I received the call when I was at work trying to add the names of new clients to the database. I asked my boss if I could leave a little early for an appointment and she was nice enough to accept, given that I was a recent hire.
I walked out of the building, and was immediately hit by the thick humid air. I felt like I was standing in front of a hot steamer. I grabbed my shades to protect my eyes from the blinding, mid-July sun. I was rushing home when a few elementary school kids on their bicycles passed me. One of them lost balance, dropped his blue slushy and the side handle of his bicycle got caught in my purse. The little boy was quick to apologize for the mess he made, especially after he saw that some of the cold sticky drink spilled on my shirt. The day was really telling of why I disliked summers so much.
I went home to change before heading to the ninth floor of the building, now late because of the incident. I sighed as I knocked on the door, praying everything was okay. Julia opened the door, and with a small smile she moved closer to kiss my cheek. I couldn’t bring myself to ask if everything was all right, but seeing her smile told me we still had hope.
As I entered the living room, I was greeted with tiny arms clenched tightly to my legs. I picked up little Wilson and carried him in my arms. He put his arms around my neck in a tight hug and said, “Teta Naz, chocolate?” I smiled at how adorable this four-year-old boy sounded saying “chalk-ate”, and pulled out a KitKat I had picked up for him on my way over. I asked him for a kiss before giving him the chocolate. He gave me the smallest peck and pretended to fall back and faint in pleasure like he had seen his father do when he kissed Wilson.
Tamara came into the living room and smiled at her son’s sweetness. Knowing the reason for Julia’s call, I went straight into the master bedroom, putting on a smile before entering. A million thoughts ran through my head and I tried to choose the best ones to make sure I didn’t end up in tears as I walked into the room. Dominic laid on the bed, eyes closed, breathing lightly. He was pale and his lips were slightly cracked. He was wearing a light blue shirt. He still looked handsome, even in his state. I sat on the chair beside him as he opened his eyes. He smiled seeing me and tried to sit up. I knew telling him to lie back down would not work, so I helped him up, careful not to touch the IV in his hand.
“I heard Mom bugged you at work again. I really am fine,” he said with an embarrassed smile as I sat back on the chair.
“Yeah, I can see how fine you are. Want to tell me what happened?” I asked with a small chuckle to match his light smile.
“I went out for a walk and I got tired. Before you say anything, I’ve already heard enough from Mom and Tammy,” He patted the space on the bed beside him. “You are so far away, come here.”
I moved to his side on the bed and sat down carefully, so as not to ruin anything. His brown hair looked blonder when it caught the light. I leaned in and kissed his forehead. “You should have taken someone with you. I’m glad Julia is a nurse and knows what she’s doing. I was worried when she called.”
“Mom has been great; I think nursing me to health is what keeps her from losing it.”
“I am glad Tamara is here with Wilson. Their presence is good for you and Julia.”
I first met Dominic nearly 3 years ago when he came into the building to visit his mother. We had run into each other a few times in the elevator when I visited the management office. He was always polite and tried to make small conversation when we saw each other.
It wasn’t until two years ago that we first became friends.
It was a dark cloudy afternoon when I had to go out to pick up some food from the Mediterranean restaurant a couple of blocks away. He had missed the first bus so he could wait until I reached the bus stop to give me a student bus pass he had found at his workplace. I remember I was not in any mood to socialize that day, but he tried to carry the conversation. It had started to rain heavily as we waited for the bus together. He had introduced himself and told me he comes to the building to see his mother, Julia, every few days. On the short bus ride, he asked me where I worked and what I studied and told me that he was an architect. I appreciated the conversation. It took my mind off an argument I had with my brother earlier that day.
In the next few weeks, I ran into him at the bus stop daily, right before work. We took the bus together to the station and parted ways as we took different trains. The 25-minute bus rides became the highlight of my summer days. Despite the 8-year age difference, we became friends quickly. I learned he had finished his studies in Slovakia before moving to Canada with his mother. He had to re-evaluate his degree and study for a few years to be able to find employment here as an architect at a firm.
He told me about his brother and two nephews in Slovakia, and that his father had left them at an early age and went to Russia. Julia, had to take care of her sons from a young age. Later, she and Dominic took care of each other. Even after they had moved to Canada, Dominic cared the most for his mother.
Seeing Dominic so weak on that bed made my heart ache. There was a heavy weight sitting on my chest and I had to swallow and breathe before I could get my words out. I tried to be strong for him.
I reached into my purse and took out the charm bracelet he had given me to fix. It was made of jade stones, a larger one in the middle and two smaller ones on each side with silver pieces in between. In my Middle Eastern culture, it is believed that the jade stones represent strength and bring luck and good health. I had gotten it made for him eight months ago when I visited my home country.
His eyes widened in delight. He looked at the jade stone of the ring in my hand, which matched his bracelet. “Hey, you got it fixed. Thanks! I can’t believe I missed it. I get your attachment to your rings now.”
I smiled wider, happy to know he genuinely liked the bracelet. “Get better soon. I look forward to going out for a walk.”
His smile faltered and we both fell silent.
