Sunday 19 April 2020

Her Last Breath (Episode Twenty-Six/Finale)

“What do you want to become when you grow older?” I smiled at Hussein as I held his little hands and watched his bright face lit in excitement.

The air was crisp and clean, the type that gives a cooling sensation to one’s skin. I glanced at the clouds and noticed the sight of brown smoke forming a spherical shape.

“I want to be a medical doctor. My English teacher told me that doctors save lives. I want to save lives, Aunty Khayrah,” Hussein explained as he grinned at me.

I stared at his lovely eyes and noticed that his face had similar features with his father, Taofeek. It was a pity that I never found the chance to spend time with Taofeek’s children. Hussein was a bit shorter than his brother and he had his mother’s complexion- dark skin like the colour of chocolate. Hussein was the cheerful and friendly one with a bright face and a captivating smile. While Hassan loved to hang around his mother with traces of fear and anxiety in his eyes, Hussein was the free-spirited brother who would strike up a conversation with a stranger.

Comparing Taofeek’s sons, I likened them to me and Fadilah while we were still young. Was Fadilah the free-spirited daughter while I was the introverted and shy one?

“Aunty Khayrah, is it not a good profession? Should I become a doctor?” he asked, drifting me away from my thoughts.

A drop of tears trickled down my face as I stared at him in admiration. “You can become whatever you want to be, Hussein. You can become anything.”

I remembered when I was much younger than Hussein and had written composition about what I would become when I grow up. A nurse! Haha! I wanted to become a nurse. But I took a different career path before enrolling in the university and ended up doing nothing. When sickness hits hard, you would forget about becoming anything. You would have no craving to become one of the most admirable women or to top the list as one of the most notable Africans making a mark in the world. Nothing would matter except breathing. Your biggest dream would be to see another day, knowing full well that you hadn’t breathed your last the night before. You would realize that health is what matters the most- not wealth, fame, beauty or brain. You would realize that waking up every day feeling healthy and revived is the greatest gift.

But…would you tell this to a seven-year-old boy who has great expectations about the future and who would have no idea what it meant to count one’s last breath? No, you won’t. Yes, you would feign a smile and make him picture a bright future ahead of him.

Hussein stood up from my laps and hurried towards the door. “My brother will be looking for me. Our mummy wants to read animal stories for us. I’ll come back when we are done.”

“Okay, Hussein,” I smiled at him and glanced around the compound, noting the well-trimmed flowers and green grasses that shone brighter than ever. Why hadn’t I spent more time in the balcony, appreciating the beauty of nature and doing other great things while they last? Why hadn’t I spend every second of my life, doing things that matter the most?

Inhaling the clean air and watching the palm tree leaves flutter with the movement of the wind, I recalled what the doctor had said. The statement that had lingered in my heart for months and made me experience sleepless nights.

‘Khayrah, you have two months to live,’ he had said.

Two months? Just two months? Was I now a time bomb, waiting for the moment to explode? Did everyone see me like that too? Was I going insane?

I cleaned the flood of tears that filled my ears and stood from the chair. I walked around the balcony and imagined what it felt like to breathe one’s last. I wondered if ALlaah was pleased with me. I wondered how I would fare alone in the grave. Just me. Not with Taofeek or mom or dad. Alone. In the dark. Knowing I’m left to face my deeds.

“Khayrah…Khayrah, your food is getting cold,” Funmilayo stated as she stepped into the balcony.

“Thank you, Funmi. I would be there in a minute,” I forced a smile as I noted her eyes travelling questioningly over my wet face.

“Are you okay?”

“I’ll be fine, Funmi. I just need to be alone.”

Funmilayo gave an understanding nod. “Okay. I’ll be waiting for you.”

I had called all family members- Mom, Dad, Fadilah, Hafsah, Taofeek’s father, Aliyah, Lukman, Jalil, Funmilayo and her children…everyone close to me for a small get-together. I knew they understood what it meant. That I might be inviting everyone to see their faces for the last time. That I might soon breathe my last. If they had thought so, they were right. I was a time bomb and I knew I would soon explode.

“Remember when Khayrah fought that bully that grabbed her biscuit?” My mother gave a throaty laugh as she sipped from her cup of kunu.

