The Call of the Void: Hannah Lillith Assadi on Losing Home, Identity, and Her Father

November 2022

On the telephone from the hospital, my father tells me he wants a cigarette. He has fallen again. His once hearty frame is now so frail, I can hardly bear to look at him. The cancer is in his bones. The cancer is everywhere. A wise friend once said that gazing upon death is like staring at the sun. But it’s worse than that. The last time I saw my father before this call, I was shocked by how thin he had become in the course of months, and he said to me, you look at me like I’m some strange man. I didn’t say, it’s far worse than that.

“But these people in the hospital,” my father goes on, “won’t let me smoke.”

My father doesn’t mention that his doctor has pronounced the end is no longer years away. That if we’re lucky, we might have this season and the next. My mother tells me all of this instead. “Your father is dying,” she says, in the same tone she uses when she wants to guilt me into doing something. Then she begins to wail.

As I talk to my father on the telephone—he in Arizona, me in the Berkshires—I watch the dusk fall languorously on a green sea of grass, brilliant with falling stars or just fireflies. My two-year-old daughter plays with the children of my friends and they chase after each other through the field.

“What if we went somewhere?” I ask my father, engaging in make-believe as I do so often now with him. “Let’s go to Italy,” I say. But it is the town of his birth that crosses my mind. I don’t say its name though. It feels too late to talk about Palestine.

My daughter trips, and my stomach clenches even as she squeals with delight. “I fall down,” she cries happily.

“I can’t go to Italy,” my father says after a while, but I am no longer paying attention.

The last time we were in Italy together was the summer after I turned sixteen. I still remember the twilight road descending to Bergamo the evening I drove us all back to the hotel in Fakri’s Benz. In another life, Fakri and my father were two Palestinians studying engineering in Italy, though most of that time was spent sleeping with Italian women and drinking haram Italian wine. The consequence of so much nostalgia for that bygone era (the sixties!) was them getting very, very drunk at dinner.

My father was shouting, “Quant’è bella giovinezza che si fugge tuttavia,” a beloved Italian saying, as I recklessly drove Fakri’s beautiful Mercedes at speed downhill. I cringed at my dad’s maudlin ravings, cringed at that man he once was, the one who always had a belly, whose cheeks were sometimes red from vodka, who smelled always a little of tobacco, cologne, the faint trace of pot, who was sometimes rageful, often hilarious, so alive. How much now do I want him back.

Meanwhile Fakri was hollering at me insistently: “Do you feel Palestinian habibti? Do you? Can’t you feel it?” As if the night, or the drive itself, that drunken drive down the falling road, was a sort of baptism unto Palestinian-ness itself. Fakri told me to drive faster, chanting Falestine, Falestine, Falestine with duende, and then my father forgot his dulce youth and joined in, like the homeland might emerge from the Italian landscape a fata morgana.

I didn’t feel Palestinian. (A sensation that is not particular to that night: I don’t speak Arabic, my mother is Jewish, and I am American born and bred, so I have always felt disingenuous asserting belonging within such a tormented narrative.) But I did feel something as our descent hastened, as the view below dizzied and dazzled and tempted and sickened me. What I felt was that awful inclination that has always plagued me—not to Falestine—but to falling, a desire to fall, to no country but death’s country. L’appel du vide, the French call it. The call of the void.

I have been told, in no uncertain terms, I will inherit nothing from my father in the material sense. In the immaterial sense, I wonder what it is I have inherited from him more profoundly: his Palestinian-ness or his propensity to fall?

My father has been falling all of his life. When he was a small child before the Nakba, playing on his roof in Safed, he dropped a story off the ledge. And there was that crash from bicycling down a steep desert hill in Arizona when he was middle-aged, and one of my earliest memories of him is in its aftermath with a big bloody bandage wrapped around his head. Still, nothing compares to the numerous times he’s fallen since he’s been ill. Observing him, it almost seems like he is giving himself up to the ground, with graceful surrender, with desire even. (He says it feels like he is being pushed.)

Years ago, when my father saw my face turn ashen as I drove down Highway 87—which descends thousands of feet from the Tonto National Forest to the Sonoran Desert in a seemingly end- less (gorgeous) spiral—he spoke to me of the seventeenth-floor apartment in New York City where he once lived.

“What scared me about it,” he said, “was that it made me want to fall.”

And then he assured me it goes away, the falling thing, like a bad flu, or recurring nightmare.

There are two recurring dreams I have had most often in my life. One is a variation on the same theme: I am in an elevator as it rises out of its compartment. It just keeps going up. What terrifies me in the dream is not the uncontrolled ascent, but the inevitable, imminent fall from it.

