Easter, A Bright Sadness
“You really mourn for Christ,” a hospital priest said to me forty days ago. No, I’m grieving my dad, I thought, too stunned to respond. He said it after mass when I approached to ask him to pray for my Sudanese friend who needed a job. But before I could make my request, he looked at me and said, as if reading streaks of lightning on my face, you mourn for Christ.
What did he mean? What did he see? The wake of tears and ashes on my face? The shapes of loss? My dad, my cancer, Sudan? But I never cry for Christ, not even on Good Friday. I miss my dad like hell, and I hope beyond hope that the Sudanese refugees I know will get a break in this life. But I never miss Christ.
“Ah, Diet Coke,” I wrote my dad from an airplane tray table. (How we relished the crack of the can, the jolt of carbonation hitting our throats!) “See you Saturday,” I wrote, over and over, for forty days.
I didn’t give up a thing for Lent. I took on a haphazard practice of scribbling letters to my dad and trying to meditate. I started on Ash Wednesday, in the Houston airport chapel. I had one of my yoga teachers’ guided meditations on my phone. To begin, you draw your awareness to the center of the eyebrows, known as the third-eye center, she tells you. “If the body is aching, if the mind is suffering, if the mind is distracted or joyful—whatsoever is arising at this moment,” she says, “just be a witness. And keep the focus at the center of the eyebrows.” My mind had been suffering and distracted, wanting to be joyful. I tried to focus the breath in between my eyebrows. After the 16-minute meditation, when I was hurrying to catch my flight and saw a sign for an emergency defibrillator (an icon of a heart with a thunder bolt inside), I realized: The center of the eyebrows is at the foot of the cross drawn in ashes on my forehead.
Going to church with my grandmother in Alabama I heard the Easter story—“on the third day he rose again”—before my mind could comprehend that Christ died. Jesus was already raised from the dead in my child psyche, always there to ask for help. And when you’re ready to get saved, I heard, all you have to do is invite Jesus into your heart.
But, going to the hospital with my dad, I heard the language of medicine at an early age. Raised a Coptic Orthodox Christian in Egypt, he grew up to be a cardiologist in the U.S., with more faith in medical miracles than in supernatural intervention. I bet he said aorta to me, after a disaster that broke apart our family, long before he said heart. And when he did, it was probably to tell me how you can save patients from cardiac arrest: Sometimes, you can shock their hearts back to beating life. I grew up with two native languages—Bible-belt Christianity and immigrant-parent physiology. Whenever I asked Jesus into my heart as a child, did I wonder what ventricle he would live in? And what happens to Jesus in your heart when you get resuscitated?
Islam teaches that God is closer than your jugular vein. I wonder how that struck my friend Ibrahim as a child growing up in Darfur. And when the war came, when he had to see so many die, with no protection, much less medical intervention, did he feel God close as the jugular there, helping him survive?
Ibrahim made it from Darfur to Libya to Tunis, and now finally to New Haven, Connecticut, through the refugee resettlement agency where I work. One night over a year ago, I got a text from his friend James saying Ibrahim has had an accident; he’s in the hospital. I’d seen the ambulance outside the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS) office; someone on a stretcher. I had no idea it was Ibrahim. He’d been hit by a car, while he was running across the street to catch a bus to his second ESL class of the day.
When James and I arrived at the E.R., we asked where we could find Ibrahim. “You’re looking for Abraham?” the attendant said. “He’s in Surgical ICU. There are so many people from his country here, and so many from your organization. They’re in the Family Room.” We navigated the hospital halls, around signs that say “Transplant Waiting,” “Diagnostic Imaging,” “Cardiac Critical Unit,” until we found “The Family Room.” It was packed with IRIS staff members, refugees from Sudan and Iraq, the owner of the Blue Nile clothing store, where Ibrahim must have shopped. That night, he was in a coma. The doctors didn’t know if he would survive—they were monitoring him closely, for any signs of a blood clot to the brain. Even if he made it through the critical period, he still might never wake up. And if he did, he may be brain dead, or he may never walk again.
A chaplain told us we could go in to visit in groups of two or three. James and I went in, and he started talking to Ibrahim in Arabic. I couldn’t understand what he was saying—except one phrase, rabinna maek, ya Ibrahim, “our Lord is with you, Ibrahim.”
“Rabinna maek, ya Youssef,” my Uncle Latif said to his brother, my dad, when we didn’t know if he would make it after a kidney transplant in Egypt. And before every visiting hour, Latif would sit in the waiting room, holding his key chain—with keys to his apartment in Alexandria, his medical clinic, his 1974 Peugeot. He would move his fingers over the keys, as if they were rosary beads, saying ya rab irham, Lord have mercy, over each one.
