She was a conundrum, Jalal’s mother. Khalidah. Born in Palestine and raised in the Occupied West Bank. Her family moved to Brooklyn in the late 70s and lived through the crack era, Reaganomics, and assimilation. She was a hard woman to love, but she found it in a man who was perpetually broke, but made her laugh. Jalal’s father was her Knight-in-Rusted-Armor that she really didn’t know. They were married in the early 80s.
Khalidah raised Jalal with tough love. More tough than love. She kept him on a tight leash. She knew where he was, where he was going, and where he went, at all times. She pushed him to excel in school. She was the general of an army that consisted of Jalal and she prepared him for the war of life. Jalal hated it. His mother was a hard-ass. Jalal felt constricted by her and her rules. She was ruthless and overbearing. But, Khalidah was his mother.
The phone was buzzing wildly on the coffee table. It started rattling the half empty glass of Jack Daniels on the rocks. Buzzzzzzz. Jalal was asleep. On the couch. It was 4 am and the television in the living room was still on. Buzzzzzzz. The phone rang. It was on vibrate. The caller ID was a picture of a woman with tight curls. Jalal’s sister Ghada. With a loud groan, Jalal threw his hand onto the phone and put it to his ear. “Hello,” he answered, groggily.
“Your mother is in the hospital. Get on a plane. The doctors don’t think she’s going to last that much longer.” Her voice was sad. Ghada had a closer relationship to her mother. She was the star child. The one that made their parents proud. Not like Jalal, the “writer”.
Jalal sat up on the couch after hanging up the phone. He downed the rest of the Jack Daniels that was in the cup. He poured another cup. Lighting a cigarette, he turned on his laptop. After twenty minutes, he booked a flight for 8:30 in the morning. 4 hours. He drank the second cup of whiskey in one gulp, crushed the cigarette in the ashtray, and then jumped in the shower. He packed his bag with a few items. He was a little tipsy, so he called a taxi.
The taxi screeched to a stop in front of his apartment. Jalal was already outside, smoking a cigarette. He hopped in the taxi. “LAX, please,” he said before being asked.
“Okay, my friend,” the Taxi driver said. He was a burly Arab man with a mustache that curled at the ends. The cab had that new car smell. The man was playing a recording of the Quran on the cab’s radio. It wasn’t loud. It was playing softly. Jalal began to doze off.
Thirty-five minutes later, the taxi driver was yelling at Jalal to wake up. “We are at the airport.” His r’s rolled off his tongue and it reminded Jalal of the way his father, a fellow taxi driver, rolled his r’s.
“Oh, shit. Sorry!” Jalal gave the man the fare, plus a generous tip and ran to the check in counter.
After checking in, Jalal bought a coffee to sober up. He found his terminal and sat on in a chair waiting to board the plan. He called his sister.
“Hey, I’m at the airport. I’ll be there in a couple of hours.” He said, taking sips from his coffee.
“Okay, good good.”
“How is she?”
“There’s no improvement. I’ll keep you updated. Get wifi when you get on the plane so we can stay in contact.”
“Okay. I think we’re boarding now.”
The plane landed in Cleveland, Ohio. Hell on earth. Jalal had a connecting flight from Cleveland to New York. But it started to snow. A lot. An hour into the layover and the airport started canceling flights. Jalal’s flight was delayed. He sat on an empty chair, in an empty terminal and closed his eyes.
Jalal won a writing competition in high school. His first story. It was about a group of kids who fell into a wormhole and transported to an alternative version of their lives. He was awarded fifty dollars and his story was published in the high school’s paper. He was so excited that he ran home to tell his mother, hoping she would be just as excited for him. She wasn’t.
“You spent time writing this story and not studying?” She was in the kitchen making dinner for the family. The house smelled like lamb and rice. It always smelled like lamb and rice. “How are you going to get into a good college while you’re wasting time writing stories?”
“Ma, it’s not that serious. My teacher said it would be a good idea if I entered.”
“Oh, is your teacher putting food on your plate, huh?!” She was fidgeting with a spoon. Her hair was down to her shoulders. She was very proud of her hair. Jet Black. Not a single gray. “I don’t care what your teacher says.”
“I don’t know why you’re so mad, it’s just one story.”
“You are going to a great university. Then a great law school. I didn’t leave Falasteen so you could write stories about bullshit.” There it was. Immigrant’s guilt. Whenever one of her children, particularly Jalal, did anything against her wishes, she invoked the “I didn’t come to this country for this” line.
