I Am Not My Sister’s Mother 

March 2021

I did not want to be in the emergency room of Trillium Hospital, but I had to be.

Hand in hand, Haidi and I entered the waiting area. I had already told her of the Covid-19 protocols; I asked her to sanitize her hands, draped a mask on her face, and answered the hospital’s questionnaire on her behalf. Mom trailed behind—close enough to intervene if needed, far enough to keep Haidi at ease.

Haidi scanned the room, then quietly stated A’yza chocolata (“I want chocolate”), as she headed towards a vacant seat by the vending machine. 

“Dooda, wouldn’t it be better to sit over there?” I gestured to the reception desk. She wouldn’t budge. I didn’t have her attention; songs from her favourite Spotify playlist blasted through her headphones.

“Dooda, Dooda,” I repeated, hoping to catch her attention, but her expression remained vacant. “I’m going to check us in. I will speak with a nurse for a few minutes. Please stay here. Please don’t speak to anyone until I’m back. Listen to your music.” I repeated my instructions again. I hoped that she would follow.

I shuffled to the front desk. My eyes did a three-step dance: nurse, Haidi, exit door. Nurse, Haidi, exit door. With every rotation completed, I found it harder to breathe.

At the desk, I handed the nurse Haidi’s health card. I confirmed my sister’s birth month and year—May 2003. The nurse did not look at me; her eyes were affixed to the form she was filling on the computer.

She shot her first question at me: “What brings you to the hospital?”

“My sister is on the spectrum. She has been having a lot of meltdowns, and we needed a psychiatrist to see her, possibly to change her medicine,” I answered.

“Are you her guardian?” Another question, spoken with disdain.

“No ma’am,” I replied, trying my best to keep my calm.

“Well, where is her mother?” The nurse retorted, finally raising her eyes to meet mine. In regular circumstances, I would bite down on my teeth so hard that they could chip. I would allow my anger to fizzle. As I stood, I did not have the energy to avenge my bruised pride. All my energy was going towards the dance that my eyes were doing.

I inhaled and allowed my eyes to soften. A tear or two emerged.

“Ma’am, her mother does not speak English. I understand that this is frustrating. But my sister just had a violent meltdown before we got here. She got physically aggressive, and she’s at risk of running away. Please, try to understand,” I pleaded, knowing that my attempt to win her over could backfire.

“Okay,” she acknowledged. “I’ll talk to the nurses and try to get someone to see her quickly.”

I returned to Haidi. I was ahead of a war I did not want to fight. I closed my eyes and tried to think of the online lectures I missed and the upcoming finals season. But instead, I found myself frantically praying that Haidi continued to be seated or, at worst, stimmed nondisruptively. I breathed what little air my lungs could ingest.

Haidi’s name was called, and I spotted a procession of blue scrubs. They steered us into a different room. They asked me questions about Haidi’s condition. 

“How were the past few days?”

“When angry, how did Haidi behave?” 

“What is the name and dose of her medication?”

After going through the door, Haidi slowed down. Before us were rooms that locked from the outside and had windows for onlookers to peer into. We were in the psychiatric unit. Haidi squatted down and clung onto the leg of the nurse who was peppering me with questions. The nurse froze. Haidi was trying to calm herself by moving the nurse’s leg, dragging it forward and back, forward and back. The nurse panicked, and called her male colleague, who called security. Haidi would not budge. She dug her nail into the nurse’s legs. A river of red dripped to her socks. I couldn’t breathe.

Shy from one nurse who monitored the other patients, every staff member in the unit was now trying to wrestle Haidi off the nurse’s leg. Everything and everyone before me turned into silhouettes as I hyperventilated. After some sharp breaths, my eyes focused again, and I found Haidi on a stretcher. As they pinned her down, the staff formulated a plan: they had to sedate Haidi. They communicated in sporadic bursts, knowing that Haidi’s kicks, punches, and shrieks could not afford them the luxury of uninterrupted speech anytime soon. 

