When I look at Nourbese Massri I am drawn to her eyes. Obsidian. Dark and impenetrable. She is sitting with my mother stroking her hand. Her face is calm. Her mouth curves in a perpetual smile. Forgive me. I don’t trust her. She is Egyptian.
“What is an Arab doing working in a Jewish nursing home?” I ask my husband, Aaron.
“She needs a job?”
“Don’t joke. I get nervous when I see her with her scarf.”
“Plenty of religious Jewish women cover their heads, Ellie. Let it go, you’re being ridiculous.”
I know he’s right. I try to reconcile my liberal Jewish politics to my gut’s suspicions, but it doesn‘t work. I can’t help it. When I look at Nour, I’m frightened. Ever since Karen died I’m afraid of everything strange, everything foreign. No, even before that I was afraid—of flying, of escalators, of driving over bridges. Somehow I managed the palpitations, the sweaty palms. Aaron drove me over bridges. I took the stairs and I didn’t fly. But for the past few years it has gotten worse. What I read in the newspaper supports my fears. And seeing Nour, a religious Muslim in a Jewish home, makes me afraid.
My mother certainly doesn’t notice or seem to mind. In the beginning when I asked her if she liked Nour, she shook her head and said, “She’s ….” and let her voice trail off.
“What, Mom?” I asked. “What is she?”
She kept her eyes closed and didn’t answer. I wonder, if she could see, and speak and tell me how she feels, what she would say. Would she tell me that she doesn’t want a Muslim caring for her? But she doesn’t speak or tell me, and I need the help. I need someone to take my mother downstairs to the music program, to wheel her out to the garden, to bring her to the beauty parlor to have her hair done, to feed her lunch on the days I can’t.
I try to see my mother every day. I run from the Community College where I’m a librarian, to the nursing home and back to the college library again. I can’t be there all the time and if not for Nour my mother would lie in her bed day after day, and only sit in a chair when the nursing staff remembered. I would be full of remorse.
I’m ashamed of my bigoted feelings so I act like I’m all right with Nour caring for my mother. And I can see that she’s kind. She’s attentive, brushing my mother’s hair gently, wiping her mouth and her eyes. She talks to her soothingly, even though my mother doesn’t answer.
Nour has a slight…very slight…accent. She’s been in this country a long time. I ask her one day, when she came here.
“When I was fifteen.”
I try to think what her life was like when she came at fifteen. My father died when I was fifteen. After that I was afraid of everything; my life was chaotic. Hers probably was too, in a different way. We are about the same age, in our fifties, both on the short side and carrying more weight than we should. Her face, scrubbed of makeup, is sweet, heart-shaped with a pointy chin. My face looks rounder, but maybe that’s my hairstyle. We share olive complexions and dark eyes. We could be cousins.
I stare at her hijab. It’s pink today, silk, with swirls of gray and silver. It matches her gray slacks and pink blouse. She always matches her hijab to her clothes.
“I didn’t always wear it,” she says one day, when I’m looking at her.
I pretend. “What?” I say.
She makes a “teh” sound with her tongue against the roof of her mouth, clearly indicating that it’s a stupid question. After a minute she says, “My hijab. I didn’t always wear it. Hamadi, my husband, went back to Egypt to see his mother and when he returned he asked me to put it on. I did not want to. I told him people would stare at me, distrust me.” Now she’s looking directly at me. “He said if they are so stupid, I shouldn’t worry about what they think.”
I feel heat, rising up my throat. I’m embarrassed, then angry, then embarrassed again. “No, of course not. He’s right,” I say.
Nour nods her head as if to say, that’s settled. “Your mother is very sweet. Today she smiled at me when I dressed her. She reminds me of my grandmother, my Tetuh. Before Tetuh died it was my job to wash her feet before prayer, to help her dress, to feed her. I loved her very much.”
I remember my own grandmother, stocky on trunk legs, her ankle skin folding over the sides of her brown oxfords. Her feet were curled, arthritic. I wondered if Nour’s grandmother had thick yellowed nails on her feet and coarse calluses, like my grandmother did. Would she have washed them then? “We called our grandmother Bubbie. She seemed old when I was born so I wasn‘t very close to her.”
“Did she live with you?”
I shake my head. “She lived with my Aunt. Her oldest daughter.”
“Tetuh lived with us. We used to cook together, sing together. She always told me stories. She was a very smart woman.”
I wanted to say that my grandmother was smart too, but I didn’t really know her. She was a good cook. When she first came to this country she was a caterer for parties at rich people’s homes. I told Nour that.
“You must be a good cook too.”
I shook my head. “Passable.”
“Tetuh was a great cook. Her apricot pastries were so good.”
