Beirut

Chapter Two: A Wake-up Call

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In the dying days of 2015, I was abruptly wrenched out of life as usual.

Somewhat perversely for someone who had made his life in the eastern Mediterranean, both my partner and I love the cold and the snow, so we’d decided that Iceland would be an excellent place to unwind, get a proper winter fix, and usher in the New Year. 

Arriving on the 24th of December to heavy snow and temperatures of -20C, we thought we’d stumbled into Paradise. Reykjavik was aglow, its narrow streets decorated for Christmas. Renting a car, we set about exploring the country, which for the most part, lay under a thick, white mantle. Shutterbugs both, we spent our days hopping in and out of the car, trudging along frozen shores and up icy hills, breath freezing in the air, cheeks burning, taking photos until our camera batteries seized up from the cold. Every day felt like a genuine discovery, as each bend in the road and every hill we crested seemed to reveal some new and breath-taking panorama. 

I had been checking my email intermittently since landing, but one afternoon in the wilds of eastern Iceland, my phone pinged. It was an email from my nephew telling me that my family had been trying to get hold of me for days. Because I’d been using a local SIM card and wanting to get away, hadn’t given anyone my temporary number, they’d been unable to reach me and so finally had resorted to email. It seemed my mother had fallen ill and had been hospitalised.

We hadn’t spoken for almost ten years. My mother and I had always had a very difficult relationship and finally, in the face of seemingly irreconcilable differences, it had fallen apart in the raw, bruised months after the 2006 War. Still, this sounded serious, so I phoned my nephew to find out what had happened. We were driving through an area where the signal was spotty, but after a few dropped calls, I managed to get through. He didn’t have details, but he told me where my mother was being treated and gave me a number. This turned out to be for the hospital switchboard. After another series of dropped calls, running out of credit as I was finally being transferred and an equally fraught online recharge, by the time I got through to the ward where she was being treated, I was told that my mother had just been sedated. I had also missed her doctor, but he would be back later that afternoon. Could I call again in a couple of hours? 

Changing our plans, we headed back to Reykjavik, and as soon as I arrived, I called the hospital. The charge nurse was reluctant to tell me anything over the phone, as my mother hadn’t listed anyone as her next of kin. It was only when I explained that I was her only child, that I was not in the UK and that my parents were divorced that she relented. She explained that my mother was being treated for stomach cancer and that she was now awake but still sedated and so she wasn’t always coherent. With that, the nurse put my mother on the phone. 

The conversation that followed was disjointed and surreal. Often, my mother would get confused and forget who I was. Soon we were both crying and apologising, me for my stubbornness, she for hers, both of us for being too proud to make amends earlier. I told her it didn’t matter, that the past was the past. I promised I would get on the next flight and be with her as soon as possible. She said she was tired and in a great deal of pain. understandably, she sounded terrified. I told her to get some rest and regain her strength and that we could talk more comfortably once I got to the hospital. I didn’t know it then, but this would be the last conversation of any length we would have.

Getting to England was easier said than done. I spent the next hour trying to change my return flight but it was December 30th and with New Year approaching, the airline had no seats in any class until the 7thof January. Once again, I decided to buy a new ticket, instead.

But flights out of Reykjavik were chock full. Everyone wanted to leave at the same time. I managed to find a ticket on a flight leaving on the 2nd that would have bounced me from Iceland to New York to Paris to London and then finally to Birmingham, but it was a 48-hour odyssey that would have landed me in Birmingham 2 hours before another direct flight on the 4th. So I waited. Better to arrive fresh.

When I got to the hospital in Birmingham that morning, the doctor was blunt. My mother was in the final stages. She wasn’t going home again. In fact, he thought she might well be dead by the end of the day.

“If you have anything you’d like her to know, now would be the time to tell her,” he explained, as gently as he could. “And it would be better it you try to prepare relatives and friends, as well.”

By now, Mum wasn’t speaking much. Drifting in and out of consciousness, she could manage a few words at a time, but the effort was visibly exhausting. The first thing we both did was to cry and apologise again and I spent the rest of the day at her bedside, listening to her breathing becoming more and more laboured, and her gaze unfocussed.

She didn’t die that night. In fact, she would hold on for almost four days. Pouring all her remaining energy into staying alive, she became increasingly unable to speak. I sat squeezing her hand, talking to her, without knowing if she could hear me or understand what I was saying.

If her silence was unsettling, so were Mum’s infrequent bouts of conversation, chiefly for their drugged incoherence. The bustling, lively woman I knew as an adult lay motionless, so thoroughly immobilised by pain and drugs that most of the time, she wasn’t even able to turn her head. Watching her disappear, our endless fights and disagreements, so real and so hurtful at the time, were now revealed for what they had been, empty and meaningless. How had we allowed words to tear us apart? We had both wasted so much time. 

Over the course of those last few days together, I think we managed to reach peace. Any grudges I still held had vanished the day I called from Reykjavik, and judging by the way my mother cried when I walked into her hospital room, hers had too.

There were other people who needed to make their own peace with Dorothy Mabel Eileen Singh, for in the course of our decade of estrangement, my proud, stubborn mother had managed to alienate everyone. None of her relatives or friends, with the exception of one dogged acquaintance in Birmingham and my nephew in Calcutta, were still talking to her. One by one, I called got those I could on the phone and holding the receiver to her ear, encouraged them make peace with a woman who was less able to respond with every passing hour. 

Just after 2am on January 8th, my mother died. Ironically, she had always hated the number 8, saying that it was her unlucky number. Once, she had even refused to move into a house my father had found in Carlisle because it was the 18th on the street. My first thought, though, indeed the one thought that had kept running through my mind over the course of those last four days with her, was that I needed to get moving. Metaphorically and literally.  

My life had been going nowhere for a long time. I’d known for years that I was locked in a holding pattern but I’d allowed my fear to hold me back. As I watched my mother fade, her restless, wandering spirit betrayed, trapped by a body that refused to play along, all I could think was that I needed to get up and go. I had to walk, to run, to move, to dance, to do anything, in fact, that affirmed my incredible good fortune to be both able and alive. 

And so once the necessary phone calls were made, family informed and the post-mortem procedures initiated, my first conscious act was to log onto the website of the Lebanese Mountain Trail Association. 

Five minutes later, I was signed up for their month-long spring walkthrough along Lebanon’s first national hiking trail, the Darb al Jabal al Libnaniyye.