Alive (على قيد الحياة)

Grade: 
10

My mother picks dust out of her fingernails, tossing lint on the floor. She sits on the brown leather armchair right next to the television so she can hear the local news. Her ears don’t work like they did when I was younger; she says it’s because I don’t wear my hijab, but I think it just comes with age. My mother once heard me cough two rooms down, and came rushing to see if I was okay, but now she just rests her arms in her lap and leans her head forward, as if it would make her ears stretch out to the speakers.

            “Ara, come turn up the volume for me.” I sink into the sofa and change the volume on the remote. She mouths a “thank you,” then watches as the weatherman mentions a cold front coming ahead. Her black eyes look like glass with the television screen reflecting on them. I stare at my mother’s eyes until they stare back, blankly. Her mouth is painted red like the tulips in our neighbor’s front yard, and she does not smile at me. The only time I see my mother curve her mouth upward is at the supermarket, when the employees bag our groceries with shaking hands, like they’re afraid of what she hides under her headscarf. She smiles only so they aren’t scared, squinting her eyes and laughing. But when we leave, her mouth moves back and her eyes become glass again.

            My father enters the family room, each step large and powerful. He places himself next to me on the couch and wraps his arm around me. 

            “Good morning, Ara,” he says to me with a booming voice.

            “Morning, Papa.” I smile and shrink myself in his warm hug. He smells like sand and musk, like he always has. He sits for a while, watching the news and glancing occasionally at my mother, who does not move her eyes from the television screen. It is still dark outside, but I start to see the sun rising from the window.

            “I have my interview today, Papa,” I say, breaking the silence. I applied for a job at a breakfast diner a few blocks down after I heard two girls in my Biology class say that some restaurants are looking for fifteen year olds to hire.

            “What time?”

            “Two. It isn’t far, so I can walk there.”

            He smiles and starts to get up. “Good. Well, I have to go to work now. Goodbye, Ara; goodbye, Farihah.” He gives me another tight hug and kisses my mother, before walking out of the family room. I listen to the door open and close shut, and then it is quiet except for the sound of the women on TV talking about traffic. I do not stand up until my mother falls asleep half an hour later.

            When I arrive at the diner, people look at me wide-eyed. There is an old woman waiting for me in a cramped office.

“Hello, Ara?” She does not pronounce my name right. I nod and don’t correct her. “So, tell me about yourself. Do you go to school here? You’re very…exotic.” She smiles with reassurance as she says this, even though I’ve lived my whole life in Sherwood, Ohio.

“Yes, I go to Fairview High School.” When I speak, she refuses to look me in the eyes, as if the darkness would burn freckles off her nose.

She then proceeds to ask me a few questions about my skills; when I respond, she nods her head and holds her breath. After just ten minutes, she tells me sorry, that they have enough waiters right now. I only counted two the entire time I was there.

            Back home, my mother is still sleeping on the brown armchair. I cook dinner and leave a plate on the coffee table for her, then another plate out for when my father arrives home.

            One time in middle school I brought my friend, Hannah, over for dinner. My mother made Kabsa, a traditional Saudi Arabian meal. She was better back then; she would make dinner for us every night and clean the house when we had guests. My mother doesn’t do that anymore, but no one comes over anymore, either. Hannah had blue eyes that twinkled every time she moved near the light, and cheeks that shook when she walked, but that night, Hannah wouldn’t eat her food. When I asked her if she wanted to play Monopoly with my family, she asked if she could call her mom, who picked her up immediately. My mother cooked for a few months after that, but then I would come home from school and water was boiling over the stove. My mother just said she forgot she was even making food, so my dad taught me how to cook. I’ve been doing that ever since.

            “Ara!” my mother shouts from the family room. “Are you home?”

            I run over and see my mother standing in the doorway. Her silhouette looks like bones in the dark. “Yes, I’m right here. I made you dinner,” I say loudly and point at the coffee table.

            She looks back at the plate of rice and chicken, and then proceeds to walk out of the room. “Oh. I’ll be going to bed now.”

            “Please eat, Mama,” I say, but she continues to walk away. I sigh and go back to the kitchen. The sink is piled high with dishes, and I tell myself I’ll clean them the next day. I sit on the barstools by the breakfast bar, and rest my head in my hands until my father comes home.

            “How was work?” I ask as he steps into the kitchen and begins to eat dinner.

            He smiles wide. “It was great. How was your interview?”

            “Um…I didn’t get the job.” I look at my father’s hands, which are big and calloused.