I am glad Julia called me to come see him. Dominic needed a little laughter. He needed people not to treat him with pity but to act normal around him. When he asked me why I didn’t wear the bracelet he got me for my birthday, I did not want to lie to him, especially since he knows me so well now. I shrugged. It was an expensive diamond bracelet and I felt it signified more than just friendship. I had accepted it because of how much he had insisted and I did not want to break his heart.
I don’t normally like to share much about myself. Few people knew me, and Dominic was one of the very few whom I could talk to and who would give me the best advice. I did not know him as well, and it made me sad I wasn’t able to read him as well as he could read me. When I first found out about Tamara and Wilson, I was shocked. At the beginning of our friendship, I felt like he shared more of himself with me than I did with him until he invited me over to dinner with his family. I was oddly nervous to go to the dinner and meet his mother. I am never nervous.
It was during that dinner that I met little Wilson and Tamara. Dominic had told me about their separation, and I could not comprehend how during all those months of friendship, his son and ex-girlfriend never came up. I was confused and hurt as to why he would hide such a big part of his life. We had our first fight after that dinner. He told me he wanted to be more than friends. Telling me about this part of his life may have scared me away before he had a chance to make an impression. To me, he was always a friend and I told him that. After that, we did not see each other for four months.
Sitting beside him on the bed, I held his weak hands in mine and prayed with every cell in my body that he stayed with me. Julia brought in some soup just in time to break the silence. I got up from my seat and let her sit closer to her son, so she could feed him. Her eyes welled up with tears. Seeing her sadness, Dominic asked her if it would be okay if I helped him eat today instead of her. She stifled a “sure” and left the room. She could not bear to see her son so sick and unable to eat on his own, and yet she was forced to witness his growing weakness every day.
I offered Dominic a spoonful of soup, blowing on it softly to cool it down before he could have it. He told me he would like some of my mother’s food if I could bring him some. I asked him what he would like me to bring him, and he asked for some Persian dumplings. I smiled and promised him I would bring it over the next time I visited. My mother had invited Dominic over for dinner a few times after she first met him. He had helped her and my brother move our furniture when he was coincidentally in the building on the day of our furniture delivery. He loved her food and she had made it a routine to invite him over for our dinners on any special cultural event. Sometimes, he would bring Julia or Wilson with him. I used to love seeing them bond and connect. Dominic and his family have been very close to my heart.
Excusing myself, I put the bowls back on the tray and left the room to drop the tray off in the kitchen. Julia was sitting on a chair in the living room, softly crying. Tamara’s hand was rubbing her shoulder. Tamara saw me and walked up to me, saying I should visit more often if I can. She said it would help to have me over so as to not drown in thoughts of hopelessness. I told her I would try to take some time off work and visit more. Back in the bedroom, I sat beside Dominic on the bed. He was laying down again, the little conversation and effort to eat had worn him down. I asked him if I should leave so he could rest up.
“Tell me something sad. I want to hear a sad experience that is not mine,” he said with a chuckle.
I told him about the fight I had had with my father before he left for his trip to another city. I was only three and a half and I threw a fit over something worthless the night before my father left. I refused to apologize to him or say bye before his trip. I had expected him to come back in a few days with a toy, to kiss my cheeks and have me lay on his back as I slept.
My father never returned.
I needed to make up with him and make everything good. I waited for the biscuits he bought on his way home for me every week. I waited for the hugs and kisses he would give me and the little tickles on my belly so I would laugh a lot and tell him I loved him too. He did not return and the last words I ever said to him were that I wanted him gone and how much I hated him. I didn’t find out until years later that he was shot in his pharmacy because of some political rally gone wrong. It is the most painful memory I have. It taught me to never leave someone I love if we are in a fight. It taught me to make amends, because life is not guaranteed.
A tear ran down my cheek as I finished the story. I wiped it away quickly. Dominic brought my hand to his lips and kissed my palm softly. “I promise not to leave like that. At this point, that is all I can say to you. I am so incredibly sorry.”
I forced a smile. We both knew he did not have much time, and he was not just sorry for my father or the child-me losing hope. He was sorry he would leave, too.
In the four months we did not speak, he tried reaching out a few times. I was not prepared to deal with the fact that my closest friend could not accept my friendship. It was harder to accept that than to know he had a past I didn’t know about. A part of me always felt like the reason I insisted on just friendship was because of how alone I had felt before I met him. I have always felt like anything more than that would end one day and I was too afraid to lose him.
Four months after our fight and the dinner, I decided to pick up his call. He was at the hospital because he’d lost consciousness on his way back from work. Panicked, I went to the hospital to see him. The sight of him after so long made me burst into tears and I hugged him tight. I told him I had missed him and he apologized for having disappointed me. He had lost a little bit of weight. I kissed his cheek and told him I am just glad he is all right. That was the first time he had fainted and was taken to the hospital. He thought it was dehydration, and it was forgotten about for a couple of months.
The second time he fainted, he had felt pain in his chest area for a few weeks. We had started to see more of each other by then and I had visited Wilson, Tamara, and Julia a few times, too. After running several tests, the doctors suspected he had cancer.
