I stood at the door frozen, unable to enter my empty apartment. As if by doing so, I would be trailing in dirt, defiling a sanctuary. Just 10 minutes ago, as I got off the bus into the midday madness of traffic across the street from home, I had received a callback for follow up from a routine mammogram that I had just had and my body reacted as if it had touched a live wire. It knew. I walked in quietly, in a daze and stood in the middle of the luminous, sunwashed space. Now what?
Six months before this, Thanksgiving 2017, the kids and I had gone to Karachi for a visit. Z, my husband, had stayed back in NYC. We were still fighting jet lag when I got a call from my brother saying that Z was in the hospital but he was ok. He had developed symptoms of a side effect of his medicine and had gone to the ER at night but was fine and should be out soon. I was cautious and accepted it at face value. The next day or two, it seemed the situation somehow, inexplicably, escalated to the point where he was sedated and put on a respirator. I spent time talking to the doctors late at night due to the time difference. They told me that the situation was serious but there was no reason to come back but not convincingly enough for me. I headed back, leaving my kids with my parents.
On the flight, I took deep breaths into the heaviness that had settled within me. To acknowledge it. There was every reason to worry yet I was doing the best thing possible, heading to be with him. I tried to think of what he would do. More importantly, I thought of how he would want me to handle the situation. I hoped for the best with courage to deal with the worst if needed. At the most basic level, it felt very right to be going to him.
I landed in NYC as a cold wave took hold over the East Coast with frigid temperatures and stinging winds. It was to be followed by a storm that blanketed the land in snow after snow but that was later. B took me straight to Z’s bedside from the airport. I was stunned to see him in the ICU. He was in a medically-induced coma, hooked up to wires and screens all around him. He also looked very different. Unrecognizable. I walked out of there like a zombie. I told B that I want to go back to my apartment and he reluctantly dropped me off at my subway stop. Back home, I spent some time walking around, straightening up, looking at things, just trying to re-enter a cherished space that I feared was about to be inaccessible. After a while, as the silence got too loud, I headed to B’s house to spend the night. I took a sleeping pill and filled my thoughts with simple, comforting prayers until I fell into a numbing yet restless sleep.
The next day, I awoke at the break of dawn and went to see him. The reality of the situation struck me like a slap in the face. I spent as much time as I could in that space with an unfamiliar, unresponsive soulmate till I could take it, which wasn’t very long, and headed back to my brother’s place. That night I tried to be brave and spend the night at my apartment. It was a bold move. I turned the tv on and had a glass of wine. Finally, I could not avoid going to bed. I lay alone in the still space and tried to not let my thoughts get beyond me. I can’t remember if I took a pill or not. I do remember though that it was an even more restless, elusive night. I realized that I couldn’t do this again, in a place that was so ripe with memories of only a couple of weeks ago. That world which seemed to be on the brink of complete collapse.
Mornings started falling into a pattern. Waking up at first light, I headed to the hospital to catch the doctors before they disappeared into their day and hear different variations of deeply concerning medical terms. Words like lung biopsy, intubate, multiple organ failure, oxygenation levels, hospital-acquired pneumonia, meningitis, MRSA virus, chances of survival and, literally, will myself to take a deep breath and detach. To remind myself that they were just words that needed to be decoded. My role right now was to listen, watch and take a breath, many breaths! before reacting. The present moment is our only moment. There is nothing beyond or leading up to it, no baggage of past experiences or future expectations. Just the moment and our reaction. A reaction that can elevate or render us helpless. Z had taught me this. On a larger plane, there was a shift happening and it had something to teach us. At times of great unexpected change, I believe the universe is speaking. And we can learn from it. But the time to parse it was to come later, it was not now. Now was the time to keep my center steady while looking in the eye of the storm.
Books and movies present us with models of experiences that are outside our realm. We breeze through them with, maybe a tear shed or a flicker of a smile. Yet all these are rooted in the shared human experience. In times of high emotion, it is possible to grasp situations that you may not have understood previously. A parallel, surreal process was taking place in my head. I was stepping into roles that I had only imagined. That of a spouse worrying for the other’s survival, of a mother trying to understand how to care for her children in a crisis. I was trying to make sense of things that I was afraid to voice, dramatic things, life-altering things. It was almost as though I was stepping out of myself. Reflecting back, I realize this was an exercise in survival. Living as we do in a world of carefully curated social media presences, snapshot lives and likes instead of conversations, my psyche was trying to dig deeper and connect to the larger human experience. To know that I was not alone and there have been countless others from the beginning of time who have faced these challenges, to draw from these experiences. In essence, this is what it means to be alive. At times it seems like life won’t ever change and then, in a moment, it will never be the same again.
On a physical level, I became a phantom companion to Z, invisible because he didn’t seem to be aware of me. I willed him to come back. I touched his brow, held his hand and asked him to allow his body to heal itself. I caressed his face, blew prayers on him, kissed him. I talked about the kids, about family. I played music. Music in the sombre, distressing ICU with its glaring lights and beeping sounds. I tried to dim the glare. The nurses told me to keep the music low. One of the evening cleaners told me to keep playing; that music was life and he knew I was playing it for him. I chose music that had meaning to him but, very soon, switched to catchy, newer stuff. Meaning to him meant meaning for both of us and that was too painful.
