Father’s Day in the USA

First Father’s Day Without my Papa 

Since I can no longer express my love and appreciation for him directly to him, I’ll do it here.

The following poem epitomizes my father’s lifelong attitude, a guiding principle that he applied to his own life and taught to everyone he mentored. We made remembrance cards, with his photo on one side, and the poem on the other side, and gave them out at his funeral.


                 Don’t Quit         


 When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,

When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,

When the funds are low and the debts are high

And you want to smile but you have to sigh,

When care is pressing you down a bit

Rest, if you must, but don’t you quit.

Life is queer with its twists and turns,

As every one of us sometimes learns,

And many a failure turns about

When he might have won had he stuck it out;

Don’t give up though the pace seems slow–

You may succeed with another blow.

Success is failure turned inside out–

The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,

And you never can tell how close you are.

It may be near when it seems so far;

So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit–

It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.



Left Behind

The house is large, very large. My mom and I hear each other’s every movement,  sometimes each other’s breathing.  I never noticed echoes before, but now, dishes echo, books thud, floors sing under footsteps, and closing doors startle the senses.

Such is life, now that my father is gone.

My father has been the hub and focus of the family for nearly sixty years, and now, in his absence, he is still at the center of things, and we reluctantly reposition everything and everyone in the family to accomodate his loss. We still cry, Mom every day.

Everything reminds us of him, of course, and we feel as if he’s still with us, as if he’ll emerge from the bedroom every morning, happy, ready for coffee and newspaper, planning the activities of the day.

We know he’s gone forever, at least his body is gone– Allah alone knows about the rest– but we still feel him, see him just around the corner, hear his voice as he wonders what’s for dinner. His favorite after shave lotion is still sitting on the bathroom sink. Sometimes I smell it, just to bring him back, and then I cry.

Now that spring is here, and the leaves are emerging, I look outside and see him sitting on the patio late in the afternoon, contemplating nature, worrying about the kids, or simply resigning himself to the inevitable. Mom and I brought out the patio furniture two days ago, but I redistributed all of it in a new pattern. Mom didn’t object. The memory of him sitting is his chair is enough; we need not look at the empty chair in its usual position.

It’s as if we’ve been left behind. He is gone, to be sure, and gone where? He is, “…in Heaven with his Lord,” as my mom says, but I still worry about that sort of thing, being educated in the medical model of life, and lacking the depth of spirituality that gives certainty. Death of a loved one, however, is one way of reinforcing a belief in life after death, if not of Heaven itself,  because I cannot bear to think he is anywhere else right how.

So we are left behind. We’ll join him someday, and that thought gives us courage if not confidence, acceptance if not the eagerness of anticipation. After all, what does life prepare us for, if not for more life?

If Worry Could Fix Things…

One day last year, while my parents were vacationing, I ignored a leak from the bathroom on the second floor of their home. A day later, the leak exploded and drenched two walls of the kitchen downstairs. I developed a migraine rather promptly. When I told my father, he said, “Don’t worry. The walls can be fixed.”
I nearly cried from guilt and worry, and then he said, “If worrying could fix it, I’d encourage you to worry more.”

That was typical of my father’s gentle way of making things right. For all his harsh words and strict standards over the years, he’d always had a charming way of soothing something that seemed unbearable.

I recall the night Ginger, my pet hamster, died. I was ten years old, and we’d been out, shopping, perhaps, but when we returned, I remembered that I hadn’t fed my hamster that day.

I went into the basement, where I kept his cage, and found his furry body curled up in his favorite corner. He seemed asleep, but his back peaked with a rigidity I’d never seen before. I reached into the cage and grasped him gently, as usual, but his body was stiff and cold. I dropped him and screamed. My father heard the scream and started screaming himself. He thought I’d encountered a burglar or worse.

I ran upstairs and yelled, “Ginger is dead!” and then felt guilty for causing my father such a scare. He’d been watching TV in the living room.

I cried, and could not go to bed, so I sat on the sofa close to Papa. He put his arm around me, and told me about the night his father died. I don’t remember the details of the story, because I was so impressed with the fact that my father did not cry while he told it, even though I could see he was still sad after all those years.

I said to myself, “If Papa can bear the death of his father, I can bear the death of Ginger.” I also realized that someday I’d be in his position. Someday I’d have to bear my Papa’s death.

That thought caused me to cry again, nearly to the point of choking, and to snuggle into my father’s side as if to pin him there next to me forever. How would I be able to bear Papa’s death? My ten year old heart didn’t know.

