A tribute

“She died and she took her secret with her. Her secret was making every person she met feel like she liked them the most out of everyone.”

My grandmother, Yvette Daher Ghazi — Titou — passed away just shy of two weeks ago. Since then, I have been thinking about how to best compose a tribute that would at once make her smile, ring true to those who knew her, and demonstrate to those who didn’t just how profoundly she touched the lives of everyone around her. I think the short quote above from her brother on the day of the funeral is a good start — the rest will be a mix of memories, details about her, and things I continue to learn even after her death.

Titou had three beautiful children, five awesome grandkids (if I dare say so myself), and two intelligent, adorable great-grand-children, plus a smattering of amazing nieces and nephews who loved her dearly. But she was also Titou – that loving, elegant, grandmotherly woman – to neighbors, shopkeepers, lifelong friends, and the hundreds of students whose lived she profoundly transformed over the course of a decades-long teaching career.

Titou has this amazing story she would always tell about how I was such a hideously ugly baby, she wanted to get rid of me. My mother had arrived back in Lebanon from the United States with a scrawny baby Maya snuggled close to her chest — but I had no eyebrows, Titou would say, and I had a tiny mouth and huge bulging eyes and basically looked like a sad little alien. “I wanted to throw you off of the balcony! But I lay you down to change your diaper once and you grabbed my finger, looked up at me and wouldn’t let go.”

She was simultaneously the pillar, the pinnacle, and the gravitational pull of our family. As the pillar, she was a fierce and commanding matriarch. She held court with family members, mediated disputes, taught the grandchildren. As the pinnacle, she is what so many of the women in my family aspire to be — independent, hard-working, widely respected, classy as hell. And as the gravitational pull, she is the reason I am close with many of my cousins and other relatives. We were all drawn together by our devotion to her, and her apartment is where we would run into each other, where I would catch up with them.

“You’re the daughter of my daughter — you’re my daughter twice. That means I love you twice as much,” she would tell me.

When I moved to Lebanon on June 3, 2013,  almost three years to the day before she passed away, I was absolutely terrified. Lebanon intimidated me so much — cultural and language barriers, just to name a few reasons — that I spent the first three days sleeping till noon and telling myself I totally didn’t have to do all of those errands like find an apartment or get a cell phone number or set up a bank account.

Titou dragged me out of bed, took me to the cell phone shop and the bank, and then made me lunch and told me I had to stop being such a big baby. I have tried to refrain from being a wuss ever since.

Yvette was a leading member of the Phalange (Kataeb) Party’s politburo, and headed the party’s Women’s Department. She edited dozens of books in several languages and was known to be the first female teacher at Mount Lebanon’s all-male seminary school. She’s also responsible for my Arabic. During early-morning sessions in our mountain apartment every summer, she would patiently teach me Arabic letters, grammar, Lebanese geography, poetry, and so on. When I started taking Arabic language at Georgetown, we began writing letters to each other.

Those summer mornings typically began with me shuffling out to the balcony where she was usually holding her rosary beads and praying. “The sun has risen!” she would shout, with her hands up in the air.

Have you ever had someone make you feel like you were the most important thing in their world? It’s beautiful, and terrifying. I felt guilty when I wasn’t around her in the last few months of her life. I tried to spend as much time as possible with her but often felt like I was failing to pay her back for everything she had done for me. At the funeral, many of my family members told me she had given them advice or asked them to promise her certain things in the last few weeks of her life. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them she hadn’t made a request like that to me, that there was no “dying wish” I could refer to. Her last words to me, about a week before she passed away, were “Habibti Maya, habibti Maya,” over and over again.

Many people also told me they couldn’t bear to see her in the last few weeks or months before her death because they wanted to preserve a memory of a happier, stronger Titou in their minds – “the way she was before.”

But what I saw at the end was the real testament to who Titou is. She is a strong, fearless, nearly-miraculous woman who fought colon cancer for nine years and, even at the end, battled it with grace, serenity, and so much love for those around her. Those last few weeks were the real testament to what she built — not just a political career, not just generations of people across Lebanon who remember her fondly as their favorite teacher. But a tight-knit, devoted, patient, giving family that I am so honored to be a part of.

As I write this, I realize that I will in fact never stop writing this. This post will not be a wholesome and perfect tribute to my grandmother, but maybe everything I say and do in the coming years will contribute to such a legacy. I miss you, Titou.

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