The Other Side of the River
It is good to have a dream,
It is better to walk the way to make that dream come true
It is best to enjoy that walk
The Best Day in My Life
“Hussein will spend his life under that tree just staring at the other side of the river” Hussein’s mother used to say. She couldn’t understand what it was about that tree or about that other side of the river that was so intriguing to keep a young boy of Hussein’s age from playing with his brothers and from doing what other normal boys his age did. Whenever she sent one of his brothers to look for him, he would always start with the sycamore tree. Chances were he would always be found there.
Hussein’s sycamore, or his Nehet as ancient Egyptians used to call it, was a huge many-years-old tree with a generous shade that stood gracefully at the river bank near the sailboat station. Hussein’s territory was a sloping spot underneath the tree’s shade where he put his mat over the sparse shade grass. He would sit there alone or with one of his friends or with his cousin. He would sit there reading or would lie watching and counting the birds’ nests and the figs in the sycamore tree. He would slide with his mat to a little outside the edge of the tree’s shade to watch the falcons as they, with long outstretched wings, gracefully floated on the air so high up in the sky in lazy circles over and over again. “It must be something to fly,” Hussein thought, “Surely it was something to be so free and buoyant high up in the air and to enjoy the view of the vast landscapes, the sycamore tree and the river. Hussein had been watching those flying and floating falcons for months. He felt he too could fly. “I know what it feels like to fly,” he used to say to his cousin. He believed that someday he would fly. So many times he lay there in his spot with his eyes closed to practice flying, and so many times he fell in deep sleep while he was floating in lazy circles in the air.
There was one thing, however, that Hussein enjoyed most while sitting there under his tree. And that was the main reason why he sat there. That was the amazing view of the other side of the river with its large various-shades-of-green fluffy and bushy trees that were so densely packed together. Amidst the large bushes, he could just see the end of the high buildings of King University. Living in between and inspired by his beautiful surroundings, the river, its rich banks, the trees and the graceful falcons, Hussein believed he probably would be a poet someday. Why not? He was so embedded in the perfect atmosphere for poem-making.
When he was thirteen, he, at last, had his parents’ permission to ride on the sailboat to cross to the other side of the river and come back. It was a small sailboat that transported passengers between the two sides of the river from dawn till dusk, a mini ferryboat. When he stood at the other side of the river for the first time, that side that he had been staring at and dreaming of for such a long time, he realized that the view of the other side of the river, that side where his sycamore tree stood, was no less amazing than the King University side he now stood at. The view, from a distance, of the old gracious villas that belonged to the rich with those many-years-old tall palm trees seemed so much in homogeny with the perfect luxury home image that Hussein dreamt of having for himself and, maybe, his future family someday. He wondered why the villas at the sycamore bank looked so much more beautiful and mesmerizing from a distance than when he stood right in front of them.
Hussein chose a nice spot at the King University bank of the river where he used to sit and enjoy the view of the Sycamore side of the river. However, it was always not before long that he would jump to his knees again and hurry to sail back to the Sycamore bank of the river to enjoy the view of the King’s bank. No matter at which side of the river he stood, the view of the other side was always so wonderful and so intriguing it made him hurry back to it. Hussein still believed he should be a poet someday. He only wondered when exactly. If he were to be a poet, why hadn’t he written his first poem so far?
Each day, Hussein would pay a penny to Shaker, the sailor of the boat, to cross the river. The small sailboat had to be packed up with ten passengers in order to cross the river but Hussein would sometimes give Shaker an extra penny or two so that they won’t have to wait for the ninth or tenth passengers. He would sometimes also row with Shaker to reach the other side more quickly. He was always in a hurry to reach the other side. Hussein and Shaker, who was in his mid-forties, became good friends. Shaker noted how Hussein always kept his eyes so focused on his two destinations, the bushy trees and luxury villas while he sat at the very front edge of the boat. He told Hussein he reminded him of himself in his youth. In his youth, he would sometimes cross the river with only four or five passengers. He would keep on going to and fro between the river banks more than forty times a day sailing and rowing at the same time. He told Hussein how grateful he was to the river. It had taught him many things. “I have been on the river all my life. We are friends. It speaks to me and I listen to it,” he used to say. He also always told Hussein that if he spent more time on the river, he, too, would learn to listen to and understand the river’s talk. There were several small islands on the river where some men would sit for hours everyday fishing. “Go fishing young man” Shaker always urged Hussein “Go fishing; you can start your first lesson by fishing. The river has a lot to tell you”. But Hussein always replied that though he liked the river very much, yet, it was the view of the trees and the fairy tale villas on the river banks that occupied his thoughts and overwhelmed his attention. He also told Shaker that he would become a great poet someday and that he would write his first poem on one of the river banks. He only wished he had a motorboat to be able to move faster to the other sides and to get inspired more quickly and intensely to write his first poem.
