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Do Not Go!

By Moazzam Sheikh

Pleased, beaming, yum yumming, she finished cooking pasta sauce the way he liked ‒ a bit more garlic and a dash of chilli powder ‒ and turned down the flame real low, the sauce simmering indolently. She was about to reach for a packet of flat spinach noodle to add to the boiling water when she fully realized that he wasn’t home yet. Mid-November and already dark beyond the windows, he could catch a cold, a flu, perhaps pneumonia. Touch wood, she whispered. One could trip, break wrist, hip, summoning visits to the hospital, restricted movement, crutches. A train of thought too frightening, she shook her head and cleared her throat. She set down the pasta on the countertop, unopened, reading the label mindlessly.

He went for his walk in the daylight though sometimes he did step out in the late afternoon. However, as far as she could remember he always returned before sundown. His routine she could depend on for the last two years. He must have misjudged, she shuddered, suddenly feeling hot in the kitchen. Although she breathed deep to calm her nerves, she couldn’t concentrate. The moment she tossed noodles into the water followed by a pinch of salt and half a spoon of olive oil, she regretted it. Pasta didn’t like to be left in water half-cooked. Agitation nudging her fear, she felt she’d have to turn off the stove and go out looking for him if he didn’t return in the next five minutes.

Five minutes passed and she frittered away a few more, paralyzed by indecision, when she cocked her ear to the noise of feet shuffling out in the corridor, nearing the apartment door. It turned out to be a sound conjured by hope. She snapped out, turned off the stove, and grabbing her keys and a light sweater, which Ronny had bought for her on her birthday, exited the building. Encountering the actual darkness which the onset of winter had ushered, despite the street pole lights, her heart sank further.

He could be anywhere, she inferred, and not knowing where that anywhere was, she could be walking in the opposite direction, away from him, lengthening his torment. She took a deep breath, again, and walked to the corner where her avenue intersected the busy street. From there she tried to scan the foot traffic in four directions. Her eyes traveling as deep as a block and beyond, and despite the thinness of the crowd due to the nippy winter air, she failed to spot a lost figure resembling him. She walked eastward unaware of the silent prayers her subconscious mind had been offering with little regard for her resolve throughout her adult life to not rely, as she put it many times, on the crutches of religion. She recognised it and let the prayers continue consoling her heart recalling the distinction she sometimes made between religion and spirituality. The fact that she also didn’t consider herself very spiritual, though nothing wrong with being one, amounted to very little right now. She was most concerned, at the moment, with his safety; her personal problems could wait.

A big sigh of relief! She spotted him outside Fresh Donuts, looking lost as she called out to him from across the street.

“I don’t know what happened. I just couldn’t figure out which way to go,” he explained, embarrassed.

She’d too felt like that many times, she came this close to voicing her thought, mesmerized by the doldrums, juggling personal life, work, moral obligations. As they walked home, she holding him by the arm lest he trip, he said he knew she’d be worried. The more he worried the more he lost his sense of reference. When he thought of asking a stranger for help, he shied away because he couldn’t remember the address or the cross street. He had enough sense to accept that he stood lost on Clement Street. That didn’t help much though, he laughed. She told him she was grateful and impressed he didn’t panic. Help would’ve come sooner or later. Nervous giggles escaped from their mouths as they neared the apartment. A combination of relief and premonition. At home, he went straight to the bathroom to relieve himself and heard her say that the pasta was going to be a little below his standard, not what counts for normal, a little soggy, fluffy perhaps, but the yummy sauce, she promised, would make up for it. She didn’t have to tell him about the tiny bit of rum she’d added to the sauce.

“Don’t worry, honey. Your father is hungry and will eat anything.”

She wanted to say thank god, you’re an easy eater. Not like Ammi, but she bit her tongue. When they sat down to eat, she hesitated but eventually wondered aloud if he remembered her phone number, which to her relief he rattled off without a hitch. Ah, the memory had returned. He said he’d eventually stop a passerby. She felt relieved and the food began to amble down to her stomach with more ease. The sips from her beer soothed her throat. She wished he’d share her beer, relax his strict adherence to the doctor’s advice. Perhaps another time. That night when she went to bed, her mind drifted to her brother struggling to survive in New York, in and out of rehab several times for the last couple of years. He’d already done his bit, taking care of their parents till mother died, mercifully quickly, without a whisper in her sleep. A silent heart attack, they said. Soon after her brother’s life unraveled. He couldn’t take care of father, who then faced a choice of moving back to Lahore or San Francisco.

She avoided sharing with Ronny the episode of father getting lost, but when she saw him a few days later she realized he had the right to know what’s been on her mind. Despite all the good qualities Ronny possessed as a human being, and lover, there was a cold side to him. A person is like a coin, Ronny relished using that metaphor, with two sides, at least. Where she saw his insensitivity, or impatience, towards certain things, he saw drawn boundaries, standing up for what was right, his rights, personal values, spaces, desires, likes and dislikes, cultural or personal baggage and so on. After having dated for more than a year, they were going through the process of exploring the possibility of getting hitched to each other. They both agreed they wouldn’t mind having a child or two. Her eggs were drying up. With a sense of urgency, one day Ronny did ask if she’d consider marrying him first in order to get pregnant. Though he was far from being Mr. Perfect, she’d already weighed the pros and cons of living with her boyfriend Ronald Ngyuen. Their plans got disrupted when Mr. Bhutta — that’s how Ronny preferred to address her father instead of by first name ‒ was brought by her to live in San Francisco. Despite old age, her father would’ve liked to live near his son. Even if that meant moving into a facility for elderly living. He also suggested moving back to Lahore. Neither choice was practical when emotional and economic reasons were taken into consideration.

