by Amina Basha
The air outside was as dense as if we were standing in the middle of a cloud. It was hard to move through the fog that engulfed our presence. As we pushed slowly and painfully towards the car, I felt a shiver run down my spine. Even through the mist, it was easy to see that our Camry was packed full, but my father and brother still managed to squeeze in and wave goodbye. Just as the car rolled out of the garage and driveway, tears began to roll down my face. My mother held me tightly and reassured me that Umaer would be back soon but that he had to go away to school for a little while. Still confused but reassured, I held my mother, still hoping I would see my brother, Umaer, the next morning.
When we trespassed onto our neighbor's property, the police stopped us for questioning but then let us go when they found out we were seeking the perfect angle to see Comet Hale-Bopp.
My brother was nine years older than me and though we were far apart in age, we were never very far in distance until he left for college that misty day. When I crawled as a baby, he followed, but as we grew, the roles reversed. Any activity or sport he did became my new favorite activity or sport.
The Simpsons was my favorite TV show, because I loved the daily ritual of watching it with him. He took me to see The Lion King in theaters even when his friends made fun of him and were dragged along as retribution. When Umaer picked me up from elementary school, I sometimes went with him to high school to his countless after-school activities. What I loved best was attending the Newspaper Club meetings. I could watch him crank out an article in less than an hour and was amazed at how his friends laughed at his jokes and witty remarks. I wanted to be just as popular as he. When Umaer Bhai learned how to drive, the first place he went was the library with me. We played basketball in our driveway and due to his coaching, I soon became “Air Basha” in gym class. Because he played the violin beside me as I practiced piano in the family room when I was seven, the piano became my new passion. I sneaked into his bedroom to pick up the books he read and look at his astronomy posters. When we trespassed onto our neighbor’s property, the police stopped us for questioning but then let us go when they found out we were seeking the perfect angle to see Comet Hale-Bopp. Umaer’s passions diffused into me like water vapor into air.
Cold air. The feeling helps me relive snapshots, moments we were together. The air was cold and crisp, and frost coated the tips of grass in the early morning of December 15, 1996 as my brother and I woke up early to get ready for school. He picked me up from class that day as he did every day that year. We arrived home, and I quickly dashed to grab any food left over in the pantry. After Umaer Bhai went outside to get the mail, I heard a shriek. The front door was ajar, and I swiftly ran to see who had screamed. It was my brother holding a letter in his hand. He ran over to pick me up, and I couldn’t tell if he was laughing or crying as he twirled me around in the air. In his hand was his early acceptance letter to MIT.
Each day passed slowly until finally my mom and dad told me Umaer Bhai was coming to visit in a week! Finally!
We had been waiting for hours. My mother was getting a little worried as we were left wondering when the plane would land. We found out later that the plane had been circling above Chicago’s O’Hare Airport before landing, because there were many planes trying to land to avoid the thunderstorm erupting outside. The sky was turning a yellowish-green color that looked like the sky in The Wizard of Oz just before the Wicked Witch of the West comes down. We waited impatiently right next to the gate for the door to open (this was before 9/11). I kept pestering my mother, asking when the plane would come down. I wanted to see Umee Bhaiyya, and I had realized by this point that college meant going away to school for way too long. Finally, the gate door burst open and the flight attendant walked into the terminal and briefly looked at me with a smile. Yes! The plane had landed. As we waited, the frown on my mother’s face turned more prominent with every passenger who walked by. I had turned to look at a little girl leaving the area, when I heard, “Mom! Amina!”
I turned back around and there he was, six feet tall and skinnier than ever, standing near the gate, jumping up and down as he saw us. I ran towards him with all the speed I had at that age and jumped into his arms. He held me in a tight embrace and then he put me down to hug my mom. My mom still looked worried. She remarked how weak he looked and asked if he had been eating properly. As I ran to the car outside where my dad was waiting for us, I could hear Umaer explaining that someone had stolen his bike, and so he had to walk around campus and to the grocery store in the cold, and he had to cook for himself at his dorm due to the lack of a dining hall. Although I understood very little of what this meant, I did understand that my brother looked a little more somber then he usually did. Maybe he didn’t like college, I thought, or he missed us as much as I missed him. During the car ride home, we heard about his lectures, his new friends, and his “psets,” as he called them. He seemed so exhausted and distant, with a world of people and a language I did not understand fully. I wanted to know more about his new life at MIT, but he looked a little too tired to explain it to me.
Night. I was always afraid of the dark unless nightlights were there to lull me to sleep. But this particular night was especially hard to get through. The excitement from Umaer Bhai’s arrival left everyone in the sort of rush one feels after accomplishing a marathon. No one was ready to go to sleep yet, but I was forced to since I had school the next morning.
I could hear my brother’s uncomfortable coughs and sneezes as I woke up to my mother’s voice. He sounded sick. It must have been the worst type of flu possible, I thought. Getting up slowly, I tiptoed to my parents’ room. They weren’t there. I heard whispers from downstairs and sat by the stairs to hear what was going on in the kitchen. My brother was still up and my parents were discussing ways to make him feel better. (As children of organic chemists, my brother and I were used to getting the top care and best medicines for each malady we had while growing up.) Now they were talking to Umaer Bhai, asking if he wanted flu medicine or something to eat. I could smell the soup from upstairs and knew my mom was making her chicken broth that she always gave us if we were feeling a little under the weather. Tiptoeing back to my room, I lay awake in bed for the rest of the night, wondering whether my brother would play with me the next day and if the flu was contagious.
