This story is by Jessica Deen and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I knelt next to Rasha in the makeshift hospital after the longest twelve hours of my life. I had begun the day thinking things couldn’t get much worse. After all, our world was literally crumbling around us.
My husband had left a year ago to fight in a war that had the people of our country pitted against each other and we knew we would all lose in the end. Since I hadn’t heard from him in so long, I had spent the last few months believing he was already dead. My mother had come to help with Rasha, and the boys, Tahir and Faisal, but she started getting sick and only I cared.
We woke most days, if we had the fortune of sleeping at all, to the rattling of what was left of our windows. Pops of gunshots, booms of bombs, and the deafening hum of the tanks roaming what used to be our streets kept us awake. Most of the time we stayed inside where we falsely felt safer because leaving our home was devastating. Rubble littered the ground. Blood stained the areas where I imagined my kids would play and cries from the injured and hungry filled my ears.
That morning, my mother had not felt well enough to get out of bed. Her breath was laboured and it was, no doubt, from the dust and plaster in the air which we had no choice but to inhale. She called out from her room as I was trying to calm the boys. They were inconsolable and at one and two-and-a-half years old I couldn’t help them to understand that maybe there would be more food tomorrow. I held Faisal close to my chest and rubbed Tahir’s back hoping that it offered some comfort.
Rasha jumped up before I had a chance and said, “I’ll check Grandma.” Her tender, helpful heart made me smile just a little and I secretly hoped that she never lost those traits despite the circumstances in which she would have to grow up. She galloped down the hall and at the same second I saw her disappear into the adjacent room, I felt the sound before I heard it and my stomach sank.
With a crack, the whole house shook and my mother screamed with all the strength she had left. I bolted to the room and found the window shattered with my daughter standing silently surrounded by glass. I ran to her, ignoring the shards slicing my own feet and scooped her into my arms. I surveyed her face and, with relief, noticed that she seemed to only have a few small cuts on her face.
I closed my eyes and squeezed her close to me, my heart rate slowing as I breathed her in. The moment faded quickly when I realized my hands were wet and warm at her back. I opened my hands as I looked over her shoulder to see them red and dripping. I held her at arm’s length and watched the colour drain from her face, her eyes wide.
Time slowed suddenly and I seemed to be floating and watching from above. The soldiers that had been stationed outside our building for protection barged through the doors to evaluate the damage. They hurried us outside and loaded us into vehicles that flew away from our house, but to where I wasn’t sure. I barely registered the chaos around me or the fact that Faisal was crying for his mama with his arms outstretched and I didn’t reach back for him.
When we stopped, we had reached the hospital and things moved around me as if I wasn’t there. Beds were full of patients who were bloodied and unconscious and uniformed, foreign soldiers moved between them, checking vitals and hollering words I couldn’t understand. When I turned back to Rasha, who had been placed on a gurney, there were people attending to the gaping wound in her back. With this sight, adrenaline shook my body and I bent over and vomited on my bare feet.
A woman came and whisked me away to sit me down where a dirty sheet hung from the ceiling and separated me from my daughter. I was unresponsive when the woman with the kind eyes and jowls that shook when she spoke crouched down at my level to tell me Rasha was likely going to die. There was an exception to this though, something that I could do. Her words sounded like they were being spoken underwater, but I understood on a cellular level, each syllable carving a piece of me away.
Slowly, she explained that Rasha and I could go to Canada. Since she is stable for now, the soldiers could take us where there would be a doctor ready to operate, to potentially save her life. She was careful to make sure not to lift my hopes too high. Rasha was still critically ill and there were no guarantees. She told me this as if I needed a reminder.
There was a catch. This offered entry into a peaceful country would not come without a cost because it was only available for Rasha and her guardian. In short, if I accepted to save my daughter, I must choose to leave the rest of my family behind. I must choose to leave my husband for whom I still held hope in the deepest part of my heart would return. I must choose to leave my mother who was likely already living her final days. And, my boys. My precious boys.
With the first signs of comprehension, my head fell into my hands with salty drips falling without end from my eyes. Her attempt to reassure me was to lay a hand on my shoulder and to make clear what an opportunity this was for Rasha and I to start a new life. I created a picture while she spoke of a recovered young girl with the dark eyes and hair with the sweetest smile running in a neighbourhood with other kids where it was safe to do such a thing. The woman suggested that if we took this chance to save her, Rasha may even forget the horror of life in this place.
Though her intentions were honourable, what she failed to recognize was that despite all of this, I wouldn’t want her to forget where she came from. At this thought, the dam that had steadfastly held my anger at bay broke apart and I unleashed venom and fury in her direction that was not deserved. I had stood so quickly, I sent my flimsy seat toppling behind me. I towered over her then, pointing inches from her shocked face and screamed, “Get away from me!” I could not find the words to dare her to insinuate again that my home is a place that should be erased from her memory.
She watched without sound as I threw back the sheet to get to my daughter. I sat by her side and laid my head with hers. I imagined the moment the doctor would come and tell me, “Your daughter is going to be just fine. She is going to go to school, make friends, be happy.” My heart could have burst with love and the possibility I could give this to her. A smile played at the corners of my mouth just as guilt punched my gut harder than ever before.
If I saved Rasha, or tried to save her, what would that mean for my sons? There was no one here to care for them after my mother and her time was limited. Their helplessness ate at my stomach and it threatened to empty itself again without warning. People didn’t take orphans in around here. They didn’t have the means to care for their own.
I selfishly considered what either outcome would look like for me. If Rasha died here, I could blame the enemy troops for the bombing. I could blame Allah, a higher power, for allowing her to die and for the horror we’ve experienced to even exist. I could trick myself into not blaming me.
If we left for Canada, and Rasha was healed and happy, it could be a death sentence for her siblings. Would my sons die of hunger or thirst? Would they be killed in a similar incident? Would they remember me? I couldn’t live with myself and I don’t know if I could look at my daughter without seeing the parts of me I deserted.
I was forced into being strong and playing god. I looked first to the sky in exasperation and then at Rasha’s face. I touched her cheek and committed to holding her small warm hand until her last breath. My tears landed hot and fast and I moved my lips close to the curve of her ear, hoping beyond anything that she could hear me. I whispered between sobs, “Please forgive me.”