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There are three cats in this story: two dead; one dying, then dead. There is one man. Also dying, then dead. This is a true story.
The man was a father. My father. A father of four. A husband of one. A son of two, both dead years when he saw them on the afternoon before the night he finished dying. He howled as he stared at the blank cream wall and called their names, his skin and bones held up by my arms.
But before that last day in December was the first day in September, the day the doctor told us he was dying. Although, I can assume, he’d been doing it for a good while before this without our knowledge. That day, before the countdown started, I drove past the first dead cat on our way to the hospital, the white one with its blood boiling inside it in the 1:30 PM Dubai sun.
Okay, I may have lied to you. I don’t actually know if the white cat was dead when I saw it. But I have said it was so because it is easier for me to think of it that way. It will be easier for you too, really. And we have no way of checking now, so shall we agree that it was dead when I saw it?
The white cat had, before I saw it, run across the busy road outside the hospital and been hit by a car. It had dragged itself to the central island and that’s where it lay, dead on baking concrete, as I drove past to do a U-turn for the hospital. And all the while the doctor was talking, I thought of the cat, getting hotter and hotter in the afternoon sun.
I’m sorry about the things that happen in this story, but nothing can go right if someone must deteriorate enough to die before the new year. It is a marvel how the body complies, takes the doctor’s prognosis of months to live as writ and gets working on its muscles. It’s odd I didn’t notice the process, my eyes short-circuited by the other sense, the one that heard him say he’d live. While I didn’t see him waste away, just found he could no longer walk one day, no longer sit up another, no longer eat on his own, I tracked the second cat’s decomposition. I spotted the tortoiseshell on the central reservation of the Dubai-Al Ain Highway, where no one took her away, although I have seen cleaners on this road often. On one of my daily drives between the two cities from November to December, I drove two of them dressed in their hi-vis orange to where their bus would have dropped them off about ten kilometres from where they’d missed it. They sat on the back seat and I spoke to them a little but thought a lot about how my father would not approve of this. But he was sick now and I was sure that I’d do many things in the years to come that he would not approve. And although I was ashamed to feel it, joy tinged my sadness.
We moved my father to Al Ain for the radiation treatment that swelled his brain and ended his life; he is buried there now, and although he doesn’t know it, and we didn’t choose it, the graveyard is an awesome place. He is under red sand, in the shade of a rocky hill, and in the winter, rain grows grass on the older graves. This graveyard is not far from the highway, the one I drove down every day in that last month of his life. On this road, I saw the tortoiseshell in November, freshly dead. And every day I looked out for the work of the sun and the worms and whatever else made up the ecosystem of death that shrunk her until she was flat enough to be no more than a raised patch of brown I drove past at 135km/hr. She was my companion, that cat. And in the six years that I have travelled on that road since, I look out for her, there on the border where Dubai gives way to Al Ain. Although there is nothing there, I know the place where her bones collapsed into the sand.
When I think of my father, I no longer startle myself when I notice that I am thinking of those two cats, instead, or of Heisenberg, who was put down the day after my father died. Heisenberg, named so by the teachers where my husband worked, chose the school’s science block as his home. He’d fall asleep on the lab coats in classroom cabinets or stretch out on prep-room sofas, always around, soft and wonderful to stroke. My husband brought him home in December, the year before my father and Heisenberg’s last December, because we were worried he’d get locked into one of the classrooms over the holidays. He never left.
Heisen was a gentle tabby. A lover of belly rubs and food. He was easy to love and undemanding, and became even more so in the month I travelled every day to Al Ain. I didn’t have time for him. I promised every evening that I would take him to the vet the next day. Our local vet had recently treated him with steroids and it hadn’t helped. I had to find a better one who could run more tests.
There is a saying where my parents come form that animals take on the illness of their loved ones. But in this saying, the loved one survives, remains unharmed, while the animal sacrifices itself. Heisen tried, I think, but how many wildly-multiplying cells can one cat take on? There are still so many left over for the man.
I wasn’t with my father the night he died. After that afternoon of howling, he had settled down, he looked almost peaceful, so I decided not to stay, as I did on nights I was worried. I didn’t even intend to come back first thing. I was going to take Heisen to the vet in the morning, be in Al Ain by midday.
As it turned out, I did take Heisen to the vet, but much earlier than I’d planned, after the phone call from my brother that woke me at 1:45 AM. The emergency services had come and gone by then, my sister had performed CPR, my brother had explained to the policemen, who laughed and gossiped as they attended my father’s death, that he had died of cancer. It was all over when my brother called, so I tried to save Heisen instead. I took him to the emergency vet who informed me on the phone that I’d have to deposit 2000 dirhams before they’d treat him. At the examining table, I said to the admission nurse, Heisenberg hates the carrier, but today he just let me put him in there – I think he knew I was trying to help him. And she replied, “It’s nothing like that. He’s unwell and doesn’t have the energy to fight.” She didn’t know my father was newly dead. Perhaps if she did, if she knew I was on my way to wake up my uncle, who I’d only a few hours ago dropped off at his house, and that we were going to drive down to Al Ain in the middle of the night to witness an empty bed where my father had lain, she would not have been unkind.
The vet called me the next morning, while we were waiting for the call from the coroner to clear us of wrongdoing. He said he had bad news, explained that Heisen’s laboured breathing was caused by plural effusion. He began to describe it in non-scientific terms, but I laughed. Said he didn’t need to. It was my father’s breathing that had led to the first hospital stay and the first time I’d ever heard him yelp as the doctor from cardio fitted a chest tube. This was 10th November, only days after he had driven to my place where we celebrated his final birthday. There’s a photo of us from that day. I put it on Facebook many months later when I could bear to tell people. Everyone said I look like him. I’d heard this before, but it was in that photo that I really did resemble him, curling into myself, looking small and afraid behind a smile.
The vet talked about cancer in the intestine, in the lungs, in the lymph nodes. Everywhere. He spoke of weeks to live and I agreed that I would come back tomorrow to talk about it in person. I was assured that Heisen was dosed up and comfortable. I didn’t see Heisen the next day. My husband and I spoke to the vet, agreed that Heisen would be put to sleep, that I wasn’t a bad person for not being there when it happened. I allowed myself this because, come on, my father has just died. We are burying him today. I still have to drive all the way to Al Ain this morning. I still have to look at the tortoiseshell along the way. And, anyway, I didn’t need to see Heisen one last time, I could see my father, instead, wheeled out of cold-storage and terrible to the touch.
The dying was done and the death complete. And the living continue to untangle the mess that is left behind when those we love exit this way. But I will not end this story with my grief. Instead, in this story about a man I loved, and three cats, I will leave you with dearest Heisen, the gentle creature whose ashes my husband buried under Heisen’s favourite tree at school, a bougainvillea that flowers bright pink and spreads wide.
About Aiysha Jahan
Aiysha Jahan is a writer and teacher who has lived in Dubai, South Africa and Pakistan. The UK is currently home, where she teaches creative writing and helps develop projects that support young and under-represented writers. She has co-founded Write Beyond Borders, a mentoring project that brings together established and new South Asian writers. She has been published in Wasafiri, Shades of Noir and elsewhere. Her work is forthcoming in The Threepenny Review.