“I still have a lot of issues with my skin. The ugliness is glaringly obvious”, said Sara.

Maira peered closer to examine. She saw active acne, scars and other entities usually accused and hated for trespassing on skin.

“Don’t worry. You have young, vibrant skin! These treatments will help! I already see a difference from when you came last time.”

“I know but I’ve been so depressed. I don’t want to look at the mirror.”

Maira smiled. She always smiled when people casually threw around this word.

She decided to change the conversation as she applied cleansing lotion on Sara’s face. Nice and subtle.. rotating upward movements. Kind of like how life should be lived Maira always thought to herself.

“So what have you been eating? Fresh vegetables, fruits, more water?

“I just don’t have the energy for extra work you know. With the kids’ unending demands and husband’s crazy schedule, endless chores….”, complained Sara.

“If you won’t look out for yourself who will?” Maira replied in her soft motherly tone. “I always cook Kaddu-gosht(pumpkin and meat) curry for myself even though I know no one’s going to eat it but me!”

“What about your husband? Doesn’t he like your cooking?” My husband eats everything I cook but I still feel he never really appreciates my efforts.”

Maira turned to switch on the facial machine. She paused a bit before answering.

“I am a single mom,” the smile never left her face.

Sara became quiet. The unexpected reply caught her off-guard.

The initial cleansing was done. Now on to the real stuff. The suction mechanism of this new-age facial was so satisfying. It sucked up all the muck and grime from the pores. Painless. Exhilarating. Life-changing.

“I’m so sorry, I would never have guessed! You’re so lively and positive MashA Allah! I rarely meet people like you. Everyone around me just tends to bring me down.”

“It took some hard lessons. I wasn’t always like this.”

The monotonous whirring and buzzing of the suction filled up the silence. But Maira had more to say.

“He was a loving man. My husband. Not like the typical overbearing sort. But he didn’t want me to work because the children were small. So I always resented that. I took that single issue and obsessed over it. Until it just took over my life. I felt trapped.”

“I know how that feels.. I always….”, sara wanted to say more but stopped midway.

“We moved into our own home. My boys were growing too fast. Husband was busy in work. But he always made time to call. “What’s up wife?” He’d say it in the tone of that famous cartoon…”what’s up doc?!” I always smiled when he did that but something had changed. I reciprocated with a bored, hallow response. I was stuck in my head. I had eyes but I couldn’t see past my desires. I had a heart but I felt numb. ”

“Did you finally break away?” Sara questioned with hesitation.

Maira didn’t reply. She went on. “It was my 40th birthday. I was a deadbeat by then. Moody and passionless. My husband wanted to take us out for dinner. I didn’t want to go but I complied. ”

Maira turned off the machine. It was time for the mask. “Let me know if it stings or anything. We’ll wash it off after 20 minutes InshA Allah.”

“I put on my black and blue shalwar kameez. He never liked it much but I did. And I thought to myself. It’s MY birthday. ”

“He called and said he was running late and that he’d meet us at the restaurant. It was our favourite seafood joint in Mississauga. I resented even that. At this point I thought I had no love in my heart for him.”

“The children and I waited at our table. He was later than usual. I called and his machine answered. I was appalled at his carelessness. ”

Sara wanted to speak but the mask was stiffening so she just listened.

“The waiter came to our table with a thin, wrapped, rectangular box. He smiled shyly and handed it over saying it was for me. I was dying of embarrassment by then. What a bright idea this was?! ”

“I opened up the box. It had an envelope in it with his writing. ”

At this point Maira’s voice started to break. Sara felt confused. She still couldn’t speak. Maira continued.

“I remember that letter by heart.”

“Dearest wife. You might think I don’t see what you’re going through. You might think I don’t feel what you’re feeling. And honestly sometimes I don’t. But I love you too much to waste time in the confusions and the questions. There’s another letter enclosed in this box.”

“It just ended abruptly. My heart was galloping. My kids were looking at me as if I had gone crazy or something. ”

“I opened the second letter with trembling hands. I feared the worst. ”

“Congratulations Maira! You’ve been accepted to our School of Professional Aestheticians……”

“I couldn’t read further. My eyes blurred. It was no secret that this was my passion. I always shared details of this school and programme with him. And I always thought he wasn’t listening. Here he was applying on my behalf all along.”

Maira cleared her throat and said she’d remove the mask now. Sara’s eyes were watering.

