I climb up the stairs of the Davis building and make my way to UTM’s Campus Police office. Through the window, I see Constable Tareq El-Rifai waiting for our interview.
As we settle down into our seats, El-Rifai pulls a coin from his wallet, tosses it in the air, and lets it fall onto the table. He tells me that the coin, inscribed with “1943”, was produced the same year that his father was born. The girl who gave the coin to El-Rifai was born in Safad, Palestine, where his father was born.
This introduction leads into the story of his father.
“Three years ago, my dad suffered from several neurological conditions, like Alzheimer’s, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease. My dad went through extreme phases of different moods. He would question us and ask who we were,” El-Rifai said. “A year later, my dad entered the phase of paralysis. He could not move his legs or walk anymore. I decided to take the responsibility for my dad and abandoned my life. I catered for him with my mother and created a bond with my mom like no other.”
“I fed him with my hands, lifted him to the bathroom for showers and other purposes, and learned how to administer his medications,” he continued. “I embraced him with hugs and kisses every night, even though sometimes he didn’t recognize who I was. At this point, I felt like I became the father.”
El-Rifai recalled how his friends urged him to send his father to a care facility. “They told me that they will take care of him, cater to him, and serve his needs. They would ask, ‘Why are you taking the time to help him out? Free yourself from stress and get your life back, it’s your life.’”
El-Rifai refused to send his father anywhere.
“He’s my dad. He never put me down, he made sure that I had anything I needed,” El-Rifai said. “He worked very hard just to keep everybody happy. As long as there’s breath running through my lungs, blood circulating around my body, and a soul occupying my body, I would not send him to the senior home.”
“I cared for my dad because I didn’t want anybody to treat him badly in those senior homes. I preserved his honour and dignity by keeping him beside me,” he added.
“One night I was trying to sleep because I had work at seven in the morning. At 3:30 a.m. my dad fell off his bed. My dad was around 180 pounds,” El-Rifai said. “My mom walked up to my room and stared at me. She did not want to wake me up because she knew that I had work. But she couldn’t help but wake me up.”
She told El-Rifai that she needed his help, which he agreed to offer.
“I mentally prepared myself to carry my dad for the first time, as this was the first time he had fallen. You know, it’s hard to see him lying down on the floor and not being able to stand up by himself,” El-Rifai said.
Though, after several attempts, El-Rifai still had trouble lifting his father. “I weighed 260 pounds, and my waist’s circumference was 42 inches. I used to smoke frequently and eat junk foods. I didn’t care about my health or how I looked. I had no desire to be fit or muscular.” “I shed tears with my mom. Can you imagine not being able to lift your dad when he most needs your help?” El-Rifai continued. “My dad looked at us. He asked me who I was and why I was crying. He looked at my mom and started crying.”
It was through this experience that El-Rifai began to turn his life around and devote more time to getting fit and healthy.
“I jogged to a GoodLife gym in Richmond Hill Market. I spent an hour and a half on the treadmill. In four months I lost most of my weight and gained giant muscles,” El-Rifiai said.
“I learned how to lift. I took what I learned and repeated it. I set new limits for myself. Music fueled my emotions to lift heavy weights, especially the song ‘Shake Me Down’ by Cage the Elephant. It was my dad’s favourite song,” he continued.
The guilt of not being able to help his father that night caused El-Rifai to grow emotional during his workouts. “I couldn’t forgive myself. I even tattooed my indexes with a tear on each one.” El-Rifai then revealed the tattoos on his hands: a green tear on the index of each finger.
On October 9, 2014, El-Rifai attempted to wake his father. When he wasn’t responding, a call to the police was made.
“I collapsed on his bed. I placed his head on my lap. After two minutes, the police arrived. I accompanied him to the hospital,” El-Rifai said. “After one hour, the doctor allowed me and my mom to enter the room. I gently lifted his head onto my chest and kissed him on the cheeks. I whispered, ‘Dad, I know you can hear me. I love you. Mom also loves you. Thank you for bringing us to Canada. I will take care of your daughters and your wife, and everything will be okay.’”
El-Rifai’s mother sat by the bedside the entire time. “Suddenly, my mom received a message from my sister. She sent us a picture of her newborn baby,” El-Rifai said. “My mom opened my father’s eyelids and told him, “Look, it’s Ameera, your recent granddaughter.”
It was then that El-Rifai’s father passed away.
“I heard the angel of death knocking on the door,” El-Rifai said. “He claimed my dad’s soul and ended his journey.”
As I left the office I thought about how lucky the students of UTM are to have campus police who are both brave on the field and at home.