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.


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.

National Nurses’ Day: My Super Heros

On May 6 in America, we celebrate National Nurses Day. We are early — in Holland and elsewhere around the globe, Nurses’ Day will be celebrated on May 12. I am considering May 6 to be just the beginning of a week of honoring the women and men who carried me — literally and figuratively — out of harm’s way and into the beaming light of full health at OLVG – Oost, a wonderful hospital in Amsterdam.

I don’t have pictures of my ICU caregivers who brought me out of danger after a ruptured arterial artery – and pneumonia, kidney failure, pulmonary embolisms — nearly took me down. I know I was watched, lifted, monitored, and cared for intensely for six weeks. I know that, despite being marooned in a foreign country with me gravely ill, my husband, daughter, and sister were informed, cared for, counseled, and supported, all in excellent English and with great empathy. I also have the words of my ICU nurses which they inscribed in a diary that it is OLVG’s practice to give patients upon their release. Only later did I learn that this book, and the follow up visits an ICU emissary made to my bedside, were part of helping patients to surmount the psychological trauma that can linger long after an ICU stay.

You lost a lot of muscle strength in the last three weeks, but you work really hard to get it back. Keep up the good work!

Rose [May 27, finally off a respirator]

Today you got a pic line. I was there with you and you were scared so I held your hand. Your husband and daughter are here every day. They remain strong.


In early June, the ICU was where I began to learn how to move again, and where three wonderful nurses took me on an adventure: getting in a (seated) shower. Ahhh, to feel that water after all those weeks!

When my medical condition stabilized and I was discharged to continue improving in another part of OLVG, was afraid to leave my caregivers. I’d come to count on having my own nurse. On 7A, they told me, I would have to share a nurse with other patients, pushing a call button if I needed help. Oh, boy, the ICU nurses had me practice that move for a couple of weeks. I had grown so weak that it took lots of repetitions to conquer that skill. It’s a good thing that I couldn’t see too far down the road, where myriad physical challenges waited. Sometimes, it’s better just to keep your head down and do what you can do, especially when you cannot even put one foot in front of the other.

But when I got to the Gastroenterology Unit on 7A, I was in the hands of amazing staff once again.


Andreas was on the late shift that first night when my call button fell out of my reach and my kind roommate summoned him; he helped me change into my own PJs and out of the blue hospital gown. “Blue isn’t your color!”


My nurse Joke (pronounced Yo-kuh) — whose garden was her joy — told me to learn Dutch. Guusje printed out the numbers one to ten so I could count my reps in PT workouts.

Houda showed me pictures of her sister’s elaborate Moroccan wedding and told me about the henna designs on her hands. Noeska, Fleur, Hannah and Tess were my cheerleaders as I slowly grew stronger. Stacey was quick with wit, so I called her SmartAss (a high compliment, from one SA to another). Truida was patient and kind. Mariella, a serious tennis player, was a key supporter of my Physiotherapy sessions. Jaimey could lift me out of bed in one move, my Prince Charming.

I asked if they’d add to my ICU diary as my days at OLVG came to an end. It was like having a yearbook through which to remember. Here are a couple of the lovely well-wishes.

What a difference I have seen from someone barely able to lift a hand to someone who gets out of bed by herself. I’m super proud of you.


No words can express how proud I am of you and your progress. Seeing you walk for the first time made me happy. I won’t forget you.

Fleur, Joke

Anne was a consistent source of reassurance throughout my six weeks on 7A, and became a true friend who I am in touch with (and who reads these posts so I know she’ll share this piece with her colleagues):

This experience, however horrible, will make you a stronger person for the rest of your life! It was a privilege to be able to witness part of your rehabilitation. Don’t set too high demands for yourself. You will GET THERE! I know you will!

Karen, on my Pelvic Floor Therapy graduation day!

I sent thirty-nine pairs of kooky palm tree socks to OLVG last fall as a thank-you gift.

American nurses held me up when I was able to fly back to the States at the end of July The nurses at University of Floridás Shands Hospital supported me for the week I was in Gainesville before coming home. Karen, the nurse practitioner in Palm Beach County who gave me my pelvic muscles back at the end of 2019, deserves a special recognition!

These amazing men and women are just some of the reason that I sit here today having fully recovered not just my health, but also my strength, along with treasuring the joy of life.

To think I could have missed all this!