The next morning I rushed to get ready for school. My brother woke as I was about to leave. “Love you, Amina!” he yelled from his room as I stepped out the door. “Love you too, Umee!” I closed the door behind me as my dad started the car. Yes, Umee Bhaiyya was back. The rest of the day at school went by in a haze as I rushed through assignments to get home faster.
My classmate’s mom, Mrs. Dakis, was to pick me up from school and keep me with her until my parents called, my teacher explained to me after class. OK?
Puzzled, I followed my friend to her house and we played with her numerous Barbies and My Little Pony dolls until it was time for dinner. I constantly wondered where my brother and parents were, but Christine’s family kept me preoccupied with gardening and board games like Monopoly. I did not realize that her parents were keeping me busy to hold off too many questions I posed about my family, but it became more apparent with time.
During dinner I started to talk about my brother, but Mrs. Dakis simply smiled at me and started talking to Mr. Dakis about a possible trip to Greece. She asked again if Christine and I wanted any dessert. I was beginning to realize that Mrs. Dakis did not want to talk about my brother with me because something was terribly wrong.
That evening, my mother came to tell me I was sleeping over at Christine’s house because Umaer Bhai was very sick. OK, I thought. At least I’ll see him tomorrow. Christine and I stayed up talking about rainbows and where rain comes from as we tried to put each other to sleep.
The next day went by as hazily as the last. Not too long before bedtime that second day, my mother came to pick me up. I could hear her talking to Christine’s mother from the family room. I heard Mrs. Dakis ask how he was doing, so I could tell they were talking about Umaer Bhai. My mother’s tone was softer than her usual upbeat voice as she spoke in medical terms that I could not understand. All I could make out was the word “hospital,” and it hit me like a brick. I had thought my brother’s flu would go away in a day, so why was he in the hospital and was he ever going to be OK?
Continuously, I repeated the same Arabic lines we had memorized as children as I knelt with my hands on my knees, but this time each word's meaning reverberated in my heart.
When I finally got the chance to talk to my mom on the way home from Christine’s house, I demanded to be told what was wrong. My mom agreed to tell me as soon as we arrived. The walk home, although only a block, was the longest walk I had ever taken in my life. Each step passed in slow motion, as if time were delayed until I found out what was going on with my brother.
Our family room was green because it was my brother’s favorite color. He had asked my dad to change the carpet a couple of years earlier, and I thought it looked so much livelier than the pathetic peach color we had had before. I stood with my toes buried into the green-as-grass carpet and looked up at my parents. My mom wore a face of shock and exhaustion. My father, usually cracking a joke or two every minute, looked weak and defeated, seated on the couch. I don’t know whether I asked or thought, “What’s a coma?” as my mother explained that my brother was in a coma but that he was going to be OK. I always trusted her, so I felt reassured. My dad told me to pray. As Muslims, we were ordained to practice prayer five times a day, and I had been used to praying since age nine. I prostrated myself before God, asking Him to save my brother. I still had so many years of experience to learn from Umaer and games to play with him, I prayed, trying to start a one-sided conversation with the Lord. Continuously, I repeated the same Arabic lines we had memorized as children as I knelt with my hands on my knees, but this time each word’s meaning reverberated in my heart. I prostrated again, my forehead pressed against the green carpet and whispered: Subhana Rabbiyal A’la, “Glorified is God”, three times. But He had already made His decision.
The next day my parents taught me a new prayer, Inna lillahi wa inna ilahi raji'un, “Verily we belong to God and to God we return.”
I had never hated the smell of flowers until Thursday, September 25, 1997. The house was full of them—as if they could fill the void my brother had left. We dressed in somber colors, and everything I saw might as well have been black and white on the way to the funeral parlor. The fresh air slapped me in the face as I ran inside. There he was; I watched for a while, hoping that my eyes would do magic and bring him back. I leaned over to touch him and feel his warm hands, only to be greeted with coldness, the same type of slap as from the cold air outside. His big brown eyes were covered by his eyelids, permanently shut. I could hear everyone around me crying, as I stood hand in hand with my mom, both of us dry-eyed.
Tears were to come later, when everyone was gone. When our family members had left for their homes to continue their lives, when the world spun on, and ours remained still.
That was when the tears would come falling, pouring, gushing out—but not at the funeral. My parents and I stared straight ahead, almost as lifeless as Umaer Bhai looked. We stood and watched and waited. At the funeral, his loss was not felt since he was still physically there, right in front of us. He looked serene and peaceful, as family members and friends spread their arms over him, embracing him, as if hoping--like me--for signs of life. There could have been one hundred or one thousand people who attended his funeral that day, but their numbers made no difference to me. The faces blurred into one—my brother’s. I squeezed my mother’s hand, hoping the harder I held on, the less likely he would fade away.