Walking Away

Nonfiction by Zahra Chithiwala

“At least 19 dead in Tanzania building collapse,” flashed on the overhead television in the airport. We had just arrived into the Julius Nyerere airport and were so excited for our long awaited holiday. However, the second we reached, we were immediately faced with tragedy. The turmoil of the collapse had left the city of Dar Es Salaam grieving and my family shocked and confused. As we walked to our hotel, we passed hundreds of doctors and police searching through the rubble. I watched as the cranes lifted limbs among dirt and debris. The putrid smell of decomposing bodies filled the air as people watched and hoped and prayed for their loved ones. The police surrounding the scene tried to calm spectators and explain how a seemingly sturdy building just collapsed on innocent lives. We lingered for just a few moments until we continued towards our hotel to begin our vacation. I wanted to look back but I couldn’t bring myself to face that pain again so I just kept walking.

“Is she going to be okay? What do you mean you don’t know?” yelled my mom into the phone. I was awoken by the chaos in my house and the volume of the television. As I rubbed my sleepy eyes, the image on the screen became clearer and I watched as a plane hit the second twin tower. Suddenly it became clear to me what was going on. My aunt and a close family friend worked in the second twin tower. I jumped out of bed and ran to my parents. Like a little Chihuahua, I poked and pulled at their clothes asking many questions about what was happening while they ignored me and talked on their respective cell phones. Finally, my mother noticed me, did her best to calm me down, and sent me off to school. All day was spent in agony; I could not talk to my friends or focus on anything. Towards the end of the day, my principal called me out to the hallway to tell me my aunt survived but our family friend did not. I stood there dumbstruck. I didn’t know what to say. I was happy that my aunt was alive but sad our friend didn’t make it and confused that this had happened at all. So many thoughts ran through my head at once as I tried to fathom what I had just been told. I couldn’t think about it anymore, it hurt too much, so I just turned around and walked all the way home.

I woke up early like I did every Sunday morning and I immediately went to wake my grandmother up. She lived with me my whole life and every morning, no matter what, she made Indian chai and we talked our mix of Gujarati and English. But that particular morning was very different. When I nudged her frail body and tried to wake her up, she didn’t move.  Her body was cold and her face had an intense look of pain. I had never seen anything so heartrending in my entire life. I didn’t know what to say or do, I could only just stand there in shock. Just a few minutes later, my parents found me crying on the floor and quickly realized what had happened. My dad, the strongest man I have ever known, stood over my grandmother and sobbed uncontrollably. The next few days passed in a blur as people came, paid respects, brought food, and gave hugs. After the dust settled, I put on one of her sweaters and walked and walked until I couldn’t walk anymore.

Lying in the middle of the street, crushed beneath the immense strength of a car, was a tiny squirrel. Its feeble little body had been flattened and it lay there lifeless as cars and people passed by. I saw this squirrel on my way to class, lying on Durant Ave., and I could not stop looking at it. I kept thinking how unfair it was for death to just come and take the people I love. I obviously didn’t know the squirrel but I felt like I did. I felt connected to that tiny creature and its death was just another reminder to me of how quickly innocent lives could be taken. I stopped in the middle of the street and thought about all the times I have been faced with death and how no matter how many times I see it or hear about, I will never understand how people can be here one day and gone the next. And then, as always, I walked away from that small squirrel, hoping if I could get away from it, I could believe it didn’t really happen.

Zahra Chithiwala is a student at the University of California, Berkeley.

Featured Image photograph by E.B. Bartels, www.ebbartels.com.

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