“I think you’re making this bigger than it is, mama.”
“No more stories. Focus on your studies. You have your SATs coming up.”
Jalal didn’t stop writing however. He wrote more. He wrote every day. He kept a journal with him everywhere he went. He wrote flash fiction. He wrote personal things. He wrote what he saw. He never showed or told his mother anything about his writing. As far as she was concerned, he was studying. Always studying.
When Jalal woke up, there were more people around him, sitting down at the terminal. He stretched out his arms and let out a loud moan. Rubbing his eyes, he noticed how late it was. He walked up to the booth at the terminal and asked the airline employee what was going on. More snow. Flights were being canceled. They’re trying to clear out the runways. They don’t know how long it’ll be.
Upset, Jalal sat back down. He took out his copy of Palestinian Children by Ghassan Kanafani. There was a woman breastfeeding her child. She was sitting across Jalal. She made cooing noises and the baby’s little hands were grabbing at the air. She stared at the baby with an intense love. It looked like she was on the verge of tears. Looking at her baby. This thing she created. She loved it more than anything.
“How old is your baby?” Jalal asked, putting his book on the empty seat next to him.
“He’s eight months,” she said, her eyes gleamed with pride as she looked at Jalal.
“My sister has a baby girl about the same age. They’re too perfect.”
“They really are.” The baby stopped feeding and moved his head around trying to enter the conversation.
“May he live to see 100 years.”
The woman smiled and thanked Jalal. The Baby grabbed her finger and garbled unintelligible baby noises. Jalal went back to his book. There were others standing or sitting around the terminal. Waiting. An older man was sitting in the same row as Jalal. He was nodding off. A man in a suit was standing by the large window that looked out to the tarmacs, they were fogged up. The man, probably Jalal’s age, was looking at his watch. He’d shake his head every time, as if things were going to change between the five minutes he looked at his watch. A group of kids were sitting on the floor playing video games on their iPads. Airport employees were running around frantically, trying to get things moving along.
Three hours later and there was commotion at the front of the terminal. They were going to start boarding the plane. The snowstorm, through the window, had stopped and they managed to clear up the planes and the tarmacs. They were finally about to leave. They called any mothers on the flight first and the woman with the baby grabbed all her bags, her baby resting on one arm. Jalal looked on in astonishment. Mothers are superheroes, he thought to himself.
Jalal walked slowly through the aisle looking for this assigned seat. Moving his eyes from the ticket to the little numbered tags above the seats, he noticed he was walking further and further away from the front of the plane. Finally, seeing his seat, he placed his carry on in the overhead compartment and sat in the aisle seat. He hated the aisle seat, but seeing how he bought his ticket a few hours before hand, he really had no reason to complain. At least he found a ticket on time.
There was a girl sitting at the window seat, staring out of the window. She had long black hair, and a beanie on. She was wearing jogger pants and had headphones on, the music audible, but muffled. When Jalal sat down, she turned and looked at him. She smiled. Jalal smiled back, then sighed.
“Long night?” the girl asked.
“You could say that.” Jalal responded.
“Same. Cleveland is so ugly. My name’s Sam.” She was looking at the window again. Jalal looked out, over her.
“Yeah, it’s pretty gross, I guess. I’m Jalal, nice to meet you.” Sam turned to him and extended her hand. They shook and smiled again. “Are you in the habit of talking to strangers on plane rides?
“Yeah, I travel a lot, for work. Figured I’d make a bunch of temporary friends.” Sam explained.
“hmm, that makes sense.” The seat belt sign blinked on and the captain’s voice came on the loud speaker telling everyone the details of the trip, the weather reports, and apologized for the delays. People were clapping. Jalal laughed to himself and shook his head. The plane jolted and began its ascent. Finally, I’m going home, Jalal said to himself.
The plane adjusted itself. The seatbelt sign turned off and the captain came back on the speakers to tell everyone they were free to move around the cabin. Some people got up, rushed to the bathroom. Others unfastened their seatbelts, including Jalal. He opened his laptop and paid the ten dollars for an hour of wifi. He sent his sister a text message through his computer, checked his email. Nothing from work.
“Where are you headed?” Sam asked.
“Huh?” the question caught Jalal off guard. “Oh, uh, New York.”
“Hey! Me too! Maybe we won’t be so temporary after all. What for, family?”
“Yeah, something like that.” Jalal laughed nervously.
