Growing up, our family was the go-to hosts for our faith community's visiting speakers. Often the guests were international. Many years have passed—three decades—since I hosted international visitors, the last time being in my 20s while I lived in Atlanta. I had forgotten how enriching the experience.
My Nashville-based Persian friend, Massood Taj, has represented painter Suha Khalil, a young Northern Sudanese woman with Down syndrome, since about 2009. For two years now, Massood and I have hung Suha's works in several locations about Nashville alongside and independent of my daughter, Grace Goad, a young painter who has autism.
Last week, eight months of work culminated in the public debut of our nonprofit social enterprise's first commercial collaboration. Each of the 13 artists with disAbilities featured in the local luxury apartment building's 51-piece collection were invited to the reception. To our surprise, Suha and her brother and mother journeyed to Nashville.
It was a week of introductions, tours, conversations, laughter and sharing that included visiting Suha's exhibit on The Yellow Wall, which I manage at the Tennessee Art League*, seeing Grace's exhibition** at Vanderbilt Kennedy Center and meeting esteemed research scientists and doctors there. Gracious friends with the Down Syndrome Association of Middle Tennesee and members of Pujols Family Foundation also served as hosts. Friends and family met for Indian, Thai and smorgasboard.
It seems banal to report this in past tense. I'm groping for the words to express the personal impact of this dear family's visit. Perhaps it's that I'm still processing.
Suha's mother, Zeeneth, was about two decades my senior, an Asian Indian living in Africa, and yet we were one in the bond of special needs motherhood. In saying goodbye, we each, in our own words, said to one another, that we understood each others joys and hardships. We knew the journey that each other traveled. It was a tender moment I will treasure always.
I loved observing the position of this fiercely intelligent woman, a chemist by training--a profession she had to leave to take care of her fifth child, Suha. Mrs. Khalil is a matriarch. When deciding where we would go to dinner Saturday night, her son, Issam, wavered. I could not determine exactly what he wanted to eat. They are muslims and could not eat meat here because their meat must be blessed by clergy of their faith. The mother spoke up: she wanted Indian. Done. We dined vegetarian and everyone's belly was satisfied.
Son/brother Issam was so loyal to his mother and to his sister. It is because of his championing representation that his sister's works grace the walls of exhibition spaces here in Nashville.
Suha was an adorable soul. I snuck Grace's iPad just for her Sunday afternoon while the family gathered with my friends and Grace visited her paternal grandmother. Suha does not speak English. But we spoke in the languge of smiles and winks, iPad games, and magic markers. Her mother and brother said she woke up each day asking if she'd get to see me, Massood, and Grace that day.
They come from a culture of community and because of them, we celebrated community for six days straight. I am still catching up on my rest because of this amount of community. We don't commune in our culture like this. But for six days we did.
They are gentle people. Light agents. Six days and forever in my heart, I am enriched. Two days of travel and continents away. Culture, customs and beliefs, so different. None of it mattered.
None of it mattered because of what really does matter. The truth that we are all one. Six days were a reminder. Six days of fond community. Six days of love. Six days of oneness. A oneness that endures time, distance and culture. Beneath culture. Beneath differences. Beneath disAblity. Beneath belief systems. Beneath it all: oneness.
*Suha Khalil's exhibition at the Tennessee Art League will hang through Saturday, August 30. One of the exhibition spaces I manage, Food Network featured Crumb de la Crumb Cafe, will host her work September 2 through the fall. More about Suha's work can also be found on Facebook at Suha Goes Painting.
**Grace Walker Goad: Two Decades in Color will hang at Vanderbilt Kennedy Center through Wednesday, August 27. She will join artists Preston Vienneau and Donald Werther at Shimai Pottery and Gifts at The Loveless for a month-long September exhibition.
Photo: Dina Capitani