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The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner: Page 29

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"Anyway, within a year, Ziba could read children's books. We sat in the
yard and she read me the tales of Dara and Sara--slowly but correctly. She
started calling me Moalem Soraya, Teacher Soraya." She laughed again. "I know it
sounds childish, but the first time Ziba wrote her own letter, I knew there was
nothing else I'd ever want to be but a teacher. I was so proud of her and I felt I'd
done something really worthwhile, you know?"

"Yes," I lied. I thought of how I had used my literacy to ridicule Hassan.
How I had teased him about big words he didn't know.

"My father wants me to go to law school, my mother's always throwing
hints about medical school, but I'm going to be a teacher. Doesn't pay much here,
but it's what I want."

My mother was a teacher too," I said.

"I know," she said. "My mother told me." Then her face red denied with a
blush at what she had blurted, at the implication of her answer, that "Amir
Conversations" took place between them when I wasn't there. It took an
enormous effort to stop myself from smiling.

"I brought you something." I fished the roll of stapled pages from my back
pocket. "As promised." I handed her one of my short stories.

"Oh, you remembered," she said, actually beaming. "Thank you!" I barely
had time to register that she'd addressed me with "tu" for the first time and not
the formal "shoma," because suddenly her smile vanished. The color dropped
from her face, and her eyes fixed on something behind me. I turned around.
Came face-to-face with General Taheri.

"Amir jan. Our aspiring storyteller. What a pleasure," he said. He was
smiling thinly.

"Salaam, General Sahib," I said through heavy lips.

He moved past me, toward the booth. "What a beautiful day it is, nay?" he
said, thumb hooked in the breast pocket of his vest, the other hand extended
toward Soraya. She gave him the pages.

"They say it will rain this week. Hard to believe, isn't it?" He dropped the
rolled pages in the garbage can. Turned to me and gently put a hand on my
shoulder. We took a few steps together.

"You know, bachem, 1 have grown rather fond of you. You are a decent
boy, I really believe that, but-" he sighed and waved a hand "-even decent boys
need reminding sometimes. So it's my duty to remind you that you are among
peers in this flea market." He stopped. His expressionless eyes bore into mine.
"You see, everyone here is a storyteller." He smiled, revealing perfectly even
teeth. "Do pass my respects to your father, Amir jan."

He dropped his hand. Smiled again.

"WHAT'S WRONG?" Baba said. He was taking an elderly woman's money for a
rocking horse.

"Nothing," I said. I sat down on an old TV set. Then I told him anyway.

"Akh, Amir," he sighed.

As it turned out, I didn't get to brood too much over what had happened.

Because later that week, Baba caught a cold.

IT STARTED WITH A HACKING COUGH and the sniffles. He got over the sniffles,
but the cough persisted. He'd hack into his handkerchief, stow it in his pocket. I
kept after him to get it checked, but he'd wave me away. He hated doctors and
hospitals. To my knowledge, the only time Baba had ever gone to a doctor was
the time he'd caught malaria in India.

Then, two weeks later, I caught him coughing a wad of blood-stained
phlegm into the toilet.

"How long have you been doing that?" I said.

"What's for dinner?" he said.

"I'm taking you to the doctor."

Even though Baba was a manager at the gas station, the owner hadn't
offered him health insurance, and Baba, in his recklessness, hadn't insisted. So I

took him to the county hospital in San Jose. The sallow, puffy-eyed doctor who
saw us introduced himself as a second-year resident. "He looks younger than you
and sicker than me," Baba grumbled. The resident sent us down for a chest X-ray.
When the nurse called us back in, the resident was filling out a form.

"Take this to the front desk," he said, scribbling quickly.

"What is it?" I asked.

"A referral." Scribble scribble.

"For what?"

"Pulmonary clinic."

"What's that?"

He gave me a quick glance. Pushed up his glasses. Began scribbling again.
"He's got a spot on his right lung. I want them to check it out."

"A spot?" I said, the room suddenly too small.

"Cancer?" Baba added casually.

