It’s been seven years today since I returned to my life in Canada. Yet it feels like only yesterday when my family greeted me at the airport after my sojourn in Japan, where I worked as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) through the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET Programme). My decision to leave a stable job and take this adventure wasn’t an easy one, but I knew it was the right one. Life is short. I learned this after my father lost his struggle with cancer. Shortly after his death, grief filled my days and nights. I tried to not let it grasp me, but it sometimes took hold of me.
During my journey in Japan, I often cut through an old cemetery on my way to teach at one of my assigned schools in Shiogama, a city in the Miyagi Prefecture of Japan. I stepped on the old, chiselled stone steps, some so narrow that it was a bit of a balancing act just to make it from one step to another. Tiptoeing carefully, I made my way around the graves and onto narrow pathways lined with bushes and star-shaped flowers giving off a scent of orange blossoms. I walked quietly. Could the dead hear my footsteps? I wondered. And the thought suddenly occurred to me that what I was doing was probably considered bad etiquette. Who walks through a cemetery if there is no one to visit there? Walking through a cemetery isn’t a stroll in the park. Not really, no. But since my father’s death, I found solace in graveyards and this one with its strong, yet ancient, stones and uneven and descending steps teetering between two worlds - an old one and new one where the Board of Education building sat across the way and a curved road led to the homes of the living, maybe the relatives of those who were in this resting place - drew me in. From the first moment I saw this cemetery, I was fascinated by it. Not in a gloomy way as some people might think. There was so much beauty and mystery in its architecture. Some graves had woven bamboo fences around them while a number of plots had torii gates. Flowers, mostly tulips and chrysanthemums, filled vases. Every day there were fresh flowers. Yet I never saw anyone here on my way to school. At one end of the cemetery, cherry trees grew. They seemed so delicate as if a metaphor for the fragility of life and death. On the opposite side of the graveyard, tiny Buddhist sculptures were clumped together, some chipped by the beaks of crows. When the tar-coloured birds dove at me, I quickened my pace and I wondered what those crows could be thinking, peeling off the violet lacquer of the Buddhist statues which seemed like sentinels protecting this sacred place where spirits lived and the living came to visit during Obon or other special occasions. Or daily if the grief couldn’t leave aching souls and bones.
I used to frequently visit my father at his grave. Stood there speaking with him as though he were standing across from me, but there was only his headstone and a bunch of flowers I had placed on his grave. In life, we used to argue all the time: two passionately, fiercely independent people who wanted to be right. In death, there was silence, but I yearned to hear my father’s strong voice again.
Babba was born and raised in a mountain village in Lebanon and when he came to Canada, he met my mother who grew up in the same village but ironically they never knew each other when they lived in Lebanon. They married in Canada and brought four girls into this world. They raised us as best as they could given the language and cultural barriers they faced. Did they know how difficult it would be to relate to daughters who were born in a place so different from their own homeland with ideals that were probably so far off from their tiny village? Maybe they grieved their previous lives in Lebanon, maybe even grieved certain dreams they may have had about the new world. Coming to a new place and starting fresh isn’t an easy thing. Like grief. Grief could crumple your wounded spirit either alone or in the company of those who share a similar loss. A community of people carrying heavy loads. Like the elderly widows of my parents’ village kneading homemade pita bread together. Everyone enjoyed the bread, dipped it in olive oil or scooped hummus with it. It was warm and soft after the women pounded and flattened it with wrinkled fingers and heavily-lined palms then placed the round pieces in a stone oven, but before that, the tasty bread was just balls of cold dough. Like grief. Cold at first, but then warmed and softened with gentle hands and even gentler words and memories.
Similar to those elderly women, my sisters and I were our own community and we found a balance between the old and new worlds but it wasn’t always easy. We rebelled. We fought for our freedom, our rights, but the traditions of our Lebanese heritage were deeply implanted in us, and yet despite this struggle we somehow found an equilibrium between our Lebanese and Canadian cultures. However, my father and I still fought from time to time and although our relationship was strained, we cared deeply for each other. When he was diagnosed with cancer, his illness pared away the wall we’d built between us with our differences and strong personalities. The cancer chipped at it like the crows whittled at these beautiful and ancient Buddhist sculptures in this faraway country, so far from my home, so far from my family but I had packed memories with me. I carried them with me every day.