Every mother in the world bears her share of hard work, sacrifice, worry, and heartbreak.
Some, however, are asked to shoulder burdens exponentially heavier than anyone else’s and to fight enormous battles just to ensure somehow normal lives for their children. Those are the mothers who, above all else, deserve recognition and celebration.
On the occasion of Mother’s Day, etcetera had the privilege of speaking to Mrs. Hala Hammoud Fanj, one such incredibly inspiring mother, about her challenging but ultimately faith-affirming journey as the mother of a real hero, Ahmad.
“Your child is normal! You were the one who hurt him!”
“I was a very young mom,” Mrs. Fanj begins. Her first child, Ibrahim, was born when she was only seventeen. Three years later, she was pregnant with Ahmad.
It all started well: “Ahmad was born looking very normal, his weight, his height all perfect, and the doctors didn’t notice anything unusual,” she relates.
The first person to catch a hint of trouble was another mother. “Who noticed Ahmad was different? My mother,’” Mrs. Fanj explains, “She had raised seven children and from the moment we brought Ahmad home, she was always watching him and telling me ‘your child has something.’”
Denial was the first instinct. “I would say no, he’s normal!” she continues.
Then, something happened. “One day, Ibrahim wanted to carry Ahmad, so he reached out and tugged gently on his brother’s leg, and we heard a pop!” Mrs. Fanj relates.
“In the emergency room, the doctor said there was a fracture in the femur and he blamed us saying, ‘you dropped him, you weren’t paying attention!’” she remembers, adding, “I tried to explain what had really happened, but I was still young, confused, and intimidated.”
Finally, one of the residents remarked that Ahmad had blue sclerae: the whites of his eyes were tinged with blue. Though it was dismissed as irrelevant at first, this characteristic helped the doctors finally discover what was truly going on.
“Ahmad was diagnosed with osteogenesis imperfecta,” Mrs. Fanj finally says. “The doctor told me ‘his bones are like crystals, you have to be careful even how you hold him, because he might die in your hands.’”
Despite this diagnosis, she took every care to ensure Ahmad lived a relatively normal life. “Though I took a lot of care for his case, I treated him exactly like his brother,” she says, adding, “the word handicapped was absolutely forbidden and was never heard in our house.”
“What Are You Doing With Your Child in Our School?”
Years passed, and the time came for Ahmad to go to school.
“I didn’t care about degrees or honour lists,” Mrs. Fanj explains, “but I wanted Ahmad to live his life, hear the bell ring, run, and be surrounded by other kids. My entire family called me crazy, but I put my foot down.”
First, she tried to register him at his elder brother’s school, but the counsellor took one look at him and refused. “She told me ‘what are you doing here with this kid? and ‘we don’t accept such cases,’ and she said it in front of him!” Mrs. Fanj exclaims.
Nothing she said could change the counsellor’s mind. “I was crying and screaming inside when we went home,” she continued.
“Not one school agreed to take him,” Mrs. Fanj says.
Here, however, providence interfered. Mrs. Fanj’s brother had always had a dream of founding a school, and her father had just completed construction of a new building which he offered to his son as a launching pad. “My father told me he let the school go ahead just for Ahmad,” she reminisces.
It was a new starting point: “Ahmad was the most sociable person,” Mrs. Fanj recounts, “he was so funny, and he never cared about his situation, very soon, he had a group of friends who were around him the whole time and would even stay with him in the classroom during breaks because he could not go to the playground.”
She got her wish, too: “He continued his life between school and the hospital, but he was the happiest kid in his family and among his classmates,” she reminisces, “he would play football, go in a convoy to the hospital, and take the championship medal there.”
A Mother Remains Standing Even as Everything and Everyone Crumbles Around Her
Ahmad’s condition had always led to many bone-chilling moments, moments in which Mrs. Fanj found herself, despite her young age, the only person standing between her son and utter collapse.
“When he was young, Ahmad lost his first eye. He was playing with a stroller, it made contact with his face, and just like that, his eye popped out,” Mrs. Fanj whispers.
“You have to imagine that dealing with this situation was a young mother who was not even a mature woman yet,” she remembers, “I was a child myself taking care of another child, but I had my faith, my patience, and the strength that God gave me.”
“My husband and his sisters and brothers would all faint or panic when they saw Ahmad like that, but I could not do any of those things,” she continues.
“Mom, it’s not the electricity, I’m blind...”
By the time Ahmad was in ninth grade, his good eye had become weak. “He was studying for his Baccalaureate exams, and of course, because he spent more than half the school year in the hospital, he was behind and had to make enormous efforts,” Mrs. Fanj explains. “I was dying inside just watching him.”
She urged him to forget about those exams, but he was adamant. Then, one morning, he called her to him asking her: “Why are all the lights turned off?”
“I told him the electricity was out, but of course, the lights were all on,” she remembers, “I left the room, crying and hitting myself. I kept telling Ahmad the electricity was off, but he knew, remained calm and strong, and told me “mom, it’s not the electricity, I’m blind.’”
Two doctors told Mrs. Fanj that Ahmad would never see again.
Yet, modern medicine is a wonderful thing, and it so happened that a prominent doctor had just arrived in Lebanon from the United States. A friend of her brother’s took Mrs Fanj and Ahmad to meet him. “He spent two hours examining Ahmad,” she says, “in the end, he said Ahmad would see again, and he gave us eyedrops and prescription medicine.”
A couple of days later, Ahmad’s voice crying out joyously that he could see again filled the house. He had overcome the disaster.
