If I Die Young
By Israa Tariq
It was extremely quiet. The kind of quiet that makes you stop and think that if the world paused, that’s how it would sound. It wasn’t eerie or anything. In fact, it was almost calming, soothing my ears after the painfully loud racket they had been subjected to less than a minute ago. It was breathtakingly beautiful. I couldn’t imagine a better place to be, except for the one we had left behind. I looked down at his hand placed in mine, which was still smaller than my own but different from the hand I had held and kissed a countless number of times. He no longer had his one-and-a-half year old baby hands. They were now the hands of a 12 year old, and I wondered idly to myself about why he would choose 12 specifically. As if it mattered. But then again, it seemed like I had forever to mull over my idle and pointless thoughts. I had changed too, now embodying a 17-year-old girl, an age I had always wanted to be. It was so exciting. I felt braver, though that was probably only because of my newly acquired height. I held his hand tighter for his sake; we smiled at each other and walked forward into this place of wonders, a place where even my 11-year-old imaginative dreams hadn’t been able to go; a place that was our heaven.
It was hard to believe that less than a day ago, we had been in Dubai with my maternal uncle’s family, going to see beautiful places that I had never seen before. My uncle was my mom’s favorite sibling by far. I would always see my mother transform into a young girl when she was around her older brother, returning once again to acting like a younger sister, whining about little things and smothering him in hugs when she got what she wanted. My aunt was a caring, sensible kind of lady, and although I felt like she didn’t like children very much, she was particularly loving towards me. She and my uncle had two older daughters, who were 20 and 22 years old and the eldest cousins in the household. One of them was by far my favorite. She would plait my hair in any way I wanted, help me paint my nails in shades of light pink and purple, compliment my simple clothes, and spend lots of time with me, asking me about school, friends and the short stories I would write for my English class. The other sister was quiet and kept to herself, especially when it came to children, which made me slightly sad because I had really wanted to become friends with the both of them. They also had two younger sons, though because I had two brothers of my own, I wasn’t really interested in getting to know them. Boys could be SO boring at times.
Like I said, in my family, I had two brothers, and my mom and dad. We were a small family, but we were happy;. Especially since my baby brother had been born, life had become full of fun and excitement. Every day he would get one step closer to learning something new about the world he lived in. His latest project had been progressing from crawling to walking, which meant I had to look after him even more. I didn’t mind though. Practically from the day he was born, I had become invested in looking after him all day, every day, and since my mom could use all the help she could get and more, I was happy to do it. I learned how to change him, feed him, bathe him, make him laugh, and put him to sleep. Many days my mom would come back, exhausted from work and tell me that if it weren’t for me, she would barely have time for the little one. I took pride in this and other little things like it because to me it was the greatest honor someone could ask for, to be able to take care of a younger person.
Our time in Dubai was the most fun I had ever had. We went to all of the most amazing places: amusement and water parks, movies, shopping malls, and above all, much to my delight, the world’s largest candy shop, Candylicious. It was the most amazing place I had ever seen! There were rows upon rows of candy in glass cases lining the walls, in every color and shape that I could imagine: teeth candy, gummy bears, worms, berries, coke bottles and so much more. There was even a separate area for chocolates and a cylinder the height of my brother, which was filled with pixie dust candy in almost every flavor there was, and colorful tubes nearby to fill with the sugary treat. Colors were splashed all over the walls, with swirls and spots splattered throughout. My favorite place in the shop by far was the massive wall at the far end that had caught my eye as soon as we walked in. It was lined with containers of jelly beans, every flavor I could imagine (they even had toasted marshmallows and cotton candy!) in glass tubes so big that I wondered how they would ever run out of supply. We each grabbed a container to fill to the top with everything we wanted, as our uncle had told us he would buy us all the candy we could carry. That night I actually dreamt of living in a house made of candy, with everything I wanted being edible and delicious. We ate that candy for breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as in between meal times, only stopping when we our mom would make us eat proper food during the day.
