Death grabbed hold of my son’s body. Its power lingered over his head, attending without permission, bringing chaos, inspiring awe, and spreading a sense of anxiety and alarm. It demonstrated its inexorable strength as my four-year-old child made a temporary visit to the otherworld before Allah answered my invocations.
That day began as a sunny, warm morning, just on the cusp of becoming uncomfortably hot. I was preoccupied while reviewing some engineering designs my secretary delivered to my home. All was quiet until I heard my son screaming. I jumped up from my desk and ran to find him standing in the middle of his bedroom, trembling, panicked, on alert, and cold. His face was a pale shade of blue.
This wasn’t the first time he’d had such an episode, but it was the first time I’d witnessed it. On two occasions before this, I thought he had merely suffered nightmares that caused him to wake up shivering and uttering shrieks of terror. His sweating forehead and quivering lips indicated a profound sense of fear. He stared straight ahead and pointed, terrified and distraught. It was as though he’d seen some sort of mythical creature lurking in the void. I wrapped my arms around him, held him tight, and recited some verses from the Holy Qur’an that I felt might help allay his fears. Standing in front of him, while he was still pressing against me, I pretended to fight off an imaginary monster with my hands, pushing away the amorphous creature until my son felt calm. I held him tight to my chest until I felt his warmth return, and with a soothing voice, lulled him back into sleep.
This time I knew he’d not experienced a nightmare, or evil spirits, or anything to be brushed off as imaginary.
His mother always took great care to monitor his blood sugar levels and administer his proper insulin dosages. She was strict in the way she followed doctors’ instructions. However, due to his recent illness, he had no appetite, and on this occasion, she had let him sleep without having eaten enough; she’d only given him a cup of milk.
My wife followed me to our son’s room. She saw his condition, and although in a panic, she went to search for foods high in sugar to force into in his mouth. I listened to the sounds of her ululating, blaming herself, feeling pangs of guilt that perhaps she had put our child into a struggle with death.
I brushed my exasperation aside and entered a race against time to save him. The small sweet my wife provided had done nothing to help; I gave him another piece of candy. He collapsed onto the floor. I picked him up to help him stand. He was losing consciousness so I patted his cheeks to keep him awake. When he closed his eyes, I shouted, “Stay with me!”
He did not stay with me. I held the back of his head in my left hand, opened his mouth, and poured juice in with my right hand. Most of it spilled, his jaw loosened, and his body became heavy. I sensed his spirit slipping away.
Somehow I knew I had to maintain clarity of mind. I went to the telephone and called a physician I knew. He answered on the first ring and asked me to perform the same procedures I had already done.
By this time, my son’s hands were closed and stiff. White bubbles and froth foamed from his mouth. Now the physician ordered me to take him as quickly as possible to the nearest hospital. I heard his urgent tone and braced for the worst.
The blackbird of death was hovering at the edges of the room. The pupils of my son’s eyes disappeared; I could only see white through his half-closed eyelids. The pace of his breath was irregular. I held him up and spoke, “It’s too early, Beedo. Too early to leave, my beloved child.”
Now, I do not know how I managed to even speak those words while feeling such anguish. In that moment, I realized despondently how powerless I was. I, the one who everyone knew to be intelligent and quick-witted, couldn’t find a way to solve this emergency. My heart, which at times I had thought was calloused and cold, began to fear what was coming. Despair, frustration, and my lack of resourcefulness allied and fought me. I had no shield against these overwhelming feelings. A void surrounded me, and then I felt the confrontation of absolute defeat. Was it high time to surrender myself to my emotions and cry?
As Allah revealed certain signs to me in that moment, I trembled and supplicated for heavenly assistance. I decided to continue and endure the battle.
I asked the Lord, in His Greatest Name, which if He is asked thereby He gives, and if He is called upon thereby He answers, to keep my son and take me instead.
I asked Him to keep my child’s heart beating.
I asked that his soul not depart and that his body endure this unbearable struggle.
For the sake of his mother, and because of all the wonderful years he had not yet lived, I invoked every prayer I knew, as well as those I didn’t. Before Him, I confessed my helplessness and inability.
Despite the risk, I even promised to be accepting if my prayers could not be answered.
