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I say I’m an only child, but the truth is I’m not.
My parents come from big families and I have a lot of cousins, eight of them girls. I spent summers with them. My sisters. We grew up together.
But I didn’t have a brother, a stepbrother, until much later in life when, one winter morning, my dad proposed to his mom, and she accepted. The ceremony was quiet but joyful, held in our Ankara living room one December. Together my brother and I exchanged pleased glances, watching as our parents (wearing matching pantsuits and black-rimmed prescription glasses) exchanged vows. My new brother made a toast, and so did I. A small cake was divided up and just like that, I was no longer the only one.
When I learned my brother shared my exact birthday, learned his name was an anagram of mine, our relationship as siblings felt destined.
From the start, Halil was easy to like: honest, determined, funny — not macho or overcompensating like most Turkish guys I knew. He was, however, intensely private and it would be years before he shared anything meaningful about his personal life with me.
One night, soon after he graduated from college, he told me he had a girlfriend. It was the first I’d heard of her. He said she was a “firecracker.” That was the word he used. “Tough to pin down and prone to temper tantrums,” he explained. But he loved her very much.
“She’s the one, Hilal,” he said, with such earnestness and conviction, I didn’t doubt it for a moment. We sat together on the balcony, shelling pistachios from a bowl, our parents already long asleep. “We’re moving in together,” he said. “It feels right, but I haven’t told mom yet.”
Halil and his girlfriend lived together for seven months. He had already proposed and she had already said yes, when she suddenly left him for a tax attorney she met in an airport waiting lounge. I don’t think I’d ever seen my stepmother cry, but she cried when she found out what happened. She was afraid, she explained, Halil would never again find someone to love.
Everything was in disarray when we arrived at the apartment he had shared with her. Halil was supposed to be sorting his things, but my stepmother and I found him unshaven and hungover, slumped on the TV couch, ketchup-crusted dishes stacked high in the kitchen sink. The whole place smelled like an ashtray. The smell of defeat.
Halil had packed nothing. Eventually we got him off the couch, and set him to work. The three of us quietly gathered his belongings, boxing them up, loosely bundling in newsprint his beer mugs and cereal bowls and trophies won in various soccer tournaments. When his best friends arrived, we loaded up the van. Halil drove. He pulled away from the curb very slowly, but he did not look back.
For years after that, Halil lived alone. We watched as he grew more isolated, threw himself into his work. He got promoted once, then again, then a third time. “If only you’d let your guard down a bit,” my stepmother said, but he wouldn’t hear it.
“Never again,” he said, and we believed him.
Once, I attempted to bring him to my friend’s wedding. “It’ll do you good,” I said. “Trust me, Halil. It’ll be fun.”
The day of the ceremony we went shopping together. I picked out a tie for him, and a shirt to go with it. I sat on a leather armchair reading a men’s magazine while he got a haircut and a shave. But that night he chickened out, dropping me and his mother off at the venue before zooming away in his little Fiat. We watched his car disappear round the corner, its tires spinning against the gravel, kicking up dirt. My stepmother linked arms with me and braved a smile.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s just go inside.”
After dinner service that night, the bride pulled me out onto the dance floor.
“You’re married!” I shouted over the music.
“I’m married!” she shouted back, and we danced together, my stepmother watching from her table, smiling sadly until we dragged her onto the floor, too. My stepmother was awkward and shy at first, but then her limbs loosened and her cheeks flushed and when she laughed it was with her whole body.
In the lobby later, I spotted my stepmother sneaking a business card from the reception desk. I caught her eye and winked, and this made her blush.
“Such a nice wedding. Nice venue. Everything is just so nice,” she said, sheepishly. She tucked the card carefully into the fold of her wallet, underneath a picture of Halil. “You never know, you know? If it’s what he wants…” She stopped. “Maybe someday, inshallah.”
“Only if it’s what he wants,” I repeated. “Maybe someday, inshallah.”
Our maybe someday inshallah arrived sooner than we expected.
“There’s this someone,” Halil said, out of the blue. He had taken us out for a nice lunch, white tablecloths, waiters all in black. It was a Friday. His treat. We understood straight away what he meant.
They had similar interests, he said. It had been love at first sight: disarming and effortless. “Zero nonsense,” he explained. His conversations with her were big and deep and endless. He wanted to be with her all the time. “She’s just so smart,” he gushed. “Smart and stunning and kind and strong.” He hesitated. “She’s been through a divorce. It’s been eight years. She has a son, Erol. He’s ten.”
My stepmother gasped. She clapped her hands quickly. “A grandchild, too!” she said and stood up, rushing over to Halil’s side of the table, clutching him to her chest.
“We can’t wait to meet them,” my dad said, and raised his glass.
Her name was Lara, she was a few years his senior, and when we met, she put us at ease immediately. She had green eyes, bright like they were lit from behind, and she wore her dark hair loose down her back. She had a quick laugh, and an even quicker wit. It took us less than an hour to fall completely in love with her.
The day of their wedding, I straightened my brother’s bowtie before the ceremony.
“She’s way too good for you, Halil,” I teased.
“Don’t I know it,” he said.
Last Christmas, Lara and Halil had a child together, a daughter who looks exactly like Halil. Every available surface in my parents’ kitchen is now covered with photographs of the new baby in various poses of undress and laughter. The rest of the house is similarly wallpapered.
I sometimes catch my stepmother looking at Halil and Lara and their children with an expression of surprised awe, as if her son’s reversal of fortune she didn’t actually believe possible. Once, I asked Halil how it had happened. “Quickly,” he said. “The moment I saw Lara, my heart walked right out of my chest and folded itself around her. I just knew, you know?”
“I think so,” I said.
“That’s the best way I can describe it. I wake up every day and she’s there and I just stare at her sleeping like I can’t believe my good fortune.”
I widened my eyes. “Who are you, and what have you done with Halil?”
He laughed, tapped at his chest. “Hollow. You know that. For years. She showed me how. Mended me, stitched the parts that were torn.”
When I received the phonecall I was already back in Minneapolis, and it was very early in the morning. He had been playing soccer with Erol, my stepmother explained. Lara and the baby were watching on the sidelines, when he doubled over, dizzy and nauseous. He gestured at his wife. My heart, was all he could say. Then he collapsed.
Lara performed CPR, carried him to the car, shouldering his weight, his feet dragging. Erol was inconsolable. They raced to the nearest hospital. It was a heart attack. It was bad, but it could have been worse. His heart was weakened. He would have to live very differently from now on.
As I write this, Halil is en route to an Ankara hospital. He is to receive a pacemaker this Wednesday. Several clots have been discovered. They will be tended to. My stepmother and Lara are taking turns caring for him and the baby. The doctors said it was Lara who saved Halil’s life. “If you hadn’t been there, he wouldn’t be here,” they said to us.
For the second time, she had rescued his failing heart.
To find a CPR training center near you, please visit the American Heart Association:
Find a Course. 2010 AHA Guidelines. Information for Healthcare Providers, Corporate Training, Community CPR & First Aid…
Certain names and details have been changed (or omitted) to protect the innocent. Thanks for reading.