Memoir Monday: When the Foreign Becomes Familiar, Barriers Drop

The Arab world seemed sinister

I lived abroad for 14 years of my childhood as the result of my father’s diplomatic work in Europe and Latin America—my memoir Embassy Kid is expected to be published in 2023 by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training and New Academia Publishing–but there are huge swaths of planet Earth that I do not know. They remain foreign to me. This includes the Arab world.

Its people and their language exploded into my consciousness on 9/11 when we lived in upstate New York. My husband, who frequently was in New York City on business, narrowly escaped death when he decided to travel part-way home instead of staying the night at the hotel in the World Trade Centers. In the years since then, Showtime’s Homeland and countless other terrorist narratives cemented the sound of Arabic in my narrow mind as malevolent. The opening lines of the Muslim prayer—Allaahu Akbar—sent chills up my spine.

However, I was jarred out of that disappointingly jingoistic mindset three years ago when a Muslim family adopted me in a Dutch hospital. And two recent television encounters—the U.S. Open women’s final tennis match and a new Netflix comedy—have made realize that the Arabic language is not so foreign after all.

You are our Florida family

On May 5, 2019, my heart stopped as I was being rolled into an Amsterdam ER. The cruise ship my husband and I had been on sailed for Oslo as the Dutch doctors got my heart beating. Within minutes, the team had sealed a ruptured aneurysm in my belly.

However, the slow leak had filled my body with so much blood that I hovered between life and death for a month in that Amsterdam ICU while my husband—and daughter and sister, who flew in from the States the next day—sat at my bedside.

They were supported in their vigil by an amazing Turkish family whose father was also in the ICU. From sharing food to trading updates, Yasemin and her family took my family in as their own. The men greeted my husband with the traditional Muslim hand over the heart, and the women simply enveloped them in bear hugs. When I was finally out of danger and was moved to another hospital unit to begin the process of recovery, I got to know Yasemin and her family myself and cheered when her father was able to go home.

That was three years ago. The ties between us have only grown stronger thanks to social media. When Hurricane Ian hit Florida in September, Yasemin was relieved to know that we were safe.

You are our family in Florida.

Yasemin

Just as they are our family—our Muslim family—in Amsterdam. We hope to return to see them in 2023.

Yalla, habibi!

My more recent awakening happened this fall.

Tennis is the sport our television is often turned to. From the Grand Slam January kickoff at the Australian Open in Melbourne through the close out at the U.S. Open in New York City—and loads of smaller tournaments all over that pop up on The Tennis Channel—we know we’ll find someone remarkable to cheer on.

Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur came into our consciousness a couple of years ago when she made it into the quarter finals in Australia, a feat that led her to be described—as she probably almost always is—as “the first Arab/African woman to …”. She is also described by fellow players on the tour as the nicest person they know. Somewhere along this year’s tournament cycle I saw this in action when her opponent cramped up and Jabeur was the first at her side with ice. It’s easy to like Ons.

Yalla Habibi, Ons Jabeur

And what pulled me across the line to think of Arabs as friends I haven’t met yet was the slogan on Jabeur’s team at the U.S. Open women’s final.

Yalla, Habibi!

Ons Jabeur’s team t-shirt slogan

“Let’s go, my dear.” Or, in Midwestern lingo, “C’mon, kid!”

You have got to love that. Well, I did. Ons did not win the match, but she won my heart and that of a whole lot of folks like me who are learning to overcome prejudice.

Prayer becomes familial

The new Netflix dramedy Mo, a quasi-autobiographical series by standup comedian Mo Amer about a Palestinian-American family in Houston. The Arabic woven into the episodes includes lots of my new vocabulary word habibi.

Although it’s a refugee story, an immigrant Palestinian story, it’s also a love letter to Houston. It’s also like an everyman struggle (story) — people who are working paycheck to paycheck, they’re trying to take care of family, people that are dealing with addiction. It has all these layers to it.