Hussein was a bright-minded, very ambitious straight A student. He was also a good hockey player. His dream was to go to medical school at King University and become a surgeon. This was in addition, of course, to his career as a poet that, for some reason, had been postponed. He studied harder than ever before in his last year of high school which almost kept him from going to his river banks for several months and also from joining the school’s hockey team in most of the important matches. Yet, maybe it was worth it in the end. He got the grades he had strived for. “This is the best day in my life,” Hussein said. “I can now go to medical school. Someday I know I will be the surgeon I saw so vividly at the other side of the river.” He was so glad when he also realized he could then cross the river daily with the sailboat to go to the university instead of crossing the bridge by bus. Surely by then he would have some time to sit by the river and write down his first poem too.
The summer ended and Hussein’s medical school days began. In medical school, Hussein became so occupied with long days of lectures and rounds in the mornings and with reading and studying in such big heavy books in the afternoons. He still managed, however, to squeeze in some spare time to take his seats at his river banks where he enjoyed planning for his future. Nevertheless, still no first poem was produced by the poem maker. It seemed that the time for the making of the first poem had not yet come.
During his last two years of medical school, Hussein’s dream of becoming a surgeon acquired even more definition, specificity and demand. He decided to become a cardiothoracic surgeon. He had become so impressed by a job that was so much into people’s hearts, a job that so much touched people’s lives. Cardiothoracic surgery was a very competitive job that demanded extra effort and higher grades. Hussein worked very hard to achieve higher grades. By the end of his medical school years, he could hardly find the chance to go to his river banks. Sitting there had become a luxury that he no longer could afford. He only went out with his university friends very occasionally. He wished he could go play hockey with his old school friends who still played twice a week, or at least gathered to see each other. Unfortunately, he could only make it once every few months. It was a pity he couldn’t find the time. At that time, there wasn’t enough time. If he were to become a cardiothoracic surgeon, there was not a moment that he should waste. Of course, there was going to be enough time for everything later, he believed. He also had a poem to write and it was still going to be at the river bank.
There was, however, one thing that managed to escape his not-enough-time-now policy and that was visiting his aunt’s house to see his cousin, Nadia. Hussein had always liked Nadia since he was a young boy. He didn’t bother to go to his aunt’s house if Nadia was not there. Nadia too, had been a fan of the Sycamore shade and the view of the other side of the river. She had been a fan of everything that Hussein liked. Many times, she had gone on sailboat rides with Hussein. Sometimes she thought Hussein was too obsessed with the other sides of the river which made her jealous. Many times she wondered when she would have his first poem and if it was going to be about her or about the other side of the river. But she always liked the way Hussein cared for her and knew she was special to him.
According to Hussein, it was the best day in his life when he graduated from medical school with excellent grades and it was another “best day in his life” one year later when he got accepted into the cardiothoracic surgery residency he had applied for. He was one more step closer to “the hearts of so many people”. He wanted to be one of the best cardiothoracic surgeons ever. No, he had to be the best. He would not strive for less. Why not? He had it all. He had the falcon gene. He could fly.
And indeed, with hard work and perseverance, Hussein achieved his dreams. In seven years he finished his Master’s degree at King University, his MD degree from Bologna University, shared in research work, assisted in many heart surgeries and gained much of the experience he needed to get started with the many people’s hearts. He also began lecturing at the University on cardiothoracic surgery. There was a lot to do and there were many lives that he wanted to touch. His days became so busy and his schedules became so filled up. After a few months of hectic life, he could no longer remember when the last time he crossed the river had been. He missed very much going on the sailboat between his banks. His contact with his old friend, Shaker, had been lost for a long time now. He still knew he was going to be a poet but he just didn’t have enough time to go to the river to write down his first verse. He couldn’t find the time for the many things he wanted to do. He missed his old school friends who still met from time to time. He wondered what had been going on in their lives. He missed the hockey games. He missed his friends from the University. But he was sure, of course, he was going to arrange his time and get the chance to look for and meet each single one of them later. But at this time, there wasn’t enough time.