Kausar initially cheered up to the idea of having father around. His liberal, open-minded side had pleasantly surprised her when he indicated that he considered his children adult now and the fact that they weren’t living in Pakistan anymore, his son and daughter had all the right to lead their lives without any pressure from the parents. Her mother turned out to be a bit more conservative than the children had realised, but she too sided with her husband’s wisdom. The couple tried their best to warm up to whoever their children were dating in college, and when a new partner showed up, they accepted him or her. There was a brief period, before the mother passed away, when the parents wondered if the mess their son had found himself in was, in fact, something do with their hands-off attitude once he went to college. But in their defense, they argued, Why, then, had Kausar turned out fine?

He went missing again. That time she couldn’t find him anywhere in the neighborhood. Blocking off a deep sense of foreboding, she called Ronny, busy assisting with the mounting of his photographs for an exhibition.

“I’d call police,” he suggested coldly. “They’ll spot him soon wandering around, lost.”

“I wondered if you were on your way, we could drive around in your car and look for him,” she said calmly, stifling her panic.

She knew he couldn’t come just like that. His suggestion made sense. Yet her fingers froze recalling the incident, was it somewhere in New Jersey? A cop seriously injured an elderly Indian man on a neighborhood stroll. He’d been visiting his son to help babysit his year-old grandson. A woman called the police about a suspicious looking man wandering around her neighborhood. The man from India, short and effeminate looking, in his mid-fifties, wearing glasses with thick lenses, did not speak English, only Hindi and Gujrati, was admiring neat looking cookie cutter suburban houses, their large fronts, mowed lawns, trimmed hedges. The already irritated cop lost his patience and slammed the visitor to the floor, paralyzing him forever. The jury, comprising of majority of white men, acquitted the cop because the man who’d come to help his son and daughter-in-law had ‒ the defense attorney pointed out ‒ committed a misdemeanor by leaving the house without identification papers. It made sense to people defending the cop. Don’t frustrate a cop; it doesn’t matter whether you pose a threat or not. The burden of failure to communicate is on you. She shook her head. She only hoped the San Francisco cops had more humanity and better training. Tonight!

In the end she dialed 911. Yes, an older man matching his name and description had been reported lost and an ambulance had taken him to General Hospital. Ronny had to stop everything and drive her to the hospital’s emergency ward. Thank god, he’s okay. He smiled sheepishly, his guilty smile although it wasn’t his fault. The old man had blanked out and made the mistake of approaching a passerby, who, unable to help and make father remember Kausar’s address, or phone number, had taken upon himself to call the ambulance. As per their procedure, by law, they had to run all kinds of tests now, check his vitals, to make sure he was fit to leave. It’s going to take a couple of hours. A senior nurse told her she’d have to be patient. Ronny had to return to help with the exhibition but would come back soon to take them home.

“What happened, Abba?” she asked, patting his hand, consoling a worried, defeated father.

She dreaded the moment she would have to contemplate the possibility of dementia snatching him from her. The fact that he actually stood right below her flat but couldn’t recognise it left Kauser stunned. What is he going to forget next? she wondered. As melancholy crept in, she tried to fight it off with positive thoughts. She was going to do everything in her power to make sure he didn’t succumb to the cruel malady without a fight. She admitted she could never have imagined it’d come knocking on her door so soon. She made up her mind to read up on the latest research, borrow or buy books on physical and mental exercises, and foods that help keep memory strong. She wouldn’t let him forget his wife and children’s names.

He didn’t forget their names or the names of his friends, past neighbors, even colleagues. As days went by, she felt relieved seeing him settle down a bit while accepting that he couldn’t venture out alone anymore. He’d never been the stubborn type. He could be feisty but not of late. She relied on Ron and one of her neighbors Doug to give company to her father when she had to go out. Thankfully, she could do most of her work from home. Both Ron and Doug enjoyed conversations with him on topics of mutual interest, especially foreign policy and history. Father’s humility impressed Doug, who besides having a crush on Kauser which he’d hinted at a few times, studied History with a minor in International Relations at Kent, Ohio State. On and off, he’d been reshaping the old man’s worldview crystalized by what he called Eurocentric education, although her father considered himself a political person, having taken part in ending General Ayub’s reign. Even when Bhutto was hanged, he openly criticized the military takeover under General Zia, right around when she left Pakistan. It’s a miracle that he didn’t lose his job at the Mayo Hospital.

“It’s the rigor, intensive studying at medical schools which kill critical analysis among most doctors. It decimates nuanced thinking. Otherwise, they’re very intelligent people,” Doug once said to her after he’d finished a long conversation with father on the topic of African countries and their independence from European powers. Ron and Doug, on the other hand, tolerated each other courteously. Doug saw Ron as a typical Vietnamese American unable to criticize America openly lest someone accused him of ungratefulness. Or worst still, telling him to go back to Vietnam! He found Ron’s critique of modern society, by which Ron meant modern western society, inadequate through his photography. Ron was content with what he’d been doing for the last several years, visiting Vietnamese seniors all over the country, photographing them in black and white, their faces, creased and ageless, eyes nostalgic and confused, capturing the front of their homes and apartments, the interior where east and west adjusted around each other. True, he avoided asking overt political questions, he still considered his work political. Kauser agreed with both.

Without appearing to be overt, Kauser played mind games with Father to see if he forgot important names. She asked him about their childhood, his childhood, when he first saw Ammi-jan, whether he remembered his grandparents, his neighborhood in Ludhiana before Partition. To her surprise his memory was crystal clear. She began to breathe a sigh of relief. What a scare he gave her! She’d hate to part with him, send him to a nursing home or back to live with one of her cousins. Better to be at the mercy of your own children, she insisted, however spoiled they might be, than the nurses or distant relatives.

“But what about your life, Kay?” asked Ronnie rhetorically one afternoon as they sat at a sidewalk table of a bar for happy hours near her apartment. She had set Mr. Bhutta up with munchies and a clean print of a classic of early Hindi cinema which she’d found on Youtube. One certain way to tie him down for two hours, she smiled sadly.

