circle of life that would leave even Mufasa, in all his Lion King glory, feeling dizzy.

As my husband and I sat, hand in hand, at the wedding, it occurred to me that I haven't actually been to a very many funerals in my life. My grandparents and other close relatives died overseas. My parents lost close friends as I was growing up, but the funerals were always adult affairs- not something often even discussed around kids.

I come from a culture that is very good at celebrating love. We LOVE love, as was evidenced by the 500+ people (an average-sized crowd for our peeps) that had gathered to eat, drink, and be very merry alongside the bride and groom. From heaping platters of food to live music and belly dancing, we are VERY good at weddings, not to mention engagements, bridal showers, baby showers, and random Thursday nights. But loss? That one we struggle with.

In recent years, I've been to funerals described as "Celebrations of Life." It's a difficult concept for me to understand, because when the cloud of grief descends over our community, everything grows dark. There is not a lot of laughter, or light, and certainly no celebration. In the funeral homes, there is often silence, punctuated only by weeping and fervent recitation of prayer. Widows and close family members of the deceased will traditionally wear all black for one full year after their loved one's passing, and sometimes for the rest of their lives. Perhaps when you love with every ounce of your being, the loss of that love leaves too deep a wound to ever close. But is there a way for love and loss to coexist?

The poet Rumi believed that sorrow and joy were deeply intertwined. He wrote, “Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”

I thought about that quote the day after the final credits rolled on Three Funerals and a Wedding. That morning, I attended church with my family, after which my youngest insisted we light a candle. I held his hand and together we dipped the long match into the flame of an already lit candle, and touched it to a new wick.

I watched his face light up as he saw it spring to life, the back-and-forth, in-and-out, flickering all reflected in his warm, brown eyes. It was like that instant your favorite movie comes to life on the big screen, or the moment it fades away.

The place where ever so briefly, light and darkness dance together.

Friday, March 11, 2016

My Dad, The Egyptian Astronaut

When I was five, I was relatively certain my dad could fly and was living a secret life as an astronaut.

Though he was a mild-mannered Egyptian immigrant who worked as a radiologist by day, around that time he began disappearing more frequently in the evenings and weekends. He claimed to be at the hospital, but on multiple occasions I overheard him tell my mom he was needed at "the satellite." Once I even caught him admitting how difficult it was to be "moonlighting." That's right- MY dad was in charge of illuminating the moon. No wonder he looked so tired in the morning! I searched his briefcase and car diligently for his space gear, but all I found were pamphlets about the hospital's expansion plans. 

But that's not all. On Sundays we'd gather with our extended family after church (even space travelers observed a day of rest), and I'd stand behind the living room door to eavesdrop on the adults locked in heated conversation. The words flew by in a blur of English and Arabic, and though I had no idea what a "visa" or "naturalization" was, you'd better believe I understood exactly what it meant when my dad mentioned "aliens." ALIENS! 

He didn't exactly fit the profile of an astronaut: he wasn't tall or muscular, he wore thick, horn-rimmed glasses, and had no flight experience aside from Pan Am's JFK-Cairo route. Still, there was no denying the mounting evidence. And clearly there was life on other planets- life with broken bones and herniated discs- because my dad was out there treating it. 

I was bursting at the seams to tell someone, anyone, about his forays into other galaxies, but I swore myself to secrecy. My only communication on the matter took place late at night when I'd sneak out of bed, gaze skyward, and bid him good night. 

Every morning, he somehow landed back in the kitchen, standing over the stove, brewing an extra strong cup of Turkish coffee with his typical serene gaze. I would simply nod, too afraid to speak, hoping to silently convey my admiration for his otherworldly exploits. 

Eight years ago my dad was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, a cruel twist of fate for a man who devoted his life to neurological science. In that time, I've watched his muscles slowly betray him, his movements become involuntary, and gravity imprison him in its grasp. But despite the pain and frustration I know he must feel, he's never once complained, never once questioned "Why me?" 

Today, I am 42, and as he looks at me with that same serene gaze from his wheelchair, I'm more certain than ever my dad can fly. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Thoughts On Tradition At Christmas

I think I was about eight years old when I first saw the musical "Fiddler on the Roof." Aside from being a classic production, it is my very first memory of a live theater experience. My dad, a big fan of the arts, had taken me on a special outing to Detroit's Fisher Theater, where I was awestruck before the show even began. Mesmerized by the the intricate tiled ceiling, the colorful murals, and the shimmering gold-plated walls, it was clear this was a place that held great things within its walls.