Z is a dedicated walker. As a boy in Moscow, he transversed the length and breadth of the city while playing truant from school where he was lost in the language. In NYC, he walked large parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and LIC. We took walks together. Initially, I was a disgruntled companion with aching feet till I was converted. After all, after college and thinking of the future I knew one thing, I wanted to be somewhere where I could walk without restriction as a way of life. A desire to feel the breeze and the sun on me, moving one foot after another, alone with my thoughts. Part of that was independence but part was simply being able to go for a walk. We vibed on this love, mostly in companionable silence, in our own thoughts yet connected at the same time. In the book Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport talks about solitude, defined not as isolation from company or opposed to sociability but rather as moving past information created by others and focusing in on your own thoughts and experiences. This space is ripe for innovative thinking and self-reflection. It is a solitude that can be achieved in a coffee shop, the woods or in a library. One of the best ways is by walking, which he says is at the heart of productive aloneness. Famous historical walkers Nietzsche and Thoreau amongst many, documented their love of it in their prolific writings. Z, at a young age, stumbled upon this truth. Another by-product of solitude that Newport mentions which resonated with me is space to be close to others. This sounds paradoxical yet, pulling a quote by poet and essayist May Sarton from the same book:
‘I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my ‘real’ life again at last. That is what is strange- that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone…’
As I walked alone through mountains of snowdrift, to and fro from the hospital, looking for courage as difficult as drawing deep breaths of frigid air, my inner life was vibrant. I thought about us, about love, about freedom and interdependence and how they can be a source of strength and courage. I, most strongly, thought about how we would be walking together again next year as I shared these thoughts with him. I held doggedly onto that beacon of uncertain hope.
Prayers became my coping mechanism. When alone, which was most of the time, I read oft-repeated, familiar ones until there were no other thoughts remaining in my head. They became my point of focus. As time progressed, these turned into chants as I tried to push away intruding, increasingly demoralizing thoughts and, eventually, simply, Allah hu (God is). The words from my favorite Sufi qawwali (song) and the simplest and most complete utteration of divinity that I know. In the past, I have struggled to understand chanting. I used to think that it would take up precious mental time that could be spent doing something productive. A friend who practices Nichiren Buddhism introduced me to ‘Nam myoho renge kyo’ in praise of the Lotus Sutra. I started repeating this powerful chant just going about my day. What started happening was the opposite of what I was expecting. Instead of losing precious ‘thinking time’ I started shedding unimportant thought patterns and filtering out the noise. My mind was happy to be occupied otherwise. It freed up. The space it took up in my head had not been occupied with anything constructive or creative or empowering. It interrupted the stream of repetitive, mostly negative thoughts and reinforcements. The mind is a creature of habit and addiction. And it is lazy. It can fall into bad behavior if not gently guided, like a child. The words cleansed it. I also felt that praying for specific outcomes took me back into that cycle of worry and reinforced that which was lacking. Chanting was my path to freeing myself from my thoughts. And now, in my time of need, the most powerful two words I know, stilled the restlessness and opened my mind up to Grace.
And, as I stood dumbfounded in the otherworldly glow of the morning light, I remembered the ultimate source of courage that I had tapped into in those days not too long ago. It may have sounded like I climbed this monolith on my own but that is not true. Less than a week back from Karachi, I realized that as maddening and demanding as it is, I needed motherhood back. I longed for my kids, parched for their presence. I needed them to bring sanity back by bringing the insanity. And I needed my family. B was here for me at the toughest times but I had leaned on him heavily enough. I needed my mother. She and my sister, like two sturdy pillars but holding each other up, brought the kids to NYC on a cold winter day. They were exhausted, the kids confused, tired. I welcomed the chance to be able to nurture them and use them as punching bags at the same time. There is an Irish proverb that I heard of recently on the On Being podcast and as translated by the theologian and poet Padraig O Tuama, ‘You are the place where I stand on the day when my feet are sore’. And as a testament to that, family and friends came pouring in with love. My cousin U came, yet again, to hold me up at my most difficult time. My father kept a supportive, all-enveloping, gentle vigilance from across the seas. Z’s sister was there on the phone on a daily basis, checking in, keeping a caring eye on him for his ageing father who was too afraid to enquire directly, Z’s cousins, friends, my friends from all walks of life, everyone. I was overwhelmed with care. I was so grateful. And my two angels, Nael and Natasha. I had to look into their laughing eyes and make-pretend to rise up with joy, everyday. Fake it till you make it real. I drew strength by feeding on their clear optimism and belief in the natural order of things. In the midst of the actual and metaphorical storm, I went out and bought a christmas tree, more ornaments, gifts. Some were surprised that I did so because there was so much going on. Yet, these things felt like glue, like we were keeping it together, celebrating a holiday that we didn’t till a few years ago, believing in the continuity of things, in our world. Believing in what I told them every day, that this is temporary. We will be back to ourselves before we know it. Papa will be back and healthy very soon and school will start and life will be happy and light again. I did this with a trembling voice and moist eyes, yet believing in the conviction of my words because they did. They were the source of my courage.
And Z did come back home. Took awhile for him to regain his strength, his vigor but slowly yet surely, he made our dreams come true and we returned to a semblance of our old, happy life. A life now threatened by me in my present moment. On the threshold of destroying this carefully tended, still tremulous world that we had just rescued. I didn’t want to be the one doing it. I wanted to turn around and do what I loved to do, just walk.