“What about it?” she asked, puzzled.

“I thought we were supposed to try living together . . .”

She picked up where he trailed off, “Get married,” she paused, sighed, “and make a go at having a child.”

Was she smirking or smiling? She couldn’t tell because her face had quickly reverted to appearing placid. Then as she took a sip of her drink, her forehead furrowed a bit.

“Kay, I know you have a lot on your mind and it’s affecting your work,” he waited for her to interrupt him, but she just looked away, far to the end of the block milling with neighbors out shopping. “But I am not sure what your plan is.”

“Plans about what, babe?” she asked without irritation.

“Oh, forget it!” he said, pretending to relax. “This is not the time.”

She fixed him with a stare. He dared her. Her face softened, a crease appearing around the side of her mouth. A beautiful woman, he thought. Still, he didn’t smile back.

“Are you quitting on me, sweetie?”

“No!” he replied. “I’m afraid I might lose you.”

She was tempted to ask how? Instead, she opted for silence. She knew the answer. Both Ronny and she had small apartments, and with rents the way they were, they couldn’t afford to quit their rent-control apartments and risk eviction. She hated to see her father as a burden or a barrier to her happiness. When he looked at her again, she nodded gently, conveying that she understood his apprehension. She placed her hand on his, then squeezed it.

“Me too. We have to trust,” she said.

As they walked back to Kausar’s apartment, they held each other close, her head nudging into his chest despite they almost tripped a few times when their legs bumped into each other. Yet they persisted, mimicking an image from a movie most likely, ignoring the awkwardness his short height had produced, bravely laughing it off. They kissed, outside the building, under the faint glow of streetlights, her ajar eyes catching an anti-Trump sign in a neighboring window.

“I’ll come over soon as he falls asleep,” she said. 

She heard him puttering around in the kitchen when she entered. Had the movie ended? She called out, asking if he needed help with something, as she took off her shoes. He emerged, smiling nervously, like a child caught rummaging through kitchen closets looking for cookies and candies.

“How was the film?” she asked.

“I’d seen it before but had forgotten it. One of Dilip’s best I think,” he said. “His acting so subtle, so controlled.”

“So you enjoyed it. That’s good.”

The screen had been turned off. The plates were still there which she collected now. Only when she went to the kitchen did she notice one of his shirts slung across his shoulders. Was he thinking of changing into a clean shirt? A dress shirt? She observed him quietly. He stood in the living room for a long moment, then turned to the wall and took a step. She couldn’t see him, so she left the kitchen and hid herself from him, beside the door. He was looking at the calendar. She’d forgotten to change the month. Did he know it was the wrong month?

“Why do you have that shirt on your shoulder?” she asked casually.

He noticed the shirt, surprised, held it, examined it, still puzzled, then looked at Kauser for an answer, smiling vulnerably. “Did you put it here?”

“Me? Abba, why would I? You must have done it.”

“Why would I do it? You’re crazy,” he mocked her and put the shirt down on a chair.

She called Ronny a little later and made up an excuse about feeling a little ill. Could be a cold, no, not a flu, she hoped, but rest was probably the best option. He said, okay, he too was feeling tired and ready to hit the sack.

A few days later when she returned from Ronny’s place a little after one in the morning, he was gently snoring away. Relieved, she decided to take a quick shower. His snores had stopped. She changed into her pajamas and crawled under her duvet covers. She’d hoped to fall asleep right away, after a nice time with Ronny, but found herself tossing and turning, questioning if it was the absence of his snores that disquieted her. She zoned out briefly before becoming fully awake. She got out and tiptoed to his room only to be shocked to notice the blanket pushed aside. Not in bed. When did he get up? Is he in the kitchen or living room? Both rooms were unlit, though her eyes by now had adjusted to the dark.

“Abba?” but no response came.

Did he collapse? She rushed through the apartment switching on the lights. He was nowhere. And then she noted the unlocked front door. She almost fainted. It was ten after three in the morning. Oh god! she cried. She chided herself instantly as she recognized her first impulse was to call Ronny.

Standing at the corner, she looked as far as her eyes could see, north, south, east, west, deserted streets with shuttered down shops, a sprinkle of cars parked on either side of the streets. She felt paralyzed. Too scared to cover the neighborhood territory on her own at this time of night. An uncanny fear, a sense of embarrassment, made her resist calling police. What if they arrest her for elderly negligence! What could she have done to stop him from sneaking out like this? Tears began to roll out of her eyes. Who could she wake for help? She dialed her brother’s number with unsteady fingers. It rang and rang with no possibility of leaving a message. Unawares, she shouted into the phone, “Come on, for god’s sake, pick up the phone! Abba’s missing! Again!” She cursed a few times before hanging up.

Taking a deep breath, she dialed 911. A professional, sympathetic voice came on. She was about to offer Father’s description after a standard drill of questions when she heard the front door in her building’s portico opening. She was startled to see Doug and her voice faltered.

“Kay, your father is with me,” he said.

“What? . . . Wait. Officer, I think my neighbor has found him . . . Thank you,” and as she hung up, she asked Doug, “How the hell did he . . .” and she burst out crying.

Doug walked up and held her, escorting her back into the building.

“I’m so afraid of him getting hurt,” she explained through sobs.

“He’s back at your place,” he said. “Lights were on in every room, and I knew you’d gone looking for him. You can always wake me up.”

She thanked him before finding her own balance with her feet searching for the stairs. He followed her down the corridor.

She stopped. “What did he say?”

“I heard the knock. Honestly, I was worried,” he giggled. “I opened the door and there he was, standing, looking confused. He almost didn’t recognise me when I said, ‘What’s wrong Anjum?’ Instead, he said he was hungry.”

