Her eyes were glazed over in anger. “Do you think I was pretending?” she asked, the words fuming out of her. “Do you think I was just joking about everything I used to say?” she spat at me, but she was not done. “All those times we sat and talked about everything we wanted to do, and all the places we wanted to go…” her voice trailed off and toned down a couple of octaves. A determined but hateful look came over her, “I” she emphasized sarcastically, “…was not the one pretending” she said robotically. I looked at her carefully trying to read the hurt in her face. Am I supposed to feel guilty for finding a life? Or for following my own way, instead of just dreaming up in the clouds? I can’t be made to feel bad for the choices I have made. “We were just kids Salma”, I said to her trying to justify my point. “Everyone dreams about those things when they are young, but we are not thirteen anymore. You can’t travel the world and live in a different city every year, you have to grow up”. She looked at me in disbelief. I starred at this face I have known all my life. I know it so well, because… it is my face. Growing up as a twin surely had its advantages. I was never alone, even when I was in the womb. However right now I am probably experiencing the greatest disadvantage of being a twin… realizing that you just are not the same.
“Aren’t you happy for me?” I asked her trying to use my own hurt as a weapon. “You are going to be an Aunt”, I said with a crack of a smile and an unconscious hand on my belly.
Her eyes closed and her head dropped to her chest. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way” she said just above a whisper and without making eye contact. “I knew since the day you met Luqmaan that this was coming”. I laughed reactively.
Salma’s face shot up at me. I have never seen her so angry before. It confused me. I tried to placate her. “Luqman is my husband, of course at some point we were going to start a family”, I didn’t know why I was explaining this to her like a child, but I continued. “We have been married three years now, Salma. This is what married couples do – they start families”. I said smugly as if I had explained cold fusion to a three year old. When I met her eyes again they were fiercely intense. “I am NOT a flippen child Sawliha!” she shouted. Her reaction made me jump and I took a step back. “This is not what WE said we wanted, Remember?” she asked accusingly. “We never wanted to be that woman stuck at home living each day staring at the four walls. You were supposed to be better than that”, she accused. “I am better than that” I said trying hard to match her tone. “And Luqmaan is not like the other men out there… you know”, “we can still see the world and experience life a little” I added hopefully.
“really?” she asked sarcastically. “When I wanted to go to spain for the bull run last year, who needed to stay at home and play wifey?” … I was about to defend myself and tell her that the end of the financial year is not the best time for chartered accountants to be planning holidays, but she didn’t give me a chance, “…And now with a baby coming along, there is no chance of that at all” she finished. I had to agree with her, an expectant mother, or even a mother of a young child cannot be jetting off to crazy locations to do absurd and meaningless things. “Salma, we are twenty four years old, it is time to stop dreaming and start living”. She looked at me as though my words had slapped her hard in the face.
“I cant believe you. I don’t think I even know you anymore” , she screamed. There was no mistaking it. Now we were screaming at each other and I didn’t care. “You don’t know me? I challenged…Salma you never knew me. You were too busy dreaming about climbing Kilamanjaroo, or sky diving in the Serengeti to realize that I AM NOT YOU. Ya Allah. We are two different people.”
“We weren’t two different people when we went to Italy that one time and jumped in the Trevi fountain and pretended to be Sylvia in LA DOLCE VITA.…Or when we drove for three days just to go snorkeling in Mozambique.”
“Salma we were teenagers!” I screamed at her. Why isn’t this girl understanding? “We are grown up now”. “That was a lifetime ago. THIS is my life now”, I said stroking my tiny swollen belly”.
“I thought you were better than this Sawliha” she shouted. “I didn’t think you would settle for the normal mundane life. You always said that that was the last thing you would become”.
I was not settling I said to myself. What is she talking about? My frustration is beyond measurable now. I am not just the normal mundane woman. “AAAAGHH Salma!” I screamed at her. “Why can’t you just grow up and get a life instead of complaining about mine” I bellowed at her with everything I had. Even after the words were out of my mouth I could not measure my anger. I WAS NOT settling I said to myself again. Even more angry that she was causing me to second guess myself. I was choosing the life I wanted and who the hell is she to tell me anything, anyways?
