One can never be sure whether one is doing the right thing, especially when the patient, like my mother at the end, can only speak with difficulty. But all indications were that she did not care to go on living.
How quick is the deterioration when it starts, how quick the descent into oblivion.
That morning my brother Samer, my wife Penny and I went to my mother’s flat to say our goodbyes, and to empty it. I had expected it would be a cold house, without life. The house of my parents, the house of the middle years – years of living a middle-class life that was also so turbulent, troubled and full of tragedy. The house of so many dramas, long past and more recent, from which both my parents were carried out in coffins. When we have emptied it we will be giving up this house, which Mother didn’t own, and I will never again have to see anyone carried out from it. But as it turned out we didn’t find the house so lifeless. My father and mother were still there, as was more of myself than I expected.
Evening had descended now, twilight was over, night was upon us – a dark moonless night. I walked to Mother’s room, where I saw the quilt spread on her empty bed, that same quilt that had accompanied my parents in every house they’d ever lived in.
A few months before Mother died, my brother called. ‘Do you think she can recognise us?’ His voice betrayed sadness, disappointment and a profound wrenching hurt. I said I didn’t know.
Just a few weeks earlier she had been able to recite Mark Antony’s speech from Julius Caesar, which she had studied at the Anglican School for Girls in Jerusalem. It was as though she was emerging from behind the veil of death to prove to us that she had not lost her mind. She was making the decision to leave this life with her mind intact. It was a valiant, dignified act that proved that in choosing to die she was still exercising her will. She was fed up with life.
The process of deterioration, the progressive descent, had been going on for a while. My heart fell when I noticed that my mother had not been cleaning her teeth. When she was well she never failed to do this. We were also getting accounts from her helper of Mother waking up at night and walking through the house calling for my father: ‘Aziz, Aziz, where are you?’
The light coming into the house was making shadows. It was the hour Mother hated most, when she did her best not to be alone.
Mother always said, ‘The moment the neighbour rang the doorbell and I heard the fear in his voice I knew what had happened.’ It was as though she had been expecting it. That moment was never forgotten. It marked the transition from having a husband and being a proud wife to becoming a miserable widow.
Later, her friend Ibtisam, who lost her own husband a while back, would boast, speaking rapidly without pausing for breath, that it had been her husband, the medical doctor, who was the first to arrive at the scene of the crime. She would proceed to enlighten my mother about what her husband saw when he arrived at the driveway of the garage, where my father had just parked his car and was making his way to the door of the building. How my father, whose throat had been slit by that murderer, lay in a pool of blood that spilled all the way down to the street. And how the doctor had put his fingers to my father’s throat to check whether there was any pulse but found him already dead. It was too late to do anything for him.
After he was gone we would sit, my mother and I, in the sunroom. Mother would ask imploringly, ‘Why did he do this?’ As if he did it to himself. Mother had that habit, of blaming the victim. I would say that he lived as he wanted. He satisfied himself. This is how he wanted to live.
‘But to have left me like this?’ And I would be unsympathetic, unable to begin to understand the nature of their relationship, which I got completely wrong. I could not appreciate that as a woman of her generation she was tied to and completed by her man and had no life independent of him.
‘Why?’ she would say. ‘What was it all for? What more did we need? Why did he have to keep on fighting? Who for? Who deserves all this struggle? Who cares about me now? Now that he’s gone and left me alone what sort of life do I have? It galls my heart.
‘When he was alive our house would be full of supplicants, those who wanted him to intercede on their behalf with the military rulers. They put him forward, exposed him to danger while they hid behind him, fearing to tarnish their own names. He went ahead while they remained concealed. He was always willing to help anyone who asked, as long as he could. The people who asked for his help never appreciated what it took out of him and what it cost me, seeing him suffer as he did from fatigue and incrimination. He never gave up. If it was an official he needed to contact to get the work done, he would call again and again, twenty, thirty, forty times if necessary, never giving up. He would be more adamant than the person needing the favour. It was a question of pride. He never allowed himself to fail, whatever the cost. Where were all these people after he was gone?’
I was aware that he had done a lot for us as well. He kept us feeling special and dignified and saved us from suffering the worst of the defeat and the terrible situation under occupation. He stood up to the occupier and was able to face the soldiers and their officers at every point. He never submitted to them.
At the press conference we held at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem to report on the failure of the Israeli police to carry out a proper investigation into his murder, my mother had said, ‘The man who did the most for peace is left to die without justice.’ But this fell on deaf ears. She was addressing the Israeli public, among whom were many friends of hers, but not one of them called her to offer assistance.
She was right to be angry. After he died everyone abandoned her. Our people crept back to their small holes, preferring not to stick their necks out or speak about it, many feeling ashamed of the implication of their leaders in this murder. The Israelis, smug in their own way, said, ‘Well, of course this is what it’s like for those, however decent they might be, who live on the other side.’
And how brave she was when we went on our quest for justice together. It was her last service, last sacrifice, to a husband who required so much from her throughout their life together. But we could not succeed. They closed all the doors in our faces. She refused to see him after he died, saying she wanted to remember him energetic and active, not as a corpse. She never visited his grave and hardly ever talked about him. He was there in her life, accompanying her in silence. She never gave him up. It might be that Mother’s refusal to leave the house where the murder happened was out of her sense of allegiance to her husband. She remained there, a custodian of the house, of Father’s possessions and papers, refusing ever to abandon her post.