“Just three doors down he lost his bearing?” she marveled aloud.

She knew from his expression that the fear in her eyes was clearly discernible. She tried to soften the tension on her face. They now stood outside her apartment, momentarily, lost for words.

“You should get some sleep, Doug,” she said.

“I won’t be able to. I’ll be up if you need me,” he replied before turning.

“I won’t be either,” she paused. “You’re welcome to come in if you like.”

“You sure?”

She nodded before pushing the door. She could hear his snores. Instead of calming her down, the sound made her furious.

Kauser didn’t bring up her father’s encroaching dementia, only found it ironic, when Ronny began talking about his exhibition of photographs of the Vietnamese American diaspora. He found the population of elders divided into half and half, those who had somehow managed to live with or nearby their children and those who either lived alone or in nursing homes.

“I plan on visiting Vietnam after the reception. You wanna come with me?”

Insensitive! was her first reaction, but she rebuked herself for focusing on the negative.

“Is it to see your father?” she asked. “I hope he’s not ill.”

“No, he’s very fit. I just want to visit, not particularly him, but he’ll be there of course. I want to surprise him.”

“You know I can’t. I have to sort out . . .”  she said.

Two weeks passed without an incident, except that once or twice he mixed up Kauser with his wife and his sister. It could be dementia, or it could be just old age. She, too, once called Ronny by her ex’s name John, the bread maker, always called him Johnny, never John.

Ronny flew to Vietnam for a month but left the idea of extending his stay open. Kauser understood now more than ever. He’d mentioned it before, though always wavering, afraid of encountering a father who, after defecting to the North, had abandoned him and his mother, who had no choice but to rely, as she put it, on the help provided by her brother employed by the Americans.

When Ronny, a year old, got sick, and was taken to the hospital, his mother and Ronny were eventually taken care of by an American soldier, a nurse until the Fall of Saigon. Thereafter, they continued with the American. The two younger sisters born in Cotati, California, lived together as a family. That was why it was always difficult to watch Vietnam War movies which portrayed all South Vietnamese women as whores for the pleasure of American soldiers, Ronny had explained it to Kauser and others. Dylan, Ronny’s stepdad died young from heart trouble, overweight, diabetes, and failed kidneys. It was more from grief that his mother, Ronny alleged, cursed Dylan for things which didn’t make sense to him or his sisters, having moved away to different colleges. One of the sisters, the elder, said that Dylan’s death was caused by his memories of American War in Vietnam. Kauser had met the mother and sisters several times and liked them very much, enjoyed getting together with them in Cotati, despite her dislike for similar places, over Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“Dylan was more a Buddhist, than Presbytarian,” intoned Ronny’s mother.

The sisters grew up more or less atheists, even before they moved to Cal, two years apart.

Kauser’s brother had promised to visit soon, said he’d been going clean and things were starting to work out on his end. There was something about the whole conversation which failed to convince her of a probable happy ending. After speaking with him she’d weep a bit. What is he thinking? she wondered. Is he going to take father off her hands? Abba was also becoming less and less conversant, even forgetting the fact that he’d just been fed, getting annoyed or angry that Kauser was depriving him of food.

“That’s elder abuse, Kauser!” he admonished her weakly.

She couldn’t stop laughing and hugged him tight, fearing she was losing her grip on him. She saw him one mid-morning sitting by the window, staring at the foot traffic, and heard a voice in her head whisper, “He’s gone!” She couldn’t help but shout, “Don’t leave me, father!”

He turned and, as if feeling caught, defended himself, “I am not going anywhere. What made you think so?” he pleaded rather than demanded.

Then she heard her own voice in the realm of silence, “No, you are. Abba, you’re already gone,” walking away.

Suddenly, her friend Miriam was back from traveling and offered to help out with being around her father when Kauser needed to step out for work. Doug was there too. Thanks to her supervisor, she could accomplish most of her work from home. Her brother had to postpone his visit for personal reasons, as he said with an added stress, not because of medical reasons.

“I understand. But I need you to sort this out before something happens,” she told him over the phone and regretted it.

In reply, she heard a sigh. She knew once off the phone, he’d weep too. Perhaps she could think about moving there, but the rent situation was untenable.

“I can’t find him, Kay,” he laughed a sarcastic laugh. “They say he just disappeared one day about six months ago.” She was speaking to Ronnie.

She failed to detect any pain in his voice.

“Oh my god!” she cried sympathetically. “What are you going to do? How are you feeling?”

“I don’t know. I have looked around at all the possible suspect places. I can’t do much.”

“Are you taking care of yourself?”

“Yes, I am. How about you?”
 “I’m okay. Are you coming back then?” she asked.

There was a silence that seemed to linger a tad too long.

“Hello?”

“I’m still here,” he paused again. “I think I’m going to stick around a little longer.”

“I see.”

“There’s this guy, a very good photographer; he wants to do a joint project. About the war,” he explained.

She felt terrible, deflated after hanging up. It turned out to be a wise decision to go out on a stroll with her father. They grabbed fresh spring rolls and sesame balls and ate them in the park watching kids run around the play structure, kicking sand, shrieking, tripping, crying.

“You were like him,” he pointed to a little boy who seemed to burst with energy. “Maqsood was the opposite.”

“You mean Qasim!” she corrected him.

“Yes, Qasim,” he seemed startled. “Who’s Maqsood?” he added before he broke down, weeping.

