Linda McCathern started sobbing Sunday as soon as she saw her daughters at dockside - twin 14-year-olds, one outgoing, one shy, both waiting with flowers to give the mother they had not seen in nine years.
The reunion in Tripoli - short on words, long on emotion - ended a long-delayed journey for McCathern, who struggled for years against physical paralysis, the bitterness of a failed marriage and the enmity of global politics to see her half-American, half-Libyan daughters once again.
At the dock Sunday, ex-husband Ahmed Naas nudged forward the two brown-haired girls, sending them toward McCathern sitting in her wheelchair.
One, Jamelah, went quickly up to her mother, dressed in red and pearls for the reunion, tears streaming down her face.
Sarrah hung back, nervously, then joined her sister in presenting their all-but-unknown mother with flowers. They kissed her cheek.
To her ex-husband, McCathern said only, “Thank you.”
McCathern, from Portland, Ore., had first met Naas in the United States. She had not seen the girls since 1988, when her now ex-husband took them from the United States to Rome, supposedly to visit his mother.
Two years earlier, McCathern had left Libya and taken the girls to America, where a U.S. judge gave her legal custody.
In 1995, Moammar Gadhafi gave McCathern permission to visit Libya, but the following weekend a car accident left her a quadriplegic.
Linda kept trying to see the girls, but hostility between the United States and Libya - which Washington accuses of involvement in terrorism and the deaths of 270 people in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jet over Scotland - meant she had to get permission from both governments.
Even to take money to Libya required U.S. government clearance. She has to take a ferry from the Mediterranean island of Malta, since air links with Libya are banned by a U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at getting Tripoli to hand over two suspects in the Scotland bombing.
Her trip this time resulted from the efforts of a Libyan professor and member of one of the country’s popular committees, Ali Omar. Hearing of her dilemma, he managed to get a letter to Gadhafi, who again gave permission.
Omar said he was touched by Linda’s story - but also wanted to point out that many other parents or children in Libya are separated from families in other countries by politics.
“This is not about governments,” Omar said after the reunion. “It’s about people. People are more important than governments.”
At a Tripoli hotel after her arrival, McCathern talked to the girls through a translator - the teenagers speak Arabic and Italian, but no English - and to her ex-husband.
Sarrah, with tears rolling down her face, was now standing next to her mother but still hesitated.
“Tell her I want so much to be a part of her life, and ask her to help me,” she told the translator.
Lori Leland, McCathern’s caregiver, assured the shy teenager, “It’s all right to hug her. It won’t hurt her.”
Finally, Sarrah put her hands around her mother’s neck and hugged her.
McCathern let out a moan, burying her face in her daughter’s shoulder.
Jamelah, the other daughter, played with McCathern’s daughter by a second marriage, Hillary, 6. The older girls said they remembered their mother but not their grandmother, Pat, who accompanied McCathern on the trip.
McCathern and Naas also confronted the past and present.
“The girls are happy here in Libya. They have a calm life,” said Naas, who works for an oil company.
“They have a new mother,” McCathern replied.
But Naas said, “That’s not true. They have one mother, and that’s you.”
“I was afraid,” he added, explaining his refusal to obey the court order. “If I took them to America, what chance would I have to take them back?”
He added that he hoped the twins now would be able to visit McCathern in the United States, but then said, “I want Linda’s word … “
She cut him off. “I wouldn’t do anything to hurt my daughters,” she told him. “It would be so difficult for them.”