“That’s nice.” She stopped asking questions and stared in front of her as if she was thinking about a second. She must have forgotten what she was going to say because she looked out of the window again. Jalal looked at her from the corner of his eye. She had soft features. Rounded cheeks. Rounded jaw. Her face relaxed, it looked like she was more concerned than she let on.
“Are you still afraid of flying?” Jalal asked.
“Its not really the flying that I’m afraid of. It’s the emptiness. Look at it,” she motioned outside the wind. Jalal looked out. Nothing but clouds. “It’s kind of like floating in the ocean. The feeling is unexplainable awesome and terrifying at the same time.
“Is that why you keep looking out the window?” Jalal asked.
“Yeah, something like that. Face your fears I suppose.”
“still no change :(.” The text from Ghada read. Jalal stared at it for minute, his hands stroking his beard.
“Okay. My flight was delayed for a while but I’m in the air now. I’ll be landing in 4 hours or so.” He sent the text. Ghada said “okay.” Jalal closed his laptop and pressed his head against the headrest of his seat. He closed his eyes and began breathing slowly. Sam stared at him, in concern, but didn’t say anything. She didn’t want to intrude.
Jalal graduated from a public university a few months shy of his 27th birthday. His mother, who kept reminding him how lazy he had become, was her usual self. She went to his graduation. She enjoyed herself at the graduation party. But once all the guests left and she could be herself, the truth poured out like the mint shay she was sipping on.
“You could have finished earlier and gone to law school like we planned, but you decided to take time off and work or whatever you want to call it.” She said, sipping gingerly at the tea, its steam swimming around her face.
“We talked about this, mama. I didn’t want to go to law school. This is what I wanted…no, this what I needed to do.” Jalal had this argument with his mother for years. She wouldn’t let it go. It was something the rest of the family ignored because there was no sense in getting involved. “And now, I have a job lined up for me, so khalas. We’re not having this discussion.”
“Habibi, you don’t have to leave! Okay, let’s forget law school, but you can work here. You don’t have to leave!” Khalidah was a traditionalist. She believed that the only time the children could leave home, if they even had to, would be when they got married. She was against her children moving out for the sake of moving out. So when Jalal told his family that he was offered a paid internship in Los Angeles, she was furious. But Jalal was unmoving. He stood his ground.
“We’re not going over this again. I leave in a few days. Let’s just put everything in the past and move forward, how about that?” He was sitting face to face with his mother now. She was trying hard to fight the tears back. He could tell.
“I forbid you to go!” His mother stood up. Her tears began to flow. “I am a good mother! You will not leave me. You will not have people talk poorly about this family!”
“I’m leaving.” Jalal calmly said, getting up and walking to his room to finish packing. Later on, he’d book a flight earlier than he initially planned.
“My mother and I got into an argument a few years ago, before I moved out.” Jalal said to Sam, who was eating her inflight meal of chicken and veggies. Jalal was eating the same thing. He also got a can of coke and a little bottle of Jack Daniels, which he poured into a cup with ice.
“May I ask why?” Sam asked, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
“My mother suffered from ‘Overbearing Immigrant Mother Syndrome’ and I couldn’t really take it any longer. I had to leave. So, as soon as I found a job out of state, I was gone.” Jalal was moving the veggies in his plate. Carrots with the carrots. Peas with the peas. He had a habit of doing this. Especially at weddings. Everyone found it weird. Sam watched this as she listened. “I lived in a very traditionalist Palestinian home and I was being crushed, really.”
“And I’m assuming your mother didn’t like that? You leaving.”
“Oh no. In her head, I was gonna live with her and the rest of the family up until I got married. Hell, if it were up to her, she’d redo the basement and have me live there with my future wife. But yeah, that wasn’t ever going to happen.”
“Yeah, my father’s Jordanian and he was upset that my job makes me travel a lot. He would always tell me that a woman shouldn’t travel by herself. But then again, he left my mother and married a second wife. So, I normally don’t take his advice.” Sam was nibbling a piece of her chicken.
“You’re Jordanian?” Jalal asked.
“Yeah. I mean, half. I don’t really interact with my Jordanian side. I think I’ve met like two of my fifty cousins.” She laughed.
“All Arabs are like that. Most of the cousins I’ve met are from my mom’s side anyway.” Jalal laughed then turned stoic. “She’s sick…”
“My mother…that’s why I’m going back.”
“Oh my God. I’m so sorry.” The sorry was genuine. Her eyes looked sad. She stopped eating and paid full attention to Jalal.
