I struggle to hold back the tears. Tears for all the things she can never have again, do again
The door is open. It’s silent. At first glance, I don’t see anyone inside. But she’s there. Lying still on the big hospital-style bed. I had expected the room to be much cozier, this small room that is now a home, where days turn into endless nights. Yet not even a painted floral likeness hangs. I see her staring silently, analyzing the far wall as if generations have recorded their secrets on its whitewashed surface.
“Nana!” I hear my voice reverberate clearly. She turns her head, and her eyes light up with a golden glow.
“Hi, darling!” she says, pulling herself more upright.
I lean in and kiss her on the cheek. Her skin is pale, whiter than it ever was. The creases have become more defined since my visit last year. She wears one of her handmade dresses. It is light blue, dotted with small white flowers. It reminds me of the beautiful blue sky she never gets to see.
My six-month-old looks on silently in my arms. My two-year-old clutches my skirt.
“Hello, darling! Hello, sweetie!” she exclaims.
She is ecstatic. Nana always loved babies. First it was grandkids, now great-grandkids. Nana cups my baby’s soft chubby face in her hands, kissing his forehead. He looks at her shyly. She stretches her arms out to hold him. He eyes her curiously but doesn’t protest. Soon he returns her huge smile, looking at her with large eyes.
I lift my toddler onto the side of the bed. Nana wraps her arm around him then hands him a cookie from a packet on the table. Even now, she still makes sure she always has something sweet to offer.
“How’s Daddy?” she asks me. “They said he hurt his leg very badly. When he’s better I’ll see him again.”
I nod, but my heart aches. I can’t tell her he’s never coming back.
As kids, Abba would take us to visit Nana every week. Her home was a central meeting point between aunts, uncles, and cousins. Abba was close to her heart.
“So nice to see you. Where do you live now? Far away, right?” she continues.
I describe my new country, new place, new life as a young mother with a new baby.
Nana turns her attention to my baby on her lap and starts singing. In Arabic. It’s her mother tongue, and even though she speaks to her family in English, it’s still the language of her heart. She’s clapping and singing loudly. Freely. I know this tune from other babies she’s held, many years ago. The tune and melody are soothing, at times jovial. I decide it must be about love for little children, and happiness.
Her singing is spotted with laughter. The laugh of a young woman. I hear the young woman she was, before her mind and body began to fail her. Nana may be bedridden, but her heart is free to soar.
Suddenly, she’s quiet. Thoughtful. “I can’t wait to go home to my own kitchen. It’s too small here. I can’t cook.”
I look around the cramped room. It’s just the bed, two chairs, a cupboard, and the tray on wheels. She hasn’t cooked for ten years, at least.
“I’ll make all of you hamim, plau, luizina.”
I smell the strong aroma of cumin, coriander, and cloves. Of tomato and turmeric mixed with cooking rice. I taste the sugary sweetness of coconut-filled luizina. Freshly made snacks always decorated her dining table.
Now Nana is playing little hand games with my kids. They giggle, so does she. My heart expands.
“It’s so nice you came,” she says, talking to me now. “How’s Daddy? They said he hurt his leg badly.”
I nod again. The lump in my throat hurts. The first year isn’t even over yet. I wonder whether Nana knows it in her heart. I have no idea what to say. It hurts to lie, but I know it’s best. It wasn’t my decision anyway, and I’m so glad of that.
“When I go home, I’ll make another dress. This one is so old.” She plays with the edge of her dress.
I struggle to hold back the tears. Tears for all the things she can never have again, do again. For the son she cannot see again.
I take Nana’s hand, and my heart feels warmth. I will help protect her, whatever that entails.
Nana is speaking again. Asking about Abba.
Finally, we say our goodbyes. I give Nana a big hug. “I’ll be going home in a few weeks,” she says. Last year, she said the same thing.
Nana has no idea how much she fills our lives. I wave goodbye, hoping I can carry forward the same bright future she always has.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 827)
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