<%-- Page Title--%> Perceptions <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 118 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

August 15, 2003

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In Sickness and In Health

Aliya F. Khan-Munir

Like most people in their mid twenties, I hardly pondered too deeply about my health. It seemed to me, most of the time, an abstract word used by our parents and elders. Too often the conversations around us comprise of people saying things like 'My health has not been too well because of XY and Z----.' Or things like 'Old age has deteriorated my health and so forth. These conversations would often follow with advise on diet and medicine and complaints about the lack of facilities in Dhaka.

I suppose nature has a strange way of introducing us to the harsher realities of life. In our youthful arrogance and pomp and glory of our energy, we cease to take a minute to appreciate this amazing vessel we find ourselves locked in.

The reality of illness became more pronounced to me a year or so ago, in September when my husband came down with dengue and typhoid. At the beginning I kept thinking that it was just the flu, just a silly foreign bug that my husband had acquired in his system for being away from Bangladesh for so long. At the same time I felt a heaviness within myself. Perhaps it was because I had never seen him looking so ill. The temperature sending him in a delirium, the vomiting, the restlessness drawing dark circles under his eyes. The cheerful smile being replaced by dry white patches around his mouth; remnants of the high fever. Still, I was hopeful it was not Dengue. I think it was a word that, as one day became three days, I was beginning to dread more and more.

On the third night when my husband had been tossing and turning for hours and I found no peace in the darkness, I found myself waking up. I sat up and turned on the lamp next to our bed and watched with despair at his pale face. I ran a hand through his hair and prayed fervently to Allah that all would be well. In the soft light of the lamp I could see the reflection of a picture, which we always keep by our bedside. The two of us on our akht, looking at each other and smiling. Not hugging or posing for the camera, just looking at each other. We both love that picture, I don't know why; perhaps its because the picture captures the true essence of our relationship. Looking at it objectively all one sees is a young woman in a green sari and red lipstick looking at the young man sitting next to her. The young man in all white pyjama and panjabi looking back at her. The bending of the two faces is what, I realised, I loved best about the picture. In the darkness with the trick of the light, I realised that the bending of the two heads seemed to form a heart. I smiled at the illusion that we form in our heads. That night I went to sleep with a heavy heart. The next morning the doctor informed me that that my husband had dengue.

The next few days in the hospital were unlike any I had ever experienced. The constant anxiety, the restlessness, the stillness only to be broken by visitors or doctors or the cries of the poor souls who had lost their loved ones. My husband got transformed in just a few days into a pale and thinner version of who he was. Gone was the happy-go lucky smile or the brightness that I could always see in his eyes. His eyes hardly registered anything. The medication, the high temperature, most of all the loss of fluid, everything added up in his system and converted him from a healthy young man to a patient. I don't know who it was harder, for me because I was always in a conscious state watching like a hawk at everything that the doctors and nurses did, or my husband who suffered through the medication, the ivy, and the constant poking for the blood tests.

The saddest time for us was when I would take him to the bathroom he would say, 'Liya I feel embarrassed to do my toilet in front of you.' My heart would break at that and I would say, 'Husbands and wives are supposed to help each other out in their times of need.' It sounded so lame even to myself. I would want to scream and say that it was for all the times we had shared together, for all the times he had rubbed my feet after a long day, for all the times he had made life bearable with a small joke, for the times he had hidden a candy underneath my pillow just to surprise me. I said none of these things, I would just hold his hands.

I prayed day and night, striking all kinds of deal with Allah. Begging, crying, pleading. At times I blamed myself for his illness, perhaps it was because I was not appreciative of him, perhaps it was because I had done something wrong. I kept on remembering all the times we had shared together, all the grand plans we had made together. I laughed thinking of all the long nights we had passed just talking and laughing about all our far-fetched dreams. My husband's illness made me realise I was weak, I was only made of clay, at the whims of my Maker, who had the power to decide whether my husband's condition would get critical or better. I was NO ONE.

