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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

It is terrible to have your mother die. It is a nightmare to have her die alone. It is a horror story to have her die in pain.

My family lives in Homs, Syria – a war zone. I have not been able to be with them for nearly a decade. Ever since I left, my worst fear was that I might never see my mom and brothers again. But the reality was worse than I could have imagined.

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I fled Syria fearing for their safety. I didn’t fear bullets or death, I feared detention, forcible disappearance and my family being harmed because of my political stance. Bashar al-Assad’s mafia is awful and I was on their list. I found work in Dubai, Amman and Beirut; this allowed me to send money while my family lived under siege and shelling.

In 2014, as I was moving to Toronto to resettle and attend university, al-Assad succeeded in destroying Homs. My family was forcibly moved to Idlib. They became what the United Nations reductively refers to as “internally displaced people.”

I tried to envision a time when Syria would be free and we’ll enjoy a meal together again, to share some of life’s small, memorable moments. The only good thing about Idlib is internet service, which allowed us, despite the misery, to connect and chat, laugh and argue. My mom even taught me how to cook Syrian food for my boyfriend. I hid my depression, but I could tell she knew. She was there for me.

Then, last January, my brother texted me saying that my mother had suffered a brain stroke.

“What happened, where is she, what’s happening?” I wrote back. Hospitals in Idlib are overwhelmed from the continued bombardment.

“Her critical situation has passed, she just needs some care,” he replied, but then he moved her to a private, more expensive, presumably better hospital. But that didn’t help, either, and the next day I woke to the news that my mother’s only chance for survival was to be moved again – this time to a hospital in Turkey. My brothers had to plead with Turkish border control to allow her emergency access to Antakya. It took hours to get her to that hospital, and she was unconscious and alone. My brothers were forced to stay at the border and send her into the unknown.

I wanted to take the first flight to Turkey. “Your presence won’t help,” my brother said, urging me to be patient. “The hospital won’t even let you see her more than five minutes.”

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That night, my heart ached beyond words. I felt ashamed that I had let him persuade me. I booked my flight and asked a Turkish friend to connect me with someone in the city.

I landed 34 hours later, around midnight, and was taken to the hospital. I had to wait about an hour and was told very little about her condition. Eventually, I was allowed to see her, my heart beat through my chest as I walked toward her.

She lay fragile and unconscious in a busy and inadequate intensive care unit. But when I touched her, I knew she felt me. Pain and sorrow rocked me. I could see bruises all over her body. The breathing machine was so tight around her jaw that her face was swollen, yet no one adjusted the straps to ease her pain. I touched her soft skin and cried, wishing that I might carry some of her pain. I barely had five minutes with her before I was asked to leave.

The next day, I spent hours looking for a doctor to help me understand her condition. The lead doctor finally confirmed that she was in a coma and there was little hope. “Why did no one care to tell me earlier?” I cried out. The doctor looked away, explaining that they were doing all they could. I was granted five minutes with my mother, but that was cut short when my crying became unbearable for the staff.

My mother might die any minute, but I was asked to leave.

That night I yearned to be with her, to hold her hand, for her to know I didn’t leave her alone. Even in a coma, people can hear and feel. I couldn’t wait to tell her how much I loved her.

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In the morning, my Turkish companions urged me to have breakfast. When they finally realized I was too anxious to eat, they told me the hospital had called earlier and we should come in immediately. Thirty minutes had already passed. I was frantic. We were almost at the hospital when the phone rang again.

Mom’s heart had stopped. I was 15 minutes too late.

I felt like I was falling into miserable nothingness; my limbs felt frozen, but were also shaking. I was terrified and angry; I should’ve stayed by her side yesterday. That was, and will remain, my biggest regret.

When we arrived at the hospital, I still had to wait to see her. Her body was bruised, the corner of her mouth was ripped, blood was left on her face and, worst of all, her eyes had a look of deep anguish.

I begged for a few minutes alone with her, but the driver who’d be returning her body to be washed and buried in Idlib was rushing me. He had many other bodies to deliver that day. Shaking, crying and screaming at the cruelty of it all, I helped place my mother in a hideous green plastic coffin. In my grief, I wanted to die, too, so I could keep her company on the drive, but I’m not allowed to go near Syria.

My mother lived through terrible poverty, desperately trying to feed my brothers and me in a broken country that lacked basic human rights. For the past eight years, she endured hunger, lack of water and electricity, frequent bombardment, and one of her sons has disappeared in al-Assad’s torture centres — we have no idea if he is alive or dead.

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After such a life, she died in pain, denied even the chance to have her daughter by her side. Was I arrogant or stupid to think that good people like my mother, Samar, could prevail? When she died, so did my faith in justice. I cannot come to terms with her death. And the fact that I was just 15 minutes too late haunts me still.

Reem Alhaj now lives in Amsterdam.

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