one less to weep

I don't want to dive into the grief and horror in the world around me. But I must. 

She is dignified and poised, this older woman who I meet each week. Along with several younger women, we study English for a couple hours each Friday, helping them cope with this new world called Canada. Their children already speak English well due to their hours in school each day, but these mothers, and grandmother, struggle to go shopping or use the bus, still stressed from their difficult journey from Syria through the English-dominant airports.  Most of our time together is in a frenzy of Arabic, occasional English words thrown to me by someone compassionate to my lack of comprehension. I've picked up a tad, though; I learned "how are you," "chair," and "glory to God."

This week, we planned to review the shopping vocabulary and have some conversations to work on pronunciation. We started by asking how they were feeling after the chemical attack made on civilians in Khan Sheikhun, Syria earlier this week, followed quickly by the U.S. missile airstrike of a military base in Syria. We never really got back to the English lesson.

I didn't understand what they were saying, but I could read their faces. Needing to talk, the hijab-clad women passionately spewed their anger, fear, opinions, arguments for who is good, who is bad, and what is really happening. The youngest woman just sat there in silence most of the time, staring blankly at the table, her emotionless expression matched by her 1-year-old son sitting silently beside her.

I was holding the 8-month-old, trying to keep his busy hands occupied with my mint container while the women shared freely with each other and with my Arabic-speaking classmate. But suddenly I heard an inhaled gasp from the older woman beside me and turned quickly as I watched her serene, well-respected face crumple into sobs. I didn't know what was happening but before I could think my hand was on her shoulder, rubbing her back, wanting to do anything for her to know she is loved. My classmate, also in tears, came and wrapped her arms around her. She told me that yesterday had been 5 years since this woman's son had been killed in the Syrian conflict. She had 5 sons - one here in Canada with his children, one killed, and she doesn't know where the other three are. Even as she began to weep, she was trying to restrain herself, pull herself back together out of respect for our supposed English lesson.

I don't think anyone said anything while she cried. There was nothing to say. I wanted to weep but was still shocked by the reality sitting in the chair next to me, and struggling to contain a wriggling baby. The other Syrian mothers sat silently; compassionate but all-too-acquainted with these very emotions. Their eyes reddened, but they didn't sob. They had been the ones in tears before. Today just wasn't their day.

We handed her a tissue.

It seemed only appropriate that all the women were covered head to toe in black.

Someone started a conversation again, my classmate went back to her seat, but this older lady kept silent. She still shook with the shaky breaths of one recovering from the sobs, still wiping away the tears streaming from her eyes.

I wanted so badly to say something, but was kept distant by the language barrier. Though even with the language I don't think there was anything to say. But it was a moment that I knew was shaping me even as it happened. The headlines and statistics were suddenly flesh and bone, tears and shaky breaths. I sat in silence beside her.

After a bit, it seemed like they were coming around to the English lesson again, but I wasn't. I wanted her to know how sorry I was, how my heart was splintering, even as meager as that was next to her shattered one. I decided to ask my classmate to translate these carefully chosen words: "I am so sorry. I so wish I could fix it, but I know I can't do anything. But I will pray, and many others will pray with me for you. We will pray for Syria, and we will pray that you may feel God with you." I got my friend's attention and asked her to translate, but just a few words in, I felt my chest tightening. "I so wish I could fix it -" and then I couldn't speak. Tears poured out. The women, not knowing what I had been saying, noticed my collapse and weren't sure what to do. I tried to talk and say it's okay, don't worry, but the initial breath turned into a sob. I put my hand on the shoulder of the grandmother beside me, trying to communicate to her that my tears were for her son.

She smiled gently, tears still in her own eyes.

She handed me a tissue.

I won't ever forget this Friday. I won't forget the horror of trying to learn English while fighting the trauma of four missing sons. I won't forget the collective silence, the somber reality that each woman at the table had the same story. I won't forget watching the face of a grandmother who has no reason for a dead son except for corruption, for evil, and for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I won't forget the longing for justice written in her skin, underwriting the paralyzing grief.

I have no conclusions. Even between the Syrian women they dispute who is right and who is wrong. All I know is that I want to bring this woman's three other sons to her. For every refugee mother, I want to find all her children. I can't. I understand reality. But maybe we can find some. Maybe we can help one less mother weep for her children.


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