“You know, Mamá, I worry for you too.”
“No need to. I take care of myself all right.” A flash of the old defiant pride, like a dim glint in the fog.
“But for how long?”
“As long as I can.”
“And when you can’t, then what?” I am not challenging her. I ask because I don’t know. I don’t know what my own role will be or whether I will even play one.
She levels her gaze at me evenly. Then she adds a teaspoon of sugar to her cup, slowly stirs it in. “It’s a funny thing, Markos, but people mostly have it backward. They think they live by what they want. But really what guides them is what they’re afraid of. What they don’t want.”
“I don’t follow, Mamá.”
“Well, take you, for instance. Leaving here. The life you’ve made for yourself. You were afraid of being confined here. With me. You were afraid I would hold you back. Or, take Thalia. She stayed because she didn’t want to be stared at anymore.”
I watch her taste her coffee, pour in another spoonful of sugar. I remember how out of my depth I’d always felt as a boy trying to argue with her. She spoke in a way that left no room for retort, steamrolling over me with the truth, told right at the outset, plainly, directly. I was always defeated before I’d so much as said a word. It always seemed unfair.
“What about you, Mamá?” I ask. “What are you scared of? What don’t you want?”
“To be a burden.”
“You won’t be.”
“Oh, you’re right about that, Markos.”
Disquiet spreads through me at this cryptic remark. My mind flashes to the letter Nabi had given me in Kabul, his posthumous confession. The pact Suleiman Wahdati had made with him. I can’t help but wonder if Mamá has forged a similar pact with Thalia, if she has chosen Thalia to rescue her when the time comes. I know Thalia could do it. She is strong now. She would save Mamá.
Mamá is studying my face. “You have your life and your work, Markos,” she says, more softly now, redirecting the course of the conversation, as if she has peeked into my mind, spotted my worry. The dentures, the diapers, the fuzzy slippers—they have made me underestimate her. She still has the upper hand. She always will. “I don’t want to weigh you down.”
At last, a lie—this last thing she says—but it’s a kind lie. It isn’t me she would weigh down. She knows this as well as I do. I am absent, thousands of miles away. The unpleasantness, the work, the drudgery, it would fall on Thalia. But Mamá is including me, granting me something I have not earned, nor tried to.
“It wouldn’t be like that,” I say weakly.
Mamá smiles. “Speaking of your work, I guess you know that I didn’t exactly approve when you decided to go to that country.”
“I had my suspicions, yes.”
“I didn’t understand why you would go. Why would you give everything up—the practice, the money, the house in Athens—all you’d worked for—and hole up in that violent place?”
“I had my reasons.”
“I know.” She raises the cup to her lips, lowers it without sipping. “I’m no damn good at this,” she says slowly, almost shyly, “but what I’m getting around to telling you is, you’ve turned out good. You’ve made me proud, Markos.”
I look down at my hands. I feel her words landing deep within me. She has startled me. Caught me unprepared. For what she said. Or for the soft light in her eyes when she said it. I am at a loss as to what I am expected to say in response.
“Thank you, Mamá,” I manage to mutter.
I can’t say any more, and we sit quietly for a while, the air between us thick with awkwardness and our awareness of all the time lost, the opportunities frittered away.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” Mamá says.
“What is it?”
“James Parkinson. George Huntington. Robert Graves. John Down. Now this Lou Gehrig fellow of mine. How did men come to monopolize disease names too?”
I blink and my mother blinks back, and then she is laughing and so am I. Even as I crumple inside.
The next morning, we lie outside on lounge chairs. Mamá wears a thick scarf and a gray parka, her legs warmed against the sharp chill by a fleece blanket. We sip coffee and nibble on bits of the cinnamon-flavored baked quince Thalia has bought for the occasion. We are wearing our eclipse glasses, looking up at the sky. The sun has a small bite taken from its northern rim, looking somewhat like the logo on the Apple laptop Thalia periodically opens to post remarks on an online forum. Up and down the street, people have settled on the sidewalks and rooftops to watch the spectacle. Some have taken their families to the other end of the island, where the Hellenic Astronomical Society has set up telescopes.
“What time is it supposed to peak?” I ask.
“Close to ten-thirty,” Thalia says. She lifts her glasses, checks her watch. “Another hour or so.” She rubs her hands with excitement, taps something on the keyboard.
I watch the two of them, Mamá with her dark glasses, blue-veined hands laced on her chest, Thalia furiously pounding the keys, white hair spilling from under her beanie cap.
You’ve turned out good.
I lay on the couch the night before, thinking about what Mamá had said, and my thoughts had wandered to Madaline. I remembered how, as a boy, I would stew over all the things Mamá wouldn’t do, things other mothers did. Hold my hand when we walked. Sit me up on her lap, read bedtime stories, kiss my face good night. Those things were true enough. But, all those years, I’d been blind to a greater truth, which lay unacknowledged and unappreciated, buried deep beneath my grievances. It was this: that my mother would never leave me. This was her gift to me, the ironclad knowledge that she would never do to me what Madaline had done to Thalia. She was my mother and she would not leave me. This I had simply accepted and expected. I had no more thanked her for it than I did the sun for shining on me.