The only time off he had he would save for his cousin Nadia to whom he eventually engaged. At first, it was a hard time for him and Nadia when Nadia’s father wouldn’t let him marry his daughter. Nadia’s father was a history professor at King University. He was a very calm and reserved man. He was very fond of Nadia who was his only daughter and was very close to him. No one understood his point of view when he expressed his uneasiness about Hussein marrying Nadia. In fact, he never actually gave a clear explanation to anyone. His wife guessed maybe that was how fathers behave when the time comes for their beloved daughters to marry and leave the house, but he assured her that was not the case. He admitted he knew Hussein had a bright future awaiting him in years to come. He knew how much Hussein wanted to marry his daughter. However, he said he was still not sure if those were good enough reasons to make Hussein the best husband for his daughter. Nadia never imagined she would ever be the wife of someone else. She never imagined she would take care of someone else. She was made in this world to be Hussein’s companion in his life’s journey. “Hussein’s life would simply stop if he doesn’t marry me,” she kept telling her father. In the end, Nadia’s father realized he didn’t have much of a choice. According to Hussein, it was again another “best day in his life” when he and his cousin were engaged.
Hussein and Nadia married soon after their engagement. They moved to another city where Hussein began working at another University hospital there. They rented a small apartment close to Hussein’s work. It was different from the old luxury villas on the sycamore bank; it was not luxurious and it was tiny but Nadia liked it. She had quit her job as an accountant in one of the city’s banks and decided to stay at home. She and her husband would go for walks in a nearby park after he finished his work in the afternoons. During their walks, Hussein frequently talked about his dream of one day having his own private heart center. That needed a lot of money when he had so little. It was even more money than a bank loan could offer. Nevertheless, he more frequently made mention of his dream center that would be so well equipped like those he had worked in while in Europe. Nadia sometimes asked him about the long awaited poem he was to write under the sycamore tree. But as they walked for longer distances she stopped asking.
And in a few seconds, thirty years passed. Hussein had many more successes that, according to him, corresponded to many more “best days in his life” and one incident that corresponded to “the worst day in his life” although he changed his mind about that later.
One Thursday afternoon, six months after what Hussein had called “the worst day in his life”, Hussein sat on the terrace of his villa in one of the resorts by the coast that was an hour driving from his home. He sat there with his friend Dr. Amin. The terrace had a view of the vast garden and the swimming pool. The garden was mostly plain grass of that expensive type that was so resilient when you step on it. It was surrounded by beautiful tall palm trees of the type that should have probably stirred up Hussein’s poetic abilities. However, till that day, he had not written his first poem yet.
‘It’s been four weeks now. This is more than I can stand,’ said Amin.
‘Do you have any other choices? You should be thankful you are still alive,’ Hussein replied.
Amin, still discontented, ‘And those sticky patches don’t seem to be of any help.’
‘Why don’t you try joining one of those groups I told you about? You will feel better when you meet people who have your same problem.’
‘Or I can just give up the whole thing. What’s the use of keeping a life when its days can be so dull and gloomy?’
‘But you promised your wife and everyone this time you were quitting forever, Amin.’
Amin, disappointed, ‘Yes, I did…Do you think those groups can really help?’
Hussein, serving tea, ‘Well, I never thought I would ever make it, and it’s been six months now. I haven’t even thought of lighting a cigarette. How many spoons of sugar?’
‘Two please…You still don’t take sugar, hah?’ Amin asked.
‘Oh, no. I am not supposed to take any sugar; poor me. I just can’t imagine life without chocolate and tea without sugar. And that artificial sweetener is taking all the taste from my life,’ replied Hussein sadly.
Amin, laughing, ‘You might try looking for a help group, an artificial sweetener group if there are any.’
‘You bet I will. You don’t have a problem with blood sugar. Do you?’
‘Oh, no I don’t, at least, not yet…I have enough problems anyway. I have a lot of medicines to swallow…We are old guys now my friend.’