“Yes, I found a husband and Yes I am starting a family. THIS IS what people do Salma, not fantasize about owning a luxury yacht, marrying Brad Pitt and sailing the world”. But I was not done. I was tired of her trying to tell me what to do with my life. “you need to stop interfering in my bloody life and try and get a life of your own!”
“You are so full of shit Sawliha. It sickens me what you have become. I will not stand around and watch you throw your life away. I hate that you think you are so much better than me. Congratulations on the baby. I hope you are a better mother than you are a sister”. The last comment caught me off guard and cut me deeply. Before I could respond she turned around and I watched my twin sister walk out of the room … at the time I didn’t realize she was actually walking out of my life.
Thinking back to that day almost fourteen years ago it doesn’t make me angry or sad anymore as it used to. It makes me very, very, anxious. In a few hours I will be seeing my sister again after all this time. I don’t even know how to feel about that. If we were together for twenty four years and couldn’t figure each other out, what will happen now that we have been apart for so long. My reverie is interrupted by the loudspeaker as it booms above us.
“Good afternoon passengers. This is your captain speaking. I’d like to welcome everyone on BA flight 86A. We are currently cruising at an altitude of 33,000 feet at an airspeed of 400 miles per hour. The time is 1 pm. The weather looks good and with the tailwind on our side we are expecting to land in Sydney 15 minutes ahead of schedule. The weather in Sydney is clear and sunny, with a high of 25 degrees for this afternoon. If the weather cooperates we should get a great view of the city as we descend which will be in three hours time. The cabin crew will be coming around in about twenty minutes time to offer you lunch and a beverage, and the final inflight movie will begin shortly after that. I’ll talk to you again before we reach our destination. Until then, sit back, relax and enjoy the rest of the flight.”
Three hours still to go. Australia is really on the other side of the world. “Mummy, Muhammed hid my cellphone away”, my daughter Rehma squeals from the seat behind me. I turn to Luqmaan with a pleading expression, “Just sort them out please” I say. I really am a ball of nerves, especially after replaying that memory in my head. He smiles at me and turns around and gives them that look that has worked since Muhammed has been a baby. I squirm in my seat trying to find a comfortable position. “Why don’t you walk down the isle?” Luqmaan suggests to me. “You haven’t got out of your seat since we boarded”, he looks at his watch, “that was five hours ago”. I shake my head, “I am fine” I say trying to be convincing. “Are you really?” he asks me, his tone a little softer. I look at him and I see his concern. “I don’t know if I can do this Luqmaan” I tell him, “do you remember what she was like? I just …” I let out a breath and shake my head, “I just don’t know”.
“Look , if things do get to tough with your sister, remember you are not there for her, okay?” he says supportively. I nod and turn away. His words are reassuring. Yes, I must not forget the reason we are flying half way across the globe.
If only my mother had listened to me when I tried to talk her out of going to Sydney. But she was so adamant you would think there was a pot of gold waiting for her at the opera house. Of course Salma had invited her over for a few weeks, but travelling by herself at her age was risky, and Salma can hardly look after herself, never mind her seventy year old mother. Salma had never invited mummy before, when she was staying in Europe or in The middle east and God knows where else. I just knew THIS was a bad idea. I made dua that my mother be returned safely back home, but Allah knows best. When my mother called to tell me that she was at the hospital I was in shock and immediately thought of all the things that could have gone wrong. She was so sketchy with the details of what had happened I was sure that it was worse than she was letting on. From the sound in her voice I just knew that there was something terribly wrong. With my mother’s diabetes and heart problems any number of things could have landed her in hospital. After her call I immediately called Luqmaan and made plans to come to Australia. Everything was done so rushed, getting VISA’s and booking flights and accommodation and collecting mummys medical history files and doctors details to take along, that only now , here in the plane did I allow myself to think about meeting Salma again after all these years.
