In Search of Signs | Caitlyn Zawideh

25 mins read

Around the time that Amal was first admitted to the hospital, my great aunt had a dream that her late husband pulled up to Amal’s house in a white Cadillac. 

We have a set of superstitions in my family about dreams. A dream about a snake is a sign of deception; bread is a sign of good luck. If you dream that you cut your hair short, someone is going to get sick. If you lose a tooth, someone is going to die. Dreams about the dead have their own rules: never speak to them, never touch them, and never follow them if they walk away—that means they want to take you with them. It’s a good omen if they’re silent, a bad omen if they’re not. No one in my family takes the superstitions too seriously, but for every deceased relative, there is a story about a dream someone had that, in hindsight, became a premonition. At the end of Auntie’s dream, Amal got into the car with the dead man and drove away.

If you ask me if I believe in the superstitions myself, I’ll deny it, but I’ll also tell you that once, my cousin Gwen went to a psychic. The woman predicted the year she would meet her husband, and she gave her a warning so stereotypically ominous, you would think it was pulled from a corny movie: in the year, 2018, your family will be struck by tragedy. 

Years passed. Gwen met her husband the year the psychic said she would. 2018 arrived. Her mother had a stroke. She lived. A close relative went to sleep one night and inexplicably never woke up. She was barely thirty. By March, it seemed the psychic’s prediction had been fulfilled.  

Amal had been gone for almost two years when Gwen sent the text into the family group chat. Amal was in my dream last night. I went to get a pedicure and I sat and the lady in the chair next to me turns around and it was Amal. We were holding hands, and I was kissing her hand. I was like, it’s you! It’s you! And she said, it’s me! It’s me!

Aunt Elham replied first. She texts the way she speaks – rushing to share her thoughts faster than her words can keep up. I had to read the message twice to decipher its meaning. Beautiful dream Gwen. All this week I was thinking of her to call me and go to Blake Apple orchard her favorite thing and that’s what she did before she went to hospital *prayer hands* *cross* *prayer hands* *candle* *single tear crying face* 

Then Silvia chimed in. October 15, 2018 was when everyone went to Blake’s together with Amal. I couldn’t make it because I had work. Crazy that you had that dream that same night two years later.

The last time most of us saw Amal healthy was the day at Blake’s. By most of us, I mean I had opted to stay at school in Ann Arbor that weekend to finish a midterm project. My sister assured me I didn’t miss much. The weather was bad, the babies were fussy, and Amal left early with back pain. We didn’t find out until later that she went to the emergency room that night.

My mom says that even as a kid, Amal, the daughter of a family friend, was poised and proper and motherly. As girls, when Amal still lived in California, they spent every summer together while my mom stayed with relatives in San Diego. The day Elvis Presley died, during one of her visits, my mom, too young to drive, had her aunt drop her off at Amal’s house so they could cry together. Their childhood friendship cemented into sisterhood when Amal married my mom’s brother and moved to Michigan.

If you ask me if I believe in superstitions, I’ll tell you that when dreams bring bad omens, the women in my family know a procedure you can follow to ward them off: go to the bathroom, whisper the contents of your nightmare to the mirror, and flush the toilet. Then say a prayer for good measure.

Because the diagnosis was rare, Amal moved from her local hospital to the University of Michigan’s cancer center, where they were more equipped to treat her. In the same building years earlier, when my mom had breast cancer, the treatment plan was explained to us in the same breath as the diagnosis. The doctors implemented the protocol precisely. The chemo shrank the tumor, the surgery removed it, and the radiation eradicated any stray cells that might have been left behind. My mom healed. 

Early in Amal’s treatment, I decided the illness would have the same definite beginning, middle, and end. Cancer would wreak havoc for a while, but eventually, medicine would prevail, and Amal would walk away. Her hair would grow back. The surgical scars would fade. She would survive. 

Before Amal was sick, on one of many afternoons spent at her house with my mom and my sisters, she made Turkish coffee and read our fortunes. Turkish coffee is like espresso, made with finely ground coffee beans, but unfiltered. We sipped out of tiny white teacups with gold rims and intricate pink flowers painted around the outside, and Amal told us to think about our intentions. When all that was left was the wet coffee grounds, we flipped the cups upside down onto matching saucers and waited. She turned them upright one by one. The way the leftover grounds had arranged themselves inside the cup was supposed to reveal our fortunes. It wasn’t a proper reading, just something fun Amal had picked up on to pass time. She cast her predictions far into the future where they couldn’t be refuted: your heart will remain pure; you’re going to make a lot of money; someday you’ll get married. 