I suddenly remember that my grandmother made apricot rugeluch; my brother, Frank, and I loved them.
My mother’s head is lolling slightly to the side, and saliva drools out of her mouth. My daughters loved my mother when she was young, but I wonder how they feel now. They hardly ever visit. Then, with a twist of my gut, I’m suddenly nauseous. It always comes on me like that when I think of my daughters, Karen, Sarah, Janet–a wave that overwhelms, drowns me, leaves me breathless.
I have nothing more to say to Nour. I tell her I’m late for work and will see her tomorrow. As I’m leaving, I turn to look at them, Nour and my mother. I don’t think Nour sees me. When I walk out the door she’s holding my mother‘s hand.
I hold Mrs. Kane’s hand so her daughter can see how I care for her. I know she is looking, but I pretend I do not see her. Mrs. Kane’s veins show blue through the thin skin. She bruises so easily you have to touch her gently, wash her with care.
I can close my eyes and think it is Tetuh I am sitting with. I remember making apricot pastries with her. She chopped the nuts very fine and sprinkled them over the dough before she rolled it out. I can’t taste apricots without my eyes spilling tears. Tetuh died only five years ago; she was 101 years old. The President sent her a congratulatory letter when she was 100, and my mother framed it and put it over her bed. Right up to the end you could have a sensible conversation with Tetuh. In that way Mrs. Kane is different. She hardly talks, sometimes mumbling something I can not understand, and she keeps her eyes shut so you do not know if she is speaking to you at all.
I started working here four years ago, after Tetuh died. This is something both hard and easy for me, working in the Gershon Home for the Aged. The hard part is the way the family members look at me, the distrust in their eyes. They are Jews. I am Egyptian. They think they are better than me. I resent that, and I think I should quit this job and do something else. But what? I’m not trained for anything. And the Home is close to my house. I don’t drive and I can take the bus straight down Malvern Avenue; it stops a block away. Then there are the old people. They are so grateful for what I do. It comforts me to be around them. That’s why I stay.
After working here four years much is familiar to me: the patient’s pureed food, their teeth in glasses on the bedside tables, the way the ones who can, shuffle themselves along in their wheel chairs. There are smells too–old musty clothes; a scent of urine beneath the disinfectant they use on the floors. In their bedrooms they have photographs on the walls and on the dressers. You can see who they were, their lives before, laid out in pictures.
Mrs. Kane has many photos. There are some with her husband who died when she was young. She never remarried. There are pictures of her two children, Ellie and Frank, growing up, and then their wedding pictures, and photos of them with their children. There is a framed group of pictures of Ellie’s family. Three chubby little girls, two sitting on their parents laps, one standing behind; pictures of them at their Bat Mitzvahs, wearing party dresses, too old for them, Mrs. Kane all dressed up, standing amidst her family. There are high school graduation photos, college graduation photos, and one particular picture of Ellie’s oldest girl, Karen, standing in front of an ancient ruin, mountains behind her, a pack strapped to her back, her red hair, frizzed and fly-away, a bandana tied around her neck. It says at the bottom: Karen at Machu Picchu.
I know this is the daughter that Ellie lost.
Ellie didn’t tell me, and of course Mrs. Kane didn’t tell me either, but there is always talk at the nursing home and the aides know everything. I do not know how Ellie keeps going. I could not bear it if I lost one of my sons.
My sons are everything to me. Omar is married, an engineer like his father. We are waiting for his wife to get pregnant. Seth works with computers. He is the older one and we are waiting for him to find his wife. Hamadi wants to send him to Egypt and let my mother-in-law make a match. I want Seth to find his own beloved.
That is the one time that I feel my Tetuh was wrong. She urged me to marry Hamadi, who came from Egypt, was looking for a wife and a home in New York, and was ten years older than me. I was obedient. It’s not that it has been a bad life with Hamadi. Just different than the one I might have had if I had followed my heart. I wanted to go to college and study music, but after my marriage it was not possible and there is no use looking back. Except for the old…for them looking back can be a pleasure.
Mrs. Kane never looks at the pictures on the wall. I sometimes point to them and talk to her about the people in the photos. I ask her questions and then make up stories because she doesn’t answer. Once, when I pointed to Karen’s picture, she screwed up her face and tears dripped out of her eyes which were tight shut. I do not know if that was because it was Karen’s picture, or if she was just crying. She often cries.
Ellie and I sit together with her mother in the garden sometimes. We talk. I work for her but I feel—almost—kinship. I tell her about our customs, our foods. We share recipes. My family eats strictly Halal meat, and sometimes I go to the kosher butcher in my neighborhood. It is one of those oddities that we Muslims can eat kosher meat, but Jews cannot eat Halal meat. We laugh together about it. Ellie does not keep kosher herself; she says she thinks it is old fashioned and an unnecessary bother, but when her mother lived with her she bought her kosher meat. I like that. It shows respect.
