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  • Writer's pictureIshfaaq Peerally

The Birth of Tragedy - Part Two

Yesterday, Mother died. It's been fourteen? No, fifteen hours now. Where did the time go? Fifteen cold, shivering hours since her light extinguished, since her voice fell silent. Silent... too silent. Was it only two days ago, or has it felt like an eternity since she first fell sick? 48 hours? 54? It feels like forever. It can't be real, can it? Just last week, last Saturday, she was full of life, bustling around in the grocery store. The couscous will never be cooked. No sign of sickness, nothing amiss. And now she's gone, leaving me an orphan. Thursday, Friday, Saturday – it all happened in just three days. In 54 hours. From falling sick to being buried under six feet of soil. Last Wednesday, as I kissed her goodnight, I had no idea it would be the last time. Would I have done anything differently had I known? Would I have said something more? Was there anything I could have done to stop it? What led to this sudden infarct? It must have been building for years, maybe even decades. Decades of trauma and suffering kept silent, hidden beneath a smile. And then, all of it was gone in just three days.

It was a typical Thursday morning around 6. Father had already left for work, the quiet rhythm of his departure a familiar part of their daily routine. Grandmother and Mother were still in the depths of sleep. He was asleep, too, relishing the lazy comfort of holiday mornings when the alarm clock held no power. This routine, this simple, uneventful start to the day, had been a constant in this family of four for the past ten years in this house. But that morning, their familiar script was about to be shattered. It all started with a startling sound from the bathroom that jolted him awake. The thud of Mother hitting against the door, followed by the distressing sounds of her vomiting, broke the morning's calm. It was a jarring intrusion, a sound so out of place in the early hours that it seemed to echo through the house, marking the beginning of an irreversible change. Before he could even think of rushing to the bathroom, another sound reached his ears – the dull, heavy thump of her falling. Rushing in, he found her on the floor, barely conscious, her voice weak as she asked for a basin. Confusion and fear mingled in her eyes; she thought it was just food poisoning. Nausea and dizziness gripped her, accompanied by a terrible migraine. She reached out, seeking his assistance to sit on the toilet. He helped, then stepped out, respecting her need for privacy. That's when he heard it again – another fall. Mother was still conscious but struggling. He suggested calling an ambulance or Father, but she refused, her stubborn and stoic nature prevailing even in distress. She insisted on trying to go to bed, hoping rest would ease her ailment. Yet, as much as she tried, her legs wouldn't support her. In a final act of determination, she chose to crawl, her every movement a testament to her enduring will yet a stark reminder of her sudden vulnerability. She dragged herself from the bathroom through the dining room towards her bedroom, her body moving across the floor with a distressing, worm-like motion. This image of her, reduced to such a state, was a harrowing contrast to the vibrant woman she had always been. Her journey across the floor, a mere fraction of the house's length, felt like a tragic odyssey, each inch a battle against her failing body.

It is not uncommon for other animals to take their first steps immediately after birth, unaided. Foals can run within a day and become independent in just a few months, mastering the essentials of survival. In contrast, we humans, the epitome of social animals, are born into dependence. It takes months before we can even stumble forward a step and years before we can truly fend for ourselves. The ability to walk, whether as a human or a horse, is a profound blessing. But there comes a time, a day, an hour, a minute, for everyone – horse or human – when they take their last step unassisted. Unbeknownst to her, Mother had already taken hers. Now, in bed, she rested, stubbornly refusing help. Awakened by the noise, Grandmother could do little but watch in silent concern. He called Father, who returned an hour later, assisting Mother to the car. In a rare occurrence, both double doors were opened, not just for ease but as if symbolically acknowledging this was her final exit from the home she had devoted her life to building. The home for which she had sold her wedding ring and jewelry, the home Father and she had encumbered themselves with debts to build, working tirelessly to repay. As she crossed the threshold for the last time, leaving behind the house filled with memories and sacrifices, no one could fathom that this was a final goodbye. She entered the car, a recent addition to their modest life, a possession she had scarcely had time to enjoy.