“I called him. Maybe a dozen times. His machine answered. I was panicking now. I took the kids and drove home.”

“Your skin looks so shiny and clean MAshA Allah!” Maira suddenly remarked. “I’ll now apply toner, an acne-solution, sunscreen and moisturizer to finish off.”

Sara was too engrossed in the story to care at this point. “Where was your husband?” She was finally able to talk.

“The call came about 2 hours after we reached home. At this point I was on my prayer mat, asking for Allah’s forgiveness. I knew I had fumbled. He had to call soon. He had to.”

“The home phone rang. The call display said, Hubs. Where were you, I sobbed and screamed into the phone.”

“Hello is this Mr. Ibrahim’s home? This is Police Officer Ben. Unfortunately he’s been in an accident….”

“Oh my God…”, Sara had no words.

“You know what I’ve learned from all of this?”

Sara had never seen such hopeful eyes before.

“This tragedy brought out my worst. And best. I was a thankless, impatient person. Someone who questioned Allah every step of the way. What I was really supposed to do was Thank HIM with every breath. This journey tore me apart and ripped away a huge chunk of my heart. But it did something magical in the process. It cleansed my soul. It sucked out the muck, the grime It made me new and shiny…,” “just like your skin,” she added with a smile.

Sara held on to every word. Then she finally summoned the courage to ask,”Did he make it?”

“He passed away a week after my birthday. The accident had rendered him unconscious. And that’s how he left us. Without the blink of an eye. This was 10 years ago. I have two grown kids now just finishing their universities.”

Her eyes gleamed with pride. Those brown eyes had no room for sadness anymore. No regrets. No complaints. Just humility. And a full, open heart beating to the rhythm of Alhamdulillah.

“Fiction Story but Inspired by true events”

Nida Shahzeb

***short story written and selected for Global Muslim Writers contest***

Hopeful ever after

I read something beautiful. Actually re-read an old shared post by a dear big-hearted writer. About happily ever after. It spurred up all kinds of thoughts about how we exploit the big, crazy, wonderful, enigma that is hope. And how we overestimate the poor critter that is happy.

When I think of the first half of my life. I think about my doting parents who never wanted to see their daughter get hurt. Like most parents I suppose. I lead a protected life. And not the regular kind. But the triple layered bubble-wrapped-kind of a life. Where I read fairy tales, watched magical cartoons, and made up big castles in my head… because I had no reason to do otherwise. I think I really had it good…that good. And that happy too.

And then it was time for me to grow up. Somewhere along heartbreaks and heartmends…friends lost.. friends gained.. messed up exams… Misfit jobs…mistakes.. lessons…tears.. laughter…marriage. And then wait some more… kids. These wondrous beings make you grow up like there’s no tomorrow.

But there are a lot of tomorrows if you’re fortunate enough. Tomorrows when you see life like the real explosion it is. Where the mundane drives you nuts and though you dream of the ‘rare’ like a gorgeous black stallion riding off into the sunset… in reality it scares the pants off of you. Where you rummage through your childhood memories holding on to bits and pieces you accumulated for your happily ever after. But all you feel is sand slipping away through your fingers.

For some of us life truly happens after the intermission. Like those predictable movies where you know the first half will just drag on inconsequentially. The second half is what matters. Where emotions, choices, decisions, pressures, rights, wrongs,,… everything sucks you into a numbing vortex. And then bam! Epiphany! ‘Happily ever after’ becomes a fallacy. You realize that you don’t always want to run after it. Because you can’t. This constant tug and pull of adrenaline when you’re happy vs. when you’re not… is excruciating. You want to feel the fullness. And taste the ripeness of everything your life offers. You want to get pricked by thorns and remind yourself to not go there again. You want to sink your bones into the meaty flesh of pain, of confusion, of difficulty, of struggle. You want to smell sweet little successes and sing tunes of strength. You don’t want to whine and complain when you’re not happy. You want to keep looking forward with twinkling eyes. Because running after happy weakens the daylights out of us. Just like running after the end of the rainbow would. It’s temporary… relative….and sometimes irrelevant too.

In the good, bad, and the in-betweens of life it’s easier to look for hope than happy. God’s Glorious Quran is brimming with hope. There is hope for those who err. For those who repent. For those who make the wrong choices. For those who have a sick heart. For those who are lost. For the hopeless. There is hope times infinity.

