As a portrait artist, people come to me with a need. The need of a gift (usually), the need to capture a moment in time, but often it’s the need to honor and celebrate someone who has passed. There was the best friend, the beloved uncle, the elderly father, but twice it was a child. One of them was named Karim.
In my mid-twenties, when my first go at the portrait business had fizzled and a steady income was needed, I walked myself down to the local mall and applied for a job with the only skill I had that I thought was marketable: putting on makeup. I don’t remember how I ended up at Filenes, or at a Prescriptives counter, but a day later there I was in my black polyester smock, learning to blend pigments on a large paper palette to match a skin tone and how to convince every customer that Line Preventer would solve their problems even though I could never figure out what it actually did.
I had three coworkers at our futuristic counter and Mireille (or Mimo) was the youngest. At 19, Mimo was the antithesis of any teenager I had ever met. Already married, she was an accomplished cook, groomed to perfection, with a confidence that challenged anyone to contradict her (no polyester smocks for that girl). As streetsmart as I was naïve, in Mimo I found a fiercely protective and nurturing friend who delighted in our differences.
My time at Filenes ended when I moved to Bloomingdales across the street, but my friendship with Mimo remained. Over the years she introduced me to Lebanese cooking (drizzle olive oil over your hummus), professional hair coloring (three colors is better than one), aggressive city driving with hand gestures, and bellydancing (I took a class inspired by our Middle Eastern Nights at the Sheraton but dropped out in humiliation). Eventually we each followed our domestic paths of home ownership with our immigrant husbands, setting up swingsets, and in their case, a pool.
At my surprise thirtieth birthday party the first thing I saw after taking off my blindfold were two matching car seats sitting on the floor with two matching baby boys. I immediately knew who they must be: Akram (A.J.) and Karim, Mimo and Saleh’s three-month-old twins. We watched in amazement as Mimo not only mastered motherhood, but took it to new heights. While I was staggering around trying to keep up with one, she was throwing glorious celebrations for every holiday, traveling back and forth to Lebanon, and taking in the neighborhood children as if they were their own.
Two years later Mimo and Saleh announced that they would be adding another member to their family. We lived an hour apart so we didn’t see them very often, but we knew the time-frame for the summer birth and we waited for news.
News came in the form of a Boston Globe headline.
Boy, 3, drowns; his twin rescued
The boys were in the backyard of the family’s split-level ranch home on Madison Street, running through a sprinkler…
…briefly looked away to pack a bag for the boys’ mother, who was in a Boston hospital, where she gave birth Saturday night to a male sibling, police said.
…she saw one of the twins, Akram, grabbing the side of the pool, trying to pull himself out…
…and then began trying to resuscitate the other boy, Karim, who was not breathing.
A short news piece quietly read on a Monday morning contained a hurricane of grief to come.
The next memory I have is at the funeral home, waiting in a winding line that ended with beautiful Mimo in a wheelchair surrounded by flowers. Next to her was a white casket so small and so lovely it seemed to glow and drain all the oxygen out of the room at the same time. Past the point of finding words that were adequate, I knelt in front of her and held her hands, bowing to the fact that she was here doing this, her body healing and breaking simultaneously.
Sometime after the burial I received a message from Mimo asking me if I would consider doing a portrait of the twins. If it had been anyone else I would have said that my portrait days were over. Soon I was sitting in their livingroom with a coffee table covered in photos, and Mimo handing me each one, telling the story of the twins–their love for each other, Karim’s mischievous ways, his protectiveness of his brother. The image was an easy choice.
Now came the task of setting up a studio in our home where I could work, so I dug out what art supplies I had and laid them out in our office. My daughter was fascinated by this, since she had never seen me touch a pencil before. She surprised me on my birthday by organizing my pencils by color in glass jars and made a sign that she hung: Amy’s Studio.
I didn’t know that drawing could be painful, but every time I sat down to work on the portrait I felt a weight and sadness that I could only take in small doses. Every little curve and strand of hair was full of meaning and loss. It was exhausting. Months became a year, and a year became two before I finished.
The portrait now hangs in their family room, occupied by A.J., who is now a tall handsome 15-year old, and his younger brothers Jad and Danny. Mimo and Saleh celebrated their twentieth anniversary this year, having survived the loss of not one child, but two. Laila was born with Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia (CDH) and was showered with love from her family for two months in the hospital before she passed away. Karim’s grave was surrounded by mourners in a sea of pink on the day she was buried next to him.
So the story of this portrait is the life of Karim, the love of two brothers, and the loss, but even more so, it’s about the mother who would plan her son’s funeral from her hospital bed; who would work with the police officer who tried to save him to develop a water safety program in her community; who would go on to raise three boys full of generosity, laughter and love (and only the best clothes); a mother who would live with her daughter in the hospital for two months, turning a room full of tubes and machines into a sanctuary to celebrate her short life. The portrait is a reflection of a mother’s love so great it would carry them through more dark days than any human should have to suffer. A few weeks ago this turned up on Mimo’s Facebook page:
She always was.
[Featured artwork: Akram and Karim, colored pencil on paper]