“Chicken or beef?” I look up to see the air hostess leaning over the isle with a tray. “Halaal?” I ask hoping that my pre-booked meal is available. “Aah”, she says and pulls out a notebook from her pocket. “The Moosa’s?” she asks. I nod. “Okay, I got you for four halaal meals”, she says as she ticks it off in her notebook. “That’s correct” Luqmaan answers and gestures us and the kids behind us. “No problem” she says as she hands over out color coded pre packed halaal meals and pushes her food trolley to the next isle.
“I don’t know why people complain about airplane food”, Luqmaan says digging into the rice and fish. “This is delicious” he says with his mouth full. I let out a laugh. My husband certainly is something else. Salma WAS definitely wrong about me and him.
I turn around to the kids, “You guys okay?” both kids have the earphones in their ears, they see me and pull them out, “Mum?” they look at me. “I’m going to take a short nap. And move my seat back”. “Okay, no problem mummy, says muhammed, and re inserts his ear phones.
“You will be the princess and I will be the queen”, Salma says to me. She is wearing the white poufy dress that we both wore for eid this year. She has mummy’s brass tray on her head like a crown. I look around and I see my childhood home. I am content and happy to be here “Okay”, I say and I try to make a crown out of flowers. “We need a castle”, Salma declares and runs towards the large double seated sofa in the corner. Behind it is a small space, our favourite playing spot and we both scramble in. From this spot we will reign over out kingdom. The small cottage windows on the one side gives us a great view of the garden with an indoor sill on which we make our thrown. “I want ice cream clouds” I declare, “and chocolate lakes” Salma adds. We giggle conspiratorially. “We need to have a ball”, I say proudly. “…and we can invite all the other princesses”. I can see salma has an idea and she quickly shouts to me , “come”. Before long we are in my mother’s shoe closet. “You try this one,” says Salma and hands me a pencil healed red shoe and chooses a similar white one for herself. We try to dance at our pretend ball in our high heeled shoes. We hold hands to keep our selves from wobbling in our high shoes. We are having so much of fun and we jump and laugh. We try to run in them but I lose one of my shoes. “Leave it,” I tell Salma. “…so my prince can find me”. Salma picks up my shoe and laughs. “you don’t need a prince, sawls, you have me.”
I am rudely awoken by the captain’s final announcement telling us we will be touching down in Sydney in twenty minutes time. I am still shaken by my dream, and it takes me a few minutes to orientate myself. Was that a dream or a memory? I wonder. It has been so long since I thought about my childhood, even memories seem unreal. How did we go so wrong? I wonder. For twenty four years I was a twin. For a long time I forgot what that felt like. The butterflies were back now, swimming in my tummy. I started to feel a little sick. Please Allah let mummy be okay. I say in a whispered prayer. … and silently add, please let my sister forgive me.
It was a mad dash to check in at the hotel and then head straight for the hospital. I could see that the children were starting to get anxious. Both Muhammed and Rehma are very close with their nani. At first just Luqmaan and I planned to make the trip to Australia ourselves, but the children’s reaction at not getting to see their grandmother in hospital broke our hearts and we decided to take them along.
“Salaams”, I spoke into my cell phone. “Mummy?” I asked. There was silence on the other end and I was beginning to get worried. “Sawliha” I heard her reply, and i could hear the joy in her voice. “Mummy are you okay?” I asked quickly. “Er..Yes my darling, how are you?”. She replied quite calmly. I was starting to find this conversation strange. “Mummy we are on the way to the hospital, which ward are you in?” I asked ignoring her question. There was some silence on the other end. “Mummy?” I shouted. “Are you in Sydney, Sawliha?” she asked slowly. It occurred to me that I had probably not told her that I was confirmed to come, or even when I was coming. “Yes, yes, we are on our way to the hospital.” I said trying quickly to clear things up.
“Sawliha you misunderstand”, I hear some panic in her voice now, “I am okay. Don’t worry about me”, she says now trying to convince me. “Ya Allah, mummy, obviously if you are in hospital I will come. I got all your medical records and..” “Sawliha there is something that I need to tell you” she said hurriedly. “what ward mummy?” I ask again trying to stay calm. “I can’t speak for much longer”, I add. “Ward 35 room 3 but Sawliha…” this time I cut her off. Ok I will see you just now.