Mother was relatively healthy compared to Father. She had no long-term diseases, but her life was marked by severe health challenges from an early age. An ear infection in childhood led to surgery, which resulted in her losing hearing in her left ear and sight in her left eye. For nearly five decades, she navigated life with these impairments, yet she never complained. Her resilience was further tested after losing her first child, leading to a period of depression and subsequent health issues. Still, she always soldiered on, fulfilling her duties as a housewife without a hint of weakness. 

Mother had always disliked public hospitals due to previous bad experiences, preferring private care despite the financial burden. But this time, urgency overruled preference. They rushed to the hospital, spending the day moving from one test to another in a seemingly endless cycle of uncertainty and waiting. Mother, weakened and suffering from a migraine, shivered in the cold corridors. He occasionally draped his jacket over her as they waited for the next instruction. The crowded, narrow hospital halls painted a grim picture of desperation and disparity, with patients of varying afflictions awaiting care. In the chaos, Mother, seated in a wheelchair or occasionally resting on a bed, seemed almost fortunate compared to others. Father's frustration with the nurses boiled over into anger, a scene that Mother, in her usual state, would have calmed. But now, she was too weak, leaving him to ponder how they might have recounted this day in future stories – a bonding moment between mother and son lost in the tides of her illness. Finally, Mother was admitted to a room crowded with other patients. Her bed, second to last from the entrance, necessitated walking past dozens of others, each a reminder of the fragility of health. The unhygienic conditions prompted Father to suggest moving to a private hospital, but Mother declined. Perhaps she sensed the futility of it, or maybe she was simply too exhausted for another change. Just like we don't know when we will take our last steps, we don't know when and where we will die. For her, it would be on that bed. As he bid his mother goodbye, she told him that there were kidney beans in the fridge and to warm them for Grandmother. Those were her last words to him.

The house was abuzz the next day, reminiscent of the time years ago when Father had a severe motorcycle accident. Friends, neighbors, and relatives flowed in, their faces carved with worry, each visit echoing the past crisis. Back then, Mother had kept Father's accident hidden from him, her own uncertainties or perhaps her reluctance to share painful news keeping her silent. He had discovered the truth by eavesdropping, a memory vividly returning as he now overheard anxious conversations about his mother. Unlike before, when Mother had eventually broken down, revealing the truth through tears and loss of her usual stoicism, this time, he was left to piece together fragments of overheard dialogue. And now, history seemed to repeat itself. This time, Father went to the hospital to see Mother. He was left behind with an excuse about children not being allowed due to an infectious disease. He was old enough to see through the lie. Hushed conversations floated around him – Grandmother's worried exchange with his aunt about the unthinkable, the possibility of losing Mother. He couldn't help but overhear someone mention, almost in a whisper, that Mother was dying. And during the Friday prayer, a public plea for prayers for his sick mother confirmed what everyone else seemed to know. Yet, he couldn't bring himself to ask directly, too terrified to confront the reality that his mother, his lifelong caretaker, lay on her deathbed. It was a truth too heavy, a reality too stark for him to face. Surrounded by whispers and pitying glances, he felt more alone than ever, helpless in the shadow of the inevitable. 

By evening, Father finally consented to take him to the hospital. The fact that it was after visiting hours made him understand the gravity of the situation. Accompanied by two of Father's friends, they drove in silence, broken only by hushed conversations about Mother's condition. It seemed they had abandoned any pretense of shielding him from the truth. As Father reassured him that Mother would recover, albeit with time, they entered her hospital room. The darkness enveloped the ward, the only illumination coming from the faint glow of the street lights from the windows. Navigating through the beds of sleeping patients, their presence marked by the occasional cough or sigh, felt almost surreal, like walking through a realm of shadows.

