One: The Run-In at the Hospital
Finals week was hell, but it’s not like things could get worse. I just wanted to pass my classes so I could make it to winter break. I just made myself a cup of chai and was sitting at the counter in my apartment a few miles away from the main campus where my medical school was located. My laptop was open with multiple tabs on and I had my text book out lying on the kitchen counter. It had been a nightmare finding the right school to get in to, but I was so sure that nightmare was over once I got in. I was so incredibly stupid for thinking that. My cell phone rang; snapping me out of my daydream.
I have always been the good kid. Not because I wanted to be, but because I had to be. Ammi and Abbu always had more than enough on their plates. Abbu worked as a lawyer at a firm and is a divorce lawyer. He helps divorced couples settle their assets and then comes home to his family. Abbu was always at work and Ammi loved her job as an accountant. Once she got diagnosed she had to quit her job. Something I never thought I’d see her do.
She liked numbers because they made sense to her when nothing else did. Ammi was a strong believer in being logical. This is exactly why the fact that she didn’t want me to know about her diagnosis was out of character even for her. Maybe she didn’t want to worry me that things were worse than she’d assume they were. They want me to have the best in life because they struggled to get to where they are today.
Ever since I got into med school, I barely have time for anything else. But, on the rare occasion when I do have time I try to keep in touch with them and my friends back home. It’s just so hard to balance everything when I constantly feel like there’s always more to do at med school and that I could be doing better if I just had more time. I could ace my final if I have more time.
Ammi has Breast Cancer. Ever since Ammi was diagnosed with cancer, the diagnosis wasn’t a constant reminder that time was running out. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but time and distance can hinder a relationship. Oftentimes, it’s rooted in resentment. Resentment for not being around. Not being present enough.
“Rashid, you need to come home, beta!” Abbu’s voice was frantic and urgent. Unlike his usual, calm demeanor. I immediately stood up and rubbed my eyes. Just as I did that, the textbook I was studying for was about to fall. As I caught it with one hand and shoved it back on the couch I turned my attention back to Abbu.
“What is it? Are you and Ammi okay?” I talk fast whenever I’m anxious.
Abbu exhaled as he said, “Ammi didn’t want to worry you, but she has terminal cancer.” I dropped the phone and it landed on the couch.
“Rashid? Beta, are you still there?” I was about to nod when I remembered that Abbu couldn’t see me. I picked up the phone again and said, “How long?” I nearly dropped the phone as I waited impatiently for his reply.
“The doctor didn’t say yet. In some cases, it can be months. In others, weeks. Don’t be mad at your Ammi. She wanted you to focus on your finals. I thought it would be best
in case….” Abbu’s voice trailed off, but I could read between the lines. In case Ammi didn’t make it.
“I’ll get on the next flight home.”
“No? What do you-”
“Ask to take your finals early. Finish the semester. You’re in medical school, Rashid! Besides, your Ammi will be upset if she finds out you skipped it.” Abbu added. Fuck. Ammi didn’t even want me to know which means things are way worse than I even anticipated.
“Okay, I’ll do that and I’ll be there as soon as I can, insha’ Allah (god willing).” I informed him.
“Alright, beta. Allah hafiz.” Abbu replied.
“Allah hafiz. Give Ammi my salams.” I said, as we hung up.
I’m an idiot. I should’ve noticed the signs immediately! Now that I think about it it makes sense considering how tired Ammi has been recently. Before she was hospitalized, Ammi wanted me to learn how to make her famous samosas saying that the family recipe shouldn’t end with her. That should have been an obvious sign. One I was stupid enough to miss. Yet I still went back to med school that semester. It wasn’t until Abbu’s frantic call that I realized how severe the situation really was.
Prior to getting the call to come home I made plans to go see a Dua Lipa concert. I immediately began the process of reselling my ticket and making the hard decision to let my friends know that I’d have to bail on them. At least I have a good excuse.
I didn’t know how much time I had left with Ammi and I really wanted to make the most of it.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this sooner, Ammi?” I asked, as I held her hand. I had rushed home the minute Abbu (Dad) told me the news. Apparently, Ammi didn’t want to worry us, but Abbu thought I deserved to know. I’d rather know later than never. I finished my last final at med school just before winter break officially started. Once I informed my professors about what was happening at home, I was able to rush back home to be there for Ammi during her chemotherapy.
I wanted to be there for her as much as possible. I knew she wouldn’t be around for forever, but I was hoping that she’d be here for graduation. I honestly don’t know what Abbu and I would do without her.