She didn’t comfort him, simply watched him; just let him be, she reasoned. Perhaps that’s all that was needed to cure his dementia! He stopped soon, raised his head ‒ a complete absence of tears. As if he forgot he’d just wept a minute ago. The food preoccupied him now. She struck up light conversation now and then, but she really wasn’t in the mood. Her thoughts wandered. She needed to be in control of her thoughts or else she wouldn’t survive. The way things were, she told herself, she wouldn’t. She saw herself succumbing to mild depression. Or it is anxiety? she asked. She must preoccupy herself with chores to stop bleak thoughts from entering her head. She saw herself walking out of the park to 19th Avenue which turns into a freeway to Golden Gate Bridge, her thumb sticking up offering herself to be hitchhiked to never come back. His, “Look at that brat,” chuckling, brought her back from her reverie.

Next time they spoke she couldn’t share Ronny’s excitement over his trips into the countryside collecting material for his project.

“There are so many stories here to be told,” he said excitedly.

He went on and on. A method of deflection.

“I am reaching a breaking point,” she said.

“Babe, tell Qasim to come and help out,” Ronny advised.

“He’s coming,” she lied. “I’m just tired.”

The real reason Ronny went to Vietnam was to distance himself from her personal problem, she was convinced. Her father’s health had started to affect her work now, not to mention her personal life. Abba’s doctor had brought up the subject of looking into the possibility of admitting him to a senior facility such as Laguna Honda. It sent shivers down her spine. There would be no way to know if the staff abused him. She imagined forgetting to visit, spacing out, forgetting him. Or worst, he not recognising her. Although she let it sink in, those hard choices had to be made, she wished she could just take him to Pakistan, where relatives and neighbours still stepped in. There was no one she could now rely on, she mourned. Abba had not stayed in touch with anyone because he got tired of helping out for his children worked in the US. He also encouraged the children to not stay in touch with their cousins. And now she was on her own. Just last week she overslept and missed an important meeting. Last night, she had to decline an invitation to Sheila’s baby shower, and she already knew, unless she could get Doug or Miriam to be with Abba, she wouldn’t be able to go to Ajit’s party. An old news item resurfaced in her mind, about a middle-aged Indian immigrant in Foster City hitting his eighty-year-old, wheel-chaired father on the head with a hammer, not with the intension of killing him but so, he mistakenly believed, he could be admitted to a nursing home; he couldn’t look after the old man alone. Sick! She shook off the thought. How people could stoop so low in difficult circumstances, she cried silently.

Qasim was back in rehab. His estranged wife, Laurie, called to tell Kauser that she and her kids have washed their hands off. Narcissism, she said, was at the root of all his problems and now no one could help him, let alone expecting help from him. When Laurie enquired about Anjum, Kauser told her how he’d tried to sneak out again. “Thank god, he couldn’t unlatch the door from inside, and the noise alerted me. I can’t even go to the bathroom!” Kauser pretended to laugh. Laurie understood as only another woman could, relating to her own situation while taking care of two very demanding children without her husband. Laurie said she wished she lived nearby. That sentiment touched Kauser deeply. She didn’t want to worry her sister-in-law too much by telling her that his appetite had also dipped. Should she end father’s misery by suffocating him with a pillow? She thought of shocking Laurie but ended up feeling awful.

That night Kauser snapped at her father for the first time in her recent memory when he began about his father serving in the Indian British army on the African front. She told him curtly to stop beating the dead horse. He was taken aback and gave her a look of deep hurt. She felt remorse but allowed that feeling to be overtaken by a surging wave of melancholy. It also didn’t help that Doug and Miriam had hit it off while having dinner at Kauser’s apartment with Miriam going gaga over a dish brought by Doug. Doug knew Ronny wasn’t coming back anytime soon, then, why, Kauser wondered, hadn’t he made a move? She believed she’d given enough hints. Unconsciously, she blamed her father for this snub. Doug, too, had quietly moved on.

She opened a bottle of wine, thinking, bizarrely, of previous lovers and sat down by the window after tuning the radio to a jazz station. A trumpet seemed to be searching, frantically, for the bluest note possible. But only succeeding in finding a red, blazing hot one. She was on her second glass. The music changed. Then on her third glass, she contemplated the sun lowering itself behind trees and rooftops and actually dropping dead, unleashing a snowstorm. She felt an obscure rage darting in and out of her body.

She wondered, worried, though absent-mindedly, if she was on her fifth or sixth glass when she saw the world around her beginning to spin. She knew better not to get up. Just sit there and follow the movements of the shadows she could vaguely discern, pale ghosts tiptoeing across the hardwood floor of the rooms, faces contorted while smiling and angry making a go at grabbing her attention to say something frivolous or important, cackling and some shouting, a few mocking her, one even sticking its tongue out at her. Sitting at the bottom of a sea of stupor a shadow emerged from one room and dissolved beyond the door frame. A click of the doorknob eventually beyond the water ripples pricked up her ears, only mildly, but her body sank back into the chair of its own volition, drained of the will to assert itself. She thought she heard, as she took another sip, her own voice utter the words Do not go . . . into the night! But the memory of her own sound dissolved slowly.

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Moazzam Sheikh is the author of The Idol Lover and Other Stories and Cafe Le Whore and Other Stories. He has translated across Urdu, Punjabi and English, notably the fiction of Naiyer Masud, Intizar Husain, Ikramullah and Nadir Ali. He is also noted for being the editor of A Letter From India: Contemporary Pakistani Short Stories (Penguin, India) and Chicago Quarterly Review’s special number on South Asian American Issue (2017). He is a librarian in San Francisco and lives with his wife and two sons.

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Categories
Slices from Life Stories

Adoption

By Jeanie Kortum

He begins speaking the moment he enters the room.  “I had to crawl under the bed and call 911 when my daddy was hitting my mommy,” Jeremy announces.  Skin as brown as California hills in summer, a quick bright smile despite what he has just announced.

He examines us.  “I’ve been waiting for a mommy and a daddy for a long time,” he confides.  “I told my social worker I wanted parents who would love me, I wanted to be read to at night and I wanted a teddy bear and the nightlight.” Jeremy lays out a row of miniature toy cups.  “Would you like a cup of coffee?” he asks.  We nod and he pretends to pour coffee. 

