I don’t know how to do it.
I don’t know how to understand a world that no longer has Uncle Pethro in it.
It’s not that I’m overwhelmed with grief at his passing. Losing my mother eight years ago shifted my perspective on death and dying. So, I am sad, I am heartbroken, I am bereft, but I am not in pieces.
Still, the journey of saying a final goodbye to someone who has been a constant fixture in my life is difficult. Coming to terms with the impact his loss has on others is even more fraught with emotions.
The formal obituary tells the story of Uncle Pethro’s life and outlines the legacies of his accomplishments, achievements, and successes. It pays tribute to his extended and extensive family and honours the woman who stood by his side over six decades, matching him stride for stride over the years, my Aunt Madge.
But who was this man to me?
My mother’s first cousin and one of her best friends. Uncle Pethro and my mom shared a bond that helped each of them triumph over the reality of being outsiders. Others consigned them to the margins. They asserted their right to be at and in the centre. They made sure they were seen, heard, and recognized without compromising what they stood for and who they wanted to be. They did not accept the spaces others relegated them to and forged their own paths, carved out more imaginative lives, lived bigger stories than the ones others wrote for them.
Uncle Pethro was the man who would say, “Let me look at you!” even if you were standing right in front of him. He didn’t just want to see the face you presented to the world, he wanted to see the essence of who you were on the inside.
He was also the man with the all-consuming embrace. The man whose arms would wrap around you and make you feel protected, invincible, and treasured.
He was the man whose voice echoed in the room, whose voice was deep, resonant, and full. And — I say this with love — it’s a voice you heard often and at length because he loved to pontificate! He wanted to dig out the complexities of life, to talk about its nuances, to sort out its chaotic randomness at the same time that he could be rude, crude, and indelicate.
He was the man who had a pride of place. He loved Jamaica, the land of his birth, in all its contradictions, even if it was the home he had to leave to find the space to be free and to become the man he wanted to be.
He was generous, caring, and thoughtful, opening his doors, at home and at work, to a diversity of folk. He and Aunt Madge entertained well and often, and they set a standard as hosts that is difficult to achieve, and essential to emulate.
We all forgave Uncle Pethro his bombastic nature because underneath it all beat a passionate, life-full, and cheery heart.
Until it didn’t.
Ultimately, it was Uncle Pethro’s body that stopped working with him and started to work against him, that whittled away at him.
He was stalwart throughout each health crisis that battered him. His physical strength and mental toughness, along with Aunt Madge’s love, diligence, and care, carried him further and for longer than seemed possible.
When I moved to Toronto in 1986, Uncle Pethro and Aunt Madge welcomed me into their home and made sure I never felt alone in the vastness of the city or lost in the gulf of the choice I had made when I left home.
They saw me through the ups and downs of my time in that city, celebrated with me when things went well and consoled me when they did not. We shared food, drink, and conversation. We built a bond that transcended the familial connection. That feeling of being a part of each other’s lives became even stronger after I returned to Vancouver and our visits, because of the distance, became occasional rather than frequent.
Having spent the last few days in Toronto with Aunt Madge and the family, I’ve been reflecting on the past and ruminating on the future. Now I’m sitting here in seat 2B on Porter Air, Flight 309, surrounded by strangers, high above the clouds, and anxious to get home. I’m trying to make the pictures in my mind, of the vibrant, vital person I knew and loved, more animated and I’m fighting the way I feel that they are blurring and ebbing already. I’m trying to understand this new world that has lost that singular gravelly voice, that strong embrace, that hearty appetite, that appreciation for beauty, and that gift of laughter.
It’s not about making a saint out of my Uncle Pethro or remembering him as a paragon of virtue. It’s about knowing to love him as the man that he was.
Because if there’s anything I’ve learned from the years of being in Uncle Pethro’s company, is that to be human is divine even if we are flawed and our lives are finite.
To understand this world without Uncle Pethro is to understand that it was better with him in it, and that it will still be good because he was once a part of my mornings and my days, my nights, my years, my joys and my sorrows.