It was a full house. Everyone was present. Every single one. I sat on the sofa and stared at them with a heart filled with happiness. My support system was all here. All of them!

“I hugged and told her that she has made me proud. Yes, she fought but she stood up against her opponent.” My father laughed loudly and the rest joined.

“Khayrah is a pretender. She acts like she is this gentle and calm lady but she knows how to fight for everything. Food, bed sheet, wardrobe space. Ah, she can fight ehn. And she always wins,” Fadilah grinned.

She was dressed in a mint green pinafore and a black t-shirt. Staring at her, I discovered that she was quite different from when we were still together. Occupying the same room in our parents’ house.  Fadilah had always been a happy lady who bore no harm against anyone. She expressed her feelings and was quick to forgive. But today- despite the wide smile that pulled her lips apart- sadness was evident in her eyes.

Jalil cleared his throat. I wondered what the quiet and introverted brother was about to say. “The day Aunty Khayrah visited us, I thought ‘whoa! I’ve met my type. Someone as shy and quiet as I am.’” He laughed and the rest joined.

Soon, I couldn’t concentrate on what they were saying. I perceived the smell of fried beef and boiled rice that whiffed the air and spotted Funmilayo serving Lukman and his wife a plate of boiled rice and catfish pepper soup. I studied my mother and noticed the amount of weight she had lost over the past few weeks. I remembered the sacrifices and efforts she had made to make me healthy. The hospitals she had visited, drugs she had bought, trips she had taken, traditional doctors she had consulted…all in a bid to find a cure to the illness that was slowly killing her dear daughter.

I glanced at my father and spotted the new strands of silver hairs that filled the upper part of his head. If he had the chance to sacrifice a billion dollars to find a cure to my illness, he would do so. I glanced at Aliyah and she swiftly lowered her face when our eyes met. She had been staring at me, wondering how I was feeling and how it would feel to be in my shoes. I knew she was wondering how her father would fare when I leave. How he would survive and decide to find love again.

Funmilayo was still the same slender and pretty Funmilayo with her suspicious smile and questioning eyes trailing everyone like someone would hurt her any minute. I was glad she found love. I was happy she stopped pestering Taofeek after our marriage. Sometimes, I wonder what it would feel like to have such wonderful twins. I wondered how my child would look if I hadn’t lost it?

“Would you mind a cup of tea?” Lukman whispered as he whipped his head up and glanced at me with a look of pity.

He had been silent since he arrived an hour ago with his wife and baby. Only sipping from his bottle of water and watching everyone with wet eyes.

“No, thank you. Where is Taofeek?”

I had suddenly remembered that I hadn’t seen him in a while. Where did he go to?

“He was meant to bring more cups. I haven’t seen him since then.”

“Thank you,” I stood up and prepared to meet him in the kitchen.

“Should I assist you?” Lukman asked as he noticed the way I had grunted in discomfort after taking a step.

“I’ll be fine. Thank you once again.”

I slowly walked to the kitchen and wondered what could have kept Taofeek that long. Was he washing the dishes? Opening the kitchen door, I gasped in surprise as I spotted him seated on the floor with his face buried in his legs.

“Taofeek,” I whispered, patting his back and sitting beside him.

Taofeek raised his head and I spotted his face soaked with tears and mucus. “Why did we have to invite them over? Everyone is staring at me with sympathetic eyes. I can’t do this, Khayrah. I thought I could…but I can’t. I can’t bear to see you leave. What would become of me? Where else would I source for happiness? We lost our baby…now, I’m about to lose you too.” He wept bitterly as he rested his head on my legs.

Hot tears stung my eyes as I patted his head. “Life is short. Our marriage was meant to be short-lived. But we made every single moment count, didn’t we?”

“Too short, my love. Too short. I want to spend more years with you. I want to be with you forever.” He blew his nose and bawled loudly.

“We will reunite in jannah, in sha ALlaah. I wish I could live longer to spend more time with you and nurture our children…but I’ve always been a grenade. I’ve always counted my last breaths. I’ve been the lady who never forgot about death even for a minute. And I was grateful to find love…to get married to someone who cherished me despite my ailing health…”

Taofeek raised his head and cupped my face in his hands. “Do you think I can handle this? Can I survive without you?”