To prick Haidi with the sedative, the staff had to restrain her with more force. In whatever broken English she could salvage to defend her daughter, Mom shouted, “Everybody STOP!  No, you can’t.” In the same instant, her eyes welled up, shooting rays of fury at every person part of this mess. 

“You hurt my daughter,” she said, attempting to stop the flood of tears begging to be unleashed. She had the staff’s attention for three seconds. After the third, they gathered that the both of us had to be escorted out. The security shoved Mom and I outside the door from which we entered. Haidi screamed my name. 

Like lost children, we wailed in the hallway.

June 2010

“Please, Mom. I don’t want to go to the playground with Haidi.”

We were in the bedroom that Haidi and I shared. I had unwillingly dressed myself up. The way that my tight t-shirt pressed on the knot in my stomach made me want to hurl.

“Stop whining, Rola. We have to go,” Mom replied swiftly. She continued packing a backpack with all the stuff that Haidi would need at the playground. Mom furiously rummaged through the toys to find Farafeero, Haidi’s comfort sock puppet. 

My mom handed me the backpack to wear, Haidi gave me her hand to hold, and we all headed out. We left the apartment, went down the elevator, and loaded ourselves into the car. We drove to Al Ahly Sporting Club—one of few places in our area that had a playground we could go to at night.

Before we headed off, Mom reminded me of the commandments: “Don’t lose Haidi, if someone is harassing her tell them off, and don’t let her talk to anyone. And remember to always make her run and play—wear her out so she can come back home and sleep.”

There was a time when someone else handled supervising Haidi at the playground. Ms. Ghada, Haidi’s peer support worker, took on that role when I was in the third grade. But this changed when, one day, Mom bathed Haidi and found bruises on her body. Ms. Ghada had been pinching Haidi into obeying her instructions. I never saw Ms. Ghada again, and I returned to my supervision duties.

Haidi ran into the playground. She went above the slides and under them. Then, she took interest in another seven-year-old girl that sported a Strawberry Shortcake t-shirt. She reached for her long braid as she asked her what her name was.

The seven-year-old jumped away from Haidi, shouting, enty a’bita wala eih? (“are you stupid?”) 

I was ready to pounce on this girl; my sister was not to be spoken to in this way. Bent enty, lemy nafsek badal malemek (“you girl, watch it before I come for you”), I said. The whites of my eyes and my clenched knuckles made her swallow her words. She found another spot to play.

“Haidi please,” I pleaded, “Can you stop talking to people? It’s just not safe.”

“But I want friends,” she begged, “I just want friends to play with.”

“I know, but you can’t have them.” I looked at Haidi, then looked at a group of cool 11-year-olds in the distance, sitting on a table opposite the playground and sipping lemonade. They wore superman shirts, pink and teal Ice-Watches on their wrists, and looked free of all care. 

I wished I was sitting with them.

March 2021

After Haidi was sedated, I stayed overnight with her at the psychiatric unit. The psychiatrist on-call arrived the morning after. “I believe your sister would be better off in your care than she would be in a psychiatric ward,” she said. She referred us to a long-term psychiatrist, prescribed a sedative for Haidi, and parted ways with us.

Six weeks later, I filed petitions to defer my exams and assignments; finals season came and went. As I explained to the Office of the Registrar why I had not met my deadlines, I felt numb and hollow. My stomach and throat pulsed, longing to relieve me from my nausea by puking. My body was so stiff that my previously relaxing meditation practice felt like prolonged bouts of sleep paralysis. My eyes begged me to intervene, even if with a few tears. I couldn’t shed any.

After I finished the petitions, I peered outside my door to see if Mom or Haidi were in the kitchen. They sat in the living room. I headed into the kitchen, grabbed a mug, and put it under the tap of running water. I could feel a headache pressing into my forehead. I knew this headache; it was the headache that came when I hadn’t eaten for a while. I couldn’t remember the last time my stomach could digest anything other than shreds of pita bread. For weeks, I couldn’t feed myself or clean my room. But I managed to keep Haidi safe until her medication worked; her violent outbursts were replaced by giddiness and keenness for life. I kept Mom safe; I ran outside to de-escalate all of my sister’s “I hate you”s before they festered into pinches and punches. But at this moment, I could not look at either of them without being engulfed in flames of rage. I’d tried to avoid this feeling in the nights I’d spent binge watching YouTube videos I did not care for. The resentment ran so deep I wanted to reduce myself to nothingness in protest.