Another Graduation Celebration

A catheter is a wonderful thing. It quietly takes care of business while you are working on other stuff in the ICU like breathing on your own and bending your fingers. This goes on for six weeks. You can now squeeze a hand.

You don’t even know the catheter is there as you gain strength and graduate to another unit in the hospital. The days are long and the nights are longer. Your one source of entertainment is drinking iced water. You drink a lot. The nurses think you pee a lot. One nurse in particular — the one with the short, dark hair and glasses who scared you at first with her stern admonitions that you learn to speak Dutch, a language that eludes easy mimicry — is even a little worried about how much you pee. You cannot remember how often you went to the bathroom in the long-ago before all this.

The nurse that used to scare you lifts you out of bed one day and hands you the bag of your urine, but she calls it your Pee Purse. You laugh, say dank u wel, and tell her about the Amsterdam Purse Museum. You both agree that the museum needs to add a Pee Purse display.

Although you have now been helped by thirty nurses or more, it is Joke, pronounced Yúh-kah, the nurse who used to scare you, who says it is time to remove the catheter. This sounds like a terrible idea. You have managed to regain some control of your bowel, but the bladder is a whole other animal. You are afraid.

Joke tells you that you can do this. Anne tells you that you can do this. Tess, too, and Fleur and all the rest. Joke removes the catheter just like that. It is nothing.

The nurses — Joke and Anne and Tess and Fleur and all the rest — outfit you with extra layers of diapers. Slowly, you tune in to your inner body. The idea is, apparently, that you will now pee in a bedpan.

There are some problems with this plan.

Number One: Metal bedpans must have been fashioned in the Victorian era when whatever happened “down there” something to be punished. They are cold. They are hard. They are not shaped to fit.

Number Two: When you think pee might be coming and when it actually does are two completely different things. Sometimes, it happens before a nurse can haul your butt onto a bedpan. Sometimes, it happens as the hauling is underway. And, occasionally, it happens when you and the cold, hard bedpan are one.

Joke is right: You can do this. You make progress. Something called a Pee Chair is produced. If you time it right, which doesn’t happen very often, the staff can get you out of bed and on the chair where your bladder and your bowels take charge.

More progress. You achieve your physiotherapy goal — lifting your hips off the bed — and are promoted to pull-up diapers. You are thrilled. Your physiotherapist, Gemma, has another goal — walking. That happens, too. You and your snazzy blue Rollator wheels travel all the way to the bathroom outside the door to your room. There’s an actual toilet there. Another thrill.

And somehow, everything comes together and you are ready to fly home. Joke gives you a photograph of sweet peas from her garden. You and your husband and your Depends fly to Shands Hospital at the University of Florida, where the physical therapist recommends looking into Pelvic Floor Therapy, eventually. For now, she gives you a cane. You begin with laps around the floor.

The laps get longer when you get home. You rent a red Rollator so you can sit down when you get tired. You sit less and less and walk more and more. You turn in the Rollator.

You begin outpatient Physical Therapy. You walk on the treadmill and do a zillion squats. You put aside the cane. You graduate from Physical Therapy on Halloween, wearing your daughter’s cap and gown.

You’re still wearing Depends, the ones they advertise on Wheel of Fortune. You think you can do better. You remember Joke and Anne and Tess and Jamie. You buy super enormous pads but pads nonetheless — Poise, they are called — and inquire about Pelvic Floor Therapy. Your hairdresser — Nikki, a few years younger than you — wants to know all about it because her doctor suggested it. You are both curious about electronics up in there. Hmmm.

The nurse practitioner, Karen, is warm and engaging. The electronics turn out to be less fun than they sound and very useful. You learn that a kegel is best done while imagining holding in gas. We’ve all done that. You can do this. You begin.

The app reminds you to do your exercises four times a day. You comply. You have discovered that not everyone is compliant. But not everyone is working on a pad-free life. Your daughter catches you practicing while you’re having an informal conversation and watching TV. Learn, I tell her.

Eight weeks later, the strength of your pelvic floor has almost doubled. Your uterus and bladder and colon are well-supported and will not give in to gravity. The nurse practitioner, Karen, says that you only have to continue doing kegels “if you want not to leak.” You want not to do that.

So, you graduate from Pelvic Floor Therapy …

… throw out the empty bag of Poise …

… and face forward.