To Die in the Time of Pestilence

Photo of Hisham and Rudaina Melhem
Courtesy of the Melhem family

My wife, Rudaina, died at 9:30 p.m. on July 20. I was holding her hand.

I have lost my parents and two siblings, but this was the first time I saw death come into a room and felt a life slip from my hand, ravaged by cancer. Minutes after, I kissed her forehead and was seized with fright and rage. “She is COLD,” I shrieked and collapsed on my knees with my head against her side. A nurse in her mid-20s knelt beside me, making the sounds mothers do to console a troubled child. I put my head on her shoulder.

I stood over Rudaina’s bed for three hours, talking to her, weeping, moaning, and pleading with her to wake up. The nurse tried to answer my incoherent questions. I was confused, lost, and angry. More than four months later, I am still confused, lost, and angry, but I don’t know exactly what I’m angry at, or whom. Sometimes I want to raise my fist in the air and belt out a primitive howl to the universe.

Watching the person you love wither away slowly is painful enough in “normal” times. To see her die a bit every day during a pandemic is cruel. We quarantined ourselves voluntarily before the coronavirus, when Rudaina decided to see only our children and her siblings and their spouses. Then the virus hit, and we were condemned to what seemed like eternal solitude. Our children would visit, but they had to stay 10 feet away, half their face hidden by a mask. Suddenly, our world was devoid of hugs, kisses, and human touch. No more soft conversations and tender whispers. No more warmth. We spoke about the dying raging around us, but rarely about the death encroaching on our sanctuary. The usually talkative Rudaina began to rely more on glances and light touches and less on words to communicate with me. Words sounded jarring in solitude. Our days were defined by the rhythm of her wants and needs, and our nights felt endless in the stillness of isolation.

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During the first half of the pandemic, Rudaina would exert herself to climb the steps to our bedroom. At the top, she would sit on a chair in my office to catch her breath, and say with a faint smile, “Play me some music.” Then for an hour or so, the universe would shrink to the size of our room, with the two of us as the loneliest travelers. I would search YouTube and play for her a strange medley of classical music, including works she had introduced me to when we were dating, such as Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, or some of the Arabic songs we grew up listening to, particularly those of the great Syrian Egyptian diva Asmahan. Then I would switch to the blues, the mother of almost all American music, and play songs by Charley Patton and Muddy Waters, songs that I had forced on her and our children many years ago during long road trips. I’d end with bluegrass, the last genre of American music we both fell in love with. If the music was too melancholic, she would shake her head and say, “I am overflowing tragedy; please play something else.” We would reminisce, laugh, cry, sing, and hum along. Sometimes I would blast the volume way up, not caring about disturbing anyone, since we were gliding alone in a universe of rhythmic solitude.  

Hisham and Rudaina during their wedding (left) and with their family (Courtesy of the Melhem family)

On those nights, I would think back to our beginnings in America. We both came to the United States as students. She came from Palestine at 16 to live with her uncle’s family; I came from Lebanon at 22 to join a rowdy bunch of compatriots in a shared house. I was mainly interested in discovering directly the continent I had been introduced to from afar through music and films, and in learning English. Our common American journey began when we met at Villanova University in 1972; in 1976, we got married and moved to Virginia so I could continue my graduate studies in the philosophy department at Georgetown University.

Rudaina and I were disillusioned with U.S. policies in the Middle East, but we were infatuated with American culture. In Virginia, she became an equestrian, and I began to develop what she would refer to as “my husband’s American passions”: music, mostly blues, jazz, and bluegrass; the Civil War; and horses, as I had adored them in the American Westerns I watched in Beirut. Only in our 50s did we achieve our dream of owning some of our own. We rode them off into the sunset, in my case with a Winchester rifle at my side to give color to the dream. With the passage of time, and with Arab lands collapsing and, in some cases, literally burning, our disillusionment in Arab politics and societies grew more pronounced, while our Virginian roots grew deeper and our American identity became the dominant one. To many of our friends near our farm in Berryville, Virginia, we were Rudi and Richard, and my wife was a beloved hostess, as charming and popular as a fifth- or sixth-generation Virginian. The United States is our home; this is our last refuge. After all, you are home where you are free.

Hisham and Rudaina at an anniversary dinner (Courtesy of the Melhem family)

On a black night 10 years ago, I was awakened by the soft sobbing of my two children, Omar and Nadia, over my bed at the hospital, a few hours after I had been diagnosed with Stage 3 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Rudaina sheltered me, suffered with me, and helped me through my chemotherapy sessions. A few years later, I would take her to the same cancer facilities I had spent long days at, to be treated by some of the nurses and oncologists who had treated me. She left the house only for short chemo sessions, to see her doctors and the nurses who drained the malignant fluids around her heart and lungs.

During the few weeks before her passing, our isolation seemed complete. The outside world was receding as if it had lost interest in us. Telephone calls became infrequent and some sounded pro forma. Months had passed since we last met family and friends. COVID-19 was both a legitimate and a convenient excuse.

Our personal agonies were magnified by the collective sorrows of millions of our fellow citizens who were ravaged by the virus and the countless thousands who were felled by the pestilence. Suddenly, no one was safe. Victims fell like autumn leaves. Hospitals overflowed with the bodies of people who had never conceived that they would die of a new plague in the 21st century. Cemeteries rejected those they were meant to entomb. And Rudaina was deteriorating rapidly: losing weight, showing signs of cognitive decline. On our last visit to the oncologist, we were told that the cancer was under control, but that she was malnourished, ravaged by her disappeared appetite. Already her meals were only partially eaten, and food became the sole source of contention between us. She was so frail that a soft, wet sponge touching her back would elicit a pained moan. She would smile when I washed her feet, and then she would hold my hand and kiss it with tears in her eyes. She would relax when I massaged her swollen legs and reminisced about our horseback-riding days. By this time, she was unable to stand for a few minutes against the sink so I could shampoo her hair.

During her last days, our pain was magnified by our loneliness. A father, a son, and a daughter wandering aimlessly after losing their North Star. Where were the crowds we used to host at our barn, our secular cathedral where Rudaina would serve the finest Lebanese and Palestinian food? Her send-off was austere. No eulogies, no celebration of a life well lived, and no hymns or songs. I have never felt in my 70 years on Earth as isolated and as vanquished as I felt leaving the funeral home, trudging behind my daughter, who was carrying her mother’s remains. For our small family, July will always be the cruelest month.