A Letter to My Child in These Strange Times

by Samia Altaf

My son, it was reassuring to talk to you. We’re lucky that communication has become so easy, though I’d rather hold your dear face in my hands.

They’re quite a miracle, aren’t they, these phone calls, especially in these terrible times when one does not know what is going to happen to us, and to this country, this world. When we were in college in the U.S. in the late seventies, to talk to parents in Pakistan you had to book a call three weeks in advance. When your name came to the top of that line, you had to sit around the phone (there were no cell phones then) for ten hours. The call was expected to get through at any time during that window, for it had to be bounced over a satellite or some such complicated technological thing. What I recall most vividly about those moments is the excitement in the operator’s voice when the connection eventually happened. “Go ahead, ma’am/dear/hon,” they’d say, a triumphant edge to their tone, “your party is on the line.” I imagined the operator standing astride the Atlantic, a colossus holding the phone line up above her head out of the water just for the three minutes of my booked time so I could talk to my mother.

My mother, my “party,” was invariably in the kitchen when she was called to the phone. I could almost see her wiping her hands on the edge of her dupatta as she hurried over to scream How are you? into the phone. We’d talk about what she was cooking and other ordinary things. The world was safer then. No need to worry about face masks and sanitizers and such. The phone system that you laugh at did not seem too cumbersome then or too difficult—just normal for that time, even advanced. We thought we were lucky to be able to get to talk to folks back home, ten thousand miles away, on the other side of the world. Even grandma, Baiji, half deaf and half zonked on meds, was brought to the phone, and allowed to say Who? What?

We are well, and we are lucky. I suppose enjoying our quiet days during this COVID-19 business. Though quite perplexed by the enormity of it all. For the first time in our life all of humanity is dying and living at the same time—there seems to be a sobering common denominator to our collective lives. “No longer are there individual destinies, only a collective one made of plague and shared by all.”

Daily life within our household has not changed much. The same routine of reading, writing, and music practice—I can now tune my sitar at last—late-evening walks and passive-aggressive bickering from time to time. And there is good food. I have taken to baking sourdough bread and finally got it halfway working after seven attempts that led to a foul-tasting product that had to be fed to the neighbor’s chickens. The last one made a valiant effort for it looked good, squatty and dense as it is. It didn’t quite rise as much as it should have. I am convinced that the cook intimidates my dough by sending it negative vibes. You know how terribly turf-ish he is about my doing things in “his kitchen.” The way he flounces around, irritable and irritating because of this “vireless” that has curtailed his very rich social life, is enough to intimidate me—what hope was there for plain gentle dough mixed in with sourdough starter.

Your brother is happy to be confined to the air-conditioned comfort of the house—and of the confines of his mind. He reminds me of Bushra’s five-year-old granddaughter who goes around saying “I love corona” because all she knows is she doesn’t have to go to school. He has appropriated a permanent spot—that blue velvet sofa by the window in the upstairs lounge that gets the midday sun during winter days. Now, though it is summer in Lahore, he has gotten so used to it that moving from there would be difficult. Dad is still reluctant to use his study—something to do with the weak internet signal in there—so he is a permanent resident of the lounge as well. I think at some subliminal level we want to be together in these uncertain times. So we amble around from the lounge to the bedroom and back, glued to our cell phones or laptops, wondering what kind of a future is in store.

This social isolation thing is quite strange. One thinks one knows what it is, but one has no idea what it feels like till you actually feel it. Even for people like us and our infrequently trafficked house, it is disorienting—this continuous unending sameness of days and hours living inside your rooms and your heads, while outside who knows what menace lurks. Though our outside looks pretty much the same, asman had-e-nazar, rahguzar rahguzar, etc. DHA is the same “pind peshwara,” the scraggly odd laborers, skinny and dispirited, sitting on their haunches at construction sites, spitting copious amounts of green stuff. The same odd cars with tinted windows creeping along the same empty streets. Further down around the Nawaz Sharif Interchange there is more human traffic—beggars mostly, asking for alms. Some on homemade crutches, some with open sores wrapped in grimy oily cloth bandages, others pushing mangled hands under your nose, skinny women dragging skinny toddlers by the hand. All in want, complaining of hunger, asking for food. In keeping with the demands of the time, they all wear face masks.

One can only imagine what this does to people who do not enough space to live or enough food, or books or music or each other.

Strictly speaking, my life has not been that curtailed. I have been running around with my sister—first to get her radiation organized and done at Shaukat Khanum and then her chemo at National Hospital. In between, during the recovery periods, I go to her house to sort out her medicines, give her bone-marrow stimulating injections, to lift her spirits, to listen to her rants, to be ranty myself, and so on. It is a tough assignment, operationally, but more so emotionally.

It is difficult, so very painful, to see your sibling begin to lose the fight with death—and in the sixteenth round. A fight she has been fighting so valiantly for the past five years. To see her obstinately dig in her feet as she is dragged literally kicking and screaming to her grave is heartbreaking. Not that we are all not headed there, but still the well think they will live forever. But she has—three months? Six? Maybe a year, if we are able to hold the cancer at bay with the new targeted therapy. Yes, it has arrived in Pakistan. So her days alternate between the hospital room and IV tubes, or her room where she leans against the bedpost, bald head smooth as an eggshell, gray-skinned, waving a burning cigarette as she eats fried eggs and buttered toast out of what is left of our mother’s classy Wedgwood breakfast set—to get good vibes from mom, she says.

Even then, who knows? says her doctor. It is in god’s hands. She beat the odds last time five years ago when she was diagnosed, didn’t she? With stage 4 adenocarcinoma of the lung she was given six months, and here she is. Though with metastases now in her brain and liver, it is not a very hopeful situation. She is convinced that she will beat the odds again. The gods owe her this for the difficult life she had, no? She must live, she says, for she has so many things to do, so many things she wants to do. She imbibes her lethal infusions bravely, the ones that leave her hairless, listless, shitless, toothless now, almost lifeless, yet, in her typical fashion—fighting, hissing and spitting at the angel of death. No, she will not go gently in the night. Not this one. She is going to take him down with her, or at least die trying. My dear sister! What’s with her fantastic propensity to forever lurch from one devastating catastrophe to another? Some people are just plain unlucky.

I hope you are looking after yourself. More later. I look forward to your letter, send one soon.

Much love.