The Cork Shoes

The phone never rings after midnight with good news. I’d just arrived to visit my son in Belgium, and I didn’t want anxiety spoiling my joy. So, I did think of not answering. But I didn’t turn the phone off, and it kept ringing. And I answered.

“It’s mama, she’s had a stroke,” said my sister Zahra. “She’s just left intensive care, and she’s now in a normal hospital room.”

I knew Zahra was the one in the family who always passes on news. “If the baby doesn’t cry, his mother won’t breastfeed him,” she’d say, one of many proverbs taken from my mother. So maybe this wasn’t so bad. I left it until morning to call my brother Aboudi, who’s a doctor and would have grasped the prognosis.  I was reassured to hear the soothing tone he’d inherited from my mother along with a large share of her good character: “There’s no need to worry, sister, we’re all beside her.”

All? But not me. And maybe Death had also tucked himself in by her side? How could I not worry? I then remembered that as we’d parted when I left Lebanon my mother had told me not to be late returning. She’d never done that before, in fact she’d always said something like, ‘Away you go, and make sure you enjoy yourself’. Even as small children,I don’t recall her ever imposing on us.

And now, across the miles, her voice echoed in my skull. “Daughter, I can’t walk.” My ears, my head, rang as if I’d been slapped, very hard. As if to avoid another slap, as if to push back the horror, I said, out loud: “Mama, don’t be afraid, you’ll be walking again soon, every disease has a cure.” I knew my words usually reassured her, I knew she’d cling to the rope of hope. But it was my hope too – that shewouldn’t end up helpless.

This was my mother. I’d never imagined she’d be unable to cope with her basic necessities herself, that her modesty would be trampled on. Although time had weighed her down, and the years had brought pain to her knees, she still sauntered to the bathroom with a grace that amazed us. Her shyness and discretion would leave her embarrassed if she needed help with intimate functions.

My son pulled me from my thoughts. “If this were you in the hospital, I wouldn’t stay away another moment,” he said, encouraging me to end a visit that had just begun. “Hopefully, after a long life,” he added with a slight smile. My son rarely expresses his feelings.

For the first time, I stood between my son and my mother confused. She was the one who always came when I needed her. She never hesitated to take care of my son if I had to be away. She raised nine sons and daughters, and then stretched her apron to a far larger number of grandchildren and granddaughters.

I made up my mind, I wouldn’t let death reach her before I did. I flew that day to Lebanon, and I went straight to the hospital from Beirut airport. My steps were slow, heavy with worry, but then speeded up with anxiety, only to slow down again, circling every face as if searching for news about her – but eventually I reached the information office to find out her room number.

“She is in Intensive Care, floor two, the lift is on your left,” the receptionist told me. So, she hadn’t left intensive care, as I’d been told. Or maybe she’d been taken back? But either way, she’s in danger! But she’s alive, so hurry, fly. Death doesn’t wait.

I found her amid the burr of machinery, the oxygen tubes, the odors from various sources, the sterilizing fluids, the urine bag, nurses bearing bandages, vials, and needles. She turned to me and said, as if I’d already been there a long time with her, “Why are we in the souk?”

It was as if a strange being was playing with her thoughts and visions. She was like a child asking shyly for help after losing her mother in a busy market. I wasn’t even sure she recognized me. My mama! As soon as any of the medical staff approach, she looks at me, begging, “Take me out of the market, what are we doing here?” Mama moans, she screams…

Was this a trick? I had always wondered how children feel when their mothers have plastic surgery, and now I was like a child returning from school to freeze in panic at seeing her mother changed by an evil wizard into creature with swollen lips or worse! I was surprised at myself feeling angry with my mother because she was bedridden. But angry I was – how dare she fall this sick during my absence, when I had always assumed such a hard fate would spare her. Even if her bones calcified with the years, she’d never be crippled, I used to think, and if her flesh was nipped by pain, it wouldn’t dig its teeth in deeply. Passing time would surely be unable to steal her smile. Rather, I thought that when the bells rang to announce the approach of her death, she would become a mass of light and rise to spread in the ether.

But now, in the hospital, when our eyes met, she looked at me as if I was a stranger, and somehow I was looking at her as if she were a stranger. Did I see an intruder in her eyes? Or did she see in my eyes a frightened, panicked child she was unable to reassure? But as I asked these questions, shock jolted me, the mature woman rose up, and I put away the child.

