My first console system was a Super Nintendo, which came with the side-scrolling video game Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. Yoshi, carrying baby Mario on its back, is searching for the kidnapped baby Luigi. If an enemy successfully damages the dinosaur, baby Mario pops into the air and floats around in a bubble, bawling until the player makes contact with him. During a visit to New York when I was eight or nine, I played this game with the volume up on the TV at my grandmother’s house. Teta (a Lebanese term for “grandma”), a tiny woman who would regularly wear bangles that jingled, walked slowly into the room to see what all the commotion was about. Perplexed by baby Mario’s “Wahh! Wahh! Wahh!” she demanded he stop his wailing, lightly tapping the baby on the screen with her hand to discipline him. I kept running Yoshi into enemies, and she kept the gag going for minutes. For reasons I can’t explain, this was the greatest joke I had ever seen.
Our family had moved from New Jersey to New Hampshire after my sister was born, when I was about four. We would drive to New York during holidays and the summer and stay with Teta and Jiddo, my grandfather. Their living room was more like a living museum. The side tables were brimming with dallahs and other heirlooms-in-waiting; shelves held photos of practically every member of our typically huge Lebanese and Palestinian family.
Teta Mona loved to smoke Marlboros, make food, and watch TV. When she was younger, her dark hair flared out in what might best be described as a short bouffant, a lion’s mane surrounding a stern-featured face that belied her actual personality.
Teta spoke no English; she was my unstructured Arabic lesson. Did I want pita bread, Nabulsi cheese, and tea for breakfast? That would be khobz, jibneh, and shay. The bathroom was the hamam. The language barrier meant I was not able to hold any deep, soul-searching conversations with Teta. She understood “I love you,” though. She was also a fan of dramatically and repeatedly kissing the tops of my and my sister’s heads when we’d first arrive.
Jiddo was equally fine company for a quiet, sensitive little kid. His name was Habib Mureb. He was the father of my mother. He had soft eyes, and a sympathetic face; he looked like the actor Dominic Chianese but with a robust head of white hair.
Jiddo gave us candy, birthday money, hugs that provided the same feeling as putting on a shirt right out of the dryer. I was captivated when he and my father would play backgammon—tawla—the pieces being slapped onto their points after the gratifying sound of the dice clattering against the board. Occasionally the players would let me roll—a serious responsibility.
I can recall Jiddo showing anger toward me only once when I was little, and I don’t know if it could even be called that. It was more like puzzlement. I was playing with the three locks on the front door of Teta and Jiddo’s apartment in Yonkers, and for some reason that now escapes me, I locked one of the locks that was never used because it would get stuck. When Jiddo got home, he couldn’t enter the apartment. The other adults had to figure out how to pull the door open while I hid in another room, thinking that I’d catch hell because I had permanently banned my grandfather from his own home. But I don’t recall being in significant trouble, just being told not to mess with the locks again.
Molly had been a member of the family for only a couple of months when we first brought her with us on a visit to Teta and Jiddo’s. She had long golden hair, rarely meowed, and would routinely agree to a few minutes of being cradled like a baby. The new environment of my grandparents’ apartment was a little daunting for Molly, but eventually she was sitting in Jiddo’s lap as he watched Arabic TV. By that point I was a middle school student, but one who had missed the lesson on how to properly pet a cat: I’d been gently but ineffectively using my palm to pat her. Jiddo gave me a silent tutorial, methodically scratching her under her chin. Molly shut her eyes and purred, and the corners of her mouth made it appear that she was almost smiling. I adopted Jiddo’s superior method after that.
My memories are incomprehensibly scattered, but vivid. Teta used to watch pro wrestling, taped for her convenience. Eventually she acquired Arabic-language television and drifted toward that, but there was a significant period when she was invested in spandex theater. I don’t believe she had a favorite wrestler, or that she even understood the plotlines. But I can picture her as she held her Marlboro aloft and tsk-tsk-tsked after one combatant was clobbered with a steel chair.
The apartment always had a smell of cigarettes. I’m not sure if the scent grew stronger, or if I was more attuned to it as I grew older. One time as a child, I was concerned and desperately wanted to relay a message to Teta, but I didn’t know how to say it. I asked my mother to help me write it out in Arabic on a piece of paper so she could understand. Even though she smiled, there was a faint sadness in her eyes as she read the words: “Please stop smoking.”
Teta’s cooking was the nucleus. The consensus opinion was that she made the best food in her family. (My mom is neck-and-neck with her, but that belief may be biased.) I was especially fond of Teta’s preparation of tabbouleh, always fresh and salty, an effective way to smuggle nutritious tomatoes into a growing child’s stomach. Patient and skillful, she made sure to wrap the grape leaves tightly, but not too tightly, around the rice mixture in her warak enab. Shapely, symmetrical stuffed grape leaves are the pride of a Lebanese kitchen. She and Jiddo loved to throw parties, according to my mother. They’d find any excuse to have people over and make lots of food: christenings, graduations, a relative in town.
When my cousins were around, Teta would host big lunches for us in her kitchen. We were awestruck when Jiddo would chomp, without blinking, on the hot peppers that sat in a side dish to complement the meal. There was also always a bowl of green and black olives, which was more our speed. Even if we were at the table for two hours, no one ever ate enough to Teta’s satisfaction.
