“I’m afraid the cancer’s spread to her liver and her lungs. There’s not much we can do now. She has about six months, though honestly, I think it might not even be that long.”
The doctor was right. It was over in about a month.
My life was in free fall.
I was loving life. Grad school was chugging along, I had a great social circle, and I was newly single, having left a relationship that wasn’t working out for anyone.
My days were spent in a musty old engineering lab, doing research and watching the hours tick by. My evenings were for my closest friends, usually dinner at their place followed by a movie or board games.
I wasn’t even in my mid-20’s yet, and I felt immortal. Responsibility was a word hovering around the margins of my life. As long as I was spending time with those I cared about, nothing else in the world mattered.
Family, which had been so important to me growing up, was a distant thought. I had a new family now, and I built my bonds with them as blood ties started to clot.
As far as I could see, everything was great.
It was all wrong.
She couldn’t be gone. Not yet.
She still had a good twenty years left in her, at least. She would see her daughters-in-law. She would play with her grand-children. She would be an old widow, with happy memories of my father. And one day, in the distant future, she would leave us, satisfied with the life she’d lived. But not now. Not yet.
My father looked down at her. She was completely still, eyes staring out the window at a landscape they could no longer see. Doctors and nurses rushed around, giving their condolences before going off to see a patient they might actually cure. I sat on a chair at the far end of the room, unable to control the tears rolling down my cheeks.
I had to accept it. She really was gone.
All hope was lost.
There was still hope. Not a lot of it, but enough.
The job market had taken a turn for the worse. Companies exhibiting at the university’s career fair once seemed to welcome everybody with open arms; now most of the stalls had a giant ‘U.S. Citizens Only’ sign on them. Perfect.
I was looking for every excuse to delay graduation, for a number of reasons. My life still revolved mostly around my friends and my hobbies, with very little in the way of actual work. I didn’t want to leave that behind to get stuck at a desk for 8 hours a day. And what about moving to a new city? Or a new state? I hated the idea of starting my life over again.
No, this ride couldn’t end.
I just had to focus on the bright side.
The sky was turning gray.
It started raining when we reached the crematorium. This was it.
The final goodbye.
As my mother’s body was put into the furnace, I wanted to rush over and pull her back. It was too early for her to go.
But I knew it was over. The furnace door slammed shut, bidding us farewell.
My whole world had fallen apart, and piecing it back together would be a long, difficult process.
Everything was going to pieces.
A year-old Master’s degree. Still unemployed. Visa running out. Nowhere left to go but home.
Home. Wasn’t I already there? That’s what I’d believed the last few years. I had thought that this land would be my home. That this is where I would stay, planting new roots and forging new beginnings. Instead, I’d hit an abrupt end.
Desperation. Depression. Desolation.
I didn’t think life could get any worse than this. Leaving behind the verdant valleys of this peaceful Pennsylvanian town to wander the steel and concrete desert of Dubai? It was my hell.
But there was no escaping it. I couldn’t live illegally. That didn’t sit right with me. So I left.
I returned home. Or to a place that used to be home. I felt like a foreigner now.
My father’s kindness seemed so passive, my mother’s love overbearing, my brother’s jokes corny. Could I really live here again?
I missed my friends.
I missed my mother.
She had been so full of life, so full of vitality. Earlier that year, she had been juggling multiple roles, as a teacher and a mother. She was one of the most well-respected teachers in her school, and had even been awarded for her outstanding achievements. As a music teacher, her renown had spread throughout the city, or so it seemed. She was still teaching at music institutes three nights a week, and the other days she held private lessons.
It was hard to believe that the same person had been bedridden, unable to even walk to the bathroom without someone to lean on.
As a child, I remembered being impatient whenever we went out, because my mother would take forever to get ready. She took any opportunity to stand in front of the mirror, fixing her make-up or brushing her hair.
For the last month of her life, my mother couldn’t bear to look at a mirror. She didn’t want to see her yellowed skin and eyes; jaundice was a side effect of the cancer.
Life had no real purpose now, a series of meaningless repetitive tasks performed day after day. A constant cycle of waking and sleeping. Sometimes I felt like I was in a movie; my mother had played her death scene, and after shooting had wrapped up, she’d come back on set to hang out with us. But nobody yelled ‘Cut!’, and the scene never ended.
Barely two weeks after my mother’s passing, my dad got into a car accident.
Was this really happening?
It was real.
I got the job.
After a lengthy interview process, I was hired as a Sales Consultant. It was a far cry from my engineering degree, but it was employment.
