Posts Tagged death

The Girl with the Black Mole

IMG_2509“Wake up, Mama. It’s your appointment today. Should I open the drapes?” Laila could see the luminescent figure of her son glide across the room as he reached for the curtains. She rolled in bed and rubbed her eyes, trying to cover them from the expected sunlight, but no sun came through the room. The drapes were still shut.

She struggled to sit up, slid her feet into her slippers, staggered to the bathroom and stood at the sink. She avoided her face in the mirror and focused on the water slithering through the protruding veins of her hands. In her mind, the older she got the more useless she felt. She longed for the time when she worked as a primary school teacher back in the seventies. At that time she felt invincible, a feeling that was fed with the trembling insides of her students. Each time she walked into the classroom she could almost hear their little heartbeats racing. It was like a farmer walking into the barn to pick out the next animal for slaughter. It always exhilarated her, but only until she had to look that particular little girl in the eye; a girl that used to sit at the back of the classroom.

That girl was the quietest of the students; she never tried to appeal to Laila with flowers or candy like the others. She was shy and frail and her hair was pulled back with a long braid that always seemed to have been done the night before. Her large features seemed to crowd each other on her small face, and on her left cheek was a black mole visible from a distance. Laila had no tolerance for her silence, it made her feel observed, watched. Each time she walked into the classroom she commanded the girl to come sit at the front, and the higher Laila’s voice became with the succession of commands to the girl the wider the girl’s black eyes opened and the longer she stared back. There was a terrified innocence in the little girl’s eyes that threw Laila’s brutality right back at her.

“I know what she is,” she had told Akram, her son, one day as they were having dinner, “she’s that demon that breathes in my neck every night. I know he takes possession of her whenever I walk into the classroom. He tries to defy me through her.” Akram had breathed a sigh of frustration and looked at his mother with a mixture of sympathy and disappointment. “That demon again, Mama? Why do you let your mind wander to those things?” He reached across the table and put his hand on hers. “It’s just bad thoughts and mind tricks.“ Laila became cross at her son’s words, but when she turned to reprimand him his gentle smile crushed all the negativity within her and she crumpled into a smile. At the age of seventeen he had already grown into a man, with a radiating confidence that made him assume a larger sense of responsibility than most young men his age. Encouraged by her ease, he presented his plea once more: “How about if I come with you to the psychiatrist? I promise you no one will have to know.”

As Syrians living in Riyadh, Laila felt constrained by the closely tied, conservative Levantine community even though she was far from home. What would they think? That she had gone mad?

On the day of her first appointment with the psychiatrist Laila went into Akram’s room to wake him up. The appointment was less than an hour away and she was surprised that he hadn’t woken up or prepared breakfast before her the way he always did. As she stepped into his room she was unsettled by its heavy stillness. He was lying on his side with his back to door, so she called his name twice as she walked towards him, but the cold touch of his stiff shoulder was the only answer she got.

Laila refused to accept the loss of her son; he became the only luminescence in her otherwise dark apartment. “You never believed me when I told you about those demons,” she told his figure one day as it slid past her while she was making her tea. “They didn’t kill me, Mama,” he repeated, “It was my time.” But she was never convinced. On the first day she went back to teaching after her son’s death she walked into the classroom and scanned the back row for the girl with the black mole. As usual she signaled for her to sit at the front, and for the rest of the class she was on a vengeful engagement with the demon who killed her son, firing questions at the little girl – a sly pretender in Laila’s eyes – tapping violently on her desk when she hesitated with an answer, until her golden moment came when the girl failed to present her homework. Her palm struck the girl’s cheek so violently she threw her off balance and dislocated her jaw.

Laila was very lucky to have just been laid off work, her colleagues later said. Had the girl been the daughter of some prince Laila’s residence permit would have been withdrawn and she would have been forced to leave the country.