At first, the news that Jiddo had fallen ill while traveling to Canada didn’t fully sink in. Upon learning of his death in August of 2009, to my surprise there were no tears streaming down my face. I asked myself why and couldn’t find an answer.
I was entering my third year of college. A matter of days later, I was sniveling over the breakup of a relationship that had ended after only a few weeks. I began to wonder whether my emotions were invested in the right things, unleashing a whole slew of questions: Did it even make sense to prioritize what was worth crying over? What kind of weakness did it reveal? What are tears for? Is a devotion to stoicism advisable, or possible, or healthy in any way?
Jiddo’s funeral would be in New York. I told my mother that I couldn’t make it because my summer job at a supermarket wouldn’t let me take off. I don’t know if this would’ve been true, because I didn’t actually ask. Looking back, that excuse was made out of fear. I was afraid of feeling those emotions and losing my composure. If a brief, ultimately meaningless relationship could draw so much emotion from me, how would I cope in public with the real grief of my grandfather’s death? I’ve visited Jiddo’s grave a few times since, but the shame of that selfish, cowardly decision remains. I vowed not to make the same mistake when the time came, if my grandmother were to die.
On Thursday, April 9, my mother told me that Teta had been taken to the hospital in an ambulance. She had fluid in her lungs and was in bad shape. The phone call came right as I had finished the edits on the draft of an article about the novel coronavirus pandemic, specifically what the constant sirens in New York City were doing to my psyche. The following day, she was gone, the official cause listed as pneumonia.
Jiddo was mostly coherent when he passed at 85. Teta was not given the same graceful exit. Her mind gradually deteriorated. I had a firsthand preview of her decline in 2012, when I lived with her during an internship in Manhattan.
By then, Teta preferred to sleep on one of the foam-cushioned couches in the living room instead of in her bed. She had enough blankets and pillows to make it comfortable for her. I slept on the other couch. One night, just as I was drifting off to sleep, I heard her talking loudly, as if she were having a conversation. But it didn’t sound like she was talking to me. In my fractured Arabic, I asked what she needed. Eventually I gathered enough to figure out that she believed someone else was in the room with us, a stranger of some sort. The lights were on, and the door was locked. I was scared, mostly for her.
I don’t remember the last time I saw Teta in a coherent state. In 2013, she started to have an at-home nurse visit, although she was still able to do basic activities on her own. Around that same time, I moved back to New Hampshire, as my writing career stagnated. Over the years, through photos on social media, I watched Teta’s normally dyed black hair grow gray, and I returned to live in New York with more secure work. She still smiled for the camera. Then, it was March 23, 2019. My mother had driven down to spend a couple of days in Yonkers for some business with her siblings. She said my girlfriend and I should take a train to come see her and Teta.
The person laid back in that chair, unable to move, lips pursed—that could not have been her. She no longer knew Arabic. At all hours of the day a friendly caregiver would take care of her, preparing nutrient-rich meals of slurry that had none of the flavor of tabbouleh, or warak enab, or mulukhiyah, or mujaddara, or any of the other dishes Teta had caringly prepared for any family at her kitchen table. I said hello to her and, with welled eyes, put my hand on her frail shoulder.
When I was younger, I desired to position myself as the “strong, silent type,” like Tony Soprano’s role model, the late actor Gary Cooper. Now that seems like an unwinnable and unnecessary achievement. Besides, what good did it do Tony in the end? I didn’t look down on others who showed sorrow, but I felt like it was my duty to keep it together for the people around me, and that they would admire me for it. It was my responsibility to expend my allowance of tears judiciously.
Since October, here are some instances in which I have performed an action that could accurately be defined as “crying”: when I knew I had to quit a job I adored, at a friend’s wedding (a pleasant experience), briefly at a Mulan trailer before the last Star Wars movie (not sure what happened there, as I have no childhood attachment to Mulan), and, most significantly, after my sister called me in a panic, telling me she was going to a hospital because Mom had been in a crash on the highway and a witness said her car flipped over twice and I definitely thought I had just learned that she was dead. (She suffered a concussion, but miraculously didn’t have any other serious injuries.)
As was the case when Jiddo died about 10 years ago, the sadness about Teta’s death did not come to me in one overwhelming moment. When I think of either of them the sorrow sits in my stomach, a dense meal that will never be fully digested. It leaves me heavy and tired.
Because of the pandemic, Teta didn’t have a proper funeral. My relatives couldn’t sit by her in the hospital, because they weren’t allowed inside. Everyone seems to have learned at once how necessary human contact is to function.
I wish that I had been more curious about who Jiddo and Teta were beyond my grandparents, one part of an intense familial bond based on inherent, silent affection. I wish I asked them more about their lives at those late-afternoon meals instead of worrying about what I’d watch on Kids’ WB while I ate. Merely being in their presence was so comforting, but it took years to realize how much more I could have shared with them. The grief spreads out in cascading moments triggered by memories, waves that will continue to lap against the shore for the rest of my life, each one making its own temporary imprint.
When it’s safe to travel again, I’ll make sure to visit Teta to keep my promise. Years ago, it was planned that she would have a plot right next to Jiddo. At 1:30 p.m. on April 14, six men in masks and gloves carried Mona Mureb from the hearse to her final resting place.