While no doubt the storyline resonated with my immigrant father, I was probably too young at the time to grasp the underlying issues: a father struggling to maintain his religious and cultural heritage as outside influences encroach upon the family's Orthodox life. But the show was still every bit as magical as I had anticipated. I held my breath with wonder as the dancers twirled by with their swirling peasant skirts. laughed as Tevye belted out "If I Were a Rich Man," teared up during "Sunrise, Sunset." I never wanted it to end.

But when it finally did and we walked out of that colorful, melodic world, one word repeated throughout the show, the one that is even the title of the opening song, echoed in my head: "Tradition!" I don't know that I could accurately define it at that age, but I could, and certainly did hum it, sing it, and reenact it on my canopy bed stage for months afterwards.

Tradition. It's a word I alternately embraced and shunned in the years to come, particularly during the holiday season. My parents, who left their home country a few years before I was born, walked the difficult path of assimilating into this new land while holding on to what they could from their past. That meant that like so many first generation children of immigrants, I grew up straddling two very different worlds. Never was this more apparent than at Christmas.

Let me be clear- it's not like my parents were unfamiliar with Christmas. Devout Orthodox Christians, each year they eagerly awaited the celebration of the Savior's birth in much the same solemn way their ancestors have done since about the middle of the first century.

But Christmas in America isn't just about Jesus' birthday; it also comes with a hefty hankering for hot cocoa and Bing Crosby, tales of flying wildlife, a spiral sliced Honeybaked ham, and a jolly albeit obese man who breaks into your home bearing gifts. That part, they struggled with. And so did I.

While my American friends were feasting on chocolates, gleefully singing carols, and making out their Christmas lists, we were observing the 40 day Nativity Fast, sacrificing all animal products in an attempt to temper bodily desires as well as worldly ones. Not only did we celebrate Christmas on the wrong day (January 7th according to the ancient Julian calendar), it felt like we celebrated it in the wrong way.

Don't get me wrong- when it came to gifts, we wanted for nothing at Christmas or any other time of the year. My parents were, and continue to be, beyond generous, with presents piled higher than the tree. But the things I wanted most at the time, they simply weren't able to provide.

I craved holiday songs from yesteryear, not hymns from centuries past.

I longed for heirloom ornaments passed down from generations.

I hungered for Santa-shaped cookie cutters and sugar cookie dough, not flaky phyllo pastry and pistachios.

I thirsted for mugs of eggnog, even though I hated the taste.

In short, I wanted traditions we didn't have, and rejected the ones we did.

Mostly, I just wanted Christmas to be over so I wouldn't feel quite so different.

It's taken me decades, and the experience of raising my own family, one additional generation removed from the Motherland, to reconcile these feelings and weave them into what's become the  patchwork quilt of traditions and culture I now pull close around my heart. Because now I see things differently.

I see a stream of refugees fleeing their homeland, making that painful, arduous march toward a new life, and realize how incredibly brave it is to leave all you have and all you know behind.

I see hatred and fear rising all around us, and I recognize that we are called to be simultaneously stronger and gentler than the voices of intolerance and ignorance, both with ourselves and with others.

I see that what makes us different is what makes

And I see that our most powerful tradition arrived in a form many rejected: a humble infant, offering love and hope to all.

So now I sit back and watch as my boys decorate their Egyptian parents' Christmas tree, gently lifting out the ornaments that have become heirlooms. I place my hands over my daughters' as we roll out cookies each year, both in late December and again in early January. I watch my husband in the candlelit glow of a golden sanctuary filled with icons, singing hymns of praise in a language he does not speak.

I look at my family and see bits of the past and hope for the future, and I know that tradition isn't about recipes or objects or any one particular time of year.

It's about keeping the light alive.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Dancing Through The Pain: Thoughts on Coping With A Loved One's Illness

I can't say that I've ever been a big fan of Mondays.

Sure, sometimes Mondays are a bit of a relief- a respite from the craziness that more than 48 solid hours of sports events, social activities, church, family, and general togetherness can bring. And as someone who works from home, by Monday morning I desperately need everyone to vacate my "office."

But like a bad airplane flight, the reentry into the work/school week is never without a little bit of turbulence. No matter how smoothly you sail through the friendly weekend skies, come Monday morning you'd better fasten your seatbelt because things are about to get bumpy.

