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.”