For the decades that followed Laila turned to private tutoring for adults. She had grown accustomed to her life in Riyadh and bit by bit lost all connection to her family at home. Her dark apartment became her abode of familiar loneliness, lifted only by her son’s visits, except that not all the visits she got were from her son. Over the last two years she had exhausted all her efforts to get rid of the sinister presence she felt. She had recited the Quran numerous times and burned as much incense as she could. The sounds only became louder, the breathing in the night closer. Eventually she decided to fulfill her son’s wish and see a specialist. Perhaps it really was just her mind.

On the morning of her appointment she arrived at the building a few minutes early, and just as the elevator was closing another woman rushed in. The woman’s face was almost hidden behind the burqa she was wearing, but Laila could see the woman’s eyes. Wide, black, compassionate. She could tell through the eyes that the woman was smiling at her. Laila didn’t return the smile and quickly turned her gaze to where Akram had been standing, but he had vanished. She kept the stiff expression on her face as she stepped into the clinic. “Have a seat, madam, the doctor will see you in a minute,” said the receptionist.

When it was finally her turn to go in she wiped her sweaty palms on her abaya and walked towards the consulting room door. Akram was standing ahead of her, smiling reassuringly.

“Madam Laila, pleased to meet you,” the psychiatrist greeted her as she was closing the door behind her. Laila could see that the psychiatrist’s eyes were the same eyes that had greeted her in the elevator. And without the burqa, she saw the black mole on her left cheek.

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Laila

I just obscured a picture of a friend to give a mirror effect. She'll never know lest she think I'm associating her with the character. She's everything but that character!

I just obscured a picture of a friend to give – what I think is – a mirror effect. She’s everything but that character!

‘Stop looking at your face in the mirror. It’s unsettling,’ Laila murmured to herself as she tried to ignore her unruly eyebrows, the grey roots of her hair and her puffy eyes. But it wasn’t unsettling because of the unease it made her feel at her appearance at this time of day, it was unsettling because of a lingering feeling she always had that there was another being of some form that followed her everywhere around the house. Looking at the mirror almost brought her face to face with that mysterious being. It shook her. In fact, it wasn’t only about her face, it was also about her eyes. When her eyes met her own on that specific moment she shuddered, like a faint wave of fear rushing quickly right through her. She recalled one time years before when she had been washing her face and the minute she had looked up she had thought she had seen in the mirror a black shadow rush right behind her. She hadn’t been sure if it was what she thought it was or if it was merely a strand of her hair. The only thing she was certain of, averting her own gaze in the mirror, was that if her son was still with her none of those beings would have dared to harass her.

When she was a little girl and had her night terrors her mother would bring her a small mirror and put it in front of her face, tracing her perfectly round cheeks and small, pointed chin with the tip of her fingers and pointing to the freckles on her face. “See how beautiful you are?” She would speak to her softly, “No ghost can prey on a beautiful smart girl like you. Ghosts are for lonely old women to worry about.” But she never relented to Laila’s pleads to stay with her in bed. She would insist that Laila had to put herself back to sleep, and if Laila persisted, she would lose her temper and slam the door, leaving her alone in the room with only the faint light of her small night lamp.

Through many nights alone in that dark room Laila taught herself strength and grew up a proud, upright woman, happy with her accomplishment. She taught Arabic at a mediocre primary school. Her stiff posture and sharp voice intimidated her students, and she often surprised herself by losing her temper with many of them. Laila was convinced that the ghosts never left her, that they showed up in her life in different ways to defy her. And whenever a little girl from her students talked back to her, she would think her ghosts hid in the little girl’s challenging look, until one day she slapped one girl so hard she dislocated her jaw. The girl’s parents saw to it that Laila never went back to teaching.

After that her only solace became her son, whenever she was with him her ghosts seemed to disappear. But one morning, on his sixteenth birthday, she woke up and found a note on his bed; he had gone off to fight in Syria. One week later she received news of his death.

