Our existence is fragile. I learned that in many intricate ways, long before the COVID-19 pandemic, so I do not take today for granted. I do not know what tomorrow will bring. I do not even know if tomorrow will come.
On the eve of Thanksgiving 2016, I received the diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer. Patients with cancer can have progressions of their disease after periods of stability. They also die from infections as their cancer weakens their immune system. Next to dying, I fear the spread of cancer to my brain and losing my ability to think, speak, or write. This loss would be devastating to me. I do not assume that I will be here in a few months, let alone in a few years. COVID-19 made that fear even more salient in my mind. I know that my existence is finite.
The fragility of our life and my awareness of my finitude made me aspire to be authentic. I write this memoir to be authentic—we become our true selves when we author our story. With writing my narrative, I have an opportunity to view it, reflect on it, and edit it. By doing so, I also invite others to write theirs.
Rare are the spaces in which we can look inwardly at who we are. There is no horizon to do so more intimately than writing one’s biography. I write my story so I can reflect on what I am and who I am. I seek to know what is fundamental to me as a subject and what is superfluous.
What constitutes my core self?
What should that be?
I know as I write these words that my answers are never fixed and will likely never be. The question of what constitutes my identity is pertinent, even if the answer will not last. Writing in this context comes to provide some guidance. The goal is not only to summarize the life I’ve lived; it is also to investigate the future. Writing is not a story of becoming. Instead, writing is becoming.
Authenticity, in the end, is not a task that gets done once and for all. Authenticity is a fragile experience. We become our real selves for a restless moment, and we can lose authenticity completely in an instant if we do not keep our sights on it.
As I become, and as I live my story, I have the eagerness to share it. Rare are the times when all humanity is tuned in to an equalizing existential threat.
After the outbreak of COVID-19, folks understand it better when I say, I do not wish to complete my project and publish it posthumously. While some issues are easier to deal with by not dealing with them in one’s lifetime, I aspire to tell my story as I live it.
I hope to describe my life to others. I also wish to explore my consciousness with others in mind. I won’t only give the summary of my path. I will relive the experience by walking again on what were rough terrains. I also intend to stop at what I had once quickly passed by so that I can take a stance. I will make amends and apologize for errors I did not call out in a hurried period. Most importantly, I will affirm my story again to own my narrative.
I complete this book with an aspiration to participate more authentically in the project we call humanity. As a human, I wish to contribute to our enterprise. And I invite others to contribute, as well.
I will continue to contribute, affirming my view that we humans can do good. I participate by sharing, so that this project, which consists merely of our stories, continues. I do not necessarily dream to make sense of the project’s entirety, nor do I think that is attainable. Yet, I still have the view that we humans are writing oeuvres together, the whole of which constitutes our history. Yes, our history has not always been glorious, and it was on many occasions hideous. But the project is not yet complete.
I have encountered numerous individuals to whom I said, “You should write your story!” I thought, as I do this same work, that the best way to encourage others to write is for me to tell my own story. I do not aspire to set an example. If anything, I hope to attract a dialogue and spur reflection. With COVID-19, we live a heightened awareness of our existence and consciousness. No one is immune from the worst outcomes, and uncertainty is looming. Now is the time to bring more of these reflections and dialogues.
I have been most indebted to those who shared parts of their lives and opened their souls to me. We all have a subjective world to which only we have privileged access. If someone allows another human into their world, they give the other a precious gift.
I am writing this book four months after publishing my first one, Roads to Meaning and Resilience with Cancer. I am satisfied with the work I did.
In Roads to Meaning and Resilience with Cancer, the work was noteworthy in opening space for others to share about how they lived despite cancer. It was worthwhile to me and I hope to those who read it. After writing that book where I told stories about others, I wanted to do something different. Plenty of researchers with enough sophistication and training would have been able to complete the work I did. The only project no one else can do the way I would is the writing of my own biography. That is why, as I keep on living with an existential cognizance of mortality, I have the urgency to do it and do it now.
