To Die Under a Great Reaching Tree
Outside it is still windy. I can see the trees dancing in their sway outside the window. The sky is a thin pink strip rising and fading into peach and blue tones. Yet I am here, on this wheeled bed. Inside this hospital room, looking outside this window. My body is tight with pain, and I can see my blood has soaked the bedclothes a deep ruby red. I turn my thoughts to the cement pavement still out there, beneath the early evening sky. J and I had walked upon it hours earlier, in the midday heat of the August sun. Where my feet and legs had been swollen and thick as they balanced my round belly, heavy with Aya. Along the canal, back and forth, we had walked and waddled. To speed up, to wait out, Aya’s arrival. In a rhythmic contracting pain.
I close my eyes, and imagine other people walking along that stretch of pavement in the evening light now. Sometimes I dream like this. Of other people, their lives. As if all of it is my own. Recently I dreamed I was a man with large broad hands. Small cracks ran the length of his palm and fingers. He worked on his own fishing boat. A tidy wooden boat, weathered worn after the years. I could feel the roughness of his skin as my own. As the cracked skin caught along the fabric of my pants, as I dried the thick wetness of fish off. I had a wife and son that I loved at home, waiting for me. I could feel my love for them swell up and push against my chest. I loved the ocean, its deepness and moods. I felt lovesick for it, a painful throbbing in my veins. Especially the ocean swells carrying my boat up, and then down again. Under the starry night sky. I liked to think of my wife and small child, especially when it was stormy out. They added a warmth and comfort to my sleep. Of them waiting for me. Of us all being held within the vastness of our separation. This ocean. And I would hum in the night, to know I wasn’t so alone. Sometimes I would shout out loud to God, just to hear my voice out loud, to know I was still here, still living. And when I dreamed, I was a fish swimming in the dark waters below.
Yet now I am here, in this room with metal tables. To make the messiness of bodies easier to clean up. With medical equipment shining in sharp lines. It seems strange to me that this room has always been here. Even earlier when I had been out there waddling along the pavement, it had been here. It was always here. Waiting for this exact day, and this time. It is in the movement of everyone else around me that I become aware of myself on this hospital bed, as the stationary object of their attention. And I feel so very cold.
I thought of my newborn daughter. Her mass of dark hair. The way she had felt so warm and wet against my skin. Subhanallah, I had been amazed that this was her. Aya. J had said a prayer over her. And I thought that it must be a wonder to hear your father’s voice for the first time, and to hear it say those loving words. Words from where we have come from, and to where we will return to. I had been so proud of myself, in that sort of way a mother can be. At the remarkable ability of a body to break, to push out life. I had been relieved at her squirming body, at her cry. This miracle. And then this came, the bleeding, the pain. So unexpectedly.
A nurse is placing my feet into heated booties, and piling warm blankets over me. Another is pushing a needle into my hand. I look away. I hope my veins will rise up, that she can find one. She is in a hurry, and makes do with the veins in my hands. She places sticky suction pads on my chest, and I notice there are tubes coming out of my body in different directions. Like some second-rate cyborg, I think.
Somewhere in another room my daughter is with J. In a room where on a whiteboard we had written “Aya Isra Arrow” as we waited out the slow and sharp increase of the contractions. I mumble her name, Aya. A sign from God.
The nurse, to my left is holding my hand. I look into her eyes. They seem kind under the goggles she wears. Above the white paper mouth-cover they shine blue with specks of black, that remind me of the night ocean in Santa Cruz. My mother called those specks in the eyes, those specks her and I also shared, jewels.
I hear somewhere in the room a voice say, “Are you worried?” It is a nurse or a doctor. I think they will be chided later for being unprofessional. I don’t hear the answer. The two nurses sitting on my bed are pushing their hands down, with their full weight, against my abdomen. Passing me, a nurse is carrying two plastic blue bags, clenched tight. The darkness in them is my blood. I am shaking. My hands, my legs. I breathe deep into the gas from the mask on my face. As if I am about to dive deep under water.
Of course, it would be now. I had thought it was all routine. But of course, it would be now that I die. The thought doesn’t shake me. That surprises me a little. The thought feels as usual as putting on a sweater or eating my morning yogurt. And I remember the day my mother died, also in August. I had daily kept accounts of memorable moments that year. When the night sky was a shade of peach sherbet, and I saw a flock of birds fly across it. Or the day I had walked along the canal in Uppsala and thought old tires were sea creatures, and had stood, mesmerized, dazed, until I had laughed at my mistake. Or the days upon days where nothing was too unusual or noticeable, and I had to stretch to record a blue butterfly, or that the rain had poured against the asphalt, or that I ate strawberries from a yellow plate. But I kept the accounts. I was filled with a wanting, a needing, to record the moment she died within something remarkable or memorable. Because I felt the day would feel special and unusual when I looked back on it, and understood it was the rain, or the sunset that Life had marked as the exit of this beautiful person, my mother. Because things couldn’t just continue as if she had never lived or died. Life would interrupt itself for her death. But it wasn’t like that. She died a day in August, when I had just left her the night before with my brother. On a day that I had been making lunch for my children, I received a phone call from my brother. And I had no moments collected that day, of the remarkable or the unusual. The page was blank. It was just a day, something as mundane as just a phone call. As I lie here, I realize that of course this is how I too would die.
