I can still faintly recall the salty tinge of the breeze that leisurely drifted through the open paneled windows into the petite cabin. My memory of the mustard-colored puffy couch with the intricately hand sown carnations, where I had proudly presented my grandmother with a baby frog I had caught in the garden only for her to shriek in utter disgust, is as vivid as her revolted yelps. And although I had accumulated a decent amount of remembrances about summers spent trekking sand from the beach onto the previously spotless marble floors of the cabin, at a certain point, I had ceased forming new ones. Our summerhouse, I was told after I had asked for the umpteenth time, was sold for reasons my family refused to disclose to me. It was extremely odd I had even remembered it, my mother professed, as we had not set foot in its vicinity since the summer of 1999.
The years passed and as my infatuation with Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries blossomed into full-blown obsession, my need to uncover the family-wide secret of the events that had transpired that summer transcended their will to conceal it from me. After I had poked, prodded and pleaded in a succession of shrill unyielding squawks, my mother softly pulled me onto her lap, took a long steading breath and confessed: “Your aunt, my sister Yara, died in that cabin.”
I was merely vaguely aware of this absent aunt’s existence. Perhaps I had questioned my grandmother about the portrait of a young raven-haired woman that hung in front of the chair, on which she seemed perpetually plastered. Perhaps I had noticed my mother’s unremitting pensive daydreams that would leave her looking hollow and ghostly. Or perhaps I had tallied the amount of times I had been erroneously called by her name, only for my grandfather to hastily correct his mistake. Her presence loomed over our lives, like a mist they had stopped noticing but one that I could not see past.
The covert nature of the events that surrounded her death only served to feed my appetite for the truth. Rather than dissuade me from harassing any family member who would listen, my mother’s answer seemed to have only scratched the bare surface of a much profounder truth. And so, the questions flooded out of my teething mouth like a faulty faucet that simply wouldn’t stop gurgling out its contents. How did she die? Why doesn’t anyone talk about her? Was it cancer that abruptly ended her life? (I had only recently been introduced to the term, as my friend had lost her grandfather to the illness) Multiple times, I was beseechingly urged by my mother’s cousins to drop my investigation and to simply accept my lack of knowledge on the topic. Yet, a child will repeat the very same question as many times as it takes to receive a satisfying response, and therefore – naturally – my endeavors only increased in vigor.
It wasn’t until we travelled to Cleveland to visit my father’s brother, who had been a resident doctor at the clinic, that I was finally given some answers. My sisters and I were huddled around the fireplace, defrosting from the subzero cold that is a permanent feature of the city, when the youngest proceeded to bluntly and unreservedly inquire, “Uncle Hazem, why do you live in this horrible place?” A pain I did not comprehend flashed across his usually humor-ridden face and he jokingly brushed it off, “You kids complain about everything. Egypt is too hot and Cleveland is too cold! You’re only happy when you’re spending your dad’s money on sweets!” He scooped up the three of us into a giant bear hug, which led to a trifold eruption of high-pitched giggles, before excusing himself and exiting the room. My sister, deflating from her hysterical fit, squeakily repeated her question louder and louder each time, until my mother ultimately caved and quite reluctantly replied with “Your father’s brother was married to my sister. They met after your father and I got together.”
“But why does he live here?”
“After your auntie…left, your uncle moved away from Egypt.” At the time, her reply had not completely registered. Yet, a few years later, when I had dug up the memory from the deepest depths of my mind, I understood. For my family, the mournful pain they had endured after the loss of the raven-haired woman had rendered their usual summer place a no-drive zone. Yet, for my uncle, losing the love of his life had eradicated his ability to remain in the same country.
As I finally sprouted breasts, supergluedbraces onto my crooked teeth and entered the ever-embarrassing age of pubescence, the family adults gradually became more comfortable conversing about extremely hush-hush topics in my unobtrusive presence. From exposing scandalous affairs between so-and-so to sacrilegiously ranting about [unknown]’s horrid character traits, they barred nothing.
“Galal said she couldn’t do it, so she decided to run for club presidency just to spite him. Can you believe the fierceness of this woman?” “Serves him right to question a woman’s power!”
“Her husband only left her that old rattletrap car in his will! Where the rest of the money went is what I want to know.” “He probably left it all to that 20-something bimbo that visited at the hospital!”
“Poor woman. She was in labor for almost two full days but the baby boy’s healthy. We should congratulate Hazem, he deserves to be happy.” I was lounging on a nearby chair, fiercely punching the controls on my Nintendo DS, when my ears instinctively attuned to the conversation at the mention of my uncle’s name. He had remarried a while back and my mother was the one, who – summoning every ounce of strength in her body – had played matchmaker with her sister’s widower and another woman. Engy, my new aunt, had been pregnant with their firstborn and had finally given birth.