I am afraid of being forgotten. Death does frighten me. But more than dying, I am scared of having no one remember me or, even worse, of being recognized differently from who I was. At the same time, I have never thought that I was entitled to ask others not to forget me. But, not to be forgotten is precisely what I yearn for. We forget and life goes on. To imagine or to aspire not to vanish from someone’s memory is a delusion. Still, that is what I aspire to.
I tell my story so those who wish to remember me can have it. I make it available for them to know me as who I am. I have lost many, and it troubles me how easily we can forget. We have lost thousands of people every day to this pandemic, and it agonizes me that they may be forgotten. I hope we can keep their memory alive, and I worry about letting them die again if their stories are not told. Perhaps writing is my way of defying death.
Only I can write my biography with access to my memory, my intentions, and my desires. Others can describe my life from the outside and try to explain why I did certain things in specific manners. But no one can share my life encounters as I lived them, describe the joys I had, or the struggles.
I have an urgency to complete this project. My cancer can spread at any time. I’ve become apprehensive about any bodily symptoms that could indicate disease progression. I have become overly aware of my body, and at times, even subtle symptoms disturb my peace. A bad headache, twitching in the muscles on my face, a lingering cough, or chest pain are not the same for me as they are for a non-cancer patient. I have found myself doing neurological exams to test my sensation or checking the symmetry of my face to ensure my brain is still intact. It is not until I receive the scan showing “no cancer recurrence,” that I feel relieved. I welcome the news as a temporary pass and say, “Phew, we survived this time!”
Since COVID-19 came to Seattle, I have been on almost complete lockdown staying home alone with my dog. Fortunately, I was able to provide patient care through telemedicine. I also continue to read, write, and participate in public discourse. I am still alive; I have a voice and can contribute.
Science has made it possible for patients like me, with advanced lung cancer, to survive beyond a few months. Of course, the risk of dying from the virus, if I get it, is higher with my cancer. But if I get through this pandemic, my hope is to live for several more years.
Even in writing my biography today, I would also like to have the chance to write it again later! This writing of my narrative will make me whole. If I continue to live, I will transcend what I become at the end of this writing exercise. Is not this the essence of living another life?
While it would be too much greed to seek to write two biographies, I hope to live a rich and meaningful life and to write more about it.
I put this work out so that my life can become more meaningful to me and others. Sharing my story will let others know me at a deeper level and save us the time of breaking the ice. While, I do not expect to send a copy of this book to every new person I meet, writing my biography will make salient to me who I am. It will refine my voice bringing me more depth and better clarity.
In Being Authentic, I have the other in my mind. I am writing for someone other than myself to read. I am writing to every human. Is that a lofty goal? Yes. But what if I have no other chance to speak to my readers after this? Put yourself in my position and tell me if you would not say everything in your mind to everyone who can read it. What if this is your one and only opportunity?
Because of my fear of being forgotten, I write to invite as many people as imaginable to know me. I also mean to tell as much as I can about myself. While doing that, I transcend the focus on myself to find matters about which others can be curious. But neither will I fixate only on my error, nor this book is an attempt to redeem myself from my mistakes. I have not omitted the mistakes, and I have opened ample space to reflect on what was not consistent with who I thought I was. I leverage this space to relate to those who err every day. They are the brave among us who choose to continue to act. I, like these people, hope to keep on doing things, and that means to err more.
While I write for the other, I am simultaneously writing for myself. I am one of the readers and will judge the subject as it gets written. My criteria are stricter. I need to say, “This is my narrative.”
Morhaf Al Achkar
Seattle, May 06, 2020
I was born, in 1983. The youngest of nine children, we kept our mother busy. Being the youngest comes with exemptions and limitations. I spent a considerable amount of time with my mother in the early part of my life. But I competed for distinction even earlier in life, and I have continued to do so.
