Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War - James Loney (2011)

Chapter 16

We’re walking through the airport. Uniformed policemen with guns. Someone with a radio. Gordon, Stewart and his wife Giselle, who is also a diplomat and travelled with us from Abu Dhabi. I follow them through airy corridors and sliding open doors. My arms are swinging free. I love that! People are looking at us, looking at me. I walk briskly, pretend not to notice them noticing me, pretend like I’m a regular passenger going to get his luggage.

I see them down a long hall. Dan is to the left, in a blue shirt. My brothers Edward and Matthew are in the middle. Donna is to the right. There are two tall men in suits I have never seen before.

This is it! I can’t believe it. I’m beaming. I want to run to them. I want Dan to come running towards me. But he stays where he is. And I just keep walking. It would be too dramatic, I guess. Like something out of the movies.

“It’s over, it’s over,” I say, wrapping my arms around him.

“It’s over,” he says, holding me tight. We look at each other. He looks good. Just like he always does. Maybe a little greyer. And a little thinner. His eyes are brown. He’s smiling. I love that, the way the skin around his eyes crinkles when he smiles.

And then my arms are around Matthew, Edward, Donna, and their arms are around me. I introduce them to Gordon, Stewart and Giselle. I am honoured, grateful beyond words. The people who brought me home meeting the people I’ve been brought home to. I’m introduced to Larry and Mike, the officers who were the liaison between my family and the RCMP. Yet more surprises.

Gordon leaves right away. He has a plane to catch. He’s exhausted, anxious to see his wife, who is recovering from surgery. Stewart and Giselle slip away too. They promise to come and visit the next time they’re in Toronto, and I promise to cook for them. I don’t want any of them to go. Not yet. Something’s unfinished. They are my last link to Iraq, the rescue, this enormous, bittersweet debt of gratitude. A gratitude I will never be finished with.

We’re in a hall with row upon row of fixed chairs. There’s no one around us. It’s as though we have a whole airport terminal to ourselves. We sit and talk and talk. Our questions run into each other. I want to know everything that’s happened. They want to know everything that’s happened. This talking together, it’s like … it’s like the kind of breathing a drowning man does once he’s safely onshore. I want to just sit here, talking like this forever.

“We should probably get going,” one of the RCMP officers says, looking at his watch. “There’s a whole bunch of press people waiting.”

Oh yeah. A pit opens in my stomach. I really don’t want to be doing this.

Dan looks apprehensive. “What are you going to tell them about us?”

“What do you mean?” I say.

“Everyone thinks you’re this nice guy from Sault Ste. Marie who’s from this nice nuclear family. They don’t know anything about me.” He tells me about how, in those frenzied first days of our kidnapping, they needed a picture, so they chose the one David and Joseph took of us the night before I left. We were standing together, smiling, shoulder around arm around shoulder. They had to cut Dan out of the picture. No one could know about him. No one could know about our relationship. It just about killed him, seeing that picture on newspaper front pages, knowing he was helpless to speak for me. He too had been disappeared.

I put my hand on Dan’s shoulder. “No more prisons.”

We walk down a long corridor. When we’re halfway, a sliding door opens, revealing a wall of people, cameras, microphones. “Oh my God,” I say.

“Are you all right?” I hear my brother Ed say. I feel his hand squeezing my shoulder. It feels good, steadies me.

“Yes,” I say. “All I have to do is read. No questions.”

We’re there. The door slides open again. “There he is,” I hear a voice say. Then people calling my name. The click-whirring sound of cameras. A wall of faces. Confusion held behind a yellow-tape cordon. I pull out my statement, clear my throat and begin to read:

During my captivity, I sometimes entertained myself by imagining this day. Sometimes I despaired of ever seeing it. Always I ached for it. And so here we are. For 118 days I disappeared into a black hole, and somehow by God’s grace I was spit out again. My head is swirling and there are times when I can hardly believe it’s true. We had to wear flak jackets during our helicopter transport from the International Zone to the Baghdad airport, and I had to keep knocking on the body armour I was wearing to reassure myself that this was all really happening.