‘No we are not,’ Hussein exploded, ‘Sixty-three is not old. Haven’t you read that article in the JAMA…Indeed, I remember some thirty-five years ago when I was working in Bologna, my supervisor, Professor Di Donato, was well in his seventies. He was in such good shape for his age. He invited me once to his house where he showed me pieces of wooden sculpture he had made himself. He also showed me pieces he and his children had made together when they were teens. By that time, his children were older than I was. I was surprised he had managed to find the time to make all those sculptures. You know he was quite a prominent professor in cardiothoracic surgery. His schedule was so busy that getting an appointment to meet him would take months. Anyway, what really impressed me was the power that old man had in his old body. If you saw him carry and move those big heavy pieces of carved wood around you would think he was a young man in his thirties. He didn’t even need to ask for my help moving them. You know he died only ten years ago? He was around ninety-six then. And you tell me we are old guys. Speak for yourself old man. And remember, I am one year younger than you are.’
‘But how do we feel?’ Amin replied, ‘And how many medicines do we have to take every morning to keep clinging on to this world? I am tired of medicines. I am tired of not being able to go to my clinic. I miss the operating room. I miss the patients. I am tired of doctors telling me “Take sometime off, go for weekends to relax”. I am tired of that monotonous relaxation, of that lazy life. I am just not used to it. I need to get my wheels moving again.’
‘You are only new to the “bad heart club” my friend,’ Hussein replied calmly as he looked to the far skies that were turning dusky, ‘And those feelings are normal for your stage. But I assure you things can change. It’s all within your hands. You still have a chance I assure you. It’s a pity I got to know this only yesterday.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, that is why I called you today Amin. I needed to talk to you. Something happened in my life yesterday, something big, something very big Amin, something dramatic.’
Amin, curious, ‘Big? ….. Dramatic?’
‘Yes, Amin, dramatic,’ Hussein replied. ‘I was having lunch in the Hilton in the tea-garden. I saw them there. I saw them right in front of me. I didn’t make any effort this time. I didn’t make any effort like I have been doing all my life. They were right in front of me. They were in that garden at the hotel. I have to admit my life changed yesterday, Amin. It was a matter of only a few moments, but those few moments just changed my life. I learnt yesterday what I had failed to learn in sixty-two years of my life. What happened yesterday was more important than my center, my pyramid, and more important than anything that I thought I had achieved in all my life.’
Amin, growing even more curious, ‘Well…I’m listening.’
Hussein continued, ‘I had felt all your frustrations and more when I had my first heart attack two years ago. Being the owner and manager of such a big cardiothoracic center was something. Suddenly I found myself imprisoned in a small cell in my own center. Suddenly, I had all the modern monitors and machines that I had been so proud of bringing into my center attached to my own body. I felt my heart was still beating but my life had practically come to an end. I have to admit I spent the longest day in my life in that cell. It was not easy to accept that sudden state of total stillness when your days were so fully booked with appointments, open hearts, meetings, conferences, contracts and abroad travels. I couldn’t believe that I, the heart doctor, could become a heart patient in the end. We always thought this could only happen to others, to our patients, but never to us. As doctors, we always had a false sense of immunity from heart attacks or other ailments we treat. I was sure it was an infarction, but luckily, my ECG was okay and my troponins were negative. I was set free from that cell the same day in the evening and was supposed to go for stress testing later that week but I never went. I only promised to stop smoking. So you see it was not serious at the time. It was only the forewarning that preceded the angry winds that followed later. The next day, I had still felt tired, but had to return back to my pyramid. That was my best medicine, I thought. My center had started as a small polyclinic with a humble inpatient section accommodating only a few beds twenty-five years ago. That was right after I had returned back from abroad the second time. I invested all my money and time in it. I made sure I had the best doctors, the best nurses, the best equipment, the best everything. I knew that with extra effort and more investment, I could make it the leading cardiothoracic center in the whole country. I saw it so vividly in my daydreams but I had to work very hard to make it happen. I returned home only to sleep at night for a few hours. Two or three days would elapse without me seeing my kids. It was a pity my schedule didn’t match with their school and bedtime schedules. Nadia had started her home project at that time with the money left to her by her father. I was happy with her project. I thought it was a good way of keeping her busy as she had, at that time, been continuously fighting with me for my constant absenteeism at home and for what she had then called our collapsing family life. I always argued that she never understood the stresses and pains of my job. I had deadlines. I always had deadlines. I never had enough money for all the expensive new equipment I had been importing from Europe and from the States. I was so proud of the progress I was making that I couldn’t see anything or anybody else. I had tripled my fortune in less than ten years and was expecting more and more to come with extra hard work and perseverance. I had something so big. I could not be away. I had to return back. That was my best medicine. That center was like my child. Who would take care of my child better than me? Nobody of course. Tarek warned me of returning back so soon. I remember he told me that God forgives but our hearts don’t. You know Tarek, don’t you?’
