I remember over 10 years ago when I first heard the epic poem, “We Teach Life, Sir!” by Palestinian poet Rafeef Ziadah. The line, “How about you give us a story of a woman in Gaza who needs medication?” moved me so much. But while to most readers, it’s simply a powerful verse, to me it reflects my life.
When I hear that line, I think of my mother, Amna, and feel broken inside. When I traveled to the United States and prepared to give a presentation about Palestine, I couldn’t keep tears from leaking down my face when I rehearsed the poem. The other international students in the lounge looked at me, thinking my emotion was for the plight of our people writ large. They didn’t understand the very personal nature of my pain, the scream reverberating in my head: “My mom has been ill since 2007…”
It all began when my mother was washing up at the end of the day. It was the first time she felt the electric shocks on the right side of her face. They were not as powerful back then, only lasting a few seconds two or three times a day. But over the weeks and months that followed, the shocks worsened, increasing in strength and frequency. Mom’s head also began to ache nonstop, and the skin on her face burned so much she couldn’t touch it, much less let anyone or anything else do so.
Mom was terrified of what was happening to her, especially since there was nothing visibly wrong and it was hard to explain. Once my mother learned her illness was trigeminal neuralgia (a type of chronic nerve pain), she was devastated. From the moment the doctors informed us that it’s a chronic disease, it seemed like they had given up on her. Aside from the love and support of her family, only her faith in God kept her going.
In the years since then, we literally went to all the doctors we could find, seeking some kind of relief for Mom. Their solutions were pricey painkillers and other drugs. But eventually, they all stopped working; her body grew immune to them. With each year, my mom gets weaker. Her ability to cope with the ongoing misery is decreasing, while the pain only gets greater. Today, her pain is continuous, affecting her every season, every week, all day, every day. We feel like helpless bystanders, witnessing her suffering while failing to obtain a medical referral so she can travel out of Gaza for surgery that might help. Gaza's Ministry of Health refused, considering her case to be untreatable.
At home, my dad tried his best to provide a comfortable environment for my mom. Mom can’t tolerate extremes in temperature, so he bought an air conditioner for their bedroom, but Gaza’s constant electricity blackouts caused by the Israeli blockade meant most of the time it couldn’t be operated. For the winters, Dad bought electric heaters for the winter (for use, again, when we have electricity) and solar water heaters to warm the water. He also carpeted most of our apartment to help insulate it, since we don’t have central heating systems in Gaza. We keep mom’s bedroom window and door closed most of the time to keep the heat in, among many other futile efforts.
Through it all, my mother suffered in silence. She was heartbroken because her illness affected her role as a mother, forcing her to retreat to her room most of the time. She spent years drugged up in bed. Family occasions often turned from happy to sad within the blink of an eye, or with the jolt of an electric shock, to be more accurate.
Mom suffers in more ways than purely physical pain. Every-day situations often taken for granted by others, like preparing meals and doing laundry or other housework, are virtually impossible. My mother even seriously considered an abortion when she was pregnant with my little sister because she could barely cope. And she regrets not being able to support my eldest sister when she got married. Of course, we were super understanding and tried our best to take care of her and keep on top of things. My siblings and I worked together to raise our baby sister, cook, clean, etc. But truth be told, we miss the mom we remember.
In 2020, my mother’s illness became more dangerous than ever. She was feeling electric shocks in her face for hours, nonstop. After months of attempts, we managed to get her to Egypt. I was chosen to accompany her because I had some travel experience. I won't lie, I was scared; I’d heard so many horror stories about how rough traveling there could be for Palestinians. I was responsible for both myself and Mom, with very little money. But of all the scenarios in my head, the worst was, “What if the treatment fails?”
We headed to Egypt and on the last day of 2020, Mom received a surgery called the “gamma knife,” in which a surgeon directed a dose of radiation at the root of her trigeminal nerve. I had high hopes. But then the pain began to return. Now, we need to get her to Turkey for another surgery that is more expensive but a higher chance of success. Will you help us raise the $US10,000 we need?
It's the end of a year, and hopefully it’ll be the end of my mom’s illness. May we all have a happy holiday season, and a happy new year. Our faith in God gives us hope that we will get through this, and mom will make me my favorite food, maqluba, again!