I was never close with Ain, yet I wish I had been. Whenever death reminds me of how fragile and fickle this life is, Ain springs up into mind. She is never away from remembrance, even though we were never close, and she, out of all the people I knew, are amongst those who are said by name in my prayers. Funny though, since I was never close or even really know all three of those named by in my prayers.
And in the last two nights, the memory of Ain once again harboured in my mind. Perhaps it was the phone call Ummi got two nights ago that started it. We were at the table having dinner when her phone rang. Judging from her tone and her use of the word ‘sis’, I could determine that it was Aunt Saidah who called. What I could not foresee is that that phone call brings ill news. Ummi came back to the dinner table all sullen and teary eyed, I was very much surprised that it didn’t show in her tone when she was on the phone.
Abah asked what’s the matter, and I know that behind his calm and composed demeanour is a wall of worries. It is not news that my grandmother, his mother, her mother-in-law is getting frailer by the moment. With age comes wisdom in her words, wisdom that should you have met her in person, you wouldn’t have guessed that she is illiterate and never schooled. But with it also comes the back pains and muscle strains and ill health in general. The last I saw her was probably three years ago, my last trip back to Tawau. With each visit, she gets smaller. It is as if she’s shrinking. No, I’m definitely sure she’s shrinking. Her words are ever kind, but her body is not so to her.
Ummi paused for a moment before opening up that grandmother is getting weaker by the moment. As Aunt Saidah said herself, grandmother can’t even get out of bed right now. And this tale of not having even the strength to stand up is all too familiar with me. Ummi’s mother, my maternal grandma, always told me about the final days of her mother. She laid in bed for a couple of months before God graces her with death in sleep. If the chronology of such tales do not differ greatly from one another, grandmother has little time left, and we’ll be having to brace ourselves for it. A sad thing, but such is life. I do pray she has her strength and health back, but I feel as if I’m deluding myself of the permanent fact that life is temporary, hers and mines both.
As for Ain, it has been six years since I last saw her. I don’t know what about her that reminds me of strength and optimism, even in the face of death. She was a calm one. Had excellent grades on par with Ada, another friend from my diploma days. In fact, they were the best of friends and housemates, from Penang to Puncak Alam. While the rest of us went to do our year-long practical, she and Ada skipped onto the fast-track degree programme. Such is the blessings that come with brains and hard work. And for the nth time, I’d like to say that we were not close.
My interaction with her was limited, even when we were in the same class. She was the girlfriend of a housemate of mine, and in that house, I was closest to him. And that is the only thing that adds up the interaction between us. The sidekick to accompany him to buy stuff for her and delivering it to her house, the Friend A to add up to the scene of sending her away at the train station, stuff like that. We talked to each other before they became a thing, but our conversations are always pleasantries without substance, for we do not have anything to talk about. But I must admit, I do feel comfortable being like that. Nothing awkward about it. And I bet she felt likewise. Though I’ll never find out if the feeling is mutual or not.
She was still in her first year when her headaches became worse. At the end of her first year, her headaches were very bad, she decided to see a specialist. And it was shocking, to her and us all, to find out that she has brain cancer of the sorts. It was already deteriorating into the final stage. Ada cried a bunch, or so I’ve heard, but Ain smiled on. Even during the chemos and lengthy hospital stays, she smiled on. Due to circumstances, she filed a year leave from study, with the prospect of continuing when her she gets better. And from what I’ve heard, she was getting better, or so she told her closest friends Ada and Ema.
I didn’t get the chance to visit her in hospital. Not even once. The visit done by my classmates were in my absence, due to me going back to my cousin’s right after our project presentation. Then, when I was already in KL for work, she was already back in JB, with frequent visits to the Putrajaya Hospital on schedules oblivious to me. But what is heard, I believed. Ain is getting better, they say when I query about her wellbeing. I was naïve to believe that. All the more so dumb, given that I was working in a hospital back then. In retrospect, I felt outright stupid for accepting their words as is. I’ve reconstituted chemo drugs before. I’ve seen their case files, the number of those who’ve been on their third cycle and still not getting rid of their illness, not to mention of those metastasis cases, the other number of cases where the patient expired even before completing a cycle, the requests to deny medication for they do cannot bare the pain and suffering they feel during on chemotherapy. So why was I quick to accept that Ain was going through something different than them? I don’t know. But it wasn’t long before I’d know that I was wrong.
I was working my shift when Qis, another classmate-turn-work colleague, came up to me and told me the news. Ain’s gone, she said in a small voice. Oh, was all that I could muster and reply. But it was hectic back then. The indents came in like a torrent of unending waves, not to mention the TTA’s for the discharged, the bills that need finalizing and the stats that need supplying, it all came and bury the news beneath it. There was no time to be sad. There was only time for a shot of Innalillah and Al-Fatihah, and that’s it. Back to work. Back to serving other patients that may as well need saving more than Ain at that time. But in the midst of chaos, my mind went over and over to her.
I always thought to myself. What’s it like being Ain? What’s it like staying for prolonged hours in a hospital cubicle, staring at the emptiness of the ceiling. Or did she ever got lucky and had her bed by the window? Or did she ever got super lucky to have her own room? What’s it like knowing that your life’s on its end? What’s it like going through sessions of chemotherapy, being drugged and vomiting and bearing with it all? What’s behind her smile? Was it strength? Or pity for those who pity her? At least she got a precursor to her end. She got time to prepare for the hereafter. What about me? What about the rest of us?
I may as well never know the answers to those questions, like how I still don’t know why she left a big impression on me, despite our circumstances. So let it stay as it is. Let she stay a symbol of strength in my mind. A strength so massive, it shrinks the unfathomable odds it has to face. A strength so pure, so magical, it makes others wonder, how did you do that?
Rest in peace, Ain.
28th September 2016