Chasing hope, losing Omar

An illustration of a sand dune with two people sitting on it with the sun setting.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

The hatchling

One month after diagnosis

Like floating embers, her words drifted through the doorway.

“Sorry, do you mind helping me?”

Although barely a whisper, they stopped me mid-stride.

I needed to get back to my husband. I’d only left him for a quick toilet break and only then because his sister was with him. But the words drew me towards her room.

Like others in this whitewashed clinic on the seventh floor of an office block in Istanbul’s bustling Sisli district, the room emitted an amber glow - perhaps from the light of the treatment machines inside.

It too had a hospital bed with starched white sheets. At its centre, propped up on a pile of pillows, lay a woman so slight she looked like she might disappear among them. Her face was beautiful, framed by tufts of cropped, mousy brown hair. She reminded me of a hatchling.

“Sorry,” she said again. “There’s just this song playing in my head, and I need to listen to it on my phone, ... but I don't remember who sings it or what it's called. Can you help me?”

“How does it go?” I asked, reminded of a childhood game in which relatives would play me clips of music and I’d have to guess the song.

She started to hum the tune.

I'd heard it before but couldn't place where, and like her, I had no idea who sang it.

"You need to get back to Omar," a voice in my head reminded me. But I knew I wouldn’t leave the room until I’d helped her.

I reached over, took her phone and began pulling names from somewhere in my subconscious and typing them into Google: Peter, Simon and Paul. Lucy, Peter and John.

Then I remembered where I recognised the tune from - an old advert for a British DIY chain.

A quick Google search - "theme tune from Homebase ad" - later and I’d found her song. (It was by Peter, Bjorn and John.)

The woman squeezed my hand. I smiled.

She was in her 30s and dying of cancer.

She had two young sons back in the United Kingdom and was hoping to be home for Christmas later that week, but she wouldn’t be allowed to see her boys because her immunity level was low, and they had colds.

As I turned to leave, her tired voice sounded again with another question. “Do you think I'll make it?” she asked.

I believed she would, just like I believed that Omar would, that everyone who had travelled to this clinic in the hope that it could heal their broken bodies, when doctors in their own countries had told them there was no hope left, would.

She didn’t.

An illustration of a nightingale standing on grass and stone holding a string with letters attached.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Indlieb, like nightingale

One month before diagnosis

Mine and Omar’s journey to Istanbul had started two months earlier - or perhaps long before that without us even knowing it.

We were in London, where I had been staying with our son at my parents’ house since the summer. Omar was visiting from Qatar, where he had been raised and where we’d met and lived for most of our married lives.

It was an autumn afternoon, and we were about to leave the house to meet one of my cousins for coffee.

“Habibti,” he said in that gently lilting voice with his accent that was so hard to place, “just give me an hour, OK?”

He wanted to sleep for a while. “You go, and I’ll catch up later, Andaleeb,” he added, pronouncing my name like honey, thick and sweet, not the way I’d often quickly mumble it, "Ileeb", as though I were unworthy of staking a claim to all the syllables in my name.

As a British Pakistani and part Cypriot girl, growing up I’d hated my name. The quicker I said it, the quicker people could forget it and me, I’d reasoned.

When I was a student, I’d rented a room from an elderly woman who collected porcelain figurines that she displayed in a cabinet in the front room of her terraced house. She could never remember my name but would sometimes invite me down to keep her company over a meal of salmon and buttery mashed potato.

Once when she asked me about my name, I’d told her that in Arabic it means nightingale. “Oh, I shall call you Flo then,” she’d declared, delighted. “You know, Flo like Florence Nightingale.

It was Omar, a Palestinian who’d never been to his homeland and had grown up without the nationality of the country where he’d been born, who’d helped me embrace my own name - and identity.

It was Omar - who never cared what anyone thought of him and always spoke his mind, who was, in so many ways, my polar opposite - who showed me that it was OK not to be OK, that I didn’t need to make other people feel comfortable at the expense of my own comfort.

But now it was Omar - a martial artist who’d just turned 40, father to our two-year-old son - who was regularly carving out time to sleep at the strangest of moments.

He’d always blamed his work shifts for playing havoc with his body clock and often missed appointments, family gatherings and meals to catch up on sleep. I’d learned to accept it and had grown used to doing things by myself.