“You should be in med school, jaanu.” Ammi told me. Ammi was lying in the hospital bed in one of those hospital gowns. She looked so pale and it terrified me. I didn’t know what to do or what to say to make it better. It was hard to see Ammi like this. The hospital room had the usual bare-white walls. There was a plant in the corner to spruce up the room, but this wasn’t like the children’s hospital – that place was like colors exploded on the walls. But, here it was like they wanted the patients to be as miserable as they felt.
“I came back early to be with you, Ammi. Aren’t you happy to see me?” I teased Ammi. Ammi held my hand and gave me a weak smile.
“I’m glad you’re home, beta. But, you should be studying for your finals, no?” Ammi inquired.
“I was able to take them early. I want to be here with you on the days Abbu has work, Ammi.”
“Come sit, beta. I am going to be fine. At Thanksgiving, we’ll have a chicken masala and guests will be over. You’ll see, jaanu.”
“Ammi, you don’t know if that’ll happen. We don’t.” I wished Ammi would just admit that everything wasn’t fine and that things will never be the same again no matter how badly I wanted it to be.
“Rashid, you can’t live your life in fear. Whatever Allah (S.W.T.) has planned will happen, insha’ Allah!” Ammi said, as she emphasized the last two words. All I could do in response was hold her hand. When Ammi fell asleep, I sighed and looked out at the night sky. The night sky was aglow with bright city lights. The crescent moon sparkled at night. The blanket of stars appeared to be endless and shined brightly tonight. Outside, it was already bitterly cold despite the beautiful view that seemed inviting.
Abbu would be here soon and then he would know exactly how severe the situation was. I needed to know even if Ammi didn’t want me to. Ammi wanted me to pretend everything was okay and that she would get better but it just didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right to continue as if nothing was wrong. I was just lucky enough that I found out that the situation had gotten significantly worse when I had.
Ammi was never fond of making a big deal out of her health. She always believed that everyone has their time and it ends whenever Allah (S.W.T.) wills it to end. In a way, she’s definitely right. I just couldn’t imagine a world without her in it. I couldn’t imagine getting married without her or graduating med school without her. I still had so many milestones that I desperately wanted to share with her. I still need my Ammi. I need to be able to hug her after a rough day or just to talk to her.
Ammi and I have always had a close knit bond. I honestly don’t know what Abbu and I will do without her. How could we possibly move on? How could she act so nonchalant about it all? I know she’s accepted her fate. I can see the defeat in her eyes that wasn’t always there until recently. I would do anything for her. I wish I could take away her pain.
I remembered the first time Ammi told me she had cancer. She had ordered Halal pepperoni pizza and even ordered garlic knots …one of my favorites. She waited until I had finished my share before breaking the news. I was in so much shock that I had run out and went for a bike ride with Ammi calling after me.When I got home, Abbu explained that he had wanted to tell me sooner but Ammi was still in denial about how severe the situation was.
“She doesn’t want to miss out on your life, son.” Abbu told me gently.
When that sunk in, I realized I should’ve thought about it the other way around: I didn’t want to miss out on being in Ammi’s life. I didn’t know how much longer I had with her or what would happen if… I shuddered thinking of that what if Mamaent. I didn’t want to think about that. Instead, I focused on counting my blessings that I even had this time with Ammi. Not everyone is lucky enough to have these Mamaents with their parents. I texted my friends telling them that I couldn’t make it tonight. We initially had plans to see a football game. I wouldn’t be an asshole again and miss this. There would be other games in the future. Who knows if there would be other days I’d get to spend with Ammi.
“Assalamu Alaikum, Abbu!” I stepped out of the hospital room as quietly as I could. I didn’t want to wake Ammi up now that she was asleep.
“Yes… I will. Right. Yes I prayed Isha, Abbu. I went to the masjid before driving over. Will you be here tonight? Okay… I will wait until you come. You have to tell her, Abbu.“ I told Abbu before hanging up. I sighed before walking back in.
“Rashid? What is it, beta?” Ammi said as she sat up in bed.
“Abbu is coming, but he is going to be a little late, Ammi.”
“You shouldn’t be here… you should be with your friends, Rashid. You have friends, right?” Ammi teased, as I rolled my eyes.
“Yes, Ammi. I have friends – but I’d rather be here with you. Besides, Abbu will be here soon and then I’ll head home.”
“Go home, Rashid. I’m just going to go back to sleep. I will tell Abbu you were here all day.” Ammi patted my hand and motions to the door with a small smile. “Thank you for coming, beta, but I don’t want you watching me sleep.” I kissed Ammi on the cheek, gathered my things, and rushed out the door. I looked back in the direction of Ammi’s hospital room and shook my head. It had been a long night, but it was time to head home. I was on my way out when someone crashed into me.