We had driven to this marvelous city in our small Ford sedan, from our home in an insignificant town of Saudi Arabia called Hafr-al-Batin. It was a barely known miniature town for military families, and as my father was in the Pakistani navy, we were currently posted there. On our way back, I had packed all of my essentials into my favorite pink backpack, which I didn’t necessarily need to carry around but loved to anyway, because I imagined it being a handbag for older girls. The essentials consisted of my toothbrush, my reading books, nail colors and hair ties and a picture of my family as a whole.
We played car games for the first few hours, ranging from I Spy to spelling games. When that got boring, we sang songs off the top of our heads, while taking breaks to eat the required junk food supply that sat in between my older brother and I. Our younger brother was sitting in the front of the car on my mom’s lap, making gross noises with his spit and making himself laugh because of it, with the mischief playing around in his big brown eyes. We kept passing him around, taking turns to hold him, the main attraction of the family. Soon, the car ride lost its fascination, sleep and tiredness overcame our senses and we began craving our beds and home. The ride seemed to go on and on though, as I jolted awake with every bump on the road, hoping I would see the lights of our sad little town in the distance, telling me we were nearby and promising my comfortable bed again.
By the time this moment arrived, it was about to be evening, that moment between a pink and grey sky, with the cool winter air in a soft lazy breeze. My older brother and I were ecstatic with joy, bouncing up and down with the excitement of being back home, as if a week away had been a lifetime. There was still quite a stretch of road left, though, so we settled in for a peaceful kind of patient joy, just waiting to burst out. There wasn’t much to keep ourselves busy with, as the view outside consisted of sand on one side and a rocky expanse on the other. Besides a car approaching ours from the front, there wasn’t much to see. I don’t know at exactly what point I noticed that the car approaching us was coming a little too fast than was normal, a little too straight at us than normal, and that my father had tensed his hands on the wheel and had begun honking the horn repeatedly, hoping the other driver would stop whatever it was he was trying to do.
It all happened very fast after that. Our car swerved right to avoid a head-on collision, into a rocky expanse of land. There was just sand and debris and rocks and litter everywhere, with one lonely tree in the distance, withering away but somehow still standing. Perhaps we would have been fine, even though we had gone off the road so fast, even though the car was spinning out of control, even though the car door next to me flew open with a massive bang, had we just taken ten seconds to strap on a seatbelt at the beginning of our journey and put my baby brother in a car seat that we had never thought to buy. I had seen countless advertisements in the breaks between our afternoon cartoons, showing happy, safe families wearing seatbelts before driving off into the sunset, with complacent smiles on their faces. I had always wondered why they bothered showing those ads. After all, didn’t everyone know to put on a seatbelt once they got into their cars? The answer turned out to be that, yes, people did know that they should put on their seatbelts. But it wasn’t about knowing, it was about believing that something bad could actually happen to you.
I saw what happened next, but I didn’t see it from my own eyes. At least, not the eyes belonging to the body that used to be mine. I watched from afar, as my fragile eleven-year-old frame flew out of the door that had opened on impact. Like a ragged doll, I was thrown out onto the ground a little way off, and as if that would be the worst of it, I let out a slow breath as I looked on. Less than a split second later, the car that had now flipped over once already, flipped over again, onto what used to be my body, and flipped twice more to an upside down standstill. My father crawled out of the mess first, gathering his wits and taking in what had happened. He frantically tried to simultaneously help my brothers and mom out of the car while also trying to get up and run towards my body. The sounds from inside the car, however, caught his attention and he began to help my older brother and mom out, both of whom were seemingly alright, besides being badly scraped and scratched, perhaps with a fracture or two. Physically they were fine but emotionally, at the sight of what had happened, they were moaning with agony. What caused me to jolt out of my stupor was the sight of my mom, holding my baby brother in her arms.
