My Mom, The Woman Who Beat Cancer

There are a lot of things that one could wish in the days leading up to their birthday. Mine is tomorrow. People tell you the best thing you could ask for is health. I got the best early birthday gift today.

My mom, Jinane, is officially cancer free.

It was a long and winding road that I saw her take. And she has reached the finish line. It was one tough year.

I saw people talk around the disease like an entity whose name shouldn’t be mentioned. And I saw her hurting every time they did.
I saw people look at her with pity and I saw how it killed her every time they did.
I saw her lose her hair and still fight.
I saw her become bed-ridden after chemo.
I saw her become one of those people you see in movies with a scarf around their heads.
I saw her face next to a bucket for more days than I can count.
I saw her look at herself in the mirror and reminisce at the woman she was.
I saw her fight.
I saw her never lose hope.
I saw her keep that spark in her eyes.
I saw her pray. I saw her love. I saw her become more amazing, more beautiful.

Breast cancer awareness month is in October. But cancer is a year-long disease.

There are a lot of things that make me proud about having that woman be my mother. But if there’s one that beats them all, it’s the sheer courage with which she faced her predicament and the bravery with which she came out triumphant.

Mom, I love you. I wish I were home to hug you. Now I’ll just have to wait on some neighbor to read this and go down to tell you how lucky a woman you are to have a son who loves you. That’s not true. I’m lucky to have you.

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This is for Lucy who lost her cancer fight today. May you rest in peace you brave, brilliant woman.

Would You Wait for a Miracle?

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I have a two month old patient, whose bed is way too big for and who hasn’t cried in my presence once. She has blue eyes, which I could barely see through her constantly dilated pupils. Her skin is whiter than snow and colder than ice. She’s not responsive. She has more peripherals connected to her body than a body of that size should handle.

My two month old patient, precious and young as she is, is brain dead.

For a while, my friends and I lamented her young life. She is a person who will never live. She will never utter the words mom, she will never walk, she will never ride a bike. She will never even have solid food. Why was she being kept alive? Why  was she being put in such pain?

The medical aspect in us couldn’t understand the point of keeping life tethered to that girl. It didn’t make any sense. There’s no way she will wake up again. There’s no way she will recover. For all matters and purposes, that girl who has lived for two months exists no more.

But still, her parents kept her alive adorning her bed with rosaries and religious icons as they prayed by her bedside.

“I know it’s over,” I overheard her mom say while crying. “But I’m hoping He’d look down at her and see how such a precious creature she is and help her.”

And the mother would ask us: what will happen if things worked out with her? What will you see? Isn’t she snoring? What is that sound?

We’d answer in a way to stay true to the medicine without squashing her hopes. Hope, in this case, is a double-edged sword.

They were waiting for a miracle. My friends would even chuckle at the thought. But even though I also thought it was absurd, I just felt terribly, terribly sorry for what that mother had to go through, seeing her daughter’s shell in front of her: alive but not.

I’ve been thinking about miracles ever since I was allocated that little girl. While they round on other patients and they reach her case, I often find myself thinking about the miracle she is waiting for. I don’t get miracles. I don’t know if I believe in them. I think I don’t. But if there’s anything about miracles that I’m sure of, it’s that they are unjust.

Then I thought about what I’d do if I had been the father whose daughter was in my patient’s bed, with tubes going out of her in order to keep her alive. My answer would have surely been a resounding: turn it off. Purely medical. Pure electrolytes. Pure CT scans. Pure EEGs. Pure data. Or so I thought.

Today, as I saw that woman crying over her daughter, I didn’t pity her. I was utterly shocked that what she was doing didn’t feel odd. It didn’t feel weak. It didn’t feel like something I would remotely try to ridicule, like many people I’ve encountered would. Because the shocking revelation was that I’m not so sure I can turn it off, in spite of al the data.

Would you?

 

It’s Just A Bomb

I was watching a movie today.

What a mundane and worthless sentence to start anything with. But I was watching a movie today.

It was a quiet afternoon. I had seen a dear friend whom I hadn’t seen in a while. We spoke about our lives. We didn’t talk about politics. I drank minted lemonade. She drank coffee. The time passed.

But yes, I was watching a movie today. And it was a theatre full of people who were watching the movie with me. And less than five minutes from where the movie was taking place, part of my country was getting blown up to pieces, people were getting blown up to bits.

And there I was, watching a movie.

The theatre doors closed behind us as we made our way out of the complex. Look, an explosion happened nearby, my friend told me. Make sure you make your way out calmly. I looked around and people had no other care in the world. Those who were shopping were still going about their chores meticulously. The people hoarding the escalators were still doing so extravagantly.