It was a terrifying, profound, powerful, transformative, and excruciatingly boring experience. Since my release from captivity, I have been in a constant state of wonder, bewilderment and surprise as I slowly discover the magnitude of the effort to secure our lives and our freedom—Tom Fox, Norman Kember, Harmeet Sooden and myself. A great hand of solidarity reached out for us, a hand that included the hands of Palestinian children holding pictures of us, and the hands of the British soldier who cut our chains with a bolt cutter. That great hand was able to deliver three of us from the shadow of death. I am grateful in a way that can never be adequately expressed in words.

There are so many people that need this hand of solidarity, right now, today, and I’m thinking specifically of prisoners held all over the world, people who have disappeared into an abyss of detention without charge, due process, hope of release—some victims of physical and psychological torture—people unknown and forgotten. It is my deepest wish that every forsaken human being should have a hand of solidarity reaching out to them.

My friend and fellow Canadian in captivity, Harmeet Sooden, showed me something yesterday. Our captors gave us notebooks, and Harmeet opened his notebook to show me two fractions—3/4 and 4/4—that Tom had written. “It was the only thing he wrote in my book,” he said. Tom, who had been a professional musician, wrote them as part of a lesson in music theory he gave Harmeet—3/4 time, 4/4 time. Harmeet put his finger over the 3/4 and said, “In the beginning we were 4/4.” Then he put his finger over the 4/4 and said, “Now we’re this—3/4.” We are only 3/4. Tom is not coming home with us. I am so sorry, Kassie and Andrew.

People have been asking, “What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get home?” All I really want to do is to love, and be loved by, the people I love. The one specific thing might be to wash a sink full of dirty dishes. After this, I’m going to disappear into a different kind of abyss—an abyss of love. I need some time to get reacquainted with my partner Dan, my family, my community—and freedom itself. I’m eager to tell the story of my captivity and rescue, but I need some time first—that’s a subtle hint to anyone who might have a big camera or notebook.

For the British soldiers who risked their lives to rescue us, for the Government of Canada who sent a team to Baghdad to help secure our release, for all those who thought about and prayed for us, for all those who spoke for us when we had no voice, I am forever and truly grateful.

It’s great to be alive. Hamdulillah!

As soon as I finish, we’re moving. Larry and Mike lead us through the reporters like human bulldozers. I follow between them; Dan, Ed, Donna and Matthew follow behind us. The reporters swarm and follow us out of the terminal. There are two black sedans waiting for us. Unmarked police cars. Another surprise. They’re driving us right to the door. It feels good to be sitting next to Dan, to be going home, drinking in the familiar sites along the four-lane highways that lead from the airport to our home in Toronto’s west end.

We pull up in front of our house. I get out of the car as soon as I can. I reach my hands up to the sky. The day is blue and the sun is late afternoon glorious. I am trembling with relief. Finally I am home. Finally I am out, free, released from the world of the gun.

I look around me. There’s only one television camera here. I’m amazed. The media actually respected our request. My friend Sheila Sullivan is standing on the sidewalk. I go over to give her a hug. She bursts into hysterical laughter and runs towards her car. The car door is open, waiting. She’s up to no good. I run after her, laughing too. “What’re you doing, Sheila?” I say. She’s reaching into her car, pushing buttons, trying to play some music. She can’t talk, she’s laughing so hard. The only thing I can make out is the word “Alleluia.” She’s trying to play something with “Alleluia” in it.

“You can’t do that, Sheila!” I tell her. “It’s still Lent.” She breaks into more spasms of laughter. The Alleluia begins. I turn to our house. All the blinds are down and the curtains drawn. We walk up the sidewalk to the front steps. Dan opens the door for me. I walk into the house. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the interior light. I look to my right. My friend Sheila Green is standing in the doorway to the living room, all five feet of her. “Hiya stranger,” she says, waving to me, smiling impishly, bundled up tight in her winter jacket.

“Sheila!” I say, exploding with joy, opening my arms to hug her. “Did the cats miss me?”

