One evening sixty years ago, my parents-in-law were returning to their apartment in Beirut, Lebanon.
As they approached the building, a friend called out from the balcony. In a hushed voice he warned them, three rough-looking men were waiting upstairs. They looked like gangsters.
The friend, who lived next door to my parents-in-law, told them to knock on the wall if there was trouble. He would go for help.
Uneasy, my parents-in-law went upstairs.
Three large men were indeed waiting. “We need to talk to the doctor,” one said.
My father-in-law, Dr. Kevork Keshishian, was a respected young doctor in the Armenian community. He had been born in Syria, educated in Beirut. He spoke five languages — Armenian, Turkish, Arabic, French, and English. He was roughly 30 years old.
He asked the strangers how he could help them. They asked my mother-in-law to leave the room.
She said she would, but that if she didn’t hear from her husband in five minutes, she would call police.
Alone with my father-in-law, the three men explained themselves. They were the father, brother, and uncle of a young Armenian woman who was preparing to move to Germany with her new husband. He was to start a new job there. The men in the apartment were unsure whether to let the young couple leave.
Something was wrong with the husband, they said. His wife wasn’t pregnant yet. Nearly six months had passed since the wedding.
Maybe “his thing” didn’t work, the men told Dr. Keshishian.
My father-in-law asked several questions about the young couple, what the husband would do for a living in Germany, what he was like.
By the end of the conversation, he told the three men, yes, the couple could go to Germany. Children would come eventually, all in good time.
Dr. Keshishian said the three men were likely part of the problem, to the extent there even was a problem.
“With the three of you on top of them, I’m not surprised it’s not happening yet,” he said.
Dr. Keshishian was highly respected, considered brilliant even. But the men were unconvinced.
To assuage them, he said: “Send the man to my office tomorrow. I’ll talk to him.”
The next day the young man arrived.
Dr. Keshishian sat with him. They talked about Germany, they talked about the Armenian community in Beirut, they talked about in-laws generally. The situation was as Dr. Keshishian had guessed. The young husband was simply a different personality from his old-fashioned and overbearing in-laws. He loved his wife very much. The two of them would have children eventually. But also it was hard, he said, with people breathing down your neck.
“Germany will be good for you and your wife,” Dr. Keshishian said. “You will do well there.”
“Really?” the man said, his face brightening.
Dr. Keshishian had other patients waiting. He shook hands with the man, asked him to send occasional updates from Germany. Dr. Keshishian would explain matters to the in-laws.
Perhaps informed by episodes such as this one, Dr. Keshishian would go on to write four Armenian-language books between 1958 and 1971 on topics such as sex education, adolescence, and marriage. The titles were Puberty and its Problems, Sexual Harmony in Married Life, Love and Family, and How to Raise Your Child in a Happy Home.
For Armenians of the time, he was sort of what Dr. Spock (and later Dr. Ruth) were for Americans — a warm, scientifically informed, non-threatening voice on topics previously considered taboo.
The books contained drawings and addressed hush-hush topics like masturbation. These were the type of books younger kids snuck peaks at, the kind that older kids were given by a progressive aunt or an embarrassed parent. Here, Dr. Keshishian explains it.
“We gave these books to people under the table,” a librarian in Yerevan, Armenia, told my mother-in-law years later without even knowing she was married to the author. He showed her the library’s heavily worn copies.
Supposedly my father-in-law was the first to introduce an Armenian word for “clitoris.” Or maybe he was just the first to popularize the word. (Well, the word probably still isn’t popular.) Either way, if he was the first to get this part of the body on the community radar, for this alone the man ought to win a damn award.
In 1968, with civil war on the horizon in Lebanon, Dr. Keshishian and his young family moved to the United States — first to Boston, then New Hampshire. He changed his specialty from pediatrics to radiology and became a leading thinker, writer, and speaker on Armenian affairs around the world.
He was known for literate, eloquent speeches which he seemed able to deliver without preparation. “Sometimes he was using words we didn’t even know,” a man told me years later in Los Angeles. “It was a very high level of Armenian. Nobody else spoke like that.”
