By Wilma Seville
The sound of a key turning in the lock alerted the white cat first. Ears quivering, he padded to the apartment door. Saleem reached down to stroke the soft white fur.
“Assalamu Alaikum Saleem, I didn’t hear you come in – sorry.” Ayesha said as she gave her husband a hug. “How was your day?
“It could have been better, I got some bad news,” he replied quietly.
“What did you say, I didn’t hear you?”
“Never mind, we’ll talk about it after supper.”
Saleem's stout frame filled the green high back chair. Saleem peeled his wet socks off, wiggling his toes to warm them, before inching them into his fleece-lined slippers. He was soon joined by the cat. His purring soothed his wounded spirit.
The delicious smell of fried onions and ginger wafting from the gallery kitchen gave him a momentary sense of peace. Shock and a sense of unreality gripped him in a firm grasp, shaking him to his very core, as he realized fully that his employment would be terminated at the end of the month – only a few days away. His employment insurance and severance pay would not last.
Emotions swirled within him; despair, hopelessness, and sadness. The frigid cold outside, his bad news, seemed to reach into the very marrow of his bones as he wrestled with what to do.
He remembered how long it had taken him to get a job in Accounting. It had been tough the first few years, he had had to drive taxis, and do odd jobs. They chose Scarborough with its Mosque and Islamic School, its Indian grocery stores and so many people from South Asia within its borders.
He was out driving, picking up passengers when the call came for a job interview as a Junior Accountant in a multi-national company. His interview was scheduled for the next afternoon.
The ad he had answered had read, “Applicant must be currently enrolled in a CA, CGA, or CMA program and working towards completion of it”. He had been studying for the designation of C.G.A. for the last three years, part time. Thankfully, his credentials from Pakistan had exempted him from some of the courses.
Over the five years he had worked for the company, he had done his best and when a position came available as a Senior Accountant, he was chosen to fill it. Things had turned out well.
The children were happy and doing well in school. He and Ayesha had made friends at the Mosque and in the neighbourhood. Both of them felt that their financial sacrifice to send the children to Islamic School was worth it, knowing that they would be well grounded in academic and religious studies.
The purring sound of Billoo and the familiar smells of home, soothed him, his eyelids drooped. He was emotionally exhausted. A little rest was all he could hope for before he broke the news. His mind drifted back to when he was a boy. He saw his Mom and Grandmother smiling a welcome to him as he returned home after school. His Dad, returning home from work from his office job, greeting them with “Assalamu Alaikum.” His Dad, who passed away two years after they arrived in Canada, had been the quiet strength of the family.
He owed so much to him, he had supported his decision to stay in school and learn Accounting. How he wished he could talk to him right now.
With a start, his little rest over, he heaved himself out of the chair, disrupting Billoo’s purring. “Where are the children Ayesha?”
Ayesha, her long black hair pulled back from her face, wiped her hands on her apron as she said, “They’re down the hall visiting the Shaikh family. I’m amazed how they can text each other, and yet have so much to talk about in person. In all my 45 years, I’ve never seen such a thing. At home we didn’t even have a phone. Even if we had, we would never have been allowed to waste so much time.
Saleem, you just have enough time to pray Maghrib Salat. The kids will be home shortly and then we’ll eat.”
His time of prayer was interrupted by the slam of the apartment door. Ayesha, her finger over her lips quietly said to Ayub and Nor as they came into the kitchen. “Ssh, Dad’s praying Maghrib salat. He’ll be finished in a minute.”
Saleem arose from the floor and folded his prayer mat neatly, smiling as he saw his children.
“Assalamu Alaikum Dad. Mom, what’s for dinner?”
"It’s karhai gosht tonight.”
“Beef stew, you know how I hate that.” Ayub’s round face wrinkled as his nose smelled the familiar spices. Can’t we ever have fries and hamburgers?”
“You’ll eat what’s put in front of you Ayub, just be thankful that you have food!”
After dinner, the twins went to their rooms and started their homework.
Saleem seized the opportunity to speak privately with his wife. “Ayesha please, come and sit down. I had some terrible news today.”
Ayesha sat down opposite him, her brow wrinkling, concern written all over her face. “What is it Saleem?”
“I’ve been laid off. It’s going to be tough to get another job at my age. We’ve got some savings and with my severance pay, I’d like to start an accounting firm.” Saleem said.
“Who would be your clients? We don’t know that many people here,” Ayesha stammered.
