The author’s pregnant sister and her husband
My life story in its great detail is so unfathomable and forever surprising I can no longer make sense to myself, let alone to others. Life is so unpredictable and ever changing, my heart is never prepared for its unsteady rhythms. Between overwhelming happiness and extreme sadness, I am ripped apart. “Where am I? Where am I?,” I was found trembling and whimpering while asleep two nights ago. Nothing but the warmth of my mom’s hug could assure me I was home, safe. While I was still holding her tight, sobbing on her shoulder, my mom, too, broke into tears. “No no no,… mom please don’t…,” I pleaded, still in tears.
Awakened by our sobs, my sister in the other room managed to drag herself out of bed and walk towards us. “Why are you two crying! Isn’t he in Heaven? Didn’t you both tell me not to cry over him,” we were taken by surprise when we saw her staggering into the room, not yet strong enough to stand on her feet. We ran to her aid “no no, habibti, we aren’t crying.” Unsurprisingly, she burst into tears, again. My bad!
I was in the U.S. when my sister first informed me over Skype of her pregnancy. I was so happy I couldn’t believe I’d be an aunt for the first time, given I am the oldest among my siblings. A couple of minutes after we ended our Skype call, my heart sank as I remembered that during Operation “Pillar of Cloud” Israel launched on November against the 1.6 million civilian population of Gaza, 133 Palestinians killed and 840 wounded, my mom told me that during the war my sister couldn’t breathe properly because of inhaling too much toxic smoke. She didn’t know she was then two-month pregnant. Terrified, I prayed nothing would harm her or her baby.
I rejoiced at the fact I would be home by the time she was due, so I could be by her side. I could make it back home on her ninth month. My sister’s belly was so huge, sticking out so far I couldn’t hug her properly. We both laughed at its awkwardness. After we sat down, she jokingly complained about the street-harassment she had to put up with every time she’d go out because of her *funny* gigantic tummy. “Hey watermelon,” “Jeez! what a huge basketball?”, “How many twins are you holding?”; “have you been eating non-stop for a whole month?”; these were among many other inane remarks she’d overhear while doing her 15 minute walking workout. Though I was getting irritated that my sister had to endure all that, I smiled and told her to care less.
It was quite a daily routine that my family would spend the evening sitting in front of my pregnant sister as though she was a show, observing the baby’s kicks inside her belly, laughing hilariously, fighting over the answer to the question “what do you think that was? His head? His leg? His tiny arm?”. We’d then wait for our sister’s confirmation of whose guess was right. She would laugh and say “his tushie”. The nicest moment was when she’d make a conversation with her baby telling him how she grew impatient waiting to see him, to hold him, to breastfeed him, to celebrate Eid with him, to clothe him, to bathe him and to do everything for him.
We too were getting impatient waiting for our first grandchild. My parents were very excited to be grandparents. I myself couldn’t wait to finally become an auntie, to see him in his tiny cute outfits I brought from the U.S. For the full nine months, my sister has been the centre of attention. Though I was following up with her from afar, I could better feel both her joy and her pain as I was at her bedside, keeping an all-night vigil. She underwent disrupted sleep due to the painful contractions occurring abruptly at irregular intervals. The pain was so intense she became very short of breath. It was scary that my mom would lie to my sister about the fact all that was normal only to confess to me later that it wasn’t normal at all and that she was very worried about her. When doctors last saw her, the baby was said to have had a breathing difficulty and might need an operation once born. And her way-too-big tummy wasn’t a good sign. Despite the routine check-ups my sister was having during the 9 months, we were told this only on her ninth month.
She gave birth to a baby boy. It was so frightening an experience that doctors themselves were concerned she wouldn’t survive the pain. My mom, a mother of seven, recalled her own experience “yes, child-birth is hard but not this hard.” Her newborn baby had to be kept in an incubator and put on a mechanical ventilator due to his breathing problem. After her delivery, my sister couldn’t see him. She begged the doctor to bring her her baby. My mom tried to calm her down that he was fine and that she didn’t need to panic. The next day, she insisted she wanted to see him, if only for a second. My mom and her husband walked her to the room where she could see him through its glass wall. “Habibi (sweetheart) he looks more like you than me,” she looked at her husband, smiling as though nothing was aching her. “come on babe! How could you see this from a distance,” he said jokingly, “plus he looks like both of us.”
“Please let me in,” my sister pleaded. The doctor allowed her in to see her baby briefly. She wasn’t allowed to hold, touch or kiss him, however.
A couple of hours later, the doctor told my mom that she could take my sister home. “What about ibni (my son)?” my panicked sister cried out. “He has to stay here till we can figure out his breathing problem. He might need an operation.” The doctor shot back. “An operation? Why? What’s wrong with ibni mom?” she pleaded. My mom tried to assure her that he was doing well but just needed a simple operation to help him breathe more properly. My sister then left the hospital, in tears. She kept mumbling all the way “Why wasn’t I allowed to –at least –hold him? To breastfeed him? Isn’t he hungry, mom? Please tell me how he will be fed? I wanted to clothe him. Please let’s go back; I want to see him one more time.”
