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The Kite Runner: Page 30
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It was the crying
that brought it on then, the crying that brought it on now. "You're twenty-two
years old, Amir! A grown man! You..." he opened his mouth, closed it, opened it
again, reconsidered. Above us, rain drummed on the canvas awning. "What's
going to happen to you, you say? All those years, that's what I was trying to teach
you, how to never have to ask that question."
He opened the door. Turned back to me. "And one more thing. No one
finds out about this, you hear me? No one. I don't want anybody's sympathy."
Then he disappeared into the dim lobby. He chain-smoked the rest of that day in
front of the TV. I didn't know what or whom he was defying. Me? Dr. Amani? Or
maybe the God he had never believed in.
FOR A WHILE, even cancer couldn't keep Baba from the flea market. We made
our garage sale treks on Saturdays, Baba the driver and me the navigator, and set
up our display on Sundays. Brass lamps. Baseball gloves. Ski jackets with broken
zippers. Baba greeted acquaintances from the old country and I haggled with
buyers over a dollar or two. Like any of it mattered. Like the day I would become
an orphan wasn't inching closer with each closing of shop.
Sometimes, General Taheri and his wife strolled by. The general, ever the
diplomat, greeted me with a smile and his two-handed shake. But there was a
new reticence to Khanum Taheri's demeanor. A reticence broken only by her
secret, droopy smiles and the furtive, apologetic looks she cast my way when the
general's attention was engaged elsewhere.
I remember that period as a time of many "firsts": The first time I heard
Baba moan in the bathroom. The first time I found blood on his pillow. In over
three years running the gas station, Baba had never called in sick. Another first.
By Halloween of that year, Baba was getting so tired by mid-Saturday
afternoon that he'd wait behind the wheel while I got out and bargained for junk.
By Thanksgiving, he wore out before noon. When sleighs appeared on front
lawns and fake snow on Douglas firs, Baba stayed home and I drove the VW bus
alone up and down the peninsula.
Sometimes at the flea market, Afghan acquaintances made remarks about
Baba's weight loss. At first, they were complimentary. They even asked the secret
to his diet. But the queries and compliments stopped when the weight loss
didn't. When the pounds kept shedding. And shedding. When his cheeks
hollowed. And his temples melted. And his eyes receded in their sockets.
Then, one cool Sunday shortly after New Year's Day, Baba was selling a
lampshade to a stocky Filipino man while I rummaged in the VW for a blanket to
cover his legs with.
"Hey, man, this guy needs help!" the Filipino man said with alarm. I
turned around and found Baba on the ground. His arms and legs were jerking.
"Komak!" I cried. "Somebody help!" I ran to Baba. He was frothing at the
mouth, the foamy spittle soaking his beard. His upturned eyes showed nothing
People were rushing to us. I heard someone say seizure. Some one else
yelling, "Call 911!" I heard running footsteps. The sky darkened as a crowd
gathered around us.
Baba's spittle turned red. He was biting his tongue. I kneeled beside him
and grabbed his arms and said I'm here Baba, I'm here, you'll be all right, I'm
right here. As if I could soothe the convulsions out of him. Talk them into leaving
my Baba alone. I felt a wetness on my knees. Saw Baba's bladder had let go. Shhh,
Baba jan, I'm here. Your son is right here.
THE DOCTOR, white-bearded and perfectly bald, pulled me out of the room. "I
want to go over your father's CAT scans with you," he said. He put the films up on
a viewing box in the hallway and pointed with the eraser end of his pencil to the
pictures of Baba's cancer, like a cop showing mug shots of the killer to the
victim's family. Baba's brain on those pictures looked like cross sections of a big
walnut, riddled with tennis ball-shaped gray things.
"As you can see, the cancer's metastasized," he said. "He'll have to take
steroids to reduce the swelling in his brain and anti-seizure medications. And I'd
recommend palliative radiation. Do you know what that means?"
I said I did. I'd become conversant in cancer talk.