Mo Amer, as quote by Gary Gerard Hamilton, AP

Among the storylines is the loss of the family patriarch. I shed another layer of my prejudice during this scene, when the Muslim prayer—Allaahu Akbar—became a deeply personal declaration of faith by three adult children standing over their father’s grave.

A scene from Netflix series Mo.
A scene from Netflix series Mo.

Bringing Muslim and Middle East stories to the masses.

I’ve been speaking Arabic all my life

The character Mo’s longtime girlfriend is Mexican-American and Catholic, and it’s the difference in religion that he struggles with, not the cultural difference. As he explains in this clip, 700 years of Muslim control over Spain has left Arab DNA in Latinos’ language, food, and culture.

Clip from Netflix’s Mo.

Spanish was my first language, learned as I emerged from babyhood in 1955 on the lap of Josefina, the Galician woman who lived with our family during my father’s four-year Foreign Service post in Caracas. My Spanish skills were reinforced during subsequent posts to Colombia and Spain, and the language feels deeply personal. It was an immediate connection between me and my Puerto Rican husband when we were dating, and it now links us with our daughter’s new Latino in-laws.

So, it turns out that I’ve been imbued with the Arab culture my whole life.

It’s so easy to find differences between us that we overlook all we humans have in common. Let’s keep talking.

Wellness Wednesday: Why Do I Miss Being a Patient?

I sat alone in the audiologist’s isolation room, my eyes closed, and concentrated on listening. And there it was, a beep. And another. And … there, another.

Why was I having my hearing tested? As we emerged out of the pandemic and into society, it seemed to me that I wasn’t hearing people as well. Maybe it was the masks. Or my ears. Or both. My husband, who wears hearing aids — most of the time, though masks wreak havoc with other things hooked around ears— thought I wasn’t hearing as well. So, I went to the ENT practice which had last tested my hearing in 2018.

We’ll get to the results shortly. Here’s what happened to me first.

Being in that small, quiet room and following the audiologist’s orders brought back an unexpected wave of nostalgia for the comforting simplicity of being a hospital patient. No errands. No to do list. No bills, no calls. Just being in that bed for that time was all that was required. Doing what I was told.

It felt really weird to miss it.

It was a simpler time. Maybe like “doing time”? Definitely much nicer than being locked up, but similar in requiring the acceptance that I was in this place and that’s all there was to it.

How did I lie in a single bed for three months? I just did.

The trade off, of course, was that a big bunch of that time there was absolutely nothing my body could do for itself. I was an indebted, and often inert, captive. But my body held on until my mind could join in the effort. I was a very good patient. I aced it.

So here I was sitting alone in this small room, following the audiologist’s commands, when I was overcome with nostalgia.

My reverie was interrupted by the audiologist as she prepared me for the next test. Had I had any antibiotics by IV? Yes, I said, loads while I was hospitalized in 2019. She nodded, wired me up, and shut the door. I anticipated hearing more beeps and tweets. Nothing happened. Or maybe, I thought, something had happened and I couldn’t hear it. Not one sound for what seemed like minutes.

“Sorry,” her voice called over the equipment, “Got a little tied up there. OK, now we’ll start.”

The beeps restarted. I sailed through the test. The audiologist pronounced my hearing “perfect.”

Despite all that I’d been through, I’d avoided damage that hardcore IV antibiotics can cause to the sensory cells in the inner ear that detect sound and motion, resulting in hearing loss, dizziness, and tinnitus. It’s called ototoxicity. Another bullet dodged. Another one-in-a-million story.

That night, I Googled the question, “Why do some people like being in the hospital?”

Because being hospitalized can be like a retreat. No decisions, other than medical ones. No dishes to wash,no housework. No work deadlines. 3 meals, clean sheets. A call bell.

Nancy Walters, on Quora

And, in my case, because these men and women became my community. Who wouldn’t miss this amazing support team?

Wellness Wednesday: How Am I a One-in-a -Million Outcome?

