The Thread of Grief
Abdul Salaam stared at the monotonous and unending corridor that was filled with patients and attendants of all kinds. It was 11 am on a Monday and not exactly the time when the corridor should have been full, but then, a hospital is always an unpredictable place. He sat cross-legged on a black tattered woollen blanket outside the ICU. A neatly folded dark brown blanket lay on one side. It was used as a makeshift backrest during the day. His back was sore from the last month since he had been waiting for his daughter Saima to return home.
Peer sahib had told him that the name would bring her luck and Saima had never fallen sick for eleven years of her village life. They lived in a place far away from the hospital and it was the inaccessible kind of far. Sometimes during winter, they would be cut off from the entire civilization but it hardly mattered to Abdul Salaam, father to four boys and the youngest, Saima. She was the fruit of his prayers, he would tell his wife. A gentle, sweet, energetic and soft-spoken child that was Allah’s blessing on his little household for as soon as she was born, he had come into the possession of some long mortgaged property, two kanals of apple orchard land, which now had been sold for Saima’s treatment.
Saima had suddenly collapsed while playing kho-kho with the girls and she refused to wake up. Abdul Salaam had gathered everything that he had and managed to bring her to the biggest hospital in the State.
She had a tumour in her brain, they told him.
Abdul Salam knew nothing of the misfortune that awaited him but even after surgery and 25 days in the ICU, she still hadn’t moved a muscle. He had promised to stay at her door till she moved. She had to move. He thought.
Every morning with hopeful eyes, he gazed at the senior doctors who came for the clinical rounds. They would pat his shoulders and move on. The ritual had remained the same for the past few weeks and with each passing day, he had begun analyzing their gestures, looking for a ray of hope or some hidden meaning in their words.
‘Hope for the best,’ they told him. And he would spend the rest of the day deciphering their body language when they said these words.
They hadn’t given up so he hadn’t either.
This morning was no different. He had received the usual remark with the same enthusiasm.
The corridor outside the ICU was occupied by attendants of different ranks, communities and races. Some sat on a mink blanket with a soft fluffy pillow to rest their head at night and some slept on tattered blankets like Abdul Salam.
He looked at his neighbour; the mink blanket kind, who had just received some good news. His son would be out of the ICU today. He would be shifted to the general ward.
The man and his wife had tears in their eyes when the doctor told them the good news. Abdul Salam felt a pang of jealousy rising inside his chest. God favoured the rich. Their son had healed in five days; what had taken his daughter so long?
He looked at the mother who had a big grin on her face though her cheeks were drenched with tears.
Grief is a strange emotion he thought and so is happiness.
Tomorrow they would be gone leaving a vacant space beside him.
He would wait for little Saima to be okay and then he would too leave this space vacant for someone else.
The man brought a box of sweets to him.
‘Please take one from these,’ he said handing him the box of sweets.
He took it without saying anything.
The corridor outside the ICU was a strange place. People knew that they had to be cautious with their questions and equally cautious with the answers as well.
‘Alhamdulillah for you,’ he finally said with a smile.
The man patted him on his shoulder. ‘Saima too will be okay Insha Allah’
Abdul Salam winced in pain. He had somehow started hating this pat on his shoulder and back. He had never received so many pats in his entire life until now. Somehow, he would always associate a pat on the back with the ICU from now on. He knew he would never pat anyone on the shoulder again.
All of a sudden, a sturdily built man in a black suit and a coloured neck tie came rushing towards the ICU.
He was followed by two policemen.
An oblong and fat woman with arms full of jingling gold bangles rushed behind them.
A Child about Saima’s age was wheeled into the ICU.
They, probably, were the parents.
The guard at the door didn’t allow them inside.
‘How can you not let him enter?’ One of the policemen accompanying the man in the black suit argued with the Security guard.
‘I have my orders. He can’t enter the ICU right now,’
‘Do you know who he is? It is his Daughter. She has had a bad accident.’
‘Leave it, Shakeel,’ the man told the policeman.
He leaned against the wall, unable to take hold of the situation. The fat woman stood beside him. She had a blank expression on her face.
Abdul Salam knew this expression too well by now. He had seen it on many faces in these corridors. They were in denial but soon realization would dawn and then they would break down.
The policeman procured a folding chair from somewhere and the woman sat down on it.
Abdul Salam wanted to ask the man about his daughter but an invisible barrier prevented him from doing so. He seemed to be a very important man and then there was a folding chair between them. The man stood on higher ground.
He wished their pain would go away. Somehow it didn’t make sense to him to see rich people in pain; they could buy everything with money. Couldn’t they?
A doctor came out of the ICU.
He talked to the man for a while and then went inside to get a sheet of paper. The man signed it.
