x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Third place: The Turning Point by Jody Ballard

Jody Ballard is a therapist and relationship coach in Abu Dhabi. Her story explores the relationship gap between a grandfather and his children.

The small voice in the back of my head is shouting at me. Until recently it was only a whisper. Now it is a loud tireless roar I can no longer push away. This persistent howl urges me toward action, but is deprived of words or methods. I am alone in my tortured mind without hope of reprieve. Slogging through meaningless days of rote actions, I pretend to live. I am certain only of the permanence of dying, and that death offers no second chance.

My body protests as I shift to my side and consider what this day will offer. I lay between crisp sheets in a bed so soft my body aches, I allow visions of simple joyous times to play like a movie reel in my mind. I try to revert to what is comfortable and known. When Yasmeen was by my side, she’d drag us to the shore to be nourished by the warmth of the sun. The gentle waves soothed with their reliable ebb and flow. At water’s edge peace would drift over me and the unconstrained vitality of our children distracted me. Their laughter coupled with the familiar rhythm of the sea lulled me into a contentment I can no longer find.

The sun’s announcement of day assaulted my senses and I gasped for air as a flood of desperation filled the room. Loneliness is a constant companion even when I am surrounded by family. I scare myself with a profound disconnection. A call to morning prayer relieved me and drew me from this pit. In prayer my sentiments are revealed. I have to fight not to ask for release from this pain.

Throughout breakfast I was chilled. The rush of cool fabricated air on my skin persisted and matched the hard iciness inside. I heard someone insist on going to the seashore with the children and was surprised to find it was me. It was natural I suppose, like a migratory instinct to be drawn to the sands to warm my chilled bones. Perhaps I can catch some innocent joy from my grandchildren.

They will replace me in life. I hope to recognise parts of myself in them, to better understand their ways, and make sure they know they are loved. “Why Saadiyat?” Aisha asked surprised by my request.

“They are more natural and have stretches of seashore without buildings.” Simple stated I wanted to add that I knew they also had been contrived.

“Your grandchildren enjoy the pool right here Jaddy, and I won’t be cleaning up sand for three days.” She argued, as she instructed the nannies to pack the going-out bags. Had curiosity, kindness, or a need for harmony prevailed?

“Ma’am, you know this is my day off,” Rwandhi added quickly and scampered away. Aisha’s shoulders sank and her “Humpf” echoed throughout the room. We all stood still waiting for the declaration that the trip was off, but it never came. I quickly pitched in to help finish the packing.

“Jaddy, I like Nutella on everything!” my little Atya announced as she skipped around the marble countertop in her pink fairy dress. Aisha glanced up at me and smiled as she continued to instruct the kitchen staff what to pack for our lunch. I caught her smiling as I retrieved her favourite deserts from the pantry and slid them across the counter to be included in the basket.

I would love to ask her if she understands my plight. She has always had such empathy. She can be loving and kind, but recently she has been scratchy. Her irritation floods over into each of her daily tasks and creates a tense atmosphere, heavy with incrimination. I work hard to push away a building resentment toward her. Frequently I ask myself, “What have I done wrong? How have I offended her?”

At the beach, Aisha is efficient in rounding up the children, packing and unpacking the car. By the time everyone is settled in the sand with plastic shovels and buckets, I am exhausted. I lay dozing against a dune, in and out of a peaceful rest. The scent of salt air is a balm to my earlier angst.

“Get him, you go that way,” Abdul instructs a squealing Atya as they scamper after Lucky, a long-eared Saluki. I brought this beautiful animal as one of the conditions of moving into my grandson’s home six months ago. My beloved Yasmeen named him Kareem. He is a proud, noble and distinguished hunter and is now called Lucky. To correct this mistake had been impossible. Abdul had been filled with pride at being so clever to tag him with this moniker. I think it makes him sound like a weak half-breed. I allowed them to cede his power when they diminished his strength with this demeaning American name.

I shake this notion from my mind, it’s done. I press further into a comfortable dune, and marvel at the antics of the children. In them I begin to find some reprieve from my own sadness. Retreated back into memories, I replay the vision of my children running along the shoreline teasing the tide or daring it to catch them. Digging holes in the sand, they’d contemplate the wonder of how quickly it changes as the water pushes forward to fill the void. “Watch Abi, look at this,” my son would sit fascinated for hours. These activities are as ancient as the sea. I love to watch the natural interplay between the wonders of the earth and the beauty of a child’s mind.

The shifting wind and the slight resonance of moisture on my brown leathery skin gently pulls my attention back. I adjust my kandura and sit up. Lately when my mind drifts to visions and images, I fall asleep. As a force of habit I slam my mouth shut even without my eldest son nudging me. An unforetold embarrassment of getting to 84 years of life.

