When I was four years old I watched my mum climb the stairway to heaven and wondered what she would find when she got up there. Would she see God or would she just fall back to earth?
It had all started a few weeks earlier. While Mum had always been religious, now her fervour became all-consuming until she was convinced that God was communicating with her.
I was in the backyard with my two-year-old brother. We were sitting in the leftover sand from one of my father’s many do-it-yourself projects, making shapes with plastic containers and water, while Mum hung out the washing. Mum suddenly stopped and cocked her head as if she was listening to someone. She dropped the sheet in her hands and approached the tall shelves my father had built to store his tools, which ran up the wall of the house and reached the roof. Mum looked like an angel in her long, flowing dress, her brown hair a halo.
‘Yes, Allah, I know you are looking after me and I will prove it to everyone,’ Mum said to God. She closed her eyes as she took her first step, climbing the shelf as if it was a ladder. ‘Bismillah, ir-Rahman, ir-Rahim.’ In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful, she prayed in Arabic, the shared language of all Muslim prayers, as she climbed.
My mother had told me that God was all-knowing, all- seeing, but that he had no shape or body. I didn’t know where to send my prayers and so I watched mutely, terrified of Mum falling or the untethered shelves falling on her, as I waited for God to reveal himself.
Mum reached the top and paused as her hands touched the roof tiles. She stopped, her dress billowing in the faint summer breeze, before she climbed back down slowly, her eyes still firmly closed. ‘Allahu Ekber,’ she repeated over and over, ‘Allahu Ekber,’ praising God. ‘See, I told you God would protect me.’
While I accepted my mother’s words as a fact, I also realised she was different to the other mothers in the Bosnian community. Other mothers spent their days cooking and cleaning, always on the move as they cared for their family. My mother would bundle us into the car and take us visiting, staying for hours and not returning until dark, when she would perform the household chores she had neglected. When the mania of bipolar disrupted her sleep, she would vacuum late at night, while my brother and I sat sleepily on the couch waiting to go to bed. Or she would cook in the early hours of the morning, the sound of clanging pots floating into the edges of my dreams, the aroma of fresh bread filling the house.
That night my mother’s voice woke me from a deep sleep. Sitting up in bed, I saw a bright light under the door. I lay back down and my brother curled up against me. Since Dad went away we all slept together in the bed Mum had shared with him. My brother and I couldn’t sleep alone, waking up and searching out Mum during the night, and so she’d started lying down with us at bedtime. I hadn’t realised she would get up again after we were asleep.
I closed my eyes but now it seemed the shadows around the bed were full of menace, making me tighten with fear. I gently eased myself out of bed so I didn’t wake my brother and opened the bedroom door. Mum was sitting in the hallway, her back against the wall next to the bedroom, the phone in her lap. The phone cord in the hallway limited her ability to move around. There was an ashtray next her, and smoke clouds hung in the air. Later I learnt that she was talking to Lifeline counsellors.
‘I feel like it’s my fault,’ she said. ‘I wished that he would die and then it came true.’
‘Mummy, what are you doing?’ I asked, rubbing the tears from my eyes.
Mum quickly hung up the phone.
‘I was scared,’ I said.
Mum took me back to the bedroom and once again we lay side by side until I fell asleep. Her voice on the phone woke me again, but fatigue eventually tipped me back into sleep.
Over the next few weeks Mum slept less and less, and she began spending every night on the phone. I learnt to sleep through her one-sided conversations, comforting myself that she was just outside the bedroom door and the monsters couldn’t find us.
A few nights later Mum woke us up. She was sitting on the bed and the light spilling into the darkened room from the hallway behind her made her look like a shadow looming over us. Usually she was trying to get us to fall asleep or stay asleep so she could maintain her nocturnal habits, and I was scared at the change in her priorities.
‘You and your brother need to pray for Babo,’ she said, the words jumping off her tongue like machine-gun bullets. ‘Allah will value the prayers from a child much higher and your Babo will go to heaven. Now, repeat after me.’ Her green eyes glowed as she recited the Arabic prayer. ‘Bismilahi Irahman Irahim –’
We repeated the prayer until my eyes were too heavy and I couldn’t keep them open anymore. Over the next few weeks we prayed together every night until I learnt to do it myself. This became my nightly ritual and for years I couldn’t fall asleep until I had said my prayer, sending my father a blessing in heaven.
This is an extract of Amra Pajalic's new memoir Things Nobody Knows But Me, published by Transit Lounge (RRP$29.99).
Amra Pajalic is an award winning author, editor and teacher. Her debut novel The Good Daughter won the 2009 Melbourne Prize for Literature's Civic Choice Award. She was also co-editor of the anthology Growing up Muslim in Australia , shortlisted for the 2015 Children's Book Council of the year awards. She works as a high school teacher and is completing a PhD in Creative Writing at La Trobe University.
You can follow Amra on Twitter at @AmraPajalic.