‘Oh, yes, replied Amin. ‘I remember him; the American cardiologist. I met him at your son’s wedding last year.’
‘He’s the head of the Cardiology Unit at my hospital. He had been a consultant at The Cleveland Clinic for fifteen years, but had decided to return back and settle when his girls were finishing high school.’
Amin, reminding Hussein of their subject, ‘So our hearts don’t forgive.’
‘Yes, indeed. They don’t at all. I had the second slap in one and a half years. That was the one I had six months ago. But that one was the real slap. It taught me the lesson I couldn’t get eighteen months earlier. I considered it the worst day in my life. I arrested twenty minutes after I had arrived in my office. My secretary was the one who called for help and started my resuscitation. There was a defibrillator in the corridor just in front of my office. I should be thankful to the quality measures I had adopted in the center that year to acquire that accreditation. It was the first year that the Basic Life Support courses were mandated by all the hospital staff including those who were not in the medical profession. Otherwise things could have ended differently. It was an anterior infarction. Cath revealed three vessels. I had to undergo bypass immediately after. It was as if I had already slipped to the other world but they just pulled me back in time. I had to rest at home for sometime.’
‘And was your pyramid still calling out for you?’ Amin asked.
‘Well, that time it was different. There was nothing left of me; not even ears to hear it calling out. It was a dramatic turn in my life. All I wished for was to have that poor heart of mine pumping for a little longer. I didn’t want to die so soon. Remember,’ smiling, ‘I hadn’t written my poem yet…No really, I was so frightened. My entire life had vanished in seconds. It looked so tiny. My pyramid, so huge as I had always seen it, looked so tiny too. It would even fade away at times. It was amazing how clearly I saw things I had been blinded from seeing by that monster. You know what I saw? I saw my wife, Nadia. I felt I hadn’t seen her for years. She was so supportive and nice to me. I wish she wasn’t so nice. I felt so bad about myself. I hadn’t been the good husband I had promised to be. She always fought for me. She fought for me when her father refused to let us marry. Somehow he might have thought I might not be the best husband for his only daughter. At that time, after my operation, I felt maybe he had been right. Yes, I had not been the best husband for his daughter. All the time, I had been fighting with her for my pyramid and all the time she had been fighting with me for me. I think she pitied me. I wanted so much to cry like a child and to have her hold me in her arms all the time. I didn’t want her to leave me for a moment. I felt how much I loved her and how much I might have lost her too. I didn’t know. She had stopped fighting sometime ago. Maybe she saw no more hope in having me back. She had started to work at the bank when our children finished college and had managed to make herself busy with a life of her own. I didn’t really see myself in that life of hers more than a mere physical presence. I wished that I could turn back time. I would have changed so many things. I would have been the husband I had never been. And my children; they were no longer children. They were adults. They were suddenly adults. I don’t know when this happened but it just happened and it was so sudden. I saw them so frequently at that time. They made themselves quite available for me. They were so caring and supportive too but…but…but there was something. Somehow I felt they were strangers to me. I felt I was a stranger to them as well. I tried to get to know them better then but maybe it was too late. Yes, in spite of the fact that they were there most of the time with me, yet… somehow I felt their schedules were rather busy for me. Somehow I felt I might not be among their top priorities and that was, to me, of course, understandable. It was too late. My stupid schedules never matched their school and bedtime schedules. And now it was my turn to be dropped from their schedules. I wished that I could turn back time. I would have scheduled first things first. Oh, how bitter our lives can be sometimes, Amin. I needed this slap so much. I wish I had had it many years earlier. I would have changed a lot of things.’