I watched around her the tyranny of illness, the spectre of death flitting between her room and all the rooms nearby. If I closed the door trying to hide her from this prowler, I saw him waving at me from behind the window. I grabbed her hand and clung to her bed, I put on my reading glassesand took her face in my hands to contemplate it closely, as I always did to make sure that at 90 my mother Jamila was still shining “like a ray of sun in the splendour of the morning”, as a neighbour once put it, adding, “Hurla, Welcome to the sun that left the sky and settled in our house.” She lowered her gaze that day, and fixed her veil on her head, while her cheeks blushed with timidity. I sat facing her. I again put on my reading glasses, and again took her face in my hands, scanning it carefully, sensing a setting sun behind her wandering gaze. I felt an umbilical cord growing from inside me, wrapping around me and around my mother, affixing her to me.

Who had dared to tint with yellow my mother’s skin, which was like freshly fallen snow? Who had made her green eyes fade? Who had tarnished a splendour that was glowing with age and innocence? Who wanted to kidnap the beauty of Jamila?

Again and again, I put on my glasses and examined her. I imagined that the angel of death, Azrael, after searching for her hard and long was now circling her as if she was desirable booty. Had he been lovestruck as soon as his eyes fell on her? I saw him chewing her beauty instead of admiring her, eating her flesh instead of caressing her skin.

I kissed her and patted her head. She didn’t smile, she didn’t kiss me back as usual, but she kept pleading, “Take me home from the market”. Sometimes her deep-seated meekness calmed her briefly, making her pleasant again, just as the sun’s rays for a few moments penetrate a dark prison through a narrow window. But my mother’s aura had turned from joy, tenderness and kindness to wandering, fear, and loneliness.

In jest—my brothers, my nieces, all those at the side of her sick-bed — began to call her “Jamil”, giving her name a masculine equivalent because of the unfamiliar roughness in her voice and character. We were unsettled, confused, and we had to find ways toweave familiarity with it, feeling guilt at our failure to cope with this emergency, as if we had wanted her only as a flawless icon.We were used to my mother singing as much as speaking, and now she was screaming and wailing. We were like someone used to a pure source of water, who one morning finds an insect in it and recoils in horror.

We discussed taking her out of the “market”, and we agreed she should leave Intensive Care. We didn’t want machines draining her lungs, tubes performing her functions, or intravenous drips feeding her. The doctor explained the consequences, and then offered cautious approval, as we decided we could give her all the necessary care at home without a forced extension of her life. As we took away from the hospital, we saw large the words across a vast sky: ‘Another journey has begun, a final journey’.

There is no cure for the pain of dying, no medicine that conquers death. It was screaming, tirelessly, through my mother’s throat. As I sat by my mother in bed back at home I remembered holding and trying to comfort my newborn son when he suffered colic or constipation as his organs began to function, to open to life. Here was my mother in a similar pain as a creeping blockage entered her organs and her body gradually shut down. I yelled inwardly, from my need to stifle her pain as I tried to help her turn from that side to this side, from this side to that side, as she struggled for a comfortable position. I choked if I tried to speak, so I just hugged her like a newborn, even though I sensed I was preparing her for death.

How do I protect her from all this loss in which she is floundering, from pain, and from oblivion? But I had also to protect her from all the expectations hanging around her – my own expectations, my fears, my anxieties, and those of my siblings, of all her loved ones present, all keen, too keen, to help. How can I answer the great question residing in her eyes: “What will become of me?” How can I avoid this maddening distress that dances in every flash of her eyes? And then I remember something she’s said to me once, almost as an aside, pausing briefly as we worked together in the kitchen: “I’m not afraid of death, daughter, but separation from you would ache me.”

And now, just as she did everything out of her pure instinct, my mother found a way to face death. And I heard her, as if she’d found a way to speak without speaking. “Don’t worry, I’m your mother and I won’t let you switch roles. Bring me the midwife’s scissors.” And my mother cut the umbilical cord that linked us to her. Do mothers strive until their last breath to spare their children the cup of bitterness? As she had weaned us gradually from her breasts, she wanted now to wean us away from her very presence. This is how she kicked her own fear, and reconciled with what she knew would be farewell.

She began to spin threads with another world, to untangle the knots of life, and to weave stitches for the ropes of death, ropes that we saw her sliding down at times, then climbing back up, ropes that we tried in vain to follow into a darkness hidden from the living. My mother remained engrossed, as she began to follow her ropes, to disappear, but then returned as if she had forgotten something.