But now, I knew something was different. His sleep had become more sporadic, and an agonising pain in the pit of his stomach that he had mentioned over the past two years had started to pulsate through the rest of his body, stealing the moments when he tried to rest.

One afternoon a few days earlier, we’d watched an elderly couple at a popular cafe chain. They must have been in their 90s. He pulled out a chair for her to sit on; she stirred his coffee for him. I’d imagined us at that age, still together, sitting next to one another, arms interlocked. But Omar had confided in me that he simply couldn’t see himself getting old.

Earlier that week, he’d come with me for the first time to the cemetery where my grandmother is buried. It felt familiar, he’d said, as we walked past the towering redwood trees towards the graves of other family members.

Just over two months later on a gusty January day, I would be back there. So would Omar.

Fit to fly

11 days after diagnosis

“Ma’am,” the air hostess leaned across our seats, “please can you ask your husband to sit up in his seat?”

She tried to mask her unease with a smile, but her distress dripped into her stilted words.

Omar was slumped in the footwell, silently writhing in pain. With each jolt of his body, I readjusted the blanket draped across his aching shoulders, soothing his forehead, our son curled up in sleep and blankets beside me. But now I was signalling to the air hostess with my eyes and gently manoeuvring my way out of my seat, careful not to disturb the two pieces of my heart that lay there.

I walked her back to the galley behind the burgundy curtains on that almost empty early morning flight from Doha to Istanbul.

“My husband isn’t well,” I told her quietly, then paused, swallowing back the words I feared saying out loud because speaking them might make them true.

“Ah, yes, ma’am, your husband isn’t eating anything,” she replied.

“He is in a lot of pain. Listen, please just let him sit for now where he is most comfortable,” I answered her with the quiet assertiveness that had creeped unexpectedly into so many of my conversations lately.

“Does he have a broken leg?” she asked.

“No, he has cancer,” I told her, speaking the words I’d wanted to avoid, the words that sent her into a panic as, teary-eyed and frantic, she began to explain that we shouldn’t be on board.

So there, more than 10,000 metres (35,000ft) in the sky, I held her and reassured her that we had permission to fly, that we were travelling for treatment, that we had a letter from the hospital and that Omar. Would. Get. Better.

Tea, dates and doctors

Two weeks before diagnosis

On Omar’s hospital bed table were two flasks, one of tea, the other of traditional Arabic coffee. Omar had insisted. There was a steady stream of visitors - friends Omar had known since childhood - passing through each day. They’d sit and talk. And drink.

They’d also eat. “Dates please, … but not [just] any dates, habibti. Can you make sure they are the nice ones?” Omar had urged me, concerned that his visitors should be well looked after. So, beside the flasks of tea and coffee, there were dates - the nice ones.

Omar had been admitted to Doha’s state hospital shortly after we’d returned from London and the pain had become unbearable, spreading from his stomach to his back.

He hated being there and hated being expected to follow the rules. So, somehow, he charmed the staff into letting him leave for a couple of hours each evening. He’d visit his mother to reassure her and then return to our home for a few hours of rest. Oftentimes he’d curl up and fall asleep next to me on the couch, and I’d watch him, peaceful. An intense protective love had taken over - one that felt like it transgressed this world and the next - making me feel closer to him than at any time before. By dawn he would have to leave and return to the hospital, where doctors tried to determine the cause of his pain.

An illustration of a Dhow boat with colourful lights in Doha at night with the city skyline in the background.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Waiting and walking

One week before diagnosis

In the week after Omar was discharged from hospital, we took afternoon walks through the park in slow motion - partly because, by now, he was unable to walk as well and partly, I think, because he was trying to absorb every last drop of those moments.

In between sporadic naps and pain numbed by tramadol, he wanted to go on nighttime dhow rides past the shining skyscrapers of Doha and drives through some of the older remaining back streets where he’d played as a child.

He wanted to know the most mundane details of my life - where I would eat with friends and what I would order - as though he needed to gather a lifetime’s worth of details in a matter of days.

While our son slept, we would watch 90s sitcoms and talk late into the night - the kinds of conversations you might have with a long-lost friend with whom you’d become unexpectedly but joyfully reacquainted. I’d share with him the prayers that brought me the greatest peace, and he’d share with me his dreams for our son’s future.

"I can't do this without you, Omar,” I'd tell him. And he’d reply: "You, my love, are stronger than you know.”

