Losing A Loved One: Reflections 18 Years On

It was the first time I’d ever seen my father cry. In retrospect, it was the only time. I remember it vividly: on a late Thursday night the first week of the year, Dad pulled into the driveway and tucked the Grand Prix inside the garage. I rushed to meet him, anxiety gnawing at my mind. He was sobbing, and an exchange of glances confirmed the worst. Grandpa hadn’t made it.

January 8, 1998, is the first date I’ve ever committed to memory. I was a mere adolescent at the time, a student in the 7th grade and an avid journalist for the school paper. I’d earned an infallible reputation in my computer class and was one of the few who knew her way around the book selection on Amazon.com. (At the time, Amazon was exclusively a purveyor of books.)

Grandpa Habib had strongly encouraged my scholastic endeavors. He would call me “amoura” (Arabic for “sweetheart”) and “Princess Beit Issa” (princess of the Issa clan). We visited him frequently at his house on Palos Drive in the Arlington district of Riverside. My aunt, his caretaker, was austere about what he ate and how much repose he got.

He was especially fond of my mother’s kibbeh bil saniyeh, which she made every Saturday when he came to visit us. At home, my aunt fed him mercy meals, like boiled chicken, home-churned yogurt (Laban), raw garlic, and vegetable stews devoid of seasoning. No wonder he adored Mom’s Lebanese meatloaf.

I’d only known him to walk very deliberately with a wooden cane. He wore an LA Dodgers baseball cap to keep his patchy head warm, and his oversized glasses sat precariously on the bridge of his nose. We’d amble over to hug him as soon as he settled into his designated spot in the living room.

A sketch of the armchair where Grandpa liked to sit

Sometimes he’d evoke memories of yore that made little sense to us kids. My dad would try to steer the conversation back to the present, at which Grandpa would don his wide grin, as if in admission of mischief.

His wife, my grandmother Rachel, had passed away in 1990, and my recollection of her is hazy. I remember the armchair where she’d plant herself in their home, peering out over the room as any Lebanese matriarch is wont to do. I remember the warm bran pita bread she’d bake herself and offer us whenever we visited. 

Photo credit: www.thelittleloaf.com

She’d beckon my mother to slice up the apples invariably resting on the kitchen table and feed them to us. On my third birthday, Grandma gifted me a pair of leather, camel-color Mary Janes, which somehow after all these years remain crystal clear in my remembrance.

My paternal grandparents didn’t live to see me graduate from high school. They weren’t there as I hesitated between which field of study to exact, or whether Boston and later Paris would be excessively far from home to pursue higher education. I’m not certain how they would have taken my move to the motherland, a country they’d abandoned during its heyday to be close to their children who’d immigrated to Southern California.

What I am certain of, however, is that they’re smiling down upon me from their heavenly perch. Princess Beit Issa inherited their unshakeable faith, and today she carries on their humble quest for whatever worldly happiness exists.


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