In her opinion column in the Sunday New York Times, Dr. Daniela J. Lamas writes about unexpected ICU turn-arounds, when the grim repetition of bad news is trumped by unanticipated good news:

… the one in a million outcomes, the patients who surprise and humble us.

Daniela J. Lamas, pulmonary and critical care physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston

I am one of those patients. I dodged death on May 5, 2019, when I suffered a ruptured arterial aneurysm while on vacation in Amsterdam, barely making it into the ER as my heart stopped. I dodged it again after sailing through surgery a day later, and repeatedly over the next several weeks, as my organs took turns failing. Somehow, I survived.

As tempting as it is to focus only on life or death in the ICU, there is a vast world between survival and true recovery.

Daniela J. Lamas, pulmonary and critical care physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston

And here I sit in the patio of our home in South Florida two years and two months later, on this Independence Day, celebrating that rarest of miracles, full recovery. What made the difference? Being lucky enough to be taken to OLVG Hospital, for starters, where the staff were skilled, compassionate, and supportive. Being strong to start with. Trained by my early years to make the best out of any situation. And laughter.

Skill and compassion

The talented team of English-speaking doctors and nurses at OLVG hospital acted fast to stop the hemorrhage and never gave up as my body crashed, and they were also compassionate human beings that supported me and my exhausted family through those awful ICU weeks.

Support

My dear friend Anne, one of the nurses who most encouraged me in the weeks after my surgery, was so matter of fact about the inevitability of my complete recovery, so relaxed about my progress, that I never once doubted that I’d make it. My physiotherapist, Gemma, was sure I’d walk out of there. And I did.

Anne and her colleagues on 7A, OLVG Hospital, sent me this greeting a few weeks back. They are still in my corner.

Strength

It helped tremendously that I was physically fit. I danced in my 20s, developed a lifetime jogging habit, and taught exercise for the five years preceding that fateful trip. Six weeks of being motionless in the ICU sapped me of a quarter of my weight and the ability to move, but I had a surplus muscle and a love of moving to draw on. Eventually, it felt familiar. Then, good. Then, great.

Determination

I’ve never been particularly ambitious, but I’m very good at making the most of whatever circumstances I find myself in. I give credit to my upbringing in the Foreign Service. Learning how to chew and swallow again took days. Learning how to walk again took months. Full recovery took two years, and I continue to book an hour of my morning, every morning, to getting stronger every day.

Laughter

My love of a good community laugh has carried me over many a hurdle. I think I have to thank my Dad for that gene in my DNA, along with my passion for writing and my love of singing.

Words matter — a lot. Choose them carefully. Humor and wit matter — a lot. And puns are always good. And, music matters — sing it, play it, listen to it.

My sister, Susan Robb Amerson Hartnett, eulogizing our father, Robert C. Amerson in 2006

Lying inert in my ICU bed, unable to move and fighting for my life, I broke out into song — “Barbara Ann” by the Beach Boys. Although I don’t remember much of those weeks, I clearly recall hearing an ICU alarm marking that iconic beat — “Bah, bah, bah” (rest) “Bah, bah, bah” (rest) — and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to pick up the tune, just as I did many times while teaching exercise with this fun music.

Bah, bah, bah, (rest) bah, Barbara Ann (rest). Bah, bah, bah, (rest) bah, Barbara Ann (rest).Bah, bah, bah, (rest) bah, Barbara Ann (rest)

Barbara Ann, by Fred Fassert, recorded by The Beach Boys in 1965

My sister and my daughter (who had flown in from the States) smiled at my husband. “That’s her,” my sister said, and joined in with the harmony. Within moments, my family and nearby nurses and doctors added their voices, all of them laughing.

Starting my next book

All of which has got me ready to begin the book about all this. Working title: “Singing in the ICU: How A Community of Strangers Saved My Life.” Or something along those lines, witty and musical and wordy as Dad would have wanted.

Stay tuned!

My father, Robert Amerson, and me singing in Caracas circa 1956
My father, Robert Amerson, and me singing in Caracas circa 1956