As she slipped down into a coma, we gathered around her. Within hours, we thought she was exhaling her last breath. Everyone mourned her in their own way. One stammered while reading the prayer of departure, another fell on her feet to kiss them, and another addressed her words of love and thanks. My brother’s wife recalled a Bedouin tune my mother loved, and sang, “Hawel, ya Ghannam Hawell, stay with us tonight…Tell me, shepherd, tell me, where is my love?”

Just as we began to think of funeral and burial arrangements, usually completed within the same day in Lebanon, Mama opened her eyes and turned around asking for her prayer clothes. We laughed, we cried, and wondered if the Bedouin song of the beloved had brought her back to us. Or perhaps she wanted to complete her duties towards her God before facing Him? Maybe both.

But my mother began looking among us for my father, and when she didn’t find him, she started pleading in a loud voice of age and impatience: “O Abu Adnan, hold my hand, take me out, Abu Adnan.”

She was supplicating, calling him, and looking at us as if she didn’t see us, or as if we had become mere auras through which she could see what was invisible to us. Sometimes, we thought that she had become careless of our love, that she didn’t trust our desire to help her, or simply that we were no longer with her, or that she was no longer with us.

My mother succeeded in bringing my father back from his death, to accompany her nights. And, somehow, we knew why. What was tough for everyone else was easy for Abu Adnan. Who else was better suited for a time of adversity? A man who faced incurable crises with a recklessness that was perhaps bravery, who was boisterous in meeting fury, who was a glutton, a rebel, who was Samson for my mother.

As she calls for him and her voice reaches the gates of heaven, thoughts and memories of my father flood back for me – of him driving his old car through the smoke of shelling as Israeli planes bombarded the villages, carrying bleeding bodies on his shoulders to take them to safer places. “Your father was such a gentleman, he was generous and kind,” our mother would say whenever we bemoanedhis wildness.

Then one morning, my mother reaches for a memory I don’t recognize. “Ah, the cork-shoes! Don’t be so sure, woman, don’t be too content. The angel Azrael will always come.”

When I go from my chair to my mother’s side, she slowly explains. After her wedding in the village, my father was leading her on a horse to their marital home, and they came across a woman farming in a field, who looked across at my mother in the splendor of her wedding outfit and her high-heeled, cork shoes. And the woman had called out this sentence, evoking the angel of death, perhaps as a warning against too naive an optimism. And I was glad my mother had, in this instance of clarity, summoned her memories without mixing the absent with the present, the past with the future, the mujadara (lentil and bourghul salad) with the fish.

Part of our day had become sleep. At night, there was little sleep as we watched over her. She, the one who always slept after the sunset prayer. She believed, most likely, that death comes always at night, in the dark, both digging its sharp claws into a victim and awakening the dreariness of separation.

During the day, my mother performed ablutions, prayed, sang, prayed and sang. As for the night, she would call my father, her own mother and father, summoning, wounded, her late son, “Oh, Adnan, open the door for me.” And when she was trying to sleep soundly, but sleep was shunning her, she would say, “I want to rest peacefully”.

One day we played a CD of Bach, hoping to help her sleep. She was sitting in her bed with her neck no longer able to hold up her head, and her legs no longer able to support her body. She seemed to be staring into the far, far away that we cannot reach or imagine. My brother Aboudi, trying to turn a blind eye to what his doctor’s gaze recognized, asked her, “What comes to your mind?” Mama looked at him, tiredly, and then at the source of the music, and answered him, “I’m listening to the zalaghit (‘ululations’).”

Zalaghit!? The chant of women at weddings! We fell on the bed as we burst out laughing, and the news spread that “Bach ululated to my mother”. But of course she was right – Bach was giving her away to the sky, andwithin two days,my mother would pack her bags, close them tightly, and announce the hour of departure.

The day she left, during the morning I told my sister Zahra that our mother was like a hibiscus. But the difference was that this flower opens in the morning, closes in the evening, and by the morning wilts. My mother bloomed in the morning, wilted at night, and bloomed again the next morning

Until my mother’s leaf fell from the tree of life that evening.

At noon we sat her down to the lunch table, and she took two bites but didn’t swallow. Then she insisted on going to the bathroom, so we helped her, and we succeeded in a task that had become difficult. She cleansed her bowels. Then, although sitting in a wheelchair, she performed the ritual ablution, which she told us she had not done so thoroughly for years. She then asked us to take her to the bed. “Bring me my kindra (woman’s shoes),” presumably meaning the cork shoes, her wedding shoes. So, we chose a pair of her shoes. As she raised her head to examine her legs, which had swollen to twice the size since the stroke, she asked us to put the ‘cork shoes’ on the floor next to the bed.