“What did they name him?” my grandmother’s sister asked excitedly, as my mother’s face took on a grimaced expression. She pursed her lips for a few elongated seconds, before half-heartedly making the big reveal.
“They named him Youssef.”
The name rung around the living room like toxic venom that paralyzed each and every one of them. From the corner of my eye, I glimpsed my strong – and in modern terms feminist – grandmother weeping for the first time in my fifteen years of life. One of my mother’s cousins broke the silence by declaring it was time for dinner, at which point they all proceeded to push themselves off their chairs, to which they had been cemented out of complete disbelief, and into the dining room. My grandmother’s sister, the kindest and most softhearted one, stayed behind to swiftly usher the maids into the kitchen to fetch the food. Considering it a prime opportunity, I berated her in a hushed yet decisive tone, in an effort to fathom the weight the name Youssef seemed to carry. In her fragile and distraught state, she didn’t even attempt to fight me off.
Youssef, it turns out, would have been uncle Hazem and auntie Yara’s son. If she hadn’t passed away, while 8 months pregnant with him.
My mind wandered with possibilities, morphing into an anarchic jumble comprised of my school’s German dictionary definitions of random illnesses that I had carefully picked out as potential causes of my aunt’s premature death:
Herzkrankheit, die – Heart disease
chronisch obstruktive Lungenerkrankung, die – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
Zuckerkrankheit, die – diabetes
Lebererkrankung, die – liver disease
They all seemed equally as likely to have yanked out the batteries that had powered her heart, the very organ that had tethered a woman and her unborn child to the world of the living. My medical glossary teeming with terms I did not wield the knowledge to comprehend, I collapsed and – lacking any more outlets of insider information – went to the only person I had avoided nagging about the subject for fear of awakening a lingering grief that was only momentarily dulled one cigarette at a time – my grandmother.
The day my aunt’s heart stopped beating was the last day my grandmother’s closet had seen the bright yellow of day, the pastel blue of hydrangeas or even the rich red of freshly picked tomatoes. As her demeanor had blackened, so had her wardrobe. Every laugh was laced with tangible agony, every corner of her house adorned with memorials of the child that had been taken away. I had never wanted to stir up the ache that I had always known she felt but my frustration at my inability to untangle the riddle had at long last gotten the best of me. I sauntered into the living room, where she was puffing out smoke from her cigarette, looking out the open window longingly and periodically shifting her gaze to the portrait of the raven-haired woman. I treaded carefully, my eyes following hers, as I blurted out the words I had meticulously prepared.
“How did she die, grandma?”
Her tearful eyes flickered towards me but only briefly before returning to their resting place on her daughter’s face.
“I don’t know.”
“Was it her heart?”
“It was nothing.”
I digested her words slowly, dissecting every syllable, as she blankly stared back at me, the tears she had tried to suppress fighting against her will to hold them back and freely flowing.
And then it dawned on me. She hadn’t suffered from a Herzkrankheit or a vicious respiratory disease.
She hadn’t been sick at all. Her eyelids had simply refused to flutter open one morning and her heart, that motherly organ that had sheltered its offspring, had ceased its rhythmic beating. A healthy twenty-something pregnant mother/sister/daughter had died of…nothing.
The cabin I had always associated with wholesome warmth and glee suddenly paled in my memory. I realized that the breeze that had wafted through the windows, the one I had constantly yearned for, had only reminded them of how her laughter had been carried by the wind from the garden into the house. How the couch, adorned with a pattern of breathtaking flowers, had only brought the agonizing image of her serenely napping on its soft cushions after an exhausting day at the beach. How the sight of me dripping salt water onto the floor would have undoubtedly pained them, as they would have grieved for the child that could have been animatedly staining the floor with his tiny mud-spattered feet but was never born.
My grandmother never said it but I had seen the non-pixelated picture and so I knew that somehow, deep down, she had wished – begged even – for an illness. That she had silently pleaded with the God, that in my eyes had betrayed her, to have stricken her child with an illness that would have helped her come to terms with her life’s greatest challenge.
I remember stumbling upon a quote while reading The Fault in our Stars, which I could not entirely shake off –“There is no glory in illness. There is no meaning to it. There is no honor in dying of.” Perhaps there is no glory. Perhaps there is no meaning. Perhaps there is no honor. But there certainly is peace in dying of an illness. Any illness.