It was March 18th.
I carried my dad from his bed to the portable hospital toilet, one that was on wheels sitting next to his bed.
“I gotta piss, I gotta piss,” he would say, stirring me from a shallow slumber in a hospital chair that could be converted into a sort of a temporary divan.
I would carry my dad, in his hospital gown, onto the portable toilet so he could take a piss.
“Whew! Thanks, I can’t even fucking walk,” he would say.
“How is tech doing?” he would ask, wondering how Georgia Tech, our favorite college team, was doing in the March Madness bracket.
“We already got knocked out. We watched the game together,” I replied to him.
“Fuck. I must be on my way out. I’m glad I got to watch the game with you,” he said.
The cancer that began growing in his kidney two years earlier had metastasized to his lungs, liver and brain. When the doctors caught it, his renal cell cancer was already in the fourth and final stage. We got two years with him that should have only been a few months.
When I carried my dad back to his hospital bed that night, I knew it would become one of our final moments together.
So did he.
It was March 18th.
I wiped the blood off of my brow that been spit up through a tube being shoved down a man’s throat. I never knew the man’s name. Medics scrambled, desperately performing CPR on him after the intubation.
“Film! Film it!,” said one of the medics, demanding that I record what was happening.
“This guy is fucking coughing up blood,” I can hear myself say in the footage I took.
His blood continued to shoot from the tube that had been forced down his throat.
I still don’t know his name but like so many of those that were killed that day, he was probably a father too.
By the time I was 15 years old, I was a dedicated Marxist. I would hum the Internationale as I walked through the halls of my high school. Recently, a friend of mine posted pictures of me from those days.
Khaldoun was definitely right. I was pretty unclearable even before I went to Yemen when I was 22-years-old.
It wasn’t all my own fault though.
My dad was a member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in his younger days. That organization later went on to become The Weather Underground – infamous anti-capitalists, bombers of banks, and jail breakers of Timothy Leary. Even if I was or am currently opposed to those sorts of tactics or ideology, it says a lot about my dad – a poor redneck kid from Columbus GA that used football to battle his way out of extreme poverty and into college.
I’m not exactly sure how he transitioned from redneck football player to revolutionary but I know it has a lot to do with Jesus.
Majoring in philosophy and religion, dad began to morph his fundamentalist Christian upbringing into a sort of Southern Baptist Liberation Theology. Unlike other Marxists of the day, dad thought that Jesus was the perfect example of resistance against capitalism and that class warfare was best fought with compassion, self-sacrifice and nonviolence. Dad read a lot of Tillich and quite often said that Dr. King was the greatest American to ever live. Whenever he’d have a few and mention, with a laugh, that he was in the SDS, he always made sure everyone knew he left when they became violent.
I found all of my dad’s old literature in the attic when I was 14, taking down all the Christmas decoration.
Thankfully, I grew out of idealism by the time I graduated from high school and went to college as a relatively normal individual. Then I went to Yemen to study Arabic.
I chose Yemen chiefly because my college friends had told me that I’d fit in there (as a sort of a redneck pariah) and also because I was fascinated with the People’s Democratic Republic of South Yemen – a country that once hosted members of the Red Army Faction and Carlos the Jackal. I fell so deeply in love with Yemen that I went back after graduating from college to try and start a career in journalism.
I was working at the Yemen Observer, a paper run an old cronie of uncle Ali Saleh when Tunisia happened. I remember hearing all the reasons why it didn’t really matter. The only person excited about it was Afrah Nasser, a reporter for the paper that was later given asylum in Sweden after Yemenis took to the streets themselves. I remember her greeting me that morning with a “sabah al-Tunis!”, about to burst with hope that the same could happen in her home.
Jumaat al-Karama, Yemen’s March 18th massacre, happened only a few short months after Tunisians first took to the streets. The unimaginable violence of that day was made even more surreal for me with the knowledge that my dad had died on March 18th four years early. As it turns out, March 18th is my least favorite day of the year. Fuck March 18th.
In the last remaining hours of my dad’s life, he would occasionally break his opiate induced slumber to speak to us.
“Hey, how’s Tech doing?”
“Hey dad, we already got knocked out of the bracket.”
“Fuck!” he said on one occasion, drifting on back to what my brother, mother and I hoped was a painless sleep.
Hours before he died, he would break into moments of lucidity, addressing myself and my family as if everything was normal.
“Damn, I need a cigarette,” he would say.
“Hey, when does Tech play?” he would ask, no different from anything I’d ever known of him.
For a family as loud and obnoxious as mine, the quiet of that hospital room felt heavy and sad. Among the chaos and clamor of violence and pain engulfing Change Square, I could feel that same heavy, sad stillness in the mosque where bodies were laid out for their families to identify, to pray, and to grieve. Like my family, Yemenis are not normally a quiet or passive people.
As my dad’s death grew closer, his breaths became drawn. He breathed as if he was about to die. My brother, my mother, close family friends and I were all by his bed. Sometimes his breaths would seem more labored than usual.
“This is it, this is it,” my mother would say. She would ask that we all hold hands around my father’s death bed. I would squeeze her hand and I would squeeze my brother’s hand. She wanted us to all hold hands while he died, hoping that Jesus would touch us as his spirit ascended into heaven. I wanted no part in a religious ritual. I didn’t understand why it was so nessecary.
I felt the same as protesters shouted the Shahada and “Allahu akbar”, carrying dead and wounded from the melee to the field hospital in the center of the Square. As a student of the Middle East, I knew that those words were a declaration of faith made in the face of death and an appeal to heaven for mercy. As an atheist, I didn’t understand the worship of a deity that sat idly while the massacre I was witnessing continued.
I did not share my father’s faith. I did not share the faith of those protesters either. But on March 18th, I can share their grief.