“Yeah, they missed you,” she says, nodding, holding back tears.

“Well, I missed you too,” I say.

I look behind her into our living room. There are people sitting, standing, crammed everywhere. I can’t see the floor. I go to Raffi and Tonnan and Sephie Burghardt Marshall first. They are nineteen months, five years and seven years old. Then to David and Jessica Morales, who are nine and fourteen years old. It is impossible to describe, how beautiful, how wonderful, how amazing it is, to behold a child after the ugliness of captivity. And then the tears come, a hot pouring flood of sweet joy relief. I go around the room, greet each person, blessing and being blessed with tears, my extended Catholic Worker family, my CPT brothers and sisters, the friends who organized and kept vigil and prayed and supported Dan and worked night and day for our release. When all the hugs and all the greetings are done, I am spent. The adrenalin is gone. I’ve had two hours of sleep in the past ninety. I’m a trembling wreck. But there’s pizza, beer, a party, most of my favourite people in the world gathered together in one place!

I’m standing in the kitchen. There’s commotion everywhere. Somebody hands me a plate with some pizza on it. Thank you, I say. Somebody is asking me a question. I’m trying to answer them.

“How’re you doing?” Julie says to me, the friend I had dinner with before leaving for Iraq. I’m about to answer when she says, “You look like you need to sit down.” She takes me by the hand and leads me to the living room couch. I sit down. Exhaustion washes through my body.

“Do you need anything?” she asks me. There are people all around me.

“Something to drink would be great,” I say. A glass of juice appears. I drink it greedily. The sugar is an instant hit of strength. I take a breath, dig deeper.

Dan sits beside me. “How’re you doing?” he asks. “Should I send people home?”

“No, it’s okay,” I say, though I am not really sure what I want. Someone new arrives and asks me a question. I answer it. Then everyone seems to have a question and the stories start pouring out. Each story seems to be interrupted by more questions. This disorients me. No, wait, I’m not finished yet, I need to tell each one, I want to say. I feel like a Ping-Pong ball. I see David sitting on the floor in front of me, arms wrapped around his knees, listening closely. I continue on.

I’m flagging. People start to filter out. Madeline, the mother of Seph, Tonnan and Raffi, comes to say goodbye. I stand up. “You know,” she says, choking back tears, “today is my birthday.”

“It is? Wow—happy birthday!” I say.

“Thanks for coming home. I didn’t know … wasn’t sure this day would ever come.” She struggles to get the words through her tears. “I just couldn’t bear the thought that … that you wouldn’t be here … for the boys to grow up with you. You mean so much to them—to us.”

I don’t know what to say. I feel so unworthy of this fierce love. We hold each other again, she wipes away more tears, waves goodbye.

“See you tomorrow, Mad,” I say.

“See you tomorrow,” she says.

I sit back down. Dan puts his hand on my knee. “Well?” he says.

“Yeah, I think it’s time,” I say.

“David asked me to give this to you.” It’s a piece of paper with a pencil drawing of a stick figure holding a two-hundred-pound weight above his head. Jim is still strong, it says in careful block-letter writing. I laugh delightedly.

Dan leads me to our part of the house, an old garage converted into a long rectangular living space.

“Hey, we have curtains!” It’s the first thing I notice.

“Madeline made those for us yesterday,” Dan says. “Part of our media protection program.”

I laugh. “It took a kidnapping for us to finally get some curtains. They’re beautiful.” I turn to look at him. “Everything’s beautiful.” I am home, in my own room, with Dan. I can hardly believe it.

The first thing I notice is my clothes, Dan’s clothes, hanging or sitting folded on the shelves of the open pine wardrobe I built for us when we moved in. “I’d forgotten about these,” I say, fingering one of my shirts, a tangible link to the person-I-was-before in a long-long-time-ago life. Everything is the same. Exactly the same. Except for a vigil candle on the dresser. The big, heavy-duty glass kind that you’ll find next to the tabernacle in a Catholic church.

