Maura, Aisha’s mother, was taking her last artificial breath that morning in a sterile hospice downtown. A sole witness to the event, Aisha stood in the doorway with her head tilted, watching her.
The lights hummed and the air gurgled; syncopated beeps marked the time while Maura’s hand drank from a sac hung like an ornament on a tree. It was the middle of the work week, and instead of contemplating whether machine learning could fix civil unrest or hopping to the next meeting, Aisha stared at green lines across a black screen and braced for the ending she had been mourning for months.
Aisha was not a funny person, but she thought of funny things. In her mind appeared a playground in a city neighborhood—desiccated leaves, toddlers serving ice cream from make-believe stores, children swinging from monkey bars, indulging in the thrill of physics. Some older children on the other side of the park played tag. The tallest one, a girl with a sweatshirt tied around her waist, ran faster than everyone else. She could win simply by walking away from the game, Aisha thought. No, she wanted to be chased. She wanted to be targeted only to escape at the last moment. And that other one, the boy with the curly hair, the one that was “it,” he yearned for some sort of reciprocity, a connection with her. He made eye contact and then reached, and then stopped short, deflated, while she ran away. He was vulnerable, confused, unsure of what the other person felt. It was not a game at all, this tag. Rather, it was an open space to be vulnerable, to surrender to discomfort, pain of rejection, and misunderstanding. The kind that we dwell in daily, constantly. We’re faking confidence all the time, aren’t we? To be an open wound, that was why kids loved playing tag.
Before today she would have never shared this observation with her mother. But as Maura lay there, Aisha wondered if Maura agreed about the rules of tag and wished she had shared more with her mother. Memories of an imperfect upbringing didn’t burden Aisha as much anymore.
Aisha felt as though someone were grabbing her shirt from behind. Not now, she thought. She licked her lips and whistled, identifying three objects: chair, bed, tray. She flexed and rotated her ankle and then her wrist. A few steps brought her to the bed, and she caressed Maura's cheek.
Through a warped lens of tears, she texted, “Mom’s not responding,” to her brother, Sam, who she doubted would reply. If he called her back, then she could tell him what Maura had said in one of her last lucid moments: “I want a simple ceremony. Not a show or vigil”—she meant a Muslim funeral, one that would see her buried within twenty-four hours—“I want it to be as peaceful as I am right now.” Aisha had squeezed Maura’s hand and assured her that she would respect those wishes. But Aisha was making other plans.