We walked out of that office that first day unable to talk, arrowheads of love sent straight into our hearts. 

Adopting a child from social services is a debilitating process.  Months and months of looking at pictures of children in a small office.  At first I yearned for each and every face, but by page fifty or so, sitting in that stifling room, I became hard.  I was a consumer of the very worst kind, a consumer of kids. 

Then one day we turned the page and there he was.  “That’s the one!” my husband and I said almost at the same time. 

This was our second marriage.  Mike had three kids and I had one.  Our children were grown and we had room in our lives and hearts to raise one more. 

In the weeks to come, waiting for him to move in, I showed Jeremy’s picture—big smile, wearing a little dinosaur T-shirt—to everyone I met until the paper became crumpled and creased at the edges.  I practiced saying the word “son” over and over again; the word filled my mouth with sweet music.  As though absorbing his story would make him more mine, I read the reports from social services over and over again.  Addiction, domestic abuse, now seven years old, he had lived in six different homes in the past ten years.  The trio of his brother and sister and him twice given back from permanent homes until a bold judge decided to separate the kids and place them in individual homes for adoption. 

I made a room for him with a brave cowboy motif.  A lampshade with bucking broncos, a rodeo quilt, a clothes hanger that said the word cowboy and yes, a nightlight. 

He called me mommy immediately.  At first it was so easy, my days filled with joy, the love I felt bright, uncomplicated and complete.  We watched insects crawl across grass blades, played in the pool, walked the dogs, told stories to each other about the shapes of clouds, moments so perfect I did not want to be doing anything else.  His face bloomed a full bouquet of smiles.  I told long romantic tales that softened up the edges of his story.  “Look at your feet,” I told him.  “Maybe they came from your grandfather, a farmer walking through hot brown soil.”

Our bodies opened towards each other.  He came easily into my lap.  We did three-people hugs.  “It’s dark in here,” he would say in a muffled voice and we laughed happily, knowing what he was really saying was that it was safe in our arms.  Every day he unfurled a little bit more. 

“I am your son from another mommy,” he said to me one day, and I found myself blinking back tears.  He reached for my hand with that easy and nonchalant assumption of safety and protection every child should have.  “You chose the right guy.”

One afternoon Mike and I had gone for a walk on the short walk with the dogs when far off in the distance we heard him calling.  “Mommy, mommy,” a lost boy sound on the wind.  As fast as I could I ran back to him, wrapped my arms around him.  “I’ll never leave you,” I whispered.  “I am your forever mommy.”

But it wasn’t always easy.  When you adopt a child you do not have the long ropes of familiarity to climb back into time, to comfort and explain.  You will not recognize the face of your husband in an expression that crosses your child’s face, will not see your grandfather in his hands.  And if that child has been hurt, you don’t start at zero, you often start at minus one, undoing rather than doing.  It is the elemental clay of human nature – sometimes what you find will frighten you, sometimes it will inspire.

We learned quickly that trouble wrestled deep in the biological bedrock of this little boy’s soul.  There was a black hole at the center of him and every morning we woke to the very real assignment of trying to fill that hole. 

He had fits and we never knew when one would detonate.  We could hear his thoughts through his physicality, would know just by the sound of his steps on the stairs or the lilt of his voice whether it was going to be a good or bad day.  He would kick the walls, sometimes tear at his skin with his fingers.  When we went hiking he would suddenly stop on the trail in front of me and when I would bump into him he would fall apart.  He had arrived finally to his forever home and yet he tried to break it. 

We hung tough, however, and I was happy.  It was like creating a sculpture from raw elements, polishing up the good in this little boy, hoping that a heart fully loaded could reach back and heal his previous wounds.

It was at the end of middle school that Jeremy began to complain more, blame more, see the dark side of everything.  The only brown boy in the all-white classroom, he had never done well socially.  No one came to play in the swimming pool, a few listless birthdays now and then but no best friend. 

I tried to dismiss it.  Who could blame him? How could I presume to know what it was like to walk down the street as a Latino male? All around him were smug youngsters plumped with entitlement, multiple gadgets in their bedrooms, soccer camps, private tutors, $40 haircuts.  No one had lived his life so delineated into a sharp before and after, no one had lived those years of fierce wanting, dragged his particular bag of sorrow behind them. 

But as the months went by, Jeremy began to close himself off from us.  Loneliness laminated his surfaces, made him unreachable.  Though we tried hard to excavate his sorrow and talk it through, he refused.  A corrosive teasing entered our dynamic, a hard taunting jeer in his voice that held pieces of flint, igniting sparks of incendiary opinions and behaviors calculated to alarm.

He was one of the best things that had ever come into my life, and yet I was losing him. 

The one constant in all these years was Jeremy’s affinity for religion.  Though different from my beliefs—more connected to the large madrone tree near our house then to any kind of building—I’ve always encouraged his love of God: I thought it gave him another kind of home, a spiritual breathe he could lean against and calm his anger.  My husband, an emigrant from Ireland, had returned to the Catholic church after many years away, attending a small agrarian church with a maverick priest where he was allowed to ask questions. 

We found a small high school that was a bit religious, but with a sweet culture where spiritual safety mattered more than the colour of one’s skin.  It seemed perfect.  We did due diligence, everyone said it was a good school and apolitical.

From the very first week Jeremy loved it.  Its tidiness seemed to comfort him, some origin of biological sin to be monitored with the rules and severity of Christian cause-and-effect thinking.  And at first we didn’t mind too much.  If we could get him through these difficult teenage years, the rest of the sloppy, restless world would wait for him.  He was nicer around the house.  We began to have mighty conversations about existence and religion, and at first the conversations were fair and thoughtful. 