I looked at Luqmaan. His face mirrors my thoughts. I shrug my shoulders. “I don’t know what that was about, but I got the room number.” Suddenly I felt a chill up my spine. What is it that she wanted to tell me? This trip is certainly trying my emotions. Keep yourself together Sawliha, I tell myself.
I am in a foreign country with my family and my mother is laying in some hospital bed in what condition … only Allah knows. To top it all off I am probably going to see my twin sister after fourteen years. Talk about anxiety. We try to get a taxi and give him the name of the hospital. When we are all in the cab I watch the scene around on the streets. The Taxi driver turns around to ask Luqman about South Africa and I can’t understand a word he is saying, but I am sure it is English. I can’t imagine being on my own and I am thankful that I have my family with me.
I begin to appreciate Salma’s confidence to travel by herself. A week after our big fight I was still furious at her reaction to my news that I was pregnant, when my mother told me that she had left to go to London. Trust Salma to have had her passport n bags packed in a day. My mother never fully understood what had occurred between us and maybe it was easier just to leave it as it was. “Just leave it mummy,” I told her when she pleaded with me to call her. “I will speak to her when she gets back”. Little did I know I would have a long wait. Salma stayed in London for a few months and then moved to Portugal and then Somewhere in Africa, and hopped around the middle East. I got tired of hearing about the updates from my mother who was only too happy to report how happy Salma was. It hurt me deeply that Salma never tried to contact me. She came for a few weeks one year to spend Eid. Muhammed was about three years old and I was already expecting Rehma. I saw the disappointment on her face as soon as she walked in and all chances of a reunion was destroyed. I felt it in the empty salaam and fake smile. She didn’t try to be the sister I needed or remembered. I knew then that my sister was gone, she was a stranger who shared my face.
She traveled the world and did everything she said she would. She certainly was stronger than I thought and braver than I expected. Thinking back to the argument that cost me my sister , I wondered…was she right? Did I choose what was easy and allow my dreams to die. My dreams were certainly different from hers, but they were dreams. Passing the Sidney harbor on our way to the Gold Coast, where the hospital is, I wondered if I really had beome the person she was warning me about.
“Ya mate. Just a bounce over the yoohoo to the brown over there” said the cabbie when Luqmaan asked him how far to go. I looked at Luqmaan and we both laughed. Australian English certainly is strange. Yes, I thought – I would never survive here on my own.
At the hospital I asked for the ward my mother had said she was in, and took the elevator to the 35th floor. This hospital was different from the ones back home, they didn’t have wards named as medical or surgical they were just named in numbers. The hospital was clean and crisp. I kept making dua that my mother is Okay and that she can get well soon and come home. I read Ayatul Kursi as we rode the elevator and I heard Rehma echo it with me. As soon as the doors of the elevator opened I rushed out to find her room. The nurses at the desk thankfully spoke the same English as me and directed us to room three that was just around the corner.
We walked slowly around the bend to find a sign that read Oncology. I looked puzzled at Luqmaan and he mirrored my reaction. Why was my mother in the oncology ward? Just ahead of us we saw the back of a couch with some visitors. I stopped in my tracks thinking one of those people could be Salma. Luqmaan reading my reaction held on to my hand encouraging me forward. “Sawliha” I heard my mother’s voice behind me and spun around immediately.
If I was puzzled initially, now I am completely confused. My mother stood in front of me , dressed impeccably as always with her head scarf matching her shoes. “Mummy?” I looked at her closely. “Have you been discharged?” I asked just as my kids registered what is happening. “Nani , I’m so happy that you are well,” Rehma says going in with a hug for her Nani. Muhammed joined in too, but I am too stunned to move. What is going on? I wonder. “Why didn’t you tell me that you are coming?” my mother asks me accusingly. “why wouldn’t I come?” I say back to her. “You said you were in hospital”. My mother’s face softens at the realization of my concern for her. “I said I was AT the hospital Sawliha”, she responds kindly. I still don’t understand and ask dumbly, “Where is your doctor?.. I want to speak to your doctor”. She just smiles and takes my hand. “Come here Sawliha” she says and leads me to the couch in the waiting room.
