“Do you guys want to cry a little?” Kheya asked her children. “Sometimes crying can make you free.”
“Do you want to cry, Mama?” asked her son.
“We’ll cry if you will,” said her daughter.
“Crying is a bit overrated though, don’t you think? Laughter is a controllable action. It can come and go at your command. But crying? It obeys no rules. You can start it, but then you keep crying and crying, not knowing when to stop and then forgetting why you started to cry in the first place, and then you sort of wish you did not start it and you cry a bit more for some possible intervention or some signal from some superpower to make you stop. I think crying is too much of a chore for us tonight. We had a long day and we have a longer day ahead of us tomorrow. We can’t go on a non-stop crying spree now, can we? I think I’ll pass this time. But rain check?”
“Yes, rain check sounds good.” The two agreed with their mother.
“But Mama, is Daddy going to die tomorrow?” asked her daughter.
“No, silly! He’s just getting his heart fixed. Your dad had a weak heart since birth and the surgery will help him get strong.”
“I think I’m the one who got him sick.”
Kheya looked at Nijhum. A seven-year-old boy, already feeling the burden of guilt for having an ailing father. She held the little boy close and assured him that he had nothing to do with it. But Nijhum was not convinced.
“One day, when you were at work, I asked him to help me tie my shoelaces. He got so mad and smacked me hard because I couldn’t tie the shoelaces. That day I really wished him dead, Mama. Maybe that’s why he got sick.”
“I hope his heart gets fixed really well, Mama. Then he wouldn’t be mean to you anymore.”
“Shhh, don’t say that, Neha,” Kheya hugged her ten-year-old daughter. “He might be grumpy at times, but deep down he loves us all—especially you two.” Her own voice started sounding so hollow that Kheya decided not to pursue the argument anymore. She asked the children not to worry about anything else but their school. They were to wake up early for school, and she had to go to the hospital to see their father, she reminded them.
“But aren’t your eyes itchy, Mama? Mine are!” Nijhum said.
“Mine too,” said Neha. “They have been itching since this afternoon.”
“Oh, that itch! You need to shed a few tears to make it go away.”
“Isn’t shedding tears like…like crying?” Neha was confused.
“Not really. You just wash off the itch with the water that comes out of your tear ducts, that’s all. If you let the itch stay, then the teardrops will clog your eyes, and you know what happens to clogged eyes? Dreams get drowned. You don’t want that to happen, do you? What’s the point of sleeping if you can’t have good dreams? Now, take care of that itch, you two, and go to sleep. Crying can wait its turn.”
After the children sobbed themselves to sleep, Kheya got up and washed her face. She had to reorganise a lot of things. She took out the letter that she had written to Kabir a few days ago. Kabir was an arrogant man. And a man with no ears. He could only talk and see things the way they suited him. A face to face conversation would be an impossible scenario for him. That was why Kheya decided to write a letter in which she explained her reasons. She was getting ready to talk to Kabir, and she wanted to give him the letter as a prequel to the talk. But now that he was in the hospital, there was no point in the letter. There was no point in anything. What she wanted did not matter to her anymore. All that mattered to her were the two scared children. She sat before the computer and wrote an email to Jonathan Harris, explaining her situation. “Dear Dr Harris,” she wrote, “I was really looking forward to working at your research facility. But unfortunately, I have to withdraw my acceptance of the job offer because of a sudden family emergency.”
