When I told them about the opportunity, Aya said, "I want
to fly, Daddy." So I knew at least one of them was willing to
leave everything behind - our home, the uncles and aunts, the
cousins, the friends - and start over in a new country. Soon
the others also agreed: together we would go to Canada, not
forever, but for a while. The older girls, Bessan, 21, Dalal, 20,
and Shatha, 17, would attend the University of Toronto; the
younger children, Mayar, 15, Aya, 14, Mohammed, 13, Raffah,
10, and Abdullah, 6, would attend public school in Canada.
There would be many challenges: attending classes in English,
experiencing a Canadian winter, learning about a different
culture. But we would also be out of the constant tension of
Gaza; they'd be safe. These eight children had seemed to be
adrift, even in our home, without their mother. This change
would be good for them. Together, we would manage. I could
see the excitement on their faces, and I felt a renewed sense of
optimism for the first time in months. After the family discussion
ended and we had cleared away our meal, the kids were
eager to get to the beach. Fifteen of us, including the cousins
and uncles, followed the rutted path up a small hill and through
a meadow that led from the olive grove to the water. We walked
all together, our group changing shape every few yards as one
child ran ahead and two others stopped to examine an object
on the path; the three girls walking together became five, arms
linked. Eventually we all made it to the sand.
Despite the cool day, the children ran straight for the water,
where they swam and splashed each other for hours, taking
breaks to play in the sand. These children of mine - my
offspring, my progeny - were the joy of my life, and they had
meant the world to Nadia.
I had known Nadia's family before we were married in
1987, when she was twenty-four and I was thirty-two. It was
an arranged marriage, as is the custom in our culture, but of
the young women my family arranged for me to meet, Nadia
seemed the most suitable. She was a quiet, intelligent woman
who had studied to become a dental technician in Ramallah
on the West Bank. Our families rejoiced at our union but were
not as happy when we left Gaza almost immediately after
our marriage for Saudi Arabia, where I had been working as
a general practitioner. Nadia, too, felt the anxiety of dislocation.
Though Bessan and Dalal were born there, Nadia never
adjusted to living in Saudi Arabia, never felt that she belonged.
The customs were different from the ones we were used to, and
she keenly felt the separation from our extended family and
wanted to return home, which we eventually did in 1991.
I traveled a lot after we settled again in Gaza (to Africa and
Afghanistan for work and to Belgium and the United States
for more medical training), but Nadia stayed at home with the
children. We were a very traditional family, surrounded by my
brothers and their families, my mother, who lived next door,
and Nadia's mother and father, who lived nearby. Since I had
to be away quite often, both Nadia and I felt the need to be
close to other family members. She never complained about
my frequent absences during the twenty-two years we were
married. I could never have studied at Harvard or worked for
the World Health Organization in Kabul, Afghanistan, or even
done my obstetrics and gynecology residency in Israel, without
the support she gave me.
It seemed surreal that she was gone. I watched my children and
wondered what would become of them without their beloved
mother. How does anyone come to terms with this sort of pain?
In the weeks since Nadia had died, Bessan, our firstborn, my
oldest daughter, had assumed the role of mother as well as older
sister. It was a particular relief this day to see her dashing into
the sea, the surf soaking her jeans, her laughter carried away
on the wind. She was a remarkable girl, my Bessan. She was
on track to graduate from the Islamic University in Gaza at the
end of the academic year with a business degree. She seemed
to be able to handle everything: mothering the children, taking
care of the house, and getting high marks at school. Since her
mother had died, though, she began to see that exams were the
easiest part, that there were other, harsher realities. It was a lot
for a twenty-one-year-old to bear.
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