And there I was, pissed beyond fury, trying to see if my other friend was home and if anything had happened to her.

She is 23. In statistical terms, her life is well ahead of her. In real terms, she is terrified by a window slamming, fireworks going off or anything that reminds her of the bombs she has endured for years. I was relieved to know she hadn’t gone home today. I was glad she was okay. What a fucked up country, I told her. Yes, she replied. Is there anything more redundant to say?

I checked the news on my way to my car. Many were dead. Many more were injured. No officials were targeted. It was an attack simply against people like me who decided to spend their afternoon off, courtesy of the Virgin Mary’s ascension, to shop with their kids, with their mothers, with their families or friends, just like me.

The drive home was uneventful. People were still going around their afternoon business like it was nobody’s business. Life was sluggishly going on. It was bound to pick up its pace tomorrow. I was sure all would be forgotten by next week. This is our span. I guess that’s how it rolls.

As I neared residential areas of my country’s torn capital, I could hear the news blasting off balconies as people huddled next to their TV sets. Tripoli was joining the game as well because that city doesn’t like to be left out of the big celebrations. Politicians were salivating over their upcoming TV opportunities to express their condemnation while secretly insinuating that this party’s interference here and there led to this or that other party’s condemnation of some party’s actions has led to this, while people’s flesh still burns on the asphalt and cement. But don’t you be mistaken, sympathy supersedes policy.

The people were expressing sympathy. There was a tinge of unity as so happens in the face of true national tragedies. I figure it would only be a matter of time before someone parades this. Those who wanted to express sympathy figured stating their sect at the start of their sentence would give it some credibility. Others were more worried about the potential day off tomorrow. It was, after all, a day of national mourning. Aren’t those getting way too many and springing up way too often? But what would a day do to the mother who will mourn all her life?

It’s just a bomb. We tell it to ourselves like it’s nothing. A bomb. An explosion. Destruction, rubble, death. We’re getting way too used to it. We’re getting too comfortable with the way we live around it. We’re getting too subdued in the way we just take it, brush it off and long for the day when we forget. It’s just a bomb.

The Story Of Owning a Pet in Lebanon

The journey of a thousand miles starts with the inception of the idea… with your mother. “I’m getting a cat” was what I said. A stern look that breathed of “no” was how she replied. Message received. My dad automatically referred me back to my mother. No luck on that front. I had my work cut out for me.

Soon enough, I got the pet. My mom will cave in under the pressure, I figured. I entered the house with that white ball of fur in my arms. I had already decided to name her “Katniss.” And I probably hadn’t seen something cuter in my life. Katniss, however, was absolutely terrified. So the first thing she did when I stepped over the threshold was to go and hide beneath the sofa. No amount of food or trickery could get her out of there. It could have been that the house was brimming with people wanting to see what this creature was.

An hour or so later, once strangers and distant relatives in this little town got bored and left, Katniss decided to venture out into her new territory. She didn’t like me at that point but I was the only familiar face so she stuck around. Despite being minuscule, she managed to jump on the couch. The spot looked absolutely perfect for her. So she nested her head beneath her paw and slept.

“Don’t tell your mom,” my dad said as he watched TV and gently ran his hand over her white mane.

The following days were all about learning. I asked my friends who already had pets what kind of food and litter they bought. I had trouble potty-training her but she got the hang of it… eventually. And I found out she loves to eat and play in the garden outside my house even though she came back with little twigs stuck on her every time.

She started following me around the house wherever I went: to my room, to the bathroom, to the car. She used to look at me sadly as I pulled out of the drive to go to class and I couldn’t help but smile as I saw her growingly fat behind go back disappointingly inside when she found out she won’t be going anywhere with me.

Her first visit to the vet was strange to me but downright terrifying for her. As I held her in my arms while the vet readied the table where he was going to examine her, I could feel her getting more anxious. Once he gave her the vaccine and those deworming pills and that frontline for flees, she was downright shaking as I tried to comfort her that all will be okay.

Needless to say, her future visits to the vet were far less smooth as she started refusing to take the pills no matter what he does. “You have a feisty cat,” he said. I just nodded. There was nothing I could do. She was so feisty in fact that she had managed to hunt down a mouse, which she brought back home only to brag about in front of my mom. She wasn’t going to eat that, obviously.

The first hurdle came around when my mom was diagnosed with cancer and some people told her she can’t be around the cat. We started worrying about what we’d do with Katniss. No one we knew was equipped to take care of her. We tried to move her to my grandparents’ house but she kept coming back despite our efforts. It was a relieving moment when the oncologist told her mother to worry.