The other recurring dream began at my old, beloved apartment on Macon Street in Bed-Stuy. In this dream, I was always waking up in a different apartment than the one on Macon, one with different walls (too white, too bare, in fact not unlike a hospital). I now lived in this lesser place and so I wept, head in my hands. I can still remember the deep relief of waking up and finding that Macon remained as it revealed itself before my opening eyes.

Why suffer these two particular dreams over and over again? What does falling have to do with home? Probably nothing, and maybe everything. We are born, we die, with a dream in between. We live in an apartment, a country, on a planet, in a galaxy of a rapidly expanding, darkening universe, in a body. Until we don’t. Where do we fall to? My second daughter lives inside of me now, and I shelter her until she falls away from me. We lose Eden—Palestine, Macon, ourselves. Home is only a metaphor for life. Who are we but wandering spirits, refugees from the void?

Or perhaps, the answer is prophecy. In the end, the second dream is a dream that came true: I’ll never wake up in that apartment on Macon Street again.

My daughter finds me in the green, dusky field. “I fall down!” she reports blissfully, pointing to the criminal grass.

“Are you okay?” I ask her, and my father, who is still on the phone, responds instead. He is okay, he says. But then he moans. I hear him vomit. My mother begins to shriek. It’s not pretty, no it’s fucking awful, and I’m a girl whose only religion is beauty and there is so much of it just beyond me so I say goodbye daddy, take care of yourself, and hang up.

But I’m still with him, staring across the distance at a field of cows, idyllically grazing and tagged for death, and I forget all about Italy as my daughter tugs on me, and I ignore her, and type in a question for Google and it informs me that my father’s hometown of Safed and the Berkshire vista before me share the same elevation. And it strikes me that my father’s five-year-old vision of leaving Safed—of the house where he says they left gold beneath the floorboards, from which my grandmother, a few days postpartum, walked with her children on the road to Damascus, away from her family’s home since the sixteenth century for which there was no deed, no paperwork because theirs was a deed more imperishable than words, and so, they believed they would return, of course they would return, and then days, months, years, lifetimes (and now my father’s) have passed—this childhood vision is also his last.

“No cry, Mommy!” my daughter screams at me. And I realize it is true. I am weeping at long last over this inherited, quintessentially Palestinian fact.

We leave the Berkshires and return to the city. The weekend away, alas, was just a weekend and we are always returning to the city despite our best efforts at leaving it. This time it is to yet another temporary sublet. (To put it discreetly, we are not in a position to sign a lease.) This place feels almost like home, more so than the others that followed Macon—that is until we come back to a leak that has, quite literally, caused the ceiling to fall through. Standing there, thirty-five weeks pregnant, tiptoeing around the crumpled plaster, observing the building’s skeleton, its web of beams and pipes and ghosts, for the second time in a few days, I think of ’48, of my tata pregnant as I am now, and begin to weep.

Days later, we are interrogated by the landlord. Don’t we know that our sublet agreement with his primary tenant is illegal? What paperwork do we have? What are the terms of our contract? Let me stop there. This isn’t truly tragic, this isn’t war. We didn’t lose the rite of centuries. Weeks later, I will observe a New York City sanitation truck destroy in broad daylight all that remains (a suitcase, a green chair, a vacuum cleaner) to a homeless woman as she cries, scratches her face with that unmistakable, desperate painkilling need. I know, this isn’t that. Nevertheless, I feel a terrible lightness. And I have, on so many days, in the years since we left Macon. The same lightness that accompanies driving too fast down a steep road in Bergamo, the lightness of riding in an elevator as it shoots up through the stories (or in my dreams through the roof), the lightness of gazing at the sea sparkle over the rails of the Verrazzano Bridge, the lightness that presages a fall.

We move again. We’ve done it so often, we’re almost good at it. Almost. Maybe it’s in my blood. This time to the music of our daughter wailing, flinging herself at the doors, at the chairs she believes belong only to her, the screech of tape, sweep of broom, the ache of my back, the roaring vacuum, our kicking fetus, Clorox stench, we need more paper towels, the sound of keys on the countertop, and then our suitcases, our daughter’s toys, our boxes full of so much what? are stacked around us in the morning parlor of my best (and most charitable) friend’s beautiful brownstone. My partner touches my belly, says: “I feel like we’ve fallen so low. Like anyone can just get rid of us at will.”

Is this what you meant, Fakri? Is this a pale semblance of what being Palestinian feels like?

Sometime between this move and our next, my father falls again, and I call to ask how he is feeling, and he lies, and when he asks how I am feeling, I also lie. My mother tells me what I already know—that he can no longer hear upsetting things. No talk of Palestine, no talk of my endless, temporary displacements, no talk of money woes. Khalas. Enough is enough. He just wants to meet his new granddaughter. So, we talk a little bit about the gabapentin, the oxycodone, the radium treatment. Then he says, “There are no miracles.”

