On April 7, 1997, my sito passed. (Alzheimer’s. A monster. A thief.) At the time, I was eight, and, luckily for me, I got to spend a lot of time by her side. In my moments of greatest clarity, I can recall vivid snapshots of our time together: watching Flipper and The Lawrence Welk Show. Playing together on the player piano she kept in her living room. Singing love songs to each other, and laughing as she tied a scarf over my hair. The smells of spices in the kitchen as we sat together with my mother and aunt cooking maneesh, kafta and potatoes, meat and spinach pies. The texture of the bulgur wheat between our fingers as we mixed tabbouleh. The soothing sound of her voice whispering into my hair every time we said goodbye. Ana bahebak. I love you.
It’s been 20 years since I’ve heard Sito’s voice—but the lessons she taught me haven’t left my mind for a second. In so many ways, she’s been a guiding force in my life. Today, I’d love to share with you three of the most important lessons she imparted in our time together.
1. No obstacle is insurmountable.
The daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Sito grew up with the great responsibility of serving as a translator while growing and learning herself. Hers was a difficult life, and it made her one of the strongest women I’ve ever known. Mother of nine, trained as a Red Cross nurse during World War II, she worked long hours to support her family. Any moments of joy or pleasure she felt were hard earned. Maybe that’s what made her laugh so special. It wasn’t something she’d ever use falsely or gratuitously.
Sito worked hard. After hours spent working at the Golf Ball Division of Acushnet Co., she was a homemaker. She cooked and cleaned for the family, taking time to ensure everyone had enough to eat. To this day, my mother will even share stories of how Sito would go out of her way to make sure each of her children felt special—baking cakes on their birthdays, giving candy and small treats during holidays, and writing notes to ensure they felt loved. Her exhaustion after a long day never stopped her from taking care of the people who mattered most to her.
When I come home after a long day at work, I often picture Sito. Her memory reminds me that no matter how tired or stressed I am, no matter how big the job I am doing might feel, it’s in my blood to face it, head on—with enough love left to share with my husband as we cook dinner together.
2. Music is a gift you can share forever.
I will never forget the sound of Sito’s voice singing Doris Day to me as we hugged:
“I love you
A bushel and a peck
A bushel and a peck, and a hug around the neck . . .”
She loved music, and she loved when we would sing together. That shared love of music has stayed with me: today, my closest friends and I have made music a pastime, singing and playing together on the weekends as a celebration of life. Few gifts in this world have the staying power of music, or the warmth that is shared when you create a song together. Sito taught me this. I like to think it’s something she’s still teaching me, even now.
3. Let your last words be “I love you.”
I can’t imagine babysitting a young child while coping with the early stages of Alzheimer’s could be easy. But for the life of me, I can’t recall a single moment where Sito treated me like a burden. With her, it was always love. My brother and I had no doubts that Sito loved us unconditionally—she made sure of that. No matter what was going on in a given day, she made sure to stop and tell us she loved us. To her, everything was insha'Allah—if God wills. In other words, you never know when you’ll be seeing someone for the last time. So leave them with love.
In the time since Sito has passed, I’ve adopted her philosophy. Whenever I see or speak with someone I love, I make sure to let them know I care. It’s a lesson that has never steered me wrong.