“I always had one going,” Dan says. “I would bring one into the room with me at night. It was my way of holding you. You can blow it out now, if you want.”

“With pleasure,” I say, blowing out the candle.

“I’ll show you later,” he laughs. “I have a whole box of them.”

We take off our clothes, climb into bed, arrange ourselves under the sheets. Everything feels strangely anticlimactic, as if there has never been any interruption. As if this is just the end of a regular ordinary day in a long string of regular ordinary days. But it’s only six-thirty in the evening, and it’s still light out, and my body is tingling with freedom, joy, incredulous gratitude, and I am fighting every second to keep my eyes open as I lie here next to Dan, and the soul balm smoothness of his skin.

“After I brought the candle in, I would always read to you,” Dan tells me. “Something Scott gave me that Daniel Berrigan wrote. Shall I read it to you? It’s beautiful,” he says, bubbling with enthusiasm as he reads the passage that I’ve used as the epigraph for this book: “Sleep Jonah in the belly of a paradox. Now you need have no purpose, nothing to prove, nowhere to go …”

I try really hard to take it in. But I can’t. It goes in one ear and out the other, a babble stream of words flowing by. Everything is too much now. Everything.

“What do you think? It’s good, eh?” Dan says. He’s very excited.

“Yeah, it’s … nice … very … nice,” I say, unable to keep my eyes open any longer.

“Sleep, Jim,” Dan says, caressing my head. “Sleep at last.” I nod my head and fall fast asleep.

I’m instantly awake, charged, ready. I have to restrain myself from leaping out of bed. “Are you awake, Dan?”

“Yes.”

It’s still dark out. I look at the time. It’s 5:00 a.m. “Oh good, it’s not too late,” I say, jumping out of bed. “Come on, Dan. Let’s go watch the sun rise.”

We grab something to eat and pull our bikes out of the basement. I sit on the seat of my old ten-speed yellow Schwinn, take the handlebars in my hands, put my feet on the pedals. I hesitate for a moment. Can I still do it? I push off and it’s miraculous, the simultaneous pedal, balance and move, the wheel-turning rush of wind against my face. Yes! Everything works: body, wheels, gravity, the universe. I’m going to be okay.

It’s six kilometres to the sunrise spot at the mouth of the Humber River where the Catholic Worker community gathers at dawn every Easter morning to proclaim and celebrate the Resurrection. Dan and I sit on giant limestone blocks along a ragged landfill shore and watch as cobalt turns to mauve, mauve bleeds to pink, pink flows into red and orange and gold-yellow, the fiery arc of sun breaking over the Toronto skyline. Glorious.

We cycle home slowly, telling each other stories. I’m soaking in everything. Blue especially. I’m in love with blue. Blue Lake Ontario waters. Blue open-above sky. Blue, the colour of freedom.

When we get home, I wander around the house in a daze of delight, looking at, touching, feeling everything. Knick-knacks, door handles, countertops. I can’t settle anywhere. Everything is a wonder. Everything I do is like for the first time. Parting curtains. Turning on the tap. Making toast. Opening the fridge door. Answering the phone. Dan shows me a big stack of mail and a big stack of newspapers. “When you’re ready,” he says. I open a letter, flip through the newspapers, check my email. I look at today’s newspaper. My picture is on the front page. Everything is overwhelming.

I see that the garbage needs to be taken out. I love this. Tying the bag closed. Stepping outside with it. The clang of the garbage can lid coming off, the thud of the bag falling into the can, the clang of the lid going back into place.

I look up at the sky. Ah, blue, I can’t get enough of you. I see, in the middle of the lawn, there’s a pop can. I love this too. Walking towards it, bending down, grabbing it with my hand, standing back up. I look down the street. More joy. It’s that old man, who passes our house every day, head always down, bent over like a question mark, fighting for every step, his face and hands full of blue veins. I love this old man, and his grizzled old dog pulling him forward, concentrating, breathing hard, just as determined. I watch them make their way up the street.