An illustration of pink magnolias.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

The proposal

Twelve years before diagnosis

Omar had a roughness about him, that on first inspection seemed to need sandpapering down. But shuffle slightly closer, and, in time, you'd find that he had the kindest heart.

The first time I really spoke to him, we were in the canteen of the drab office building where we both worked. That was the day he proposed.

He had collected the office’s lunch order that day (as he often did because he was that rarest of things in an office full of foreigners who relied on taxis to get around - someone with a car).

The canteen was empty apart from Omar and the remnants of other people’s lunch when I arrived to collect my salad, ordered less for the lettuce than the cheese quesadillas that came with it.

He asked if he could speak to me about something important, which was when I noticed the single gardenia on top of the cardboard box that contained my lunch. It seemed like an odd side for a salad.

"If a guy likes a girl,” he began to talk to me, his eyes lowered and his voice uncertain, “how should he tell her?”

"Oh, God, I hope he doesn’t mean me," the voice in my head said as my mouth spoke different words entirely. "Umm, it depends, culturally. Like in England, you'd just tell them, but here, maybe it's different. Not sure I'm the best person to ask,” I muttered.

"I mean us. ... You. I would like to ask you if you would marry me?"

I choked on the water I’d been slowly sipping in a bid to maintain some kind of composure.

"I mean, may I speak to your father and ask his permission to marry you?" he continued.

"My father? Oh, Lord," I thought.

“Listen, Omar,” my words eeked out like air escaping from a broken bagpipe. “Umm, I’m hugely flattered and really surprised too. I mean, you don’t know me. Why would you even want to marry me?”

"What I'm trying to say is, will you get to know me for marriage?" he replied.

The penny dropped. I’d figured him out. Like some of the other men I’d work with in the office, he must have assumed that a single woman on her own in a foreign country was easy prey.

“Listen, I’m not going to be your girlfriend,” I told him.

Offended, his voice rose slightly now. “I didn’t ask that.”

“I asked to speak to your father.”

“To be my wife."

I looked at him - he was tall and athletic with a handsome face and a voice that could have warmed the sun. But that didn’t change the fact that I didn’t know him.

I told him I wasn’t sure I was interested, so there’d be no point speaking to my dad. I got up to leave, thanked him and then tripped over the leg of a chair.

There was a hint of a smile now. Just a chance, he asked, to get to know him.

“What if I did get to know you and then decided no?” I asked him.

“I’d ask again,” he said, the smile spreading. “And if it was a no again, I’d ask again and again until you say yes.”

"Andaleeb, listen. … You might not yet know this, but you're going to be my wife."

Five years after our canteen conversation, Omar and I were married under the second bloom of magnolia in my parents’ back garden.

An illustration of Indlieb and Omar hand in hand.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]


The day of diagnosis

The three doctors stood separately in the windowless consultation room as Omar and I sat, hand in hand. Each of them avoided our gaze.

It wasn’t shingles (as a doctor in the UK had suggested), or an ulcer (as another doctor in Qatar had said), they told us, but advanced pancreatic cancer that had now spread its tendrils into Omar’s stomach tissue, his lymph nodes, his spine.

The doctors kept talking. But I didn’t hear them. White noise - like the static from an untuned TV - filled my head. If I let it grow loud enough, it could drown out their words altogether and none of what they were saying would be real. But they kept talking. And time slowed down.

Omar sat in silence, absorbing their words, occasionally nodding his head. He pulled gently on the end of his beard as he often did when lost in thought.

Then he refused their offer of a PET scan to help stage the cancer and of chemotherapy to help treat it.

As we walked back to our car, his voice as reassuring as ever, Omar explained to me that he wasn’t giving up, that he would fight the cancer but he would do it on his own terms.

Desperate to sidestep my husband’s death, I decided then that if this team of medical experts couldn’t save him, I, as his wife, would. I wasn’t prepared to live a life without him in it.

Remedies not radiation

The days immediately after diagnosis

Even the most fleeting look online would reveal that Omar’s type of cancer has a 3 percent survival rate. But as I searched for hope, the facts didn’t mean a thing.

We weren’t alone. Studies have shown that many patients who are told of advanced cancer don't always fully comprehend it, and some wilfully choose to ignore it.

