Steam is rising from the poo that Milly has just laid in the Parc de Trembly. Autumn is now well and truly here with the tiniest hint of snow on the distant Jura mountains and dew drops like diamonds on my dog’s nose. She’s already scurried off to sniff for squirrels as I bend down with the obligatory black bag and pick up her produce. I can feel the warmth in my hand before it gets flung into the bin.
I’ve just sent off two girls to school this morning. My own: dear Sapphire, still suffering from a cold and asking if I’d drive them there ‘because it’s windy.’ She knew the answer before I needed to say it and grinned. “It’s always worth a try, Mum.”
And Nafeesa: on her first sleepover ever if you don’t count school camps.
She rang Sapphire two days ago. “My Mum has had a stroke. Can I stay with you?”
Sapph was home with me, sick with a cold, still in her dressing gown when she rushed out onto the balcony where I was sipping coffee. “Can she stay?” I nodded, getting up to find out more. Sapphire was already striding towards her bedroom, the annoyances of a sore throat and raw nose forgotten. “We must help and I know where you keep the guest sheets and towels....”
Nafeesa’s mother, Yasmin, rang her friend at midnight. The words were all clear but jumbled into nonsensical sentences. John thought it was a joke until there was silence for a while and she moaned, “Help me.”
He rushed over to her house, arranged an ambulance, woke up a frightened Nafeesa and spent the day at her hospital bed, telephoning everyone whose name he recognised on Yasmin’s blackberry.
Nafeesa’s father died of cancer six years earlier and their family are scattered outwards from Lebanon, Netherlands, UK and Brazil. As an only child, poor Nafeesa must have felt so alone, so tiny and helpless as doctors bustled around her mother, now paralysed down one side and unable to speak.
A friend was contacted and arranged to move into Yasmin’s house and take Nafeesa to school every day. “That’s when I rang you,” she told Sapphire later. “I knew that I wanted to stay with you.”
And so she is. She and I travelled in the rain to the hospital yesterday, passing through a dozen smoking nurses up towards the intensive care unit. The ward also held five men, all several decades older than Yasmin.
This proud and beautiful woman who I’ve always envied for her style and youthful looks banged her left hand – encumbered by several wires and catheters - against the metal bed rail when she saw her daughter. Nafeesa buried her head into her mother’s chest, whispering I love you I love you I love you over and over. Yasmin’s eyes filled with tears and she cried. It wasn’t a sniffle or a sob but a loud wail that made all of us – the nurse, the best friend, the work colleague visiting during lunch hour, Nafeesa and me, look down, unsure of what we could do to help.
I dabbed at her eyes with a tissue, awkwardly. As nominated guardian I was required to be there - if only to transport her child to the bedside - but my relationship was with Nafeesa who I saw often, whereas Yasmin and I mostly traded pleasantries during drop offs and pick-ups. With one side of her face dragging downwards and puffy eyes without their customary eyeliner I felt as though I was intruding, seeing her at her most vulnerable.
Patting her hand gently, I explained that Nafeesa was staying with us for as long as was needed and that she wasn’t to worry. As I pulled back to leave and sit outside to wait for Nafeesa, Yasmin grabbed my hand. She tried several times to tell me something but the words were incoherent and each one took a lot of effort to produce. Her eyes blazed and it was clear that being trapped inside a currently-useless body was isolating and frustrating.
It was one of those key moments in life when you know that you need to – must do – say the right thing and yet, as a self-deluded writer, nothing emerged but a faint “It’s okay, it’s okay. You have such a lovely daughter and we feel honoured to have her. It’s okay.” Her fingers clanged the three gold bangles along my arm in response. The eyes glittered: the message was understood.
I left Nafeesa with her mother and stepped outside to speak with Yasmin’s best friend, an AIDS specialist from the World Health Org. “She’ll be here for weeks and then....” she put her hands to her lips, as if to stop them from saying the next few words, “......it could be months. And months.”
We’d only met each other fifteen minutes beforehand but found ourselves hugging each other. This was the woman who emailed all the key players involved in Nafeesa’s care – who was dropping off, who was picking up and who was hosting her where and when; even during the upcoming week of mid-term break when Sapph and I were heading off to Basel. She also provided a list of emails and contact numbers and the evenings since have been full of conversations between people I’ve not yet met as we discuss some very intimate and important subjects.
And Nafeesa......? She’s a painfully skinny kid who barely eats anything beyond chicken nuggets and spaghetti adorned only with grated cheese. We’ve cuddled a few times and Milly has done her utmost to trot over and lean up against her legs, offering her own furry version of comfort. LC has been away at a conference in Germany, kept updated with SMS messages from Sapphire and on his return last night did the manly thing of repairing the sagging blow up mattress. Nafeesa knows that her mother will recover and the relief is evident. She sleeps on the now acceptably air-filled bed on the floor in Sapphire’s room and they both whisper and giggle into the wee hours.
Sapphire has come into her own. Helpful, funny and good at finding things for them to do after dinner. She’s very tired and not happy that Nafeesa will take Friday off school so that I can take her to meet her uncle at the airport while she sits in beginner French class. However this is just a momentary huff as she's quickly accepting and showing a maturity mixed with a wicked sense of twelve-year-old humour that is just what her friend needs. I’m in awe.
I lay in bed with LC last night, telling him all this. He reached out his arm to provide what he thought was a comforting pat to my shoulder but in the darkness it ended up as a vague grope of my chest and then a slight whack to my nose as he withdrew. “Gee thanks for that love – I knew that there was something I needed – a fondle and a punch!” We laughed louder and longer than was really necessary.
And so I find myself earlier this morning holding a still-warm bag of dog poo while the beast who made it is in the wet grass, front paw lifted as she freezes for a moment, locks in a new scent and runs in a different direction.
It’s hard not to smile at these tiny observations and yet at the same time realise how fleeting they are. Life is so damn short and can alter in an instant. I run to catch up with her and kiss her nose, even though it’s wet with dew drops and has a stray blade of grass plastered on it.