“Watch where you’re going!” I snapped as the girl looked up in surprise. She took out her headphones from her ears and quickly fixed her hijab. She looked like she was only five foot tall.
“Oh, I’m so sorry – I must have missed the animal crossing sign – my bad!” She covered her mouth with one hand and rolled her eyes.
“Sorry – I was on my way to the west wing and I got lost. I didn’t even realize you were there.” Realization dawned on me as I realized I had been an asshole.
“Sorry for being an asshole. I know it’s no excuse, but it’s been a rough week.”
“The west wing is just around the corner after you go straight and take a left.”
“How do I know you’re not leading me to some weird part of this building?”
“Take my advice or not … I really don’t care. But, if you don’t it’ll be awhile before an assistant can help you out.” I pointed to the line of people waiting to talk to the desk assistant. She gave me the middle finger and walked off in the direction I had given her. I laughed at how bold she was and she was so defiant that I had to admit I was enamored by her. What a weird girl. I had forgotten to say salaams but figured I’d never see her again. She had left quite an impression on me but I knew the chances of seeing her again were slim to none. I didn’t even know anything else about this girl.
She was short but her attitude made up for it. It wasn’t even a long conversation, but it kept replaying in my head. In such a short time, she had managed to strike a nerve. I didn’t like the fact that she’d call me out for being rude to her. She was the only one who called me out on my bullshit. I didn’t know how I felt about that. It was a strange feeling. Women are weird. It was easier to think that than to admit the truth : I was intrigued by her.
I don’t have time for love anyway, I thought to myself. I was going to meet up with Hashim – the Imam’s son and hang out before heading home that night. Hashim had insisted that I stopped by. I realized maybe Ammi was right – maybe I did need the distraction.
The Imam opened the door with a smile.
“Assalamu Alaikum, Rashid! Come in, come in!” The Imam was this tall, Arab guy originally from Palestine. The Imam was gentle but firm. He
was the kind of man anyone would be willing to approach due to how understanding he was. He was always willing to hear kids out instead of yelling at them first and asking the right questions later. Unless you asked his son, Hashim.
“Hashim is in his room, Rashid. How is your mother doing?” The Imam inquired.
“She is good, still recovering, Uncle AbdulRahman. Please continue to keep her in your du’aas.” I replied, with a smile as I headed upstairs before the Imam could ask him anything else. Inside his house, the Imam had insisted that I called him Uncle saying it was good to separate work from home.
“Salams, so did my dad hold you up?” Hashim asked.
“Wasalams, nah – he just asked about Ammi.”
“How are you holding up?”
“Not great – I could use a distraction to be honest.”
“I know a good one – let’s watch Star Wars: A New Hope!”
“Alright!” I took off my jacket and sat on the bean bag. Hashim came back with two bags of popcorn and handed one to me. I’ve known Hashim ever since we were kids. Ever since his sister was alive. She used to tag along when we went out to get burgers or watch the latest Marvel movie. We haven’t been the same since the incident. Even though I try not to think about it – I can’t help but feel her presence in the house. It haunts me.
I never really thought about her that much when she was alive and I still feel guilty for that. Maybe if I had paid attention. Maybe if I had asked the right questions things would be different. I know she was super close to Hashim and they had this incredible sibling bond. Even after all this time it still hurt to talk about her in the past tense. She didn’t even graduate.
We still talk about her – mention our favorite memories. Hashim’s worried he’ll forget her. He’s my best friend and I just want to do whatever I can to help him out. He’s always been there for me. I just want to be there for him too. I do what I can to take his mind off things- binge-watch Star Wars or just play video games. Some days we talk about it. “Kettle for you and butter for me,” Hashim said,as he pressed play.
Today was not that day. Getting to see Laia escape with Luke’s help helped me momentarily forget about what Abbu had told me. More like sprung on me.
“Are you okay, man?” Hashim shot me a look of concern. I didn’t want to add to his plate.
“Huh? Oh yeah… I’m alright. Why?”
“You kinda zoned out a little. I tried calling your name and wasn’t sure if you were okay.”
“I’m fine… it’s just …it’s been a weird night, man.” Hashim put the movie on pause and turned on the fan. “If you don’t want my parents to overhear it’s better to turn on the fan. Anyway, so what happened?”
I sighed as I thought about brushing off what I was thinking. When Hashim gave me a look I cracked and told him about meeting the girl at the hospital.
“She was only about five foot and barely able to reach my shoulders. Yet she was so feisty!” I shook my head in amusement as I recalled the incident.