Omar said he wanted to fight the cancer but "naturally". Our first point of call was a homeopath friend. She prescribed some remedies and recommended a Qatari herbalist who ultimately took over Omar’s post-hospital protocol.

There was a masseuse and an acupuncturist with hair so long her braid swished around her calves as she walked, who I demanded leave our house after she asked Omar how old he was and upon hearing declared, “Yes, people who are close to death often look older than they are.”

There were dietary changes - turmeric was added to everything, there were pressed carrot juice shots, ground-up apricot seeds and all sugar was eliminated - although Omar could barely keep any of it down.

Around us, people did not speak directly of death but instead of ways to make him comfortable, reduce his pain, ease his ailments. They hadn’t promised a cure, but I didn’t hear the things that were not said.

Still, I wanted to try anything I could to save my husband. So, in between preparing magnesium baths and coffee enemas, I’d scour the internet for doctors I could get a second opinion from. But each response was the same: It’s incurable, they’d tell me.

Then two doctors from the UK told me about a clinic in Turkey.

An illustration of a car almost halfway off the edge of a cliff.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

The edge of a cliff

Eleven days after diagnosis

The doctor in Istanbul sat behind a large, glass-topped mahogany desk. He was younger than I’d expected - in his mid-30s, perhaps - with mousy blond hair and a tall frame he carried around purposefully.

He examined the medical notes we’d brought with us from Doha, then after a few moments of quiet, shuffled the papers and declared: “You’ve left it too late.”

Every day Omar had, he said, would be a blessing.

A fan of metaphors, he explained that Omar was like a broken car, delicately balancing on the edge of a cliff. He could topple over at any moment. But - and this was all I needed to hear - the team at the clinic would do everything they could to pull him back.

That included hyperthermia treatment, in which Omar would lie in a chamber that heated his body to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, IV vitamin drips and an insulin-based, low-dose form of chemotherapy. He was put on a keto diet with occasional days off when he was allowed to savour the sweet mangoes and watermelons he longed for.

An illustration of a cake shop window with various cakes being displayed.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]


Two weeks after diagnosis

If Omar wanted mangoes and watermelons, it must mean that was what his body needed, I reasoned. If I could find them, he’d get better, the voice in my head told me as I scurried down the narrow Istanbul street, past boutiques selling leather goods and bakeries full of custard tarts, colourful macaroons and glutinous, fruit-topped cakes painted with syrup. The cakes called to me, offering up warmth and comfort on that cold December evening, but my internal voice was relentless. Omar. Must. Have. Mangoes. It shouted. Then it would whisper the next part: Otherwise, he’ll die.

(I’d return to the bakeries later on those rare occasions when Omar and our son had fallen asleep at the same time and take my purchase back to the apartment we’d rented just minutes from the clinic, where rather than savouring those delicacies as they deserved, I’d devour them in the dark in search of a moment of relief.)

But, for now, I needed to find watermelons and mangoes to keep my husband alive. The first greengrocers I found didn’t have either fruit. The second explained that mangoes weren’t in season. But they did have watermelons, so I heaved one into my rucksack and trudged back to the apartment. I watched as Omar enjoyed a couple of mouthfuls, hopeful that it was somehow healing him but worried that the missing mangoes might be our downfall.

An illustration of two kinds of flowers and a globe-like structure with moss, bushes and a dirt ladder in between.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

Pide and plants

Two weeks after diagnosis

On other days, while Omar rested, I’d take our son for walks along the same small high street where I’d searched for the fruit. We’d take deep breaths of the cold winter air, play "it" along the pavement and then I’d break off small, soft pieces of freshly baked pide for him to eat.

On the way back, we’d pass by a large grey stone apartment block where an elderly woman always sat, looking out of the window of the ground floor corner flat.

The window was filled with purple, pink and white orchids and deep green, rich terrariums, all competing for space on the overcrowded sill.

The woman had heavily kohled eyes and wore a small floral headscarf tied at the nape of her neck. In her hand, she always held a cigarette.

Although she’d leave her small top window slightly ajar, I’d wonder how her plants thrived, blossomed in fact, in that stuffy, smoke-filled room. I wondered how they survived when my husband was dying. Why they were granted life when he was not.

An illustration of birds flying over rough seas.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]


Two and a half weeks after diagnosis

Omar had asked to visit the Bosphorus. He wanted to escape what we had come to Turkey for - even if just for an afternoon. The sea air would do him good, I reasoned. After all, I’d read that it was rich in iodine.

