In this excerpt from A Beirut Heart: One Woman’s War the children and I have packed our bags and are ready to leave for the airport to return to Beirut. The telephone rings and our plans are suddenly altered.
On the morning of September 1, 1983, I arose early, too excited to stay in bed. Our bags were packed and the children and I were going home, scheduled to fly Middle East Airlines that evening from JFK back to Beirut through Paris.
Around noon Michel called. Instantly I knew from the sound of his voice that something was wrong, that perhaps someone had died.
“You can’t come home, Cathy,” he said. “It’s started again.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, sinking slowly into the armchair near the telephone, as my legs turned to rubber. I knew what he was going to say.
“The war, it’s started again.”
“We just spoke two days ago and everything was fine. What happened?”
“The Israelis abruptly pulled out of the Chouf Mountains and the whole thing flared up again. It is unbelievable. This is the worst it has ever been. The bombing has been going on now for two straight days. There’s no end in sight.”
“I’m going to call the airline to see if…”
“Cathy, listen to me. They’ve canceled all flights. Its planes are grounded. You’ve only been gone two months and already you’ve forgotten? When bombs are falling, planes don’t fly in and out of here.”
I tried to sound reasonable. “Then what should we do?”
“From the looks of things, you’ll have to stay there,” he said. “Maybe you should put the children in school. Call my brother. See what he suggests.”
“This is all too much. I can’t think right now. I’ll have to call you back.”
I had no time to collect my thoughts; no time to sound like an adult in front of my teenage children. They could tell from the tone of my voice that something had gone terribly wrong. A large double window looked out on woods and green grass with patches of red salvia, yellow roses and purple veronica. I wanted to be down there. I wanted to go for a long walk, maybe even walk away to some distant place, anywhere so I would not have to be in this room at this moment and say what I had to say.
My children understood the part about remaining in America temporarily, but they objected to the rest.
“No!” Naim shouted. “I know what you’re going to say. It has something to do with starting school here, right? Don’t say another word. We are not going to school here.”
“It could be weeks, maybe months before we can…”
Naim cut me off. “So what?” he cried, his voice cracking.
Suddenly, like the time she shot out of the murky river after falling overboard from the canoe, Nayla cried out, “Oh please, Mommy, please don’t make me go to school here.”
The terror in her voice was like a knife cutting into my heart and I sobbed. And the young boy who had spoken so offhandedly about bombs tearing up roads behind him, about Palmyra and the underground prison his father almost landed in, and about the dead bodies in the street, was crying too.
I had no time to grapple with the intricacies of an indefinite stay in the States. I had to decide as quickly as possible on a course of action. I knew two things: we could not live with my parents in their small apartment, and the school year had already begun.
We moved to Boston to be near Michel’s brother, Jacques and his family. While there Michel sent me a sketch of himself. The white paper was blank, except for a small square cage in the far right-hand bottom corner of the page. ‘Me’ was printed next to it. In my mind I saw him constantly. He was crossing the Ministry of Justice intersection on his way to the hospital when his car stalled, and a sniper killed him. Or he was walking our dog. Foxy, when the bombs began to fall, and both of them were hit and lay bleeding in the street. Or he was upset and yelling at a militiaman blocking the road and the man walked over to his car, pulled him out and beat him senseless. There was no limit to the ways I saw my husband die.
Our lifeline to him was every Saturday morning. The three of us gathered around the phone. All eyes were on me as I dialed his number. My hands shook as I waited for him to answer, to say hello to reassure us that he was well. We cried when we heard his voice.
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