‘Don’t you think you were a bit tough on yourself, Hussein,’ Amin said. ‘Remember after all, you were the founder of such an esteemed establishment. You were a successful man by all means. You touched the hearts and lives of so many people. Isn’t that the expression you always used?’
‘Well, I started to feel a little better after I left the center and returned back home and in the few months thereafter. Time was diluting some of the bad feelings I had felt. I was still bored with my life though, but at least not bored to death. I was still depressed, but I had stopped complaining. My son-in-law was taking care of everything at the center. I only went there once or maybe twice a week to have a cup of tea with the stupid sweetener of course. The days were more or less the same. I would wake up rather late. Nadia would of course be at the bank. She left very early and wouldn’t be back before three. I would swallow my dozen medicines and eat my breakfast and spend most of the morning carefully reading the newspapers. It was important to know who died, you know, to offer our condolences and to try to feel lucky we were still there, still there hanging loosely with our limping hearts from the world of the living, but at least still attached. It was also important to know what those who were still living doing. I was supposed to walk daily for half an hour but I…just couldn’t do it everyday. I didn’t feel I had the energy for that walk daily. Tarek told me my heart was in quite good condition for walking everyday, but I got tired easily. Nadia walked with me on Fridays and Saturdays. Those were the days I was most regular. When she was at her work, my driver would sometimes drive me to do some shopping. I called the hospital on the phone to check that everything was okay. It had become my habit rather than my keenness. The afternoons were also boring. Fortunately, Nadia was home. She would be reading or knitting things for our grandchildren. Many times she had proposed that we go to the club or sit in the garden, but I was rarely in the mood. Many times she tried to pull my leg into a conversation, but I wanted to remain silent. I appreciated her efforts, but I just wanted to remain silent. Sometimes I wanted to talk and talk with her but most of the time I just remained silent. I watched TV and sometimes reviewed the newspapers to make sure that nothing important had been missed. The real problem was at bed time. I didn’t sleep. I just didn’t. I couldn’t. Sleeping pills didn’t work. A hot bath didn’t work. A cold bath didn’t work. A walk in the evening hardly ever worked. Nothing seemed to work. Life had become so tasteless. The one thing that made this life worth living was the Wednesday gathering. My children and grandchildren came to dine with us. I survived each week waiting for that day. I missed my grandchildren so much. I liked to watch them play. I saw the hope for a better life in them. Once a week was not enough, but was after all better than nothing. You know Amin … taste; there just wasn’t any taste in the days anymore, till I saw them yesterday in the garden. Never in my life had I imagined that my hectic busy days could some day come to be so still, so dull and monotonous. It was just incomprehensible to me. I had always thought of myself as one of a kind. I had always been so proud of my enthusiasm, my perseverance and my successes and achievements. There was nothing in my life that I had dreamt of having and that I missed. I got all that I had strived for. When I was a young boy I kept looking at and dreaming of the buildings of King University and I had all I could get from University life. When I was a young boy I kept looking at and dreaming of the old luxury villas that belonged to the rich and I ended up with no less wealth and luxury in my life than I had been looking forward to. So many times I wondered if there was a mistake or a miscalculation that I had made. I thought there wasn’t till I saw them yesterday in the garden of the hotel.’
Amin, now growing very impatient, ‘‘Who exactly were they that you saw? Do I know them?’
‘Well, you do not know them. I do not know them either. I do not know them by name at least. But I know them very well by the transformation they made in my day, no, in my life.’
Amin listening, ‘Okaaay!?’
