They were right. He’s better.
Yesterday evening we went over to say hello. The night-shift nurses were just leaving after giving him his medicines and changing the bed, and my sister-in-law greeted us at the apartment door: “He’s asked about you specifically three times today. Go in and say hello, he’s awake.” I went in and sat down on the bed, and called him by name.
“Well!” he said, opening his eyes and looking at me with surprise and pleasure. And then: “You look beautiful!” I was wearing a tweedy, rust-colored sweater and a hand-knit lace scarf in lavender lightweight wool; probably the colors were cheerful and different, too, from the nurses’ uniforms and my husband’s and brother-in-law’s usual dark t-shirts and jackets. “Wait a minute,” he said, turning his head to the right. “Let me give you my ear. OK! I thought you were gone, back to Montreal.”
“I just went up for a couple of days to get my stitches out and check the apartment, water the plants.” He smiled. “But I came right back. I wanted to see you.”
“Do you like my flowers?” he asked, nodding toward the bouquet of red tulips on the windowsill, nearly full-blown now. I told him of course I did; they were lovely. “What did you do today?” he asked. I told him I had been to church and then worked on our taxes. He raised his eyebrows disapprovingly. “So my two daughters-in-law both went to church: one to that Quaker gathering and one to the Episcopal one…and they’re both wrong!” I laughed and told him he was probably right.
“There are angels around here all the time,” he said. “They come and wash me. I told them tonight that if all they do is wash me, and avoid certain parts, then they are angels. But I think they were being bad – they kept asking me to turn from one side to the other and I couldn’t tell if it was to help them or if really they were trying to inspect me. I suspect the latter!”
“They say you’re much better,” I said. “And it looks like you are.”
He looked at me skeptically. “Not really,” he said. “But I was really lost for a while. When you’ve had 76 years without serious illness and then something like this, you aren’t prepared. The last time I was really ill was when I had pleurisy when I was 12.” He pulled one arm out from under the covers and I saw that he wasn’t wearing a nightshirt; he’d always liked to sleep in the nude. “I’ve lost 14 pounds!” he said.
“Well, you haven’t been eating much for a long time. But I hear you’ve been eating more in the past couple of days.”
“I don’t’ feel like it, but I know I should. Today I asked for two soft-cooked eggs on bread and ate them.”
“That’s good, you need to eat some protein.”
“Eggs have protein.”
“Yes. And you could eat a little fish, maybe, or some chicken?”
He made a face. “I’ve eaten so much chicken in this place I never want to see it again. If I see a chicken, it will run away from me!” We both laughed, and I told him I didn’t blame him.
“Maybe you can help me,” he said, changing the subject. “I’ve decided to say something good about Islam.” My face probably betrayed my surprise; what was he talking about now? “I’ve spent two years thinking about a lecture I want to give on Islam, but haven’t been able to put it together. Last night I had an inspiration -- and it came to me. But I need pictures of all the different Muslim headdresses that men wear – there are lots of them: the turbans, the Saudi thing – I had a friend who had a picture that showed them all – he lived south of Hanover on the road to New York – but he had the bad manners to die. Anyway, I need those for my lecture.”
I told him I’d look on the internet and see what I could find. Knowing him, once we have the pictures he’ll want the actual headgear to wear during his lecture. But one step at a time.
He was silent for a while, his beautiful silky white hair flowing on the pillow around his face, his face thin and more serious; he seemed to be deep in thought. “My mind is very busy with what happens to our consciousness after death,” he announced, at length, and for the next half hour he talked about this subject, speaking of how his wife appears to him in all his dreams – asleep, but smiling – and asking me questions about my own mother’s death, and whether I’ve seen her in my dreams.
“I do see her, but it’s always as she was – in the past. It’s not like she’s dead and communicating with me from wherever she is now.”
He considered that. “I’ve never dreamed my own death,” he said.
“Me either. I’ve dreamt I was dying, but I always wake up just before it happens. I don’t think we can dream our own death. Not the whole thing.”
“That’s an interesting theory. I wonder. Well, no one has ever come back to tell us!” He talked again about a friend who had made a pact with his wife that whoever died first would make every effort to communicate with the one who was left. “He told me, ‘I wait, and wait…nothing!’” My father-in-law looked at me intently. “But I think he was wrong,” he said. “I think they did communicate.”
I told him again about my experience the morning after my mother’s death, when I felt she spoke to me, saying “I am all right, and you will be all right.” “My rational mind discounted it immediately,” I said. “But it was a very powerful experience that broke suddenly into my consciousness. I can’t entirely explain it away on the basis of emotion or exhaustion. It felt very real.”
“Your mother was a very good person,” he said. “I think she did continue after death.”
I was very surprised to hear that from him. “She didn’t believe in it herself,” I said. “She was a skeptic, like you.”
He shrugged. “I think it has to do with how you live while you’re here,” he said. “And she was good.”
He had speculated, some weeks earlier, about being reunited with the source of our bliss. I offered: “Some of the Eastern religions say it’s as if we are separate drops of water, while we’re here, and then we become reunited with the river after we die.”
He looked at me skeptically. “It doesn’t satisfy me,” he responded instantly, and then smiled. “I want something really good!”
I laughed. “Do you think you will see people you’ve known? "
“Yes. I think I’ll see lots of people I’ve known. There are some very good people I look forward to talking to again.”
He was quiet again and then spoke: “Alice and M. died around the same time – I think they wanted each other’s company.” Alice was the woman he almost married; M. his wife.
“M. is so happy in my dreams,” he repeated, and then added, “Happier than she was in real life.” He paused. “I think… I annoyed her.”
I couldn't think fast enough to respond. “Mashallah!” he said, for me. (It means, literally, ”whatever God wills,” but Muslims also use it when giving Allah credit for things that humans might otherwise claim on their own: if someone says "what a beautiful daughter!" the parent might respond " mashallah!" But in this case he meant it in the first sense, "that's the way it is, so be it.")
“Mashallah,” I repeated.
“Alice was always waiting for me to ask her,” he went on, then, speaking much more slowly and deliberately than usual. “But I was afraid.” The room had become quite dark as the last light left the evening sky. I searched his face, wondering what was coming next. “But I think now that I made a mistake,” he said. “I think I would have had greater companionship with her.”
He had spoken so much about the series of events that had led to his unconventional marriage to a non-Arab woman, to coming to America, to teaching and living in this particular corner of the country. “All because of coincidence!” he had said, over and over. Now my own mind reeled with that other possibility, that he could have married a different woman, and all the events of my own adult life would have been totally altered as well, had coincidence not crossed my own path, allowing me to meet and fall instantly in love with the dark-eyed man who became my husband, this son who would not have been. He began singing the song in Arabic that he’s sung several times since becoming ill, and then, smiling to himself, for the first time translated the whole verse: “Come to me, love, come in the night! Let people speculate. Sleep is for the dead, lovers don’t sleep.”
He turned to me and spoke, as if coming back from a reverie. “This has been a very helpful conversation,” he said. “It has shown me that I really do think we continue.”
Tonight J. and I are taking over, and we'll try to manage the transition to a team of caregivers. He did get up and join us for dinner in the living room, and ate some moussaka that C. had brought, after admonishing all of us on our pronunciation of the word and making us repeat it until we said it correctly. "I feel normal now in my head," he said, after sitting up for a while, and so far as we could tell tonight, mentally he seems about the way he was a few weeks ago. Who knows where we're going from here.