“You were an asshole, moron.” Hashim replied, with a grin as I shook my head. I gave Hashim what I had hoped was an annoyed look before I started laughing.
“Damn it – I kind of was. Wasn’t I?”
“Here’s the good news – you’re probably never going to run into her again. So, don’t worry about it.”
“And if I do?”
“You’re smart. I’m sure you’ll figure it out. If not … maybe you’re not as smart as I think you are.” I rolled my eyes and grabbed the remote.
“You’re not going to tell me what’s really going on, are you?”I shot him a look and he rolled his eyes. “Alright, then… let’s finish the movie. Then I’ll pester you about your crush.”
“It’s not a crush!”
“Yeah, sure it’s not. That grin says otherwise. Let’s finish the movie,” He said, with a grin as I tossed a pillow at his head.
“Hey!” With that, we turned our attention back to the movie. It was a comfortable silence – the kind of silence that close friends shared once they really got to know one another. I grabbed some popcorn and ate it as the movie continued. There’s something nice about rewatching an old favorite movie.
“HASHIM! RASHID! Dinner is ready!” Hashim’s Mama was the kind of woman who will insist on feeding you no matter how many times you tell her you already ate. Has it really been that long?
“I’m sorry it’s not much – Hashim told me you were staying a little while ago.” I looked in amazement at the macaroni bechamel, the pastries, and the kebabs.
“This looks incredible, Aunty!” I said, meaning every word I said. It really was an incredible sight to behold. Arab food was amazing but it could use some hot sauce. Some pepper flakes couldn’t hurt either. I thankfully didn’t say any of
that out loud and by the way Hashim’s Mama beamed at me I knew I had made the right decision. They sat down at the table and the Imam began serving me dish by dish and then served his wife. After he served Hashim and then himself.
“BismillAllah Rahman Ar-Raheem!” The Imam declared before eating. Everyone else followed suit and dug in. By the end of the night, I was in a happy food coma. The bachamel had been his favorite and Hashim’s Mama insisted that he take some home with him when she heard that he liked it. I tried to say it was okay (brown culture customs or maybe it was a Muslim
thing) but I was secretly ecstatic that I’d get to drive home with it. Hashim walked me to the car and the two of us talked for a bit before I drove off.
By the time I entered the house, it was still quiet. Abbu had stayed the night by Ammi’s hospital bed so I had the whole house to myself. Unlike some of my friends’ siblings, I wasn’t the type to get scared while being home alone. That was something I could handle. In fact, sometimes I needed to be home alone long enough to rejuvenate after being around people all day. Even if I enjoyed their company.
One of the things I loved doing when I’m home alone is having the freedom to blast music as loudly as I want whenever I want. I also liked having the uninterrupted time to read or catch up on a show. It was nice the first few days, but since I’ve been home it’s been happening more often. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been spending more time at Hashim’s place.
Abbu had texted earlier in the day to tell me to attend some masjid event. Apparently, it was a D’awah booth. The D’awah booth is usually a table that is handled by local Muslim students and supervised by the Imam or other elders in the community. It was for an interfaith session. I had to attend a workshop training tonight to make sure I was prepared for whatever happened. Abbu thought this would be a good distraction for me. When I had attempted to protest, Abbu rebutted my rebuttals saying that whatever I wanted to do probably isn’t a one way ticket to Jannah (Paradise). So here I was about to go to my first D’awah workshop.
“Asaalamu Alaikum, everyone!” The Imam greeted us with a smile as we walked in and removed our shoes. The women sat behind us and I sat with the other male teens in the front. “We will take a break for Asr salah but feel free to pray dhur before we commence.” The Imam paused and watched as many of the students got up to pray. Once we were done, I sat back down and did my best to listen attentively to the Imam.
“Remember that we always ask if they would like a flyer. Never get angry regardless of what the other person says. Remember not to take it too personally if the other person is rude to you. If you’re talking to a Christian, be empathetic. Acknowledge that you also believe in Prophet Isa (A.S.) or as they say Jesus. We just don’t believe in the trinity. Focus on the common ground with whomever you’re talking to. If you don’t have patience, this will be a tedious task for you and I suggest that you think about whether or not you’re cut out for it. You will have a supervisor with you at the booth should you have any questions or if things get out of hand. We have never had any dire situations.” The Imam handed out booklets with information on topics that could be of interest to others. He droned on for a bit and I zoned out.