“My Dear Lord, I am begging and asking you to spare him. Perhaps in the eyes of the world, he is not the most special child, but he is my beloved baby. I look forward to seeing him grow up. I want to witness his graduation and attend his wedding. I want to watch him through his struggles as he fights through the complexities of life. I want to see him break through barriers, go forward, and not look back. I want him to live. It’s not natural for a parent to bury his child. Dear Lord, I have no refuge but you; there is no one other than you to call upon. Despite all of my wealth and vanity, I feel worthless before you. My sins have never been in deliberate rebellion; I didn’t ever intentionally disrespect you or underestimate your power, but was simply overcome on those certain occasions by dark influences. Oh Lord, through your divine providence and glorious majesty, by your superior power and boundless supremacy, I humbly seek your help. O Allah, please help me. The voice of my supplication, the shortness of my breath, and the numbness of my tongue make my heart implode and cleave. Dear Allah, it’s your Divine Will, and eternal, wise decree; I’m powerless before you. This bedridden cherub and divine deposit is entirely yours. I can do nothing but submit to your will.”
Several more enduring seconds passed, feeling like eternities. Time froze. Then suddenly the motion of the air in the room stilled, and our breathing went quiet. The state of the frantic frenzy we had been in was now calmed. The panic receded and tranquility took over as death rescinded its ugly claws and retreated.
Beedo coughed and opened his beautiful eyes. He tried to sit up from where he had been leaning on my arms. He was responding to the prayers from the depths of my soul. He asked about his mother, who was pacing in the hallway, calling upon the Lord for help.
Upon seeing him regain consciousness, she jumped to his side, crying, and tightly hugging and kissing him, while murmuring disjointed and incomprehensible words. I had deeply felt her infinite despair with the fear of losing him, and now her profound relief. I was concerned about what her enthusiastic hugging would do to the weakened boy, so I took hold of his hands, disengaged them from her chest, then stroked his hair and wiped his sweaty forehead.
My secretary, who had gone to hide on the terrace of the apartment because of the tremendous shock, now came into the room. She was holding hands with my daughter and a cousin who was visiting our children. She had done well by keeping the two girls’ attention away from my son’s trauma. She thought my son wasn’t going to make it through.
Dragging my feet, I headed for the bathroom down the corridor. I took off all of my clothes in one move, and threw myself under the shower. I worked to suppress any groan or a sound so my family wouldn’t be aware of my mental state. I cried with silent fierceness, and then curbed my emotions as I mumbled incoherent words of laudation to Allah Almighty. I cried in a way I didn’t know was possible for a human being to cry.
Had I finally found my weak spot? Had I stumbled upon a cure for the callousness of my heart? Was it my pragmatic way of conducting business that had made me into that heartless man? Was it my common sense that alerted me there was something wrong?
I stayed under the tepid shower until my body cooled down. I gradually regained my composure and let reassurance find its way to my mind. If it were not for my wife’s voice echoing through the door, I’d have continued to let the water fall over my head. “We must take him to the nearest hospital!” she said.
The nearest hospital was for the public and did not offer the highest standard of care. I left the shower and called my sister, who is a doctor, a university professor, and the head of the department in one of the government hospitals. I wanted her to follow up on our son’s case and to reassure us. She was out of town and wouldn’t be back for another four days, and she questioned having my boy treated in a public hospital.
It was not an easy conversation, but she provided me with a doctor’s name and telephone number just in case I changed my decision. Upon terminating the call, I recalled the strict effort I made to provide my children with the highest degree of quality care, and my keen concern that they would not suffer what affected the children of the poor…and behold! Despite this, destiny had turned on me! There is nowhere to flee from Allah’s Will!
About the author:
Ahmed M. Hasan, who writes under the pseudonym Ahmed Rabie, is an Egyptian architect and award-winning novelist. Some of his short stories appeared in various well-received anthologies. His novel “My Sons” received many prestigious literary awards.
About the translator:
Essam M. Al-Jassim is a Saudi bicultural as well as bilingual translator. He taught English for many years at Royal Commission schools in Jubail, Saudi Arabia. His translations have appeared in a variety of print and online Arabic and English journals.