I will remember him.
Rest in peace Uncle Pethro.
I belong to Air Canada.
In this moment. January 2020.
Buckled into Seat 14C.
Far above where birds take flight. The place where dreams alone can live.
In this moment, I belong to this unbounded world above the clouds. A creature of the air.
This air-borne liberation is a mirage.
I know my feet belong on the ground. A creature of the earth.
I am on a flight to Montreal to visit friends. Their relocation to this city will bring me back again and again because our friendship is long standing and we will nurture it. My friends have also made me belong to Montreal again.
Again, because this is the city where my parents met. Where I was born, but never lived in for long. What part of me, then, belongs here? Belongs to this city where I speak the language only to a moderate level of fluency? Because all of me would not be if it weren’t for this city.
But countries and cities pull at me from all different directions.
Jamaica – my mother’s birthplace. Lebanon – my father’s. Kuwait – where my sister was born. Calgary – where my youngest sister was born. And Vancouver where we settled in 1974 and where my family has stayed since. All of us have ventured afar over the years, whether alone or together, to travel or to live for fragments of time. Toronto – where I lived for six years.
My whole being is a mosaic of spaces, places, and time. Of different cultures and societies. I identify with all of them and I identify with none of them. I am rooted in my experiences with each and am unrooted because I do not feel like I wholly belong in any of them.
They have all shaped me as have other cities I’ve visited, especially those that feel as if they are the locations where I ought to be, where I yearn to be.
In Montreal, my friends and I go to a movie they want to share with me. Their second viewing, my first.
Antigone (in French, Canada, 2019). Sophie Deraspe’s screenplay and her direction. Based on the Ancient Greek play by Sophocles. A play I know. A play that belongs to me because I have studied it, absorbed it, discussed it, taught it, remember it.
This film, this Antigone, which now belongs to me, too, tells the story of an immigrant family to Canada. Two girls, two boys, and a Grandmother, haunted by the memories of the children’s parents murdered in Algeria, in the country that they once belonged to.
In this country, this foreign Canada, do they belong?
Ismène, the older girl, has built a successful career as a hair stylist. The grandmother cooks, cleans, loves each child ferociously. Antigone is fearlessly devoted to the family, to their story, to their truth. In an address to her class, “une exposition,” she elevates her classmates from a state of boredom, heads on the desk, eyes rolling, to whip-straight postures, eyes that pierce through teenage school inertia. Her story of survival, loss, and grief lures them to listen.
Antigone’s two brothers? Étéocle and Polynice? The fierce family love envelops the two brothers and yet they search for belonging elsewhere.
Why isn’t their family enough?
And why do men so often find belonging in violence, especially vulnerable men?
The story of this dislocated, relocated family unravels in flashbacks and in real time. Antigone’s knowledge of her brothers, the appearance of their being and belonging, is contradicted by the reality she grasps in hindsight.
She remembers a night. Polynice creeps home late, after dark. He opens the fridge door, she startles him in the kitchen. He stands in the shadows, the pale light casting an eerie halo around him. Bruised, bloodied, black-eyed, he exults to his sister “I’m in,” “I’m in.”
In what? In toxic brotherhood? In a position to provide for his family now? In hopelessness? In power? In control, as illusory as that power and control may be?
Polynice is not a lone wolf. What he decides matters. It affects him, his brother, his sisters, his grandmother, his community. But he makes choices as if he were alone. Is his choice a resistance to belonging to this family or is it his way to belong more meaningfully?
His choice is made as if he were an island. But no person is an island.
As much as we may long for separation, for isolation. Long to escape duties, obligations, chores, stress, news, disasters, worries, fears. But a hermetic existence is possible for only a few, it is life’s answer or life’s purpose for even fewer.
Most of us, the vast majority, need – crave – connection. We are social creatures. Socialized creatures. We achieve our potential by being a part of a world wide web and I do not mean losing ourselves in the emptiness of cyberspace or discarding hours of our life on the internet.
