Headnote : This is the 4th and final part of a short story that took too long to complete. The preceding parts can be read at the following links -> Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
'I am so sorry… I didn’t know Amir has departed. I wish I had tried to look for the both of you much sooner.'
‘Now don’t be,’ my host graciously replied. ‘You couldn’t have known. It all happened quite suddenly, you know. My husband was out back tending to his favoured orchids when he collapsed. I was in the kitchen then, making him some tea. I heard something fall but wasn’t sure what it was, so I called out to him. When he did not reply, I came out to have a look. That’s when I saw him lying on the ground and his body jerking all over.’
She paused for a while. Her head was turned towards the orchid garden located at the rear of the sprawling compound, indicating to me where the incident occurred. We were sitting in the spacious verandah which the husband had built with his own hands. It was late afternoon of a bright and sunny day. A slight breeze was blowing and conditions were ideal for an afternoon nap, had it been different day. The verandah was constructed so that it faced open paddy fields, flat and green as far as the eye could see. In the distance, you could make out the balmy silhouette of Gunung Jerai, an imposing mountain overseeing acres of flat countryside. A truly magnificent view. I could well understand why my late friend had decided to uproot his city upbringing and settle down here. Indeed, it has become his final resting place.
My host turned back to me and continued, 'I was panicking at the time. I sought the help of some neighbours who took him to the hospital. He was there for one night but left us the following morning. Massive stroke, the doctor said. I informed as many of the relatives and friends as I could.’
She looked at me apologetically. 'I am sorry, I didn’t know how to get in touch with you. You went missing.’
It was my turn to say, ‘Don’t be. My fault.’
Amir and I had been very close friends while we were at university even though we studied different courses. We were housemates and shared many common interests, like movies and music. I was the best man at his wedding. I continued to be close to the couple for some time until their daughter was born. By that time, I was aspiring to start a family of my own but I wasn’t finding success in the courtship game. After two broken hearts, I took a job posting overseas and made myself oblivious to the happenings of friends or family back home. Two decades on, I decided to call it quits and come back. Amir and Maryam are the first friends in my Jejak Kasih list… and that’s why I am here now.
As I reminisce, a sweet young lady came to the verandah carrying a tray of hot tea and a plate of freshly-fried `cucur ikan bilis’ with some homemade chilli dip.
‘You remember this girl?’ Maryam asked me, as the young lady placed the refreshments on the table in front of us. She was of course, referring to their one and only daughter whom I last met when the girl was still a baby. Without waiting for my answer, she turned to address the girl, ‘Farah, this is the gentleman you have been asking about all those years ago. A very good friend of your father. The one in your baby photo where you’re sitting on his lap.’
I could see the young lady blushing. We exchanged pleasantries before she excused herself so that her mother and I could continue our conversation.
‘She’s all grown up now,’ I said. ‘How old is she? Twenty-one, twenty-two?’
Coming to twenty-three, her mother replied. ‘Amir told me that you were there during the time of her birth. And during the time when I was in that delicate state. I don’t think I had thanked you for keeping him company during that difficult time.’
I could have replied by saying that her thanks were not necessary, but kept silent because I could sense that she has more to say. There was a glint of tears at the corners of her eyes.
‘I had thought that my time has come. I would be leaving my husband and our little girl. But as you can see, it is Amir who has left us first.’
She wiped the tears from her eyes before they had a chance to fall down her cheeks.
‘I wish to tell you something… I hope you don’t mind. Something that happened during the time when I was in hospital. Except for Amir, I have not told this to anyone else. Not even to Farah.’
‘I don’t actually remember much of what happened during delivery. I must have passed out. But what I remember was the feeling of pain… intense pain. I really thought I was going to die. I kept praying to Allah Almighty… please, please take the pain away. Or if not, then please take me away. And then I remember the blankness. Cold and dark. And the pain came back again. It was like that, in cycles. I don’t know for how long.’
‘I thought I heard people whispering but all I could see were blurry figures. I thought some of the figures were beckoning me. I wanted to move and I wanted to speak but I couldn’t. And then it became dark and cold again.’
‘I heard a voice. A soft tone, not speaking but reciting. I recognized a phrase. Something familiar. “Salaamun kaullan mirabbir-rahim (peace, a word from a merciful Lord)”. Was I dreaming? I tried to open my eyes to see who was reciting those familiar lines… but I couldn’t. So I recited the words myself. Peace… and it felt peaceful, no longer that much pain. I think I drifted off to sleep.’
‘And then later, I don’t know how long, I heard the voice again. I fought hard to open my eyes. I saw a dim figure sitting by my bedside. When my eyes finally managed to focus, I saw that it was a middle-aged woman dressed in uniform. Not white like the other nurses but in light blue. She must be the head nurse or matron, I thought. She stopped her recitation when she saw me open my eyes. “Oh, you are awake,” I heard her say. “Praise be to Allah Almighty. They all thought you’ve gone, my dear… but I’m not one to be giving up so easily. I’m staying by your side until you come back.” I wanted to say thank you to her but my mouth just made mumbling sounds. She shushed me and told me to rest. “Go back to sleep, my dear. But don’t go too far. We’ll talk again tomorrow.” And I went back to sleep.’
‘The next day, or what I think to be the next day, I heard the soft voice again. This time I woke up quite easily and could see it was the matron of the night before. I manage to say the salaam and she replied in kind. I was able to speak a few words but she told me not to talk too much as I was still fairly weak. She then told me to continue to pray and be strong. Have the will to live, she said, because you have a beautiful daughter and a loving husband waiting for you at home. If you continue to recover like this, the doctors will let you go home in no time. It felt so wonderful to see a smiling face after those many hours of being in the dark and cold of nowhere. We chatted for a bit more before she advised me to go back to sleep. Before dozing off, I managed to look closely at the name-tag pinned to her uniform. Khadijah was her name. I managed to mumble a “Terima kasih, Kak Jah.” I heard her reply, “Sama-sama, Maryam” as she tucked me under the blanket and brushed my forehead with her nice warm hand.’
‘I finally recovered and later was allowed to go home where I saw my little girl for the first time. The most beautiful baby you’ll ever see. Amir told me that I had been in coma for five days. It was touch and go, he said. The doctors weren’t too confident that I would make it.’
‘I asked my husband to arrange to send some flowers to the hospital ward as a thank-you gift. On the accompanying card I wrote a brief note of appreciation to all the doctors and nurses for their good work. I made a special mention of gratitude to Matron Khadijah for being so kind and watching over me during the most trying period.’
‘A day after the flowers were sent, I got a call from the hospital. It was the Head Nurse who wanted to say that the flowers have been received. But she wanted to ask me something else. The matron by the name of Khadijah that I mentioned, could I describe her please? Well, I said, she’s middle-aged, slightly plump, fair skin, soft voice and the sweetest of smiles. Yes, that’s her, I heard the Head Nurse say. Well… if you know who she is, then why are you asking me?’
‘There was short silence. “Err… I’m sorry Puan Maryam, I’m just checking to be sure. Matron Khadijah is no longer with us.” What? I asked back. You mean she has resigned or retired? I just had a chat with her a few days ago.’
‘I heard the Head Nurse hesitating in her response. “Matron Khadijah works… err, I mean used to work with us. But she is no longer here. She died of breast cancer, five years ago…”’