What Others Call Life

by Seyed Ali Shojaei

What-Others-Call-LifeI realize that Peyman has slipped in quietly. I feel his presence and smell his scent, but I don’t open my eyes for him to sit down next to me like he always does. I don’t open my eyes for him to spoil me with affection—or not—or even for him to warn me that I’m going to be late for school. Or after I’ve had my breakfast alone, and felt that feeling of love and resentment, I open my eyes to his scent. Peyman is here now. But instead of sitting down next to me, he settles on the sofa beside the bed and waits for me to wake up. I open my eyes in a silent greeting.

*

As I nod to say hello, my eyes fall upon the drip needle in Harir’s hand, the machine that blinks above her head, the fluctuating lines and the medicine tray by the bed that all make me forget everything I had to say, leaving me asking simply, “How are you?”

*

I’m sure he has heard the doctor’s diagnosis, and that is why he is just as shocked as I am and why he needs time to get over the dizzying news and replace it with consciousness. Only then will the gravity of what has happened truly manifest itself. “I’m okay. I’m glad to see you here.”

*

I nod again to thank her. I have spent hours upon hours over the past three days drowning myself in the events of the past five years to find an answer to the question that was wearing me out inside: “Didn’t you sense it yourself, Harir?”

*

I should be a little bit offended or even act as if I’m upset so that Peyman will realize what he said was inappropriate and maybe apologize to me. But I don’t feel like playing these games, because I realize the situation is beyond game playing. “How could I know? Haven’t you, yourself, sensed anything during the last five years?”

*

This is not what I want to hear. She doesn’t know how it feels to drop a million-dollar deal on the opposite side of the hemisphere, knowing that your wife is hospitalized. She doesn’t understand how it feels to abandon a huge profit and fly back whatever way possible to hear that your wife has been diagnosed with MS. “I mean before our marriage. Any symptoms, any trauma? Anything?”

*

His tone is less sympathetic, more like one who is looking for someone to blame, as if I were to blame for being hospitalized and diagnosed with MS. Of course the doctors put a maybe at the end of their sentences to not totally disappoint the woman who wakes up in the morning realizing her legs are there but they won’t walk, and her hands are asleep.

*

How many times have I told you to take the numbness and fatigue seriously? I told you that the doctor who related the dishes you broke to your nervousness is out of his mind, and so is that doctor who was stupid enough to say it was because you had slept on your hand. Of course, it doesn’t matter now, because sooner or later you would have realized that you have MS. “What do they say now?”

*

He is probably tired and still in shock at the news, and that’s why he has forgotten to be nice. “Tell me, why aren’t you being nice to me, Peyman?”

*

Our entire life and all our hopes and expectations have suddenly gone down the drain. All our joy and future prospects are demolished, and now we must weep and remember that ill fate knows no kindness. “I’m worried for our life Harir . . . I want to know what’s really going on.”

*

I pick up the MRI image by the medicines on the nightstand and pull it out of the envelope. I hold it up in front of his eyes for him to see the white dots that bring to mind the desert night, a night in Egypt, a Caravanserai rooftop, and a desert breeze on the night we lay next to each other and stayed up until dawn while we counted the stars. “Can you see these white dots? They say my brain has a condition. There is something wrong with the I-don’t-know-which-part-of-the-cortex that causes numbness in the hands and legs—MS—but, of course, they garnish their sentences with maybe.”

*

Maybe the worst-case scenario is when you are hospitalized and you know you have to spend your life in a wheelchair. Have you ever seen an MS patient who has got rid of wheelchair? “What’s next? What’s going to happen next? What are we supposed to do?”

*

I want to beg him to soothe me, to encourage me to be brave and stroke my face so that I can at least stop missing him. I wish he would ask me about the three days in the hospital—but he has skipped to the inevitable, final part where there is nothing left but isolation, exclusion and exile from life. “They say this episode is over, but I must begin treatment. They say generally it can be controlled.”

*

I already know these explanations: the story of the attacks, the past, maybe it won’t reoccur. I have spent the best days of my life with them. I have ruined the best days of my life with all these ridiculous sympathies that are neither logical nor rational. I gaze at her gray eyes. “Are they going to guarantee that it’s over? Is it going to be all right?”

*

The smile freezes on my face and turns bitter. I look at the white sheets, the walls, and the needle in my hand leaking blood, and the machines above my head. I remember the morning three days ago and the night before that when everything was fine and my hands and legs obeyed me. I say, “Who can guarantee anything in life? This is no exception. They just hope, or they give us hope.”

*

My problem is that nobody guarantees anything, and the only thing that cannot be solved with money is what is about to happen. The thing that catches you unaware while you are hanging in limbo, your future plans that you thought would create the best life. But your ships sink all at once. You lose everything and are left with nothing but the miseries that befall you, taking away even the privilege of walking beside your wife. “Are you going to walk again? I mean, emotionally, are you?”

*

I suddenly panic at the question, as if I don’t know the man who has always been by my side, supporting me, but is now standing before me, and I know that his absence will break my heart. Now that he feels defeated, like he’s lost everything, being unable to pretend he’s fine just like he did on our first date—now that he’s unable to keep our spirits up and keep us together—I have to put a fake smile on my dried lips and move my legs and hands. “I’m just fine now. There’s no trace of the numbness.”

