Shaji woke up with a pounding headache. The pain started in her sleep, so she thought she was only dreaming it. In her dream, she was visiting her mother in Bangladesh. The house looked so big and spacious that the silence of the whole universe could easily hide in there and no one would have noticed. In that silence-consuming house, her mother was arguing with her sister Sheuli, who had showed up with her triplet teen daughters to spend a weekend. But her mother objected. “I've grown tired of people, and want to be left alone these last days,” Shaji heard her say. These last days? What did she mean? Shaji looked at her mother's face and suddenly saw an old woman—a face she had never noticed before. Her mother stood a little hunched back and had a head covered in cloud-white hair. When did she turn so old? Was her mother dying? Shaji's left temple started pulsating the moment her mother looked at her and spoke. “You are here! But wait, let me clean the walkway for you.” Her mother took a broom and started swiping the whole house. “Dirty, dirty, dirty,” she kept saying, “everything's so dirty! How can my baby live in such a dirty place?”
Shaji saw her mother's body breaking and bending like a zigzag zebra crossing. The aura had started, Shaji told herself, and now the migraine was sure to come. She woke up to find the migraine throbbing in her left temple. 'Something bad is going to happen to someone today,' she felt almost sure of it. Her heart started racing. She had to make sure everyone was okay—her husband and their two children, her siblings and their families, and her friends—everyone should be faraway from the paths of danger. But what if someone was already in danger? Shaji felt dizzy and kept her eyes closed to prevent the unrelenting auras of excruciating light from entering her head and cloud her thoughts.
Shaji was out of coffee. She had to shake and scrape the container to find enough to make one last cup of espresso. She called her two children and left a voice mail: “Just calling to say hi. By the way, don't go out today if you don't need to. Stay safe and healthy. Love you.”
“You are one proud Bengali mother, soon to have two doctors by your side to keep you away from ill health,” her husband Liton always teased her.
“But I have to live long—to see that day, no?”
“Honey, you'll live 100 years! Your heart is strong.”
Liton was a man with a weak heart. It had been trying to stop on him for a while now. But because of his cautious lifestyle and Shaji's watchful eyes, Liton's poor heart never had a chance to fail. But that of course was not sufficient to leave his heart in peace. Liton always feared that he might not live long to see the success of his children.
Shaji turned the electric kettle on. Liton was a tea person. Decaf tea, accompanied by a bowl of oatmeal with maple and brown sugar—that was his regular breakfast. Shaji wanted to make him a kale and beetroot smoothie. But Liton rejected the idea. He was not in the mood for a healthy start on a Saturday morning, he said. Shaji reminded him of his recent weight gain.
“Remember what the doctor said? Every extra pound gets us a step closer to our exit.”
“Silly girl! Always believing every little thing everyone says!” Liton smiled.
Shaji looked at his age-smoothed face. They had raised two children together, surfed through all waves of life—depending mostly on Shaji's emotional wings—and still he treated her like an inexperienced twenty-years old girl. Shaji smiled back.
“Can you call in sick?” She asked. “I don't want you to go out today.”
Liton nodded. Saturdays were his busy days at the store, especially during summer.
“Drink your coffee, take a few Tylenols, and think of next weekend to ease the pain. Our kids are coming home for a week, remember?” Liton kissed her gently and left.
Shaji suddenly felt relieved. Everything should be okay and her migraine would be gone very soon. She sat down to enjoy her morning coffee.
Farah called. “Kate is in the hospital. Peritoneal cancer.”
“I knew something bad is going to happen to someone close to me!”
“Kate wants you to take over two of her Fall classes. I told her I'll take them if you are unwilling to change your schedule in such a short notice,” Farah said.
How could she refuse Kate? Twelve years ago, when Liton was in the hospital for his heart surgery and Shaji was struggling to manage her children and her new career, it was Kate who gave her courage. “No storm is strong enough to topple a tree like you,” Kate used to say. Was Kate strong enough, like Shaji's mother, to ride the fierce storms? After her father's untimely death, Shaji's mother stood stronger than the ground beneath her feet and raised her five children on her own. Weakness was never her thing. But she looked very weak in her dream last night. Was her mother being beaten by a storm too? Like Kate?
“Amma, I dreamt of you,” Shaji sobbed.
“Stop worrying about others,” Shaji's mother said. “Take care of yourself for once, will you? Who is going to look after you if you fall ill? Your kids have moved out and your husband isn't …”
“Amma,” Shaji interrupted, “I'm just down with a migraine, that's all.”
“Everyone is doing great.” Her mother reported. Sheuli was down with chikungunya, but that was last month. Her brother Nitol and his wife were fighting as usual. Kaberi and her husband were planning to migrate to Canada. Her youngest sister Bijli was busy with her life and hardly paid a visit. Shaji's mother sighed.
“Bijli doesn't return my calls anymore,” Shaji said. “I think she doesn't approve my kind of living, you know, the life of a liberal immigrant.”
“Don't feel bad about that,” said her mother. “She disapproves almost everything, unless it suits her conservative doctrines.”
“But is she happy, Amma? Is she okay?”
“Who knows who is happy in this world and who is not? But everyone knows how to cope or pretend to be okay. I don't know these things anymore, my dear. I'm too old and too eager for everything to end. I sometimes wonder, what would be the last question I'd want to ask myself when I die: would I want to know if I was happy here? Or, would I wonder where I'd end up at the end of everything?”
“Don't talk like that! You're scaring me.”
“What I'm saying is, you can't stop anything from happening—either good or bad. So stop worrying.”
Shaji hung up the phone. She turned on the TV, but could not stare at the glaring light of the screen. She closed her eyes. This persistently throbbing head of hers would not leave her alone. So there was no point pining over it. Besides, she had too many incomplete tasks at hand. The house was in a dire need of vacuuming and swiping and mopping; the garden beds needed weeding; Liton was out of chia seed and aloe vera juice; her grocery list would grow taller than the pine trees if she did not hit the store right away; and she had to start preparing for the new courses she promised to teach.
Shaji started vacuuming. By the time she finished cleaning the house and weeding her garden, Shaji completely forgot about the dazzling auras produced by her pounding headache. Feeling euphoric, she decided to visit the library on her way back from the grocery store.
Saturday roads usually run empty, like dead rivers. Shaji looked at the empty road and for no reason felt a pang of loneliness in her heart. As the traffic light went green from red, Shaji slowly accelerated her speed. In front of her, the empty road waited, looking sad—like the afternoon sky.
Shaji's eyes were focused on the road when the fourteen-wheeler truck came out of nowhere and T-boned her. Before her hands slipped off from the steering wheel and her head smacked against the airbag, she looked out at the vast sky through the shattered windshield. The last thing she saw was the silhouette of her mother, swiping off the scattered clouds from the road of the sky and muttering continuously. “Dirty, dirty, everything is so dirty here!”
Fayeza Hasanat Teaches at the University of Central Florida.