The woman had started crying by now. These were silent tears that do not make any noise. She couldn’t scream like the women in his village. She had to stay dignified.
The man gestured for the woman to leave. She left without another word. One of the policemen accompanied the woman, walking behind her at a decent distance that was considered appropriate for a bodyguard.
He measured his steps according to her pace which was more laborious than that of an old woman.
Abdul Salam winced.
The man in the black suit had his head against the wall. The policeman stood watching over him.
How long could he wait outside that door?
The girl had been inside for a couple of hours now and Abdul Salam had been here for 25 days.
The rich man’s daughter might be on a bed next to Saima. There wasn’t any difference inside the ICU and here the two fathers who shared a common pain had a world of difference between them.
He wanted to console this man who sat there lost in some deep thought.
Twice he looked at him and then he looked away. The rich man would hardly notice a man sitting on a tattered blanket by his side. He was preoccupied with grief.
The Doctor came outside again and asked the rich man to step inside with him.
Abdul Salaam got up in a hurry and went near the policeman.
‘What happened to the girl?’
The policeman looked at him with apparent contempt. This man stank. He could smell the sweaty armpits from this distance.
‘She had an accident.’
‘She will be okay.’ He told him. ‘Accidents are easier, It is the tumours that take longer,’ he analyzed.
The policeman didn’t answer. He looked at his wristwatch with some anxiety. He looked agitated. Probably his duty hours had been prolonged by this sudden mishap.
Abdul Salam went back to his place.
The rich man came back with the doctor who patted him on his shoulder. He felt anxiety rising in the stomach pit.
For the rest of the day, he saw many important people coming and talking to the man who sat there on the chair outside the ICU. He had refused to move.
At 10 pm, when Abdul Salam came back after dinner at the hospital Canteen, he found the man sitting alone on the chair.
He had tears in his eyes.
He quietly took his place next to him and sat down on the tattered blanket. The mink blanket family next to him had left.
The man hadn’t moved all day.
Abdul Salam took out his jacket and placed it beneath his head. He then pulled up the blanket up to his chin. Tomorrow would be the 26th day, he thought. Maybe there would be some improvement in Saima’s condition, He hadn’t given up hope.
He wouldn’t. He promised himself.
He couldn’t sleep. The presence of an honourable man in pain adjacent to him unnerved him. He wanted to share his sorrow. Maybe that would lessen his pain as well but somehow he couldn’t.
About past 2 am, he suddenly jerked awake to find the man on the chair sitting next to him. He had his head on his knees and he was sobbing.
Abdul salaam got up in a hurry and held his hand.
‘Everything is going to be okay. Don’t worry, please. She will be fine.’
‘She is all I have,’ he replied.
‘just like my Saima.’ He answered ‘She is all I have.’
For the first time, the rich man realized that the man in tattered clothes sitting next to him was also here for the same reason that he was.
‘What happened to your Saima?’ he asked.
‘She had a tumour in her brain. They took it out but she is still lying there not moving a limb and today is the twenty-sixth day.’
‘Oh,’ was all that he could say.
‘I heard your daughter had an accident,’ he asked him
‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘She fell down the stairs.’
‘What do the doctors say?’ he asked him.
‘She can’t be flown out of the state in this condition. I feel so helpless,’ he said ignoring his question.
It wasn’t something that he would understand anyway so he kept quiet.
‘Will you have some water?’ he finally asked the man.
‘No, thank you. I have it in the room with me.’
‘You have a room in the hospital?’ Abdul Salaam asked him in apparent surprise
‘Yes,’ he replied.
Abdul Salaam knew that the man wouldn’t move an inch from the door of the ICU. Somehow it felt safe as if his mere presence would ward off all bad news.
The doctor came out of the ICU and looked at the two men sitting there in some confusion.
Abdul Salam looked up at him.
Maybe the man’s daughter had improved. He thought.
‘Abdul Salam,’ he called.
‘Yes Sir,’ he got up in a hurry.
The doctor patted him on his shoulder. He jerked his hand aside. Something wasn’t exactly okay with the pat tonight. It was misplaced.
‘Look, you have to be patient,’ he said, trying to steer clear of his line of vision
The man in the black suit got up in some hurry too.
Abdul Salam didn’t have to be told the meaning of this sentence. He collapsed on the floor. The world swam in a haze before his eyes.
‘But today was the twenty-sixth day,’ he finally said, his voice choking on tears ‘and I sat and waited here for 26 days.’
‘For 26 days, I had it on my fingertips and I waited here and I thought it would keep her safe. I didn’t move, you know,”
The man in the black suit looked at him with tears in his eyes and then he hugged him tightly.
He suddenly realized that he too had been counting the hours. His daughter had been there for 15 hours now!