The Autumn Visitor
We should always take time to reflect and think about what was and what will be. It's crucial that we revisit our memories because they have made us who we are today. And even though we eventually have to let go of everything--the bitter and the sweet--we must recognize that there are some things that are worth remembering.
"The Autumn Visitor" is a personal reflection on the future. It is an invitation for everyone to learn to let go and move on, while still cherishing those dear memories.
He knew the news he was about to break to her would make her day. Ever since his father passed away last year, and with his two sisters living abroad with their families, the house has been so empty and had a grave atmosphere. He knew that she couldn't bear to have him away from her; hence, it was understood that if he got married he and his wife would live with her in the same house. So, to tell her that he'd finally met someone would certainly be a pleasant surprise.
"But mom, you're crying!" he said, bewildered. A warm smile spread slowly across Alia's face, as if struggling to make its way through the winding wrinkles that were carved on her cheeks and around her eyes over the years. Those were also the result of the countless smiles she had worn in the past, like those smiles of joy she couldn't control on her graduation day, or those she worked up on her wedding day to avoid looking nervous. But for the most part, those wrinkles were the result of the smiles she had as she watched her children grow up, and the scowls of disapproval whenever they did something wrong. This very young man sitting across from her telling her that he wants to get married is responsible for a fair share of those wrinkles. His first steps, his kindergarten graduation, his first successful try at tying a necktie, his first promotion and now, he's getting married.
"I'm just so happy" She replied in what sounded like a whisper. "Saif, tell me about her."
"Well," he clamped his hands and started speaking rather shyly, loosening up as he went on. "She's a friend of a friend. Actually, she's a friend's client. You know, it's a bit complicated but, anyway, we met few months ago in his office and, I don't know, we just clicked!" He paused for a moment as if waiting for her to say something. When she didn't, he thought the safest thing to say was, "What do you want to know?"
"A name would be good, for a start," she said with a grin, as if to let him know that she was aware of how nervous he was. Little did she know that what he was about to say was going to turn the joke on her.
"Lina." He paused for a moment then realized that in this particular situation he was required to provide the middle name and the surname as well. It's always like that with old folks who would probably be more interested in the generation they are more likely to recognize. So on he went. "Lina Salah Azmi."
For a moment, she doubted that she heard the name right so she made him repeat it. As he said the name again, she was rendered speechless. Her memory started to rewind and she was 23 again, standing by the window watching that man walk away for the last time, biting on the sleeve of her jacket so no one would hear her weeping.
"I think I know her father," she finally said to him, after a long pause.
"How well do you know him? Because ...he's been dead for three years."
She felt as if an iceberg had fellen on her. She wished he could be mistaken, but how could he be? She tried to contain her shock, and with a lump in her throat she managed to utter no more than two words, "Very well."
"Mom, is there something you need to tell me?" he asked in a rather worried voice. She sensed his worry, and in an effort to comfort him she tried to detach herself from the raging sea of memories and emotions that have just been unleashed. "I do need to tell you something," she said, finally working up a smile.
"I never told you this," she said with a steady voice. "But, 40 years ago, before I met your father, there was someone else in my life. It was a pretty serious relationship, we almost got married, but something went wrong at the last moment, something I don't choose to remember, and it just didn't work out."
"And, that man was Lina's father, I suppose?" he asked in a knowing tone. She only nodded in approval and lowered her gaze.
There was a long silence; finally Saif broke it rather hesitantly. "Mom, if it makes you uncomfortable, I totally understand..."
"No," she interrupted. "It doesn't. It's just that I thought I would never ..." She trailed off to silence again as she couldn't finish her sentence.
"Mom, you don't have to do that."
"What if I want to do it?" she said with an effortless smile this time. "Do you know what real love is?"
He nodded as if to say he had no clue.
"It's love that can never turn sour," she continued. "Love has many forms, and we don't necessarily perceive them all. When I loved Salah, I couldn't imagine my life without him. I loved him deeply; I was sure it was true love, not just a whim, and I knew we had some kind of a bond. At first, I thought it was the bond you have with the person that you'll share your life with, but when it turned out that it wasn't, I knew we still had some sort of connection. I cried when he left me, but I believed in my heart that it was all for the best, and I prayed for him from all my heart. I knew I have lost him as a life companion, and I knew I could fall in love again, but the love I hed for Salah was turning into another feeling, the same feeling that makes me happy today that you want to marry his daughter."
"Saif," she said as she noticed that he still wasn't relieved. "You must know that I loved your father dearly, and I have never betrayed him, neither with my heart nor with my thoughts." She shifted in her seat and put on a less serious face. "So, when am I going to meet her?"
She made sure she looked her best on the day of the visit. She wore a classy gray Lenin-jacket dress, one she was saving for special occasions, and made sure she matched it with the right scarf and shoes. Saif too spent a little more time than usual getting ready, but finally they were set and driving to Lina's house, speaking very little on the way.
As they rang the doorbell her heart was pounding so fast that she felt it was going to jump out of her chest. She found it weird that she was more nervous than Saif was. She tried to imagine the feeling the house would give her. She thought she'd smell him in every corner and hear his laughter in every room. She thought of his daughter: perhaps she bears a resemblance to him. She thought that the first thing she'd see in her was him, and she was a bit afraid that her tears would betray her.
The door opened and a young woman was there to welcome them. Alia wondered who she might be since she was almost certain that she wasn't Lina. An elder lady was standing beside her and invited them in while they exchanged formal greetings.