Once December rolled around and cats around the neighborhood started getting ready to get busy, it was time for Katniss to hit early menopause. So I took her to the vet again and several hours later, I got her back in her cage sleeping. Back home, she was so drowsy because of anesthesia and in obvious pain that my mom’s heart was almost torn out of her chest. She got all better a few days later and went back to her regular routines of eating, sleeping, playing and chasing away the cats off our porch.

On a Saturday night in April, as we had dinner with a few guests who gushed over a shaven-Katniss as she circled their feet, which she normally does, while they ate, Katniss decided to go outside, which was normal. Slightly past midnight, I decided to call it quits and went to bed. The following day, I found out from my little brother that Katniss hadn’t slept in. I wasn’t worried as she had done that before and our maid had seen her around the house early that morning.

The day starting passing, however, and Katniss didn’t come back. As we sat down for lunch, nothing was startling my aunt by bumping into her foot. There was nothing looking at my mom with pleading eyes for some human food. “She’s just around,” they all said. “She’ll come back in a bit.”

But Katniss didn’t. Not that Sunday. Not the following Monday. Not the Tuesday after that. Two scenarios were plausible: either someone stole her or one of the hunters around my town decided to test his chops by aiming at a cat who was obviously owned by someone, which is entirely possible given how hunters in this country think: it doesn’t matter what they shoot at as long as it’s an animal moving and they get to brag about it to their friends later on.

 

As the days passed, I realized this tiny creature that started as even tinier white ball of fur had taken up a huge place in our house. We had gotten so used to her collar’s bell ringing whenever she moved that the silence in the house felt eerie. We had gotten so used to her just being around that not stumbling by her everywhere we went made our home feel less welcoming.

“I never thought I’d love her as much,” was what my mom said as she held her food basket and called around for her name around the neighborhood, shaking the basket to draw her attention. There was a tear in her eye. “Don’t tell your little brother,” she then said. “He’ll be devastated if he knew I’m this upset.”

We were all upset. Katniss had spent slightly more than a year in our midst but we had all grown to absolutely love her, even the family members who complained about her walking around them when they ate. Now, two weeks later, I’m not hopeful that I’ll find Katniss anymore. My little cat is gone.

I don’t think I’d get another pet. This isn’t the town nor the country to own a pet and be relieved that your neighbors won’t poison it or the hunters around your town won’t be shooting it or even someone stealing it for a few quick dollars or because they don’t want to get their own.

All I have are the memories of when Katniss was mine and around, the memories of when she slept next to me in bed and looked annoyed because I changed sleeping positions and woke her up, the memories of her running after me because I was heading to the kitchen which she normally associated with eating, the memories of her chasing away the neighborhood’s cats off her turf because this was, after all, her home.

I hope it’s nice wherever you are, little one.

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The Perks of Being Lebanese

Back in December, I hosted a photographer who wanted to visit Lebanon in order to experience our on-the-edge diverse lifestyle. I showed him around as much as I could given the short time I had, taking myself to Tyre for the first time in my life. I had never been that far South before. I left him there in order for him to see life in that Southern city firsthand. A couple of days later, we met up in Beirut and somehow he started contrasting and comparing my country with his. He comes from one of the world’s biggest superpowers so it’s understandable that my country is lacking in comparison.

But I couldn’t take it. Snarkiness started to ooze out of every word I uttered like the sharp blade of a knife. Jabs here and there about how his country could never – ever – have the history that my country has started flowing. I even surprised myself when it comes to political declarations which would probably get any Lebanese who knows me turn his head in disbelief. Imagine me proclaiming support for Hezbollah and you’ll get the drift.

I felt it was necessary. It’s not about being politically correct. It’s this built in sensor inside my brain to defend Lebanon whenever I can to whoever I can. And it goes off at random times, despite the logical part of me telling me that I should probably stop. I can’t help it. My relationship with my country is that of some serious love-hate. And I can’t escape it.

Bref, I nag too much sometimes and I know it. I know some of you hate it – but living in Lebanon leaves you constantly angry, constantly furious, constantly edgy. We all deal with it with the best way we can and considering what we’re dealt with every day, I daresay we handle it really well. Most of the time at least.

To those who thought I’m being quite negative, you’re probably right. This one’s for you. Now smile and take it in because such articles will only come rarely. Let it sink in because you won’t hear me saying this very often – not that it matters since it’s now online for everyone to see – but here it goes: I probably wouldn’t trade growing up in Lebanon for anything else in the whole world.

It’s not about the copious amount of money I could have had. It’s not about super kickass passports I often wish I possessed. I think growing up here, witnessing the struggles of here, dealing with the hardships that here represents have gotten me to grow as a person in ways that any other place probably wouldn’t have provided.