When I returned to my room, I made my decision; if I wanted to continue living, I needed to leave home. I texted a friend asking for a couch to sleep on. I packed some clothes, my laptop, and a charger into a backpack. I went out of my room to inform Mom about my decision.

“Daughter, please,” she begged, “you can’t go. You’re not in a good place.”

Mom begged, commanded, and persuaded. But she sensed the finality in my decision; to stay alive, I had to leave.

Then, she surprised me. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll book a room for you at the Holiday Inn for a few days. Your friend can’t care for you in this condition, believe me.”

I agreed with her terms, and we left immediately. I hoped to sneak out quietly, but Haidi stopped us.

“Rola, where are you going?” she asked.

“I need to leave, Haidi,” I replied. Usually, I would lay out a whole story to help her make sense of a radical change like this. Now, this sentence was the best I could do.

“But we are friends. Why are you leaving home?” she inquired. 

“I know we are friends, Haidi. But I need to leave.”

She let me go. We drove to the Holiday Inn. Mom helped me check in at the reception. She asked if she could help me up to my room. I let out a scornful chuckle, ordered the elevator, and entered without looking back. I caught a glimpse of Mom’s reflection in the mirror and saw defeat in her eyes; I had robbed her of a goodbye.

I entered my room and finally let myself cry.

July 2022

I lie on a beach towel, looking up at the sky above. Like my thoughts, the sky is clear. I breathe in the soft summer breeze. Seagulls are flying in circles. Haidi is digging a hole in the ground beside me. After a year off, I’m enrolled in the summer semester. Haidi had been asking to go to the beach, so we decided that this Saturday was a good day to do it. I only had to think about the snacks we would eat, the sunblock we would apply, and the swimsuits we would wear.

“Rola, can you help me?” asks Haidi.

“Not before we put some sunblock on, missy,” I reply with a smile.

She turns her back to me. Mom crouches to spray the cream onto her back. Not expecting how chilly the spray is, Haidi lets out a “Hey! Stop!” Mom and I giggle.

We dig a hole that Haidi decides to sleep in and make a sand mermaid out of her. She is smiling. I am smiling. Mom is smiling.

“Sissy, let’s go to the sea,” says Haidi.

“Are you sure?” I ask, hesitantly.

“Yes! Let’s swim!”

I can’t remember the last time Haidi asked to go swim in the sea. The corners of my smile split wider, exposing the teeth behind my lips. We dip our shins in the frigid water and realize we both made a mistake. We dash to the dry, sandy shore.

Haidi wraps herself in a towel for warmth. Three speakers blast music at the same time, and I get a little irked. But Haidi holds her own; she’s still smiling. Occasionally, she runs back and forth when the sounds are too overwhelming. But for the most part, she stays put, blanketing herself in a beach towel and a grin.

The day comes to an end. As the sun sets, we drive back home.

Haidi breaks the silence, “This was a fun day.”

“It sure was, Dooda,” I reply.

“So why don’t you guys take me out like you did today?” she asks.

“What do you mean?” I reply for clarification.

“Why is it that you don’t take me to nice places? Why are you always pulling me anytime we go out? Why did you always say no to anything I wanted?” she says, making herself clear.

Mom and I take deep breaths.

“Well Haidi, we did not know how to take care of you outside…,” answers Mom.

“You needed a little bit of extra help with some things. Which is fine, but we also needed some help with some things. So, we didn’t know how to help you the right way,” I continue.

Haidi pauses, then says, “I understand. You just didn’t know, you didn’t know.”

After another pause, she continues, “Well, now you know. Now we can be happy.”


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