There was nothing in the house that reminded her of Salah, and the young girl who turned out to be Lina looked nothing like him. She couldn't see a trace of him anywhere; even his distinctive scent was absent.
As the four of them chatted, Alia tried to look as little distracted as she could while she looked around the room for any trace of him. Finally, her eyes rested upon a framed picture on a stand in the far corner of the room. It was a black and white picture of a young man in a suit. She wasn't really aware of the conversation when she interrupted to ask who he was.
"That would be my husband, Salah," said Lina's mother. "He was quite a hunk as a young man. Wasn't he? If you look closely you'll probably see how much Lina looks like him. She's the only one among my children who inherited her father's hazel eyes."
Alia smiled and nodded at this, avoiding looking in Saif's direction, but he knew what it was about. It was not him.
For the following few days, neither of them brought the subject up. Saif sensed his mother's disappointment as she lost what she thought was the last link to a past she cherished. How come it didn't occur to either of them that there could be more than one person with the name Salah Azmi?
She tried to busy herself and act as if nothing happened. Saif seemed to respect that, and he too seemed busy working out the engagement arrangement with Lina, she assumed. He would make calls all day long and stay out for hours without saying where he was going or where he was coming from.
A lonely feeling started to haunt her, and she felt like talking, but Saif was never home and he was the only one she cared to talk to.
One afternoon Saif came home early from work. She thought he had to run some errands to get some things done before the engagement party. Instead, he told her to get dressed because he wanted to take her somewhere he wouldn't disclose.
She dressed up in a rush and they set out. She asked him where he was taking her, but he kept telling her to be patient. Finally, they pulled over in front of a small semi-villa with a big garden worn out by the early fall.
She stepped out of the car and walked behind him, as if she was hiding from something. Saif pressed the button on the intercom and made himself known. Then, the gate opened to a long, paved path lined with bronze leaves falling from garden trees. They walked to the door where an elderly lady was waiting for them.
"You must be Alia," the elderly lady said. "Your son told me you and Salah were close friends. Do come in, he's waiting in the living room."
"Let's hope it's the right one this time," whispered Saif.
Alia was too dumbstruck to speak. She tried to say something out of courtesy but words betrayed her at that moment. All she could think of was Salah waiting for her inside, as young and as alive as he was the last time she saw him. But that image was to be scattered seconds before she entered the room.
"I don't know if your son told you this, but..." the elderly lady paused for a moment before saying this. "Please don't feel bad if he doesn't remember you. Salah has been suffering from dementia, for sometime now; he doesn't even remember his own children."
Alia was mesmerized by that, and for a moment she thought of going back without seeing him. Could she bear it if he didn't remember her?
Yes, she could bear anything for this, she thought.
He was nothing like the last time she saw him. He was too thin and nothing was left of his locks of thick black hair but a few gray tufts. His face was even more wrinkled than hers, and his hands were two maps of protruding green and purple veins. There was a woman in her mid thirties sitting beside him. She looked like a young version of the elderly lady who met them at the door, and she introduced herself as his daughter, Fadia.
Alia approached him slowly. Fadia gave her a curt nod, then moved closer to him and said in a loud voice: "Dad, this is Alia. You remember her, right?"
"Alia?" Salah said as he studied her face. His eyes narrowed as if he was trying hard to remember who she was. At this point, Alia could feel the tears welling up in her eyes, but she struggled to hold them back. She wished he'd remember her and they would recall the tiniest details of their past together.
"Ah, Alia," he finally said, and her heart sank within her. She was just about to say something when he turned to his daughter and said, "She's a good woman, she was my mother's closest neighbor and they baked bread together."
Alia stopped in her tracks for a few moments as Fadia shook her head in dismay and gave her a look of consolation. "Sorry, his memory is just a total mess."
Alia had no response to that, but the tears kept streaming down her face. She excused herself, thanked his wife and then walked out in a hurry without even waiting for Saif to follow her. He raced her to the car, telling her he was sorry. She looked at him for a moment, clueless as to whether he should really be sorry or not. But just before she could think of anything, a voice called her from behind.
It was Fadia, she was running behind her begging her to stop. Alia turned around and faced her, thinking she wanted to give her something that might have left in the house.
"I'm so sorry for this, Mrs. Alia. I know it must be hard," she said as she seemed to struggle with her words. "My father's memory might be a blur now, but few years ago when he was more lucid, he told me all about you. Everything."
"He told me how you met and how much he was fond of you. He said you were a great woman, and to tell you the truth, I felt a bit jealous to think that he may have loved you more than my mother, but he told me it was different."
Alia had no idea what to say, and she no longer felt the tears on her face. Fadia stood speechless too, and at last figured out that she'd better excuse herself and go back inside. Alia remained standing still for a moment. She then looked at Saif who was waiting for her in the car and motioning her to get in. She walked with slow steps, but before she stepped in, she turned around and yelled at the top of her lungs.
Fadia turned around just before the gate closed.
"Why did he tell you about me?"
Fadia smiled and lowered her gaze to the ground.
"He knew his memory was fading away," she said with what sounded like a sigh. "He wanted to make sure some things weren't lost along with it. Some things are worth being remembered."
For a moment, Alia lost the sense of time and place, the wrinkles disappeared from her face and she was standing by the window again, looking at the same young and strong man, but this time she didn't hear herself weeping; the only sound she could hear was a voice in her head that said over and over:
"Some things are worth being remembered."