"Come, Salem. Come quickly.”
“Oh… What happened?”
“Mom has fallen ill.”
“She’s in the hospital.”
“She’s had a stroke. Her right side is paralyzed. She’s babbling: life… knife… fingers... No one understands. We don’t know what to do. Everyone is waiting for you.”
“Ok, Sis. I’ll be on my way.”
My schedule brimmed with appointments like a bookshelf, stacked back to back. The names, silent like book titles, filed in the waiting room. I motioned to Norma to follow me into my office. She hesitated, trying to disengage from a conversation she was having with Mrs. Stitchmaker who stood at the window with questions about her bill.
“So, why did they deny…”
“They paid only $3.25 on the EKG…”
“Myrtle, I’m sorry…”
“And they paid nothing on the urine…”
“Myrtle, the doctor is calling me…”
“And here they say you overcharged me $1.25…”
“Myrtle, please, lower your voice and have a seat. I’ll be back in a minute.”
Exasperated, Norma hurried in, her eyes on the flashing telephone line tolling its fourth ring.
“This poor woman is driving me crazy and everyone can hear…”
“Norma, I need to leave right away…”
“Leave, with a waiting room full of…”
“My mother has had a stroke. Lamia just called.”
“Oh my. I still remember when they called about your dad and you had to leave right away. Would you like me to drop everything and work on your tickets?”
“Please, I’d like to leave today. And write off Mrs. Stitchmaker’s balance and tell her that her insurance paid it in full.”
While Norma worked on my tickets, I saw my afternoon patients with my usual alacrity, and not one of them noticed my absent mind or my vacuous eyes. As I ushered my last patient out, Norma stood suspended next to my desk, with a shuffle of papers in her hands.
“I can have you in Beirut tomorrow evening if you can be at the airport in two hours. You’ll fly American Airlines from here to London and Middle East Airlines from London to Beirut. By the way, your patients all noticed that you seemed distracted and, one by one, have asked me if anything was wrong. What would you like me to say?”
I examined the tickets. How transparent I must be, even when I think that I am faking it well… These last minute fares are steep. They prey on the desperate. I have no choice. The words of a poem I had written many years ago welled up out of my unconscious, began drumming within my chest, and racing with my heart:
“The east wind calls my name
I know that I must go
The wind may never call again.”
I handed Norma my credit card, organized my unwritten charts into three delinquent piles, took off my white coat, packed my brief case, and, as I walked out, Norma gave me a shuddering embrace and whispered, with wet lips into my shoulder, “Please be careful. They’re still fighting. This morning, there was a battle in Sidon between the army and a new rebel group.”
“The battle was north of Sidon, my dear, at the refugee camp by the river. Mother is in the Soha Hospital on the other side of town. I’ll call you as soon as I see her. I don’t know when I’ll be back. Call Drs. Hooper and Michael; they’ll cover for me while I’m gone.”
In tenebrous October skies, the airplane buffed against cotton clouds and swooned down lurking air pockets as it arched its way from our windy city to the other one, which embraces Lake Michigan, and then to the world’s crucible of hospitality, marred by its two absent towers. My connecting time was barely enough to make the transatlantic leg. In the takeoff distance, floated the lit mirage of Bartholdi’s colossus and in my heart, echoed the words of Emma Lazarus on the Statue’s base:
“Give my your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teaming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Heathrow was awakening when we landed, and the un-thronged passport lanes yawned in the misty British sunrise.
“How long are you staying in London, sir?”
“I’m transiting to Beirut.”
“Business or pleasure?”
“My mother has had a stroke.”
“I’m sorry, sir. Have a safe trip.”
The crowded Middle East Airline left on time with knee-room-only seats; no one crossed legs during the four-and-a-half-hour flight. The Lebanese hors d’oeuvres and belly-dance music, however, tempered our imprisonment and ameliorated the backaches that groaned with failed attempts to shift positions. Over Beirut, I could see smoke arising from distant fires and rubble-riddled streets that, as a student, I had sauntered through and frequented their loud, politically hot cafe’s. When we touched down, a communal sigh breathed relief throughout the cabin as knees felt assured that freedom was imminent. As I walked out, having cleared customs, my brother stood waving in the distance. He managed a smile as we hugged before he whisked me to Sidon.
Along the serpentine, seashore highway—bedecked with towns, resorts, restaurants, and shallow seawater bins lined with salt sacks—we broached sundry topics. We talked of Syria, Israel, Hezbollah, Muslims, Christians, Jews, the recently assassinated son-of-Sidon, Senator Hilu, and the upcoming olive harvest in Kafr Az-Zaitoon. We even talked about the weather, the early snows, and the failing economy. We talked about everything except about Mother.