She stood at the sink and focused on the water as it slithered through the protruding veins of her hands, filled her palms and splashed her face. She was unsure if the distant ticking she could hear outside was only of the wall clock in the hallway, and as she raised her head she wasn’t sure if the soft brush on the back of her neck was a stray strand of hair. She turned from the sink and reached for the towel. As she patted her face she could hear her own murmur repeated to her from the direction of the mirror. She resisted the urge to look back and carefully walked to the door and stepped out of the bathroom.

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My Laissez-faire Affair with Death

Within the past ten years we had five deaths in our family, two of them were my parents, and the latest one was my aunt, who died last week. In between the family deaths I lost a very close friend of mine who died suddenly before I got the chance to return her call, my art teacher, and the wife of a friend whom I met on my climb of Kilimanjaro. The latter two died within two days of each other.

Death used to draw me like a helpless moth to a flame. On many summer mornings in our place by the beach I would wake up to distant screams and shouts over a drowning person everyone is trying to save and I rush to the balcony, anxiety taking over every inch of me, only to discover on most times that no one could save them. I would then spend the rest of the day thinking of them and their families, wondering what a drowning experience must feel like.

I tend to dwell on the details of death. When I kiss a dead person goodbye – and I’ve done that five times – the sensation of their cold skin against my lips stays with me and comes back whenever I recall it. I see their dead faces when I close my eyes alone in bed at night. The silence of their still bodies next to the weeps and prayers of their loved ones pulls me down to its hollowness. I find myself staring at two worlds simultaneously; our stricken, uncomprehending, loud, one-dimensional world and their seemingly apathetic, knowing, silent world that seems to suck me into a bottomless stillness. My mind continues to drift along with their bodies as they’re carried to the grave. I wonder what it would feel like to be wrapped in that white Muslim shroud, covered head to toe, and laid to the ground for eternity. I put myself in their places and I find myself running out of breath as those claustrophobic thoughts begin to suffocate me. And when the first night draws in I think of them alone in the grave, and it haunts me how only 24 hours before they were safe in their beds with their families and friends, and I wonder where I would be 24 hours from then.

I came close to death twice in my life. On the first time I was unaware of the danger as I kneeled towards an unexploded cluster bomblet in south Lebanon after the end of the 2006 war, my face was only inches away because I wanted to take a good picture of it. The second time was a brush with death that happened only three weeks ago, and I don’t think I saw death the same way since.

I was diving in the red sea with a large group of people and I lost my diving partners and my air was closing in on the red mark. Normally this should be just enough to get me to the surface, but due to the current I found myself being pulled to the surface faster than I safely should, my computer was beeping like mad. So I went back down yet my lack of experience and practice had me doubt whether or not I was safe. Such worries are laughable when I think about them now since I wasn’t at a dangerous depth, a safety stop for 3 minutes is usually required after a deep dive to prevent lung rupture. At 20 meters it wasn’t even mandatory. Yet my hesitation caught the attention of another diver who was visibly a few meters lower than me. He asked me what was wrong and I tried to explain to him my hesitation but I’m not sure he understood. At the end of my invented sign language speech he offered me his air and gave me his extra regulator. I didn’t think I needed that but he insisted. Again, my hesitation and lack of confidence had me assume that he knew better. So I took it and as I tried to inhale my mouth was flooded with water. I tried to retrieve my regulator and there was water again. At this point I had run out of breath and there was little air left in my lungs to push the seawater that got into my mouth out, and instinct was beginning to pull the water into my lungs as my system tried to breathe. I realized then that I was drowning and panic struck. A voice inside me kept saying, “This is it. This is your hour.” My body began to jerk in all directions and my mind was clearly pushed to the backseat and silenced. My hand reached for his regulator and pulled it out of his mouth. But again, water. That is when my feet started kicking to push me up to the surface, desperate for air, and he surfaced with me. I gasped at the surface and looked at him apologetically. “We got out too fast!” His eyes were hazy and his voice was barely audible. He murmured, “It’s alright. Don’t be afraid.” My cousin suddenly appeared from behind me and held my frantic arms. My eyes were still on him. I was very concerned that I had forced him to surface with me. He left me with my cousin and put his face down in the water. For a fraction of a second I was looking at my cousin when suddenly I heard divers screaming, “NO! AHMAD!” I looked around and he was unconscious in the arms of three of his friends, foam and blood were streaming out of his nose and mouth, and it seemed to me that matter was coming out of his eyes and ears as well.

