An edited extract from What My Daughters Taught Me by Joseph Wakim, a widowed father of three daughters.
Who would ever have thought the stars would align in such a way that the day Nadia was handed the keys to heaven was the same day I was handed the keys to our new home, the dream home Nadia had designed but would never enjoy? All the tea leaves, coffee cups and palm readers failed to predict this cruel joke. No one ever gasped, ‘I see a white dove with a key in its mouth.’
Grace was eleven, Michelle seven and Joy only four. They had been forced to carry on without their mother as her relapses overshadowed her remissions. We had not told them that their mother was terminally ill—they were too young and Nadia could not bear to tell them. Their memories of their mother were happy ones and would forever be enhanced by the magical moments preserved in our family video collection. They had no memory of their mother in pain, probably because every time I ushered them into her room, at home or in hospital, she had radiated a smile that assured them everything would turn out all right.
That fateful night, once they were asleep, I rushed to our new home to assemble our furniture.
I hung up all the clothes in our new built-in wardrobes, including Nadia’s. What else was I supposed to do while her body was still warm?
Survivor guilt choked me and stopped me from swallowing … anything. How dare I eat when she could no longer breathe? The more I sacrificed, the more I felt content.
I lit a candle to signal Nadia’s presence and turned out the lights. I then embraced and inhaled Nadia’s socks. Her presence was my oxygen. I saw her shadows dancing on the wall. I could still taste her on my lips. I could hear her whispering my name.
I hesitated to extinguish the candle and stared at the still-flickering flame. ‘Our bedroom is ready. I hung your clothes. You finally have your en suite bathroom with a spa. I even hung your gold Versace robe there. Now, when are you coming home?’
But I was wrong about this particular call. It wasn’t one to cut short.
‘I know it’s hard to hear Happy Easter,’ the caller said, ‘but can I come around and help in any way?’
‘No thanks, you should celebrate with your family.’
‘You are family.’
This caller was not alone. Several people sacrificed their Sunday to help me unpack boxes, set books in shelves and lay cutlery in drawers. It was the most bittersweet of house-warming parties.
Every wall and ceiling in our new home was painted white, exactly as Nadia wanted, but the designer was not there to cut the ribbon and declare the house a home. I declared it ‘Beit Nadia’ (house of Nadia) and put up a plaque with those words near the front door.
As I tested all the lights, I recalled a phone call from Nadia only two days before, on Good Friday, when I was in the house with the builder.
‘Joey, we need a safety switch,’ she said urgently, ‘in the electricity … for the children.’
How could someone about to switch off be so switched on to something the builder and I had overlooked? That was Nadia through and through. Selfless and pragmatic to the very end.
The emotional roller-coaster continued on Tuesday. It was Nadia’s 41st birthday and the day for the final viewing of her body. The words ‘happy birthday’ sounded so silly. I fell to my knees and kissed her hand. Touching her hand felt chilling, but it was a relief to see her looking so peaceful, dressed in her favourite clothes. It replaced my last memory of her, tied down with tubes on every limb, gasping for air.
In distilling the essence of my beloved in a eulogy, I wanted to remember everything and overlook nothing:
Nadia filled our homes with echoes of her laughter. The more she ridiculed us, the more we loved her, as the truth gives you peace and laughter lengthens your life. Nadia avoided being a burden to anyone. She preferred to carry her own cross rather than share it with others.
I thank Nadia for giving me fourteen and a half years of married life and three daughters who permanently remind me that life and dreams must go on, three daughters who have given me a rainbow in what could have been a valley of darkness, in more ways than they could imagine.
The Wednesday morning funeral filled Our Lady of Lebanon Church with a polite parade of people paying their respects. Family and close friends flew up from Melbourne and I reached out to them as if they were oases in a desert. The monks chanting in Aramaic, the incense rising to the heavens, the water sprinkled on the white coffin and the tall candle shining brightly all helped to connect us with Nadia, and connect heaven with earth.
I was heartened by these consoling words from several men: ‘I will always be there for you, like a brother.’