The old man stops in front of our house. I have never talked to him before. He has not once, that I know of, ever looked up. Nor has his dog. But today they’re both looking up. His old dog wants to see me. It’s straining against its leash, tail wagging eagerly, ears peeled back, smiling the way dogs do. The old man lets go of the leash. The dog rushes towards me, nuzzles my legs furiously, licks my hand, sits back on its haunches. It wants to be petted. I reach down and rub its head. Its eyes squeeze shut with pleasure.

“I guess he wants to welcome you home,” the old man says, smiling, his voice warm and beautiful and gentle, nonchalant. As if he’s always known me.

“Yes,” is all I can manage to say.

“It’s a beautiful day,” he says, taking a deep breath of the blue morning air.

“Yes, it certainly is.”

The old dog returns to the old man. “See ya,” he says.

“See ya,” I say. And on they go, continuing on with continuing on.

When everyone is awake, we go out for breakfast. Dan and I. My brothers and Donna. William, Jo and Michael. A greasy spoon on Queen Street. There’s nothing more pleasant: bacon and eggs, home-fried potatoes, toast on the side, coffee, raucous group laughter. Someone nudges my elbow and points to the television. They’re playing a clip from my arrival yesterday at the airport. Nobody in the restaurant seems to notice, or care. I am relieved.

I call my parents when we get home. Their voices are a healing balm. I apologize for taking so long to call them. “That’s okay, James, we understand. We’re just glad you’re home,” they say. I tell them about the Green Zone, staying with the British ambassador, the Hercules flight out of Baghdad, the stopover in Abu Dhabi, my arrival in Toronto. “When are you coming home?” they ask. I tell them that our plan is to drive up tomorrow. Foreign Affairs offered to fly us, but if we drive we can avoid the media frenzy, and it will also give Dan and me a chance to talk. “Take your time, whenever you get here is fine. We’re looking forward to seeing you,” they say.

Hobo arrives at noon to celebrate Mass. It is all the same people who were here yesterday. I can’t meet or see anyone else. No one new, no one I haven’t already been reunited with. No more questions and answers, no more stories, no more small talk, no more hugs. I come into the living room when Hobo is ready to begin and leave immediately when Mass is finished. I can’t do it. I am empty, depleted, squeezed dry, suffocating. I need to be outside. I need to be alone. I need to get my hair cut.

I step outside into instant relief. I’m deliriously happy. If I want to I can hop, skip, dance or jump, stare at the sky for an hour, hug a tree, lie on the grass. I go to the corner and turn up Close Avenue. There they are, all the Catholic Worker houses, in their dilapidated, falling-apart glory. I keep on walking. There’s a man coming down the street towards me. I smile and nod. He smiles and nods. We pass each other. I hear my name being called. “James? James Loney?” The voice is surprised, delighted.

I turn around. “Yes,” I say, perplexed. Is this someone I know, someone I’ve met before and forgotten?

“I’m so surprised to see you—out, walking around. I didn’t think—I’m sorry, I should introduce—I’m a reporter. From Canwest. My name is Robert.”

“Well, why not? It’s a beautiful day. I’m going to get my hair cut,” I say.

His eyes light up. He pulls out his notebook. “Would you mind? Could I talk to you? For just a minute?”

I feel a sudden, dark flash of anger. “No, not today. I have to go now.” I turn and walk away.

That feels great. To say no and walk away. Then I think, That was rather abrupt, maybe I should take his card, so I can call him later, when I’m ready. I look back. He’s gone already. Oh well, no matter, I’m going to get my hair cut.

I’m a supernova of joy. I’m in love with everything. The cracks in the sidewalk. The chestnut trees and the wind-shredded bags fluttering helplessly in their branches. The speed bumps. The sun glinting off the cars. The black-pointy Toronto Rehabilitation Institute fence that runs the length of the street. Queen Victoria Public School. The forlorn parkette and the grubby pay phones at the top of the street. The King streetcar rumbling by. The electrical poles full of staples. Holy Family Catholic Church. The litter in the Holy Family Catholic School fence. How I yearned for you!

