The Speed of Life Under an Angry God
By Phyllis C Koppel
The half-packed suitcase is left open on the bed. I wonder if it will be there when we return from the shelter, when the sirens finish wailing and when it is safe to continue packing. I don’t know if my house will be bombed to pieces, or if we can return to our lives as they were; mine is in such flux.
After making sure my two teenage daughters have their gas masks on properly, I don mine and text my husband: into the shelters again. No reception for a while.
In the dark, deep underground, I hug Maya and Orisi in each arm, convincing myself that this is the best sendoff my family can have. Soon, we will be Canada-bound and out of this hellhole. Away from looking like prehistoric birds when we wear our gasmasks and away from keeping our homes darkened when air raids are imminent.
However, I will also be far from the city that shaped and nourished me. The city where I owned my own surgery, Scar Recovery, and fixed the many casualties of war it produced. The city where I raised a beautiful family, even if Moishe and I are not married. After nearly 25 years together, we plan to marry in Canada. A small, civil affair where I will wear a pretty summer dress. My father would have been so proud but, he succumbed to his disease after a fight that lasted too long. This is also the city where I wanted to finish my master’s degree in philosophy, but the many distractions didn’t allow me.
In the shelter, I imagine that the explosions in the sky are fireworks congratulating us for taking this big step forward and the detonations are cannon-salutes, bidding us farewell, wishing us luck in this grand adventure. I cannot imagine my life in Canada but, certainly, it will not be lived underground. Well, perhaps during winter’s cruelest months.
Due to the air raids, the airport is closed when we are to flee. We are able to get out the following day, during the two hours that the airport is open. The flight over the dark ocean is a haze. This move has taken over a year in planning and, now that it is happening, I am drained. I fly in a void.
The speed of life amplifies the moment we land in Toronto. From our hotel, we look for a school for Maya and help Orisi enter her first year in university. We write our signature more times in one day than we have in our lifetimes.
After finding the perfect apartment in the heart of downtown, Moishe and I start looking for our new destinies. It takes weeks, but finally my Scar clinic is ready for private patients; now all I have to do is find clients. I have ideas.
Also important to me is to establish a relationship with a university. Because of the bombings back home, I was unable to complete my thesis: Proponents of the Weak God Theory, but I am determined to do so.
Back home, I spent any spare moment I had pouring over the writings of philosophers who believed God to be weak. I cannot explain my attraction to the topic, but I have been pursuing it for years. I will not stop until I get a diploma to validate my determination.
In the lull between settling into a new routine and finding employment, my body starts to feel the effects of living under stress in a new climate. Thankful that my new home provides excellent health care, I take myself to a walk-in clinic to get my highly advertised flu shot.
“Welcome, I am Dr. Ngyiu. Where does it hurt?”
“I’m here for the flu shot. It’s been hectic and I’ve let my body run down, doctor,” I do not attempt his name.
“I see. Where are you from?”
“The Middle East.” He also is from somewhere else but I feel I am not allowed to ask him the same question.
“You are not used to our climate, eh? Don’t worry. I’ll get you fixed in no time.”
Always weary of needles, I look away as he plunges the serum into my veins. I cringe. A sharp pain crosses my belly.
“Are you OK?”
“Yes. Just nerves, I guess. I hate needles. I’ve had a very rough year.”
“How so?” He rubs the small hole he has created in my skin with alcohol.
“Well…my family and I are new immigrants and finding a new home, new school for the girls and the daunting prospect of looking for jobs has left me a little…ugh.”
“What is happening?”
“It’s nothing. Butterflies, I think they call it.”
“Yes. I feel queasy. It’s the stress. Just before coming to Canada, I lost my father to cancer. The butterflies are, a cumulative effect.”
“It was hard to see him go so suddenly; pancreatic cancer.”
“The silent—are you certain you are ok?”
That feeling of being squeezed from inside out has returned.
“Have you been feeling like this long?” the doctor squints his eyes.
“On and off…since my father died.”
“Tell you what…just as a precaution, I am sending you to get an MRI. Make sure everything is as it should. The vaccine will protect you from most of this year’s viruses, so you should be raring to find that dream job in no time!”
It is unnecessary for me to call the clinic for results. The following day, I am summoned to the hospital. I learn that the doctor found a cyst on my pancreas. An operation is necessary to find out its type.
Two days later, doctors are busy cutting me open, allowing oxygen to blend with organs never designed to breathe the stuff. The operation is terminated prematurely when the surgeon discovers that my cancer has metastasized. Stage four.
After having every tube, vein and orifice in my body mangled, manipulated and misshaped, I am unable to eat. No matter how much I try, I cannot get strong enough to get my first chemo session.
Moishe announces he will start cooking macrobiotic dishes because, research shows, has given great results to cancer patients. I look at him and realize that his fear has overshadowed his discretion. This is the moment when my status in society shifts; I have now moved from active and productive citizen to sick and helpless patient.
In the middle of a blizzard, Moishe is out gathering natural and organic food, when the reality of our situation hits him. Hard. He passes out and breaks his hip.
With a surgical zipper running the length of my abdomen, I sit in bed and stare at the blinding snow outside. I see nothing but light, reminding me of the shelter back home where I saw nothing but dark; the feeling is the same. It is a feeling beyond helplessness, further than rejection and stronger than survival. I feel my will, naked and vulnerable, and I know I have hit rock bottom.
My family has nobody to cook, clean or run the endless errands that life sucks out of us in order to carry on. My daughters, my precious princesses, are busy with their studies. I know they will soar. Once they find friends. Once they learn to cope with winter. It has been difficult for them to assimilate; apparently teenagers are not the same the world over.
Maya is clinically depressed, borderline, and Orisi suffers from identity issues, so I must protect them and not be like my mother who thought that maintaining her position amongst friends was more important than her family. No, I vowed never to be like my mother who left my brothers and me to fend mostly for ourselves while she and dad did the social rounds. For my own family, I have done everything. I have given my daughters all the love, support and freedom they need to grow happy. I have lived my life vicariously through them. We are inextricably woven of the same sensitive material.
I shelter them from the monster that chews me inside. Instead, I have told them I suffer from kidney stones which have to be removed. I do not allow them to come visit me in hospital; they may make the connection when they realize I am in oncology. When I go for chemo, I shall tell them the doctors might have found something and further testing is needed. When I come back sick and debilitated, I’ll curse because nobody seems to know what they are doing. I shall grumble because instead of getting better they are making me sicker. But now, with Moishe in a walker and in more pain than I have ever seen him, I know there is no plan for us here on Earth.
For us, there will be no walking into the sunset, holding hands. Instead, we shall be tossed into the fire to burn, alongside my finished thesis: Proponents of the Angry God Theory.