So we found a spot in an outdoor cafe overlooking the choppy, grey water. As we sat in silence, wrapped up against the cold, I watched his face find recognition in something besides the sea.

I followed his gaze to the murmurations, not the beautiful dance of starlings just before sunset, but to the cacophonous chaos that was the movement of small, dark birds skimming the water's surface like a locust cloud.

We were spectators to their show – Omar sipping his black, sugar-less coffee, me holding onto a glass of sweet Turkish tea that I left untouched.

I silently willed him to just keep breathing.

An illustration of a city skyline.
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]
[Richard Smith/Al Jazeera]

The clouds

Three weeks after diagnosis

The clouds had been a constant backdrop to our time in Istanbul. I’d observe them each day on the short journey from our apartment to the clinic and watch them from the floor-to-ceiling windows in the room where Omar would have his IV drips. But this was the cloudiest day yet.

Omar had a stent put in at one of the private hospitals the clinic had sent us to, and the doctor was now briefing us on the results that I interpreted as positive. Relieved, I left the room to get some water from the cooler in the hallway.

But then I heard a door shut and the familiar clacking of the doctor's footsteps behind me. “Indlieb, may I talk to you?” he asked, gesturing to a side room where I’d seen staff taking their coffee breaks.

My mind raced to the new information he was about to give me, the updates and advice on ways to cure my husband.

Instead, he told me I needed to ask Omar where he wanted to be buried.

At that moment, I hated that doctor. At that moment, I cried for the first time.

The next morning, I looked out through the clinic’s large windows, watching the pedestrians below us, oblivious to what was happening seven floors above them, as they ran the gauntlet of the city’s congestion.

I turned to take in Omar, who was sitting, hooked to drips, in a large blue hospital recliner.

He still had his fist full of beard, but his body was starting to let go of him. He’d always been so physically strong, but now his legs struggled to carry his weight. His movements were slower. Everything had become an effort. Soon, he’d only be able to get around in a wheelchair.

I breathed in as though I were about to start a conversation just like those we’d shared so many times in the moments before sleep, where plans and dreams had merged into one blissful moment imagining the lives we hadn’t lived. But I knew this wasn’t like those conversations. And Omar knew it too.

“The traffic is crazy here,” I said. “I keep thinking I’m going to get run over by a car or something. If I die, can you please send me back to England?”

He reached for my hand and held me with those hazel-green eyes that always smiled before the rest of him and then, with a tenderness he reserved for a few, said: “If I say the UK too, jaan, will you visit my grave?”

I’d live beside it, I told him.

‘There’s Baba’

December 31, 2017, five weeks after diagnosis

In his last weeks, just before his family arrived in Istanbul, we’d sit in the stillness of the night and talk. He’d use words that seemed as though they’d floated down from the ether, from another world. Powerful words filled with honesty that felt like treasures.

He’d tell me his favourite moto: You meet your destiny on the road you took to avoid it.

Just three and a half weeks after arriving in Turkey, in the sacred hours before sunrise, Omar took his last breath.

They say the last sense to go when someone dies is hearing - I wonder, did he hear his mother crying? Did he hear me dialling for an ambulance or begging him to come back to me as I knelt beside him, hands holding his? Did he hear my staggered recitations of prayers for the deceased as I feebly understood but still didn’t accept?


We had never ‘built’ our home, never used the good glasses given to us as a wedding gift but always kept at the back of the cabinet, never unboxed the cooking pots collected as a wedding dower by my long-deceased grandmother, never hung the Palestinian wall art I’d bought that Omar said we’d put up “when we get the right house, habibti”. We were always waiting for life to begin.

Now, as I returned to London with my parents and son seated beside me, Omar too was on the plane.

Just hours after he’d died, his body - washed, prayed upon and carefully wrapped in a white shroud - had been placed in a coffin that lay in a special container in the space beneath us.

As we entered the yellow-lit corridors of Heathrow Airport just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, our son, climbing across my branches like a little bird, chirped, “Hello, Baba, I see Baba.”

Looking directly above us at the confetti of light streaming from the ceiling, seeing something that none of the rest of us could, he pointed, “There’s Baba.”

A version of this essay will appear in the print anthology The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human in January 2024.

Source: Al Jazeera