I see myself laying on the bed. There are tubes stuck into veins and beeping of machines. I am scared to get closer to the bed but some force is pulling me towards it. With each step I feel a small part of me die inside. As I get closer to the bed I see my face aged and hollow. The skin is stretched across the bones. The skin around the eyes are dark and puffy. My eyes trace down the body, and find the arms. Bruised yellow and blue from all the drips and IV lines. I thought that feeling would be long gone, but it is here. Filling me up like a force. I was only one half of a whole, and she was the other half, always.
My hand hovers over hers and I feel it. She feels it too. Her eyes open.
AT first we just stare at each other. My hand hovering over hers. No matter what she looks like, her eyes are still the same. Fiery and energetic. She manages a weak smile and tries to lift her hand to meet mine. I feel the energy between us when we touch and it speaks for us. “So I finally got you to fly across the globe” she smirks. I smile. I am scared that I will say the wrong thing. I don’t speak.
“I’m sorry”, she says and the words are my undoing. Stay strong I tell myself but it is no use. My body starts to tremble and I start to cry. It is that painful, throat burning, body shaking cry that has to run its course and cannot be stopped. I cry for all the years I sat angry at her for leaving, I cry for all the years I hated her for not knowing who I was, I cried for all the time that went by, when I could have made things right, and I cry for the woman- a part of me – laying here in pain and there is nothing I can do.
She strokes me softly and jerkily because that is all she can manage- and I cry some more , just because she is the one consoling me. After what seemed like hours of tears I finally regain control of my tongue. “I should have called you”, I begin. “I should not have let you go after everything I said.” I took a deep breath, “I missed you so much” I say with pink swollen eyes. she smiles and closes her eyes, wet with fresh tears. I crawl onto her bed and lay with her.
A while later the nurse had explained everything to me. Salma’s diagnosis six months ago and her rare type of cancer that had progressed so quickly. But the biggest surprise was when I was taken to neonatal ICU to meet my niece. Four months premature but a fighter like her mother.
“You see why I had to come”, my mother asked me the next day. I nodded. “But why didn’t you tell me?” , I said desperate, “I had no idea”. “I didn’t realize it was so bad myself”, said my mother with tears in her eyes, “but when they did the caesarian and she just got worse, that is when I called you”, my mother said now completely distraught. “She didn’t want me to tell you. She hated that she was sick.”
Luqmaan and the kids flew down back to South Africa yesterday. I am staying at the hospital to help with Nusrat. She is gaining weight and the nurses say that she is starting to suck on her own. She is still in ICU and Salma only has seen pictures of her. “She looks like you”, I tell Salma when I get back from neonatal ICU. “You mean, us” she says and I smile and nod. “you are looking better today” I say to her. She is sitting up in bed and the nurse is helping her drink water. The colour of her skin is almost normal. “I cant believe how alike you both are”, the nurse comments. “she wishes she was as thin as me” Salma jokes , she is still skin and bones. “well you look pretty great a woman who just gave birth a few weeks ago”. We all laugh. Mummy walks in and takes over from the nurse. The conversation starts to flow quickly about the kids and Australia and the hospital. Salma adds a little. She still tires easily. Soon she is asleep. We stay with her.
When she wakes up its just me and her. “Tell me about your life Sawliha”, she asks. The question is strange. I laugh, “There’s nothing to tell”, I answer. My life certainly is not as exciting as I imagined hers used to be. “from the time you wake up , what happens…” she is adamant. I start my story and she closes her eyes. I tell her about how Rehma is the first to wake up because she takes the longest showers, and how I have to double check on Muhammed because he crawls back into bed after I leave. She smiles, her eyes still closed. I tell her about how we tried to have another baby for years. I tell her about my own accounting practice and the crazy clients we have. I talk and talk until I am sure she is sleep. When I stop she wakes up sleepy eyed. “I wish I had your life” she says half asleep. I look at her stunned. “I was wrong” she continues in her sleepy voice, “you have the dream”.
When I walk out of the hospital room, my mother is talking to the doctor. I walk pass them. I don’t want to hear about her condition anymore. My heart is heavy and I sit on the couch trying to digest her words.
….to be continued