It all started after Kabir’s annual doctor’s visit a week ago, when the good old doctor wrote Kabir a lab order for a nuclear stress test for an apparently healthy patient. “Let’s check your heart thoroughly,” said the doctor, “even though all other reports are perfectly fine, I’ll try one more time to find at least one thing wrong with you.” Doctor Hernandez had every reason to sound hopeless because he could not convince Kabir of his immaculate health chart. Kabir’s cholesterol level was perfect, his A1c was flawless, his bilirubin and his PSA were in perfect condition, his liver and kidneys and lungs ran smooth, and the hills on that EKG chart had produced a pure work of art. And yet, Kabir complained of fatigue and constantly badgered the doctors to find a flaw in his flow of good health. “There must be something wrong inside me, but the doctors don’t see it,” was what he always said. It became one man’s war against an unknown enemy—be it a virus or bacteria—that was eating his peace out piece by piece, hiding somewhere inside his body. Kabir was in his early forties, a man of strong build and of a very acute habit of personal wellbeing. He ate his fibre, took his multivitamins, went to the gym four days a week, and regularly visited his primary-care physician. He lived the disciplined life of an immigrant—working eight hour shifts a day, forty hours a week, managing to pay the mortgage and car payments so that the former got paid off in fifteen years, and the latter, in five. His plan was to be debt-free in fifteen years and move back home once the kids were settled. His plan was to divide his time equally between his two countries—six months in the US and six months in Bangladesh—flying back and forth, like migrant birds. Every time Kabir spoke of this plan, Kheya repeated her words of caution: “Diasporic crisis is a midlife crisis for immigrant men. It might break your heart if you don’t handle it with care.” But Kabir was adamant. One day he would go back for sure. He had planned to buy two apartments in the Gulshan area. He would rent one and live in the other. He always planned his future as if he knew how it would run its course. Planning—that was what Kabir was best at. When he proposed to Kheya, he quite blatantly laid out his plan in front of her. She was the smartest girl he had ever met, and he wanted to marry her. He loved her because he knew she would make the best wife, the best daughter-in law, and a very good mother. When they moved to Chicago, Kheya wanted to buy a car. She had enough money saved from her scholarship as a graduate student of computer science; besides, she also brought all her savings from Bangladesh. The college campus was too far away and she found it hard to catch the commuter bus to it, especially at that stage of her pregnancy. But Kabir refused to spend money on another car. He could drop her off and pick her up whenever she needed a ride. Why did she want to waste money? And when she started working and expressed her intent to open a separate bank account, Kabir called her greedy. “Why do you always want something for yourself? Isn’t my account yours too? That’s why it’s called a joint account, no?”
Joint account. Joint everything. A life in unison, and yet so disjointed. Kheya had been gathering her strength for the last five years to take the children and leave. To her, a home that was too perfectly planned and too neatly run was not a home at all; it was a prison for her and a death trap for her children. Every day, the children were losing touch with their inner core—their pure soul. Every day, when their father came home, they rushed to their rooms in the pretence of study. They were afraid of their father. They feared him even when he was not cross or when he tried to sweet talk Kheya. In a house of fear, no children could actualise their full potential. Kheya had given it a try for the last ten years. But when nothing changed, she decided to make change happen. When she got the job offer from a computer firm in the West Coast, she decided to accept the offer without consulting Kabir. She was getting ready to inform him of her decision: she was leaving him and she was taking the kids with her. She wrote all her reasons in a neatly typed letter and was planning to give it to Kabir that day. But instead, she was sitting at Dr Hernandez’s office, waiting to hear his verdict.
“Men’s hearts are of three types,” Dr Hernandez said, as he looked at Kabir’s test results. “Some men already have defective hearts, some make their hearts go bad, while some are just heartless. You, my dear man, fall under the first category. It seems your heart has been limping all its life on one and a half arteries. Congenital defect.”
Kabir sat dumbfounded, holding Kheya’s hand.
“What should we do now?” It was Kheya who broke the silence.
The good doctor did not respond to her. He was busy calling the hospital to get hold of a thoracic surgeon named Dr Khouzam to perform an emergency heart surgery. Patient’s name: Kabir Ahmed.
The hospital was a few miles away from Dr Hernandez’s office. They were told to go immediately so that the preparation process could start. It was a bright August afternoon. Neha and Nijhum were at home enjoying their last day of summer vacation. The following day was their first day of the new academic year. Kheya had promised to take them to Wal-Mart to buy their school supplies once she and Kabir came back from the doctor’s office. But instead of going home, she was driving towards the hospital. Kabir sat in the passenger’s seat, intermittently bursting into tears, complaining and regretting the things he had done and had not done yet—feeling self-pity and self-loathing at the same time and occasionally apologising for bringing Kheya and the kids into this mess. Kheya did not say anything. Her head was running like a reckless train. She had to make phone calls to relatives; the shopping chores with the kids had to be postponed; she had to notify her office and take a week’s leave at least; she had to email Dr Harris to refuse the job offer and she had to keep the car in control. She paid attention to traffic lights and the speed limit as she drove. She could not afford to get a traffic ticket at a time when troubles swarmed around her, threatening her like a bleak beast. Kheya kept her eyes on the road and her hands on the steering wheel. But her head still ran in a heedless speed.
The next morning, after dropping the kids off to school, Kheya went to the hospital. Kabir was waiting for her. He gave her a pale smile when she entered the room. Kheya placed her hand on his shoulder lightly. Kabir started sobbing.
“I’m sorry, Kheya, for I failed to give you what you deserve…and now…. now…I don’t know if I’ll come out of this alive…if…iffff I don’t, then….” Kabir’s words drowned in his own tears.