After using the jaws of life to separate child from mattress, Monday mornings will typically bring spilled milk (and the inevitable albeit useless tears), runaway permission slips, phantom homework assignments, and/or...Surprise!...3-hour conference calls that magically appear on your schedule.

As if Mondays aren't difficult enough, they also happen to be the one day of the week when we have simultaneously overlapping child activities, resulting in a life-sized version of Parental Taxi Twister: Put your right hand on cross country practice at the park, your left foot on dance class across town, now just contort your entire upper body into a lovely pretzel shape as you streeeettttccchhh your left hand over to the crockpot to make sure everyone somehow gets fed. Now grab the spinner and see what homework awaits should you ever get out of traction. By the time chores and baths are done on Monday night, I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry, and I usually lack the strength to do either. Everything about the day leaves me feeling drained, constrained, and often, pained.

But my daughter, on the other hand- she LOVES Mondays, and not just because she's six years old and first grade is pretty much the best thing to ever happen since...well, kindergarten.

For her, school is just the appetizer to Monday's deliciousness. The main course is served at 5:30pm, when she has ballet. Every week at the appointed time, I marvel as my shy little flower is totally transformed, shedding all her normal inhibitions and putting on some kind of invisible coat of armor along with her leotard and tights. For one perfect hour, I watch her blissfully twirl and swirl across the room, and I wonder what it's like to feel so free.

I wonder if my dad, whose movements are no longer his own, remembers what that's like. Do his muscles, now ravaged by disease, hold deep within them the memories of carefree walks on the beach? Do his limbs, now subject to spasms and tremors and forced into a wheelchair's submission, ache to be stretched and glide on their own?

I wonder if I could twirl fast enough or leap high enough to escape my own sadness over his plight, or my guilt of not being able to make everything better.

I wonder how to shield my little girl from the sheer heft of certain situations that can stop us from even leaving the ground when we try to leap.

I watch her spin and find it hard to imagine there was ever a time I moved through life with such joyful abandon, unburdened by the weight of life. Did I once whirl fearlessly through my days, never fearing what was around the corner?

Watching a parent suffer from a physically debilitating disease means learning to appreciate life in a different way. In the absence of movement, you must find the beauty and joy in stillness. It's always there, but sometimes, you can't help but wonder what it would be like to dance again.

A few months ago my daughter performed in her very first ballet recital. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon when she took to the stage, and through a miraculous combination of divine intervention and modern wheelchair transport service, her grandfather was there to see it.

As the house lights went down and the spotlight came up, the music started and I felt myself truly exhale for the first time in months. For that one brief hour, there were no thoughts of hospitals, therapists, wheelchairs, or medications. No dark, scary tunnels in the mind. No pain or suffering. There was only music and dancing. Lightness and light.

So now, when I start to feel myself sinking deep into a case of the Mondays, that's where I go: to a place filled with movement and freedom. A place where we soar and we leap. A place not bound by gravity or any other worldly force. A place where the dance never ends.

And I know I'm not alone. As she slides her tiny feet out of her pink slippers at the end of class my little ballerina looks at me with sad, tear-filled eyes.

"Mama, I don't like it when it's time to stop dancing," she says.

Then I see a twinkle in her eyes as she leans in close and whispers in my ear.

"That's why I dance in my dreams."

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Letter Of Thanks To My Youngest Son's Blanket

Dear Blankie,

I'm sorry to wake you- I know you've had a rough few nights, between the whole "Monsters In The Closet" thing and that emergency 3am wash cycle (I blame both the monsters in the closet and the extra glass of lemonade at dinner), but given that it is the season for giving thanks, I just wanted to take a few minutes to let you know how very thankful I am for you.

I know, some may find it strange that I'm expressing my gratitude for an inanimate, ragged bundle of cotton and thread, but it's really no exaggeration to say you are part of the family. After all, for the past several years, anywhere we go, you go, kind of like a fourth child. A very quiet, well-behaved, fourth child with a blessedly small appetite.

And like most children at the bottom of the totem pole, the trickle-down parenting effect has not always been kind to you. I'm embarrassed to admit I don't even know where you came from. And I have no idea how or when you became so important to our youngest son (aka, Little Linus). But alas, here we are, the two of you intertwined in his bed in a tangle of limbs and cotton, and me watching with awe (and maybe just the tiniest bit of jealousy) at the bond you share.

I just want you to know that while I might be a little sketchy on some of the details of your life, and you may feel like you're invisible at times, rest assured that I see you and I am fully aware of the role you play in all of our lives.