“Yeah. She had cancer a couple years back. My sister called me and told me to get on a plane. The doctors say she’s probably not going to make it. People are coming from all over to pay respects and say their goodbyes. I guess that’s what I’m going to do. I wasn’t the greatest son. But she wasn’t the greatest mother, either. Still….” Jalal trailed off. He couldn’t finish his thought. The only thing that filled his mind was memories of the times his mother was sweet and motherly. He never wanted to admit it to himself, but she could be dangerously loving and sweet. She spent hours in the hospital the time Jalal had heat stroke. She fed him from her own hands, when he broke both arms trying to skateboard. She stayed up all night helping him with his homework, to make sure that he not only got the right answers, but also understood the material. He started to cry. It was a quiet cry. Tears flowing and spilling over his eyelids. A stuffed up nose. He felt a warm hand grab his. It was Sam’s.
She didn’t say anything. She just kept her hand on Jalal’s hand. It was soft and warm. Jalal sat there; his empty hand wiping tears away as they fell from his eyes. He didn’t know what else to say. Sam stayed silent for fear of saying something insensitive. They both just sat there, holding each other’s hands, with the sounds of the airplane playing muffled in the background. A soft murmur of people having conversations. A baby’s whimper. The flight attendant, four rows ahead, was helping another passenger. Sam stared at Jalal. She could see the sadness, the hurt in his eyes, no matter how hard he was trying to hide it.
“Sorry about that. I didn’t think I was gonna get so emotional,” Jalal said. He washed his face with his free hand. Sam finally let go of Jalal’s hand and apologized.
“You don’t have to apologize. Regardless of whatever issues you and your mother had, she’s still your mother.” Sam looked out the window again. Back to the window. It was her safety blanket. It seemed to calm her. She watched the clouds roll off the wing of the plane, like snow falling slowly off the side of a hill. Jalal watched her as her face relaxed peacefully.
She didn’t say anything after that. Jalal rested his head on his seat. His eyes grew heavy. It was from the stress. From the alcohol in his system. From all the delays. He was tired. I’ll just close my eyes for a moment, he said to himself.
Khalidah was sitting on a relatively comfortable chair with an IV connected to the bend at her elbow. She was wearing a bandana, jeans, and a hooded sweater. Her eyes were droopy. She was exhausted. The cancer medication was working and keeping the aggressive cancer at bay, however at a great loss to her physical and mental health. Her body was tired. Everyone kept telling her how strong she was. How brave she was. That she was a fighter. The doctors, the nurses, the other patients she formed bonds with, her friends, and her family. They all encouraged her.
Jalal was with her today. He came back home when they found out she was sick. He wanted to be around, for moral support. For his father. For his sister. And for his mother. He was sitting in a fold out chair, reading a book on socialism in Palestine during the 60s. People around him were speaking, but he learned to tone it out. His mother was half-asleep. He didn’t like seeing her like that, weak. For as long as he could remember, she was never weak. She was always the one that kept a cool head under pressure, no matter what was going on around her. But now, he had to keep a cool head.
“Jalal…” his mother said, softly.
“I’m still here, ma,” Jalal said. He closed the book and laid it on the small table in front of him.
“How much longer do I have to be here?” She asked.
Jalal looked at the drip bag hanging lazily. It was at the halfway mark. “Shouldn’t be that much longer, mama.” He answered.
“Yes mama?” Jalal looked at his mother. Her lips were chapped. Tufts of hair poked out from underneath the bandana. Her eyes were closed.
“I’m sorry.” Her voice was so soft that Jalal was actually surprised.
“Sorry for what?” Jalal giggled. He padded her arm.
“I wasn’t as tender and kind to you, when you were younger. That’s why you left.” Her eyes opened. She looked at Jalal. She was filled with sadness.
“Okay, the medicine is getting to your head,” Jalal half-joked.
Khalidah giggled. “Stop, I’m being serious. You left because you couldn’t stand me.”
“Ma, I left because I needed to go.”
“You needed to go. Because of me. I pushed you away. I am sorry for that.” Jalal knew how much pride his mother had in her. And he also knew how hard it was for her to apologize, even if it wasn’t necessary. He never expected an apology from her. It wasn’t something that he would have asked for anyway. It’s just the way the culture worked. Parents never apologized. But now, it was different. Maybe it was the medicine. Maybe it was the inevitability of death. Maybe she just felt like finally apologize to Jalal. Whatever the case, Jalal was shocked and surprised. “I need you to forgive me, Jalal. Please.”
