Vicks vapor rub can fix all that is broken. No, wait, a glass of ginger ale is the antidote to everything.
A sip for stomach pains, a sip for menstrual cramps or two sips simply for a sunny day, a one size fits all ordeal.
She weighed 90 pounds. My hands brushed past her upper arms as we embraced, I felt the hanging skin that outlasted any fat or muscle— hanging for the sake of her daughter and grandchildren.
The color fled from her face, aside from the patches of hyperpigmentation around her nose and hollow cheeks. Her bright pink shawl and the blue that outlined her aged irises reminded one that she still lives. She smelled like vanilla and sweet pea. I couldn’t identify which between the two, and quite frankly I know those scents are easily distinguishable, but she smelt equal parts warm and sweet, like wisdom and youth at the same time. Graceful even in her dying days. The boniness of her forearms gave her a type of elegance, the way she motioned her veiny hands when she spoke made me begin to envision how beautiful a gold bangle would have looked on her, her wrists had become as thin as mine. I was wearing one, and I should’ve given it to her.
It has been a year since her diagnosis, and I only visited now. I was ashamed. Had I come sooner, could my prayers have shifted her disposition? I’ve heard that the prayers of a child weigh heavy in the heavens, and while I’m not a child, in ways, I possess the same hopefulness. I know that the jadedness that comes with life experience detracts from the spirit’s optimism, and on the days that I am introspective, I thank God for sparing me from grave hardship. Perhaps it’s wrong to foreshadow tragedy, but I often pray that nothing painful befalls me until I am in the company of my soulmate. Sure, it’s better to pray for the absence of hardship, but if the prophets endured the death of their children and abuse, what should lead me to think that the inevitable won’t find me? One can never prepare for suffering, but surely the touch of an honest lover could attend to the pain that ginger ale would do no good for. Loneliness is the drought to the fruit of heart, and yet the fertile soil for depression to sprout.
The guilt rests behind my eyes, but I smile at her, she deserves no less. I sit beside her on the couch and wish I could recite proverbs to ease her spirit, but I cannot speak Somali, and truthfully my understanding of my mother tongue has diminished with age. I wanted to cry. What was my excuse? The busyness of school? Forgetfulness? Life does not ask permission to appease one’s conveniences.
We held hands, the heat from mine was absorbed by hers, a gift of energy.
She began to tell me a story and my mother on the couch next to us translated.
“When my father was still alive, I would fly back to Somalia often to visit him. He was a farmer and didn’t have an inhaler for his asthma. I would bring some for him, along with ibuprofen and other simple medications. The first time he used the inhaler, he was amazed at how it healed him momentarily. Then when he took ibuprofen for a headache, he was astounded!
I visited again three months later, and most of the medication I had bought was almost all gone, I was shocked! I had bought him enough the first time to last a year, La Ilaha, very crazy. Guess what he did with them Karima?”
“Did he not believe in medicine and just toss them?”
“Worse! He gave them to his sick goats! ”
I began to laugh in surprise, “No, are you serious ayeeyo?”
“Yes, yes, he did! He convinced himself that it did something for them, and maybe it did who am I to say, but he had no idea how much that all cost me and here he was using it for his animals! It gave me such a headache I wanted to down a bottle myself!”
We all began to laugh. Habo Sabreen chimed in, “The love a farmer has for his animals is powerful, I mean think about it, the same way white people love their dogs, we love our goats and camels.”
Habo Sabreen had a point, love can make one do seemingly irrational things, but whose to judge but the giver and receiver? Whether that be between two people or a farmer and his animals, what difference does it make?
Shortly after our tea and talk, Ayeeyo said she had to get up to pray the evening prayer, Maghrib. I looked at my phone and saw the notification from my prayer app indicating that the time for prayer began only two minutes ago. How did she know? There was no clock around, nor an athan in the house. I was amazed. Had sickness made her so vigilant of her relationship with God that she developed an internal clock with such accuracy?
She stood up and walked to the downstairs bathroom to make ablution. A minute or two after, I decided I should pray with her. I often pray alone as I enjoy reciting the verses aloud and feel too shy to do so around anyone but my youngest sister. But I wanted to be beside ayeeyo as she prayed, to pray with her and for her. I went to the upstairs bathroom and washed as I do before each of the five daily prayers. I came back downstairs and found a scarf in ayeeyo’s room. She had already begun to pray, so I tugged downwards at my skirt to cover my ankles and draped a shawl around my head. I could make out her recitation as she whispered the verses loudly while I read mine silently. As she began her third rakat and I began my second, we were in sync as we recited Surat Al-Fatihah. It was beautiful.
To be in sync. If the body and soul are blended together, what is to be said about how disease and death are tethered? Can one rectify the dying process simply by choosing to no longer see it as a tragedy? If death is instead perceived as one’s return to their maker rather than a mere departure from this world, than does that make it easier? And for whom does it become a lighter plight? Surely not the loved ones left behind to see an abandoned bed. But if such view of death eases the heart of the dying, then perhaps the loved ones will be at ease knowing one came to terms with their prescribed time, with dignity and grace.
I won’t pretend as though all deaths are equivalent. Yes, the death of a child is more incomprehensible than that of a great aunt, and yes, the unforeseen call of a loved one’s fatal accident is more forceful to the heart than a slow foreseeable departure. While all death may inflict pain, disease before death pacifies the shock factor, and in many cases has a way of bridging relationships between forsaken ties among kin, rebirthing relationships through a loss.
They say that when illness befalls a believer, their sins shed. Despite ayeeyo’s inoperable liver cancer, and the insurance company refusing to any longer support her chemotherapy given her lack of progress, she still smelled like vanilla and sweet pea and wore the brightest of pink shawls.