There wasn’t a greater time in my father’s life than when he was 17. He was energetic and restless, even almost engaged by the time he graduated from his Tripoli high school back home. At that age, he was poised to do anything, anywhere with his life.
The problem was – is – that that place wasn’t Libya 29 years ago. It was America.
I believe my father regrets immigrating to this country.
And as shocking as an admission as that is, there’s reason for it. The year 1977 was a brief period of opportunity and enchantment in this country that beckoned my father. It was the year Jimmy Carter won the presidency, optimistically promising that the oil standard that would temporarily cripple our nation two years later would become obsolete by the end of his tenure. (Of course, it never did.) It was the year of reinvented bellbottom pants and Darth Vader action figures, as Saturday Night Fever and Star Wars debuted to audiences enthralled by an evolving entertainment scene. It’s admittedly a little embarrassing to find a picture of my father disco-dancing with his premature afro or blowing a kiss to my mom by his ’68 Camaro. But at least he was smiling then.
Now my family’s lucky to see teeth in any current pictures of him. My mother confided in my older sister and me before she divorced my dad years ago, and she often told us that he just wasn’t the same spontaneous and life-loving guy she fell in love with against her parents’ will. As a rule, I’m not a sentimentalist. But I still understand exactly what she was saying.
Because there’s an unwelcoming harshness to my father now. He’s bitter and cold, hardened by years of change that amplified his regret at hopping aboard a jetliner and heading to Austin, Texas, without saying when he’d return three decades ago. Part of my love for journalism stems from memories of sitting in my father’s lap and watching the evening news when I was little. When we watch it together now, his innate curiosity and interest, his engaging way of translating a three-minute newsbyte to a 6-year-old, are gone. What’s left is a silent, sad nod of his head after reports of another six dozen Iraqis killed in a day or after stories on a belligerent Virginian congressman’s ignorant attack on a Muslim comrade or after five minutes of real news followed by snapshots of Tom Cruise’s mystery child.
He’s heard it before but you can say it again: “If you don’t like this country, go back to your own.” But America is my dad’s country. He’s lived here more than half his life. He even chose it over the place of his birth when his Libyan citizenship was revoked.
It’s just that, living discontentedly in the country that promised him a life of seemingly eternal satisfaction and that is now spiraling down a slippery slope of war and ethics issues and social crises, he wishes he hadn’t.
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