"Possible. It's suspicious, anyway," the doctor muttered.

"Can't you tell us more?" I asked.

"Not really. Need a CAT scan first, then see the lung doctor." He handed
me the referral form. "You said your father smokes, right?"


He nodded. Looked from me to Baba and back again. "They'll call you
within two weeks."

I wanted to ask him how I was supposed to live with that word,
"suspicious," for two whole weeks. How was I supposed eat, work, study? How
could he send me home with that word? I took the form and turned it in. That
night, I waited until Baba fell asleep, and then folded a blanket. I used it as a
prayer rug. Bowing my head to the ground, I recited half-forgotten verses from
the Koran-verses the mullah had made us commit to memory in Kabul-and
asked for kindness from a God I wasn't sure existed. I envied the mullah now,
envied his faith and certainty.

Two weeks passed and no one called. And when I called them, they told
me they'd lost the referral. Was I sure I had turned it in? They said they would
call in another three weeks. I raised hell and bargained the three weeks down to
one for the CAT scan, two to see the doctor.

The visit with the pulmonologist, Dr. Schneider, was going well until Baba
asked him where he was from. Dr. Schneider said Russia. Baba lost it.

"Excuse us, Doctor," I said, pulling Baba aside. Dr. Schneider smiled and
stood back, stethoscope still in hand.

"Baba, I read Dr. Schneider's biography in the waiting room. He was born
in Michigan. Michigan! He's American, a lot more American than you and I will
ever be."

"I don't care where he was born, he's Roussi," Baba said, grimacing like it
was a dirty word. "His parents were Roussi, his grandparents were Roussi. I
swear on your mother's face I'll break his arm if he tries to touch me."

Dr. Schneider's parents fled from Shorawi, don't you see? They escaped!

But Baba would hear none of it. Sometimes I think the only thing he loved
as much as his late wife was Afghanistan, his late country. I almost screamed
with frustration. Instead, I sighed and turned to Dr. Schneider. "I'm sorry, Doctor.
This isn't going to work out."

The next pulmonologist, Dr. Amani, was Iranian and Baba approved. Dr.
Amani, a soft-spoken man with a crooked mustache and a mane of gray hair, told
us he had reviewed the CAT scan results and that he would have to perform a
procedure called a bronchoscopy to get a piece of the lung mass for pathology.
He scheduled it for the following week. I thanked him as I helped Baba out of the
office, thinking that now I had to live a whole week with this new word, "mass,"
an even more ominous word than "suspicious." I wished Soraya were there with

It turned out that, like Satan, cancer had many names. Baba's was called
"Oat Cell Carcinoma." Advanced. Inoperable. Baba asked Dr. Amani for a
prognosis. Dr. Amani bit his lip, used the word "grave." "There is chemotherapy,
of course," he said. "But it would only be palliative."

"What does that mean?" Baba asked.

Dr. Amani sighed. "It means it wouldn't change the outcome, just prolong

"That's a clear answer, Dr. Amani. Thank you for that," Baba said. "But no
chemo-medication for me." He had the same resolved look on his face as the day
he'd dropped the stack of food stamps on Mrs. Dobbins's desk.

"But Baba-"

"Don't you challenge me in public, Amir. Ever. Who do you think you are?"

THE RAIN General Taheri had spoken about at the flea market was a few weeks
late, but when we stepped out of Dr. Amani's office, passing cars sprayed grimy

water onto the sidewalks.
Baba lit a cigarette. He smoked all the way to the car
and all the way home.

As he was slipping the key into the lobby door, I said, "I wish you'd give
the chemo a chance, Baba."

Baba pocketed the keys, pulled me out of the rain and under the building's
striped awning. He kneaded me on the chest with the hand holding the cigarette.
"Bas! I've made my decision."

"What about me, Baba? What am I supposed to do?" I said, my eyes
welling up.

A look of disgust swept across his rain-soaked face. It was the same look
he'd give me when, as a kid, I'd fall, scrape my knees, and cry.

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