“Look!” Thalia exclaims.
Suddenly, all around us—on the ground, on the walls, on our clothing—little shining sickles of light have materialized, the crescent-shaped sun beaming through the leaves of our olive tree. I find a crescent shimmering on the coffee inside my mug, another dancing on my shoelaces.
“Show me your hands, Odie,” Thalia says. “Quick!”
Mamá opens her hands, palms up. Thalia fetches from her pocket a square of cut glass. She holds it over Mamá’s hands. Suddenly, little crescent rainbows quiver on the wrinkled skin of my mother’s hands. She gasps.
“Look at that, Markos!” Mamá says, grinning unabashedly with delight like a schoolgirl. I have never before seen her smile this purely, this guilelessly.
We sit, the three of us, watching the trembling little rainbows on my mother’s hands, and I feel sadness and an old ache, each like a claw at my throat.
You’ve turned out good.
You’ve made me proud, Markos.
I am fifty-five years old. I have waited all my life to hear those words. Is it too late now for this? For us? Have we squandered too much for too long, Mamá and I? Part of me thinks it is better to go on as we have, to act as though we don’t know how ill suited we have been for each other. Less painful that way. Perhaps better than this belated offering. This fragile, trembling little glimpse of how it could have been between us. All it will beget is regret, I tell myself, and what good is regret? It brings back nothing. What we have lost is irretrievable.
And yet when my mother says, “Isn’t it beautiful, Markos?” I say to her, “It is, Mamá. It is beautiful,” and as something begins to break wide open inside me I reach over and take my mother’s hand in mine.
When I was a little girl, my father and I had a nightly ritual. After I’d said my twenty-one Bismillahs and he had tucked me into bed, he would sit at my side and pluck bad dreams from my head with his thumb and forefinger. His fingers would hop from my forehead to my temples, patiently searching behind my ears, at the back of my head, and he’d make a pop sound—like a bottle being uncorked—with each nightmare he purged from my brain. He stashed the dreams, one by one, into an invisible sack in his lap and pulled the drawstring tightly. He would then scour the air, looking for happy dreams to replace the ones he had sequestered away. I watched as he cocked his head slightly and frowned, his eyes roaming side to side, like he was straining to hear distant music. I held my breath, waiting for the moment when my father’s face unfurled into a smile, when he sang, Ah, here is one, when he cupped his hands, let the dream land in his palms like a petal slowly twirling down from a tree. Gently, then, so very gently—my father said all good things in life were fragile and easily lost—he would raise his hands to my face, rub his palms against my brow and happiness into my head.
What am I going to dream about tonight, Baba? I asked.
Ah, tonight. Well, tonight is a special one, he always said before going on to tell me about it. He would make up a story on the spot. In one of the dreams he gave me, I had become the world’s most famous painter. In another, I was the queen of an enchanted island, and I had a flying throne. He even gave me one about my favorite dessert, Jell-O. I had the power to, with a wave of my wand, turn anything into Jell-O—a school bus, the Empire State Building, the entire Pacific Ocean, if I liked. More than once, I saved the planet from destruction by waving my wand at a crashing meteor. My father, who never spoke much about his own father, said it was from him that he had inherited his storytelling ability. He said that when he was a boy, his father would sometimes sit him down—if he was in the mood, which was not often—and tell stories populated with jinns and fairies and divs.
Some nights, I turned the tables on Baba. He shut his eyes and I slid my palms down his face, starting at his brow, over the prickly stubble of his cheeks, the coarse hairs of his mustache.
And so, what is my dream tonight? he would whisper, taking my hands. And his smile would open. Because he knew already what dream I was giving him. It was always the same. The one of him and his little sister lying beneath a blossoming apple tree, drifting toward an afternoon nap. The sun warm against their cheeks, its light picking out the grass and the leaves and clutter of blossoms above.
I was an only, and often lonely, child. After they’d had me, my parents, who’d met back in Pakistan when they were both around forty, had decided against tempting fate a second time. I remember how I would eye with envy all the kids in our neighborhood, in my school, who had a little brother or sister. How bewildered I was by the way some of them treated each other, oblivious to their own good luck. They acted like wild dogs. Pinching, hitting, pushing, betraying one another any way they could think of. Laughing about it too. They wouldn’t speak to one another. I didn’t understand. Me, I spent most of my early years craving a sibling. What I really wished I had was a twin, someone who’d cried next to me in the crib, slept beside me, fed from Mother’s breast with me. Someone to love helplessly and totally, and in whose face I could always find myself.
And so Baba’s little sister, Pari, was my secret companion, invisible to everyone but me. She was my sister, the one I’d always wished my parents had given me. I saw her in the bathroom mirror when we brushed our teeth side by side in the morning. We dressed together. She followed me to school and sat close to me in class—looking straight ahead at the board, I could always spot the black of her hair and the white of her profile out of the corner of my eye. I took her with me to the playground at recess, feeling her presence behind me when I whooshed down a slide, when I swung from one monkey bar to the next. After school, when I sat at the kitchen table sketching, she doodled patiently nearby or stood looking out the window until I finished and we ran outside to jump rope, our twin shadows bopping up and down on the concrete.