With no form of safety whatsoever and being bounced from lap to lap during the entire duration of the drive, he must have undoubtedly been thrown around the car until it stopped. The mere thought of it terrified me: that this could have happened to a baby was an idea I could not comprehend. An image of how he must look after that burst into my head involuntarily, causing me to run unsteadily towards them, while I determinedly kept my gaze averted from my battered body on the sand and rocks, not two feet away. It could be called a small miracle, perhaps done to save my mom from the emotional and mental trauma she would have lived with had she seen what her eighteen-month-old baby would have looked like after such an accident, that her baby, my baby, looked completely unharmed, eyes closed as though he could have been breathing.
He was breathing. They checked for a pulse, saw an eyelid flutter, and instantly there was maddening hope, crushed into that small frame of a few seconds. They attempted resuscitation while a few onlookers that had gathered around tried to get my family into someone’s car to rush them to the hospital. I lay forgotten, the ones with hope of survival being the priority, and rightly so. I just wished that someone would cover my face up, finding it absurdly embarrassing mixed with traumatizing to see myself like that, all in one go. In my moment of distraction, while I tried to avoid looking at myself, I saw my baby brother out of the corner of my eye. Sitting nearby, happily the way he did after a bath, his favorite time of the day, he smiled his gummy smile and flapped his hands up and down in excitement, being his beautiful self even without his human shell of a body. In that moment, I can’t exactly explain what I felt. All I know for sure is that it was a sickening sensation of being happy and horrified all at once. If he was with me, and also in the arms of my mother, that only meant one thing. My mother’s cries that grew louder and louder confirmed what I already knew. I went over to him and picked him up the way I had done a thousand times before. He was warm and soft, the way he always was, and preoccupied with trying to chew on his chubby hands with his gummy smile. I knew that this was the end of something, but I couldn’t let them all go yet, I had to see my mother stop crying if only for a minute so I could take her in one last time.
The next thing I remember is being at the hospital in Hafr-al-Batin. My mother was hooked up to lots of different IVs, looking as empty as my body had looked. She had woken up after many hours and gone into torpor, unblinkingly staring ahead. My dad walked into the room, holding up his phone, offering it to her as though he half believed she wouldn’t see him or the phone there. When she finally took it and heard the voice on the other end of the line, she blinked, her eyes pooling with tears once more. It was my uncle from Dubai on the phone, her older brother, her pillar of support. As he half-cried and gave words of comfort and whatever reassurance that could be given in such a situation, she eventually stopped crying again. Except this time, it wasn’t the unblinking stupor that had been terrifying me for hours that returned. This time, it was a sadness embedded in the depths of her eyes, one that would never leave again. She waited for her brother to stop crying too, and as he did, she said something that would let me know that it was alright to leave now. It was alright to look to what was ahead, because my mother had finally consented, even if it was amidst her sea of pain and grief. She said, “My daughter’s entire life from the moment our baby was born was to look after him. Many times she would be doing a better job than I was, remembering things I would forget, and taking care of him with the maturity of a mother figure. She must have known that with her gone, I wouldn’t have done as good a job as she did, I would have needed her help, so she took him with her.”
Our heaven is more than anyone could have ever imagined. It is indescribable the beauty we get to see, the desires and wishes of our hearts that get fulfilled. Children, adults, nature, everything flourishes around us and with us, as we live in a new home, the home that was intended for us from the start. The ones left behind find it unbearably difficult to even fathom that they may one day move on from their sufferings, perhaps feel it a little less, maybe one day talk about those they have lost without crying, return to their normal lives and focus on building themselves up again from the ground up. They even go so far as to actually resent the idea of moving on because it seems to hold the possibility of disrespecting the memory of those that passed away. They may even dread being okay one day, because what kind of human being would be okay after suffering from such a huge loss? The answer is every kind of human being. Eventually, time heals wounds, no matter how large or deep they are, and we are, once again, alright.
Inspired by a true story, in loving memory of Maram and Sarim.
Israa Tariq is a 22-year old Pakistani student. She is a senior at the American University of Sharjah and is majoring in English with a concentration in Literature. She aspires to be as awesome as Tolkien someday, but until then, she plans on going to graduate school before going on to do her PhD. She is an avid Arsenal Football Club fan and loves any kind of rock music, namely psychedelic; especially Pink Floyd.