Khatoon walked into the room and was welcomed by the familiar stench of stale urine. Covering her nose with her shawl, she used her left hand to slide out and carry the aluminum can into the nearby bathroom. Staying literally at arm’s length but bending just so to avoid any splashes, she dumped the contents. Then, holding her breath, she used her right hand to lift the handheld spray from the hook on the wall, swished around some water in the can, poured it down, flushed the toilet, stepped out, and reinserted the aluminum pot, finally exhaling. Washing her callused hands meticulously afterwards, Khatoon caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror: her shawl draped over her neatly combed and oiled hair whose silvery highlights increasingly betrayed her advancing age, her sunbaked, rugged face heavily creased with decades of labor, her lips grimly sealed.
She sat down on a threadbare chair waiting for her lady to awaken. The room was uncharacteristically still, even as street noise filtered through the heavy curtains. Soon, she realized that her mistress wasn’t snoring as she usually did. She tiptoed closer to watch her chest and was petrified when she saw that it wasn’t rising and falling. She touched her hand and sensed a receding warmth. Khatoon rushed out to the kinfolk upstairs and they called the nearby doctor. Eventually, it was established that she had passed away in her sleep and word spread across the neighborhood, female well-wishers gathering in her room, where she lay covered from head to toe in a crisp white sheet. They filtered in singly or in small groups, shaking their heads, whispering the time-honored phrase, “To God we belong and to Him we return.”
“She was all alone?” one woman asked even though she knew the answer. “Tsk, tsk. Who found her?”
“Her maid. She had distant relatives living upstairs who checked on her every night before they went to bed, and then the maid would come early in the morning,” another explained, pointing to Khatoon.
“Do her children know?” Someone wondered.
“Yes,” the relative from upstairs responded. “Her son in Dubai will be arriving shortly, but I don’t know whether her children in Denmark and America will be able to come in time for the burial.”
“True, we must not let the body suffer by delaying the funeral,” another lady piped in. “Wasn’t one of them here recently?”
“Her daughter came last month and stayed with her. She was so happy!” The relative brightened up. “You know, she used to travel all the time, but then her recent injury had left her bed-ridden, unfortunately.”
“Yes, I remember. Such a patient woman! She went through so much, but never complained,” her friend remarked, her eyes welling up with tears.
“You know, this is the story in so many homes now. Children abroad, elderly parents living by themselves. May God protect us all!” A neighbor sighed.
“Why didn’t they keep her with them?” Another questioned, having trailed in after the initial mourners and quietly slipping into the room.
“She liked her independence, to move around at will,” the lady’s friend answered. “She didn’t want to live with any of them. Once she got sick, it became so difficult. Things are so much more expensive there!”
“I know someone whose son just came back to be with them,” another neighbor shared. “Brought his whole family from Canada. So rare!”
“Yeah, well, I believe her children had a responsibility to be here,” the first woman declared, shaking her head. “A mother does so much for her kids, and now look how she was abandoned!”
“Hey, don’t talk like that!” The relative interjected, her voice emphatic but her body trembling. She had feared this and tried to put an end to it at once, hoping to exercise a control which she ultimately did not have. “And watch what you say especially when her son comes. This is a tragic moment in our lives and you don’t understand the pain and difficulty we have. So, it’s best for you to stay out of it!” A woman reached out and stood next to her, stroking her head to calm her down.
“Thank you, I appreciate your words,” said another woman. “A few months ago, someone in my family died and the family discovered it after the fact even though everyone was home and it was during the day! I say, when it’s time to go, it just happens. It doesn’t wait to see who is there and who isn’t.”
The chastised neighbor persisted, “I am only showing concern for her. Which child wants to leave their mother all alone? I’m sure they loved her very much, but loneliness is a terrible thing!”
One of the women’s soundless weeping turned into sobbing. Not everyone knew that she and her invalid husband lived by themselves. As some of the women comforted her, a contemplative lull enveloped the room.
“Listen, she was a good woman and led a full life. Let’s focus on her. May God forgive her sins and grant her paradise!” her friend commiserated.
Everyone chimed in, “Ameen!”
As the chatter continued around her, Khatoon sat invisibly in one corner on that same threadbare chair, her grief for her lady compounded by the equally immediate loss of employment she would now suffer. Despite the worries nagging her, she was recalling the day she had come to work for the elderly woman many months ago. She had been in awe of her spacious home, the expensive furniture, her beautiful garments, and chunky jewelry. Compared to her cramped quarters and flimsy clothes, this was heavenly. However, as the days wore on and her lady’s sorrows multiplied, she had become more and more grateful for her own good health and the fact that she was greeted by her children and grandchildren every night at home.
Today, she couldn’t help but think of her own mother, far away from this city, whom she saw only once a year when she visited her village. At least her neighbors are close to her, she thought as she glanced around quietly, wiping away tears, followed by a more comforting idea: Maybe I will go spend some time with her…