After all, you're the first thing he looks for in the morning and the last thing he asks for before bed. You join us for meals (occasionally transforming into a napkin), accompany us on vacations (the ultimate travel pillow), and wiggle your way into family pictures across the globe (can you say photobomb?).

I'll never forget your first day of preschool (nice work hiding in little man's backpack), and how encouraging you were when a certain someone needed one last nuzzle to get him through the door.

Remember that time our guy woke up and declared it to be your 684th birthday? I hope you enjoyed the party, and I have to say, we should all look so good at your age.

And who could forget the Week of the Flu? You experienced such unspeakable horror during that stretch, yet you never failed to show up for duty, working day and night under brutal conditions, pausing only for trips to the wash. And trust me- as a mom, there are few chores more odious than the load of laundry which separates boy from blanket. It's up there with separating toilet from pee stains.

As long as we are speaking of the unspeakable, you've been such a source of comfort at the doctor's office over the years that I really think you might want to consider a career in medicine.

So from every fiber of my being, to every fiber of your...fibers, I offer you my thanks. Because while I'd like to think that there's a little bit of me sewn into you, when you get right down to it, you are everything I strive to be.

You stay soft and pliable even when I am hard.

You offer comfort when I cannot.

You take the night shift- no questions asked, and still wake up ready for the day.

You are best friend and trusted confidante, never judgmental or sharp-tongued.

You dry tears and calm fears.

One minute a cape, the next a parachute, you are endlessly entertaining and literally his soft place to land.

With the threadbare spots where you've been rubbed raw, your holes, and your many bumps and lumps, you remind me that love is never perfect, often messy, and rarely in the package we expect.

Now with kindergarten right around the corner, I know you might be worried about the future and what's to come. I wish I could say that your fears aren't valid, but you and I both know what eventually happens to even the most cherished toys, stuffed animals, and lovies as the kids grow older. Remember Toy Story 3? (How could you forget? I'm pretty sure we've sobbed through it together on the couch...about a dozen times).

But Blankie, you have my word: I am not going to let that happen- there will be no box in the attic or bag at the cub for you. After all you've done for us, after all you've been for us, it's my turn to offer YOU protection and comfort. Consider this my...well, my blanket statement: when that day comes that little man no longer clings to you, I promise to pick up where he leaves off.

I will keep you safe and cherish you, and on tough days (translation: the teenage years), when harsh words begin to fly I will rest my head on you and hear the faint echo of toddler belly laughs.

When attitudes harden I will rub your fluffy fleece and remember that there is a soft spot inside all of us.

And in those stinkiest of times, I will hold you close and inhale that magical, mystical, sweet-smelling scent that is the very essence of childhood.

For all the years you've warmed my child from the outside in and given him the strength and security to grow, I just want you to know that no matter what happens, this time I've got YOU covered.

A grateful mom

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Thoughts On Counting And The Syrian Crisis

My youngest child is obsessed with counting. He counts everything he sees: school buses in the morning, ants on the sidewalk in the afternoon sun, peas on his plate at dinner. But most of the time, he just counts for the sake of counting, a look of deep concentration on his face as he works to build sequence out of chaos. If not for his enormous mop of curly brown hair, you could surely see the neurons firing in his brain.

He doesn't want my help counting, just the occasional course correction. "Sixty-eight, Sixty-nine, sixty-ten. Sixty-ten, Mama?" he'll call out, knowing that something just isn't right about that.

"SEVENTY," I'll tell him, and then he's back on track for at least another nine numbers.

He's a typical preschooler: curious and charming, caught between equally strong desires to do it all himself and to be coddled like a baby. And as I sit and listen to the numbers pour out of him, I can't help but see another little boy who didn't get to count nearly high enough.

The photos of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian refugee whose body washed ashore last week, have haunted me, not just because I see my own children in him, but because I see myself.

My parents also crossed an ocean, fleeing religious persecution in their homeland, leaving family, friends, and all things familiar. While my mother, still just a newlywed, didn't hold me in her arms on that boat trip as Aylan's mom did, I have no doubt she held the very idea of her future children tightly in her heart as she left everything and everyone she knew behind.

Aylan's grief-stricken father says his wife clung to her baby boy, as any mother would, but when the boat capsized, he slipped out. But the truth is, that child didn't just slip though his mother's arms- he slipped through all of ours.