Hussein continued, ‘I saw a young man in his late thirties. He was rather tall. He was dressed in an elegant dark blue suit. He took good care of the way he looked. He wore a fine tie and a pair of expensive English shoes. He had put his classic woven leather black notebook bag on the table. He looked like an important employee or manager or a lawyer of the busily-scheduled type. He looked like someone who should probably be showing up later that day somewhere for an important meeting or presentation. His wife sat beside him leaning on the table. She was preparing sandwiches. He carried his one-year-old daughter and put her on the table beside his notebook bag. The little girl had a small toy in her hand. She dropped it to the ground. Her tall father stood, stepped forward and leaned down all the long distance to the ground, picked up the small toy and gave it back to his tiny child. She threw her toy on the ground again, but this time close to my table. Her tall father stood again, walked to my table and again leaned all the way down to the ground, picked up the toy again and returned it back to her again. She threw it again. He again traveled the long distance to the ground to get her the toy and gave it to her; and again and again and again. Every time I was sure he would stop. Every time I would say he would get tired or bored or he would have to return back to his work. None of that happened, not at all. He kept on diving downward and picking up the toy for his child who kept on re-throwing it each time. I was waiting for the waiter to get my bill as I lazily kept watching them, having nothing else to do till…Till all of a sudden, Amin I grasped what that monotonous scene had been trying so hard for so long to tell me. I started to understand at last, Amin. After all those monotonous moments of watching them and after all those hectic years of living in this world, I started to understand. You see, all the time I had all my attention in the wrong place. All the time I had my attention in the long tiring distance that he kept on traveling down to the ground and in his costly time being kept back from whatever else he probably should be doing. Those were the main things that I noted. Those were actually the only things that I noted. But with one of those loud and very lively laughs that the little girl kept on making each time she threw the toy to the ground, I was actually distracted from my silly concerns and preoccupations. She was so cute. Did I ever notice that? I got sidetracked from my concerns or maybe it was the first time in my life that I got on the real right track. Did I pay any attention to that joyful wonderful happy face? Not for a single moment. I didn’t listen to her laughing that was so loud and lively. All the time my eyes didn’t even bother to come across her father’s face to see how he, too, was happy and enjoying the moments he spent with his child. And I knew then…I knew then, Amin, why I never wrote a single poem. I knew then why my first poem had always been delayed and in the end probably even called off. Yes, Amin, at last I knew then why I never wrote a single poem. How could I? I had always been a man of deadlines. I only saw to where I had been heading and there was all the focus of my eyes and all the attention of my mind. I had no time to see anything else or to think of anything else. I only saw the destination to where I was walking. I had no time to feel or enjoy the walk itself. I walked. I simply walked taking care to always make it quick. I had no time to even enjoy feeling I had the gift of two legs that could walk. I only saw river banks. I never noticed the river itself. I never tried to listen to the river’s talk. Yes, it had a lot to tell, but I never tried to listen. I never stopped at one of its many small islands where those men sat fishing for hours and hours listening to what the river had to say to them. I was afraid I would waste the time. I lived so many years but I hardly lived any moments. Poems are about the moments. Poems are about how you live the moments and feel the moments. I always thought there would be enough time for everything later. But “later” was always late; in fact “later” never showed up. Or maybe it did, but I was too busy, busy with the years. That’s why I forgot the moments. I always thought the most important thing was to touch the other side, to touch the university and the villas, to build the pyramids, to accomplish, to finish before the deadlines. I found out yesterday that what is more important is how you feel, what you see and what you hear while you sail to the other side, how you live up the moments on your way to your pyramids and destinations. Oh, yesterday I felt so sorry for myself, but so happy too. I didn’t know if I should cry or laugh. You see Amin, I had so many signs and clues over the so many years but I was too blinded to read any of them. My huge monsters always stood in the way. Shaker the sailor used to advise me to pace down at one of those islands but I kept on crossing and uncrossing between the university and the luxury villas. Did I ever really stop at any bank to know what it felt like to be at that bank, to enjoy being at that bank? Not really. I always hurried back. To where? To the other side, Why? Because the sooner I was there at the other side the sooner I could hurry back to the other side and so on and so on. I always enjoyed the other side, any other side. I loved the challenge. I would cross to the other side only to or recross to the other side again. That’s all I have been doing all my life. Have I really been moving? My wife’s father was right. He was the history man. He could tell what I would turn into over the years that were to come. My mother said I would spend my life under the sycamore tree staring at the other side of the river. Well, what else have I been doing all my life? Professor Di Donato told me thirty-five years ago that when he carved the wood with his children many years earlier, it was not only the wood that he had been carving. Only yesterday I came to understand what he meant. You know Amin, I think now it was probably the carving business too that made him live that long. And now I know why I am threatened by an amputated life span. Now I know why I never wrote a single poem. Yes I know. I didn’t sleep yesterday Amin. I couldn’t. Or maybe I didn’t want to. I didn’t need to. I had been thinking and arranging so many things in my head. And I made up my mind. I will try. I will try my best. I will try to change everything that I can change because I know now. But I needed so much to see you Amin. I needed so much to talk to someone close. And now I have got it all out. Oh, I am so happy today. Yes, I am. I have wasted a lot of years. But now I know. I should not waste anymore time. I cannot wait till tomorrow. Amin, I have to go. I must go.’ Hussein stood up preparing to leave.