It was slight at first, a few comments he repeated from school, a teacher who publicly supported Trump in the classroom.  When I called the school to complain about the spillage of politics mixed with religion, they were noncommittal. 

Slowly but purposefully, the school turned our son against us. 

Feeding his need for identity, Jeremy began to wear a huge cross around his neck.  He filled notebooks with drawings of Jesus hanging from the cross dripping blood.  He branded himself with a huge tattoo drawn in felt pen down one arm, enormous box letters that proclaimed John 41. 

I did not expect a son with a Burning Man sense of anarchy, but I certainly did not expect this angry soldier of Christ.  For the first time he belonged more to his religion than to us.  When he told us we would burn in hell because we had not accepted Jesus as the son of God, I called the school.  Does it have to be so grim, I asked? Imagine a boy who had waited seven years for a forever family, only to be told that he would be alone again in eternity.

I became known as a parent they needed to pray for.

Jeremy became increasingly provocative.  He used current events to define himself.  Maybe Trump was right and we should build that wall.  Though his father had come from Nicaragua, though he had been rescued by a safety net of social-service programs, Jeremy thought we should cut money for children. 

He supported a new president who lived out his own oppositional temper tantrums in soundbites…I was grieving the fate of our country, now in the hands of those whose views on just about everything went directly against mine.  And now they had my son.   

The war on our house escalated.  We started to talk about getting him out of that school, but he refused and we thought we might do more damage by ripping him away from the one place where he was happy.  We took him to a family therapist but he refused to go back.  Though I knew intellectually he was hurting others because he was so hurt himself I did not discipline myself. 

As the months went by, the sweet boy I had known hardened in a furnace of rage.  No more three-people hugs; he retreated to a room I was too disheartened to ask him to clean, a midden of old food and dirty clothes emanating the odor of despair. 

My friends tried to normalize what we were experiencing.  “It’s just teenage rebellion,” they said.  “Let the world teach him.  It’s not personal.” But I sensed somehow it was deeper than this. 

Though I knew it wasn’t good parenting I retreated, protecting myself from attacks.  I closed off my face, smiled a little less often, learned to weaponize my silence.  Grieving the little boy who was no longer, frightened of the man he was becoming, I fell into loss and fear.  Trump’s America had entered our home, a sinister cynicism, a license to attack, even to hate.  I felt selfish, severe, angry, small, berated myself for being so out-of-control, for not having the courage to change our dynamic. 

What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I learn to love this man he was becoming? Was I only looking for the me inside of him, towards the places where we were the same?

My husband, recognizing that I was disintegrating, and worried as well about the effect the many battles were having on Jeremy, stepped in and became the primary contact.  I tried to follow Mike’s lead.  I learned how to duck and weave, not take everything on, develop a small chorus of noncommittal listening grunts.  But as we drifted into our separate silences, terrible awkward dinners where no one spoke, the not-so-neutral accord and careful politeness began to seem as cruel as the raging world war used to be. 

*

                                                                         

It is now a year later.  We decided to pull Jeremy out of the school and enrolled him in a place of wide green lawns, an organic garden, a social-justice teacher who encourages discord, and a mission statement of diversity.  In solidarity with other high schools, students walked out to protest guns.  A transgender student was elected homecoming queen. 

It is been a difficult transition for Jeremy, jarring, but he is doing well.  A’s and B’s.  He has made friends, signed up for model UN.  He has returned to sketching, and his intricate details of hands no longer hold crosses.  He still goes to church every Sunday but is more generous around other people’s beliefs.  He even allowed me to hug him in Macy’s when I took him shopping.

Can we pass Jeremy into the years beyond us intact, healthy, maybe even happy?  Will he live in the bright light of possibility and hope or will he sculpt his life from wounds, define himself from loss.  College, marriage, jobs, his own children…maybe the last few years of war were just a brief furrow in the arc of his life, all those years of challenging just his way of testing us, another form of stopping in the middle of the trail so that I would bump into him and he can fall apart. 

Last night, after dinner, I went out on our deck, watched the mountains grow soft with twilight.  Our dog padded out with a clatter of nails.  Frogs began to croak, the leaves in the old madrone rattled, stars appear in the night sky.  A light comes on in Jeremy’s bedroom.  He has a math test tomorrow and he is studying. 

“Mommy, mommy,” I still hear on the wind. 

I take a deep breath.  “He’ll be all right,” I think to myself for the first time in years.

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Jeanie Kortum is an author, journalist, and humanitarian. She has written two novels Ghost Vision which is based on her experience in Greenland and Stones which is about Female Genital Mutilation.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Essay

Pandemic Paxicide

By Dustin Pickering

Globally, three million children a year die of hunger or malnourishment according to theworldcounts.com. The site also notes the number is dropping steadily. In a May 2019 editorial ,Voice of America reports, “Today, some 821 million people suffer chronically from hunger. And although this is significantly fewer people than the numbers we saw a decade ago, hunger still kills more people than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.”

Why then does the coronavirus, which has claimed more lives in the United States than other countries at 91,163 total deaths, offer cause for a global economic shutdown? Belgium hosts the highest rate of mortality in the world from the virus at 16.4 percent. In the United States, Cook County, Illinois records 61,212 cases of the virus as of May 17 according to John Hopkins University of Medicine’s Coronavirus Resource Center. There are 315,174 total global deaths attributed to COVID-19 so far, with the highest confirmed numbers in the United States. Transmission of the virus, says this Chinese study, is elevated by cooler and less humid climates. This possibly explains why areas such as New England and Chicago are heaviest affected, especially New York City.

This essay does not intend to question the lifestyle of American citizens or the policies of the global leadership. However, it may take that tone but I ask that you dig deeper. I propose a question to the reader: why does a mutation of the COVID bug command so much initiative from us whereas global hunger does not seem too much of a concern? How long before the equitable world we all wish to see appears before us?