We live in a world where we fiercely debate budget deficits and debt crises, we talk at great length about border security and immigration policy, and then we sit back and lob nasty comments at each other from the comfort of our computer screens. And as we do so, dead children are washing up on beaches.

The Syrian crisis has raged for four years now. Hundreds of thousands of migrants have fled by whatever means possible, some walking for days, even months, only to be turned away. An estimated 2600 people have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean this year alone, making it the most deadly migrant crossing in the world. How many more mothers will cling to their babies on rough seas as they pack into overcrowded boats? How many more families will undertake treacherous journeys in the hopes of finding safety, only to end in tragedy? You'd think as a human race we'd understand at this point that there is a very real cost to inaction, one that leaves a blemish on all of our souls.

The Bible is pretty clear on what to do in situations like this: "When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself." (Leviticus 19:34). I'm not suggesting the specifics of immigration policy will be found in ancient text, but the underlying principles certainly are.

Aylan's life measured in years only numbered 1, 2, and 3. But I hope that one day we'll look back on his death and see that it was a turning point for the world in terms of compassion, empathy, and action.

We can't give Aylan more numbers, but we can make his life count.

Click here for more information about six organizations that are actively working to help the Syrian refugees. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Rock, A Mess, And A Back To School Wish

While he did not inherit my hair color, eye color, or complexion, my oldest son definitely got my early morning tendencies. But while I require some silent, solo time with a cup of coffee and a 4-mile run to ease into the day, he jumps right in with a splashy cannonball, needing to immediately vocalize every thought that popped into his head overnight.

In the spirit of compromise and an effort to preserve my sanity, we've made a deal that no matter what time he gets up, he has to stay in his room until 7am. You can more or less set your watch to the opening of his door, except on days where he is absolutely exhausted, in which case he has been known to snooze all the way to 7:03.

This summer we've fallen into a pretty blissful morning routine: he gets up, makes himself breakfast if I'm still exercising, and then we read some Harry Potter together on the couch. When my post-workout stink becomes unbearable, I head up to shower and he heads to the playroom to find an art project to work on until his younger siblings wake up.

Unfortunately, he also inherited my complete and total lack of any artistic ability.

Left: "Giraffe" by Mona Shand, circa 1979; Right: "Zebra" by Noah Shand, 2013

But I give the kid props: he's completely undeterred by this fact, and has spent a good portion of the making crafts. He now knows how to navigate Pinterest and search for things like "Easy Construction Paper Projects" or "Things To Do With Popsicle Sticks," which are of course cross-referenced under "Stuff Moms Throw Out When Kids Are Not Looking."

One day during this penultimate summer week, it was rock painting that he settled on. I consider it a sign of my love, confidence, and deep-seeded trust in him that I left him alone downstairs with what many consider to be a weapon of mass domestic destruction: glitter glue.

20 minutes later, I came back down to find a rock covered in globs of glitter and a very proud 8-year-old. "It has a secret message written on it!" he said excitedly, as I squinted to decipher the shiny streaks. Maybe it was in cursive? Or Mandarin? Or cursive Mandarin? Not wanting to heap false praise upon the thing, I told him it was an interesting use of color.

But 5 minutes later his glee had turned to dismay; it seems in attempting to move the rock, he had smudged his work beyond repair. "IT'S RUINED! IT'S A BIG GIANT MESS!!!" he wailed. Unsure of how to respond (and trying not to burn the pancakes), I kept my mouth shut and left him to deal with his artistic crisis on his own.

A few minutes passed and he came back, even more proud than before, the smudged streaks all gone, the entire surface of the rock now shining and shimmering in the light.

"Hey mom- check it out: I turned my mess into something great!" he said, and then bolted up the stairs, leaving me with the rock.

I keep hearing about how kids today lack resilience, how they are coddled and cuddled to the point where they feel entitled to success, and are utterly unprepared for the inevitable failures that come with being human. They hashtag all day long about the struggle being real, but the fact is, too few have actually done much in the way of struggling, or reaping the benefits of that fight.

I find it terrifying.

I watched the sunlight dance across the different colors on that rock and it reminded me of so many hopes I have for my kids: that they will grow to be strong and grounded; that they may find beauty where others see none; that they will learn to shine on their own, and not look to anyone else to light them up; that they will realize that our greatest accomplishments often rise from our greatest mistakes.

And so while it may sound odd, but as my kids start this new school year I wish them success, but also failure.

I wish them happiness, but also difficulty.

I wish them luck, both good and bad.

I wish them messes that turn into something great.