I’ve been walking for twenty minutes. I need to sit down. I’m running out of steam. Almost there. Two more blocks. I’m walking in front of the Parkdale Area Recreational Centre. There’s a young man out front. He looks to be about twenty-five. He’s dressed in a baggy, oversized hoodie, sagging pants, a baseball cap turned to the side. His fingers are stained with nicotine. His shoes are bandaged together with duct tape. He looks at me. I nod and smile. “Brother,” he says, “you look great. Let me give you a hug.” He opens his arms wide and gives me a gentle squeeze. He steps back. “Have a beautiful day.”

“Thanks,” I say, stunned. “You too.” I keep on walking. I wonder if he knows who I am, or if this is just one of those things that sometimes happens to you in Parkdale. It doesn’t matter. It is a blessing I will always cherish.

Finally, at the barbershop, Luigi is puffing on a cigarette, the way he always does between customers. “Hiya,” he mumbles, just the way he always does.

“Hi,” I say, self-conscious, bracing myself to be recognized.

There are two customers ahead of me. I take off my jacket and sit in a red vinyl chair. The one with the split upholstery and yellow foam peeking through. I love this place. Everything’s exactly the same as it was before I left: the faded calendars hanging crooked on the wall, the Christmas cactus in the window, the white and red tile floor, here and there a square missing.

There’s a copy of today’s Toronto Sun lying on the chair nearest the door. My picture is on the front page. I reach for the newspaper, pretend to read it for a while, put it back with the front cover down.

Twenty minutes pass. I need to stand up. I can’t sit still. I need fresh air. I step outside.

Across the street, Dan and William are just getting out of Alayna’s car. I wave to them. They wave to me. I dash across the street, all smiles. “What’s up?” I say.

They look worried. “Is everything okay?” they ask.

“This is the most fun I’ve had in years,” I say. “I’m next in line to get my hair cut. He doesn’t recognize me so far. I’m so relieved. Is something the matter?” They look like a couple of mother hens panicking about a lost chick.

“We just came to check to make sure everything’s okay. There were a couple of reporters who stopped by the house. Apparently the word’s out you’re getting your hair cut. They want to know if they can take your picture washing some dishes.” I laugh. “Shall we stay with you?” they ask, their faces full of concern.

“I’m fine,” I say. “I’ll come home as soon as I’m done here.” I wave goodbye and walk back into the shop.

Luigi motions to me when it’s my turn. I sit in his chair and he covers me with the bib. “How-do-you-a-want-a-the-hair-a-cut-a-today-a?” he says. “Something-a-short-a-or-not-a-short-a?” I only know what he’s saying because he always says the same thing.

“Short over the ears,” I say, “but not too short on top.”

“You-a-have-a-the-long-a-hair-a-this-a-time-a,” he says.

“Yes,” I say.

He says something about the weather, what a beautiful day it is.

“Yes, it is a beautiful day,” I say.

We leave for Sault Ste. Marie the next day. It is one of those glorious March days when sugar maple veins are flowing open. As the Tim Hortons in Parry Sound comes into view, I ask Dan to stop. I have a craving for a sugar-coated sour cream doughnut. When we enter the store, I immediately feel it’s a mistake. I feel exposed, on display. Is it my imagination or is every head in the place turning in our direction? I tell Dan I’ll wait for him outside.

“Do you mind if I drive?” I say when he returns to the car. “I don’t know if I can do it, but I want to try.”

“No problem. Here,” he says, handing me the keys. I take the wheel. My brain feels spongy, my eyes sluggish. I shift into first and drive us through the parking lot. “Jim! Stop!” Dan shouts. I slam on the brake. There’s a car barrelling out of the drive-thru to my right. I didn’t see the stop sign. My whole body is shaking. I put the car in park and immediately get out.

“Sorry, Dan,” I say as we pass each other in front of the car. “I can’t even get out of the parking lot,” I say, laughing contritely.

“The only way you find out is by trying,” Dan says.