There was an absent-minded professor element, too. One day he returned to his Mercury sedan after an event in Boston. A carjacker came up behind him and demanded the keys.
With his friendly, accented English, Dr. Keshishian said, “You are mistaken, my friend! This car is mine!”
The carjacker grabbed for the keys, struggled with Dr. Keshishian, and even bit his hand before driving off in the stolen car.
Predictably, it was up to the doctor’s wife to clean up the mess. (Which is a story in itself. When police called days later to say the car had been found, but “was stripped,” my mother-in-law — all business — said, “What color?” The police officer said, “What do you mean? It’s the same color.” She said, “But what color are the stripes?” She had confused the words “stripped” and “striped.” She thought the thief had painted stripes on the vehicle before abandoning it. I know she’ll be annoyed I’m including this anecdote, so I’ll just go ahead and tell the reader what she herself will tell me — You learn five languages. See if you never make a mistake.)
As fortunate as Armenians were to have Dr. Keshishian’s books on adolescence, sexuality, and marriage, I myself was many times more fortunate, years later, to marry into the family.
I’m not Armenian. I knew little about the country, its history, or culture. But predictably, this was unimportant to Dr. Keshishian. He could see that I was making an honest effort to get up to speed.
“Meg hadeeg ess!” he would sing out to me.
Literally, it means, “You’re one seed.” Figuratively, it means, “You’re one of a kind!”
He treated me as one of a kind. In 2001 he saved my life.
Always a big believer in what he called the French model of medicine, with an emphasis on the physical exam, he insisted on examining me one evening when I was experiencing abdominal pain.
I had already brushed off my wife for the preceding three hours. It was just a stomach virus, I said.
But then Dr. K came across the hall and appeared at our bedroom doorway.
“Yavreeg, let me take a look,” he said.
He sat on the bed, asked about symptoms. He palpated the abdomen. He smiled, patted me on the shoulder.
“Acute appendicitis, my friend. We need to go the hospital.”
We went. And he stood by his diagnosis even after the E.R. doctor did a separate exam and reached a different conclusion.
I was sent for tests, which confirmed Dr. K’s opinion.
Appendicits it was, and a ruptured appendix no less.
“Where do I send the money?” I asked when I woke up from surgery.
It was a running joke between us, all the free medical service my family got from the retired doctor across the hall.
Another notable attribute of Dr. K was his feminism. He had married a strong, outspoken woman, Cecile Simonian. The more she took on, the more he encouraged her. Whether it was finishing her college degree in the U.S., organizing Armenian-American events, doing paperwork for relatives and friends trying to immigrate to the U.S., or fighting to ban cigarette smoking on domestic flights in the U.S., she was a whirlwind of activity. And her husband never objected, never said, ‘Wait, what about us? What about your family? It’s too much.’
He wasn’t threatened by her energy, nor by her strong opinions. He saw in her an equal partner, one perhaps braver and more ambitious than he. At key junctures, he followed her lead. She was the one who pushed to emigrate to the U.S. She was the one who figured out where the kids would go to school, what house the family would buy, when they were able to afford one.
Then again, it may also be true there is an undercurrent of feminism which has always existed in Armenian culture, contrary to appearances. An old Armenian joke hints at this reality. An elderly man is talking with friends. They ask the secret to his long, happy marriage. He says: “Long ago we decided — all the little stuff, all the day-to-day decisions, my wife decides those. The big, important things, I decide. And, thank God, sixty years now, we haven’t had any big, important decisions yet.”
The feminism of Dr. Keshishian may have stemmed partly from his own father, Bedros Keshishian. Although the patriarch had very little schooling, he made a point of associating with people he considered smarter and more accomplished than he was.
“Tell me who your friends are, I will tell you who you are,” he said to his children.
Indeed, my mother-in-law, who was a founder of the Girl Scout movement in Beirut in the 1950s, recounts an episode in which her father-in-law showed his own feminism.
There was a local man who had pulled his daughter out of the Girl Scouts early in the year. But then he wanted to put her back in right before the group was to travel to Cyprus, a trip for which the girls had raised funds all year.
