The Last Wow

The tumors had been growing for as long as I had known him. They had spread wherever they could, blocking every effort to reduce their size and number. They were entrenched in the fabric of our society, draining whatever of life’s resources to keep them alive and growing. Dr. Jaafar Behbehani desperately wanted to stop them them. But he knew that the tumors of unprofessionalism had their own agenda.

The tumors he saw were an invisible plague visited on the most vulnerable people, made double victims of their psychological problems by a largely unregulated gaggle of pseudo-professionals who offered psychological advice under a dozen different self-descriptions.

Spending untold hours at the Kuwait University Faculty of Medicine, he invested his personal time repairing the damage done by those who are the least among us. He never charged his patients. But the damage from the unseen psychological tumors multiplied much faster than one man could possibly hope to undo. So Dr. Jaafar decided to think a generation ahead. He would win his war by recruiting young professionals who he would mold in the ethic of his own image. I was one of the soldiers he enlisted. Some of us were rebels looking for a cause. And after all, who could say no to a man like Dr. Jaafar? Who could say no to the man who we, as his students, wanted to emulate?

One day, he surprised me at my cubby. I was writing afterhours, and he had just finished seeing a patient in his office. I was frantically working on what would become my first book, an illustrated children’s book about defining ourselves by what makes us alike rather than what separates us. He was curious. I was 24, and naïve, and full of more passion than logic. I told him that I was going to change Kuwait with my writings; writings that at that point that were little more than a few scribbles and some words.

“Wow!” he said. “Change Kuwait? Why not change the world? I like that!”

He liked a lot of things. He had a knack for making people feel special for who they are as well as what they do.

Two years ago we finally sat down to deal with those unseen tumors. We came up with a plan to change the psychology landscape in Kuwait. I called it the Sultan Center method of psychological services. Before Sultan Center, the supermarkets in Kuwait were abysmal. The Sultans built the best supermarket in Kuwait and forced the rest of the supermarkets to either change or go out of business. And it worked.

Dr. Jaafar hated that analogy.

So we decided on a division of responsibilities. I would be responsible for the business side of our future, and he the aesthetic. The clinic was to look like Dr. Jaafar dresses, simple and elegant, the look of someone entirely professional and comfortable with himself. Everything ran smoothly until he called me one day in October of 2008. He wanted me in to help choose the color of the paint on the wall. You really don’t want me doing that I told him. He replied that I would be the one that had to live with the colors. He was sending a message. It wasn’t about the colors. I could see it in his eyes. Any question from me would have been met by silence, perhaps a smile. He had shared all that he intended to.

The following week he announced a leave of absence from the Medical School. I immediately went to see him. “Its my throat,” he told me as he cleared it. “My throat hurts, he said. It really hurts.” He traveled abroad for therapy. While he was planning the removal of the unseen tumor that had lodged itself in his profession, another tumor found its way into his body. It wasn’t his throat. He was protecting me.

We spoke daily until he started his therapy and then on weekends. And soon I started receiving updates from his family when words weren’t easy for him anymore. And God knows, they weren’t easy for any of us.

Our clinic opened in May. He was not there but I took pictures and shared with him the surprising influx of patients that had come through the doors in the first months. He was very happy. “Wow!,” he said in his trademark way. The tumors of unprofessionalism he had been fighting for years were shrinking. He was winning that war. But another tumor was quietly and decidedly growing inside his body. Soon, he slipped into a coma.

I saw Dr. Jaafar for the last time in July. He had awoken from the coma but was having difficulty staying awake. His vocabulary was down to a handful of words. His family tried to keep him awake. But he would close his eyes. I went to his bedside with my laptop to show him pictures of my children who he had always treated like his own. He kept his eyes open. I then showed him a clip of THE 99 animation that he had encouraged for years. He watched and when it ended he said “Wow!” He was down to a handful of words, but a sense of wonderment was still part of his being. Wow indeed. Even as he was dying he was encouraging me. You are, you have always been “the Wow,” Dr. Jaafar.

Dr. Jaafar Behbehani passed away on August 7th, 2009. But before he did, he made giant steps toward challenging the countless tumors that plagued so many Kuwaitis who were badly served by those who prey on the insecurities of others. But in the end, he was unable to fight the physical one that was affecting him. It is perhaps one of the most painful feelings to lose someone as close as he was to me. His support was endless, his sense of wonderment contagious, his professionalism unmatched, his love abundant and his ability to coach and support and cajole inspiring. He was one of the most amazing people ever to come into my life. So much of who I am today is because of his love and support.

Dr. Jaafar…Jaafar…if you can hear me, I want to tell you that my throat hurts. It hurts very much.

I miss you.