The past month had been tense. My parents worried about my future and my brother was trying to be my ‘life coach’. They all seemed so alien to me. But I knew I was the alien. I no longer belonged in this city; it was just a temporary setback for me.
The company I was going to work for was a multinational corporation. There were frequent relocations to other branches around the world, and stellar employees could pick their destination. It was my ticket back to the US.
Within another six months, I could potentially be promoted to Sales Manager. Within a year, I’d be hopping on a plane.
Soon, everything would be ok again.
Things were getting worse.
The accident had left my dad with a hematoma in his brain; the doctors said it would clear up soon and shouldn’t cause any lasting damage, but that was hard to believe.
For months after the accident, my dad didn’t seem like the same person. Forgetful, prone to repeating himself, impatient, irritable, humorless. No lasting damage? That’s not what I saw.
My brother was busy with a new job, so I, perpetually unemployed, had to play nurse once more. Was this my life now? Attending to the people I loved as they decayed into empty husks?
Even worse, I was turning into a hypochondriac. Every day, I thought myself to be developing some form of cancer or life-threatening disease. Every ache, every sore, every little bump on my skin was an omen. The rational side of me tried to shake it off, to make sense of these harmless things, but it wasn’t good enough. I was a prisoner of my own mind.
And then, a ray of light.
My dad cracked a joke again.
Bit by bit, he began to heal, becoming more like his old self again. He wasn’t quite the same; there were some odd quirks, bouts of of forgetfulness. He was like a broken cup that had been glued back together so it looked whole, except for the little chip on its rim.
But he was better. And so was I.
There was hope once more.
It was hopeless.
My job was a nightmare, and my manager decided it was best to wake me up.
I was unemployed again.
Maybe I just wasn’t cut out for working life. The stresses of the sales world had turned me off the idea of working, seemingly forever.Was there even any point in job hunting? What were the odds I’d find something I actually wanted to do?
Instead, I grew content and complacent at home, devoting my time to watching TV and playing video games. After a time, I took up cooking again, having lunch ready for my mom when she came back from school.
My parents sometimes questioned me about my job search and I gave them evasive non-answers. Living at home with all the time in the world to pursue my hobbies? Why would I ever want to change that?
Life wasn’t so bad after all.
Until two years later, when we received a shocking diagnosis.
And about a month after that, all our lives were turned upside-down.
Our lives were slowly getting back on track.
My dad was doing well, my brother was busy with work, and I was learning to keep my darker thoughts at bay.
But I was still unemployed, and that was becoming a problem.
A stroke of luck. One of my brother’s friends had an opening for a writer in their company. Writing had been an interest and very casual hobby of mine, but I relished the opportunity to turn it into something more.
The job was relaxing, except for little bursts of stress when a deadline had to be met.
But it wasn’t enough. There was still a void in my life, a sense that things weren’t quite ok. My dad, while mostly normal, couldn’t stay in the house by himself. Which meant that if my brother and I happened to be working late, then so was he. We were living in an incomplete jigsaw puzzle, trying to find those missing pieces that would make the picture whole.
I hoped things would get better soon.
Things are looking up.
It’s been close to two years since my mother passed away, and the world’s still spinning.
My father keeps himself busy with work, and with cooking when he’s at home. He’s alright with staying home alone when needed, though I try to make sure that doesn’t become a necessity too often. There are still the odd quirks and bouts of forgetfulness, but I’m used to them. If life were a sitcom, those would be the moments that make me shake my head and say, “Oh, Dad!” while the audience erupts into laughter.
My brother is busy, with work, a new girlfriend, and life. But it makes the moments we spend as a family that much more special. His jokes are as corny as ever, but so are mine, and we can share a good laugh together.
I’ve recently started a new job as well, pursuing writing as a full-time career. It’s been a hectic but amazing month so far.
Our lives still aren’t the same as they were, but different doesn’t have to be bad. And there are some small consolations. I am not a religious person or a believer in destiny, but part of me wonders if perhaps I was meant to be here. Maybe I was meant to be back in Dubai and to end up unemployed for some time so I could spend more time with my family, spend a few good years with my mom before she had to go.
The skeptic in me says that’s not the case. I’d tend to agree, but I hold onto that thought. There’s nothing wrong with a little magic in life.
I’ve found a purpose in life again. It’s to search for those little bits of happiness, whether through achievements in my job, working on my hobbies, or just sharing a laugh with my dad and brother over something completely silly. After all, as I’ve learned, the whole world can change at any time.