Mrs. Keshishian, in her 20s and the group’s leader, said no.
“I’m very sorry,” she said. “I feel bad for your daughter. I felt bad when you pulled her out. I told you it was a mistake. But it isn’t fair she comes back now. She hasn’t done the work the others have.”
Unsatisfied, the man sought out her father-in-law. He asked him to overrule the decision.
Overruling a daughter-in-law would have been unremarkable for an Armenian man in the 1950s. Instead Bedros Keshishian said he needed to discuss the matter with Cecile.
Mrs. Keshishian once again explained her reasoning. “I feel very bad for the girl,” she said. “But it wouldn’t be fair. And also, the man needs to learn his lesson.“
And what lesson was that, her father-in-law asked, suppressing a smile.
“Today it’s the Girl Scouts, tomorrow it will be something else,” she said. “It’ll be where she lives, who she marries. He needs to think about what is good for her. She’s the one who lives with it.”
Bedros Keshishian listened to the sound, but arguably presumptuous reasoning of his young daughter-in-law. It reminded him of the higher level of thinking used by educated people he had spent years trying to learn from. The next day he informed the girl’s father.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “There is nothing I can do for you here.”
After forty years of medical practice in Lebanon and the United States, Dr. Keshishian moved with his wife to Los Angeles, so they could be close to their two children and two grandchildren.
In California, Dr. K blossomed into still another version of himself, one which I can only describe as saintly.
Armenians, always tracing roots, always tracing connections, point to Dr. K’s mother, Arusyak (pictured above). Most of her relatives were killed in the Armenian Genocide from 1915 to 1918, including her first husband. Later she remarried and built a second family. She is described by those who knew her as a saintly presence, a woman who emanated love and grace.
Her son, 80 years later, on the other side of the world, turned out the same way. The man who had once reasoned with the “three gangsters” in Beirut, who had wowed audiences with his eloquence, gradually evolved into a quiet, radiant, Buddha-like presence, always smiling.
He watched CNN in the 8th-floor apartment he shared with his wife of 58 years. He waited for the daily call from his daughter, who would phone on her way home from work. He was deeply proud of his children, Alek and Aleen. Both had achieved big success in the film industry.
If a visitor ever complimented Dr. K about his kindness, his appearance, anything at all, his eyes would twinkle. He would sing out, “My friend, it is your reflection!”
He had absolutely no ego, no need to be the center of attention. He laughed hardest when the joke was at his own expense. But he was always that way, from when I first met him 35 years ago.
I got to spend nights at the hospital with Dr. K during the final week of his life in 2018. During the days, the rest of the family would keep vigil. At night I would arrive. We didn’t speak much. He was asleep most of the time. I lived in terror he would die on my watch.
I noticed something on the final day of his life, in the final moments. There was very little business to transact, if that makes sense.
That is, there were no ledgers to settle, with anyone. Each of us in the room, as we gathered around his bed and held his hand or rested a hand on his shoulder or forehead, we knew he loved each of us, with all his heart. And the feeling was intensely mutual.
Dr. K habitually saw the wholeness of others, their inner beauty. When he once noticed my daughter weeping quietly at the far corner of his hospital bed, he smiled and looked at me.
“So sensitive,” he said, wonder in his voice.
The words were so soft, I could barely hear them. But his face was beaming. His face said, Isn’t she incredible? Isn’t life beautiful?
He was laboring, too, of course. Breathing was difficult. He was in pain. He was nearing the end of an epic life journey. And that’s how it looked, like a pilgrim trudging up a final, exhausting incline.
But also, he was ending life just as we should all be lucky enough to end it, surrounded by love, surrounded by family.
The loss of the man was crushing to me and my family. A few months afterward another important person in my life died, unexpectedly. Together the two deaths sent me into a tailspin.
I don’t know whether I believe in God. Some days I do, some days I’m not sure. But I know this much — if there is even a remote chance I will ever meet up with Dr. K again, I want to have lived my life in a way that would make him proud, that he would approve of.
I do feel his presence around me. I do hear his voice in my head. Of all the many blessings I’ve had in life, I count being his son-in-law right at the very top.