Is this a pale semblance of what being Palestinian feels like?

“You tried everything,” I say. “You really fought.” And a memory of him belting out “Fight” alongside The Cure returns and I think of the long fight of his life, as he moved from home to home to home so many more times than me, for so long without papers, or citizenship, facing arrest, and once even the threat of being thrown off a ship. But how can I even pretend to summarize all of that here? An entire life is no anecdote after all. Not his, not yours.

“I fell again,” my father says. “It happened so fast, this falling. I just fall all the time.”

And I say something useless in response.

“What day is it today?” my father asks. I tell him it is Tuesday and he expresses disbelief. I ask my father if he’s watching the game in the hospital. The Warriors are on and Steph Curry is his favorite player. He says he doesn’t care anymore who wins or loses the stupid game.

“But you love them,” I say.

“I just want to go home,” he says. His voice is so diminished now that everything he says sounds as if he is about to cry. But he isn’t.

I don’t ask what home he means. Then a sudden surge of joy in his voice surprises me. “You know what I have always loved?” he asks me.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“Italy,” he says. “Quant’è bella giovinezza che si fugge tuttavia . . .”

“Tell me what that means again,” I say.

“How beautiful youth is,” he says. “But how to translate che si fugge . . . ?”

I haven’t had that dream of Macon Street in a long time. Instead, I now have a recurring dream in which we live in the penthouse of a tall building. Just like my father’s storied New York City apartment, it is usually on the seventeenth floor. And then, for no stated reason, we are removed from the apartment itself and forced to live on the windy roof. I can’t look down, both because I fear I will fall and because I might want to.

In the last dream like this, I realize that the entire world is ending. Our bright, fiery sun plummets without ado and then it is night in the middle of the day. I can hear the ocean swelling, the birds crying. The wind is too loud. My daughter is in the dream, too, and she clings to me and her chest is humming, warm, or it is me, and I am warm and humming with my mad love for her.

When we wake up again in another dream place, I wonder, is this it? Have we come home? Or, in other words, have we fallen to the bottom yet? But I know there is no such thing as either place. This is why we all dream of falling, and falling forever.


“No more falling,” I say to my father on the phone before we hang up. This is the sort of make-believe we engage in, both in the beginning and in the end. And, I almost do believe it.

After all, how could I know that some weeks later, I would drive the 2,500-mile distance to him in his desert, with a newborn and a toddler, because the end was nigh, and bear witness to his trembling body, illogically thin, as he daily fret over the few steps between his bed and his wheelchair? How could I know that I would ask him in his final days to find a phone number up there for me to call him on? How could I know that I would be the one who would press my ear down onto his chest, and hearing no song, announce to my mother, he’s gone. That in the aftermath of his passing, we would find ourselves moving yet again, my mother and ourselves, and once our furniture was all gone, sleep between the echoey walls of his last homeland, on two couches pushed together, and how I would wish there were such things as ghosts, a visage, a wail, clear articulate proof he remained rather than just wineglasses inexplicably breaking, coyotes howling, and dreams, oh the dreams, the dusk, its magical western palette. Yes, we would again find ourselves where we have been all of these years, not homeless, but not yet home, staring up at the stupid stucco ceiling, singing our daughters to sleep.

How could I know any of this would come to pass as I hang up the phone? The end comes so fast, and so soon. And there are no revisions. How could I know how deeply I would yearn for an unassuming phone call such as this—the one I am hurrying off of, the one which began as it always does with my father saying hi Hannah, it’s your daddy disregarding a smartphone’s inherent caller ID—this phone call which is now over.

“That’s okay, habibti, I know you’re busy. Have a good night.”

No, I couldn’t know. Back here, in this essay, it is still July and not December, and my father remains, and the warm sun has risen again so I take my daughter to a nearby playground, the swings so comfortingly familiar no matter their point in space, and she beelines right for them, and points to the empty one beside her. “Sit down,” she commands.

I do as I’m told. It’s been so long. I know I delighted in this once. This lightness, this fleeting sensation of flight, this casual forgetting of how easy it is to fall. “Whee,” she cries. “Wheeeeeeeeeeeee.”

And up we go, into the sky.


Freeman's Conclusions

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From Freeman’s. “Che si fugge” by Hannah Lillith Assadi. Copyright (c) 2023 Hannah Lillith Assadi. The final issue of Freeman’s, a collection of writings on conclusions, features work from Rebecca Makkai, Aleksandar Hemon, Rachel Khong, Louise Erdrich, and more, is available now.

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