Already the Coronavirus lockdown has an economic cost reported at BBC here. We are seeing oil prices in the negative in the USA, stock values declining, looming recessions worldwide, and massive unemployment due to the response. Industry is slowing in China where the virus is said to have originated. All in all, we are seeing global political conflicts ranging from who controls the narrative to what cure will work best while political leaders tell citizens “business as usual”, or in contrast turn to authoritarian measures. Richard Hoftstader writes of the paranoid leader in “The Paranoid Style of American Politics”, “He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.”

In this work on social psychology, Hoftstader further writes: “It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him.” Clearly the authoritarian and paranoid styles merge in conspiratorial logic. The Other must face blame, ostracisation, or anything to distract the populace. The paranoid leader in authoritarian style pins the fearful onto the opposition; it is that fear which he or she embodies in this action that makes the leader effective to others.

Authoritarians thrive on fear, hostility, and incomprehensibility so it is no wonder they are cropping up during these emotionally heated times. Regardless of whether or not coronavirus is indeed “a little flu” , Brazil’s president makes himself the central issue. He is the victim of a conspiracy. Even President Trump in the United States practices better diplomacy — he suggests that he has worked with governors in all the states, of both parties, and they are working together. He also notes in an April press conference that the pandemic shows why the United States must be an ‘independent nation’.

In spite of the media’s attempts at Paxicide and character assassination, the Global Happiness Report tells us that in 2020 more than half the world’s citizens are in urban areas and that “Cities are economic powerhouses: more than 80 percent of worldwide GDP is generated within their boundaries. They allow for an efficient division of labour, bringing with them agglomeration and productivity benefits, new ideas and innovations, and hence higher incomes and living standards.”

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx’s praise of the bourgeoisie speaks for itself: “The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.”

What is this pandemic and what is the panic around it? Returning to Hoftstader’s comments on the paranoid style, it seems the establishment has pruned and developed it. As the United States faces the worst unemployment rate in history since the Great Depression, and a study predicts a possible extra 75,000 deaths due to despair from the conditions imposed by the virus, there is no easy way to measure the economic costs of this pandemic.

Even now, Chinese officials say the virus may be changing as new cases show symptoms much later, and take longer to test negative. No one knows what the future harbors. The uncertainty itself is torturous as the Well Being Trust and The Robert Graham Center study relates its reasons for calculating higher numbers of deaths of despair, “unprecedented economic failure paired with massive unemployment, mandated social isolation for months and possible residual isolation for years, and uncertainty caused by the sudden emergence of a novel, previously unknown microbe.”

The human is a social animal. Imposing bizarre restrictions on our social lives seems unnatural, especially under conditions we cannot assess.

There are also socioeconomic factors that are emerging in this crisis. The chart shows that workers with less than high school education are suffering the highest rates of unemployment at 21.2 percent, and education level seems to even further reflect on one’s employment according to the chart. Perhaps it is time for a radical restructuring of the economy and tax policy, which may be possible suggests an article in MIT Technology Review. It’s not quite what you expect, however. For instance the article tells the reader that “The tax policy that the AI Economist came up with is a little unusual. Unlike most existing policies, which are either progressive (that is, higher earners are taxed more) or regressive (higher earners are taxed less), the AI’s policy cobbled together aspects of both, applying the highest tax rates to rich and poor and the lowest to middle-income workers. Like many solutions that AIs come up with—such as some of AlphaZero’s game-winning moves—the result appears counterintuitive and not something that a human might have devised. But its impact on the economy led to a smaller gap between rich and poor.”

Let’s not confuse this with flat rate or regressive tax rates that countries like Estonia or Russia used to build capitalist markets. We have capitalist markets in the United States, and do not need to build them. But will we have markets as rich and sturdy post-COVID? The uncertainty is mind-boggling, and the propaganda regarding the virus is frightening.

Janet Yellen of the Brookings Institute tells CNBC that GDP in the United States may be down 30 percent in the second quarter due to the virus. She said, “This is a huge, unprecedented, devastating hit, and my hope is that we will get back to business as quickly as possible.” This interview took place in April 2020. The first quarter already saw a drop of 4.8 percent according to the BEA.

According to a March 2020 Bloomberg article, China’s GDP is at -20 percent in Q1. The article quotes Michelle Lam, a greater China economist at Societe Generale SA in Hong Kong, “We expect infrastructure stimulus to be much stepped up to support aggregate demand and tax and fee cuts to cushion the COVID-19 shock, especially now external demand will be much dampened by the global pandemic.”

President Trump is also calling on infrastructure development, as reported in this CNBC article. When he first entered office, he wanted a two trillion dollar infrastructure package while interest rates were at zero but the Fed upped the rates.

Perhaps, the pandemic paxicide is also bringing some agreement.

The fact is we will not know what COVID-19’s inception into the world will bring until the future arrives. Have we seen any white horses yet? Or is the garbage mounting in sea? As government spending escalates, I think it is safe to assume we are running a course only our imaginations can dream. Meanwhile, migrant workers in India continue to suffer while people use their plight to further their reputations. In the USA, as mentioned we see a downward spiral in the future of blue-collar workers.

It is time we consider something new. While the entire system collapses, we must rebuild because if the future isn’t certain, one thing is: we must make the future. Possibilities are already emerging for us, such as this initiative in Portland.

“’Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickinson who also wrote “Will there really be a ‘Morning’?” Perhaps there will be. A more equitable world stands before us if we wish to make it.

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Dustin Pickering is the founder of Transcendent Zero Press and editor-in-chief of Harbinger Asylum. He has authored several poetry collections, a short story collection, and a novella. He is a Pushcart nominee and was a finalist in Adelaide Literary Journal’s short story contest in 2018. He is a former contributor to Huffington Post. 

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.