Ahmad died before anyone could save him. And I was left alone with the horror of death, which seemed to take a last minute steer as it was descending upon me and took someone else instead.

The chaos and the confusion and the conflicting theories of divers over Ahmad’s death tell me that I will never know what killed him. And I will never know if he died instead of me or if it was his angel of death looming towards us as I felt its presence in my struggle for breath underwater. But I do know that there is a reason why I was the last person he saw, and that I was last person he tried to help minutes before he died, and I may spend the rest of my life trying to figure it out.

For many nights since then I hated myself for not being more experienced. I hadn’t realized that Ahmad’s lack of reaction as I struggled with the regulators was a sign that there was something wrong with him, that it was he who needed help, not me. The sudden turn of a situation where I thought I was going to die but saw someone else die instead has shaken my soul. Yet no. I did not cheat death on that day, because no one can. When death strikes there is nothing we can do to stop it no matter how hard we try. In a room where there is death, death always has the upper hand. This thought, as morbid as it may seem, has led me to acceptance.

I don’t only accept death now because I have no control over it, I accept it because it has proven to me, personally, how close and common and casually present it is along with everyday life.

I will never be able to tell Ahmad how sorry I am for being the hazardous mess I was in his final hour instead of being a source of comfort. But I accept the barrier that has come between us.

When my aunt passed away suddenly a few days ago I did not shed a single tear. I’m not sure if that is because I have become numb inside or if it is because of death’s forceful return into my life. It wouldn’t even wait for me to process and digest why it brought a stranger into my life minutes before taking him right in front of me. It came back and struck right then and there, while I was unsuspecting it, as a humbling reminder of my lack of control.

It will take me some time to stop anticipating death almost ten times a day, or to silence my obsessive thoughts of it whenever I get a shortness of breath or close my eyes in bed every night, but I think I have already put my feet on the right track. I have accepted its unexpected arrival, and I’ve learned to sit and watch it take its course as I look at the grief-stricken people it leaves behind. Nothing I can ever do or say can alleviate their pain, so let the lesson of death ease it for them over time. So when I woke up yesterday to screams coming from the beach I tossed in bed and closed my eyes again.

The dying stranger’s last words to me were “Don’t be afraid.” He’d seen death a lot more clearly than I did, so clearly there is nothing for me to be afraid of.

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Empty Spaces and the Cloud Above Me

Do you wake up on certain mornings wondering what in the world you’re still doing here? I do. Certain days and nights go by slowly no matter how busy they are. There’s unseen weight pulling you down, almost literally, and it’s like a smile and a word or two to another person is so much work. I walk around on certain days with a cloud of gloom hovering above me. I call it the memory engine. All this cloud does is shoot down memories of a better past I once had. And the more familiar the places I walk in the more powerful the memories and the thicker the cloud.

With the illness and death of my father my growing up threw itself on me with a sigh of relief after a long wait at the door. I’d been holding it back and hiding in the protective island my father put me in. Only with him gone did I realize that I had to start doing my own worrying and to start my own thinking of tomorrow. In his last days I was feeling thankful that I had him. I was sorry that he wouldn’t be there for the rest of my days but that at least I had him for some generous time. I was prepared to the idea of losing him, but I wasn’t quite ready to lose him. I now realize that I could never have been and never will be.