‘Where?’ asked Amin.
‘I have to return back. I need to see Nadia. I need to see the kids,’ going ‘and I need to see their kids. They will be my river from now on…’
He Wrote It
Hussein returned back the same day. He wanted to drive the car himself. Abdul-Shakour, his driver, who had been working for him for more than twenty years, insisted on accompanying him just in case he got tired from driving. But he didn’t get tired. On the way back, he talked to Abdul-Shakour asking him about his life, his children and his grandchildren and whether he was satisfied with his salary and his job. He hadn’t really talked to him so friendly for a long time. He arrived at his house late at night. Nadia was still awake making birthday party arrangements for Yasin, their youngest grandchild. They were celebrating the first birthday of Yasin Ahmed Hussein on Friday afternoon. Hussein kissed his wife, something he hadn’t done in months. He called all his children on the phone and made sure that they all came early on Friday for the birthday party. He wanted to see them all and spend time with them all. He insisted on making birthday decorations in the house and the garden himself. Nadia hadn’t really intended to make any decorations. It was his idea. She and the servants offered to help him. She was not sure if he could make it alone but he did. He made so many things. Nadia couldn’t understand what was going on. He assured her that everything was just fine and that he would explain to her later but right now he was very busy as he was going to make the pizza for the birthday party himself and he had to go to do the shopping. It was almost two AM but he insisted on going to the supermarket to make his shopping. Hussein had made pizza once or twice thirty years ago when they were newly married. It was okay but that was thirty years ago too, Nadia thought!
It was Friday. Hussein and Nadia hardly slept that night. Hussein still had a lot to get out and talk about. He had not talked with Nadia, his sycamore shade companion for months… no, maybe for years. He missed talking to her. He was getting rid of much of the guilt and depression that were compromising his days and Nadia was helping him. He was full of hope that there were still enough days in his life to live up and taste the moments with his beloved ones. He had been touching the hearts and the lives of so many people. How could he have been so blinded from the hearts of his beloved ones? He should try now. Who knows? Maybe he hasn’t lost them. He should try anyway. He should always try. That’s one good thing he had learned from his years, to always give it a try.
The next day, all of Hussein’s family was gathered. It was a nice day. Hussein was in the best of spirits. He spent time with his children. He was happy. He was funny. He was lively and energetic. He was caring. They felt the sudden and weird change in their father. They didn’t understand it but who cares? They liked it. He spent most of the time with his grandchildren. He had brought many toys for them that morning. He played with them to add more to the weirdness of his behavior on that day. He even made them ride on his back. Nadia was afraid that was too much effort for his heart but he assured her he never felt better, not even when he was a young man. He won his grandchildren’s hearts in a few hours. Why not? He pressed the right buttons to their hearts. For the first time in his life, he could feel the moments, he could live the moments, he could enjoy a real life. He should ask his children about their children’s school schedules and bedtime schedules, he thought. Maybe he should be visiting them from time to time with toys and presents. He will need to see that smile on their faces. He will live with it. He will need those spontaneous kisses that his grandchildren gave him that day and that he never knew existed before that day. “This is the best day in my life,” Hussein said to his wife, “This time it is different. This time I feel it. This time I am living it moment by moment.”
Hussein woke up very early the next day. He woke up before his wife. He had a shower. He had packed a small handbag with some stuff the night before. He didn’t want to wake up his dear wife so early. He left the room and descended the stairs taking care not to make any noise. He had his medicines and his breakfast. He had a cup of tea with sweetener. The sweetener tasted good. He liked it. Then he got a small piece of paper from the notebook he had in his bag and the pencil he had put in the side pocket and wrote a note to his wife telling her he’ll be out all day long and will be back in the evening. He left the note on the dining table. He opened the door of the house and as he walked out, he heard Nadia’s voice as she descended the stairs ‘Hussein, where are you going so early my dear?’ Hussein, smiling, turned to her and said, ‘Fishing.’
This story was written by Hatem Eleishi in 2005