In a way, growing up here has made me a person who is capable of standing on his feet wherever you throw him. It might sound cliche – positive vibes always go around clicheville – but it’s something that the past year has truly reinforced in me.

When I was in France, the French were shocked I could juggle three languages fluently without a hitch, something that was completely normal to me but seemed very odd to them. It is there that I came to appreciate exactly how thankful I am for the decent education I got here. The fact that I was able to keep up with more knowledgeable physicians at the hospital where I did my clerkship doesn’t only reflect on my mental capacities but on the way education in Lebanon shapes you up without you even knowing it. It is no wonder that with all the preparation we subtly get in school and later on in higher education institutes, we are able to excel when given room and opportunity.

That month I spent in France opened up my eyes to something else that I hadn’t really thought of: life in Lebanon does not go on in a protective bubble that separates you from everything else happening around you.
The aforementioned idea started to get formulated in my mind back in 2011 when I wrote a small article about 9/11 and some members of American family stopped talking to me as a result. I still don’t see anything wrong with my article. If anything, I stand by it more than before. But it’s the perception of the article which differentiates my American kin from yours truly. For them, I am being harsh and insensitive because I haven’t lived it and I am not American. To me, they are being very concentric and limited. But it’s no one’s fault really: my perception as a Lebanese of the world is and will always be of people whose fate isn’t in their hand, of a country which is always a part in a chessgame of bigger fish.
And while we nag about that as is our right, I think the premise of the life this sets is healthy: to know that there’s always another story taking place somewhere, to know that there is another side to us, to know that there is life form outside of the bubble that we love to live inside and to know that everything has a reference point to put things in perspective.

The photographer who came here back in December was more than interested in something that I not only took for granted but thought was beyond normal. My hometown coexists quite peacefully with a neighboring Shiite town. My best friends happen to be either Shiite or atheists or Sunni or Maronites. We differ politically, we argue more often than not. We come from severely different backgrounds in our own country. But we still find ourselves at one table having dinner as often as we argue about the backgrounds from which we come. The experience itself is one that we ignore because it’s never in the forefront of our thoughts. But to an outsider, the interactions we have and the friendships we strike are things that are beyond interesting. When that photographer pointed out how odd to him that dinner table setting was, I started to think about it more and I realized that I am what I am today because of those people that have come into my life from all those different backgrounds. And despite some eccentric bearded men from all sides wanting to tell us that our friendships are abnormal, our relationships still exist and they keep flourishing. The majority of us as Lebanese have friends who come from backgrounds that had, until quite recently in historical terms, been fighting against each other. Yet that’s never an issue. It’s not even something we think about. But imagine how bland our lives would be if the only people we knew shared our thoughts, our views and barely differed from us in the things that count.

And as I go back home every day from class or from those dinners with friends, another thing I take for granted is my family. The fact that the family unit is still very cohesive in this country is a treasure in itself. Child psychology tells you how important a tightly-knit family is for the development of a human being. But this isn’t about psychological theories. How often do we think about the warm meal awaiting us back home which our grandmother or mother more than willingly cooked for us, along with a warm hug because even though they had last seen us a few hours prior they miss us terribly?
And I don’t meant this in a sexist manner for those feminists gearing up for international women’s day. How often do we think about that awesome person we call grandpa who, as he grows up, becomes more kind hearted than a five year old boy? Or how about those siblings of ours that we love to hate but can’t imagine living without? Or those cousins we keep bickering with and the aunts and uncles who raised them? How about our fathers who, despite their strong facade, love us to the moon and back?
The family unit in Lebanon is not restricted to the parents and siblings. It transcends them to anyone who shares your family name. And we pretend that it aggravates us off when families gather in certain occasions. But the truth is that our family, including those extended members we don’t like to think about, act as a firm ground for us to stand in troubled times. And they do that without us asking for it.

Life in Lebanon sets you up to be a great individual when given the framework to allow such greatness to unfold. It makes you more aware of the world. It gives you a rich cultural experience to start from. It gives you a strong educational package to build a life upon and gives you a sense of belonging that makes you prone to find anchor wherever you’re thrown. It saddens me to say that I will probably leave this place someday because the future might be bleak. And I lose hope in it sometimes and I rekindle it at other times despite my better judgement. But it remains that being Lebanese is something that makes me proud. It is something that I believe has offered me the essential that makes human beings shine and make a life for themselves. That life probably won’t happen here. But that life will forever owe itself to here.

Cheers to all those Lebanese perks we keep taking for granted.