“Don’t be silly. Be brave and get well. I’ll take care of everything.” Kheya gave a reassuring smile. After he was taken to the surgery room, she went to the waiting area and sat in a corner. Her eyes were burning, but not out of sorrow or fear. She was not worried about Kabir. She knew he would be alright. Men like Kabir were born to fight for their own good. Men like Kabir would never break—no matter how volatile their hearts were. They were born to conquer. Kheya never accepted the meaning of conquest in terms of a positive gain. In order to conquer, one would have to defeat the other; and in order to defeat the other, one would have to implement strength or fear, or impose manipulation of some kind. Kabir was a conqueror by nature. He was sure to win this battle—any battle. So Kheya was not worried about Kabir. She was just tired. She closed her eyes and leaned on the wall, hoping to catch some sleep. Memories rushed in instead. Epiphany, they call it. The moment when one’s whole life flashes before one’s eyes—generally before their death. But she was not dying—or rather, she was past dying. She had been married for twelve years and she had been dead the whole time. But no one knew, not even the man who killed her in the name of a happy marriage.
“Mrs Ahmed, I have some good news.” Kheya opened her eyes and saw Dr Khouzam waiting in front of her. The surgery went well. But Kabir had to stay in a medically induced coma for a few more hours, after which she could go see him. Kheya decided to get some coffee from the hospital cafeteria. All those hollow memories had given her a headache. Epiphanies could go to hell.
Surrounded by machines of different shapes and entangled in wires of different colours, Kabir looked like a cyborg from a sci-fi movie. Everything looked so unreal. Life seemed unreal. Time seemed stuck in those machines—beeping and blinking—monitoring a double bypassed heart and its multiple impacts on the lives of people around it. Kheya sat there, holding Kabir’s hand and listening to the relentless beeping. Her face was calm, while the train that she carried inside her head still ran at the speed of a storm. The attending nurse handed Kheya a pamphlet on how to take care of a patient after heart surgery. Kabir was expected to go home in two weeks but would not be able to work for at least three or four months, the nurse informed her. He should not lift anything heavier than a paper cup or should not eat anything that was not in his diet chart. His wound should be properly dressed and his blood pressure should be constantly monitored. He must have a positive environment around him. His medicine should be properly administered and he should be taken to see his cardiologist every two weeks. He should not drive and he should not stress. In short, Kheya should take every precaution to make sure that he got proper care and attention at home. A lady from the billing department gave her some papers to sign. Their health insurance was paying 80 percent of the total cost. She had to sign the papers to agree to pay off the 20 percent deductible of twenty thousand dollars, in the next twenty months.
The train in her head increased its speed.
A thousand dollars extra cost per month. The monthly house mortgage was two thousand dollars. Another thousand to cover the cost of their monthly car payments and insurance. Fifteen hundred dollars for food, utility, and other bills. One thousand dollars monthly payment for the credit cards. The money they had in the bank might cover all the expenses for about six months. If she worked two full-time jobs, she could pay the bills without using up their savings. But what would happen after that? What if Kabir did not get back to work in three months? What if he could never work? Was she strong enough to work two jobs and then take care of two children and a sick husband? Would she be able to raise her children the way they deserved to be raised? What if she got sick, or lost the will power to fight? What if she could not fight anymore? What if she needed a hand to hold and a shoulder to cry on? Everyone needed her. What if there came a time when she needed somebody? Was there anyone stronger than her—willing to lend her some strength? Where would she look for that strength? What would she do if she became lonely and beaten and broken and lost?
Kabir opened his eyes and smiled at Kheya. He was already feeling better after seeing her by his side, he murmured. Kheya smiled back.
“Go back to sleep,” she told him. “I have to go pick up the kids from school. And I’ll be back with them in the afternoon.”
She kept the smile glued on her face as she pressed his hand and kissed his forehead and walked out of the room. Inside her head, the train lost its track and swerved violently in preparation for an upcoming crash. All the itches of the world swarmed inside her eyelids and swelled into a surge of tears. But Kheya pushed them back and smiled hard. Real hard.
She walked to the parking garage and got into her car. She started the engine and fastened her seat belt. She turned on the radio and cranked the volume to its highest. She did not care which station was playing what song. All she needed was a cacophony around her—so that the upheaval of noise could destroy the peaceful silence inside a quiet car—so that the train inside her head could finally crash and stop running—so she could forget the pains that awaited her in the name of the future—so she could at least for a moment drop her invincible shield of a warrior and become a woman who was afraid of her strengths and her weaknesses. Kheya closed her eyes and opened her mouth to let out a scream.
The car jumped up and down with every drumbeat of the loud music playing on the radio, while Kheya sat there, howling like a wounded animal.