By the late 1990s, my grandfather could no longer read.
To be visible, photos needed to hover near his visual peripheries. Then, Jiddou –“grandfather” in Arabic – couldn’t see me unless I stood off to his side.
My Jiddou had a growing blind spot smack in the middle of his visual field: he was suffering from macular degeneration, the subject of last week’s Beckman Initiatives conference in Irvine, California.
A long-time champion of preventive medicine and an internationally respected physician, Zekin Andrawos Shakhashiri was born in Anfi, Lebanon, on April Fool’s Day in 1912.
(Coincidentally, my mother was born in the very same house near the Lebanese seashore, [redacted!] years later.)
In 1938, after graduating from medical school at the American University of Beirut, Jiddou married my Tayta (grandmother) Adma. He taught at AUB and used his medical degree to help countless numbers of people in need, insisting on providing free care to anyone at any time, even though Tayta wasn’t necessarily thrilled by the never-ending knocking at the door.
Later, nearly a decade after earning an MPH from The Johns Hopkins University, Jiddou set out for a sabbatical at the Harvard School of Public Health. Thinking he would be away from Lebanon for only one year, he brought his family with him to the United States in 1957.
But Harvard liked having him around so much they held onto him. For three years.
In 1960, he moved to the NIH, where he worked for three decades, retiring as a senior medical advisor for the director of the National Institutes of Neurological Diseases and Stroke in 1990.
But the great cosmic bookkeeper made a miscalculation and delivered an unbeatable opponent to a gentle soul.
Shortly before Tayta’s death in 1990, Jiddou noticed his sense of smell was deteriorating. Then he could no longer walk efficiently and was shuffling his feet.
Parkinson’s disease had set in, and it would eventually claim him.
For the rest of his life, he would quietly deal with both waning locomotion and fading eyesight, eventually leaving us in 2001 and peacefully taking his place among the stars.
I first learned how tricky it is to diagnose and treat macular degeneration during a course on aging in college. Last week’s conference reinforced the particular complexities surrounding this disease of the “aged,” where the only certain risk factor is getting older. There is too much we don’t know about it. Same goes for Parkinson’s.
But that’s a different post.
When I was a kid, Jiddou would carry me to the window and we would stare at the moon, mini-Me marveling at its brightness while my grandfather shared details about its phases and what it’s made of (not cheese).
He also taught me beginning Arabic, things like conversational phrases, the alphabet, numbers, and months (Tayta taught unpublishable phrases, as every grandmother should).
Today, in my most unscientific moments, I sometimes wonder whether some of that moonlight isn’t reflecting just a bit of his radiance – the inquisitive, humble, generous spirit that drove him to devote his life to public service in the truest sense, to writing about religion and to a fondness for middle eastern rice pudding and backgammon.
I think he would have liked this path I’ve chosen, writing about science. In fact, I’ll close with what I’m pretty sure his response would have been: a delighted “Ooh la la!”