Up in the mountains: Where the heart is

In sickness and health— once you get used to mountain-dwelling, anything else pales in comparison.

Zahrah Nasir June 05, 2011

When your world comes to a sudden and devastating end, there really isn’t anyone capable, no matter how good their intentions are, of making personal decisions for you. As you hit rock bottom — that chasm filled with knives, pain and petrifying confusion — the only person who can find the strength to bounce right back up and sock the world in the jaw … is you!

“What you have to do right now is go straight home, pick up the phone, call an estate agent and put your house on the market,” the medical specialist instructed me in no uncertain terms. “It is no longer possible for you to live in the mountains. You are only to walk on flat ground which is not possible here. Move down to Islamabad or somewhere as you definitely can’t stay up here. Meanwhile, until you find a buyer, no heavy work, no chopping firewood, no sweeping the floor, no heavy laundry and absolutely no gardening. Have you got all of this, Zahrah?”

My mind refused to even think of digesting what I was being told. I left his office, robotically got in a cab, numbly bought supplies in the bazaar, arrived home in an agonised daze of disbelief then sat, surrounded by commiserating dogs, on the doorstep and drifted off to a place that only the bereaved can comprehend. I had been in this fragmented landscape before. Wandered in it for months on end after my husband passed away just over a year previously and, to be honest, I had only now started to make some sense out of my fractured life … and now this.

My mother, psychically tuning in as mothers tend to do, chose that same evening to telephone and immediately knew, from my voice, that something was seriously wrong. In telling her I was telling myself: “Mum, I’ve just been diagnosed with severe osteoporosis. The specialist says that I can’t stay here anymore, that I have to live somewhere flat, somewhere with people and services close by, in case I need help.”

“Then you had better come home so that we can look after you,” she promptly said. “You’ve been managing very well over there on your own but now it’s time you came back.”

The matter was cut and dried as far as mum was concerned. I was supposed to sell off the dream first we, then I, had created and lived for so many years. I was supposed to pack over 20 years of my life in a suitcase, turn my back on Pakistan, on writing, on everything that has been so hard-won, give my dogs away or put them to sleep, to go reside with one family member or another in the dreary UK until I found a miserable ground floor flat to shrivel up and die in. The enormity of it all totally escaped mum: “Your dad and I will help you get settled, of course, and we do have the National Health Service and you’ll need good doctors. You won’t be able to get a job of course, unemployment is dreadful, but you’ll get government assistance of some kind so you won’t starve. We’ve been wanting you to come home for years and now you’ll have to.”

“I’ll think about it, mum,” was all I could say, and think I did over the following stressful months.

Returning to the UK, a country I left in 1983 and to mum’s home which I had left even earlier was not a viable option: if the osteoporosis didn’t put paid to me then the kind of low-grade, miserably grey existence I anticipated there certainly would. The osteoporosis had been diagnosed after months of back problems and even a leg giving way from time to time. The results of the bone density scan and x-rays were frightening but ... frightening enough to send me scurrying back down the years to a life that was never ‘me’?

It was in October that I was awarded my sentence of ‘sell up and leave or else’. Treatment began immediately, of course: medicines, high-calcium diet, specific exercises. I prepared for the mountain winter by buying ready cut firewood, by having steps with chain railings to hang on to made between the steep garden terraces, by investing in boots with heavy duty grips, a large walking stick and hot water bottles to soothe my aching bones. The high-calcium diet was rigorously followed no matter how sick of sardines I got. No caffeine meant no tea, coffee, cocoa, chocolate but I soon got used to it and even enjoy it now … especially the ‘hard cheese’ part. The exercise bike was dusted off and put back in daily use and, in the unavoidable absence of household help, I bought a vacuum cleaner with an array of attachments. All the while struggling with major decisions and stalling for time.

At some point I even found a buyer for my home, a buyer who promised to look after the garden and I put him on hold, promising to let him know ‘soon’.

I took up Pilates. Putting myself gently through the exercises each morning, before breakfast, out on what passes as the ‘front lawn’ which is cut off from observers by high walls. As I stretched and swayed with interested dogs trying to join in, I lost myself in mountain views, mountain air, mountain scents…even the eau d’buffalo wafting in from next door became bearable! Yet I was always dithering between staying or moving on — weekly prodded by concerned phone calls from mum. Friends offered advice too but mum was the most persistent.

Winter dragged on: water shortages and biting cold made my bones ache along with my heart.

“I’ve reached a decision mum,” I told her some time in February when the days were dark and everything seemed to be conspiring against me. “I’ve decided that I won’t make any major decisions until after the next bone scan in May.” I wasn’t yet ready to tell her that if I had to move then it would only be further up the mountain and next to the road!

Suddenly it was spring: warm sunshine bathed the garden as the fruit trees blossomed and I sowed vegetable seeds with the assistance of hired help. Spring flowers put on a breathtaking show and melodic birdsong filled the day from dawn to dusk as I worried, endlessly, about May.

“It’s May next week,” announced mum. “Have you made an appointment yet?”

Putting off making the necessary phone call was as nerve-wracking as finally making it. I decided to kill two birds with one stone: bone scan at 11:30 am followed by consultation with the orthopedic specialist at 2:00 pm I didn’t sleep for two full nights before the appointment. The drive down to Rawalpindi passed without my registering anything at all and then … into the jaws of the machine I went, wishing that there was someone, anyone, with me to hold my hand.

I died a thousand deaths lying flat out on the table as the scanning machine whirred, clicked, whirred again, moved on the back for a second check. I would rather it went on forever than have to stand there while the attached computer spit out my sentence which it eventually did and — miracles do happen — there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and I do have a life to live after all!

After the nightmarish seven months, the osteoporosis has gone. It has been replaced by osteopenia, the precursor to osteoporosis and the specialist hopes that, as long as I stick to treatment, diet and exercise, that too will disappear in another year or so. I don’t have to sell my home. I don’t have to leave the mountains. I can keep my garden, my dogs, the life I love in a country I love and the world is vibrantly beautiful once more.

Mum had made me promise to phone her as soon as I knew anything and I did. Thankfully dad answered the phone!

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 5th, 2011.


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