Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
|The Last sleep of Arthur in Avalon is a 1880’s painting|
that depicts the deaths of Burne-Jones’s close friends
which ignited his feelings of solitude and awareness
of his own mortality. (By Edward Burne-Jones. Ponce
Museum of Art, Ponce, Puerto Rico)
I had been admitted to the Damascus University General Hospital a few months earlier, but ever since the war had started, doctors rarely visited my ward. Mirriam, a young resident doctor, was the exception. She came often to my room and made me feel as though I was her favorite patient. I could not have asked for a better companion. Mirriam visited every morning, drank the Turkish coffee I prepared on the ornate balcony, and talked for hours about her future dreams. I had quietly smuggled my pet cat Cardamom into my hospital suite; the cat would wait near the door for her morning visit and a motherly cuddle. Mirriam was the perfect remedy for my self-imposed solitary confinement. I pictured her as my guardian angel and a bulletproof doctor who could protect me from the suffering and cruelty of the outside world. What happened next would show me that even Syrian doctors are not immune to emotions, as I once had thought.
Mirriam and I were walking around the Ottoman-designed hospital when we saw him; another victim of a blind-fired missile. His hands reached for the sky and announced his imminent departure to the afterlife. Tears soaked his dusty beard with the knowledge that his family would lose their breadwinner and political compass, and he prayed for forgiveness in the final moments before meeting his God. Wrinkles circled his eyes and mouth like busy souks in the old city, hinting at the story of an epic life. Doctors rushed to the scene, assessed the enormous blood loss, and reluctantly left the room. We could not forget the expression on his wife’s veiled face when she arrived and saw the love of her life covered in a blood-drenched sheet. She pulled back the sheet and laid his head in her lap. The children’s eyes told a story too, of losing both a loving father and their innocence. Mirriam, ignoring the screams and prayers of his family, intuitively sprang into action and tried to stop the bleeding using every inch of her body. Something broke in her when she realized that she could not help. All she could do was kneel before this calamity.
Mirriam was not the same after this. Her once sparkling eyes now looked to the distance as if they were seeing Azrael, the angel of death. Cardamom stood still in the corner as if Mirriam was not there. I thought that eight years of being trapped in the jaws of a meaningless war in Syria had made everyone numb to the sight and smell of death. I thought the staff in the hospital, from the surgeons to the custodians, wore bulletproof vests. Mirriam made me question that belief. She had started her emergency department shift that year expecting nothing worse than food poisoning or broken limbs. The sight of that man dying from missile debris was the most horrific experience of the war she had witnessed. As her tears fell, she whispered, “That dusty bearded man… I see him die everyday.” Everything around her had seemed to disappear, voices had changed to nightmares, and she could suddenly feel the dead weight of her limbs in the darkness. She felt guilty for her privileges, her family, and her future dreams.
She lit up a cigarette and inhaled deeply, breaking the law that forbids such acts inside a heritage building like the General Hospital. I felt the need to distract her and force her out of her solitude. I knew that if someone attempted to force me out of my own solitude, I would unleash my cat to scare them away. Yet I could not let Mirriam suffer from the same darkness I did. I told her the story of my first attempt at smoking and how my father caught me and forced me to sleep on the roof of our building for two weeks as punishment. She loved stories of “firsts” and was amused when I explained how my friends would sneak into my building every night after that so we could stay up late, laughing and smoking in retaliation. As she started to smile, I described how liberating it was to sleep on the top of the building with the sky as my roof and the moon as my light. After that, she could not resist telling me the story of her secret encounters with her lover on the roof of the high school while the angry principal waited below. I mentioned the time I could not resist the smell of freshly-baked pita bread my father had bought for his traditional Friday breakfast, and how furious he was when I ate it all. Even though I was just an adolescent then, without the powers to heal that she possessed, I felt we were experiencing the same darkness and creating similar protections against it. The similarities between us created a channel that allowed me to try and help her with all the strength I had left.
Later that year, Mirriam overcame her solitude and was able to return to work in the hospital. She kept visiting me in my hospital suite though. I prepared Turkish coffee and she always inquired about my special technique; we talked and she insisted on paying me back for the support I had provided during her darkest of days. The last time we met, I had a favor to ask of her. I told her that she could pay me back by taking care of my cat. Even though she agreed without hesitation, I made her promise that she would not imprison her like I did. She vowed to give my cat a peaceful and auspicious life and inquired about her name. “Her name is Cardamom,” I smiled. “And that’s also the secret ingredient in my coffee.”
AMMAR SAAD is a senior medical student at Damascus Medical School. He migrated to Canada in 2017 and is currently working as a research assistant at the Bruyère Research Institute while pursuing his masters degree in clinical epidemiology from the University of Ottawa. He has a passion for cooking and trying cuisines from different cultures.