I lay in bed last night asking you to visit me in my dreams. To sit with me. Stroke my hair. Peel back your eyelid with your finger like you used to and give me that sweet sweet smile that would sweep away any melancholy clinging to my heart.
Did you hear me?
It’s been five months since you’ve been gone and I waited. I waited for the 40 days to pass so that your soul could finish the journey to heaven. You see I didn’t want to hold you back. And since then, I’ve asked and asked and asked again, and still you don’t come.
So I am writing to you Mama. I’m etching out the lines of my bittersweet grief, because I am afraid if I don’t, you will disappear into the haze of colourless bite sized memories that emerge at family gatherings, becoming sound bytes that are told in the same words every time.
First of all I would like to register a complaint. I heard that you visited my cousin in his dreams. I am not going to pretend and say that I wasn’t irrationally hurt by that. But to expand any further will only make me sound petty, so I will draw wisdom from your own words and know that you must have had your reasons.
You know, I don’t miss you anymore.
Instead the missing has turned into a yawning pulsating longing that won’t go away. I crave you. Doesn’t that sound odd? Normally, when you crave something, you comfort yourself that there’s a chance that you’ll get it. But the eviscerating nature of death means that never ever ever ever ever again will I trace my finger over the crinkly, papery crackle of the skin on your hand, marvelling at how it seems completely unconnected to your flesh. Never ever again. And it makes me want to throw a frenzied tantrum. I get angry at unreasonable things. My fury lashes out its forked tongue at anything that crosses its path. The guy on the road who cuts me off. My ex who has started dating again. My shoulder blade, beneath which a stubborn painful knot has deposited itself and refuses to be dislodged.
I see you everywhere.
On your birthday we took some of your new dresses to a home for the elderly. There was a woman there who had the same gorgeous cloud of silver hair. When I leaned in to kiss her soft cheek, she smelled like you. And it tore me apart inside. I wanted to climb into bed with her, the way I used to on Sundays with you, when you would peel back your eyelid to see who had come in. And cup my face with your trembling hand. With you, I felt unconditional non-judgemental love, the kind I’ve never felt with anyone else, comforted by the knowledge that you had no opinion on how I led my life. You were just happy to have me there.
And we look for meaning everywhere.
In loud whispers we marvel at the enchanting nature with which you almost seemed to plan your death. We grasp onto these signs, refusing to let go. Believing that you were in control.
You died on Mir’aj. The holiest night in the Muslim calendar. When the Prophet’s own soul ascended to Heaven. You were buried on Mother’s Day and when we came back home from the funeral, the headline on the newspaper read ‘Mama’s final journey’. It makes me smile thinking how amused you would have been reading that, and how we would have discussed Mama Lucy’s passing on for days. And your birthday fell on the new moon, when your other favourite granddaughter was leading prayers at the mosque and had to say a special prayer for the departed souls. You would have said how clever she was. I loved that about you. How you always thought everything we did was so clever. How you were filled with awe when I would drive you to mosque, exclaiming that indeed I was very clever to be able to do so.
Here’s the thing Mama. None of us truly understood how exceptionally clever you were. It didn’t strike us as extraordinary that an Indian woman born some 90 years ago could recite Shakespeare as skilfully and passionately as you used to. That it was quite incredible that your KCPE essay was number one in the whole country. That you read every line on the page before you put your signature down on anything. We didn’t understand the odds against which you battled, in a world where women were expected to wear their pachedi and stay put in the kitchen. Daddy says all that the family accomplished in life was because of you. That you were the ambitious, fierce, driving force of their success. And as he tells me the stories, I’m only just beginning to appreciate how remarkable you were Mama.
After your soul left your body, we sat together in the living room, peeling back the memories, year by year, going back in time to the forgotten, which at one time seemed so mundane but all of a sudden felt profound. We took turns, urgently reciting them, all of them we possibly could summon, terrified that they may remain forever forgotten.
The recent. How you would hide your food on the plate underneath the spoon in the hope that you could trick us that you had finished eating. The way your brain would wander back in time, propelling you into a vivid memory that was more real than reality, so that in the middle of praying you would shout out ‘And full stop. Pencils down. That’s all now,’ your brain convinced that you were back teaching a classroom full of rowdy students. We would giggle, delighted that we had the chance to peek into a life of yours from before our time.
The not so recent. How you would brusquely tell your sister to mind her own business when she scolded you for not bothering to dye your hair. Your complete obsession with the curtains being closed the moment the sun even considered setting, yelling out at anybody unfortunate enough to be passing by.
The before. How you would get ready for mosque, making sure that you had the right amount of money in your purse, and heckling Daddy for taking so long, with his dozens of hair creams and potions. How you used to have a crush on Fayaz Qureshi and was completely captivated by his moustache.
The before before. How you would take us for walks as children, lacing up your bulky white sneakers and warning us not to drink your blood. (This saying makes sense in Gujurati, but gets lost in translation). The frank way in which you sat me down and asked me if I had heard about S.E.X and if I had started wearing a brassiere yet. You never called it a bra. Always a brassiere.
Could you hear us then reminiscing? Could you see us in the days leading up to the funeral? Me endlessly lighting sticks of incense, clinging to the ritual of death to protect me from the horror of loss. It hardly seems like the right word, loss. You lose socks, pens, maybe even a job. But how can you use such a casual word to describe the violent ripping away of a chunk of your heart when someone you love dies.
I used to think death was like a switch you just flicked on, and life would instantly stop. But I don’t think its like that anymore. I watched you struggle. I watched the battle as your soul navigated its way out of your body. How for days you sank into the space between two worlds. And when the time came, we knew. And you didn’t want us there. You never told us. But we knew. Inside. Which was strange as you always hated being alone. But this time, you had to do it alone. And so we left you that night. At midnight. For the first time in days. We left you to slip away. And when the phone call came at 2 am. We knew.
And when we gathered around your body in the hospital, holding on to each other desperately for comfort, I remember being filled with such intense gratitude when the nurse asked if she could pray for your soul. First she silently recited a Catholic prayer, then a prayer in Kikuyu. It was a very long prayer Mama. I think you would have been so enormously touched that this woman who only knew you for a few days, would take the time to talk to her God. For you.
And then you would have been very annoyed that they put down ‘housewife’ as your profession on your death certificate. You were a teacher. Proudly so. How arrogantly presumptuous to decide that a woman of your age couldn’t possibly have a career.
I lied. I miss you desperately.
I got your gold filigree ring. Let me tell you, when all the ladies were gathered and asked to pick something of yours, we went in order of descending age. And I prayed so hard that I would get that ring. It was probably the oldest, least valuable, most faded item. But I had spent my whole life slipping my fingers into yours, feeling the ring rubbing up against my skin and watching your face light up as you exclaimed how warm my hands were. And it was the one thing that reminded me most of you. I wear it now on my thumb and when I feel the yearning becomes too much, I look down at it and remember your sweet sweet smile.
Won’t you visit me tonight?
And full stop. Pencils down. That’s all now.
Photo Credit: Paul Saad