My mother wrapped her veil and began to pray, “He is the knowledgeable … the Forgiving, The Merciful.” For more than ten minutes, she kept repeating those words like a mantra. She ended her prayer by turning right and left, left and right, while mumbling. The belief of my mother was simple, like a flower in the fields, like a nun’s prayer, the greatness of God evident in her heart.

After completing her prayers, she began trying to change her position, she was fed up when it didn’t work. She called out, “Turn me to the side,” which I did. “No, no, turn me the other way,” I did, too. “Here to there… help me turn… to the other side…” It occurred to me that she wanted facethe Qiblah, perhaps forgetting she had already completed her prayers. I turned her towards Mecca.

Then, with simplicity, serenity and determination, she looked at me as if relaying a well-formulated decision, “I want to sleep beside the ‘shadow tree’.” “Why, mama?” I asked, with no idea what she was talking about. “I’m not here for much longer,” she explained, but I didn’t realize that she was telling me that she would be gone in just a few minutes. I didn’t know she was reassuring me she’d found a suitable cradle there, and that her luggage was packed for her departure. “Let’s sleep by her side,” I said to Zahra, thinking that Mama would appreciate sleeping next to us. It had been about two months since she’d been sleeping on the robotic bed rather than on the old wooden bed she was used to.

Later on, we would learn from my aunt that ‘the shadow tree’ was the nickname for a woman my mother was very attached to as a child, someone with a special love for my mother and who always looked after her. The Shadow Tree (Shajaraat el-faiy) was a neighbor of my grandfather, known for her humility, wisdom,andtendervoice, captivating the old and the young seeking relief from troubles. My mother had always slept best after she sang to her:

Sleep, my little one, sleep…

My effort to make you sleep went in vain

I tried to make you sleep in the attic, but I was afraid the serpent would hurt you,

I tried to make you sleep in a house made of glass,

But I was afraid the birds would break the panes…

Sleep, my sweet, sleep

This same lullaby my mother used to sing for us to sleep, and that I sang to my son when he was a baby. This Shajaraat el-faiy sang this lullaby to my mother when she was a baby, my mother chose to sleep beside eternally.

And the minutes pass… As Zahra strokes her hair, as she does every day, she feels the weight of my mother’s head growing on her arm. Mama’s eyes begin turning to the ‘there’. I jump onto the bed, and take her in my arms, between my knees, and I hear myself whispering to her while gazing intently… “Rest assured, rest assured, Mama… we are all around you, we love you… in peace you go to ‘the shadow tree’, to your beloved, to my father, to your mother, to your father…to my brother…to your God…” Light emanates from her face, as her soul moves to rise, and I hear myself still whispering as she glows as if reaching ecstasy.

My mother does not rattle, she does not gurgle. There are four deep sighs, followed by two breaths as moist as autumn dawn breezes. Two sighs that sign her departure, that sum up her kind presence of ninety years.

And then my mother expires. She breathes her last breath into my soul.

Her green eyes darken, greenish-grey, like the olive trees at dusk. Her eyes, the eyes I always thought inspired Mustafa Khareef’s poem ‘The Light of Your Beauty is a Sign from God’, her eyes glaze over. I sip the farewell tear from her cheek and drown in the calm. Between the throes of death and its woes, as I hold my mother between my knees, she spills the water of life on me, and she swims to the bank of the dead, smiling. Water mixes with a memory of a flood of water rushing from my womb as my son floated to the bank of life. Now, on a robotic bed of sickness, I rise with my mother on a wave like the one that lifted me and my son up, at his birth. Except for the silence. There is no sudden crying as the new-born child jars on his first breath.

Instead, there is peace. I wish time would slow the wave, that it would settle as Change turns a blind eye, and that calm would prevail as my mother’s soul slips like a fish escaping from the fisherman’s nets into the great ocean. I hug her tightly, not moving, so her body won’t leave my arms. I want the depths after the wave to hold me. I want time to stop, leaving us just as we are.

But I was holding on to her empty body, quickly losing its warmth, as a child clings to her mother’s dress after she’s taken it off and left.

Sleep well, precious, noble, beautiful Jamila.


Zeinab Charafeddine translated The Cork Shoes into English, especially for the Between Death & Birth Reading Room, a part of the second moment of the DOTE Festival year of listening. The Cork Shoes is one of several short stories in Zeinab Charafeddine’s newly published book Dhumma.

Image is from the book cover of Dhumma, by illustrator Sarah Sarovim.

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