But I was neither ready nor prepared for the idea of losing my mother. I wasn’t aware of this until her absence became an actual reality, not just a passing nightmare that wakes me up horrified in the middle of the night and then slips away smoothly in the morning when I hear her preparing her breakfast in the kitchen. With my mother’s sudden death adulthood slapped me in the face. You see, to me there’s a big difference between growing up and adulthood. Growing up is learning to deal with your own problems and facing them on your own, adulthood is practicing it–with all of its dirt–and dealing alone with the scars that never stop marking your eyes, your smile, your heart, and your very soul (That dark dot gets bigger each time you get a strong urge to grab certain people, force them to the ground, and stomp on them repeatedly) until you no longer recognize yourself, or you don’t see the person you expected to become when you were young.

When the two makers and shakers of my life disappeared they left behind a ripping silence. I’ve kept everything in the house just the way they left it as if deep inside me some sorry self thought they might surprise me with a come back and be proud to find everything just the way they liked it. Or maybe somehow, subconsciously, it felt like a betrayal to their memory to change anything. Or maybe it was just my way of staying in their protection, as close as I could get to their physical presence which I still crave. But now I realize how much I’ve suffocated myself with this empty house. The silence and the unchanging place have rendered the absence stark. The morning silence of the kitchen, the couches, the chairs, the arranged picture frames all scream at me day and night that their rightful owners are no longer there, that I’m alone in a house large enough to fit a family, a big happy family. It’s like I’ve created my own memory cage.

I thought that with time this would be over but I was so wrong. All that happened with time is that the pain left my body and mind and hovered above me like a cloud, ready to shoot down memories and sorrow with the slightest provocation; like each time I look to my right side on the couch and not find my mother, or each time I visit a restaurant she liked, or drove down a street my father drove me through a thousand times when I was a child, or hug my uncle and feel my father’s shoulders in his. At times it’s simply whenever my car gives me a hard time; that nasty cloud reminds me that I have to deal with it. On my own.

I don’t know what this is. It’s either making my adulthood more difficult to endure or is, by itself, adulthood’s way of forcing me to let go and move on just to survive.

I wrote about losing my mother a few months after she was gone. Nothing about that feeling has changed, but the reason why I find myself writing this now, after almost four years of her death, is that I think the moment has come for me to let go of everything that’s ever pained me. I’m in a phase in my life now where all the memories and the pain and the losses have somehow turned into a roaring fire inside me. I can’t bear it and I can’t put it out, but I think I can turn it into something good, maybe even great. I think that each one of us can turn our agonies into a positive energy that pushes us forward towards a better life for ourselves, or others, whichever we’re best at. For example, I’ve learned all the wisdom my parents have tried to pass down to me in their life but were only met with my casual dismissal. Somehow everything they used to say now makes all the perfect sense. And you know what else? I lost my art teacher so suddenly only a month after he told me he would make an artist out of me. I never quite believed him when he said it and I whined and complained about how damn hard drawing was. I never sharpened my pencils like he advised. Yet somehow, miraculously, my grief over him produced some work that I know he would be very proud of. And yes I’ve learned to sharpen my pencils. I started doing it with some obsessive religious vigor.

Those two ironies opened my eyes to the good that can come out of loss, or perhaps it was my firsthand experience with how real life works. So I realized that if I continue to lock myself up in an empty space loaded with memories, or tried to hold on to a past long gone as if trying to make time stand still, that fire would burn me up and leave nothing but ashes. There’s no putting it out except by embracing it and using it to move forward. Maybe that’s what all the annoying cliché talk about looking at the full side of the glass or finding the good in everything could actually mean. This isn’t about standing in the middle of tears and forcing a ridiculous, unfelt smile; this is about using the bad to create the good, the ugly to create the beautiful. I’ve decided to let the cloud thicken and hover as it may and to turn its shots into bouts of energy. Somehow, ironically, I’ve realized that it can be a very soothing process.

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