We tell each other about when we were growing up, she in Brooklyn, me in Cairo. We don’t talk about politics or the Middle East. We don’t talk about religion. Once she said something about religion and how she thinks it causes most of the problems in the world. She looked at me when she said it, wanting me to say something, but I said nothing. We concentrate on safe subjects: food and how we both want to lose weight—and our families. I tell her how I wish Omar and Alexandra would have a baby. How I pray for my Seth, to find a wife. She tells me that her younger daughter is considering medical school. She is very proud of her.
One day she brings me a pastry from a bakery near her house and a thermos of hot coffee. It is very strong, the way I like it, and we share the coffee in the garden with the sun warm on our skin.
Ellie breaks off a tiny piece of the cake and places it between her mother’s lips. “She always loved this Babka,” Ellie says. “Mom, it’s Babka. The kind you like.” Mrs. Kane tongues the cake and tries to swallow, but coughs as it reaches her throat. Ellie rushes to hit her back and I offer a sip of water from the bottle with a straw that I always carry for her. I can see how upset Ellie is. She shakes her head. “She can’t enjoy anything anymore.”
Mrs. Kane has stopped coughing and sits, face tilted up, eyes closed. She looks peaceful. “I think she likes the sun on her face,” I say.
After a minute Ellie says, “Yes. She always liked to be outside. I guess I have to be satisfied with small things.” She smiles at me. “My daughter, Sarah, always tells me that. She says it’s the secret to happiness. Such wisdom. And she’s so young.”
We laugh together at that.
I have never met Ellie’s daughters. If they come to visit their grandmother it is on Saturday or Sunday, when I do not work. But one day when we are in the dining room, Ellie spooning green bean mush into her mother’s mouth, which opens like a baby bird’s, Ellie says to me, “Did you know that I had three daughters?”
Sometimes it’s like a compulsion, the need to talk about Karen. After I know someone for a short time I have to mention her name, tell her story, acknowledge that she once lived, that she was my daughter, just like Janet and Sarah. It’s three years since that telephone call, four years since Karen left home to begin her wanderings.
I didn’t want her to go. We battled in fits and starts: I screamed at her one day, reasoned with her another. I didn’t understand her desire to traipse around the world to exotic places, travel on dilapidated buses with peasants holding chickens in cages on their laps, collapse with other unwashed bodies in hostels and cheap hotels. She couldn’t explain it to me. All she could say was, “I don’t want this.” And she would flick her hands around my beige and green living room or point to our deck with its automatic gas grill.
In the end we had to let her go and be satisfied with the occasional post card, phone call, or e-mail from an internet café.
I was afraid for her. She seemed to like the most foreign, exotic places best, places where she couldn’t drink the water and where she couldn’t always identify the food she bought from street vendors. I warned her. I said she could get sick, or raped or kidnapped or taken as a sex slave. She laughed at me. But when she came home from her first trip with a parasite it took three months of strong antibiotics to heal her. Still she told me with shining eyes all about her adventures in backwater towns in Ecuador and Columbia. She was incandescent when she talked about it. Then she left for Asia and I told Aaron I was terrified something would happen to her again.
When we got the telephone call from India, Karen had been in an Ashram for a month and was traveling with a girl named Shakti who she had met there. Shakti, whose parents had named her Jennifer, sounded like she came from the Midwest. She had the clean no accent voice of news announcers on the radio.
“Mrs. Whitby,” she said. “I’m Shakti Richmond. I was traveling with Karen from the Ashram.” Her voice shook slightly. “Karen fell off the train.”
The connection was as clear as if we were talking in the same town. But I was sure I hadn’t heard correctly. “Karen what?” I said.
“Karen fell off the train.” Now her voice sounded rushed. She said Karen and she were riding to Delhi together. The trains in India are crowded; people were fighting for space, with their suitcases and their bundles of food and their children. Everyone was pushing. An argument broke out between a Muslim family and a Hindu family. They both wanted the same seats. The men started punching each other. Karen and Shakti were shoved and jostled until they were standing between two cars, but there was still fighting and pushing. The train was swaying, going around curves; they were hanging on—and then Karen fell, or was pushed, off the train.
I was trying to picture it…Karen falling off the train and getting up and running after it. Or Karen rolling down an incline and being helped by a peasant. Or Karen lost, wandering somewhere in India. So I said, “Where is she now?”
There was a long silence. “Mrs. Whitby, she’s dead. Karen fell off the train and she’s dead.”
