Telling Our Stories

As I finish up my Master’s thesis on Palestinian diary writing in the West Bank and Gaza, I reflect upon the topic of loss. The Palestinian diary writers whom I have studied, Raja Shehadeh, Suad Amiry, Muna Hamzeh, Jamil Hilal, Laila El-Haddad, and Atif Abu Sayf, spotlight the period between the Gulf War and the 2014 massacres in Gaza in order to preserve their memories under occupation and siege, and advance demands for human rights. Their intrepid acts of everyday chronicling and survival inspire me to write my own story.

From a young age, I shared my father’s love for reading and writing and admired his talent as a true bibliophile. We engaged in rich conversations on topics ranging from philosophy to politics, which influenced me to learn how to write and compose arguments. Although my father found a career in Information Technology, his first Master’s degree was in English literature. He would have preferred to spend his days reading and discussing novels, as the business world’s bureaucracy and uniformity were ill suited for his creative mind. Years later, he began attending night classes toward earning his doctorate, with the hope of teaching as an adjunct instructor in English literature once he retired. Whenever I write, particularly about politics and social change, I think of my father. He was an unapologetic advocate for social justice, and he also edited all of my papers—emphasizing the importance of formulating clear, declarative sentences and begging me to avoid the convoluted ones.

Despite these memories of my father’s keen mind, and of him as my mentor, during my senior year of college, he was diagnosed with a rare and debilitating form of dementia at the age of sixty. At first, he complained of word-finding problems and forgot the names of relatives and old friends. Almost two years later, the man in our family who had been so articulate was incapable of constructing and expressing thoughts.

After my father’s diagnosis, my mother returned to work full-time as an occupational therapist. She had served as the director of Columbia Presbyterian’s OT unit from 1974 to1988, and never expected to practice again. However, in order to acquire medical benefits and prevent the loss of our family home, after twenty-four years, she returned to the field. While my mother met the new demands of full-time employment, my sister Beth cared for our father during the day. She dressed him each morning, prepared his meals, and escorted him to doctors’ appointments. Acting as a full-time aide, Beth relished in making him laugh and also served as his advocate during his appointments; she guaranteed that all of his potential needs were met, even when he could no longer express them.

On a few occasions, Beth questioned his doctors’ competency and inquired into their expertise. As a witness during some of these consultations, she could embody the doctors’ worst fears, paying them minimal respect unless she felt that they had earned it. Although I empathized with the physicians and researchers who she lambasted, her criticisms and interrogations were a means to cleave to the few things we still had left, as we were losing our father, the man who we deeply loved and admired.

One Saturday morning in March, two years into our father’s illness, and only a few weeks after her twenty-sixth birthday, Beth didn’t wake up. Although she had experimented with drugs in the past, this time, it was fatal. After a failed search for marijuana one Friday night, Beth tried heroin instead.

My mother screamed when she found her daughter, cold and motionless in bed. I was visiting a friend in Philadelphia that day, preparing to see the city’s annual flower show, when I received a phone call. It was my neighbor. There had been a family emergency and her husband was coming to pick me up. After hearing the news, my chest tightened; I thought that somebody had fired a gun and shot me in the ribs when my guard had been down. The cars and people around me were suddenly in slow motion, and in an instant, it was clear that my life, as I had known it, would never be the same.

Almost exactly a year after this event, and just two days short of my father’s sixty-fourth birthday, the disease seized all that was left of him. His organs shut down, and he could no longer process food. This loving father and exceptional intellect became a collection of bones resting uncomfortably on a hospital bed in our den.

In ruminating over these deaths and the transformation of my family, I think of the Palestinian authors whose works I’ve come to esteem and of their resilience. My unwavering advocacy for human rights in Palestine, my own experiences with loss, and my identity as a Jewish American have inspired me to research Palestinians’ personal narratives. Their stories have provided me with a window into everyday violence and resistance, and a penetrating lens into understanding pain and human suffering after legacies of injustice. These authors have taught me that writing our stories can be a powerful force for social and political change as well as personal solace, and that, after all that’s been lost, we can no longer afford to be silent.