Clearing his throat, Saleem answered. “There are many small businesses run by South Asians, who may wish to contract out their bookkeeping. I can build up my clientele this way. I already have several clients who wish to stay with me when I leave. This might be our chance for a better life.
Ayesha’s expressive face reflected her uneasy mood. She tried to put a positive spin on their financial status.
“Well, one good thing is that the kids will be going to High School in September and so the expense of Islamic School will be over soon. Saleem, we’ve been saving so hard to put a down payment on a house. Can’t we do that first? Now that you have Canadian experience, it should be easier to get a job where there is security and benefits. If you went into business for yourself, it’s very risky.”
“Ayesha, I know it’s a gamble, but sometimes risk has to be taken for a better future. I realize that we have been saving every penny to buy a house here, but that may have to wait. The alternative is to look in a less expensive area, like Malton or Bramptom.
“I really want to buy here Saleem. I feel comfortable here, the Mosque is only one bus ride away, I see lots of people dressed like me, and shopping is easy with the different Indian grocery stores. I don’t want to start new in another area. You’re asking too much from me! I moved from Pakistan because you thought the children would have a better future here. I hated to leave my friends and family behind. I’m so lonely at home, with you and the kids gone all day. Now you’re talking about more change. I’ve had enough change to last a lifetime?”
Ayesha, tears streaming down her face, rushed into the bedroom, throwing herself on the bed. He followed her and quietly closed the door so the children would not hear.
“Ayesha, be reasonable, let’s talk about it. I’m trying to think what’s best for all of us, can’t you see that?”
A stony silence met his words. If she had looked up, she would have seen his utter look of dejection as he left the room.
He felt dizzy, his chest felt like a heavy weight on it, his heart was racing and beads of perspiration flowed down his face. He staggered over to his chair almost sitting on Billoo who jumped up with a hiss.
“Ayesha, help me.”
His call to his wife went unanswered.
Ayub heard the faint call, as he sprinted into the room, closely followed by Nor.
“Nor, get Mom! She must not have heard.Dad, Dad, can you hear me? What’s wrong?” Nor, get going – get Mom!”
His hands shaking in his haste, he punched in 911 on his cell phone, gave the address and buzz code and continued to call his Dad’s name. He felt numb with shock, he’d never seen his Dad looking so ill.
“Nor, such commotion, why are you banging on the door? I’m trying to rest here!”
“Mom, it’s Dad, come quick!” Nor blurted out, tears running down her face.
Agitated, Ayesha ran into the sitting room, her knees buckling as she saw her husband gasping for breath, his hand on his chest.
“Saleem, Saleem, oh what have I done? Hang in there, help is coming.”
The harsh sound of the buzzer jolted the distraught family as Ayub ran to the door to open it. Burly firefighters arrived first with the oxygen, followed closely by the para-medics.
Saleem was transferred onto the narrow stretcher, the oxygen mask already in place, and was transported by elevator to the waiting ambulance. Sirens screaming – their destination, Scarborough General Hospital.
Hospital routine took over. A nurse put in an I.V. drip, put the oxygen line gently into his nose and gave him two baby aspirin. Then she took some blood.
“We’ll be doing an electrocardiogram as soon as the technician comes.” The lights overhead, the hum of the E.R. lulled Saleem into a half sleep as they waited for the doctor to arrive.
“Mr. Choudhry, we want to keep you in for three to five days just to run some more tests on your heart. Your blood work has to be taken every eight hours for the next twenty-four. It will be awhile before you go up to the ward. No point in your wife staying.”
Ayesha, her feet dragging from tiredness, made her way to the hospital entrance to get a cab. As soon as she got home, she dialed her brother-in-law’s number in Pakistan.
“Asher, it’s Ayesha calling. Saleem is in the hospital emergency right now. The doctor’s think he may have had a heart attack and are keeping him in for a few days. They asked a lot of questions about family history. I need you to tell me if there are any heart problems in your family.”
A moment of silence met her outburst as he digested the news about his brother.
“Asher, are you there? I know this is a real shock but I need your help so I can tell the doctors.”
Realizing that he needed a moment to collect his agitated thoughts, Ayesha continued to talk to him.
“You would have been so proud of Ayub, he called 911 and got his Dad the help he needed. He kept gasping for air and clutching his heart. None of us have ever seen him like that. It was so frightening.
You know your brother, he’s always so calm and knows what to do.”