I finish telling my story to Nour with the last of the apple sauce that I spoon into my mother’s mouth. It dribbles out as my mother screws up her face and cries. She is saying something, but I don’t understand. It sounds like gibberish. I lean in and say, “What is it, Mom?” She is blubbering, and I know it is something to do with Karen. Karen was her favorite, her first grandchild, named for her mother. “I’m sorry, Mom. I know I shouldn’t have talked about it in front of you. I know how it upsets you.” I kiss her hair, and I am crying too.
“When Karen died my mother was living with me,” I say. “She was recuperating from heart surgery, but when she heard the news she screamed, she hit the walls of her bedroom. She was cursing and swearing at God, at the world. A few weeks later she had a stroke. She hasn’t spoken since.”
I turn to Nour whose black eyes look sad.
“Masha’Allah,” she says. “Allah has willed it…” Her voice trails off. “With Allah’s help you will be strong. Inshallah.”
She’s trying to comfort me, but I want to scream. I want to hit something. I’m crying. My mother is crying. I choke out the words: “It’s all bullshit, the God’s will stuff. Karen died because a Muslim and a Hindu were fighting. All the problems in the world are because of religion. It’s because of the Taliban and Al Qaida and the Inquisition and Hasidic Jews and the Mormons and Fundamentalists.” I can’t stop myself now. “It’s religious people like you.” In my head the words: It’s your fault reverberate. I stare at Nour and I’m full of rage.
I see in her face the hatred and distrust again. I cannot look in her eyes. “I am so sorry, Ellie,” I whisper. “It is what we say. Masha`Allah. Allah has willed it. Inshallah. If it is Allah’s will. They are just expressions we use.” Then I am explaining and talking fast to make her understand. “Expressions we say when we are making plans to meet a friend for dinner. Inshallah, we’ll be at the restaurant at eight. And when Tetuh was sick: Inshallah the medicine will work. And when Tetuh died: Masha`Allah. Allah willed it. So I said, about Karen, about your mother, Masha`Allah. Allah willed it.” I can see what I am telling her does no good, so I say finally, “It is such a terrible story, Ellie, that it helps me, it comforts me to think Allah has a plan.”
There is a long silence. Ellie finishes feeding her mother, wiping her mother’s mouth where the apple sauce has dribbled, wiping the tears from her eyes and from her mother’s eyes. She is shaking; she turns to me and says. “It doesn’t comfort me. If God wills all the misery in the world, I want no part of God.”
“I am sorry,” I repeat. I can hardly bear to look at her.
She holds her hand up as if to say, don’t speak. “I have to go now.” Her voice is choked. She kisses her mother on the forehead, turns her back and leaves.
It is for me now to tend to her mother. To wheel her into the bedroom, get the nurse to help me put her into her bed for her nap. She seems still to be crying, her frail body shuddering. I pat her back until she sleeps. Then I sit with her while she lies curled tight under the light sheet. I stare at the pictures on her wall, coming back again and again to Karen at Machu Picchu. A life snuffed out. Masha`Allah.
The next day I am the one who sees that Mrs. Kane has passed. She is waiting for me as always, in her chair, a light yellow blanket on her knees. The nurse has propped her up with soft pillows, but she is slumped forward, her head drooping on her chest. I touch her hands where the blue veins bulge. Her hands are cold.
I say, “Mrs. Kane.” But she doesn’t answer. I know she won’t.
I go to the nurses’ station to get help.
It was Nour who found my mother. I wasn’t surprised when the home called us. Part of me is relieved that it’s over, that my mother isn’t locked in an unresponsive, uncommunicative body anymore, she who was lively all her life, talking and singing and dancing with my father all those long years ago in the living room of our house in Brooklyn. But thinking of it I weep again. I will miss her. I miss Karen.
As funerals for old people go, my mother’s is well attended. It isn’t like my father’s funeral. But then he died in the prime of his life and there were over a hundred people at his graveside. My mother was well respected. My cousins all come. They line up to take the shovel full of dirt and spray it on the grave. And at the end of the line, there is Nour, wearing a navy blue and white Hijab over her hair. It matches her slacks. I think of the last time I saw her and I’m ashamed. She takes the shovel and digs into the mound of earth and tosses it on the coffin. I can see her mouth moving.
I pay my respects to Mrs. Kane. May her soul rest in peace with Allah. After I throw the earth on the grave I go to Ellie and touch her shoulder. She takes my hand. I can see people looking at us, whispering. I can imagine what they are saying.
“I will miss your mother,” I say. Ellie nods. I want to say, “I will miss you too,” because I know that we will not see each other again.
I want to tell her my news, but I cannot find the right way or the right words. I am ashamed that I am so happy. Last night Omar told us he and Alexandra are expecting their first child. Inshallah. One soul passes, another is born. Masha’Allah.