The cancer center was a short bus ride away from campus, so I visited Amal between my classes. We talked as if we were chatting at her kitchen table, flipping through shopping catalogues and trading family gossip. She avoided the subject of her illness entirely. 

I was showing her photos of my new apartment when her phone rang. I listened while she fielded a hysteric phone call from her sister-in-law. The IV in Amal’s arm twisted uncomfortably as she held the phone to her ear.

“I’m okay, Elham. I’ll be okay.” Elham was the type to spiral into panic at the first sign of trouble. No need to worry yet. When she was sufficiently consoled and Amal hung up, she exhaled, long and drawn out. Her hand absentmindedly worried over the cross hanging around her neck. Then, she asked to see pictures of the apartment’s kitchen. 

Complications began to pile up. It was becoming clear that Amal’s treatment wasn’t going to follow the linear path I had expected. The doctors didn’t have a set plan. The chemo wasn’t working. They were trying different treatments every few weeks. The latest attempt was a clinical trial. They planned to start it before the end of the year.

November arrived. Amal spent Thanksgiving in the hospital. She went home for a few days, determined to spend the holiday with her family. The pain, though, was unmanageable, and she had to go back. We wanted to bring Thanksgiving to her, but she’d insisted we celebrate as normal. Dinner consisted of stunted conversations punctuated by long stretches of plastic cutlery scraping against heavy duty paper plates. Between bites of dry turkey, I convinced myself this would be our only holiday without her, but Christmas brought more of the same. All any of us could talk about was the trial. It was set to start any day now, and we were hopeful. The doctors were visibly excited when they talked about it. It was just a matter of waiting for Amal’s vitals to improve to ensure she was well enough to withstand the treatment.

If you ask me if I believe in God, I’ll tell you that my grandmother kissed the rosary hanging from the rear-view mirror every time she got into the car, and it made me feel safe. She tried to teach me how to pray in Sureth. I never learned. 

The phone rang at ten in the morning on December 26. Normally, it takes fifty minutes to get to the U-M Cancer Center from our house. That day, we got there in thirty.  

Her heart rate had plummeted overnight. Plans to begin the trial halted completely. The women in my family sat in a semi-circle around Amal’s hospital bed, praying the rosary on an endless, pleading loop in the language I never learned. I followed along blindly, moved my lips, and hoped God would understand what I was saying. 

Amal’s daughter clutched a cup full of ice water, put the straw to her mother’s lips, and implored her to drink, but Amal refused more often than she accepted. She was in and out of awareness, sometimes breathlessly joining the prayers, other times just breathing. A nurse came by every hour or so to administer morphine. She asked Amal to rate her pain. She didn’t reply. 

As relatives arrived from San Diego to say goodbye, the room grew warm from the heat of so many sweaty, hysteric bodies. I couldn’t breathe, so I slipped out to the waiting room in search of air. Family crowded into that space too, sipping watery coffee out of styrofoam cups as they spoke to each other in hushed tones, already slipping into the past tense. She was so young. And she was smart. She was so kind. The bathroom down the hall was the only place I could find to be alone. I shut myself in an empty stall and waited for my breathing to slow. 

If you ask me if I believe in superstitions, I’ll tell you that I woke up the next morning and picked out a white sweater to wear to the hospital, as if I could signal to the universe that I wasn’t ready to wear black yet. 

Downstairs, I expected to find the rest of my family pulling on their shoes so we could drive to the hospital and repeat the ritual of the last two days. I only found my sister, standing alone in the kitchen, still in the clothes she had slept in.

“Where is everyone?”

“Dentist.” One of the many long-term effects of chemo—it ruins your bone density. My mom is at the dentist every other month.

If you dream that you cut your hair short, someone is going to get sick. If you dream that you lost a tooth, someone is going to die. Ask me if I believe the superstitions, and I’ll tell you the morning Amal died, my mom woke up with a cracked molar.

I dreamed about Amal constantly in the months after. In one dream, she sat on the worn black leather couch of my childhood home. She had all her hair. Her skin was glowing, and the skylight in the popcorn texture ceiling of the living room streamed sun beams onto her face. I always found her in familiar places—her kitchen, my living room. I was the only one that could see her, although the rest of my family was there. I pointed her out. No one reacted. I asked her where she went, how she got back, but she didn’t answer. 

