‘You do know that I love you, right?’ Her husband is sitting on the edge of her side of the bed, his expansive hand warming up the empty place next to him. ‘I just thought you should know.’
She turns to him. Relents. ‘I know.’ It’s no more than a whisper, but it carries itself to her husband’s ears.
Lust follows, then intoxication, frustration, and finally dissatisfaction.
They simply don’t have it in them anymore.
She lies in bed until her husband’s side grows cold, and before she has a chance to rise, he is back, slithering between the covers.
‘Have a good day?’ he whispers, unaware that she has lain here all day, thinking of nothing, not even death. Drawing a black space.
‘Terrific,’ she murmurs. ‘Where’s Munir?’
‘He came in to see you, but you were resting and he didn’t want to disturb you. He understands more than you think.’
Great. Another day and she still hasn’t met her son. His hand in hers is cold, or maybe hers is burning.
‘About the treatment,’ her husband begins.
‘At least listen to what the doctor has to say.’
The now familiar sense of detachment takes over. She releases his hand, and rolls over in bed. ‘Leave me alone.’ She’s still too weak to get out of bed, but she masks her inability to stand by pretending to be asleep. He leaves her after a while.
Green meadows, undulating hills, thick coniferous forests, the ferns crackling under her bare feet. The starchy scent of boiling potatoes somewhere, piercing the clean air. She’s in heaven. She’s died and gone to heaven. She lowers herself to the ground, on all fours, and rummages through the thick undergrowth. She’s looking for a window, not just any window, the fabled window that people will have access to so they can see their loved ones struggle on with life. Her breath comes out in pants as she searches; her hands come away with dirt and grass, but there’s no window, no hidden portal into the world she has left behind. Are people even supposed to gasp for air in heaven? Doesn’t everyone get a clean chit of health when they’re in processing?
Her eyes snap open, staring deep into the troubled hazel irises of her son. He’s holding something – an oxygen mask – to her mouth, and she’s panting, gasping for air.
Two months… Three if you’re lucky.
It takes her a full five minutes to get her breath back, and when she’s certain she can speak, she removes the mask, and takes her son’s round anxious face in her hands. Something claws at her deep inside. Grief, she realizes. Grief that she won’t live to see this face grow. ‘My baby,’ she whispers. ‘ I’ve missed you so much.’
He blinks once. Perhaps there’s a sensor that tells him that all’s well for the moment because he pounces on her, burying his face in her neck. She inhales the smell of him: baby shampoo and talcum powder. ‘You smell so good, I could eat you up,’ she murmurs in his hair.
They stay like this, glued to each other, for a long time. Munir whispers something, but she doesn’t catch it. ‘What is it, baby?’
He lifts his head from her neck, and gazes into her eyes. ‘Why aren’t you soft anymore, Mama? You used to be so soft.’
‘Oh.’ She’s speechless.
Tears fill Munir’s eyes. ‘Are you dying?’
He understands more than you think.
‘I’m sick, Munir. Very sick.’
‘But you can get better, right? You will get better. Right, Mama?’
‘Right, beta,’ she says, unable to look into his imploring eyes anymore. ‘Go and play. Mama needs to rest.’
But Munir is latched on to her now. ‘Why don’t you take the medicine that will make you feel better?’
He presses on when she doesn’t answer. ‘Are you afraid that you’ll lose your hair? Because, Mama, if that scares you, I promise I’ll get my head shaved too. I promise.’
‘Oh, Munir.’ She envelopes him in her arms. ‘Everything will be better,’ she says. ‘I promise.’
‘You will take the medicine. Promise me you will.’
‘I – ’ she can’t. ‘I’ll try.’
‘Okay, Munir, I will.’ She says the words in a hurry so that she wouldn’t burst into tears. There is no medicine. She should have undergone chemotherapy, but she had just lost her breasts; she didn’t want to lose her hair too.
There is a limit to the amount of time a child of ten can lay stationary. Munir begins to fidget.
‘What is it now?’ she asks him.
‘Nothing.’ He sighs, a long, suffering sigh. Children his age shouldn’t be sighing like that. What is wrong with him?
‘Tell me.’ Her voice is stern now.
Munir sits up in bed, and crosses his arms across his chest. So much like his father. He has taken nothing from her except her height. His stately features all come from his father. ‘It’s Faiz’s birthday today, and he’s thrown a big party.’
‘Faiz, the neighbor’s kid?’
Munir nods. ‘They’re giving free ice cream and pizza and – ’ his eyes go round – ‘fries.’
She raises herself by her elbows, and leans against the headboard of the bed. She feels feverish, despondent. It’s an effort of will to concentrate. ‘So what’s the sadness for?’
‘Daddy won’t take me. He says he’s too tired. And Nasreen says she’s busy with dinner and dishes. She doesn’t have time to even step out of the kitchen.’ He hangs his head. ‘I’ll just read a book, but I don’t want to.’
She looks at her son’s downturned face, and then at her legs, trembling and weak. Her hands hang loose against her body, devoid of strength. But she is still alive. For two more months or three, she doesn’t know, but as long as she draws breath, she’d be damned before she allows her son to shed a single tear for something she could have done, but didn’t do out of weakness.
She pulls herself out of bed. Her head spins, her body shudders with pain like a hundred lashes have been thrashed upon her. She forces her weak legs forward, pushing her bare feet into slippers. No, she’ll wear proper shoes. No sign of weakness in front of Munir.
The effort costs her. She’s panting by the time she’s ready – wearing a brand new shalwar kameez suit with bright red lipstick and flat golden shoes – but one look at Munir’s astonished face, and then that broad disbelieving smile, and she feels the strength trickle back in her. ‘Let’s go,’ she says.
Awais Khan is a graduate of the University of Western Ontario and Durham University. He has taken several Creative Writing courses at the Faber and Faber Offices in London, and is currently editing his first novel with an Editor in London. He lives in Lahore, Pakistan.