I could hear my mom screaming on the phone in Arabic, “Bilal! Bilal! What do you mean he died from a heart attack? People in America walk away from heart attacks!” I was 16 and trying to process what couldn’t possibly be true. How could my uncle who leaped with boundless energy be dead? How could my uncle who wasn’t even going to turn 50 for a few more years be dead?
It didn’t make any sense.
The grief and loss my mother and the rest of my family felt for my Uncle Bilal were tremendous. Khallo Bilal was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of person. I’ve never met anyone with as much charisma as my Khallo Bilal. He was a physician by training but worked in public health and hospital administration. Bucking familial expectations as a young man, he had fallen in love and married a beautiful and kind Tunisian woman and started a family with her in Tunisia. His work meant he traveled all over the Middle East and that usually meant that we’d see him for short bursts when he visited Kuwait for his work. I loved these visits as a kid! They always felt like a whirlwind hurricane had come into town. We were going out to dinner on a school night!? Wait don’t I have homework!? Do I have to go to school tomorrow!? Shouldn’t I be going to bed soon!? None of it mattered because Khallo Bilal was in town and we were going to maximize every minute of fun with him.
Despite his hectic travel schedule, he would somehow manage to always find time to bring me gifts as part of these visits. And these gifts were always so special. I don’t know how many little girls in Kuwait had an Easy-Bake Oven in the mid 1980s but I had one because Khallo had found one for me somewhere along his travels.
Khallo was funny and quick witted. My own dad could be very serious but Khallo could always get him to loosen up. And because my Baba loved Khallo so much, he’d go along with whatever antics Khallo was starting.
How could someone with so much love for life be gone so soon?
“You have to see Assaad,” my sister raved. It was 2014 and I was planning a visit to Paris. Being part of a diaspora meant that I didn’t see most of my extended family often. And my cousin Assaad was no exception. He had grown up in Tunisia and I in Kuwait and Illinois. He was living in Paris and I in Northern California. My sister had recently returned from a trip to Paris and they had hung out for the first time as adults. Her Paris tourist recommendation? Go hang out with…