“We will have a container of candy for kids to walk by and take. When that happens, this is your time to hand out a booklet. One woman and man will be manning the table every hour. If you are unable to make it, please come and see me before you leave tonight. This is my number if you need to reach me at any time.” The Imam wrote down his number on the white board and everyone took a picture or wrote it down. “I am going to pass this sheet around and I want each of you to sign up for the time slot.” I looked around to see if I recognized any of the guys.
There was one kid that I recognized from school – we had the same Art class but other than that I didn’t recognize anyone. He was always making Tik Tok videos when he thought the teacher wasn’t looking. The kid was never as smooth as he thought he was. Hashim avoided these workshops as often as he could and usually only attended them if his Dad guilt tripped him into attending one. The Imam droned on for a few more minutes and then it was finally time to head out. I wouldn’t have shown up to this workshop if my parents didn’t talk me into doing this.
“Rashid!” I spun around to face the kid from my Art class.
“It’s me… Uzair!” Uzair replied. Was this kid always so bubbly? It was like he had endless energy or was on a sugar rush. He was always so goddamn loud. If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s obnoxiously loud people. Uzair always had this superior complex that annoyed the hell out of me. I’m not sure how much longer I can stand this.
“Oh… right. Hey, so what did you want to talk about?”
“You have no idea who I am … right?” Uzair asked.
“Sorry… no. “
“That’s alright. Anyway… what time did you sign up for?”
“Five pm.” I said silently hoping that Uzair didn’t sign up for the same time. I just wanted to head out but this kid was persistent. It was driving me crazy.
“Damn … I have the last shift.”
“That’s a shame… well, I have to head out.” With that, I smiled at him and got inside my car. I was finally able to drive away. I turned on some music and listened to Eminem as I drove home.I was more introverted than most and preferred solitude to large gatherings which is why it was a miracle that I had even agreed to volunteer for that Da’wah booth. The only reason I went through with it was because Ammi had been so ecstatic when she heard that I didn’t want to disappoint her. I couldn’t disappoint her. Not when it made her smile that much and she hasn’t been that positive in awhile.
When I finally arrived at home, it was already eight pm and Abbu was asleep on the couch. CNN played in the background and I have no idea why he insisted on watching it whenever he was home when he could read about it or do anything else. I quietly walked in, locked the door, and lowered the volume of the TV. I knew if I turned off the TV it would startle Abbu awake and Abbu didn’t get a lot of sleep recently so that was the last thing I wanted to do. Instead, I put away my things and started to make dinner.
A family friend had dropped off food so I just had to heat it up. I wasn’t sure if Abbu ate so I made two plates filled with Nihari, biriyani, and naan. The broth smelled of turmeric and other traditional spices. There were slow-cooked beef chunks in the stew and even though I had already eaten it was an overwhelming day and I tend to stress eat. I wasn’t planning on sleeping yet, so I made some chai on the stove and added some cinnamon and spice.
Although I’m not an expert cook, I knew my way around a kitchen.Ammi believed that both men and women should learn how to cook. It had been drilled into my head that you needed food for survival and cooking isn’t just something for girls. Still, I appreciated it when I didn’t have to worry about cooking even though the reason Aunties would send food is because they thought Abbu and I didn’t know how to cook. A common misconception. The aunties’ food was scrumptious, so we never corrected them when they made their assumptions.
I sat at the dining table and it was only when I was washing the dishes that Abbu woke up. “Ah, beta, you’re home!” Abbu exclaimed, as he rubbed his eyes and got up from the couch. “What did Aunty Samreena bring today?”
“Nihari, biriyani, and some naan. She also left a tray of pakoras and some samosas.” I replied, as I handed Abbu his plate.
Abbu smiled and microwaved his food. “Thanks for the chai, beta. How was the workshop? You did go, right, Rashid?”
“Yes, Abbu. I went and it was alright. I probably won’t do it again but I’ll go for the D’awah workshop over the weekend, Insha’ Allah!” Abbu patted my shoulder. “Good, good, beta. Your Ammi will be pleased. Are you stopping by the hospital this weekend after the D’awah booth?”
“Yes, Abbu. I’m going to go upstairs. I’m meeting with Hashim and some others tomorrow evening. Do you want me to do anything before then?”
“That’s okay. I’ll be at the hospital in the evening after work, beta. I know Ammi didn’t want you to be there during the week but I’m sure she’ll want to see you over the weekend.” Abbu informed me as he started eating. I sipped my chai as I nodded along. I didn’t get the logic, but I knew better than to pressure Abbu into answering his questions about Ammi and the chemotherapy. If it was just going to be the two of us, we needed to learn how to get along without overstepping. Ya Allah, please make this easy on me. Please let Ammi miraculously be okay.