            “That’s okay, Ara. Another time.” His positivity sometimes aggravates me, but I can’t help but smile every time my father laughs, which he does often. He told me that he tries to laugh loud enough so that Allah will always hear him, and know that he is happy to be alive. My mother used to think like that, too.

            The next day I wake up early. My father doesn’t have work because it’s a Sunday, but I walk all over the house and find out that no one is home. I make myself eggs for breakfast and wait for my parents to come back. While waiting, I sit outside on my front porch, watching the sky turn pink as the sun rises. My neighbor, Mrs. Bohr, is going on her daily jog and waves at me as she passes by. She used to come over my house with homemade lemonade to play bridge with my mother and a few other ladies around the neighborhood. That was back when my father worked less hours, and had time to watch soccer on the weekends with his friends from work. On her way back from the jog, Mrs. Bohr approaches me.

            “How are you doing, Ara? You’re looking more beautiful every day.” She says as wipes sweat off her forehead.

            “Thank you, I’m doing fine,” I reply, smiling.

            “How’s your mother? I haven’t spoken to her in a while.”

            “She’s good,” I lie. Mrs. Bohr smiles and says she’ll see me later, and then goes inside her house. I do the same, watching the news on the television until I fall asleep.

            My parents don’t come home until five. My father tells me they already ate dinner, not to worry, so I heat up a small frozen pizza and eat that. My mother goes to her bedroom and sleeps. That’s when my father sits me down at the dining table while I eat. He touches his beard nervously, and gives me a hug that smells more like sweat than sand.

            “We went to a doctor today, for Mama,” he says. My father has never looked upset about anything, even when the man across the street called us terrorists, but at this very moment, he was so silent I could hear his heart beat in his chest, as he swallowed. “It’s has something to do with her brain.”

            I froze. “I thought she just had hearing problems.”

            “So did I, but we’ve been running tests the past couple of weeks, and it seems to be an early-onset Alzheimer’s. And it-it’s bad.”

            I don’t know much about Alzheimers, except that it just gets worse. We read an article about it in third grade; after a while, they can’t even walk or talk. My father looks like he is about to cry, so I hold back any tears I have and hug him until I feel tears on my hair. He apologizes and stands tall. From where I am sitting on the dining room table, my father looks like a man with power and purpose. I always thought he was, but right now I’m not sure. I don’t sleep much that night, because my bed feels like rocks and I have a lump in my throat that won’t go down.

            When I was younger, I told my mother I didn’t want her to chaperone on school field trips anymore, because when she sits on the bus everyone laughs at her headscarf and shakes their legs. Maybe that’s when she stopped remembering things.

            I looked online the other day and saw that in June, we can wear purple to help support something like what my mother has. After school, I visit the mall and buy fourteen purple shirts: seven for me and seven for my mother, so that we can wear the color every day each week for the whole month of June. The cashier at one store tells me I have beautiful hair, and I spend the rest of the day smiling.

            Papa sent my mother into a nursing home last night. He said he doesn’t want her to get sick, but I think she already is.

            I once told my mother that I didn’t want to be Muslim anymore. I was eight, and my best friend Janice invited me to her first communion at church. I saw her, along with most of my classmates wearing white dresses and suits, smiling together. When I got home and told her that, she yelled at my father for moving them to Sherwood from a small town in Saudi Arabia before I was born, even if he claimed there was opportunity here. She didn’t speak to him for a week, until he came into the family room where she was sitting on the armchair with crossed arms, and said “I’m sorry. I will bring Ara closer to our faith, I promise. Just forget about all this, okay?” My mother nodded and smiled. I was glad she wasn’t angry anymore and forgot about the fight when I was younger, but now I just wish she would remember it.

            After school one day, I’m sitting under a tree in western Ohio and I'm shivering. My teeth clatter so much I think they might break.

            I’m crying. I can’t stop crying.

            My mother has been gone for a few weeks. The house is silent now, because we don’t watch the news in the mornings anymore. My father says the nursing home is the best place for her right now, but sometimes I see him in my mother’s chair at night with his head in his hands.  I get to visit her once a week, with my father. She wears a paper dress most of the time, with a white gown underneath and always a different colored hijab that the nurse tries to put on for her. I talk to my mother about my day and fix her hijab, and she asks me why she’s here. I don’t tell her, though.

 

            The first few times we visited, my father laughed loudly, making the nurse who was helping my mother laugh, too. The nurse has olive eyes and red hair; she always wears a pin on her green uniform shirt that says “Smile.” She told us we have a wonderful, supportive family. Papa tried to make my mother laugh, but her mouth did not move, except to say she was tired. Today, we pray with her, and my father just whispers “Allah, why?” over and over again, staring at the white wall with glass eyes.