At the hospital, a crowd stood in front of her room. Aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and distant relatives, one by one, kissed me on both cheeks and mumbled unintelligible phrases ending with the divine word, Allah. In the room, Mother’s shadow lay motionless and a slow-dripping IV line snaked underneath the white sheets into her left arm. Those in the room stood back, as I approached and began stroking her forehead. She started to breathe faster when she felt my hand, then her eyes opened and wandered about the room until they fell on me. A smile lit up her face as she attempted to articulate my name, “Sa… Sal… Salem” and, at the same time, reached with her right hand and clasped mine. Murmurs and whispers behind me got louder and louder, turned into cheers, and the outside crowd long-necked into her door. The words, “She said his name and moved her right arm,” echoed from one to another and many eyes teared over quivering cheeks. It took me a while to apprehend that Mother had been in a coma until that very moment.
On the third hospital day, barely leaning on my arm, she walked down the hospital hall and on the fourth day, we took her to our home in Sidon. In our mountain town, Kafr Az-Zaitoon, rumors frenzied about her sudden recovery and reached Father Elias who hurried down to Sidon for a visit. “They are saying that you woke up for your son who came from America to see you. They are saying that you woke up as soon as he touched your forehead. They are saying that he has a healing hand. You have to come with him to St. Nicholas this Sunday; lots of sick people are planning to come to be healed by his hand. Through him Christ has performed a miracle. Praise God. Praise the mighty Allah.” “Father Elias, I am leaving tomorrow; I have patients and appointments that cannot wait till next week.”
“I’ll come in his place, Father. Christ does not need my son’s hand to heal the sick. We’ll all pray together this Sunday.”
“Inshallah, Inshallah, Doctorah. May God bless you all. Too bad Dr. Salem will not be coming up to Kafr Az-Zaitoon with you. A lot of people will be disappointed but it must be God’s will that he return to his own patients in America.”
That night, my mother talked and I listened. “They killed my son, the one I brought to life from underneath the knife.”
“What do you mean mother?”
“I have never told a soul… but I may tell you now since Dr. Babandi and all his children have died. You cannot repeat this to any one because people still remember and it will shame the Babandi family. Do you promise?”
“I promise, Mother.”
“It happened in 1944, after the Great War. I had just finished my Obstetrics and Gynecology residency at the American University of Beirut and came to Sidon to work with Dr. Babandi at the Babandi Hospital. I assisted him on surgeries and there were lots of them because he was the most famous surgeon in all of South Lebanon. One day, he was operating on a spinster who had an abdominal mass and couldn’t eat. When we opened her up, we found the mass to be a pregnant uterus.
He asked me what he should do and I said, “Close her up and get out.” He did not agree and thought that, for the reputation of the woman, he would do a hysterectomy, tell everyone that he took the mass out, and that she was cured. I said, “No, you can not kill an innocent fetus; when God gives life, no one may take it away.” He insisted as the chief surgeon, with knife in hand, on going ahead with the hysterectomy. I covered the woman’s uterus with my gloved hands, looked him straight in the eyes, and in front of the stunned operating room crew, I shouted into his masked face: “You will have to cut my fingers first before you kill this innocent child.” He looked around, paused for a moment, threw his knife into the air, and walked out of the operating room mumbling: “You close her up then, and go explain things to her waiting family.”
I closed her up, told her parents that she was pregnant, that she should relocate to another town, and that she should dedicate her life to raising her child because, as of that moment, her child should become her most pressing responsibility. After leaving the hospital, she married the father of her child and left town in a storm of bitter gossip. Sixty years later, that boy became Senator Hilu, who was recently assassinated. Shhh… No one knows this story but you. The operating room crew, Dr. Babandi, the woman, her husband, and her parents have all died. I am the only one left from that era. When you reach ninety-five, you will have outlived all your generations. Have a safe trip home, Son; I will light a candle for you this Sunday at St. Nicholas and pray for your healing hands.
When I returned to work, I told Norma the story but camouflaged the names and places, of course. Her eyes filled up with tears as she said: “Stop writing poetry. Stop writing novels. This is the one story you must write for your mother’s memory. That’s why, when she was in a coma, she lay mumbling: life… knife… fingers… Don’t you see? It was the only memory that re-surfaced above her coma. Life From Beneath The Knife, that’s what you need to call that story.”
This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 18, no. 67
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