"Mother is ill and she refuses to eat or go to doctors or even take any medicine," my sister, Doaa, told me one day in March.
“What's wrong, Khadojtee?" I asked my mother in a voice call via Facebook Messenger. (My mother's name is Khadija, and Khadojtee is a way to say it as an endearment.) My parents and sister live in Egypt, and all my conversations with them are either by voice or video call when the internet connection is good enough to allow it.
"I just don't have the desire to move or do anything," my mother shrugged.
I believed her and thought she was just a little tired. "Let her pamper herself and depend on you, Doaa," I told my sister.
Over the next few days, however, my mother became even more fatigued, struggling to take a deep breath. Finally, she agreed to go to the doctor and then to the hospital to be treated for the coronavirus. My mother is 70 years old and she feared going to doctors and hospitals, especially during the pandemic. She was afraid of being infected with the virus, so she stayed home as much as she could. But now she had it.
Our desperate attempt to re-unite
The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt was open at that time, so it was a golden chance to travel to be close to my mother. I didn't care about COVID. It was Wednesday when I went with my brother Anas to register to travel. We knew it might be difficult to get permission in time; permits are only given for serious reasons, such as when medical treatment is required outside or to take advantage of a scholarship to study abroad. Would our mother’s illness be considered reason enough?
“Our mother lives in Egypt and is extremely ill. I want to be beside her," I told the officer. He sent us to a committee to decide whether our reason was important enough to warrant immediate approval. There were three officers in the room and they asked me and my brothers Anas and Abdallah (who had followed us), why we needed to travel so urgently.
Once more I said: "Our mother is very ill and in the hospital. We haven’t seen her for three years! We want to see her and be with her before her health gets any worse." I began to cry. I tried to stop but I couldn't. But that was not enough of a reason for the committee. They sent us to their manager, who asked us the same questions a third time. At last, he showed us some humanity and said we could board a bus to the border the following Sunday. We tried to convince him to let us travel earlier, but he refused.
Before returning home, I asked my brothers to buy some gifts for my parents and siblings. But Abdallah just looked at me. "Israa, you must prepare yourself for the worst,” he said. "No, don't say such stupid things,” I shouted. “Nothing wrong will happen. My mother will be ok, I'm sure!"
That night, I video-called my mother, who was still in the hospital. Although she was wearing an oxygen mask, she was extremely happy that we were able to get on the list to travel and that we’d see her soon.
"Khadojtee, you will leave the hospital before Sunday inshaallah and we will enjoy our time together," I said. My mother smiled and said, kol ishee nasseeb (leave it to our fate). And then my sister Doaa, who was allowed to be with her in the hospital, ended the call to let her sleep. (My father and brother were shocked at how bad the conditions in the government hospital were and wanted to move my mother to a private institution. But private hospitals do not allow family members to be with their ill loved ones and she cried. “I want Doaa with me. I don’t want to be alone!” Her blood oxygen plunged as she became more upset, so they cancelled the car they had ordered to transport her.)
On Thursday morning, I awoke feeling happy that I would soon see my mother. I found a big bag and chose the things to take with me. I selected one of my most beautiful dresses to give to my sister as a present. I also packed the big jacket my mother gave me years ago. She’d been complaining about being cold. I didn’t have time to talk with her that day because I’m a mother of five and have many duties at home. But before sleeping, I called my father and siblings. They asked me to read the Quran and ask God to help my mother. Still, I believed everything would be ok.
At 1 a.m., however, my husband woke me up. "Israa, your mother has died."
The shock of loss
I didn't believe him. I called my brother Iyad. He didn't pick up. I called Doaa. She didn’t pick up. Finally, I reached my sister-in-law Hibah. She confirmed the death of my mother.
"Hibah, please! Don’t let them put her in a grave. I want to see her for the last time!" I shouted. Then I called Allaa. She was crying. "Allaa, you have to be strong; we will still meet as our mother wished. Father is still alive and we will gather with him!" All I could do was cry.