Now I am a parent. And seeing my children happy when I take them to the park, or make their favourite meal, or goof around with them does give me a fleeting sense of mom-awesomeness. But deep inside I wish to see them hopeful more than happy. When they stumble and fall I want them to know that they can get up.. they will get back up. When no one has their back but God and hope that HE instilled in their hearts. I want them to run after it as selfishly as they would happiness. I want them to cling on to the idea of being better, brighter, every single day. Even if some days are dark, damp, wet…hopeless.

I want my children to be hopeful in a world that sells happy.

People being humans… at their best

Hospitals. They are intimidating. Places of anxiousness and fear. But they are also homes of exceptional strength and patience. And raw human kindness.

My beautiful, strongest nano is at the hospital these days. There’s a LOT you need to know about her. That’s the kind of person she is. A book in herself. A wealth of learning, and not in a preachy sort of way.

Nano is never stingy with praise. When she likes someone she will make sure they know it. Really well. She loves her attending nurse these days and calls her Beauty Queen, cute baby. Her limited English vocabulary never stands in the way.

I witnessed a small exchange between them the other day. The nurse was doubling up with laughter. Nano who was in tremendous pain herself, was telling the nurse to rest, eat something and take a nap. At work. That was her way of expressing her love for the lady. I translated a little bit but I don’t think it mattered. The two would have understood each other just fine.

In this mix of Urdu, English, sign language exchange, I realized the power of honest human interaction. Where love, empathy and kindness outshine all emotions. Where there’s no pretence. Skin, faith, language, tradition, philosophy, background…. nothing matters. It’s just two people giving each other their rights. It’s just two people being humans, at their best. The Nurse was doing her job really well. And she wasn’t expecting anything in return. But Nano had to let her know that her work was exceptional. And that she, was exceptional.

So as the nurse was about to leave she asked me if my Nano was always like this, so lively?!

I said the only thing I could, “Yes!!”.

“What a blessing!” said the Nurse.

I have a feeling she will have a hard time forgetting my nano!

Lonely time…Me-Time.

One thing’s for sure. If one masters the art of loneliness, life becomes rideable.

I have felt lonely within crowds. I have felt lonely when there’s no reasonable reason to. It’s human nature. To feel overwhelmed by all that’s happening. To lose control when you’re hurt or just uncertain.To withdraw inwards into that tiny, cramped nook of the brain. For me, sometimes that nook becomes a fiery devilish being threatening to break me beyond repair.

But sometimes….that nook magically transforms. It has a fireplace, a comforting crackling sound and warmth that equates to an uncanny sense of calm.

That is why I say again. One should master the art of loneliness.

Because in that moment… you can have one of the most important conversations ever…a heart-to-heart with Allah, Your Creator. You can whine, complain, cry, all whilst sitting in that nook, with your knees held tightly across the chest. And warming your toes in the surreal warmth of silence. In that moment you can easily block external noise. And open The Quran to see what HE wants you to know. What HE was trying to tell you all along in HIS BOOk. While you just sobbed and questioned, ‘Why Me?!’, and looked for invisible signs and answers.

It’s Me-time. Simple. Why I choose loneliness instead of alone, is because for me loneliness has a tinge of heart ache not found in the latter. That ache is important. That ache makes you question your life. That ache makes you question your path. It makes you question your decisions. It makes you seek answers. That ache sets things into perspective.

This time can either break you into a million pieces. Or it can help rebuild yourself. It can help you rely on inner strength. To wipe off your tears, get up, dust off the grime, clean the bruises on the knees, and go on walking.

Because it’s just you. And HIM. That’s how it was since you were once strung in the world of souls. That’s how it will be when you stand in front of Allah when life as we know it crumbles. Only HE watches your every move. Only HE witnesses you in every thought and word you utter. Only HE truly Cares.

Holy Quran: Surah Younas 10: Verse 61

And you are not (engaged) in any affair, nor do you recite concerning it any portion of the Quran, nor do you do any work but We are witnesses over you when you enter into it, and there does not lie concealed from your Lord the weight of an atom in the earth or in the heaven, nor any thing less than that nor greater, but it is in a clear book.

Next time you’re lonely. And Alone. Standing in a wide green field under the endless sky, and feeling morbidly trapped.

Don’t. Just Don’t.

Remember that you may be lonely in terms of worldly life and relations. But in the relation that matters more than anything ever will… you’re never lonely. Or alone.

Allah is watching. Allah is listening. Allah is waiting. For you to return.