I asked myself that question periodically over the next forty-seven years, and never learned the answer. My father died on March 9, 2008, at the age of eight-seven, and I still don’t know the answer. A part of me has died, but not the part that contained my father. That part lives in my heart and half my DNA. His spirit still speaks to me and to everyone else he touched, and there are many of us.

Now I worry that when I stop crying, he will die yet again. In the meantime, I will ask myself not to worry. If worrying could fix things, I’d encourage myself to worry more.


We Buried My Papa

29.jpg  My father died Sunday, March 9, 2008.  All five of we remaining family members had a say in funeral arrangements,  but because my father had been a prominent man in business, we had to consider the many visitors that would come from all over the area, even from different states.

We chose an elegant funeral home and an expensive casket, amidst comments of, “He deserves the best,” even as we knew that our choices made no difference in the world. We had lost him forever.

I did not want to enbalm. I think the procedure is brutal, bordering on mutilation. My family is Christian, though, so the decision to enbalm prevailed. I dreaded seeing his corpse all dressed up, face painted to look as though he were sleeping.  We were standing,  surrounding his bed when he took his last breath, and he did not look as though he were sleeping. 

In the casket, in fact, he did look as though he were sleeping,  with sculpted stillness. I touched his inert, icey hands, the same hands I used to hold when they were warm and soft, as he suffered the pain of metastatic bone cancer. I kissed his cheek, as I used to kiss him good-bye when one of us went out.  I touched his shell, the shell in which he lived, breathed, thought, laughed, worked, prayed, loved, grew old, wise, sick, and then died.   

When I first learned about the Islamic customs for burial, I thought they were sensible and respectful. Washing the body, wrapping, and burying in a simple, biodegradable container seemed so much more satisfying than enbalming or spending thousands of dollars on a magnificent casket.  

In Riyadh, I used to feel honored to take part in the janaza prayers following the fard prayers, in the mosque,  of deceased people I did not know. The Muslim customs remind us that we are all equal in death, and that we take nothing from this world to our appointment with Allah. Performing the short janaza prayers after the fard puts death into the context of life.

However, as the ceremonial activities for my father continued over two days, with several hundred visitors, three eulogies, a funeral procession that needed a police escort at every intersection, and a military bugler playing Taps over the flag draped coffin, I started to feel the spirit of the phrase “celebration of life” that now describes funeral rituals in America. 

Through my tears, I smiled, giving thanks to Allah for this wonderful man who was my father, mentor of men and women, teacher and leader, well-respected by all who knew him.  I thanked Allah for all the years we had my father. I thanked Allah for everything.  

I still believe in the Muslim burial customs, and plan to have them for myself.  For my father, however, we did the right thing.

Spaghetti on Sundays

113941918.jpg  (This is an essay I wrote last year, when I learned that my father would die of his illnesses. My father died Sunday, March 9, 2008, at the age of 87, with his family surrounding his bed.  It was the saddest day of my life.)

Spaghetti on Sundays

We called it spaghetti, back then, and we ate it every Sunday for the first twenty years of my life. No one called it pasta, not even the folks from Italy, who were accustomed to differentiating between the shapes. I’m sure my Grandma called it spaghetti because that was the only shape we used on Sundays. Other days of the week called for other shapes– farfalle, rigatoni, linguine, mostaccioli, penne, rigatoni, etc.

For me, going to church meant coming home to a most wonderful aroma of tomato sauce (Grandma called it “soog”) the likes of which I’ve never smelled outside our own kitchen. The sight of my father standing at the stove, apron smeared red, stove spotted and spoon poised, meant that everything was right with the world.

As a child, I honestly believed that the reason my father did not come with us to church was that he had to nurse the sauce. First, the meat had to be browned. Then the tomato products had to be evaluated by means of his experienced nose, tongue, and the resistance of the wooden spoon as he stirred. He needed to stand by, ready to add just a pinch more fennel, basil, oregano, salt, pepper, another bay leaf or tablespoon of paste. By the time we got home , his palate was exhausted, and he’d say, “Taste the sauce!” to whoever entered first.

We kids scrambled to enter first, knowing that we’d get to  grab a spoon, lift some sauce from the steaming pot, smell it, blow off the steam, and roll it around over the tongue as the  flavor registered before announcing, “It’s perfect!”

Sometimes that wasn’t good enough for Papa. “Does it need more salt?” or “Just a little more wine?” he’d ask. Another taste was in order, and another taster.

My father is eighty-six now and still makes the sauce.  As the oldest girl, I haven’t learned how to make it yet, not from lack of opportunity but from reluctance.  To make the sauce would somehow usurp Papa’s authority, his proper position as head of the family and beloved provider.  To make the sauce would mean that someday he’d not be able to do it himself. As long as I do not know how to make the sauce, he cannot die.