"All right, then," he said. He checked his beeper. "I have to go, but you can
have me paged if you have any questions."
I spent the night sitting on a chair next to Baba's bed.
THE NEXT MORNING, the waiting room down the hall was jammed with Afghans.
The butcher from Newark. An engineer who'd worked with Baba on his
orphanage. They filed in and paid Baba their respects in hushed tones. Wished
him a swift recovery. Baba was awake then, groggy and tired, but awake.
Midmorning, General Taheri and his wife came. Soraya followed. We
glanced at each other, looked away at the same time. "How are you, my friend?"
General Taheri said, taking Baba's hand.
Baba motioned to the IV hanging from his arm. Smiled thinly. The general
"You shouldn't have burdened yourselves. All of you," Baba croaked.
"It's no burden," Khanum Taheri said.
"No burden at all. More importantly, do you need anything?" General
"Anything at all? Ask me like you'd ask a brother."
I remembered something Baba had said about Pashtuns once. We may be
hardheaded and I know we're far too proud, but, in the hour of need, believe me
that there's no one you'd rather have at your side than a Pashtun.
Baba shook his head on the pillow. "Your coming here has brightened my
eyes." The general smiled and squeezed Baba's hand. "How are you, Amir jan? Do
you need anything?"
The way he was looking at me, the kindness in his eyes... "Nay thank you,
General Sahib. I'm..." A lump shot up in my throat and my eyes teared over. I
bolted out of the room.
I wept in the hallway, by the viewing box where, the night before, I'd seen
the killer's face.
Baba's door opened and Soraya walked out of his room. She stood near
me. She was wearing a gray sweatshirt and jeans. Her hair was down. I wanted to
find comfort in her arms.
"I'm so sorry, Amir," she said. "We all knew something was wrong, but we
had no idea it was this."
I blotted my eyes with my sleeve. "He didn't want anyone to know.
"Do you need anything?"
"No." I tried to smile. She put her hand on mine. Our first touch. I took it.
Brought it to my face. My eyes. I let it go. "You'd better go back inside. Or your
father will come after me."
She smiled and nodded. "I should." She turned to go. "Soraya?"
"I'm happy you came, It means... the world to me."
THEY DISCHARGED BABA two days later. They brought in a specialist called a
radiation oncologist to talk Baba into getting radiation treatment. Baba refused.
They tried to talk me into talking him into it. But I'd seen the look on Baba's face.
I thanked them, signed their forms, and took Baba home in my Ford Torino.
That night, Baba was lying on the couch, a wool blanket covering him. I
brought him hot tea and roasted almonds. Wrapped my arms around his back
and pulled him up much too easily. His shoulder blade felt like a bird's wing
under my fingers. I pulled the blanket back up to his chest where ribs stretched
his thin, sallow skin.
"Can I do anything else for you, Baba?"
Nay, bachem. Thank you.
I sat beside him. "Then I wonder if you'll do something for me. If you're
not too exhausted."
"I want you to go khastegari. I want you to ask General Taheri for his
Baba's dry lips stretched into a smile. A spot of green on a wilted leaf. "Are
"More sure than I've ever been about anything."
"You've thought it over?"
"Then give me the phone. And my little notebook."
I blinked. "Now?"
I smiled. "Okay." I gave him the phone and the little black notebook where
Baba had scribbled his Afghan friends' numbers.
He looked up the Taheris. Dialed. Brought the receiver to his ear. My heart
was doing pirouettes in my chest.
"Jamila jan? Salaam alaykum," he said. He introduced himself. Paused.
Much better, thank you. It was so gracious of you to come." He listened for a
while. Nodded. "I'll remember that, thank you. Is General Sahib home?" Pause.
His eyes flicked to me. I wanted to laugh for some reason. Or scream. I
brought the ball of my hand to my mouth and bit on it. Baba laughed softly
through his nose.
"General Sahib, Salaam alaykum... Yes, much much better..
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