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.

*This essay was awarded Honorable Mention in the 2016 Erma Bombeck Writing Contest, an honor the author dedicates to her superhero father. 

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.