He does not know where to begin.
He picks up the medicine bottles and reads the labels. Atenolol, Ramipril, Heparin…there are so many of these half-filled prescription bottles on the end table in his father’s bedroom. The bed is perfectly made, and on the side is the Kashmiri shawl threaded and embroidered with a colourful tapestry of interwoven lines in wool thread. It belonged to his mother but his father had started using it in his last months around the house. Ahmed picks it up unfolds it, smells it and then gently folds it and lays it back on the bed. The worn-out blue prayer mat that his father used often, is also folded neatly and resting across the left arm of the chair.
He does not know where to begin. Not knowing where to begin seems to be the common feeling these days. Estate lawyers and divorce lawyers seem to be his best friends as he tries to sort out the past and the present.
Ahmed comes down the stairs and enters the living room. The furniture is old but immaculate, which is a testament to Gloria who has been cleaning for dad once a week for the last two years, after his mother died. He looks into the living room, feeling like an intruder. He stands in the hall of the house he grew up in, and then decides to go into the adjacent room which is his father’s study. There are two bookshelves, one that is filled with medical books, and the other one has history books which was his father’s other passion. There is a plastic tote storage box on the bottom shelf of the one with the history books , and it is marked “Ahmed”. He opens the box to find some familiar items. It has his high school calendar books with the covers mostly tattered showing age and use, some old greeting cards that Ahmed had sent to his parents over the years, his old pokemon cards, a figurine of a turtle with his head sticking out ready to explore the world, and another marble-like crocodile with a marble fish in his mouth, purchased as a souvenir on one of the family childhood trip overseas. There was a time when Ahmed loved that crocodile and kept it in plain view in his desk. How did he forget it? There are a couple of 4×6 inch photos peering out of Sarah and Ahmed together at high school prom. He picks them up and looks at them intensely, expecting the two people to move and start their story again. At the bottom of the box are two yearbooks from Ahmed’s high school. He pulls the one out marked 1988-1989 and starts flipping the pages and the memories trickle in.
It was her first day of high school. She was dressed in her corduroyed green pants and floral blouse accessorized with a wide dark green belt that had a round white metal buckle, placed fashionably and loosely below the belly. She had decided on the long silver earrings today that dangled almost touching her shoulders. Her back-pack was not new. She came closer to the rock stone school entrance of this landmark building that had been standing for nearly 100 years. There were a number of students smoking outside, some with red and purple hair. One student had hair-sprayed his hair into what was called a mohawk, all hair in a single streak, perched high over his head like the crest of a cockatoo, and looking equally menacing. She resisted the urge to bite her nails because she wanted to seem mature and so she walked nonchalantly past the cigarette smoke and the colourful cockatoos doing their priming dance and she hoped she would pass unnoticed as a new grade 9 student. Facing the stairs ahead, she knew she had to go to level 2, for her first class which was English.
1989 Ahmed and Sarah
After school had ended, it was customary to stand around chatting with friends in the school yard and the sidewalks close to the building. The students would ooze out slowly and disperse in all different directions, before lingering, posturing, flipping hair back stylishly or lighting up cigarettes and walking away in expensive jeans torn at the knees, on purpose. Ahmed knew the exit that Sarah often used, as it was closest to her locker. Today was Wednesday and Sarah’s friend Tasneem always left early, so Sarah would be walking alone. As expected, he saw Sarah exit the building and waved goodbye to her friends as they went in the opposite direction. Ahmed also simultaneously started to say “‘later” to his friends, and started walking behind Sarah, who was about a half a block ahead of him. Not wanting to appear too obvious, he walked at a distance behind her for a while and as they got closer onto smaller streets in their neighbourhood and there were fewer classmates around, he picked up speed so he could catch up to her.
He said “hello” and she responded back, her eyes fleetingly coy when she looked at him. She looked away quickly. Sarah was often quieter than Ahmed and he would have to ask questions to get her to talk. He loved how her eyes looked at him sideways when she smiled, as if it was a special gift that could not be offered too generously. The flickering long lashes tried to hide the sadness, in vain. Everyone knew Ahmed’s father was a doctor since he had a clinic in the community, and Ahmed sometimes helped out there. Ahmed was gentle with his questions and yearned to know everything about her including about her father. Mostly, he treasured each step with her as they had about 10 minutes together before they arrived to their homes. He would start out with conversations about their English class together and other school current events including the recent student council financial fiasco, and then ease into a more personal space. She had two younger brothers and her mom worked at the Dominion grocery store in the neighbourhood, a job she reluctantly took on, to support the family. Today, Sarah talked about her father. He had died of a sudden heart attack as he was driving to work at a food packaging plant. Just like that, he was gone and the family was left grieving and in strained financial circumstances.
Ahmed felt her sadness and he wanted to touch her only to offer some closeness and support, but he knew that now was not the right time for it. So, he listened empathetically feeling her pain in his heart. They came upon the parkette that they usually passed by and he asked if she wanted to sit for a moment and she agreed. They selected a wooden bench. There was an ice cream truck nearby and he offered to buy them an ice cream cone and she did not disagree, so he went over and bought a chocolate and a vanilla ice cream cone each, unsure of which one she preferred. She chose vanilla.
She got up and started to walk. Ahmed was hoping they could sit for a bit but decided not to press the issue. As they were walking away from the bench, a ball came out of nowhere and hit Ahmed who brushed sideways into Sarah and Sarah dropped her ice cream cone. She looked at it on the ground with anguish as if it was something precious, and became upset and cried. They both knew her tears were not about the white splatter of melting fake milk on the ground.
Today – Ahmed
Baba passed away two months ago and I have been unable to enter this house.
I see myself walking through these rooms and I see an ephemeral Ahmed. And yet this was my home. It is my home. I have belonged here and it was a warm and comforting place. The opacity of time can create emotional distance from who we are, but coming back has cleared the blur.
I visited Baba many times, but today things are different. The house is echoing stories of the past, reminding me of the cherished crocodile figurine and Baba’s enthusiasm for story-telling history. Stories of the past interweave into the present, and this is true for geopolitical realities but also for people.
Relationships are fragile, “kacha dhaga”, as Ma used to say – a weak thread that binds people together. It is a weak thread but it can also be resilient when we will it to be. I want to ask Ma – how did she make it work? As we embody our life stories, the importance of relationships can blur. Sometimes we do hang by a thread.
In this moment, I realize that the “dhaga” is weak, but it is not broken. I remember the love. I feel it.
I reach into my pant pocket and find the wrinkled card of the marriage therapist. As I am about to dial, I see a text from Sarah asking if I am leaving soon because Aasiya needs to be picked up from her friend’s birthday party.
I ignore the text for the moment and dial the phone number of the therapist.