I talk the whole way, pour the story out from beginning to end, every detail, without interruption. We’re passing through Bruce Mines when I finish. We fall silent for a moment. Night has fallen. I watch the highway passing under us through a fleeting tunnel of light. I feel my body relaxing. I have a witness now, someone to hold the story with me, and I am happy. In forty-five minutes we’ll be home, the circle will be complete.

Behind my parents’ house there’s a small three-unit apartment building on a busy street. When we were kids, that property was a vital shortcut in our various comings and goings. When we learned that my father was going to build a fence along the back of our property, we complained loudly. What about our shortcut? Don’t worry, he told us, I’ve got it all figured out. He put a door in the fence.

We park in front of the Anglican church across the street from the apartment building. My sister suggested we come in the back way to avoid the media. Trudging through snow, we enter the backyard through the door in the fence. I stop for a moment. “There they are,” I say to Dan. We can see them through the window. Everyone’s there—my parents, Claudette and Patrick; my sister Kathleen and her husband Rob; their three children, Adrianna, Olivia and Andrew; Ed and Donna and Matt. My heart races. I open the back door.

My dad sees me first. “James!” he says, throwing his arms around me, engulfing me in his tears. I can’t speak. And then it’s my mom who is holding me tight. “I love you, James,” she says. I feel it in every cell of my body, the love of my parents, the people who gave me life. I give her a kiss. She doesn’t say anything about the beard.

“James, do you want some champagne? Ed and Donna got champagne!” Andrew says when all the hugs are done.

“Sure!” I say.

When everyone has a glass in their hand, my dad proposes a toast. “Thank God, and thank Allah, it’s over, James is home. To freedom,” he says.

“To freedom,” we say.

My mom brings me a big bowl of chocolate ice cream. “I think we’re going to have to fatten you up a bit,” she says.

I laugh. “Thanks, Mom! This is perfect. I haven’t had any ice cream yet since I’ve been home.” It is one of the first things I do whenever I visit my parents—help myself to a bowl of ice cream.

The next morning, my father asks me if I’m going to shave. Yes, I tell him, I’m very much looking forward to it.

“What’re you going to use?” he asks me.

“I’ll just use what’s downstairs,” I say. My mom keeps disposable razors in the basement bathroom for guests.

“I’ll be right back,” he says. When he returns, he hands me the razor I remember he used to use when I was a kid—the old-fashioned kind where you have to twist open the head to replace the blade. “You might want to use this. There’s a new razor in it.”

“I remember this!” I say. Like it was yesterday. Standing next to my father in the bathroom, his face full of lather, his chin lifted and leaning into the mirror, the sound of steel scraping against his beard and the clicking of the razor in the sink as he rinsed it, the pleasing, soap-smelling smoothness of his skin when he was done. The little plastic shaving kit he got me and how grown-up I felt when I would shave next to him in the mornings, my face covered with the lather remaining on his shaving brush. Then the inconsolable tears when the razor fell behind the sink and I thought I’d never be able to shave with my father again. And the sense of being completely restored when he put the razor back in my hands again.

“I thought you might like to have it,” he says.

“Thank you, Dad,” I say, marvelling at it. “You know, I always kind of hoped that … one day I’d be able to use this.”

“Well, it’s yours now.”

I use a pair of scissors first to cut off as much of the beard as I can. Then I use the razor. It feels good. To shave it all away, every last haggard hair, rinse it all down the drain. When I am done, I look in the mirror. Finally, I think. I am beginning to look like myself again.

Later, my brother-in-law asks me what I did with all the hair from my beard. “What do you mean?” I say. “I washed it all down the sink.”

“That’s too bad,” he says. “You should’ve saved it. We could’ve auctioned it off on eBay and made a fortune!”

We laugh hysterically. Finally, thank God, hum da’Allah, it’s over. It’s really really over. And we spend the next days feasting. On laughter, card games, storytelling, afternoon walks in snow-melting sunshine, the full-measure pressed-down shaken-together overflowing goodness of life. The kind of feasting that you can never get enough of. That I so much wish for every human being on our beautiful blue planet.