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A Train Ride to Westchester

December 17, 2018

5 pm at last! I mechanically walked to the exit door waving to my colleagues goodbye as I silently sneaked out of the office. Such a relief to be outside! I rushed into the street, crossed the park gazing into the void, and hopped on the train headed to the hospital. This had been my routine for the past three months since that dreadful phone call. 

 

“I am not feeling very well.” 

 

This sentence my brother had articulated was resounding in my head over and over, tormenting my heart. 

 

“Cancer, stage 4” 

 

The train ride to the hospital had become a daily journey to the past. Every day a sequence of memories would collide in my mind, which took pleasure in dismantling them one by one to prolong the taste of reminiscence. I often contemplated the selective process of remembering and was intrigued by this mysterious mechanism. 

 

“How interesting,” I thought to myself. “How can trivial memories turn one day painfully significant?” 

 

My thirst for recollections did not care for an explanation. I caught myself suddenly chuckling to the thought of one of my brother’s jokes that still amused me. I could even distinctly perceive the mischievous movement of his lips betraying the silliness that was about to burst and make me laugh for days. My eyes were wet. Have I really been laughing? 

 

The journey to the past was lingering. A glimpse of an older memory occurred out of nowhere. Back to the days growing up in Beirut my mother had once engaged me to play hide-and-seek after school. As I found her hiding behind a tree, she winked at me with congratulations and smiled tenderly showing her teeth. This very tree had served other occasions a few years later when my brother had found his little bird drop dead in its cage. With a surge of compassion he had fixed a cardboard coffin to the size of the corpse and delicately buried the poor creature beside the roots of the tree. Like the bird called by heaven, my mother was no more. But my brother, my brother, he was waiting for me at the hospital.

 

The train whistled, signaling I had arrived at the destination. New York, Westchester. I left the station in a hurry like a distracted shadow, a bit confused by the worry that was suddenly growing in me. The walk from the train station to the hospital never seemed so long. I could not wait to see my brother; I had to see him now, I had to chase this unbearable worry! We could converse, we could laugh, the trivial details of my recollections would no longer be important. The disease was temporary; there were many more memories to come. 

 

The month of November was ending; it was cold and surprisingly quiet. That day I did not give thanks; I did not feel the warmth of blessings. There he was, lying peacefully with his eyes closed and his arms embracing his chest. He was exceptionally handsome but I did not recognize him. I touched his face; it felt like a frozen rock. For the first time I noticed his long fingers, his delicate hands. 

 

A few weeks earlier I put his hands into mine to shelter him from the nightmares of the dark. In the day he was overwhelmed with the presence of his loved ones but when the night approached he was like a frightened child. Those dark nights at the hospital were a constant reminder of a step closer to death. His tremendous sense of humor could no longer keep up with the hostility of the disease. His imposing body had lost its vigor; he would shed tears with grimaces of despair I had never witnessed before. In the midst of this turmoil his eyes remained brilliant, filled with hope and kindness: he had faith. However it was unclear where he truly placed that faith. Throwing my disappointment in the face of reality, I could not help but reconsider the worth of existence. 

 

The procession was slowly navigating the hills of the cemetery. The first snow of the year had fallen elegantly that morning, like a prayer. As the grave disappeared in the soil, crowned with several bouquets of regret, the heaviness that had been pulling me down was strangely released. A beam of light timidly found its way to my heart and my loved ones. The idea of my brother happily reuniting with my mother was a comforting promise, almost regenerating, as consolation was nowhere else to find. 

 

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© 2019 by Alaa Al Aswany 

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