In another dream, she was in my grandmother’s house, her back to the sliding glass doors that lead out to the backyard. I was certain the wall faced east, not west, but the sun set behind her anyway, turning her into a shadow. This time, her lips moved, but I couldn’t hear the words. 

There were mornings I woke up and forgot that I had dreamed about her at all. Then, later in the day, some synaptic spark would ignite, the memory would return, and I would rush to write it down, careful not to add any new details in waking. Accurately documenting the dreams always felt urgent, like rescuing a photograph from a fire. 

The more time passed, the stranger my dreams became. Amal was no longer rooted in familiar places. I waited in a long line with my sister in a poorly lit hallway. I’d never been there before. The ceiling was low, the carpet was thick and ornate, tinted with dirt and age. When we reached the front of the line, Amal was sitting at a small round wooden table. My sister and I each took a seat and held hands. It looked like a séance, but it wasn’t. I asked Amal the same questions I always asked her: where she went, how she got back, why she couldn’t stay longer. I didn’t get an answer.

If the superstitions are to be believed, then I should take Amal’s silence as a good sign, but when my sister tells me that in her dreams, the dead speak, I’m jealous. She had one where she was cooking in our grandmother’s kitchen with Amal. When she asked her why she left, Amal said, it was time. Our grandmother appeared by the stove and wrapped her arms around my sister, and she woke up with a feeling of closure. She isn’t afraid of bad omens. She didn’t whisper the details aloud to herself in the bathroom and flush them away. To her, it was just a nice dream, just neurons firing.  

At the hospital, the doctor described what happened to Amal as one statistical anomaly after another, a perfect storm of plain bad luck. First, the diagnosis itself, its likelihood was smaller than one in three-hundred million. Then the aggressive metastasis, starting in a single sweat gland before spreading to every organ in a matter of weeks. The string of complications that followed: her reaction to the initial chemotherapy treatment, the pneumonia, her heart rate dropping. Each one delaying the clinical trial until she was too ill to start it. Then it was too late. 

Now, I’m left with all these unanswerable questions. What if the odds had played out differently? What if Amal hadn’t waited so long to see a doctor about the back pain? What if they had tried a different treatment first? What if she’d started the trial in time? What if? What if? What if? I lose entire days turning over and over in my mind all the different scenarios in which Amal might have survived. 

If you ask me if I believe the superstitions, I’ll tell you that I want to. To deny them completely is to accept that losing Amal was just a random accident of cell reproduction, a horrible hand of cards in an objective game of chance. Believing the superstitions would mean it wasn’t random at all. I find more comfort in the idea that there was nothing that could have been done to prevent what happened because there’s some cosmic force pulling the strings, whether it’s God or the universe or something else, sending warnings of what’s fated to come in the form of psychics and coffee grounds, dream omens and cracked molars. 

Now, I look for signs everywhere. I write down every dream. I cling to small details. I will arbitrary points into a meaningful constellation—like the selection of lottery tickets my uncles kept near the cash register at their Vegas-themed liquor store. Amal probably sold thousands of them over the years. The very first detail I heard when Amal got sick, even before the word cancer, was that the diagnosis was less common than winning the lottery. That was the exact phrasing the doctor had used. Was that a coincidence? Was it a sign? I so badly want it all to mean something that I call my sister at three in the morning. 

“Why are you awake?”

“Can I ask you a question? Don’t ask me why I’m asking.”

“Are you drunk?”

“No, there’s something I want to know.”

She asked why I was being so dramatic. I told her I wasn’t. She let me ask the question. 

“You know how Amal used to help out at the store?” 

“Yeah, why?”

“I don’t know. I’m just thinking about the lottery tickets.”

“Are you good?”

“Yeah, I’m good.” 

“Ok, goodnight.”



“Do you ever think, like, what were the odds? Why couldn’t she have won the lottery instead?”

My sister cut me off. She said my name.

“Yeah?” I said.

“Go to bed.”

She hung up. Three short, sharp beeps informed me that I was alone again. I stared at the ceiling and waited for sleep to come. The ceiling stared back. All I wanted was a dream where Amal could answer my questions while we sipped chai at her kitchen table. When the sky lightened to a pale shade of grey through my bedroom window, sleep finally arrived, empty-handed.

“In Search of Signs” was included in a manuscript that won the Hopwood Award for Undergraduate Nonfiction at University of Michigan in 2021. 

Names have been changed to respect the privacy of the family.

Caitlyn Zawideh is a writer from the metro Detroit area. Her work received a Hopwood Award for nonfiction and a Helen J. Daniels Prize at the University of Michigan in 2021.