I hugged him tightly and cried in his arms. “I love you more than you can ever imagine, Taofeek.”

“My love for you is indescribable, Khayrah. You are my heart. What’s life without a heart?”

Taofeek and I remained in each other’s arms for how long it could last. Till my mom entered the kitchen and joined us in the embrace. Till I saw her shed unimaginable tears and knew for sure that she had been crying for years. She had been crying for her daughter to recover and watch her grow old…but what powers do we have? And who are we to question the trails from the Most High?

It had been three months since Khayrah left this world and I still could not bring myself to the terms that she was really gone. Even though I had watched the women bath and shroud her in a piece of white cloth, I still couldn’t believe that I would never wake up to the sight of Khayrah lying beside me when I wake up from sleep. Even though I had watched as she was buried, I couldn’t believe that Khayrah had left me in this world.

How could I when our room still smelt like her and her glamorous dresses still littered the wardrobe. How could I imagine she was gone when I still saw flashes of her bright smile when I shut my eyes? I still imagined her vibrant laugh and excited voice filling my ears every single minute of the day. How could I imagine that the woman I had loved the most had breathed her last?

I couldn’t stop thinking about the first time I had chatted Khayrah up on Facebook Messenger and the way we connected so easily. I remembered how fidgety I was on the day I would set eyes on her for the first time. My hands had shivered and my lips quivered in anxiety as I spotted her seated on that red fluffy chair with a straw in her mouth. Behold! She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever set my eyes on. Her whitish eyeballs and thin lips were tempting not to stare at.

She had filled my thoughts in those nights that I couldn’t sleep. I would imagine her laying beside me with her head on my chest, tickling my chest with her whispers. Even when I realized that she was terminally ill, I couldn’t bring myself to let go of the first woman I had fallen in love with.

Our wedding day was the happiest day of my life. We had grinned at each with pure love and affection. As the ceremony proceeded, we couldn’t wait until the moment we had the freedom to fall into each other’s arms and kiss passionately.

The thing about death is that you cannot imagine the extent of the pain it would cause until it happens. I never imagined that my heart would bear such pain that would leave me sleepless at night. How could I have thought that I would spend days locked in the room, bawling my eyes out and wishing that the dead could be raised back to life?

However, I was determined to get through this phase and move forward. Khayrah would want the same, wouldn’t she? She would want me to dust off my pains and worries, and start life afresh, find love again, worship ALlaah like such day would be my last, and seek happiness and contentment. She would want me to make an impact in life and remember that it is shorter than we could ever imagine.

I would do exactly that. I would move out of our house and live in a simple apartment with Aliyah. I would continue to progress in my career and seek more knowledge about the deen.

Cleaning my wet face eyes with the pad of my thumb, I noticed that my phone had been ringing.
5 missed calls from my father? I was dialing his number when his call came in again.

“Asalamu ‘alaykum, dad.” I greeted as I blew my nose and cleaned my face with the sleeve of my shirt.

“Wa’alaykumu salam, Taofeek. Have you been crying?”

“Cry…no. No, I haven’t.” I stuttered as I tried to think of a story to formulate. “I’m preparing a stew for lunch. Onions and pepper, you know.” I gave a burst of awkward laughter.

Father chuckled at the end of the phone. “You still like pepper eh?” He cleared his throat and I knew that he was about to sound serious. “Taofeek, if you need anything. Someone to talk to…just anything. I’m here for you. Always here for you…at least, while I’m still alive. I’ve been in your shoes, son. I know what it feels like to lose a loved one. When your mother died, I was dying bit by bit in pain and loneliness. However, I was able to scale through such a predicament. I know you can too. I know you haven’t been making any stew. I know you’ve been crying and you have every reason to. But please, remember than you have to pick yourself up and move on. Brooding over the past will change nothing. It won’t bring Khayrah back, neither would it improve your present. You just have to stand up and keep moving, okay?”

Tears filled my eyes as I struggled to bring forth words from my lips. “Okay, dad. Thank you.”

“Remember, I’m always here.” He stated before hanging up the call.