A few weeks later, Ahmad took the Baccalaureate exams in the hospital. “We talked to everyone we could,” Mrs. Fanj says, “we even got the minister involved and finally Ahmad was allowed to take his exams in the hospital.”
For the first time, a media spotlight fell on Ahmad: “He became a success story!” Mrs. Fanj said.
More success followed: Ahmad not only completed high school at Adma International School, he earned the GPA and SAT grades he needed to gain acceptance to both the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University.
“He chose LAU because his brother and friends were there,” Mrs. Fanj says.
The university turned out to be a blessing. “The person in charge, Mrs. Leila Dagher, told the admissions office ‘I’m not asking if you want this boy, I’m telling you we want him, we will take on this challenge, and we will be an example to other universities,’” Mrs. Fanj remembers, adding, “And they definitely did!”
“They put in ramps for his scooter, dedicated elevators for him in case any of his classes were on higher floors, and if nothing else worked, the entire class was moved to another room to accommodate him,” she elaborates.
“Those four years at LAU were the happiest of his life,” she says, with a smile. “He was laughing and joking all the time, everyday there were fifteen kids visiting him.”
“When he graduated, it was a festival,” Mrs. Fanj remembers, “the members of the Board of Trustees all stood for him, and for fifteen minutes, seven thousand students and their families were applauding him.”
They Told Us He Would Live for Twelve Years Maximum
“Ahmad graduated, he worked with his father in insurance, he became a member of the Nejme Club, he developed a relationship with a girl,” she says.
“But, of course, his health was deteriorating,” she sighs, “He died in 2006 at twenty-five years old, after doctors had predicted he would live for just twelve years. It was a happy life for all of us, for me, for his family, for his friends.”
A Mother’s Love Knows No Bounds
Ahmad taught the people around him to be better people. “Anyone who had a problem would go to him, and he would help them, give them advice, or finally say, ‘you think you have a problem? Look at me!’” Mrs. Fanj says, adding “He was a hero; he was my son, my best friend, my brother, my therapist, and he’s my angel now.”
“I thank God every day that he no longer feels any pain, that he’s in a better place, in better hands,” she says, “but I did not have enough of him; I was fine with all the trouble, and, though many people did not believe me, I was the happiest mother in the world when he was here.”
“A mother is everything, she can endure any physical or mental pain; she is an organization: a teacher, a nurse, a cleaner, a grandmother,” Mrs. Fanj concludes, “She is the bridge that endures and holds everyone up.”
Mrs. Hala Hammoud Fanj is a mother, a writer, and a social advocate. Her book, “Ahmad: A Story of Victory,” was published in 2006. Ahmad’s poem, “A Few Words to A Very Special Mom,” graces the book’s covers.
- My young daughter has discovered the Internet and now spends a lot of time browsing websites and social media networks. How can I monitor her online activity and ensure that she remains safe?
Protecting our kids from the darker side of the Internet has never been more important or more difficult. Dealing with this problem is an evolving process. For kids younger than 10, you can set and impose limits on the amount of time spent online. You can also restrict access to mobile devices connected to the Internet and only allow your child to use them in the family room where you can supervise rather than in the privacy of their bedroom. Explain to your child that she should not give out personal identifying information (real name, home address, school name and address, parents’ names, pictures) to anyone she does not personally know. Repeat this lesson until your child can recite it in her sleep. You also have options that allow you to control for the most part what your child can see online. For example, iPads have parental controls and content filtering software that you can enable. Browsers also allow you to block certain websites. You have to make the constant effort to familiarize yourself with those options or enlist the help of a proficient friend or family member. It’s also preferable not to allow your children to register for social media accounts until they reach the age of 13.
For teenagers, however, open and honest communication is the key to ensuring online safety. At this age, kids are Internet veterans and will often know the Internet much better than you do. Yet, they don’t have your caution or experience. It’s more effective to discuss potential scenarios with your child. Explain that anything he or she posts online will stay online forever and can impact her future choice of university or career. Explain that the internet does NOT give anonymity. Discuss online bullying and posting hurtful comments (remember that your teen may be encouraged to bully others online). Explain the dangers of speaking to and sharing personal information with strangers. It’s never too late to enforce boundaries. If you are worried, you can ask your teenager for access to their social media accounts and inform them that you will be checking in. Do not do this behind their backs. There are many resources online that can help you keep your kid safe.
- I read a lot about the benefits of learning how to play a musical instrument. But how can I pick an instrument for my kid to start playing?
A child will reap the benefits of musical training regardless of what musical instrument he or she is playing. However, choosing the right instrument for your child and for your family environment remains important. Forcing children to learn instruments they have no interest in will not foster a love of music and might cause the child to resent having to practice. However, you also don’t want him or her to choose an instrument that does not suit your family. For example, if as a parent you do not like the sound of the electric guitar, you will not be able to support your child or endure the hours of practice he or she needs to put in. Parents also need to like the sound of the instrument their child is playing. Take into account your child’s body type and make sure he picks an instrument he is comfortable holding and carrying. Also, make sure your child’s choice is not affected by any perceived “social value” of an instrument. For younger kids (4-6) you can’t go wrong with the keyboard or piano as those instruments provide a great foundation and children can easily transition to other instruments later if they would like to. Violin is also a good option as it comes in scaled sizes, but it requires more patience and persistence. Another thing to take into account is your child’s personality type. High energy kids can get great stress relief from playing the drums, and outgoing personalities may prefer instruments such as the saxophone or trumpet. The most important consideration, however, remains your child’s personal preference and passion as those are the biggest guarantees that he or she will stick with the instrument long enough to earn the life-long benefits.