*

I stare at her legs that are moving under the white sheet. I see her tucking the hair on her forehead back behind her ear. I hope, for the thousandth time that our child takes after Harir with her unique hair and eyes. But I guess I must put everything aside. I want to talk about these dreams when I slip and say, “What about a baby?”

*

I manage to swallow the sob that nestles in my throat and fight to keep it from tearing me apart inside, so that I can stand it and not burst into tears in front of Peyman. It is so unfair for him to ask me about having children—a question for which I have no answer. And with this episode as a sign of the beginning of life in a wheelchair, it would be naïve to even think about having a child. Such foolish fancy must be stamped out forever like an ant that would chew away at my ability to breathe. But I don’t believe it. I say, “It’s still too soon to . . . but many people with MS have children.”

*

Without hesitation, I search my mind for anyone I know of who has had children in such a situation, and I find my answer. “Yes, but what if your disease progresses after getting pregnant? Just forget it. What do you want to do now?”

*

What choice do I have but to try and survive? For a patient on a sickbed, what choice is there other than to strive to live? Drowning oneself in whys that have no answers. Why me? Why now? Why this? What have I done to deserve this? Or what use is there in running to the dark, dead-ended future, where the end is nothing but despair, a last breath of life, a half strength they take away, and leave you on a path to survive at any cost. “What do you mean by that? We’re living our lives for now. Before long I’ll be released from the hospital and everything will be like before.”

*

It’s a pleasant lie, everything will be like before, but I know well the two-handed emptiness of this kind of talk, even if Harir doesn’t know it and thinks a day will come when she’ll taste once more what life was like before her illness, and make our married life just like it was or even similar to what it was, and if anyone had ever experienced such a miracle, for sure I would have seen it. And those times when I spent night and day in the hospital, hearing the groaning of those who had lost their loved ones, and the strong smell of disinfectant and the running of doctors and the crying and the sobbing of mothers. “Things won’t stay this way forever. Of course, you’ll get better. But what if you don’t?”

*

Then everything won’t return to the way it was before. Maybe he is right. Maybe before long I won’t be able to walk on my own—paralyzed and handicapped—and have to depend on others, fallen off to the side, waiting for the pity of others. And things won’t be like before. I’ll miss taking a trip, just the two of us, and I’ll miss just the two of us taking a walk together, and in that loneliness nothing will be like it was before. And everything else aside, what about our love for each other? Can I survive without Peyman? Who will be there for me to give me affection, and who will be there for me to wake up next to his scent, and what about school, and what if I can’t go over lessons with my children, and walk among their desks in the classroom and teach them their ABCs? My eyes well up with tears and I can’t hold them back anymore. I have no answer to Peyman’s question, “What if you don’t?” I just gaze back at him helplessly.

*

Your crying means you have no answer. I arrive at the same conclusion my mother arrived at twenty-five years ago. “It doesn’t really matter anymore. I have no reason to hide it from you. What’s wrong with you knowing about it too?”

*

I don’t know what Peyman is talking about, but I keep my eyes on him as he settles down on the couch by my bed.

*

“You know, Harir, my father had not died. I mean, I don’t know if he was still living or not. But I mean that when my mother and I told you my father had died, we lied to you. Well, not really a lie: he was dead to us, but not truly dead. I was six years old when my father was diagnosed with cancer. It uprooted my whole family. It ruined us. There was nothing left for us to sell, and there was no person left to borrow money from. My mother became an old woman in those few short years.”

*

I remain silent, watching him in disbelief.

*

“But finally, she rescued both herself and us children from that situation. She ended four years of extreme hardship with a divorce and got out. I’m sure my father is dead by now. Our staying and suffering any more was really futile. Tolerating those four years drained ten years out of our lives. Now I know in my heart that it was what my father wanted. The situation was burying us all alive. My mom finally realized that the situation had brought us all one step away from death.”

*

I still remain silent and watch him in disbelief.

*

I shout inside my heart that I too have the right to live, and why does it all have to crumble on top of my head and leave me alone in bitterness? That thing that people call life and love it and have hope in it, but I . . . I get up and shake my head, meaning, goodbye for now, or goodbye forever.

*

I blink in response, meaning goodbye for now or perhaps goodbye forever. But I know that Peyman will slip out quietly.

*

. . .

*

I look for a reason to open my eyes again.

Myself.

And I open my eyes again.

 

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About Seyed Ali Shojaei

Born in 1983, Seyed Ali Shojaei is the recipient of an Excellence Award from The Season Book Festival for The Stars which Are Not Very Far, The Quranic Stories Festival Award for Falling in Love at the Time of Inscriptions, an Excellence Award from The Children and Adolescents Festival for What if the Snowman Won’t Melt?, and a national award from The Iranian Young Festival for Season of Layla's Loves. He has also had an Individual expo with 25 artworks in conceptual art style (Iran 2005), and 10 workshops on western and Iranian art and story-writing methods for young writers and college students (Iran 2008-2012).

Seyed Ali Shojaei

Seyed Ali Shojaei is online at