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Holding onto Hope: A COVID-19 Story

| This is the 544th story of Our Life Logs® |

I don’t know if my story even matters, one of an illiterate woman from the slums of Pakistan. I don’t even think people like me are counted as humans to some people. I’m used to this because society always looks down on the illiterate and extremely poor. Still, I hope telling my story might make me, and so many others in the same state that I am in, feel a little better and understood.

Where should I begin...Well, I was born in the slums of Kasur, a small village in Punjab. Upon first sight of me, my father wanted to kill me. I wasn’t a son, so I wasn’t valuable. It’s nothing new, fathers killing their daughters. I mean if you check the history of Kasur, you will come across a number of filicide cases. Daughters are considered a menace from where I come from. I was the second daughter to join our family. But my father wanted a son, so he kept trying. But instead of a son, he was given five daughters. 

A son is meant to carry on the family name and honor. To not have a single one made my father furious. Thankfully, my mother loved us all dearly and saved us from his murderous fists. She was always coming to our aid. But our safety came with a price. To keep us from getting beat, our mother would take all the beatings. Whenever we begged her not to go for yet another beating, she would always smile softly at us and say, “It’s worth it."

My father didn’t support us because we were girls, so we had very little resources and were deprived of many necessities. My mother was ill, yet she managed to work and earn for us as much as she could. Growing up, we would help our mother pick up garbage and junk for money. Sometimes the same garbage would be our dinner. I remember my youngest sister would cry for hours and hours because there was no milk to feed her. I never expected a good life for myself because I always believed, your life is what you get from day one. If it started bad, it would stay bad. 

I don’t think my father ever loved us. He wanted to get rid of us as soon as he could. When we became teenagers (and married age in his eyes), he started arranging to sell us off to be married. My elder sister was sold to a very aged man, so Father could make some money. I’ll never forget the misery my mother felt on the day she was sold. That was the downfall of my mother. The misery took her life eventually. The day we lost our mother was the day I lost hope. I knew that we were not going to be saved any longer.

I was just shy of 16 when my father decided it was my time to be sold. He arranged my marriage to Khalid Hussain, a vagabond I had never met or even seen who was nearly a decade older than me. With my new husband, I moved to Lahore, accepting that my life would continue to be hard. 

Some days, my husband had a job. Some days, he didn’t. We would find places like construction sites or abandoned areas to stay and live. For meals, we would have boiled grass. It was all we had. 

The only joy in my life was my miracle child, my son Ilyas. He was born after two miscarriages. The doctor told me that I might never be able bear a child as I was too weak and internally fragile, but miraculously, I was blessed with Ilyas. It was the happiest thing that had happened to me. It was Ilyas who brought hope back into my life.

Ilyas was a malnourished baby with a weak immune system and underdeveloped organs, but still, he was surviving and adapting. Without money to give him any treatments, our son was left to fend with his weak body on his own. 

For years, he managed. Still, I watched his energy levels dwindle quicker than the other kids. I saw how he barely ate the very little we could offer him. I always worried about him, but my husband insisted he would be fine. But I remembered what the doctors had said when he was born. Ilyas was susceptible to diseases twice as much as any normal person would be. Still, we tried to treat him normally. Growing up, Ilyas would help his father with petty things like moving bricks off the construction area, cleaning garbage sometimes or whatever the requirement was at that time. However, he would get really tired after working for as little as an hour, so we never forced him to do extra work.

Time passed, and Ilyas grew to be a man. After years and years of trying for another child, I was blessed with another son in 2016. My boys were born 20 years apart. Anees was also born under nourished, but doctors said his system was normal. 

In December 2019, we moved to a new place. It was a farmhouse which needed a caretaker family as the owners would come just twice a year to visit the place. The catch was that the house needed a lot of work and care. Khalid and Ilyas would work together to clean the area and throw the junk away. I would look after my four-year-old and prepare meals. We were settling into the new place pretty well, and I began to feel happy.

Then, in the beginning of January, Ilyas started to feel really sick. We thought it was just a common cold that he may have contracted since he was already so weak. That’s when we heard about the COVID-19 virus. An illiterate family, we knew nothing of the virus except that it existed. How were we even supposed to learn? We had no access to information like that, no television or other technology. So, we weren’t completely aware of the severity of the virus. 