“Mama, of course I forgive you!” Jalal stood up and knelt down to give her a hug. She awkwardly hugged him back. The rest of the patients looked on at this beautiful sight. Mother and son embracing. There wasn’t a single dry eye in the room. Jalal and Khalidah were both crying.
A few weeks after, Jalal was packing his bag and getting ready to head to the airport. His mother was doing much better and Jalal’s father said that it wasn’t necessary for him to stay any longer. He could leave and get back to his life. “You’ll call me if you need anything, right?”
His father said yes and smiled. He was a strong man and very sensitive. Always smiling. Jalal walked over and gave him a hug and asked where his mother was. “The backyard.”
Jalal walked to the backyard, his bag hanging from his shoulder. “I’m getting ready to go, ma.”
“Uhh, goodbye?” he leaned in to give her a kiss and she turned away from him. He didn’t understand what she was doing now. The anger that somehow disappeared weeks earlier flooded back. Tears ran down his cheeks. He stared at her for a moment, then turned and left. He never spoke to her again.
The plane shook. Turbulence. Jalal woke up with a start and looked around, momentarily forgetting where he was. Sam was asleep, peacefully. The flight attendants were walking around quickly. The Capitan’s voice came over the intercom. “We’ll be landing in about thirty minutes. It’s 45 degrees in New York. Thank you for flying with us this morning. Cabin crew, please get ready for landing.”
Sam woke up and noticed what was going on. She asked, “We’re landing now?” and put her seatbelt on before getting an answer. The plane began to descend.
“Home,” Jalal said, using his eyebrows to point out the window, seeing NY starting to come into view.
Jalal sat on a bench, outside the exit doors. He took a cigarette out of the crushed back that was in his pocket, lit it, and took a deep pull. He let the smoke linger in his lungs for a bit, relishing the first cigarette in more than 24 hours. He sat on the bench, watching people getting picked up, rushing to taxis, or just standing around. He, himself, was waiting for someone to come pick him up.
“You got another one of those for me?” It was Sam. She was dragging a suitcase behind her.
“I thought you left already,” Jalal said, handing her a cigarette.
“Not yet.” Sam placed the cigarette between her lips and let Jalal light it for her. “I’ll catch a taxi after this. You waiting for someone?”
“Yeah, I sent a text to my sister when we were landing, but she never responded, which is weird.”
“No service, probably.”
“Yeah, probably.” Jalal was nervous. It was six years since he’d been back to NY. Six years since he last saw his mother, spoken with her. It was his turn to apologize. To beg for forgiveness, though for what, he still didn’t know.
Jalal saw someone he recognized, walking towards the door, looking around as if they were looking for someone. It was Yahya, his brother-in-law. Jalal stood up and walked towards him. “Yahya!” Jalal yelled.
Yahya turned and looked at Jalal. They walked towards each other and embraced, like brothers. Yahya was cool, in Jalal’s eyes. He liked him. Yahya hugged Jalal tighter than Jalal hugged Yahya. It was unnerving. Yahya shivered. But it wasn’t a shiver from the cold. It was something deeper than that.
“What’s wrong, Yeah Yeah?” Jalal always called Yahya, “Yeah Yeah” because he reminded Jalal of the character with the same name from Sandlot. “What’s wrong?”
“She died.” Yahya said, tears flowing from his eyes.
“What?” Jalal pushed Yahya off and stared at him. Yahya couldn’t look at him. He didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news, not news this big. “Say that again, Yahya.”
Yahya hesitated. “She had a massive heart attack a couple hours ago. Her heart was too weak to recover and she just faded away.” Yahya wiped the tears from his eyes.
Jalal fell to his knees. Everything was in slow motion. Everything was silent. He felt a soft hand on his shoulder. He looked up and it was Sam, who was looking at him with her sad brown eyes.
“I’m sorry, mama.” Jalal said, as the casket holding her body was lowered into the soft dirt of a cemetery in New Jersey. There were men he knew when he was a kid all around him. His father was standing next to him, shaking.
Jalal grabbed a handful of the cold dirt and slowly dropped it in the hole. Looking down, as other people were doing the same, he muttered a quiet prayer. He asked God to forgive her of any mistakes she made. He asked God to forgive him for any mistakes he made.
He looked up and saw Sam near the cars that were parked. She was standing next to Ghada. They were speaking. He flashed a half-smile. Temporary friends, he thought to himself.
Image Credit: Pelayo Lopez