“Joanna’s thesis is in crisis” said my husband, whom I affectionately nicknamed Zaatara, referring t o his student. Joanna is not the real name of his student. “I wish I had a thesis that was in crisis” I said sardonically “then maybe you would pay attention to me” I continued. Zaatara laughed and waved his hand dismissively at me, but I wasn’t laughing. At this point we were married for 18 years and there had been theses in crisis the number of beads in a necklace. A very long necklace, the type you keep adding beads to over a years and in the end find that you have a necklace that you can drape around your neck, then around your waist and still have plenty to adorn your friends with. There was nothing new about this. Being the dutiful wife of a university professor, I was accustomed to hearing the details of a thesis crisis. The collected data that is not matching the theory. A PhD student that is hitting a writer’s block. The research that is being duplicated somewhere else and therefore lacks the necessary originality. Malfunctioning measuring equipment. The thesis that is written down but requiring massive editing before it can be submitted. With each thesis crisis I would listen attentively to the details, give hopeful words of encouragement and assure Zaatara that he had what it takes to help his student get through it, same as he did with all his past students. Zaatara would pace around the house with a worried look. Brush his index finger against his temple and mutter incomprehensible words under his breath. Then he would sit at his laptop and attend to his emails and scientific papers. I would try to be supportive, give him plenty of hugs and make him his favourite dishes to brighten up his mood. Stuffed grape vine leaves in particular would brighten his mode. I became an expert at diverting the kids with quiet activities so as they wouldn’t bother their father.
I had my own problems over the years both at work and in my personal life, but those I learned to keep to myself. For what could possibly rival the stumbling bumps of the wheels of science at work. Whenever I attempted to discuss a difficulty pertaining to myself with Zaatara he would silently get up and make me a cup of coffee. With a self satisfied smile he would present me with the coffee knowing that it is my favourite drink and silently leave the room. Leaving me sitting all alone with a cup of hot brown liquid to languish over. With time I came to calling it the “Shut up and leave me alone” cup of coffee. A few times when he would get up as soon as I started to talk, I would interject, thinking myself clever with “I don’t want coffee right now”. Implying that, what I really needed was somebody to listen to me instead. He would say “I will make you a cup of tea then”. I would end all alone sitting in a room holding a cup of hot liquid again. Over time that too was anointed with a name – “Zip your face and stop bugging me” cup of tea. I would look at my own reflection in the coffee or tea and think pensively “I am a big girl, I can handle my own problems, he has enough on his mind right now”. Right now was always. Over 18 years I got to accumulate an impressive collection of right now moments. I behaved like a professional therapist: Listening stoically to my patient’s problems, giving support and encouragement, but never burdening him with my own.
One day at work I saw my co-worker Jason (not his real name) looking alarmed. The usually cheerful young man had a scowl and his face and his shoulders were hunched over his body as if he was trying to hide from the world. I asked Jason what the matter was and he told me that the day before was his wife’s birthday which he had forgotten. His wife became very upset, crying and hurt as a result. “I don’t know what to do about, she locked herself in the bedroom and won’t even talk me” said Jason with a desperate voice. I told him how I came to the habit of celebrating my own birthdays. “On my birthday, I take a day off from work, then I treat myself to day of fun, I go to lunch in a nice restaurant and enjoy a lovely walk. I always buy myself a gift. That way it doesn’t bother me that my husband forgets my birthday, I have already taken care of myself”. Jason’s eyes widened and he looked at me adoringly “You are such a wise woman” he exclaimed. “I must get my wife to talk to you and learn to become more like you”, Jason continued. I shook my head with disapproval. “No, no, no, no the moral of this story is not that your wife should be more like me dear Jason. “ O the lovely foolishness of young men. I could imagine the poor fellow running home to tell his young wife that she needs to be contact his boss and learn to be wise like her. An image flashed in my head with Jason in an Emergency Ward suffering with a head injury afterwards. “The moral of this story, dear Jason, is that you don’t want to live for the rest of your life with somebody that has given up on you”. “Here is what you are going to do” I instructed him. “You will run out and buy cake, flowers and a gift. Tonight, you will beg for forgiveness at home. Then you will place your wife’s birthday date on your calendar and make sure to remember it every year from now on. It will not kill you to make a bit of an effort for your wife once year, now will it?” Jason paused and he seemed to be thinking about what I just told him. His eyebrows tightened towards each other and he opened his mouth. His face bore the expression of an impending aha moment. Then he said he would give my suggestion a try. The next day he informed me that things were smoothed over between him and his wife with a big smile on his face. I should make a concerted effort to listen to myself speak sometimes. I give such wise advice to others on occasion; I might one day accidently benefit myself with this talent.
There was nothing new nor unusual about Joanna’s thesis crisis, it was all same as it always was. I was attempting to tell Zaatra about the difficulty I was facing, hoping to get some emotional support in my hour of great need. “But! Dear, Joanna thesis is in crisis” is the only thing that was registering on the other side. There was just one tiny little change … I no longer cared. My dutiful wife necklace broke and the beads accumulated over 18 years went blop, blop, blop, jumping wildly in every direction refusing to be held together by a single string ever again. I looked into the future and saw a river overflowing with “Shut up and leave me alone” coffee, running parallel to a river gushing with “Zip your face and stop bugging me” tea. Like the nearly parallel two rivers of Tigris and Euphrates of my native country, they join ever so briefly in Shat-AlArab right before they flow into the Persian Gulf. A brief and sudden moment of insight came over me and I realized that I didn’t want to play the role of a professional therapist any more. That night I went to sleep on the couch in the living room feeling that I couldn’t bare being next to Zaatara. I remember thinking to myself before going to sleep “O God I feel so lonely. I feel so lonely”. I kept repeating the phrase over and over again while holding myself in a fierce embrace. A cold and dark feeling enveloped me while I surrendered into a slumber. That night I had a dream. It was a vivid dream, the type that seems real. I was sitting at a table across from a tall and slim man. The man looked like an average person dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt, yet in the dream I knew that he wasn’t a man but rather an angel. He spoke to me softly placing his hand on top of my right hand and he said “Don’t be afraid, I will not hurt you”. Then he got up reaching over the table in my direction and jabbed his right index finger into my left ribs right under my heart. His finger penetrated my flesh violently. He looked into my eyes and said “I will transform your life”. In the dream I believed him. I sensed an electrical vibration streaming from the bottom of the soles of my feet till the tip of my nose. The pulsating sensation was not painful but it was slightly unpleasant. When I woke up the next morning I could still sense a tingling run throughout my body, the last remains of my dream experience being processed through my body. I sat on the couch and in that moment I knew exactly what I needed to do. Suddenly there was no doubt, no hesitation. It was clear as the sun.
Joanna, in time, graduated her PhD and moved on to better things. My marriage did not.