A Christmas Letter 🎄

by Zaher Alajlani

It has been more than three years since, and I can still smell you as if you were next to me. The distant days of childhood have weaved that haunting mixture of cigarettes and lemon cologne into my soul, and for that, I shall be grateful until I die. Whenever Christmas comes, memories of you overcome me. Some are sweet; they save me from the misery of the gray winter sky and the fangs of the cold Transylvanian winds. But others are bleak and dreary; they thrust their claws into my brain, testing my sanity.

I daydream of our house in Damascus and its tall, white walls adorned with Christian icons and Islamic calligraphy. I recall the chatter of our family friends whose diverse faiths made our dining room a miniature Syria. Amid those muffled sounds, in the corner, I see the thick tree wearing a scarf of Christmas lights. Your voice, then, thuds in my head, “May God protect you, my Son. May God protect you.”

I smile and think about the first time I stopped holding your hand in public. I was about twelve, and we had just left your office. “You must become a man now. You must be able to walk without me. Walk before me, and I’ll be right behind you,” you said.

I nodded as you patted my head.

We got back home in five minutes. Even after twenty-five eventful years, I still believe that was the longest walk of my life. And I certainly became a man who walks without you, puts food on the table, pays bills, and often wakes up terrified. In the depth of my slumber, I see you at my brother’s funeral, your eyes wet and your words quivering, “May God be with you. May God be with you.” You’d cry next to the coffin flanked by my uncomprehending nephews.

Although you lived for almost three years afterward, I’m convinced you passed away the day you buried your firstborn. His death didn’t break me but left me with a serene disillusionment with life and its purpose. I believe that my brother was too brave, and that was why he fought for his ideals. A lifetime of reading, however, had me convinced that those who are too brave are often too callous and prefer to die young. I’m now three years older than my brother when he got killed, and it still feels awkward and weird, as though I didn’t deserve those years.

In your absence, there is nowhere to find solace but blank pages. But even writing fails short in the quiet of the night when my anxiety rules supreme. Why did fate steal you too soon? Why couldn’t you live a bit longer? A terrible realization creeps in: Neither you nor any of your siblings lived past sixty-six. Sudden heart attacks took three, and a sniper shot the third in her bed. All of that happened when I was far away, suspended between two continents, and unable to process my grief.

Every untimely demise robbed me of a piece of myself, so much so that sometimes I don’t know who I am. I drifted far, too far, from the shores of the country I once called home—a place violence, corruption, and indifference have maimed beyond recognition. If Syria, the abode of history, is now but a shriveled shell of its former self, who am I not to lose myself in this collective tragedy?

Despite all of that, I must now reclaim my selfhood for someone else’s sake. Two months ago, the Lord blessed me with a boy after ten years of marriage. My love for him is an all-consuming fire. The minute I open my eyes, I carry him and smell his cheeks and neck. Happiness then waltzes into my heart. His hands are tiny, like a kitten’s paws, but I can still tell that he has your long fingers. Two dimples form on his face when he smiles, conjuring up your smile. I always hold him tight. I want to protect him from all that is bad in life, but I know I can’t. Life, as Chekhov says, “sooner or later . . . will show . . . its claws.”

Helpless, I evoke your words, “May God protect you, my Son.” I kneel and add, “May God take my health and give it to you shall you need it. May He take my eyesight and give it to you shall you need it.” Only when I taste the warm saltiness do I acknowledge my tears.

I won’t lie to you, Father: Things are still hard sometimes. In thirty-seven years, I have experienced more tragedies than I can handle. Notwithstanding the pain, I’m not a victim because as long as I can fight, I won’t be one. After becoming a father, I understand you better. I would’ve thought less of you if you hadn’t been broken after my brother’s death. I admire your strength. Three years for a bereaved father are probably a lifetime of suffering.

Saint Paul says, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith is the father of all sacraments. I don’t claim to understand it fully, nor does it come easy to me. Without faith, however, life is a barren desert of despair, a place I shall never dwell in again. This Christmas Eve, I will close my eyes and dream of an apartment in Damascus whose tall, white walls are adorned with Christian icons and Islamic calligraphy. I shall recall the Christmas tree and twinkle lights. And I hope against all hope that you’d be there holding a green-eyed baby and telling him, “May God protect you, my grandson. May God protect you.”

Zaher Alajlani is a Syrian short-story author, researcher, and translator living between Romania and Greece. He has published three short story collections in English and one in Arabic. His short stories and articles have appeared in various publications, including The Infinite Sky, Revista Echinox, Active Muse, Bandit Fiction, The Creative Launcher, Visible Magazine, Agape Review, The Journal of Romanian Literary Studies, Metacritic Journal for Comparative Studies and Theory, The Experimental Museum of Literature in Greece, Masharif, and Tadween.

He is a prose editor for Agape Review and a proofreader for the peer-reviewed Metacritic Journal for Comparative Studies and Theory. He previously worked as a prose submission reader for Bandit Fiction. Zaher is now a Ph.D. candidate in literature at the Babes-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca, Romania. He speaks English, Arabic, Romanian, and Greek.

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