We want to belong. We are part of a world of belonging.
We recognize that we are as others are. Lost, found, lonely, together, alive, dying, needy, giving, angry, happy, sad, joyful, cruel, kind, hateful, loving, powerful, powerless, smart, stupid, healthy, sick, caring, selfish, playful, serious, studious, ignorant, ambitious, lackadaisical, safe, unsafe, privileged, oppressed, worried, carefree, careful, careless, faithful, faithless, believing, unbelieving. Free, not free.
Isolation, being alone, is a desire, a fantasy, as is belonging. The former is a choice, the latter inescapable. We are compelled into connection. We are born into a web of connections.
We have to negotiate with ourselves as much as with others. We negotiate with life, with experiences. And despite this we are often unprepared for what life throws at us.
Perhaps there is a toxic underpinning to the idea of belonging. After all, embedded in the word “belong” is the idea of ownership. My husband, my wife, my spouse, my daughter, my son, my child, my father, my mother, my parents, my sister, my brother, my siblings, my niece, my nephew, my uncle, my aunt, my grandparents, my cousins, my relatives, my friend, my colleague, my acquaintance, my pet, my community, my neighbourhood, my job, my school, my work, my career, my money, my dreams, my aspirations, my humour, my loss, my grief, my beliefs, my body, my pain.
Would we be better served by leaving belonging to refer to objects? When we talk about humans, living creatures, plants, trees, the earth and the webs of existence in which we’re enmeshed, would it be better use other verbs: “connect,” “embrace,” “cherish,” “know,” “love”? I connect with this city; this city connects with me. This family embraces me; I embrace this family. These friends cherish me; I cherish these friends. I know that person; that person knows me. You love me; I love you.
Words alone will not remake belonging. We need to excavate the purpose, the meaning, the appeal, the allure, the temptation of belonging.
Why do we care about belonging? Why do we need to belong?
Where do we belong? To whom do we belong?
Where do I belong? To whom do I belong? Who belongs with me, to me?
I think we can only remake belonging if we learn to transcend the boundaries of belonging and not belonging. To embrace the ambiguity and uncertainty of embodying different states and ways of being. To be unbounded. To imagine our lives as bigger than what we can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. Bigger than our dreams, bigger than our imaginations.
Bigger than our communities of “same as me.”
As big as our hearts.
Because we belong nowhere and everywhere.
I belong nowhere and everywhere.
I may live in Vancouver, but fragments of me are dispersed. Unless I identify with everywhere, I can’t care about the world, the environment, the fragile state of humanity’s existence.
We belong to nothing and everything.
I belong to nothing and everything.
Because I am not beholden or enthralled by a particular thing or person and yet I am curious about all the world has to offer.
We belong to no one and everyone.
I belong to no one and everyone.
Because I am not an object to be owned and yet I am human as you are human, as he is human, as she is human, as they are human, as the many are human.
This heart belongs to those I love, but not as a thing for them to own.
It is a gift that says they are valued and valuable.
This soul is untethered in a state of un-belonging.
The essence of me is free.
We shared a birthday.
Auntie Laila and me.
And every year, when March 29th rolled around, I would call her, or she would call me.
This year marks the final such exchange.
Auntie Laila died yesterday.
Just as her personality was larger than life, the impact she had on me is much larger than the quantifiable amount of time that we spent in each other’s company.
We’re also part of an extended family in a culture where the furthest relation is as close as your brother or your sister, your mother or your father.
Auntie Laila was married to my Uncle Ed who is in fact my paternal grandfather’s first cousin.
That gives you a sense of how distant we are from one another on the family tree.
However, when it comes to human connection, closeness defies measurement. You cannot measure love in metres, centimetres, and kilometres or miles, inches, and yards.
When it comes to family, to those we love, distance is only every measured in heartbeats, thoughts, and dreams. If you think of a person, then they are with you. If you dream of a person, then they are with you. And when such a person dies, they never leave you.
