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Cancer Awareness Month: Paula Hajal Speaks from her Heart About the Loss of her Beloved Sister Michele

As told to Dhara Bhatia.

Paula Hajal with her sister Michele in Dubai. Courtesy of Paula Hajal

Michele, my sister, was my idol. Our family is small; I’m the eldest, then my sister Christine, and then our youngest, but most loved, Michele. She died four months ago from cancer. She was 25. She had a mission to help others overcome what she couldn’t, and that eagerness to complete her last wish is what drives me. Everyone thinks they know what it feels like to lose a sister; except for me, it’s as though I lost my daughter. When Michele was born, I was 15 years old. As soon as she came into our lives, we were blessed. I would feed her milk, and I would help her decorate her room. I got married when I was 21, when Michele was only six. I remember her walking down the aisle in a white gown, a flower crown, and an unhappy face. It’s customary for the parents and the bride to cry at weddings, but my sister was the one who cried the most. She didn’t want me to go. She didn’t want me to move to Dubai. But what could I do? I told her we would talk every day, and we did. She was 11 when she made her first trip abroad, from Beirut to Dubai, to visit me. There was not one day that she was upset or angry. She was always positive and happy. We would go to Fujairah, to the beach, and the mall; together we would have the best time. I was afraid that things would change as she grew up, but they didn’t. My little sister became this beautiful, kind, calm, and optimistic human being. She was nothing like others her age. She never went clubbing – can you imagine? She never liked makeup; she never liked showing her skin, and most importantly, she always helped others. At school, Michele received a scholarship because of her remarkable grades. The only time my family was called into school was because Michele was helping her friends during their tests. Even as a child, my Michele had the biggest heart.

Michele Hajal

Michele celebrating her engagement, three weeks before her diagnosis. Courtesy of Paula Hajal

My sister was the most religious among us. We knew how to pray, but she taught us how to do it correctly. She would always say, ‘Prayers do miracles.’ Michele gave us the ability to reach God with our hearts, and now every time I’m missing her, I pray. That’s the time I feel her next to me. Michele used to tell everyone, ‘I want to be like Paula. I want to raise my kids like she does; I want to love my parents as she does; I want to be independent like she is.’ Now I want to be like Michele. I want to be brave like her, strong like her, loving like her. She is the only woman who could be in an immense amount of pain but still smile, laugh, help, and appreciate others.

In 2016, when my sister entered the Miss Lebanon pageant and came fourth, her purpose wasn’t to gain attention for her beauty; instead, it was to send out a message. The judges asked her if she could be anyone from the past, who would she be? And my Michele answered, ‘I would be Mother Teresa because I want to help like her.’

Michele in August 2018. Courtesy of Paula Hajal

A year after the competition, over Christmas 2017, she became engaged to Maroun Abi Atmeh. This moment should have led to a new chapter in her life – instead, her story was reaching its end. She was sweating and coughing a lot, but we were never alarmed. Everyone in the family believed it was the flu. So Michele traveled with her fiancé and friends to Vienna and Prague for a week. When she came back, it was January 7; the cough was worse. I told Michele that it was time to get it checked and we went for an X-ray. The doctor called me the next day and told me it was something more, but he wasn’t sure what it was. Immediately, I made him promise to keep this from Michele until we knew more. When I got called in, they told me my little sister was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma stage 4. I lost my mind. Tears ran down my face uncontrollably. This was my sister; this was my daughter. I never, ever, wanted anything to happen to her. I wasn’t able to gather the courage to tell her that she had cancer; I had to wait three days before I could. When I finally entered her room, she already knew it was something terrible. I told her, ‘Michele, habibi, concentrate on what I’m telling you now.’ As I said this, her eyes started to water. She covered her face with a blanket and started to cry. I could feel her pain as she turned her face towards me and asked, ‘Will I lose my hair?’ I told her yes, but we are all with you, and it will grow back. Five days passed, but she didn’t leave her room.  On the sixth day, she got up with fierceness and decided to start her chemotherapy. After her second session, Michele’s hair began to fall out – she had long and beautiful locks. I told her not to worry. We will cut our hair short together and we will shave our heads together; you will never be alone in this. We went to the salon but she told me, ‘I will never talk to you if you do that to yourself.’ After her hair was gone, she didn’t want to wear a wig – but her perception of beauty didn’t change. She would pose confidently on social media and show the world she wasn’t afraid of this disease. I slept next to her and even though she cried every night, when she woke up in the morning, she would walk out with the biggest smile. Michele was a fighter.

Michele Hajal in the hospital the day before leaving for treatment in the US. Courtesy of Paula Hajal

Her treatment lasted for six months, from January 2018 to June 2018. When it ended, she was so cheerful. She told everyone, “I’m cancer-free! And my hair will grow back!” Her happiness didn’t last very long. In Lebanon, we only have standard chemotherapy. Michele needed a transplant that would stop her cancer cells from reproducing, and no hospital or clinic in Lebanon had these facilities. The doctor told us we needed to go to the US for treatment. To earn a chance to survive, Michele needed to raise US$750000–money none of us had. We lost hope, but Michele never did. She started the campaign #FightWithMichele, went on talk shows, did international campaigns with Maybelline, lectured at universities, and with the help of her fans and supporters, we gathered $1 million in 15 days. It was a miracle. It was a sign from God that Michele was going to survive.

I left my kids in Lebanon for three months to travel to the US – they asked me many times to come back, but I couldn’t leave Michele alone. There were times when she couldn’t recognize me and wasn’t able to speak anymore. I couldn’t believe my Michele was going through so much pain. I kept praying. I kept hoping she would be OK. When we returned to Lebanon on June 1, she was readmitted to the hospital. This fight was running too long, and every time Michele thought it was over, it wasn’t. How long was fate going to test my sister? The day before she was admitted to the ICU, she told me, ‘Paula, I’m not going home, I know it. This time I’m not coming back.’ I shouted at her. I told her it wasn’t true. The next morning, Michele was placed in an incubator, where she lasted for two weeks. My heart broke into a million pieces.

Because of our culture, we dressed her in a white dress and gloves. My mother sat down next to me, held my hand, and said, ‘Paula, you have to choose her wedding dress; she was planning to take you with her to shop for her ceremony. Today is her wedding.’ It was the hardest moment of my life. It was unexplainable, devastating, and heartbreaking to dress my sister as a bride on the day of her passing. When I went to dress her, I saw that the light had gone from her face, she had become completely pale. Michele was sleeping like an angel.

Michele always told me, ‘I don’t want to die. I have so much to do.’ I will continue her mission. On November 9 – the day Michele, my father, and myself were born – I will launch Michele Hope. Hope is what my sister wanted to name her child, and her dream will live on through this foundation. Michele Hope will help everyone who is diagnosed with cancer – financially and emotionally. I will complete my sister’s goal, and our bond will live forever.”

Originally published in the October 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia

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