I will lose it forever, but then I lose it forever.
Having recently moved from a home in Najaf’s Amara near the shrine of Imam Ali, to a home in Hayy al-Saad, my grandfather (who was not yet my grandfather) became lost walking home from work. He wrapped his ghutra around his face to mask his identity, and asked neighbors in the area, “could you point me to Jassem Altallal’s house?” Baba jokes, “my father was the kind of man who, if there was a hole in the road he took every day, would not know how to find his way around it.”
His wife, my grandmother Camilla, made everything happen. She paid money where it was due, oversaw the construction of the house in Hayy al-Saad, delivered food for the midwife and the seamstress, always kept enough fruit in the home. What Jiddou Jassem knew was how to get to work and come back. At night, he would fall asleep to a small radio dialed to Voice of America. The station would close soon after, leaving the sound of static to wash through the room as he slept.
Baba learned of his mother’s passing while walking home from school. As he was cutting through the shrine, a schoolmate ran up to him and yelled, “What’s wrong with your mother? I heard she died!” My father ran and ran. “I still remember the shirt I wore that day,” he says now, “it was red with white stripes.”
My father recalls these memories without a visible emotional reaction. It’s hard to imagine him running home, hard to imagine that he was ever ten years old and minutes from losing his mother.
No one knows how my gradmother Camilla died. Some have said that she became so distressed and embarrassed when she thought the nurses were laughing at her that she went into cardiac arrest. But this does not sound like her, like how I imagine she would have died.
When my mother left Iraq for the last time, she told my aunt Nahda, my father’s sister, “I won’t ever return.” She has not been back since. Now, decades later, she confesses, “All of it…the war, the siege, the hunger, holding your brother in my lap as the bombs fell around us, I carry all of it in one palm, and in another palm entirely is the day they stopped your father and took him without anyone knowing. I imagine my young mother with a six-year-old and an infant alone in an apartment in Baghdad, wondering all that might have befallen her kidnapped husband, wondering whether this was it—the thing that would finally raze to the ground her entire life. She tells my brother that his father is on a trip, and in turn my confused brother consoles her when she cries, “It’s okay mama, don’t be scared.”
As many Iraqis were, my father was taken without word and jailed by the Baathist regime, a process that left families searching in terror for their missing. If there was even a use for such a search.
* * *
I cannot ask what happened next. I do not know how my father was returned, or how long he was gone. I do not know what happened to him then, what the world looked like inside his cell, if he thought of himself as already dead by then. As I record these memories, I swerve around the unaskable. I confront the incoherence of time only as I flatten. I begin again.
In the moment of my writing this, my father is occupied with another death. A 14-year-old Iraqi boy has just collapsed mere hours after playing with his siblings. My father buys a pizza for his older brother and sister who are left waiting in the house as their mother attends to her son’s body in the morgue. Because he has a mechanic shop and a truck, my father tasks himself with transporting the body to be washed. In Charlottesville, the burial is makeshift, money is pooled at the mosque for times like this, for death’s quiet creak.
* * *
When my mother took us and left for Lebanon, she decided that if we were to end up in a house, she would not decorate it. She did not want furniture, only the bare necessities. She refused to settle down. Anything to assure she would not have a home to lose.
There is an old photo of me and my brother in our school uniforms standing in what I always thought to be a strangely bare living room.
I think of love often, but rarely of my parents’ love story. I have never imagined my mother stilled by my father’s loss. I have never considered all the ways time must have changed in the face of her horrified waiting. Of the loneliness of one’s life when it becomes unrecognizable. Was this the moment she knew definitively she could not bear to be apart?
In one of the last conversations we have, an old love asks me what I think has made my parents stay together this long. “I’ve always wanted what they have,” he confesses.
That same night, the contact lens in my left eye dries and sticks to my pupil. I squint and obsessively rub my eyelid. I try wetting my eye with drops, cutting my nails, furiously washing my hands, but the lens does not move. It is suctioned to my eye. I begin to imagine the worst, panicking at the thought of my life altered by this unexpected inconvenience. Beside me, my mother is hunched, sitting cross-legged on the floor, looking pained each time I near my fingertips to my eye. Bismillah, bismillah, she whispers. An hour later, the contact bunches against my cornea and I extract it from my swollen eye. My mother bursts into tears.
I cannot remember how I answered his question then, my mind warped by the thrum of urgency only a relationship being hacked apart demands. This is important- it shrieks-this is the loss that will end you, making it impossible to hear anything else.
About the Writer
Joumana Altallal is an Iraqi-Lebanese writer and Zell Fellow in Poetry at the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. She works with Citywide Poets to lead a weekly after-school poetry session for high school students in Metro-Detroit. Her work appears, or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Glass Poetry, Muzzle Magazine, Mud Season Review, and Rusted Radishes. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers' Conference, Napa Valley Writer's Conference, and the Radius for Arab American Writers. You can find Joumana on Twitter @joualt.