“Yala habibi, the rain is coming, let’s gather our things. In 30 minutes your hair will begin to drip water into your eyes,” I said motioning toward the sky. My grandchildren glanced from me to their mother for concurrence who in turn studies the sky. Her mouth pressed to one side revealed her doubt. I am certain she hadn’t discerned the varied shades of blue of the sky and didn’t understand the red hue of morning horizon. Her hair was tied with a rubber band — she must have considered how frizzy and unmanageable it had been. In a whispered voice I ask, “Did you smell the flowers today? The perfume is stronger before the rain comes and the moist air magnifies the aroma.”

Aisha’s mouth pursed and the slight movement of her head from side to side indicated bemusement along with disagreement. Averting her gaze from mine, she glared at the children giving them their guidance. This discrete motion also told them to ignore the musings of this old man.

They continued to play as my eyes grew moist and my heart sank at her dismissive act. I was being politely ignored. My warnings and instruction seldom heeded were becoming a more frequent occurrence. With each kind, yet condescending repudiation, I feel less and less relevant, cast off. I am no longer needed.

Her son and my namesake patted my hand in the same manner I myself did to my grandfather to appease and cajole. His young face contorted to fear as he studied my brown wrinkly eyes. He tried to distract me and I allowed this kind respectful child to change the atmosphere. This was too much of a burden for a young boy of eight years. He needn’t be required to help me maintain status.

Soon after the rains came, we smiled at each other shaking our heads. Abdul inclined his chin and rolled his eyes toward Aisha. I am not sure if this gesture served to indicate I was right or a more likely scenario to show me his mother had been wrong.

“Is it time to go home Jaddy?” He asked, not wanting to dwell on our secret to long. I held my hand horizontally under the horizon then flip it back and forth under the sun.

“Check out your phone Jaddy — why are you holding your fingers to the sky? It cannot tell you the time,” Abdul announced this with such bravado, I laughed. I dropped to my knees wetting my kandura in the sand and pulled him close. “Hold your hand up to where the sea meets the heavens. I will show you how to know the hour of day without looking at electronic devices.” He grinned, intrigued as I showed him how each action equalled one hour until the sun sets or finger width is 15 minutes. I had regained a little value in his eyes and was proud.

On the ride home, I sensed Aisha’s aggravation. Her face was drawn and drained of energy. I began to talk to her of the days when we walked in the dessert and were pacified by the movement of sand between our toes. I spoke to her of the sun warming our bodies and how the open space gave our minds a place to wander. I wanted to give her a soothing image to calm her. “Uh huh,” came her response after each detailed vision. She didn’t bother to gaze in my direction, much less look into my eyes where she might be assured of my concern for her.

“Our treks back and forth from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain slowed the pace of our lives if only for a week at a time. This gave us an occasion to appreciate the blue of the sky in contrast to the varied shades of the sands. The patterns in the sand created by small creatures and the circles formed by wind battered branches were our works of art. As I walked, I’d figure out nagging problems. They would slowly grind down to nothing then I’d leave annoyances and bitter resentments in the open vastness of the desert.” I explained to give her hopeful images to counter her scratchiness. Each pause was met with her repeated “Uh huh.”

“Nature informs,” I stated as a bold exclamation to accentuate my narrative, then gave in to her subtle affront. I rocked my head back, closed my eyes and cupped my hands one into the other.

Atya’s tiny fingers began twisting my long white beard as she hung over the front seat. I could feel the heat of her face next to mine and inhaled a slight whiff of chocolate breath. Had she been listening only to the timbre of my voice or had she understood my musings? Either way, I was quite entertained with the image of the two of us and resumed telling stories.

I continued describing for her, “Leaning against the rugged Ghaf trees when the warmth and humidity of the day became unbearable and sand was at its warmest, we would patiently wait to be cooled by a passing breeze. As the high temperatures combines with wetness, it creates illusions to play with our eyes and entertains.” To determine if she was still listening I added, “I once saw an elephant with stripes,” and she giggled.

“Patterns of life can be comforting and reassuring. On the first night after leaving the shore, we ate fish. My Yasmeen would pack them in spices and layer the vegetables and rice. We would bury these over the hot coals until everything was drenched in juices.”

“Jaddy, that’s Mandi, right? My favourite too!” Atya exclaimed.

I began to tell her of my favourite meals taken around a campfire, telling funny stories of the hardships overcome during the day, and the endless games of testing each others’ knowledge of the stars. “Have you ever seen the North Star, Atya?” I asked.

“I don’t know about that Jaddy,” Atya giggled, “but on your trips, did you remember to bring lots of Nutella?”

Jody Ballard, 58, is an American therapist and relationship coach in Abu Dhabi