Three months later, it was confirmed to be a case of pancreatic cancer.
I was there when the doctors told him, and saw the colour drain from Dominic’s face. The horrible news did not register in my mind until minutes later. Even then, I could not believe it. I remember mustering up the energy to speak a few words with the doctor. The doctor said they will do their best to start the procedures as soon as possible. To buy him more time at least. At that point, they told him he had six months or a year at best.
On the way home, we were quiet. Both of us were in shock. I could faintly hear him say Wilson’s name repeatedly. I reached over and held his hand. It seemed so silly and meaningless to me, but I didn’t know what else I could do to fix things. I had always thought I had the solution to everything; I could fix anything. I would never be in an awkward situation. I would always be able to speak at any given moment. That bus ride taught me I couldn’t.
I suddenly started chuckling, and Dominic looked over confused. I couldn’t stop laughing, I hated myself for it. Tears poured down my eyes as I laughed hysterically. Dominic looked at me in silence and put his arm around me. I remember saying sorry repeatedly but could not stop my laughter. He ran his hand over my hair and patted it slowly and told me to let it out. I started sobbing. At the fact that even then, he was consoling me instead of the other way around. I was sobbing for my friend, and what he was going through at that moment.
I was crying for Wilson losing his father so young. I was crying for Julia and Tamara. I was crying for the child-me, who had known loss since before the age of four, and for Wilson who would live the life I had to live.
When Julia found out, there was a lot of screaming and crying. Dominic just told her to be patient. I was surprised at how collected and calm he always remained throughout that chaotic time. I decided I would not cry and remind him of his weakness. I would support him and be there for him for as long as I could. I never again let him see me in tears. Not until I told him the story about my father.
In that year, Dominic did a lot of the things he liked that he was permitted to do by the doctors. He worked and saved up for Wilson’s future. He threw parties, and spent a lot of his time with family and close friends. All the bureaucratic work that needed to be done for Julia or Tamara, he took care of or told me to do it. In the last month, he finally convinced Tamara to move into the same building as Julia and I. He had moved into Julia’s apartment too because he could no longer work, pay rent, or even take care of himself.
“Teta Naz, I want round round please,” said Wilson, running into the bedroom and jolting me back to reality.
“You want me to spin you around in circles?”
“Fast,” he replied, clenching his little fists with his arms out. I laughed and picked him up. Dominic smiled and told Wilson not to tire me out.
“I want to live with Papa,” Wilson said, as I carried him into the living room.
“You will live in this building with Mama very soon. One more week,” I said, spinning him in the living room. His beautiful, joyous laughter echoed around the silent house. I was grateful for this little angel.
Three days later, my mom made Persian dumplings and I brought them over for Dominic. He loved them and ate more than he usually would, perhaps to make me happy. As I reached to grab the plates and take them back to the kitchen, he lightly touched my wrist. “You finally wore it,” he said. I had worn the bracelet he had gotten me. I wanted him to know how much he meant to me. I wanted him to know there was a chance of more for us. That I would have put my fears of losing him aside had things been different, and actually given us a chance.
Today, as I was cleaning out my bookshelf, a paper folded in half fell on the floor. I knew what it was, I had put it there to avoid reading it again. I couldn’t throw it out. It was the eulogy I had written for Dominic. I never read it at the memorial service. What Dominic needed to hear from me, I had told him.
At the time, the funeral and the memorial all seemed so mundane, I did not want a part of it. I went and listened to Julia speak. Dominic’s father and brother also spoke. I couldn’t bring myself to read what I had written because there wasn’t anything I could write or say that I wanted to share with other people. Perhaps it was selfish of me, but my memories of us felt like they were only for Dominic and I, not for others to hear and wave away. I opened the piece of paper and read the words I had memorized.
Dominic was the pure soul who was simply too good for us to begin with. He was bound to leave and find a higher and better world to be in. At every stage of our friendship, he taught me a lesson. He taught me to be strong regardless of how tough life gets. His strength and patience taught me that being happy is never impossible. His hard work taught me to not lose hope, until my last breath. His kindness showed me the good that we have in the world. Dominic’s preparedness for everything showed me what caring selflessly for others meant. I am grateful to have had him as a friend by my side for three wholesome years, and grateful for all the memories he left me with to cherish forever. I pray for him day and night and hope he is happy wherever he may be. I hope to be a fraction as good a person as he was. I will always go to sleep every night asking if I have been a version of myself he would be proud to be friends with, and I wake up every morning thinking I want to be better today. At the end of the day, I know that he is in my heart, always guiding and supporting me. And all of you.
I folded the piece of paper and pushed it back under the books on the shelf. I pulled out a Polaroid of us I had kept on the same shelf. He was smiling wide and I was looking at him laughing at something he had said. I found a magnet and put the photo up on my fridge door. I smiled looking at it. It took me years to be able to look at anything belonging to him and not tear up. Now I find myself grateful for all the memories. Grateful for knowing Dominic and having had someone with whom I felt connected. Grateful for knowing Wilson, Julia and Tamara, who are now my second family.