The strength of the tie between Aunt Laila, her daughter Medina, my mother, and my sisters can be traced to a particular time and place.
We were living in Beirut in the early 1970s when Aunt Laila and Medina came to visit. In my memories, my father wasn’t there. He worked in Kuwait and was typically home for only one week every month or so.
This must have been one of the times he was away. The task of entertaining and touring fell to my Mom who at the time drove a red, four-door Peugeot. We crammed into the car, all six of us, for whichever excursion Mom and Auntie Laila had dreamt up. We would pass the time in conversation, laughter, and with music. In particular, a song.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine …”
Whether careening around the streets of Beirut or driving up to Karoun, the family village in the Bekaa Valley, we’d sing loudly and exuberantly with Auntie Laila leading the choir as the minutes ticked by on the clock and the kilometres of asphalt flowed under the tires.
“You make me happy when skies are gray …”
From that point on, Auntie Laila and my mother were sisters and whenever they were together they would gossip, they would giggle, they would laugh out loud. They supported one another, they travelled together, and they cooked for everyone.
When Mom died in 2015, Auntie Laila was unable to travel to Vancouver for the celebration of life, but she was in that room with us all.
She was there.
Knowing that Auntie Laila’s illness was advancing, and with the loss of another family matriarch that year, I was overwhelmed with the need to see her.
To hug her. To hear her say “Ya aini, ya habibti…”. My eyes, a profound endearment in Arabic, my dear one.
So, Luc and I did just that. We went to see Auntie Laila.
We embarked on a three-week road trip that took us from Vancouver to Kamloops, Jasper, Grande Prairie, Edmonton, Calgary, Lake Louise, Kelowna, and back home. At many stops along the way, we spent time with friends and family members. And in Grande Prairie, we caught up with Auntie Laila and the many relatives there.
It was magical.
“You’ll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away …”
The last time I saw Auntie Laila in person was early December 2019.
I had suggested to my father that we visit Grande Prairie because the one truth that we continue to forget and have to relearn is that life — no matter how much we try to wrestle it to the ground — is random and change can come suddenly even when it seems like we will have forever. The toll of age and illness is never predictable. The time to go and see, to stop and call, to visit and reminisce is always now although it is not often feasible to follow through on such intentions and desires.
We were lucky enough to make plans and to act on them.
Dad and I travelled to Grande Prairie. As he challenged Uncle Ed to consecutive games of crib, I sat on the couch in the family room or in the living room and Auntie Laila sat in her chair. We would chat or not, we watched the Christmas movies playing on the television, or not. It didn’t really matter. What mattered is I could look up and see that she was there. I could smile at her, I could hug her, I could say, “I love you.”
The last time I saw Auntie Laila was just a few weeks ago on March 14th during a Zoom call that gathered households together from around the world to celebrate a number of family milestones.
Auntie Laila didn’t say anything, and she may not have quite understood what all the fuss was about, but just to see her made me tear up because while it felt as if she were in the room with me, she was so very far away.
“The other night dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamt I held you in my arms …”
And now the connection has been disrupted.
There is comfort in the idea of Auntie Laila at peace, or more accurately — as my cousin Medina said to me on the phone today — she is somewhere cooking, shopping, laughing, gossiping, and partying up a storm with Alma, Haifa, Maza, and Yulanda among so many others.
It is, however, a cold comfort because the void she leaves behind is immense. It is now a distance that we will all only be able to traverse in our dreams, in our memories, and in our hearts.
In the stories we share with one another, over the years to come, of a woman who meant so very much to each and every one of us.
“But when I awoke, dear, I was mistaken
So I hung my head and I cried.”
That was my reaction when Julie Nesrallah, the host of Tempo on CBC Radio, said she was about to play Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”.
Scheherazade is one of my favourite pieces of classical music. When it plays, I soar. I am lifted out of myself to float along currents of enchantment.
When I’m driving, as is often the case when I listen to Tempo, this is problematic. My foot tends to press down on the gas pedal the more immersed I become in the music!
