Till the time comes


the dichotomy of life in 'what could have been' and 'what is'

I can feel chaos coming. I have been feeling it for a few weeks. It has been getting harder and harder to remember and act out being human. This time of year, like clockwork, this Sisyphean feeling of carrying a boulder up a hill comes and it persists coloring my days gray. Each year I hold out hope it will be the year I escape and each year it surprises me with its consistency.

I was in the backseat of the taxi headed to my house. Although all the seats were occupied, the driver refused to move before adding a couple more people. So we just sat there counting the minutes. People have long started to complain. Some threatened they would get off and he’d end up with one less passenger. Everyone seemed restless - eager to get somewhere. The mayhem of the taxi resembled the one I was feeling in my heart. It was comforting in a way.

It looked like she was scolding him for not taking better care of himself. But her lips had a hint of a smile that was about to start or one that hadn’t yet died.

I had just rested my head on the window when an older man and a young lady caught my eye. The young lady was picking lint from the man's beard. She had him stretch out his left hand and put the lint on his palm. She spoke to him with a feigned seriousness plastered across her face. It looked like she was scolding him for not taking better care of himself. But her lips had a hint of a smile that was about to start or one that hadn’t yet died. He then said something to her and they both burst out laughing.

The whole time I was staring at their faces with interest trying to figure out their relationship. While their faces were serious, their features weren’t too similar. But then they started laughing and the resemblance was uncanny. Not in looks but in mannerisms. A resemblance that comes about from living and loving for a long time. From all the gray in his beard, I assumed, he was probably in his late 40s or early 50s; And from the laugh lines all over his face, that he led a happy life. Tears started streaming down my face. What wouldn’t I give to have seen Baba with gray hair? What wouldn’t I offer to have heard his laughter one last time?

When I got home the darkness greeted me at the gate like a long-lost friend and I willingly wrapped it around my being like my favorite Gabi. And here I am, on a gloomy Thursday afternoon, hunched over on the steps of my house clipping my nails. When I remove the polish and trim them short, my feet transform from the well-pedicured feet of a woman into a chubby child’s. There is some purity to the process - a sort of unadulterated beauty. Kassa Tessema’s Tizita streams from the bedroom, the volume low and muffled, making it sound like something from a memory. This! This is how I start my exile.

Baba loved Kassa Tessema. His Kirar and deep voice have been the constant backdrop of every beautiful moment we shared. It still feels like a hug to my soul. But it was not the warm comforting kind anymore. Instead, one that bodes separation. Whenever I hear the slow drumming of his Kirar strings my mind races to that cold Hamle day.

I remember it like it was just yesterday. Baba had been sick for months. That happened a few times throughout the years and was always the same. We would be having dinner, and playing cards, and he would read me my stories; and kiss me goodnight, then come morning the man I knew and loved would no longer be there. In his place, I would find a shell with his face and body, and no one would tell me what his illness was.

During these times he slept for days on end; the windows of his room would be shut; the blinds stayed drawn; my playful Baba wouldn’t speak a single word; and he would only eat enough to stay alive. I would go in and out of his room every few hours. Checking his breathing, adjusting his pillows, forcing him to take a sip of water, and hopelessly checking to see some light in his eyes.

And that day, when I walked into his room holding a pitcher of water, I saw the blanket was jumbled and his lower half was laid bare to the Hamle cold. As I went closer to cover him up, I noticed his big toenail had grown too long and a speck of dark gray dirt was lying underneath it. I drew the blanket quickly and ran out to the backyard with a lump in my throat. I nearly collapsed to the ground sobbing. My baba was always neat and groomed. His nails were always kept trimmed short. I have kept a brave face all this time but a thing that seems so minuscule shifted my whole world and threw me for a loop. It sunk in that this time was different. We have been in this turmoil for too long. Something was very wrong! 

Two weeks later Baba died. He hanged himself from a roof rafter of an outhouse. He has always done everything well and his death was no different. He meant to succeed. Mama and the helper found him while getting ready for Sunday mass. I must have slept through a few screams because when I woke up and ran out there were people gathered already. I remember someone holding me back from entering the room. They didn’t know an image of my Baba’s single toe would haunt me more than his limp body.

People always said we looked alike: I had his small button nose and big brown eyes. Those words always made me happy. But I also inherited his infliction. I carry within me a darkness that will one day defeat me as it did him. But, till then, I sit here, hunched over on the steps of my house, clipping my nails and counting down the minutes.

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