I'm very fortunate to have witnessed one of the greatest love stories of all time, a story told with devotion for over half of a century: my parents'. I grew up watching my father sparkle whenever my mother was in the room. He was in constant awe of her, whether she was rolling enough grape leaves to fill a whole pressure cooker or dazzling onlookers as she danced the Charleston at a party.
After immigrating to Detroit in the late 1960's from Syria, they built a dry cleaning and laundry business together (which was not an easy task). They worked hard and always had a deep appreciation for what the other brought to the table. While I was getting Americanized and rebelling against everything Syrian, I always knew that my parents would be together forever. They had sacrificed everything they'd been accustomed to back in Syria in order for us to live in the United States and have the things they'd dreamed of. After decades of marriage, they still flirted with each other and held hands. Sometimes, I would hear my mom slapping my dad's hands playfully as he tried to fool around with her in the kitchen.
When my mom was diagnosed with cancer in 1985, my father was wrecked. He fought every battle with her like a warrior, taking her to chemo appointments, blood transfusions and radiation treatments, always with words of hope brimming from his lips, but a deep sadness in his eyes. For eight years they surged forward into new and uncharted territories as one, taking on every revolutionary cancer-fighting procedure that was suggested by her oncologist. They also traveled the world trying to drink every moment that was still available to them in between treatments when she felt well enough to travel.
On Thanksgiving Day, 1993, they both lost the war, and my mom passed away. It's safe to say that my siblings and I were concerned about our father, as he was ten years older than she was, and at the age of 73, he was debilitated by the loss. He had long been retired, so there wasn't even a job to keep him busy. He had spent the last several years dedicated to the cause of making her well, so now, with nothing to do, and the love of his life of 46 years gone, he was extremely depressed. For months, he couldn't leave the house. Her clothes, jewelry, perfume and toiletries couldn't be touched or moved, even her side of the bed stayed as it was, with a rosary and an old distressed card of the Virgin Mary lying on her pillow, which was covered by that old, orange, embroidered blanket.
As painful as it was for all of us to have lost our mom, watching our dad's complete departure from a life worth living was unbearable. He started having some physical problems, so we took him to the doctor, who ended up prescribing him Zoloft to relieve him from this phase of depression. I wish I could say that I was helpful with this process, but I was living in New York at the time, dealing with my own demons, and the loss of my mom had only aggravated them and landed me in places that don't belong in this story (drugs, jails, institutions, and living on the streets). My brothers and sister dealt with the brunt of my dad's well-being (or lack thereof), and I would get bits and pieces of his heart aching story. The Zoloft did help; it got him through until he was at least able to start socializing and taking interest in his kids and grandkids. I would hear tidbits from my sister; that he was going to travel again and visit his older brother (my uncle Ghattas) in Brazil. This gave me hope that my dad was climbing out of his cavernous depression. I knew that Brazil held wonderful memories for him with my mom. I'd seen many happy photographs and heard stories of them in Sao Paulo and Rio. My mom boasting about the delicious Feijoada and huge Churrasco restaurants, then always going upstairs to bring out the necklace with gemstones that my father bought for her while they were there. I also knew what a positive influence my gentle and persuasive uncle would have on my dad, and if anyone could snap him into shape and blow some life back into him, it would be my uncle Ghattas.
When my dad returned from Brazil, he seemed lighter. I could see the smile that once melted hearts, fighting to find its way home through the new lines that now tread his face. He was shaving again, and wearing his dapper sweater-shirt-tie combo's. He even allowed my sister to go through mom's closet and clean things out, and delicately re-arrange the left side of their king sized bed so as to keep it fresh and not disturb his memory of it too badly.
My father took another trip to our homeland, Syria, a few months later, and when he came home, announced that he was getting remarried. I was shocked and angry that my father would do that. After all, there was no other woman for him but my mother. It had been all about her from the beginning to the end, the love of his life, and how could he replace her? I was instantly against it and made sure that my siblings knew my position. But after talking to my sister for quite some time, I realized that it didn't matter what I thought, this was a marriage of convenience for my father, and that I had no right to argue.
My father remarried and brought his wife to live in the house that I grew up in. It was a strange phenomenon to go home to visit and see another woman cooking in the kitchen, and putting photographs up of their travels. I didn't like it at all, but I had to remember, this was his life, his choice, and I could respect that as I'd fought hard enough for my own choices.
I was clean and living a healthy life by that time, and it seemed to me that he was happy. I didn't want to believe it to be true, but he was. All of his needs were taken care of, and he had good company and someone to talk to and share his life with. The concept of him loving another woman took a long time to sink in, but love is love, and he was content. I guess it doesn't always have to be that earth-shattering, chemically mind and body-altering, over-indulgent love. It can be a quiet, safe, utilitarian, plain and comfortable kind of love that doesn't shake you to the core, but makes you appreciate your companion on a daily basis. This is what my dad had at the end of his life: Someone who was took care of him the way my mom would have wanted.
Mom and dad