His kidneys failed, I’m told. The both of them. Tubes crisscross over and under his bed in a room crowded with empty seats, fuzzy television screens, useless nightstands, and a whiteboard that reads: “Goal: Increase activity”.
The lights are turned off and it’s 7 pm. Flash back to the days when we were young and restless.
With muddied hands (mama told us to stay away from the puddles but we never listened) we run to the kitchen sink without making eye contact. Because once we make eye contact, mama gives us that look that means we’d better be in bed in less than five. She asks whether we’re tired. “No,” we say, but we are. We are just too young and too proud to admit it. And at 7 pm, the lights go off.
Flash forward to the days when we outgrow ourselves.
I don’t know what to say. Five of us are in the room now—four standing, none sitting. I’m the last to shake his hand, to give him that squeeze that, when I was a teen, all the married Arab men would advise me about.
“Walak, shake my hand properly,” they tell me. I’m shivering. It’s winter and I’m outside without a jacket shaking a stranger’s hand for far too long. It’s 7 pm and it’s dark out.
The men before me kiss his head and joke about how strong he’s become. Just yesterday I filled out an application to a medical school that asked what my biggest fear would be in a hospital setting. Giving false hope. Definitely.
It’s my turn; the blinds are drawn. I grab his hand expecting to hear that snap when skin meets skin but his hands are soft and my grip is softer and I throw away everything those married Arab men told me on that cold winter evening.
I’m not entirely sure where to look so I direct my attention to a purple paper taped to the wall. Now I know what to do and who to page if I want to use a luer-lock needle to draw someone’s blood in room 308.
He asks me how I’m doing. I thought he won’t remember but he does. He asks me how I’m doing in school.
For a brief moment I run through the hours of conversations I’ve had with him in what feels like slow motion. He asks me about school every time we meet and he remembers every answer I give.
“You are almost done with the year, right?”
“How was that exam?”
“What’s the latest on that GPA?”
Our conversations are mainly about school and today’s is no different. He is an old Palestinian man who puts education before himself. His children, much older than me, have families now who admire their doctorates and their professional degrees. He himself still puts his doctorate to good use. Imagine an old man with a cane in his hand, a Russian fur hat on his head, and a kuffiyeh guarding his shoulders. He walks into the classroom. “Professor!” they shout. He fills them in on the latest computer science developments.
Today he is just an old Palestinian man. No cane, no fur hat, and no kuffiyeh in sight. No family either. The seats are still empty. He is still holding my hand.
He asks how my summer break is going and I give the most genuine response I can give but, in all honesty, everyone who loves school knows that summer break is a drag. We both know it but we have guests in the room, his eyes tell me, so I keep it to myself.
The conversation shifts to virtually everything that has absolutely nothing to do with his health. I am no longer in the picture. He and the other three discuss whatever it is that married Arab men discuss. Firm handshakes. “You’re getting stronger.”
He is. Two days ago, he could not squeeze. Today his thumb is working hard. He is still holding my hand. I feel guilty though. They put me in a disposable set of gloves and an equally unsightly gown. At least I put it on properly, I think, as I quickly glance at the others. One man didn’t bother putting his head through the convenient little head hole. Another didn’t bother tying the gown from behind.
But the guilt won’t subside. The blue latex makes me feel artificial. His family is far from him. Today, it is 7 pm and we are his only family, clad in the most sterile outfits the hospital can provide for us.
“Sami, rest your legs. Sit down,” says one of the men, now sitting down in what was once an empty chair. There are two more empty chairs. Now there is one empty chair. And now nobody is standing but me. My mind drifts and I begin to wonder who designs these hospital rooms. The chairs match the blue-taupe walls so well that I’m truly impressed.
That’s when I catch myself. I am doing everything in my power to avoid facing the reality of life, a reality that can be summarized by our bedtimes. We are young, so mama puts us to bed at 7 pm. We are teens and so we sleep at 11 pm like rebels. We are in college. We don’t sleep at all. We are adults who work in the morning. Bedtime is at 1 am. We’re getting older now so we hit the sheets at 10 pm, right after our favorite episode of Law & Order. But today we are grandparents and sleep comes to us at 7 pm.
He’s still holding my hand and you know what, I’m happy he is. His occasional squeeze means he’s still with us. Someone whispers that there is just no hope. How’s this for increased activity?
The conversation slows as we prepare to leave. I don’t want to let go, really, because he’s family and I don’t want to let go of family. My grandparents died years ago. I’ve only held the hands of two of them, and when I did, my bedtime was at 7 pm so I always had to leave their sides early. But I’m in college now and sleep is the last thing on my mind.
That’s it. Two of the men say their hellos and leave. We don’t do goodbyes. It’s just me, him, and one other. The grip loosens and I pull my hand away and wait for the other man to say his hellos. He does, and the two of them quickly remind me of the small group sessions the old Palestinian man used to hold in his apartment. He’d invite the world, literally, to a meal, a conversation, and a chapter of the Qur’an. Exactly three decades later, we still see him as our community’s most beloved member. He’s family, to all of us.
Now it is just me and him. I remove my gloves, having already said my hellos, and make for the door. But I know that I cheated him. The nurse isn’t in the room so I run back, grab his hand properly, softly, carefully, and give it a squeeze. Skin on skin, without the snap. He raises his eyebrows and puckers his lips. I give him my forehead. He is three generations older than me.
I don’t want to give false hope and so I don’t. He reminds me that I’ll be graduating soon, that it will be a happy occasion. I said I’ll bring him the diploma. He will be the first to see.
“And then you will become a doctor, right?” That’s a hard question to answer. “That’s the plan,” I say, struggling with myself. I really want to say “That’s the plan. Your doctor, actually.” But by then, I wouldn’t want him to need a doctor.
I tell him I want to see him on his feet and then promise to come back with a diploma and a GPA he would be proud of. He has high standards. He lets go of my hand and I look at my watch. It is 8 pm, one hour past his bedtime. But I’m happy he’s up.
Please take a moment to think about your loved ones and, if you’re near enough, to give their hands a squeeze. Remind them that you’re there, that you’re family.
Update, November 7, 2013: He passed today. I never got to show him my diploma or tell him I made it into medical school. I never got to make him proud.