That night, the pain of my grief was excruciating. Survivor guilt had really kicked in now, and was kicking me to the ground. ‘My daughters need their mother,’ I lamented. ‘It should have been me, not her.’
But in the white house Nadia had created, the sharp edges of my grief were cushioned by my children and their immediate needs. They anchored me to the present.
When my daughters were with me, I could not lament the past—our happy marriage that was curtailed and our Melbourne life that was uprooted. I could not fret about the future or about being a lone rooster with three hungry chicks.
Each night, I sat with my precious daughters until they slept. I kissed them goodnight twice—once from me and once from Nadia, but there was probably no need. I sometimes felt Nadia’s cool breath on my own neck, so no doubt she kissed the girls each night for herself.
‘Why do you keep doing that … brrr thing?’ asked Grace, imitating my trembling.
‘I got chills, they’re multiplying,’ I said, baiting Michelle, who at the time was obsessed with John Travolta.
‘And I’m losing control!’ She took the bait and sang on cue.
‘Shh!’ I heard Nadia whisper in my ear. ‘Are you trying to relax them or excite them?’
It was selfish of me to keep them up, but I felt as if I never had enough time with them. Once they slept, I craved adult companionship, preferably in person. Why did no one call now? I stared at the white walls and white ceilings that were never intended for a widower.
Too much time alone allowed my inner voices to hold conversations, even arguments. Sometimes I had to break them up, or they would give each other the silent treatment.
‘They have their own families to look after,’ my forgiving side would say.
‘But can’t they spare one phone call?’ my less patient self would protest. ‘On their way home from work?’
‘Well, why don’t you call them, then? They told you to call any time.’
‘Because I don’t want to impose.’
‘Maybe you make them feel awkward?’ This was my spiteful self.
‘Sulking and feeling sorry for yourself.’
‘Rubbish! They don’t know what it’s like!’
‘See! There you go again! You don’t know what it’s like for them.’
‘Ha! Easy! They just need to pick up the phone and say, “Hello, how are you?”’
‘You say that now but you were exactly like them.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Because I’ve always been here with you!’
‘Shut up, both of you, I’m trying to think!’
There was no remote control to mute these persistent voices or change channels, because we were trapped together. They were dangerous company, and they never left me alone.
My eldest sister Eva flew up from Melbourne for a week and kept me sane. She added a woman’s touch to our home while I scribbled copious notes on cooking recipes, cleaning tips and gardening basics.
Just before we drove her to the airport, Eva took a photo of my family in height order as we stood in front of our conifer. Eleven year-old Grace had her hair parted down the middle, seven-year-old Michelle wore her navy headband and four-year-old Joy wore her golden halo of hair. I felt that Joy was too far away and I hoisted her onto my shoulders. We all braved a smile for the camera—or in Joy’s case, tried to—but our eyes could not hide our pain, so soon after losing Nadia. We looked like a family on a roller-coaster ride. We hung on tightly to each other and my arms became their seat belts.
Joseph Wakim is a widowed father of three daughters. From psychologist to social worker, he founded the Streetwork Project in Adelaide, the Australian Arabic Council, produced TV documentary Zero to Zenith: Arab Contributions Down Under, wrote four satirical comedies that were staged in Melbourne, founded Australia's first Arabic Festival (Mahrajan), was appointed Victoria's youngest Multicultural Affairs Commissioner, and composed music for his band The Heartbeats. He was granted the Violence Prevention Award by Commonwealth Heads of Government in 1996 and the Order of Australia Medal for public campaigns to redress the roots of racism in 2001. His debut book Sorry We Have No Space was 2014 finalist for Australian Christian Book of the Year. He has had over 600 opinion pieces published in all major Australian newspapers and was finalist at the United Nations Australia Association - Media Award 2014 for creating a 'voice for the voiceless'. Most of his opinion pieces can be viewed via www.josephwakim.com.au and can be followed on Twitter @WakimJ
What My Daughters Taught Me is published by Allen and Unwin.