Returning the phone to the cabinet, I caught sight of a piece of paper. It looked like the one Khayrah had written on before we went on a short holiday.

Picking it up and scanning through it, I realized that it was the same paper. Only that it had more texts on the other part. Just three words. Three powerful words that made me grin sheepishly.

Thank you, Taofeek’ she wrote.

“Dad,” Aliyah knocked on the room door.

It was a Thursday and we were preparing for school and work. I wore my belt and walked towards the door, opening it to catch sight of Aliyah adjusting her uniform shirt.

Entering the room, Aliyah stated. “I’ll be late for school. When are we leaving?”

“We’re leaving now. Let me get the keys…”

I was saying when Aliyah cut me. “I have the keys already. Can we visit the new pizza hut on our way home?”

I grinned at her. “How do you know I’ve been craving pizza? Let’s do that this evening… oh, remember we have a date with Khayrah’s parents? Khayrah’s mom said she wants us to taste from her delicious turkey stew before Fadilah finishes it.” I snickered as I watched Aliyah’s face beam in excitement.

“These people will not kill us with food oo! Mama Kawthar had visited yesterday with a cooler of beans and plantain.”

“We’ll definitely add more pounds before the year runs out,” I said, remembering how Khayrah’s father had called me earlier this week to plead that I become of the managers in his company.”

“You are more than a son to me, Taofeek. Please, I want you to manage my company with me.”

“Please, give me a week to think about it.” I had responded before we talked about something else.

I wondered how Aliyah would react to the news. I didn’t know whether to accept his invitation or not.

Grabbing a tie from the wardrobe, I placed it in front of me. “Does this match my shirt?”

Aliyah rolled her eyes. “The shirt is white, dad. It goes with anything.” She said as she adjusted her skirt and wore her wristwatch.

“Yeah, that’s true,” I mumbled as I wore the tie. My thought was clouded with the memory of Khayrah. On a morning like this, when I would ask her about my appearance, Khayrah would tease me for minutes, giving one of her crazy laughs that made her eyes crinkle in delight. Afterwards, she would select the rightful outfit after making me promise not to stare back at women that would admire me for the rest of the day. Now, she was gone…

“Dad!” Aliyah patted my back. “I’ve been talking to you. What are you thinking about?”

Feeling sad and unable to hide my feelings, I slump my arms and sat on the bed. “About Khayrah. It’s hard to stop thinking about her. I’m trying to stop…but it’s hard.” I sobbed on the pillow as Aliyah held my hands and pulled my face to look at her.

“You’ll get over this, in sha ALlaah. With time, all this would be over. But you have a role to play in making this easier for you.”

“Thank you, Aliyah.” I muttered as I stared at the ceiling.

“By the way, one of my classmates. Sumayyah…”

“Your tall classmate that sits beside you? The one that brought sushi to school last month?”

Aliyah gave a mischievous smile. “Yes, yes. She is the same girl I told you lost her father last year, you remember? Her mother asked after you.”

“Why would she ask after me?” I furrowed my brows in confusion.  “No, not now Aliyah. Can we leave? We’ll be late if we spend an extra minute here.”

Tears coursed down her cheeks as she pulled me into a tight hug. “I love you, dad…and I’m here to support you as you go through this stage. We are in this together.”

“I love you too, Aliyah. Let’s get going.” We smiled at each other as we walked hand in hand out of the room.

A/N: I want to deeply appreciate readers of the series who patiently stood by me till the end of the episodes. Words are insufficient to express my gratitude.

Her Last Breath has become one of my most remarkable and longest series on the blog. We had 26 episodes! Lol.

I hope this story teaches you about the worthlessness of this world and the limited time we have to spend here. I hope you learn that health is truly wealth. I hope you learn to appreciate ALlaah for his countless blessings upon us; like the air we breathe and water we drink.

Thank you once again for staying till the end of Her Last Breath. I planned on starting our next series but I think I’ll have to take a break. I don’t want to start a story and stop halfway because of my tight schedule. Once I’ve written some considerable number of episodes, then we can kick start the story.
Please stay safe. Wash your hands and remain indoors. JazakumuLlaahu khayran.❤❤❤

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