“Okay Ayesha, I was just thinking while you were talking. There have been some rather strange things happen on our side of the family. Do you remember Abdul, our first cousin? You and Saleem were newly married. He was engaged to be married himself and the whole family was really excited as they liked the girl whom his mother picked out for him. Can you recall that he was exercising one day and he just dropped dead? It was a terrible shock and all the doctors could tell us was that his heart just stopped for no apparent reason. Also, we had Great Uncle Bilal who lived in a small village, he was as healthy as an ox, but one day his wife found him lifeless on the floor. It was the talk of the whole village that she had probably poisoned him. Everybody knew they didn’t get along. Fortunately for her, the doctor squashed those rumors. I guess it was the suddenness of it all and you know how people will talk! Nobody knows for sure what the problem is, even the doctors don’t know, but both of these men, their hearts just stopped.”
“I didn’t know about your great uncle but I do remember about your cousin. It was so shocking. He was so young. I’m afraid for Saleem now. Please pray for him. I feel so alone, I wish you all were here. I’ll be in touch soon.Assalamau Aleikum.”
Ayesha lay on her double bed, her mind tormented as images of Saleem played through her mind. Oh why had she been so hard on him?
All this had taken place while Saleem was waiting for a bed upstairs in the Cardiac Care Unit. It was after midnight by the time he got one.
He spent a restless night, his mind in a turmoil. His Dad had supported all of them, including his elderly mother. He had only his wife and the twins to look after. In the morning, his resolve stiffened by this memory, he borrowed the paper from his roommate, Mr. Cohen.
Determined eyes scanned the want ads, but found nothing that would suit. Later that morning, Saleem felt like a pin cushion, as he was prodded, pricked and x-rayed. He knew Mr. Cohen was going home and wondered who his new roommate might be.
The lunch trays were just arriving, when Saleem was brought back to his room. An elderly man, with a lined face, thick white hair and brown skin lay in the bed next to his. His voice weak, the newcomer introduced himself as Ahmed Naqvi, originally from the Punjab.
Saleem felt drawn to him as he had the same gentleness in his manner, as his father once did. He looked about the same age he would have been had he lived. Casually chatting, they quickly established a bond in their favourite sport, “cricket”. Saleem wondered if he could confide in the old man.
His decision made, he took the plunge and explained his plan for the future. Had the old man heard him at all? His eyes were closed and he didn’t respond. Perhaps it was just as well, after all, what could he do anyway?
His nose in his book, Saleem heard his roommate speaking to him. He had heard after all.
“My friend, Mr. Ahmed, has a son who is searching for an Punjabi speaking accountant to become a partner in the business? He would require some investment. Shall I ask him about it for you?”
Having received a grateful thanks, Mr. Navqi, his arthritic hands deformed, painfully punched in his old friend’s number on the phone beside his bed. The two oldsters spoke of family, friends and cricket, before the purpose of the call was revealed.
He’ll call his son right now. He thinks the position is still open as it has not been advertised yet.
Arrangements were made for the two men to come in that same evening.
After school, Ayesha and the twins arrived with plans of their own.
“Saleem, I have a suggestion which I hope you will agree with. You know I learned to be a hairdresser before we married. I may need to update my skills somewhat but I could do part time work in this. I loved hairdressing. I really would enjoy working part time. I hope you’ll agree?”
Ayub, his boyish face lit up, chimed in with his plans as well.
“Dad. Nor and I are old enough to get part time jobs. I saw an ad for a paperboy in our neighbourhood. I’d like to try that. Nor said she wouldn’t mind babysitting for some of the families in our building. We want to help.”
Saleem felt so proud of his family, pulling together in this time of need. It seemed to him that Ayesha was reaching out to him and might even be willing to relocate, if needed.
“I’m so proud of you all. I like all your ideas.
He gave the twins a hug and clasped his wife’s hand.
“I had some great news this morning. My tests were negative but the doctors want to run one more test tomorrow before letting me go home. They’re not sure what caused this problem but think it may have been a panic attack. The doctor told me the symptoms are very similar to heart attacks.”
With tears in her eyes, Ayesha patted his arm. “Thank Allah, this is the best news!
Nor, the quiet one, chimed in with “Billoo misses you Dad, he sits on your chair waiting for you. She quickly hugged him and mumbled, “I miss you too.”
Tonight, Mr. Navqi’s friend’s son will come in to discuss a partnership with me. The only problem is that the office is in Malton. If we hit it off, and my clients keep their promise to come with me, then I’m willing to drive to Malton every day.
This way, Ayesha, we can remain in Scarborough as you wish.
It’s a long drive but I’ll do it.
We’re family after all, and we’ll work it out.
By Wilma Seville