The day I lost my sister

I burned vividly the sight of the rain as it fell like a singular sheet beyond the window of the taxi I took to the hospital that last time.

My heart was settled in place, surprisingly, as I rushed through the layers of doors towards my sister’s room in the ICU. Mom had just panicked, I thought; she’d exaggerated how bad the meltdown my sister had that morning. She’ll be fine, I know my sister’s going to be fine.

It’s a strange thing what hope does to you. When I looked past the shutters I saw her unconscious, with wires all over her body. She’ll be okay, I thought again. I’d seen all of these wires before, the only new thing is a massive oxygen mask obstructing her pretty little face. I’d seen it before, the bags of platelets by the twos, never seeming to stay in her body, and the bags of blood, and the NG tube inserted far into her perfect nose to drain the pitch black liquid that gushed out of her stomach if it wasn’t pulled out with a syringe.

But then the doctors came in and asked us to follow then for a chat, and my mother kept asking them to take just me. “Take her,” she told the tall doctor who knelt at her feet. “Take Maryam, I can’t go. Maryam will tell me everything.”

But the doctor insisted, and my mother and I, hand in hand, followed a group of them past maze-like entrances into the quiet room. I knew it was bad news, quiet rooms always are, but as much as I’d thought I’d steeled myself for the possibility of my sister passing during the two years she battled leukemia, “We think we should let her go,” still made me want to yell at her doctors and call them stupid liars.

I didn’t do that. I cried, I cried so hard my body shook with it; a whole two years’ worth of tears trying to break out of my chest. I couldn’t support my mother; she supported me as she wept on my lap. I vaguely remember someone handing me a cup of water that I couldn’t really see.

So we went back to her. It was around 11 in the morning by then, and she was stable. My sweet unconscious sister was hunched in her floral pajamas, holding her new unicorn plushy. We’ll just have to make her comfortable until she goes. The meds are too much, you see? They just make her anxious and fill her lungs with even more fluids.

And so started the harrowing journey of sitting in a room with my sister and waiting for her to die.

There’s no other way to put it. For a day and some change, I stayed in a room with my mother and over-sympathetic nurses, watching the screen as my sister’s vitals dropped and increased for a little spark of hope, the leap of a heart anticipating a miracle. But there were no antibiotics nor steroids, just medicines to make sure she’s comfortable.

Her nurses from the cancer ward came to say goodbye. She’d been hospitalized for 8 consecutive months, and they all couldn’t help but consider us family. Even the cleaning lady burst into tears when she saw us packing later that day.

The doctors and nurses weren’t expecting her to make it through the night but she did, fearlessly, responding to our “Do you love me?” in her delirious state, and groaning the names of our other siblings who weren’t there. I love her. I love her so much and I told her a thousand times that night; and I told her that everyone else loves her too, all the siblings whose names she cried.

But her response became slower, and it was time for her to say her shahada. My mom said it again and again until she followed, and there was so much sadness in my heart I didn’t know what to do with it. “Ashadu Alla Illaha Illa Allah,” she said, slowly, deliriously, brilliantly. It meant that she knew that it was her time to go.

Then she stopped responding entirely. No more nods to our “I’m here and I love you,” and no more unconscious “thank you”s to the nurses after they give her more painkillers. The monitors continued showing her pulse and her oxygen dropping, and her heart fighting a futile battle. It was the following morning then, I hadn’t eaten or changed or even slept for twenty four hours; and my sister was still dying before me. Nurses and doctors kept coming in, and there was one thing I couldn’t stop asking, “What do people do in this situation?”

Really, it was unfathomable. I was waiting for her to go, just sitting there and waiting, shivering uncontrollably under three blankets, in my jeans and my thermals. “There’s nothing I can do to prepare you for what will happen,” a nurse told me, and she was right.

Thankfully, a consultant and a doctor were there to bid farewell, both of them women.

And then it happened.

My legs gave in, and I thought, no, no no no not yet, please, not yet. But it was time, and I saw her breathing still, a warrior in her glory, every inhale racking the entire bed it was so laborious, the distance between each and the next becoming longer. The doctors held my hands and asked me to look into their eyes; Sarah had incredibly round ones. I wanted to run away and never come back, how could this be? I wanted to run and run and cry, but I held her hand and kissed her face and told her again how much I love her, and I couldn’t believe how fast the color of the fingertips change.

Today we’re packing to leave London, and every thing I touch reminds me of her. I’ve always been the thief sister who rummages through her closets for pieces to complete my outfits, and she was the only one who could glue my falsies on. I found so many eyeshadow palettes and bronzers, new and unused, and unopened bottles of floral perfume. But I think I’m making peace with it. It was just so peaceful how she went, she took a breath and then not another one after it; and I keep going back to that memory when I think about all the makeup she wouldn’t get to wear, and all the kimchi fried rice she wouldn’t get to eat. But my heart knows that she’s got much better food where she is, and she’s got ambrosial perfume, things beyond our pathetic earthly pleasures. Oh, and good company, with Grandma and our pilot uncle, and her ugly little green bird, Dino.

Fatma, my patient, fearless sister who faced cancer and chemo and a horrible, horrible GvHD. I will always be your big sister, I will think of you every time I have any of your favorite foods, I will pray for your pure soul as long as I can. I’ll miss you, but I know that you’re in a much better place now.

I love you.

إنّا لله وإنا إليه راجعون