Then I insisted on going to Anas, who was at home receiving calls and guests. I went directly into his hug. I found myself wishing for the end of my life so I could follow her. I must have committed a big mistake, I thought, and it was my punishment to not even be allowed to see my mother before she disappeared forever. There had just been two more days before I could travel. Why didn’t she wait for me? I hated the men who didn't allow us to travel earlier; they were like criminals, stealing my opportunity to hug my mother for a last time.
My mind shut down for days. There had been no airstrike, no bombing, none of the usual reasons in Gaza to fear sudden death. Instead, I had been filled with a great hope that I would gather around my parents that weekend, along with my sisters Doaa and Allaa (who is married and lives in Kuwait and has not seen my parents for 12 years) and my brother from Germany (who I haven't seen for six years and my mother hadn’t seen him in four).
My mother was supposed to LIVE! She had looked forward to the weddings of two of my brothers and my sister Doaa. She always wished to come back to Gaza and see her siblings again, but we refused to let her come because the trip from her home in Egypt to the Rafah crossing takes six hours to more than two days by car because of the numerous checkpoints. My mother’s knees were painful and we knew it would be hard on her to sit for such a long time.
The night after the news, my children slept around me. When I awoke, I reflexively checked for a message from my mother. It was our routine: She always started each day by wishing me a new beginning. Sometimes she sent photos and videos of her and my father and siblings. But that morning, there were no messages from her. Instead, in my family’s group chat, my siblings had sent photos and videos of my mother after her death. I felt alone in an ugly, dark world. I wished that I hadn’t married and left my mother.
I suddenly thought, What if I lose my father? He could die any time too, before I see or hug him again. I wanted to travel with my children to Egypt as fast as possible. But my husband said “NO.” I couldn't understand how he could deny me. I lost my “balance,” blaming everyone around me for my mother’s death, lashing out in pain and anger. Later, my brothers came and took me to their home to calm me down. I refused to eat or drink and couldn't look at the many people who came to give me condolences. In my dreams, I saw tall trees without leaves in a gray place. I searched for my mother, asking again and again, "Why her? Why is she the one who died?”
My brothers and aunt never left me, encouraging me to eat and to accept what happened. I must adjust to it and live my mother’s memory inside me, they insisted.
And then, war
When Israel attacked Gaza on May 12, it was the first time in my life that I didn’t care. I believed this was my chance to follow my mother. I distracted myself by making cakes and other desserts with my nephew during the day and then by wishing not to wake up again by night.
My mother died on March 13 and since then, I have been unable to write. For the sake of my mother’s memory, I tried to work on an article I had started a few months ago about my cousin. My mother loved him a lot and was so happy that I was writing about him. Although I struggled with it and made some mistakes, We Are Not Numbers helped me complete it and publish it on a U.S. website called Mondoweiss. "It is good to improve your skills! Go on," my mother told me when I told her about my desire to write and be published.
But that was it; I was unable to motivate myself to write any other story. That is, until I began to see all the people around me who had lost their parents or siblings in this latest Israeli assault. The total killed is tallied at 217, and many of them were mothers or fathers. At least 63 were children. I can barely function after losing my 70-year-old mother! How will these people continue without mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, wives and husbands—many of whom were still so young?
Rising from the ashes
These losses forced me to open the door to a dark, closed room in my heart and share my story. This is what loss does to people: We are drained of the desire to live ourselves.
I realize now that my mother’s death was Allah's will, and I must accept it. I apologized to everyone who I blamed and insulted amid my shock. But every night, I try to meet my mother in my dreams. But these children who were killed by Israeli bombs and missiles? And their parents? Their trauma must be owned by everyone in the world who sits by and allows Israel to continue to control our lives and futures like an evil puppet master. It is for this reason that I write now, in the hope that all of the orphans left behind will not be forgotten (sponsor an orphan through the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund) and that my voice will be heard.