Through the nights and days that passed, Abul who was in our house since I was a baby would stand at guard. Watching me, watching my husband. Making sure we were both doing alright. After the family members and the nurses would leave and I would have the whole night ahead of me Abul would stay awake, making sure the ivy had not come to an end, urging my husband to take a few sips of daber pani. I would joke with him and say that when he watches my husband I can take some rest.

Abul had been with us for twenty-two years. He came as a little boy to my Nanu and looked after him till the day Nanu died. We would laugh that Nanu would first serve food for Abul and then sit down for his meal. Such was the bond between Nanu and Abul. After Nanu's death Abul came to live with us. Not that he had to, he had a nine to five job. But after five he would come over and run all our errands, look after us, listen to our endless complaints. I always laughed at the fact that he called me 'babu.' I once told him to make sure that he didn't call me babu in front of my friends.

My husband, thanks to the blessings of Allah got well and we went home. He would tell me that he understood why we were so fond of Abul. A small framed young man with a dark moustache, who would always smile.

Life never stays constant; I think I hate that fact the most. My husband's illness had left a bitter taste in my mouth for illnesses. It had opened my mind to fear and doubts and questions and the horrible reality that we were only on earth for a short while. At our age we hardly like to dwell on things like that. I wondered if people my age would think I had some how acquired a gothic taste for worrying so much about the issues of life, death and illness. The roof nearly caved in on us when we found out that Abul had dengue and jaundice.

I hated the idea of having to visit Abul in the hospital. The visit to the hospital reminded me of the long nights, with the darkness outside turning to a pale pink color and realising that I could not give into my body's cry for sleep. I shivered thinking that I would have to step back into another hospital and have to watch a healthy person suffer.

I walked with my husband and my mother to the ward with a sense of trepidation, yet at the same time hopefulness that all would be well. In my lack of understanding the ways of Bangladeshi hospitals, I was horrified at the behavior of the doctors. They seemed almost accusing that we cared so much for someone who only worked for us. How does one explain the bonds that people develop? I yelled at the doctor to make her understand that she had no right to shout at her patient or to walk away without talking to us or throwing the file on the table because I wanted to know what medication Abul was taking.

I realised with horror yet again how living abroad had spoiled my husband and me. It had made us expect politeness and proper procedures and behaviours. Such things do not exist in all places in Bangladesh. As days went by, Abul only got worse until he went into a hepatic coma. I remembered just a day before he went into his coma he said to Ammu, 'I will never be able to repay this debt. Ammu's eyes had filled with tears and she had shrugged it aside saying that, 'You will be fine, don't say things like this.' In our next visit we found Abul in a coma. The once smiling face was now covered with tubes, the ICU with its medical stench and seriousness were all too much to bear.

We all hoped he would get better, but as days went by, he did not recover from his coma and finally he passed away. I can't get the images out of my head. Of his smiling face, his complete loyalty towards my family, the way he had smiled and rubbed my husband's head when he was in the hospital. How could the one person who had nursed everyone back to health decide to leave us?

I don't know who it's harder for, the people who die or the unfortunate people who are left behind. Abul's death made me realise how fragile our lives are, how short and how precious each and every moment is. I can't comprehend his death. He was a link to my Nanu, and the old ways of life when tradition, loyalty and goodness were the heights that everyone tried to reach. Memories are strange things, they appear in our mind like snapshots and we feel the pain of those who leave us during the mundane chores of everyday life.

My husband's illness and Abul's death has made me feel so insignificant. It has reminded me about the core of all religion, that no matter who we are or what we do, we must all return to our Maker. It makes me scared to think about death, yet at the same time I think that perhaps it will make me a better person, perhaps less selfish, less materialistic, perhaps more sensitive to those around me and more compassionate to the unfortunate. I think about Emily Dickinson's poem where she eloquently says that God has created so much beauty around us, yet we never wonder whether we will be able to present a beautiful face to God. The message there is so profound and yet so simple. I hope I can live up to it.




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