The lamp above me is bright, as the nurses roll me onto my back once again. I feel nothing below my legs anymore. The anesthesiologist is being congratulated by the other nurses for giving me an epidural in the difficult position of my back twisted slightly up and propped to the side by three nurses. I follow the lamp’s large metal arm, reaching across above me. I am reminded of those toy machines at Chucky Cheese’s pizza – a restaurant I went to as a child. A restaurant with large life-sized (perhaps my warped memory) mouse puppets placed in small balconies, along the walls. Dressed in different human clothes. That would come to life upon the hour, singing. The strangeness strikes me only now. I would waste so many coins on those machines. Those ones with the claws. I was convinced I could maneuver the claw if I just unlocked the right combination of movements. Left, up, down, left. To get the stuffed unicorn with its shiny pink glittery horn, that was always wedged against the glass. I don’t know why, but I start to cry at the memory. I think I smell the perfume of my mother. And I hear a voice say it is too much blood, and to make the call.
There has been a rush of bodies in the room. Nurses or doctors, I cannot remember which color clothes indicates which. I try to count them, ten, maybe twelve. I give up. I don’t feel ready to die. Strangely, I thought I would be. Even after watching my mother refuse death, resist it. She asked for anything in those last days. Anything that could give her a few more weeks or even days. Because people are not lulled into dying. Yet I thought I would be different. I have faith. I have practiced living with death, embracing whatever abstraction of it I could understand. But now, in this room, on this blood-soaked bed, oh Allah, I didn’t want to die. I prayed for another day.
I want to live. I want to see what this daughter will become. To whisper poems to her in her sleep. To weave the stories of my mother, of J’s mother, of my grandmother, my father – of all those that I love, into our days together. To listen to the steady music of her baby lungs breathing. To laugh with her. To take her for her first time splashing, into the ocean. To share the raising of this child with a loving partner. And I worried about what would happen to my sweet boys. My little warriors, who have lived through a horror, with their beautiful hearts intact. To see them grow up to be men, good men, accountable. Yet I felt this was it. Death is always like a clock ticking ten o’clock.
I wish I had written a love poem to all that I would leave behind. Of all that I knew, of all that I had seen, of all my hopes and dreams for them. Of when it had been tough. That bitterness is useless. That life is not meant to be easy. To just breathe in. Ease comes as well. To strive to think well of your loved ones. And Allah. Oh, open your heart, don’t wait. Talk with Allah. That faith is the most radical thing I have done with my life. That I had only learned late. That we are all scared.
I wanted to die under a great reaching tree, with green leaves rustling the name of Allah. Not here in a room where I know no one. I wanted to see my skin wrinkle. What it would be to look back. If my memories would fade. I thought of all those I love. I understood objects are meaningless. You can’t bring a thing with you in death. You can’t even bring with you those you loved. You can only take yourself.
I don’t trust my eyes anymore. I feel they have lied to me. Life isn’t what I saw. Death isn’t what I expected. I think of my name. Sara. A play on my grandmother’s name, Siri. And also, a namesake of a childhood friend of my mother’s. A girl with a special smile, a kindness that my mother hoped I would develop, despite arriving into the world screaming with clenched fists. Clenched fists that didn’t open for two weeks my mom liked to say. I think I was born to struggle. That Sara, that friend of my mother’s, died when she was ten. Because she had forgotten her glasses at home, and had been hit by a passing truck going home to get them. But later my mother learned she had had a tumor that no one had known about. And I think life is something we never fully can see. Are not meant to in this life.
A doctor with brown eyes squeezes my hand. She says, “Little mother you are safe now. We were able to stop the bleeding. You will be ok.” Her voice sounds so far away.
I am wheeled out of the room. I pass J who is holding Aya. He is talking to me but I don’t hear him. I smile and cry. I want to sing with my heart. I want to drink in all the beauty of the two of them there. I try to cling to them with my eyes as I am wheeled away from them by two nurses. Under fluorescent lights that swish by above me, like endless light. We ride a large industrial elevator down. I am rolled out into the basement of the building. A dark, slightly lit tunnel. I see the bare gray cement walls, the pipes leaping out of the walls and spreading out along the ceiling. I feel fresh air blowing into the tunnel. It smells sweet and aged, all at once.
Another nurse, wheels me away from the two nurses that have been with me. Into a large dark room with many beds. The nurses wave, and wish me the best. “You will be back with your Aya soon. Rest.” I am hooked up to beeping machines. I want water. I throw up water. I wait for my legs to wake up. I wait to see Aya again. This room is still. I think it is a sleeping room. There is no movement. I understand in this stillness that I will not die. And I look around me, because I want to see reflected in another face, this revelation. I understand poor Orpheus, of course he would want to look at his Eurydice upon leaving Hades. Not just to see that she was there, but to see on her face reflected just how remarkable it was that they had made it out, of death. I think maybe I sat reading these thoughts somewhere once. I cannot straighten out my thoughts. I want to thank Allah. I just say “Allah, Allah, Allah,” over and over. I close my eyes. I hope to dream. For time to pass. So that I can return.