This transcendence, this plug-in to bliss, emphasizes the power of art to shape, teach, transform, heal, and comfort. These attributes are what we need more than ever as we all struggle to grapple with the consequences of the global pandemic.
Our focus as individuals, families, and communities is on surviving. The focus of governments is on managing health systems and restoring economies. However, to ensure the well-being of society and the well-being of each of us, we need to support creative expression. We need to ensure that the arts thrive.
Unfortunately, arts and culture seldom register as a voting issue during election campaigns, such as the one currently underway in British Columbia. When cast alongside health, housing, and jobs, arts and culture drop down the list of priorities as seemingly, relatively trivial.
I understand why that happens and yet I feel the tendency to do so is misguided. Embedding art in all that we do enriches our experiences, enhances our daily lives, and elevates our humanity. As such, it’s critical that we push our political parties to include support for the arts in their platforms and our elected officials to invest in the arts, especially to facilitate the inclusion of the arts in education, in schools and in the curriculum.
To win the argument for the importance of the arts, professional performance arts organizations often deploy and rely on economic arguments to secure sponsorships and donations. It is true that arts organizations function as economic engines. They employ a wide array of people and generate spending in a number of business sectors. As such, this is an important argument to make especially in a world that justifies investments by returns in dollars and cents. In our current times though the pandemic mitigates the effectiveness of such arguments. We need to emphasize, as we always should do, that investing in the arts is about more than the bottom line of tangible, monetary effects.
It is important to note that arguing for government support of the arts is not the same as advocating for state-sponsored culture. The latter is about nourishing the arts and the latter is about promulgating propaganda. That is why support of the arts should not be contingent on government funding alone. The arts will only survive with individual and community support. We each carry a measure of personal responsibility to ensure that artists and arts organizations have the space, time, and resources to flourish and create.
I also believe that the definition of what constitutes art must be inclusive, expansive, and generous. It is not about creating hierarchical preferences for one art form or the other or privileging the art of certain groups and a few voices. For example, people tend to label opera as elitist and yet opera, fundamentally, is about the human voice and the power of the voice does not depend on costumes, sets, and large venues. Some of the most profound experiences I have had with opera have been in intimate gatherings with no staging to distract from the singer’s voice.
Opera is not an elite art form. It is typically available to only a few because professional opera productions are expensive to stage. That is why the survival of opera as an art form in its professional incarnation depends on government, corporate, and individual support. More importantly, it is crucial for opera companies to invite audiences in with programmes that enhance affordability and to venture out to meet audiences with community-based initiatives.
Support for the arts is about elevating horizons and expanding visions. Art in all its forms should never be a privilege which only a few enjoy and it should never be seen as a talent which only a few can exercise. Creative expression is in all of us and it is for all of us. It is a bridge to building community and understanding. It is a celebration of diversity. It is a path to better.
Art is what makes our spirits soar and our hearts sing.
It makes us more than.
Support the arts in these bleak times. Financially if and when you are able to, with your time and attention if you cannot, because that song, that book, that drawing, that moment of creativity captured in whichever art form you enjoy is a spark of hope.
“Non! Rien de rien … Non, Je ne regrette rien.”
With these words, Edith Piaf sings and proclaims a life of no regrets for the good and bad times she’s had, for her ups and downs, her sorrows and pleasures. It’s a powerful anthem, but the binary of no regrets versus regret is too stark a contrast for the reality of complex lives and complicated life journeys.
Similarly, the boastful, defiant, and defensive posturing of Paul Anka’s “Regrets, I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention” is also unsatisfying. The insistence that “I did it my way” elides any notion of factors that are beyond our control and circumstances that constrain our ability to act.
In terms of my own life, regrets for opportunities that didn’t come together or that I let elude my grasp haunt me.
If I had been accepted into the MA programme in History at UBC or if my application to law school had been successful in the early 1980s, I would have likely built a multi-decade career by now in either academia or law. Of course, I have found my way back to academia and am a better scholar today than I would have been as a 22-year-old, but it is difficult balancing the reality of being a mature woman with that of being a junior scholar.
