This summer, I had my older three children read Naomi Shihab Nye’s novel Habibi about a girl who moves to Palestine. We had studied the culture and geography of the eastern hemisphere in social studies this past school year, and I’m always looking for literary connections. Rob and I always wanted our children to understand that the world is much larger than their own small sphere.
I love how Naomi Shihab Nye explores the continuity across cultures in all of her writing. Her exploration of the universal themes of life and grief always draws me in. As the granddaughter of a refugee, I am committed to welcoming the stranger and building bridges with other cultures. In our marriage, Rob’s passion for humanitarian work meshed so well with my own passions, and together we worked on behalf of refugees during our years in Chicago and Seattle. Our hearts were drawn to care for those who bore deep scars of grief from lives they had to leave behind.
We all carry the scars of grief, whether we have fled countries or sat beside a loved one as her life fades away. We all carry fears and questions and regrets and dreams. Today, I invite you to enter into the backseat of Naomi Shihab Nye’s car. How would you answer her childhood question? How would you answer its opposite — How do you know you are going to live?
Making a Fist
We forget that we are all dead men conversing with dead men.
—Jorge Luis Borges
For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,
I felt the life sliding out of me,
a drum in the desert, harder and harder to hear.
I was seven, I lay in the car
watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past the glass.
My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.
“How do you know if you are going to die?”
I begged my mother.
We had been traveling for days.
With strange confidence she answered,
“When you can no longer make a fist.”
Years later I smile to think of that journey,
the borders we must cross separately,
stamped with our unanswerable woes.
I who did not die, who am still living,
still lying in the backseat behind all my questions,
clenching and opening one small hand.