I packed up all my things getting ready to go back home for the weekend. My eyes fell on a small drawing of a man, woman and a young boy and girl, taped onto the clinic wall. I do not know what happened to them, although it was I that drew them from my memory. I just know that I wish I had more time.
I pushed back my chair like I always do at the end of the day. I wasn’t tired. I liked knowing that I was helping sick people and trying to give them hope even when I knew they wouldn’t make it through the night. The hope of survival matters more than feeling destitute and hopeless.
I am Naseem Herman, and the people that rescued me said that I was Syrian. I was given a new identity, but my first name remained the same, giving me the thinnest string to hold on to my past. The people had pitied me, because there was nobody to take care of me, and my village or camp was completely cleared from any life at all. Except for me of course. I survived, but how I did is a mystery. I will not call it a miracle because I was wrenched from my family. I don't remember much of my past. Just flashes.
Unlike most people, my childhood was made up of mere fragments of memories: her musical voice, his hearty laugh, a clatter of a metal cup. That’s pretty much all my brain had to offer from my childhood. It was disappointing and challenging growing up, and adolescence had been particularly painful. But now I had begun to accept it, at least I thought I had. I got up from my chair with a heavy heart. I made my way out of the room, greeting the nurse on my way out. I slumped in the driver’s seat of my car, and drove home.
I parked my car in the garage and handed my housekeeper, who was standing at the door waiting for me, my suitcase. He helped me take my coat off. “Dinner is ready, sir,” he said.
“Thank you, James,” I said. “Will you be joining me tonight?”
“It will be my pleasure, sir,” he replied, and tottered away, his old head bobbing up and down as he went. I always asked James to join me for dinner, because he didn’t dare ask himself.
I turned the shower on, feeling the heat on my skin. I slowly turned the heat up because it reminded me of home for some reason. I had everything a man could possibly need; a secure and well-paying job, a nice house, the kindest housekeeper in the world. I didn’t want to have a wife or children. Living with me would be too much of a burden on them. I barely knew myself. How could someone else possibly have any relationship with me, when I don't even know who I am?
I asked James about his day, and told him about mine. After dinner I went up to my room. I prayed every night for my family, even though all the praying in the world couldn’t save them from their fate. I was convinced that miracles do not happen for this reason. But still, I prayed.
Lying in bed I thought about the patients I treated for free. I wasn’t trying to be a saint of sorts but I knew I came from a low-income family and I wanted to help other people like me, as a tribute to my past.
Pulling my drawer out, I reached around for a business card that I was supposed to call if ever I had problems that affected my mental well-being. This was a ritual of mine, a habit. I’d let my hand stumble through the contents of my drawer to finally come to rest in the far end, where I’d feel the cool feel of the card. But this time I found myself taking it out. I was looking at the card in my hand trying to figure out what I wanted. I dialled the number.
“Hello, this is Mitchell Anderson,” answered a voice. A voice I wouldn’t be able to recall but one I recognised immediately — the voice of my childhood. It sounded raspier now.
I opened my mouth to reply. What I was about to hear would either heal or scar me forever.
“Uh, hello…it’s Naseem. Naseem Herman.” I had told parents that their child was terminal without a stutter but here I was, more nervous than I had ever been before. There was silence on the other side.
“So how’s life treating you?” he asked. I fell silent. How could he remember after all these years? How could he even recognise me?
“Not fine,” I replied. As a doctor, I had learned not to lie about problems.
“Why else would you call me, huh?” He chuckled and sighed. “You should think about this. Some things are best left alone, you know?”
I nodded although he couldn’t see me. I wasn’t ready. “I’ll call you back,” I said.
“Okay, kid,” said Mitchell. I ended the call feeling confused and more lost than when I was before I called Mitchell. I sighed. It stung like barbed wire on bare skin.
I stared at the ceiling in a whir of emotions and thoughts. Mitchell’s words echoed in my head. “Some things are best left alone, you know?” Why had I been so afraid? How had I managed to tell parents about their child’s illness without even a hint of the soreness that I felt inside, and still stuttered when I was about to know the answers that had haunted me for so long? Did that mean I was selfish? Was I a bad doctor? After hours of torture and tossing and turning, I finally fell asleep. I did not know that I had fallen asleep until I woke up.
Last night’s sleep had been of no use to me. I was just as tired as I was when I came back home from work. I watched the brightening sky through the window as I lay in bed. Usually this would be comforting and also my favourite part of the day. However, it didn’t offer the same consolation as it always did. And then I began questioning my existence. I watched the sun, changing the hues of everything around it as it rose. It was quite a while until I realised how mentally draining this whole ordeal was. I know I needed a break from running — break from running from the truth. I had to find my true self. I helped people as much as I could, but first, I had to help myself. I had to rescue my own self. I swung my legs off the bed fuelled with my new-found motivation. I wasn’t someone that got urges to do something different, so while this feeling lasted I was going to make the best out of it.
A week later, I found myself at my door. Things had progressed quickly; I took leave for a month from my job, managed to make a booking at a small meditation centre a few thousand miles away, and now I was leaving. I left James in charge of the place, and knowing it was going to be one lonely month, I let his family come over for while I was away. “Have a good stay, sir,” said James in his usual, courteous tone. “Thank you for letting me have my family over, sir,” he said for probably the hundredth time now.
“Stay safe, James,” I said with a smile. I stepped down onto the doorstep and instead of walking with my head down low, I looked up at what lay in front of me.
I walked down the driveway, and this time I wasn’t going to look back.