I resigned my position with Expo 86 before the fair opened. I was an early hire and one of the original hostesses that welcomed guests to the display pavilion before moving over to the Expo Centre, better known today as Vancouver’s Science World. If I had persevered and accepted the boredom and circumscribed responsibility of my role at that time for the benefit of experiencing the world’s fair as an insider, would I have established a network that allowed me to work at other events around the world? On the other hand, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to different countries without the obligation of working while away.
Before returning to Vancouver from Toronto in 1992, I tried to secure a position with Rogers Cablesystems, my employer at the time, but they didn’t come through with an offer until after I’d made another commitment. What would have happened if they had made the offer sooner and I had been a part of Rogers’s pay-per-view initiative? What if I had listened to Jerry Beckerman, a family friend and well-connected political strategist, and sought the nomination for a nearby riding when the incumbent MLA decided not to run for re-election? What if I had been more diligent in pitching stories when I was writing food and travel articles, with pieces appearing in the North Shore Outlook, The Georgia Straight, and other publications? What if I had followed up with the editor from Gourmet who gave me his card when I attended a weekend of culinary workshops and events in New York, which the magazine had organized?
This process of self-reflection is necessary, ongoing, and can’t merely be an end-of-days reckoning. In Oedipus Rex, Sophocles writes, “Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day, count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.” While crossing that final frontier may mean an end to pain, if we can’t find comfort and happiness until we die, then life is an empty, joyless exercise. Sophocles reflected the mentality of his era, one in which society viewed humans as playthings of the gods. Many today entertain similar notions of fate. However, to believe that life is a matter of God’s will is to embrace the simplicity of an answer rather than the complexity of a quest.
As I see it, the resolution of my life’s trajectories brings me to this point, this present, this now. It seems to me that taking the measure of one’s life, regrets and all, is about the ability to say “okay, I’m good here and I will continue to strive.” It is an eternal balance between letting go and holding on because to have no regrets is a life without learning and to wallow in regrets is a life without purpose.
The current Covid19 global pandemic has tugged us further into living in and for the moment. It also shines a glaring spotlight on systemic injustices and inequities that allow people with privilege to stay home rather than negotiating the frontlines and trenches of in-person work. This reinforces my belief that the greatest privilege is the privilege of mobility, the ability to move between spheres of existence whether physical, emotional, social, geographical, intellectual, or economic. That’s why boxing people into hierarchical slots and labelling them as this or that is an act of oppression. It denies individuals the right to move across boundaries and between spaces, in a material as well as a metaphorical sense, perpetuating existing power structures and historical patterns of domination.
While it is easy for me to opine about the life I’ve lived, in a blog post of over 1,000 words, it also projects a certainty and confidence I don’t feel. Rather, take this writing as evidence of what we all have to do. We all have to sit with the unease and discomfort of a future we don’t control and a past we can’t forget.
For me, in this moment and stage of life, I know I am more comfortable with myself, if not at ease. I have come to terms with who I am and what I have done although I am continually questioning my understandings. I’m still sorting out where I want to go from here, why and how. I recognize that there are decisions and commitments that I will have to make although many factors are beyond my control. I also know that I have to continue to be aware and reflective, to strive and to move. I can never ever get so submerged into myself that I fail to recognize my privilege, forget to be grateful for all I have, and make the mistake of thinking my experience stands in for everyone else’s.
The actions I take may not change the world or shape current events, but I need to do what I can — we all need to do what we can — to make things better for ourselves, our friends, our families, our communities, and our world. It’s about the stake we have in lifting up humanity as a collective. The loss of that collective vision or limiting our collective vision to those who look like us and live like us, is the greatest threat to our future. As we survey the regrets and resolutions of our lives, as we raft the rapids of our existence, it is our obligation and responsibility to ensure others can do so, too, safely, with dignity, integrity, and the knowledge that they are valued and valuable.