Minaret stood at the window, gazing out at the drab, dull morning. The drizzling English rain seemed particularly poignant today. Behind her was a roomful of people, talking in hushed tones. Some were crying, some were chanting Quranic verses. It had been less than two hours. Yet, the rhythm in the room had shifted to an ominous, fatalistic quiet, bereft of an iota of joy. It was as though death had claimed the collective spirits of those who still lived.
Minaret looked over her shoulder to the bed, where Ayaan had been laying until her father came and gently picked him up. His lifeless little body, barely grown into his three year old clothing, finally seemed at peace with itself. His last effort to hold onto his tenuous grip on this reality brought up bile, still splattered on the pillow. As his eyes had closed and his head gently rolled back, Minaret could still hear the anguished cries echoing around the small room. Her parents, her other brother, her grandmother, uncles, aunts. Her own guttural cry a foreign sound she didn’t realize had come from her.
A year’s worth of struggles ever since his diagnosis of a rare form of cancer, dissipated in a final escaped breath. His arms were still circled around Mama’s neck, as though someone was forcing him apart from his beloved. His thin arms darkened from the weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, his hair in wisps. His face transformed by the steroids, the cheeky toddler with lips like flowers had gotten buried a long time ago. In his place had been a fighter, a little tiger cub who roared to protect his own. It is as if he had known that his spirit kept a fragile family together. In the end, none of it mattered. The cancer had triumphed.
Minaret slowly turned her gaze back towards the window, looking down towards the front door. She knew Baba would appear with Ayaan in his arms anytime now, and it would be the last time Minaret would see him in the form that she understood. Holding his son’s blanket wrapped lifeless body as carefully as one holds the most fragile of treasures, Baba slowly shuffled his way towards the taxi waiting to take them to the morgue. The rain seemed to intensify as though the world also protested the injustice of the moment. Minaret put her hand on the cold window, willing time to stop. She could almost count the droplets of water, hear each one crashing down on the pavement. Tears unchecked, she said her final good bye to Ayaan. It was at that moment, Ayaan’s right arm fell out of the blanket, a whitish palm facing upward, collecting the water in its hardening crevices. Minaret almost felt the touch of that hand, trustingly put in hers as he had done many times before. “Are we going to cross the street now, Pipa?” “Yes”, she thought. “But this time, you are the brave one, love. I will have to follow you to the other side”.
Baba disappeared into the taxi and Ayaan’s tortured body left the home he had known.
By the time Baba came back later in the evening, it was only the immediate family who remained circled around the living room. One of the Uncles was sharing a funny story about his work, and some in the room guffawed at the joke. Minaret was in a side room with her grandmother. Nanna turned to Minaret and said, “Who would say that there had been a death in the family today?” Barely sixteen, Minaret said, “Even during the sadness one needs to find the light, right? Will the crying bring him back?” Nanna went quiet. Her beautiful face hung in reluctant grief. No stranger to life’s sorrows, Nanna could be pragmatic to a fault. She knew that Ayaan was where he was meant to be. And her look of resigned acceptance as she went back to reading the Quran brought a calm to Minaret that she had not anticipated. Life is, and the clock keeps ticking.
It was very late when most of the family could no longer pretend that all will be fine. As each person headed to their own rooms, as weary soldiers heading home at the end of a long battle, Minaret dragged herself up to bed. She feared that the quiet will be deafening, the darkness an unwelcome companion. As she lay awake staring out into the night, no tears came. All she felt was the presence of Ayaan. He was everywhere. Hiding behind her desk, peeking from the side of the wardrobe, calling out, “Pipa, come find me!”And she went looking, for hours and hours into the night. She kept looking.
Perhaps the day had been a bad dream.
When she eventually fell asleep during the early hours of the morning, the tasbih clutched in her bony hand, she was chanting “Allah is One”. She needed the faith in the unknown more than she had ever before.
The next day, religious rites were read at a small local mosque, while Ayaan’s embalmed body was kept in an open casket for friends and family to come say their goodbyes. Minaret sat on the side, watching her family members interact with each other while they discussed the mundane of “Have you eaten?” “Are the airline tickets confirmed?” “Who is going to pay the Imam for the prayers today?” She watched her mother, crying and wailing, a look of utter despair plastered on her face. From time to time, without a word, Minaret picked her way through the swarm of people and walked over to hug Mama, retreating when she quietened. She sat in the quiet, dark corner of the room, and stared out the window. The geometric patterns of the window grille seemed restrictive. She wondered if Ayaan was trying to come in.
The Imam said his prayers around the time of Jummah, and mentioned Ayaan to the congregation. He asked for duas for the departed and his family. Once the prayers were done, both men and women came into the side room where Ayaan had been placed and crowded around the casket. Even though Minaret could choose to sit next to the casket and watch Ayaan’s face until it had to be locked for the long flight back home on the other side of the world, she didn’t. For her, Ayaan was forever etched in her memory, as he dropped his arm in way of a final good bye, on his way to the morgue. Her Ayaan, the beautiful bud with the cheeky smile, had left her long before he breathed his last. And he had taken the keys of her happiness with him.
-mh (c) 2017