My mother said, “We’ll wait till the wedding is over, then we’ll take her to the hospital. We can’t disturb the wedding.”
That jarred me. I know my mother is always wrong and that showed me how inhumane the situation was. I didn’t want a big wedding in the first place. I knew something like this would happen with a big wedding. So the next morning we took her to the hospital and my husband was there too, and the people in emergency care asked us her age, and I didn’t know. So my husband said, “Ninety-three.” Then he had to leave to make sure the tables were set right for the night.
I don’t know how I got through the wedding, but I was two hours late, my face caked in makeup, looking like another person, and no one really seemed to be interested in me, just teems of people brushing past me and what was happening in my life, and my husband was busy with his friends, and all the guests busy inspecting my jewelry, and the food was rich and greasy and overflowing and vulgar. And I kept doing things wrong, not speaking to the right people, not sitting in the right place. I couldn’t understand how this could be my day.
But that night, after my husband came to me, amidst my own pain, I felt her pain. So sharp and clear, it was a surprise. And when I cried in the dark, I felt good about myself, like I could still be trusted to do the right thing, to feel emotion, that I had touched something real. And it carried us both, my husband and me, across the gulf of all the other people between us through the evening back to the night my husband had proposed to me, and I had whispered to my grandmother, the first person I told, who listened and fell silent, so silent that I doubted she had heard me, and the only other people in the room were her nursemaids, and I knew all of them had been praying along with her so I would find a handsome prince.
Nine months later, when I went through labor, my grandmother, whose broken bone had healed, was still confined to her bed. We thought it best, given the danger of repeated fractures. She had asked for a wheelchair and my father made her one, and my aunt said, “These wheels don’t work, they jam up. And the seat’s too hard for her.” But my father was too proud of his chair so we couldn’t get around him to buy her another one, and she never got out of bed. Around that time, my cousins called me and said, “You’re so lucky because you have our grandmother’s blessings.” My cousins were jealous because they thought if my grandmother lived with us, I had greater access to her prayers. And it was true, my confined grandmother did nothing else but pray all day, and she prayed for me. So that my labor lasted only two hours and I came home with an eight-pound baby girl.
The only thing I ever did for my grandmother was to convince her to have her cataract removed. She was terribly frightened, and didn’t want to go through the operation even though she had almost no sight in both her eyes. So I spoke to my friend Dr. Shazia who explained to me that even if she didn’t have surgery, the cataract might harden and burst in her eye, and then she would be blind and in a mess and have to go through surgery anyway. My grandmother kept talking about some woman who had gone blind so her family used to turn the lights off when she ate and the cat urinated in her food. My grandmother was also worried she wouldn’t be able to read anymore, her already read novels, in stacks on her bed, and her prayer books, also on the bed, lined up along the wall. My aunt spoke to me on behalf of the family, why bother, the old lady had gone through enough, the anesthesia might kill her, the surgery might be unsuccessful. But I didn’t listen to them, I convinced my grandmother. After the surgery, she was reading novels in a month. I felt proud to have taken responsibility because otherwise no one else would have, in case she went blind. So she thanked me again and again and so did all my cousins from all over the world on long distance lines, from Australia to Canada.
I knelt beside my grandmother and said, “See? Don’t you worry. I shall never leave your side. As long as I am here, you have not a thing to worry about.”
But as my grandmother closed her eyes, I sat there and was filled with a growing realization, one that filled my entire being, because had no one else noticed the exact exchange? For every impossible dream my grandmother conquered for me, she gave up a part of herself, a leg for a prince, and an eye for a baby.
And all this while, my husband and I were plotting our future, trying to get visas to go to America. Of course I felt badly about leaving behind my family. My father and my mother. And my grandmother, who waited among the dirty betel-stained sheets, reading from her Koran to prepare herself for the day of parting, who would not wait around for a reunion. Make sure to give her the eye medicine when I am gone, I reminded my mother. But as we got our passports ready, the laws hardened and our chances slimmed. Our hearts contracted.
I kept saying, “It doesn’t really matter if we get to go or not, there are more important things in life. Such as that everyone is safe and happy.”
My grandmother said, “If you really want to go I can pray for you and it will happen.”
I said, “No!” because by now I knew at what cost prayers were extracted.
While my daughter cradled on my grandmother’s knees and laughed and screamed, we scurried about getting documents ready for the visa. It took a long while, and the interview was long as well, many awkward humiliating questions, and at the end, no definite answer. Our information had been sent for security check to the United States and we would have to wait weeks to find out if we could go. And I came home and I cried because all our plans and hopes and dreams were about to be dashed just like that, so meaningless, so unfair. Life in the United States, how could we bear to let pass the promise of such a life! When I returned from the embassy that day, I did not hesitate for a moment. I fell at my grandmother’s feet and cried.
“I’ll pray for you,” she said. “Don’t you worry, if I pray for you the heavens will conspire to make your dream come true.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” I said. “At whatever cost.”
I turned my back to her to breastfeed the baby. And my grandmother prayed that night, and she promised my child would walk in another country.
We got back our passports the day before we flew. From then on, we were running, to the ticket office, markets, the bank, throwing in our lives in heaps into suitcases, the edges trailing behind. A walker made by my father for his grandchild who still got around by command from his arms. And one last kiss from my grandmother, the baby handed back, and her eyes curiously dry, but later we learned from my aunt in the United States she had been warned by my mother not to cry in front of us. She had cried for nights afterward. And even later, her eyes would be dry and sightless, permanently sealed, in a mad effort to contain the infection, so they wouldn’t have to be pulled out of their sockets. But by then we would be transported to America atop clouds and the wings of my grandmother’s hopes, up, up, and away, and we would smile as we envisioned our dreams come true, for our baby who would learn to walk in another country.
Gemini Wahhaj is a graduate student in creative writing, pursuing an M.F.A. at University of Houston.
KATHA 2004 RESULTS
* FIRST PRIZE (cash award $500):
The Troubles of Taqlif Hussain
by AMIT MAJMUDAR, North Canton, OH
* SECOND PRIZE (cash award $300): Akeli
by RACHEL ASTARTE PICCIONE, New York, NY
* THIRD PRICE (cash award $100): In Benares
by PRASENJIT GUPTA, Iowa City, IA
* HONORABLE MENTIONS:
For My Baby Who Will Walk in Another Country
by GEMINI WAHHAJ, Houston, TX
Instances of Disorder
by CHITRA PARAYATH, Lexington, MA