Days passed by, but Ilyas didn’t get any better. He would cough all day and would tell us that he couldn’t breathe. I would give him hot water to make him feel better, but he didn’t improve. I didn’t want to tell anyone because I feared someone would take him away because of the virus. So, I didn’t ask for help. But looking back, I wish I had. Maybe it could have saved him.  

It was agonizing to watch him suffer, so we eventually caved and took him to the hospital. We booked multiple rickshaws to reach the hospital because where we lived, everything was too far. When we reached the hospital, we were informed that the hospital was already fully booked. They couldn’t accommodate any more patients. We begged and pleaded for them to take our son anyway, but they didn’t budge. The journey had taken up most of the day, and the sky was beginning to darken, so we reluctantly traveled back home. 

Ilyas's condition continued to worsen, and my instinct was telling me that I was losing him. When I woke the next morning to check on him, he was pale and extremely fragile. He barely moved or spoke. I knew it would be torture for him to take him out again in search of an open spot at a hospital. By that time, we had discovered that the country was knee-deep in the pandemic and economic catastrophe. I sobbed as I sat by my son’s bedside. I felt so helpless and vulnerable, thinking that if only I had the money, I could save my son. 

The next day, my son took his last strangled breath. The virus took him away from me forever. He was my miracle child. Since he had made it all these years, I had convinced my hopeful mind that he’d be with me forever. But one virus, one deadly virus, got to him, after almost 24 years of fighting against his weak body. And I felt it was all because I couldn’t afford to get him care. All because I was poor.  

I cried and cried for days. I wondered if we too would contract the virus and, in a few days, die too. Although this didn’t scare me. I was so devastated by his loss that I wanted to die with him. But I didn’t want my four-year-old Anees to die. He had so much more life to live. 

I tried to accept that sometimes God takes away the things we hold most dear, and that it’s for a good reason. That’s what I’d been taught. But being miserable from the loss was my right. And I knew it would never completely go away. This misery will stay with me forever.

When our owners of the place we were staying in found out that my son had passed away due to COVID-19, they asked us to vacate the area. With COVID-19 restrictions, the family had decided they would be spending more time at the farmhouse as a way to go on vacation without going far. They wanted the area cleaned. As we were still grieving, we requested for some time to get our bearings. But they didn’t care about our circumstances. They asked us to leave immediately.

Since we had no other option, we vacated the area and left. With our grief-stricken faces and few belongings, where were we to go? How could we go on? We didn’t have any place to live or any money to afford shelter. We knew that in these tough times of COVID-19, nobody would give us refuge. 

We spent the night on the road not far from that area and built a canvas out of bedsheets. My four-year- old cried out in hunger, but there was nothing we could do about it. For days, we lived like that on the road. Eating whatever we could find and sometimes going to sleep with empty stomachs. 

After about 15 days, Khalid told me that he had found a place where we could live for now. It was a construction site in the city area where work had been stopped due to the virus. There was a gas and water connection, and the owners were willing to let us to stay there till their workers were able to continue. I was a little scared to start over, especially with a piece of my heart missing, but as I stared at our latest place of shelter, I felt something grow inside me: hope. As I looked at my living son, my little boy, I saw hope too, a reason to keep going. I had to make a better tomorrow for my son Anees. 

The only thing that keeps me going is hope. Hope of having a better life. Hope of meeting Ilyas one day. Hope of seeing my son Anees grow up to have a better life. Life may be hard for us right now, but this darkened phase will turn into light one day. I must hold onto that hope.  For without hope, I have nothing.

This is the story of Irum Bibi

Irum unfortunately lost her son to COVID-19. She’s still grieving and perhaps she always will. She has a really strong faith and the fact that she never let her hope die kept her going. She wants the best for her other son Anees who is four years old. She wants to get out of the darkened phase her family has been in since her son’s death. She believes that one day they will if they continue to hope.

Irum with her son and husband.

This story first touched our hearts on October 18, 2020

Writer: Noor Pasha | Editor: Kristen Petronio


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