When my mom would visit her relatives, I’d be her companion. Mom’s family was kind to me, because I looked like my uncles when they were little. I often enjoyed accompanying her, except when the visits lasted too long or when my mom would spend thirty minutes by the door “saying goodbye” to our hosts.
I gained my self-assurance from my mom, Souad, eternal happiness. In the photo I keep of her, she is wearing a white jacket with a brown collar. I still remember that jacket from my childhood. She has a white scarf that covers most of her brown hair. She gazes forward not exactly to the camera but beyond it as if she sees through the eye of the onlooker. She has a faint smile in her lips and eyes, not that of joy but one of confidence. My mom was always self-assured and projected a sense of warmth, trust, and authority. She raised me to have these attributes, too.
Everyone in the community respected my mother and being the young man who accompanied her meant I received recognition as well. Folks knew that I was my mother’s son and, at times, even would call me by my name. It satisfied my desire to be distinguished as an individual.
I owe my scholastic achievements to mom. She valued education more than anything else. She married my dad because she found it attractive that he had the ambition to pursue college and beyond. She was seventeen when they married, and he was nineteen. She required her children to burn the midnight oil and had strict expectations. Playing was allowed once I finished my homework, not before. Even when I was in college, she would make clear her disappointment if I spent too much time on the internet. Nothing should come before education, not chasing after girls, organizing political activities, not even family time. Education, for mom, was a secured path to a good life.
Doing what’s right was essential for mom, too. She had seen enough of what she considered kids doing terrible things. She did not accept her children misbehaving in any way.
She had her way of enforcing good conduct. An expression on her face was enough to shut down silly behavior. She did not need to say the command twice, and at times, not even once. I did not always get the point behind what she considered right or good or proper. But, when you have nine children, you may not have enough time for critical dialogue and reflection with every single one. She was masterful at efficient discipline, and she did it with care and love.
One time, when I was seven, we were visiting with family friends who had children of my age. The hosts offered snacks consisting of nuts and sunflower seeds, but we were supposed to say no. This ‘no’ showed politeness. Not saying ‘no’ and taking the offered food could indicate we had no food at home, which was not a good impression to give.
I grabbed a handful of snacks and went to play. I shared them with the rest of the kids. The snack was so tasty that I went back for another round and then a third. The hosts offered to give me the whole plate. I realized that I might have crossed a line, but it was too late, so I took the plate to the embarrassment of my parents. The car ride home was intense. My mom made it clear she was disappointed, and I felt it. It did not help me much that I was sharing the food with the rest of the kids nor the excuse that they were so good! I do not recall misbehaving like that again, after the incident.
Her punishments did not always make sense to my younger self. There was one occasion when I felt mercy should have been called for. I was probably five and had a new car toy that my dad got for me. My cousins visited us. One of the kids broke the car. He felt bad and gave me a nicely shaped wooden stick. I forgave him quickly and we carried on playing. When I explained what happened to mom, after they left, she was mad at me for letting the kid break the toy. “You should not have let him play with it and break it,” my mom said with a stern voice and a frown. I became resentful of my cousin then and felt cheated.
I may see the moral mom conveyed, which was to be protective of my valuables. Still, I did not then understand her response. What had amazed me with mom was that she’d be patient and forgiving when someone breaks a plate or a glass. That was a frequent occurrence with nine children. My siblings and I would break one or two objects a day. She’d say, “انكسر الشر,” which means “the evil broke.” Further, she taught me that I need to share and be generous in giving.
That incident confused me. I shared my toy, and it broke like anything else; it happened. The resentfulness came to me as I felt blamed not for my own doing but for that of someone else. Mom might have wanted me to be vigilant, accounting for other people’s mistakes and not only mine. This lesson was beyond my comprehension then. At that time, it only enforced mom’s authority over my conscience.
Mom taught me how to participate and care for the living, and how to bury the dead. She was the spirit of any group and the one who brought the whole family together. She was present at every joyful event. Even with losses and deaths, she was there for and with others. She wanted us to be there, too. As her little buddy, I went to almost all the weddings on her side of the family.