After Ibrahim was stabilized, I went to visit him in his hospital room. Someone had brought a photo of him, James, and another friend climbing the trees at East Rock park, not long after they arrived to New Haven. I wondered, if he woke up, would he recognize himself?
What does our personal grief—for those we’ve lost and for those we may be losing—have to do with the dying Christ? The foot of the cross that I realized was at the center of my eyebrows on Ash Wednesday helped me remember that Jesus died like we all die: by a last breath. And at the moment of his death, there were people grieving at the foot of the cross: his mother, his aunt, his friends Mary Magdalene and John.
And I remember, even Jesus cried when his friend Lazarus died. He’d gotten there too late: Lazarus had been in the grave for days. Jesus goes to the tomb, and yells, “Lazarus come out!” The gospel story ends with Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. But when I suspend the happy ending—when I pause at “Lazarus come out!”—I remember the terrible protest I’ve felt when people I love have died. Those moments when the death is so fresh, it’s as if it cannot be. When you yell at the dead, “Come back to me!”
Near the end of Lent, the Coptic church celebrates Lazarus Saturday. They say prayers for the departed: Sustain them in a green pasture, by the water of rest, in the paradise of joy; the place out of which grief, sorrow, and groaning have fled away, in the light of your saints. Death is a kind of light. Grief is a kind of losing that celebrates life. Mourning is, as the Orthodox call Lent, a Bright Sadness.
My dad survived the kidney transplant. But he died nine years later. One night, he went to the hospital with acute shortness of breath—fluid collecting in his chest, his lungs too weak for him to breathe enough to get oxygen to his heart. I booked a flight from Connecticut to Alabama, but couldn’t leave until I finished a chemo treatment. My brother put me on the phone with my dad in the ICU. I told him my flight would arrive on Saturday afternoon. It was the night after the 2012 Presidential election. My dad loved talking politics. I was relieved he was still well enough to say, “Obama won!” While we were talking, my dad was on an oxygen tank, and I was hooked up to a portable pump that was infusing my body with chemo drugs through a port, straight through the jugular to my heart. Before we got off the phone, I said, “See you Saturday.” And I was relieved to hear him say it back—“See you Saturday.”
My brother called five hours later to tell me our dad had died. They’d tried to resuscitate him—he came back for a breath or two. Then he drew his last.
By writing him every day this Lent and trying to meditate, I’ve been spending these forty days in bright sadness with my dad. In the writing, we grieve our losses, and we celebrate: I sign each letter “See you Saturday.”
Before my last CT scan, I went back to the hospital chapel for morning mass. I couldn’t take communion, because I was NPO. So the priest gave me a blessing instead: He drew an invisible cross on my forehead with his thumb.
He prayed for those who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection.
I wonder if my dad died hoping to rise again. Probably not. But, I’ve chosen to hope in the resurrection of the dead, because I want to see him again. And I can’t conceive of seeing without a body.
On the outside of the CT scan machine, there’s an icon of a heart and lungs. You go through like a carwash, and at certain intervals, an automated voice says, “Hold your breath.” Then, “breathe normally.”
“When you’re breathing, you’re not just breathing air,” my meditation guide says. “You’re breathing prana,” vital energy. “Check your vital signs,” my dad might have said, making fun of my meditation practice. “It’s just oxygen.” But I’m breathing our prana, trying to resuscitate us. As I focus at the center of the eyebrows, I try to follow the guide: from prana to life-light.
I begin to imagine, at the center of the eyebrows in place of the cross, a tree. Where the roots meet the ground, we gather—me, my dad, and Latif; Ibrahim reunited with his family. Lazarus and his sisters. Diet Cokes all around.
Over a year after his accident, Ibrahim has recovered so well he did a 5k “Run for Refugees” in February. He’s back to his English classes, and even serving as an interpreter for Arabic-speaking refugees.
Last week, James and I went with him to a job interview at Family Dollar. While he was talking with the manager, James and I pretended to browse. We stopped in the makeup aisle, as if mesmerized by the many varieties of mascara—until we overheard, “You got the job.”
Before we left Family Dollar, Ibrahim looked at the drink case next to the cash register and said, “What would you like?”
“Diet Coke,” I said.
“Me, too,” he said. “I love Diet Coke! And James?”
On the way to drop them off at home, I told them about a free concert that was happening Saturday night: bands from South Africa, Kenya, Sierra Leone. “And so many people from IRIS will be there. We’ll meet in front of the library to walk over at 6:45.”
“Ok,” Ibrahim said, when he got out of the car in front of his apartment. “Thank you.”
“See you Saturday,” I said.
“See you Saturday.”
Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.