Warsaw, January 10, 2022
I watch the ashes swim around like dandelion puffs, making swirls where bodies and walls once stood.”
- Lauren DeStefano
It started a few months into the pandemic. I’d wake up in the dead of the night, the room eerily silent, feeling trapped inside an invisible box. At first, I thought that it was my claustrophobia being triggered by the obligatory masks and all the plexiglass screens going up.
After a while, I started to notice a pattern. The inky darkness had an otherworldly feel to it and I was always confused whether my surroundings were real or not. I would hobble out of bed to pull back the curtains, feel the walls and tiptoe to your room to make sure I could still touch you. I’d let out a sigh of relief: I’m still alive!
As a single mother in a foreign country, the thought of what would happen to you if I died while you were still a minor, was always on my mind. When your grandpa was alive, I could take comfort in the fact that he’d look after you and make sure you got the best upbringing possible. But after his death in 2015, I didn’t have a safety net anymore. Admittedly, as we were getting closer to your 18th birthday, I felt the pressure ease a bit but COVID sent me into full scale panic. Those episodes of night terrors would only make things worse.
I was plain scared of going to sleep, to be swallowed up by the darkness. After a while, I became like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day; once I’d figure out I was STILL alive, I’d start to think how I’d use that day to be better prepared. Having a will and a “just in case” file were obvious, but gradually, I came to the realisation that my passing would leave you orphaned in another and very different sense.
When we left Syria you were 4 years old. I doubt you remember much from your early years there. Even if you did, the Syria that we both knew, no longer exists. But what distressed me most was that you had lost almost all connections to it.
I thought that I could raise you as a cultural chameleon like me, able to switch between languages and societal codes seamlessly. Your grandpa was in charge of nurturing the Arab side of you but his death left us both rudderless. You embraced the European character with a vengeance (after all, we’re both British by birth which makes you British by descent as well), and despite my best efforts -with the exception of food- you’ve shown no interest whatsoever in your Syrian heritage.
Nonetheless, I remained hopeful that one day, you’d be curious about your ancestry and roots but this day has not come yet and I was getting worried that I’m running out of time.
And then there was me, your mother, whom you’ve only known as a solo warrior in a foreign land. I doubt that you know (or remember) much about me other than my struggles and challenges raising you in Poland. In that respect, I’m probably just as much a mystery to you as the Middle East and our complex lineage that spans 3 continents.
The idea of leaving a written record for you excited me but terrified me at the same time: where do I start? How do I go about it? Do I stick to my own story or do I record what was passed on to me? What about the gaps in my memories? The pieces of the story that were lost with the death of loved ones? And even more importantly, what do I leave out? I have lived by the sword at so many points in my life, broke the law, made lots of enemies. Should I burden you with these vendettas and grievances?
Believe me, I was able to find at least 20 obstacles and/or reasons as to why this won’t work. But you know what? Once I made up my mind I was going to find a way around these obstacles, something amazing happened: the night terrors stopped!
As certain pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place (I knew I’d be writing letters, not a diary or a memoir. Wasn’t going to follow a chronological order, that way I could flesh the story out at my own pace,) I was no longer afraid to lay my head down on the pillow. The hum of my brain as it was rummaging through all those memories and reflections became a soothing lullaby.
It’s not that I’ve stopped worrying altogether, I have “Worst-Case Scenario” as my default setting. But I’m finding myself thinking of that unforgettable scene in Avengers: Infinity War when Thanos snapped his fingers and heroes started to crumble to dust one by one. The past 13 years feel like a prolonged snap with friends and family dying far away one after the other, and my beloved Syria and Libya mangled by civil war to the point they’d become unrecognisable.
My fear that my story will die with me, or that it will be lost to illness or old age is one reason why death terrified me. These letters are my way of making sure that when my time comes, I won’t simply crumble to dust, but that I’d go like a dandelion that gives itself away to the wind, that my voice will stay with you to guide you, comfort you and make sure you know how much you meant to me.
With all my love,
© 2022 By Landa Ruweha
All rights reserved
picture credit: https://unsplash.com/@mimvafa