The weddings back home were incredible events for families to get together. They often lasted for a couple of nights. There were usually two weddings, one for the men, and one for the women. But toward the end of the night, the men and women from the immediate families joined. There were always beautiful young women I would notice, and my mom did not discourage me. Maybe she thought that if I were hitched to a relative of hers, I wouldn’t go far away.
I was shy at first, but you could not be shy when accompanying my mom. She pushed me to take my first steps on the dance floor. After a few weddings, my feet became more coordinated, and I loved participating in the group’s festivities.
Members of families in Syria also stepped in to attend for the elders or care for the ill. In my early teens, my grandmother became very sick. Mom and her sisters were her caregivers. While my aunt Qamar (her name means “moon”) took on the lion’s share of the duties, her sisters also helped. Aunt Qamar did not get married and lived with my grandparents until they passed. She was the loveliest soul. My mom always felt a deep gratitude toward Aunt Qamar, and so did I.
My mom was living the furthest away, in Aleppo, about two hours north of Rastan, my hometown. She had children in school, which made it harder for her to leave them all the time. But toward the end, she did get to spend time with her mother, and she was grateful to have been by her side when my grandmother died.
I was in Aleppo when we learned that Grandma had passed. So, we went there to see Mom and to lay eyes on Grandma for the last time. I was eleven or twelve. Mom gave me hugs and kisses when I arrived. I didn’t know how she was doing, given that Mom was a strong woman and always appeared solid. She had clearly cried, but she maintained her image as a strong woman.
Grandma’s dead body was in the room where my mom walked me through what I needed to do: “Go there and kiss Grandma’s forehead.” I did as I was told, feeling like it was nothing unusual, and I was grateful that I was able to do that. This memory became a guide for me later in life as I reconciled with death and dying.
In terms of her beliefs, my mom was a practicing Muslim. She prayed, fasted, and went to Mecca for the pilgrimage. But she believed that Islam was about a person’s character and about doing good to others. She was skeptical of those who claimed to be religious yet lied or cheated. She was not fond of populous religious clergies either. Instead, she valued scientific facts. She would quote “studies” she read, often to support a recommendation she would make about diet or lifestyle.
She raised her family in a moderately conservative Muslim society. She would expect us to fast and be present on Iftar (breaking the fast). Eid (the holiday after Ramadan and pilgrimage) was a special occasion, but more of a family and social event than anything else. She would encourage me to pray, but she was not strict about it. As I matured in my teens and adulthood, when we disagreed, she would say, “االله يهديك,” which means, “may God show you the right path.” She would say that with patience and care.
My mom was fond of her father and drew several of her ideals and philosophical positions from him, although she was also independent. He would ask her opinion and trusted her to run his tobacco trade business when she was just a teen. They both believed it was a meritocratic world, and a person needed to work hard in it.
My grandfather also had his views on people’s character. But when it came to me, she did not think that he got it right. He would ask her jokingly (or not), “From where did you get this child? He is قشق (meaning useless)! You should just get him a little farm and let him dig it up!”
Grandpa’s opinion was not unfounded. My favorite hobby at that time was digging holes in the dirt. There wasn’t more exciting stuff to do, and at times I had mischievous intentions. I made some of the holes into traps. But as the Arabic saying goes, “who digs holes for their brother falls in them,” occasionally, I was the one tumbling into my traps. I also dug with the hope of finding utensils made of gold or jars filled with silver coins. I uncovered nothing but crud. Grandpa died when I was eleven or so, without necessarily changing his opinion of me.
When I entered medical school, years later, my mom was delighted. The decision was important to her. She would reminisce about her father’s statements and say, “I wish he were alive to see how my son is doing!” Her words made me proud. Maybe she also needed to show her dad that she had done something distinguished. She bragged the most about her children’s education. Among the nine of us, we held ten doctorates—six MDs and four PhDs. I was the one who got one of each.
true life events