August 14th, 2016
I went to Mohamed’s house on Monday evening. He had invited me over to look at his garden. I had feebly attempted to help Mohamed with the planting several weeks ago, just before Mohamed went overseas to be with his family in Tunisia. Now he and his wife and children were all back home. Mohamed called me when he got home from work, and then I drove over to his house. It was already a little after 7:00 PM, and the sun was starting to set.
I rang the doorbell, and Mohamed answered. He was carrying Zaynab in his arms. Zaynab is the nine-month-old daughter of Mohamed and Soumaya. The little girl was dressed in pink. She looked at me curiously with her deep, dark brown eyes. Zaynab has dark hair that is already beginning to curl. She didn’t smile at me (most people don’t), but she didn’t seem afraid either.
We went inside, and there was Soumaya standing on a towel in the dining room, trying to soak up the water that Zaynab had spilled on the floor just seconds ago. Ah, the joys of having small children; always only a moment away from utter chaos.
“Assalam alaikum”, I said to Soumaya. She smiled and replied, “Wa alaikum assalam.”
Soumaya looked frazzled. She was wearing her white hijab and a long black dress. She had that look on her face that every young mother has. Even though she was smiling, I could tell that all she wanted in the world was five minutes of quiet.
Mohamed and I went into the living room. There was a large blanket spead on the floor for Zaynab. Yahya was also in the living room. He is their three-and-a-half-year-old boy. Yahya also has dark eyes and dark hair. He doesn’t say much, but his eyes are clever and bright. He has an impish smile. Yahya obviously enjoys being with his father, but he is willful young man. Yahya is always testing his boundaries; always testing, testing, testing…
I spoke with Mohamed, and really didn’t notice Soumaya’s absence. She was in the kitchen making tea. She brought out the hot tea on the platter, with a dish of Tunisian sweets, but only two glasses for the tea. Mohamed came over to where I was sitting, and he served me tea. The teapot had a long, slender spout, and Mohamed raised the pot up high to pour a stream of tea into my glass. Then he poured his own.
I asked him, “So, are you just showing off?”
He replied, “No, Frank. Pouring a thin stream of tea through the open air helps to cool it before it reaches your glass.”
I learned something new.
Soumaya laid Zaynab on to the blanket. She sat on the couch opposite me and asked, “So how are your children?” Then she laughed, saying, “They aren’t really children any more, are they?”
No, they aren’t. It felt strange for me to sit in the living room with this family, and vicariously relive that time when Karin and I had little kids. It’s weird to look back at those days from this end of the wormhole. There was so much about the future of our kids that we didn’t know then. I thank God for that ignorance. How would we have kept going if we had known then about a son going to war, or about a daughter lying in a bed in an emergency room, or about late night calls from the police, or about the news of a motorcycle accident?
I kept thinking of the words of Khalil Gibran:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
I thought about Yahya and Zaynab, and what they might be like in fifteen years or so. What would they think of their immigrant parents? What would they think of their traditional ways? Would the children embrace their heritage, or would they reject it? Our own children are comfortable with the German background that they have from Karin. Our kids are American, but they also accept the German part of their identity. What will the children of Mohamed and Soumaya do?
It was getting dark when Mohamed suggested that we go out to the garden. Yahya followed us to the backyard. The sun was down, and the sky was a dull red in the west. It was still light enough to see. Mohamed showed me his tomato plants that were bursting with fruit. He also showed the places where we had planted lettuce, but now none remained. Mohamed had placed a wire fence all around the garden, but somehow the rabbits had made it inside the perimeter. Mohamed seemed non-plussed that the rabbits had eaten his lettuce. “How did the bunnies get in?”
We got a hose to water the garden. As I sprayed the tomato plants, the water suddenly stopped. Yahya was standing behind us. He had crimped the rubber hose to stop the flow of water. He was grinning. Mohamed said something to his son in a dialect of Arabic that I couldn’t understand. Yahya quit fooling around. We finished watering, and went back into the house.
Mohamed and I drank the rest of our tea. As I was leaving, we talked about the similarities between gardening and parenting. In both cases, we are dealing with living things, be they plants or children. Each of these living things is unique in the world, and each of them will grow in its own way. We can nurture and care for these growing, living beings, but we can’t control them. We can’t keep the bunnies away from them. We can’t know what or who they really are until they are fully grown. We can only marvel at their beauty.
Last night I dreamt of our son, Stefan. In my dream, Stefan was once again a little boy, perhaps Yahya’s age. Stefan was tired, and he crawled up on to my lap, and rested his head on my shoulder. In the dream I could feel the warmth of his small body, and hear the gentle rhythm of his breathing as he fell asleep.
I miss that.