I was crying silently. I couldn’t handle this. Every time I tried to open my mouth to tell her not to worry about him, I found myself unable to utter any word of comfort. We spent two days just waiting a word from the doctor. Her husband, Monir, couldn’t endure seeing his wife groaning for her son. He went to the hospital to check on his son and register his birth only to be told that his son died a couple of hours ago. Such bad news was hard per se, but breaking it to us was even harder on him. He didn’t know what to do but to call us. The news had shaken us from the inside out. It was so shocking we couldn’t quite believe it.
We then heard our sister, who was still unable to move on her own, cry out “What happened? Who was on the phone? Something wrong with ibni? Ya emi wenek? (mom, where are you?). We all hurried toward her. “No habibti, he is fine. He is fine. No worries my dear,” my mom lied, tears streaming down her face. “Then why are you all crying? Is his operation dangerous?”. Silence. “What? is it?” More silence. “Oh my Lord, he died, didn’t he?” “No, he didn’t.” my other sister managed to say. “Yes he did. Just tell me. Why do you lie to me! Is he dead? Where’s Monir?” My sister was hysterically screaming.
It was such a moment of intense sadness. I tried to remember when my family had last been this sad. It dawned on me that we had never experienced sadness before. He was born to die. Weren’t we all born only to die? What a poignant reality! She called her husband “Please don’t bury him! I want to see him. I am sure he’s just hungry. He just needs me. He’s alive. Talk to me. Why are you silent? Did you bury him? how dare you? after nine months of me waiting for my son, you easily buried him in the sand? I didn’t deliver him so you could bury him!” My sister was inconsolable.
Instead of getting a birth certificate, Monir got a death certificate. For that matter, I then wondered why the baby would have a death certificate if he didn’t have a birth certificate in the first place! His name “was” Laith. His name means “strength”, “bravery” and “toughness”, yet he was neither strong nor tough enough to survive. He was just brave enough to leave such a terrible world for which he was too good and pure to be in. Laith is now in a better place. In Heaven.
The doctors said most babies born after the war didn’t survive. Should we then blame Israel for the death of my sister’s baby? Should the occupation be held accountable for such a crime! For all its endless crimes? Shall we blame/sue whom? I couldn’t help but remember all bereaved mothers who lost their grown-up kids in front of their eyes in a matter of seconds! My sister’s agony isn’t even comparable to that of those who lost their entire family overnight. My sister’s experience seemed to us one of its kind, yet she was definitely not the only, the first or the last one who experienced such a great loss. I had always thought I could understand the pain of those mothers. I was wrong. My sister made me feel it for real. I have never felt pain like this before. I wasn’t in her position, either. Her son wasn’t mine. Even when trying to put myself in her shoes, I will never feel the pain she feels nor feel the agony of all mothers when losing a child. I am not a mother after all.
It is hard. It really is. Yesterday midnight, we heard her crying. We hurriedly got up to see her. We found her cling on tight to her baby’s clothes. Upon seeing us, she exploded into wild tears. “Say Alhamdulillah,” mom kept reminding her, “remember, my dear, he’s in Heaven, in a better place.” “I could be his Heaven, mom. I made his room Heaven-like,” my sister made us all weep uncontrollably. “Habibti, remember those whose kids were all at once killed in an airstrike, and say Alhamdulillah,” I finally managed to say something. “Alhamdulillah. Alhamdulillah.” She kept saying. I couldn’t bear the mournful look of her eyes. It was hard on all of us.
We haven’t yet survived the trauma. Broken-hearted, each one of us has his share of the pain. Both my parents and Laith’s parents have a bigger share. My dad is a story by himself. I didn’t see him as sad as he is now when his own father died a couple of years ago. I have never seen him break down like this before. We live a moment of deep sadness that made us forget if we had ever been sad or even happy before. We have felt substantially devastated. This moment of sadness killed our entire life’s moments of joy.
As stated in the title, yes, I made it to Jerusalem, and I prayed in Al-Aqsa Mosque. This impossible dream of mine finally came true. It was indeed so great a pleasure. However, I no longer feel its joy. I don’t want to feel it either. I even seem to have forgotten its detail. The death of my nephew, the agony of my sister, the intense sadness we have all felt has killed such a delight. Both visiting Jerusalem and being an aunt were dreams. The former was utterly impossible, and the latter was so much possible. The impossible became possible while the possible wasn’t really possible, at least not for now. Didn’t I say my life is so unpredictable I cannot even tell what I am up to the very next moment? Every day I am a new person and never quite the same as yesterday. Because of my Kafkaesque reality, I want to escape to a different reality and to a better world. In Heaven, probably, where Laith is. May he rest in peace. May I rest in peace.
(This story was crossposted on Fidaa Abuassi’s blog under the title, “My Mystifying Reality: Between The Death of My nephew and My Visit to Jerusalem”)