Reaching Mother's bed, he found her unconscious, an oxygen mask covering her face. Father encouraged him to speak to her. His words, however, fell on unresponsive ears. Occasionally, Mother's hand twitched, reaching to remove the mask, only for Father to gently replace it. He would also replace the mask a couple of times and even asked his mother not to take it out again. Mother removing the mask was a sign for him that she had already given up on life and that probably the pain was unbearable. Or it could be that she wanted to talk but was just too weak to do so. At some point, a lone tear rolled down Mother's cheek. Whether it was from pain, awareness of his presence, or a deep-seated sadness, he couldn't tell. An old lady approached and interrupted the silence with a sudden inquiry, asking if he was her son. It was in this moment, that a stark realization dawned on him. Father was wrong. The likelihood of Mother ever being 'okay' again was a dwindling hope. The best outcome, he understood, was no longer a return to normalcy but a peaceful passing. His life was changed forever. It was probably going to take months or even years for her to recover. It was the last time he would see his mother alive and deep down he knew it. In the car ride home, he silently pleaded with God, not for miraculous recovery, but for mercy and ease in her suffering. He acknowledged, with a heavy heart, that perhaps the kindest fate for Mother was a gentle exit from this world. As he gazed out into the night, he asked for her path to Heaven to be clear, accepting the painful truth that this might have been his last farewell.

In the face of death, each of us will confront our final moments, yet how they unfold remains one of life's great mysteries. Hypotheses abound: some say our lives flash before our eyes, while others believe we see the face of our dearest loved one. But these remain speculations, as no one returns from death to share the experience. The nature of our final thoughts, whether filled with pain or peace, is a truth known only to those who have passed. The range of experiences with death is vast. Paratroopers might meet it with resignation, pondering their fate as they descend into enemy territory. Those who face sudden, unexpected accidents experience it in a flash, perhaps spared the pain and awareness of their end. And those who choose to end their lives – do they reflect upon their decision in their final moments, or are their last thoughts consumed by the act itself?

For those battling long-term illnesses, death might be a familiar contemplation, an ever-present shadow. But how and when they recognize its approach remains an individual journey. In the case of his mother, a healthy woman struck down suddenly, her journey from believing she had food poisoning to confronting the reality of her mortality was abrupt. Did she realize, in her last moments, as she struggled with the oxygen mask, that her time was near? Did she sense her son's presence, or was her reaction merely instinctual, like sunflowers turning towards the sun? 

Death is more than the cessation of a physical existence. It signifies the end of relationships, the dissolution of bonds built on shared memories. With his mother's passing, a wealth of memories – her childhood stories, her first reaction to hearing her son speak – vanishes into the ether. These memories, unrecorded and personal, die with her. The loss of such memories pushes one to the brink of nihilism, confronting the transience of existence. Perhaps only the belief in an afterlife, or some form of continuity beyond our physical realm, offers a counterpoint to this existential void.

By eleven, the house was submerged in a tense, sleepless quietude when the telephone's ring shattered the silence. The ringtone was the same but sounded grave and ominous, sending his heart into a frantic rhythm. He knew, deep down, that a call at such an hour could only bear the news he had dreaded. His aunt's quiet conversation on the phone quickly dissolved into sobs, a wordless confirmation of his worst fears. Those words with Father standing on the threshold of his bedroom and turning on the lights will remain vividly in his memories forever, "Son, Mother is gone. Mother is dead." His first reaction was one of shock, a numbness that left him motionless, unable to fully grasp the enormity of the moment. In the dining room, amidst the tears of his father, grandmother, and aunt, he found himself engulfed in an overwhelming void, deeper than sadness. He did not cry, lost in the vastness of his loss. His aunt embraced him, her sobs a stark contrast to his own silent grief. Turning to Grandmother, he asked her not to cry as they would all meet again in Heaven someday. The car ride back to the hospital was a journey through a changed reality, no longer shrouded in uncertainty but a stark acknowledgment of a future without Mother. They navigated the dark and silent ward again, passing by the sleeping patients again, all oblivious to their sorrow, until they reached Mother's lifeless form. He held her feet, pressing them with a desperate intensity, a futile hope for her awakening. He wept.

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