Over a thousand people came to my father’s funeral in Jordan when he died, even though he hadn’t lived there for many years. As a young man, he’d been exiled from his country for his radical political beliefs and activity. Landing in Egypt where he planned to begin his studies, he experienced nothing short of a miracle, when the government officials who still pursued him happened to arrest and hang a different man by the same name. Countless stories like this still circulate among the people who knew him, depicting a man of profound passion and faith, one whose life had been blessed by many second chances.
I got to know my father as an adult only a few years before he passed away, and because of this, I felt like an intruder among his other eight children. During one of our more intimate conversations, I sat on his hospital bed in Germany, telling him of my wish to move away from New York City, but the worries that kept me from doing so. His response was simple: “Follow your heart,” my father said. “Everything else will fall into place.” These words, though seemingly quixotic, offered me something I didn’t know I’d been looking for among the “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” I’d come to live by: They gave me permission.
That year, my family would move to a remote part of New England, where rivers and mountains replaced the urban landscape we’d called home for so long. We knew no one there and had no jobs lined up; just a quaint yellow house with raspberry bushes on a cul de sac, and the hope for happiness that this idyllic life seemed to offer. I decided that in this setting I would no longer need the anxiety medication that had kept me comfortably numb for the better part of a decade. Slowly, the thin layer of ice that had held my emotions just beneath the surface began to splinter, and the lingering loneliness and frustration started to seep up through the cracks. It soon would feel unbearable, as each day held an invisible chisel to my soul, determined to shatter me to pieces. The question was, who would be there to pick them up?
My father would have given the same advice to any one of his other children, who, unlike me, had been graced by his guidance their whole lives, taught to honor their own instincts and desires. Before I could reap the benefits, I’d first have to experience the growing pains of cultivating this self-awareness. I’d have to raise myself, so to speak, into a woman who lived honestly and bravely; who wasn’t afraid of getting cut by the shards; who could one day count herself among her father’s daughters.