I’m suddenly reminded of her again. The gentle ticking of her heart and her husky soft voice. Yes, the ticking of her heart. I knew it so well by then, and I missed it for a long time before that, the way I miss it now. Her infectious smile always remained infectious. Even through the pain of life and the heartache of my insensitivity.
Our passionately tumultuous marriage ended because of an idealistic notion that I refused to let go of. Such is the curse of Hollywood. Even worse is the curse of a childhood that left me emotionally unavailable for the better part of my adult life. After falling in love and marrying according to the cultural traditions, we seemed like the couple most likely to succeed. We were often compared to Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser in Mad About You. We really got along that well.
At some point, out of sheer paranoia and morbidity, I was convinced that if I didn’t end the marriage, I would lose not only my wife, but also the best friend I had up to that point in my life and the thought scared me. I behaved foolishly. But there was no turning back. Our friendship did survive, but it was always a stark reminder of my stupidity rather than the true comfort that it offered me before I lost my presence of mind.
Years later, after a lengthy time apart, we made contact again. I just ended another insane chapter in my life, and she was as cheerful as always. She had her flaws, but I always loved her enough to only ever remember her romantically. And still do. Only this time, when we talked, there was a serious under tone that she tried hard to hide, and I knew better than to pry or make a fuss of it. She didn’t like people fussing about the seriousness of life.
I had been unemployed for a few months by that time and was still looking for work. We went for coffee a few times and eventually watched a movie together called John Q. It was a movie about a little kid that needed a heart transplant, and one of the final scenes was the graphic detail of the surgeon inserting the donor heart into the little boy’s chest cavity and tapping it to get it going. I could feel her heart sink at the sight of it. It was too close to home for her given her numerous open heart operations that left her with the artificial valve whose ticking I grew so fond of.
She just smiled as always and assured me that she was perfectly fine when we left the cinema that night. She was due for another blood test. Something she did at least every two weeks to monitor the thickness of her blood so that the valve wouldn’t clog up and cease. I could usually tell the thickness based on the sound of the valve. She insisted that I take her for the test, even though it was routine for her to get her family’s chauffeur to drive her to these fortnightly appointments. I was caught up in job interviews and she refused to go with anyone else. I told her that I was due for an interview the next day, to which she looked down and said that she knew I was going to get the job because I always got the job if I got the interview. I just laughed it off.
The next day I landed a job in Saudi Arabia for a one year contract, and I’ll never forget her response. For the first time since our divorce a few years before, she broke down in tears and pleaded with me not to go. She told me that she lost me once before and now that I was finally back, I was leaving her again. I couldn’t understand it, but I didn’t have much of a choice either. I needed the job.
She fell ill the following evening without me knowing. Due to a twist of fate, her regular doctor was not available, and some reckless bastard attended to her instead. He downplayed her symptoms of her chest infection and prescribed some medication without considering her heart condition which landed her in hospital, still unknown to me.
I needed to leave within days for the urgent assignment in Saudi, and had planned to fly out on the Thursday evening after the interview. On Thursday morning I delayed my flight plans at the last minute because I just didn’t feel comfortable making the trip that day. So I postponed my flight to Saturday instead. On Thursday evening at just after 19h00, around the time my original flight was scheduled to depart, I received a phone call. She had died. Her heart finally gave up, and just like that, she was gone. No long distance phone calls from Saudi as I had planned, or special trips to visit her. Everything was suddenly pointless. And I didn’t even see it coming.
I broke down for the first time in my life, despite having lost other close family members before. I was always composed. But not this time. When I heard those words on the phone I felt weak and my knees almost gave way under me. I sat on the nearest thing I could find. She was gone and I didn’t know how to deal with it.
Her funeral was held that same evening according to Islamic rites and customs. It was a cold winter night, and her family that had despised me since our divorce embraced me hesitantly when I saw them. I stood in the cemetery and watched in disbelief as they lowered her into her grave, and the most striking memory of that evening was the sight of tears dripping from the face of her nephew as he knelt over in the halo of the flood light that lit up the proceedings in the darkness of the graveyard.
Two days later I left for Saudi. Alone. And the months that followed saw one of the greatest depressions of my life set in. It was truly the winter of my discontent.