I can write about his absence more than his existence. I can barely remember what it was like to be in his embrace, how he touched my hand, walked with me, praised and kissed me. So, I concoct stories about the two of us—not remembered but imagined.
The whole family gathered to celebrate his 40th birthday. I was only 7 years old, standing impatiently in line with my family to kiss his hand and straining to see the gifts he got from the others. I felt happy to be giving him a gift for the first time—a brush with a mirror on the back. We wished him a happy life and for all his dreams to come true.
It was unusual for my dad to celebrate his birthday, but that year he had asked for a party. I’d thought, like any kid would, that he just wanted to have fun. But my elder sister recently told me that my father revealed the true reason at the party: He wanted to teach os something. He said his life was not easy, that life had treated him badly, and that when people turned 40, it was important to think about their goals in life. He said he wanted us to learn from his experiences and mistakes. Was he aware that this would be his last birthday? I wasn’t.
A few months later, he was killed. This I remember! Zionist warplanes bombed my dad, killing him, just like that. At seven, I could barely grasp the idea that the planes had bombed “Gaza.” I only understood that they had bombed my dad. I started to hate birthday parties, even my own. Six months after his death, I cried on my birthday, screaming, "I don't want to die, I don't want to die!"
I don’t remember much about my years with my father and have never been satisfied with having only seven with him. When my close friend Amna recently characterized those years as "beautiful,” her words triggered a twist in my life. I began to search for the beauty. She pushed me to write about my father. I dug deep into my memories, thinking I could easily do it. Yet how can I write when I had so few memories? How can I know if a story was a true memory or one of my concocted ones? I was his youngest child, and so young. I know he used to play with me often and brought me candy, chocolate, ice cream and other treats. He had a big heart.
For me, seven years weren’t enough. I know him, and I don’t know him. What I mostly know is his absence.
While my father is resting in peace, I am fighting people's false assumptions about me, fending off their cruelty or pity. When I think of the students who bullied me at school just because I don't have a father, sorrow eats my soul. Others assume his absence means my family needs financial help. Many Gazans assume a father is mostly a source of income and when he dies, his family needs only money. People don't think of how that family has lost another kind of support, how now there is no father to lean on for encouragement or emotional support. In fact, my family misses the person who healed our wounds.
Some families do indeed need money, but mine had enough, even after my father’s death. Nevertheless, every time my teacher came to class and named the girls who were in need, I heard mine among them. Embarrassed, crying on the inside, I’d swear to the teacher I didn’t need charity, that others needed it more than me, but she wouldn’t believe me and insisted I take it. Returning to class, I would see the kids looking at me while gossiping and laughing silently with one another.
Daddy, I have wondered so many times what it would be like if you were still alive and imagined what I would call you. Would I say Baba, Dad or Daddy? It seems that some people take these words for granted. They do not become exhausted, like me, thinking about what to call their father. For me, those names have always had meaning, deep meanings I could only imagine. How do I choose a name for someone so dear to me, yet who is absent and whose face and voice shift and fade? How do I hold on to him?
These everyday words—Baba, Dad, Daddy—are not friends of mine, as I have not used them for more than 13 years. I am now 21. I daydream all the time about you sitting in front of me and I ask myself: “How would you treat me? Would you compliment my eyes? Would you notice beautiful things about me that I don’t notice about myself? Would you yell at me when I tell you I don't like my face? Would you hold me close? Would you play with me with toys, as before? Would your unconditional love make me love myself more?”
Dad, I am like a wasteland waiting for others to water me with stories about you. Every time someone says your name, I make the conversation long by asking questions about you. Baba, I never tire of hearing stories about you, even if I’ve heard them before. They have become my own stories, but I cannot say that they are my own memories.
Dad, I wished you were with me during this last semester, at a big event at my university in the English department. I saw a girl taking photos with her father, and the pain I felt was overwhelming. I took that pain and jailed it inside my heart so no one else knew about it; I showed no expression on my face. I could not bear to smile.
Baba, your absence has deprived me of many beautiful details. There are many empty gaps in my life. Your absence sits with me at my birthday parties, as I fast and pray through Ramadan and as I serve meals to my family. I am no longer able to experience the anticipation of waiting for you the whole day, followed by the joy of finally seeing you. While my friends talk about their fathers, I stay silent, overtaken by sadness or jealousy. Only your absence stays close by my side.
Sometimes when I need a hug, I imagine you holding me close or me sitting in your lap. I hear you say, “Dear, your story seems full of contradictions.” I know, but I don’t know what to write about you. My sentences are like my life without you, full of paradoxes.