I witnessed this yesterday, in Morocco. I was on the train from Rabat to the Casablanca airport, on my way home to New York. Some of us stood by the doors with our luggage on the crowded train. A few feet away stood a young couple holding each other, crying. At the next stop he got off the train. He stood and waved, smiling, and then in one motion, as the train pulled away, he put his hands to his face, and turned around, and bent forward in grief. She slid down to sit on her backpack. And then I heard a cheerful calling whistle and she stood and pressed her face against the door’s window and I glimpsed him running with the train and waving. She laughed and watched until I guess she couldn’t see him anymore. Then she sat down on her backpack again and wept like they weep in the movies and in real life. No tissues, no hiding, just still, staring, streaming grief. And she was beautiful like in the movies, and he was dark and handsome. I cried, too. Because she is my daughter.
(I wrote the above the day after I returned from Morocco. The following reflections were written in the two months since then.)
I have always been proud to work as a Christian chaplain for my organization which, to quote its mission statement, “is a multifaith community of professionals from many cultures dedicated to caring for persons in spirit, mind, and body.” I like to think I’m part of something that promotes peace and understanding between religions and cultures. I was proud when my college daughter chose to do an exchange semester in Morocco, to study Arabic and Islam and Moroccan culture and music. But when she broke the news, two months into the semester, that she had a Moroccan boyfriend my imagination flew toward a future hell–not separation from God, but separation from my daughter, who’d be stuck in Morocco with a husband who couldn’t get a green card or a job. And since my son already lives in Germany, I imagined drearily divvying up my annual vacations until retirement, fifteen years away: one week in Germany, one week in Morocco, one week in Michigan with my aging parents, one week with my husband at our cottage in Ontario.
Two months after my daughter told us about the boyfriend, the time came for me to visit my son in Germany and daughter in Morocco, as previously planned. When I got to Morocco, and met the boyfriend and reunited with my daughter, I was gracious and smiling for a few hours, but then my body gave way, without my permission, to grief and anger. I couldn’t listen to my daughter and I couldn’t pray. I was angry at her for not seeing how impossible this relationship was, I was angry at myself for the pitiful tears that kept leaking out of my eyes, I was angry at the absence of toilet paper, anywhere in the country, apparently, and angry at the 3:00 a.m. call to prayer from the mosque next door. The grief! No matter how much I tried to tell myself, Get a grip, you don’t know the future, this will blow over, she is God’s child, my body was hearing none of it.
I didn’t know I could feel such anger toward my child. Once, I even cursed at her. Of course, there was a lot of laughter and excitement, too, as my daughter acted as tour guide through this amazing land. We talked, talked, talked as we traveled around the country by train, by bus, by petit taxi, and on foot. Much of my grief and fear, I knew, was selfish: I do not want my daughter to live out her life on the other side of the earth from me. Some of my grief and fear were for her. I wanted to protect her from the pain of marrying someone of a different culture, religion, language. I knew that, statistically speaking, such marriages do not have a snowball’s chance in hell. Marriage is difficult enough! Don’t do this to yourself! On top of that, I hurt for the world. The Arabic newspapers were filled with the photos of the tortured Iraqi prisoners of Abu Ghraib, photos I had already been seeing for two weeks at home. My daughter’s boyfriend was grieved and enraged. When I told him that Bush’s popularity had gone down to 37% because of these revelations, he said, “Thirty seven percent?!! Thirty-seven percent!!! Why is not 0%?!!!”
In Morocco, I went with my daughter to church–the French Catholic church she had been attending where, she said, she felt at home. She told me that her faith had become very important to her. She had tried to take her boyfriend here once, but when he’d told the greeter he was Muslim he’d been asked to leave. (Neither are Christians allowed to enter mosques.) On the way to church that morning, my daughter had become annoyed with my sad mood and demanded why I couldn’t make an attempt to rejoice with her, since she felt so deeply joyful. Good question. But I wept, or rather, desperately tried not to weep, all through the service. There sat the ten of us in a vast, gothic, whitewashed, spare and peaceful nave.
I do not know the ending to the story. My daughter is home for the summer, working. She wants to go back to Morocco and teach, to learn Arabic, to…well, I’m choosing not to think about it. Denial is not a problem, it’s a solution. I’m enjoying every moment with my daughter and I trust her to “fly with her own little wings.” Working for my multifaith chaplaincy organization doesn’t cost me much. The benefits are all mine. Yes, we struggle to get along sometimes, but no more than organizations which are more homogeneous. If my daughter learns Arabic, marries a Muslim, she will be building a bridge and waging peace with her own body. I don’t want her to do this. No more than parents want their soldier children sent to Iraq. But can her father and I do anything less than let her go with our blessing?
When the plane lifted up from Casablanca and above the Atlantic, I felt an almost immediate release from the savage emotions I had felt during my short stay in that country. I felt as light as the apparently weightless plane. I was on Royal Air Maroc and the plane was filled with people in traditional Moroccan/Muslim dress, with mothers, fathers, babies. I sat down next to a young American man who was engaged to a woman from Fez. Everything seemed possible, and possibly okay. I felt peaceful and happy. I feel that way still, for the most part. Sometimes my body is very scared and sad, anticipating the empty nest. My body wants things, food, especially ice cream, it wants to smoke, or run away, or sleep, or cry.
Last year, before she went to Morocco, my daughter wrote an anti-war song called “Peacekeeping War.” Then she recorded it, along with eight other songs. So now I can listen to her sweet voice any time. She is singing and accompanying herself on the guitar. I want to say, “You go, girl!” But mostly I want to say to my girl, Oh stay with me, live in my neighborhood, oh sing to us, there is so much peacekeeping you can do right here at home.