I, who supposedly never cry, watched my face crumble in the mirror as I stood before it early yesterday morning, arms raised in the act of wrapping a scarf around my head, my mother standing next to me as she relayed the message.
I left the house less than ten minutes later, and cried all the way up to school. Not sobs; I don’t sob. Even during the rare times that I do break down enough to cry, I never lose control enough to sob. Instead, there was an endless stream of tears that I had to constantly wipe away. I stabbed at the buttons on my CD-player, expecting to hear Matchbox Twenty, and was grateful when Surah Ya-Seen spilled out of the speakers instead. I flipped back and forth between surahs Ya-Seen, ar-Rahman, and al-Waqi’a, reciting along in a voice thick with tears.
I was dry-eyed and calm by the time I got to the university parking lot exactly an hour later. My tears are always short-lived, perhaps because we’re usually so geographically far away from the sources of grief, but mainly because, after losing so, so many loved ones over the past few years, there is eventually, sooner rather than later, a sense of numbness during times of sorrow.
[D found me at the library computers later that morning, doing some research for an assignment. Never one to waste words, she peered into my face and demanded, "Why are your eyes red?"
I could have said, "I washed my hair this morning, and got shampoo in my eyes," and it would have been true.
I could have said, "Cold weather always makes my eyes water," and that would have been true as well.
But instead I chose to go with the third truth, the real story, and felt the tears crawl back. She hugged me, then leaned back to look at my face. "Remember when your grandmother died two years ago, and we walked out in the middle of bio lecture because you were so sad?"
I offered up a watery smile. "I really traumatized you that day, didn't I?"
"Yeah! It was good to know you actually have feelings though," she said with characteristic bluntness. "But you really scared me. The whole day, I went around thinking, 'Oh my God, Yaz is crying. The world must be ending, if Yaz is crying.'"]
The day passed in a blur. I grieved for her calm, even smile and the deep creases at the corners of her eyes. For the mysterious way she drawled her words as she spoke in Hindku. (Where did she pick up a drawl? I always wondered.) For the way she always pronounced my name as “jussmeen.” I laugh, remembering that now; she was the only one who could get away with it. I grieved for her youngest daughter – my little sister’s age – who lost her father recently, too. I grieved for all the times she listened to me haltingly, stumblingly learning to recite the Qur’an from her other daughter, and for when she said, “We used to be able to hear your daddy’s recitations from across the galli every morning after fajr. What a beautiful voice he had.” I grieved for her serene presence, her dark henna-dyed hair, the bread she used to bring us from the tandoor on the roof of her house. For her long, cool verandas that we escaped to during the summer months. For the late afternoon that her youngest daughter and my sister and I played cricket in her courtyard in the pouring rain, and she overrode my mother’s entreaties to come home with the gentle, “Let them play.” For the joy she took in her grandchildren. For the eighteen months when I lived just across the narrow galli and took her family’s very presence for granted – nearly ten years ago now.
I knew things had already changed by the time I visited three-and-a-half years ago, for a mere two weeks.
“Boboji,” I said to her, “I miss Baba” – our beloved Baba of the mischievous grin, our Baba of the potato kabobs, eggplant pakoras, and Chinese fried rice, who spent entire days refining his creative culinary endeavors while she smiled the indulgent smile of a wife who knows best to stay out of the kitchen.
She gripped my hands tightly. “I know,” she said wistfully. “The house seems lonely without him, doesn’t it?”
["Grief is personal," I once snapped at a concerned friend, soon after my grandmother's death.
"I don't know, that doesn't sound healthy to me," he said dubiously. "It's always good to let people see you shaken or rattled every once in a while. Lets people know you're still human and not an alien. Wait - you are human, aren't you?"]
What inexplicably hurt me the most was that I couldn’t remember how I had said good-bye to her when I was returning to the U.S. Did I hug her tightly enough? Did I thank her for being a source of calmness and sanity for my mother during all those years she had to spend away from us? Did I thank her for her daughter, who patiently taught us to recite the Qur’an and read and write Urdu with staggering fluency? Did I thank her for her sons, who, following in the footsteps of their father, uncomplainingly filled prescriptions and delivered medicine for my grandmother? Did I thank her for her husband, who was a surrogate father to us during those eighteen months? Did I know then that every detail of her face would be imprinted on the back of my eyes even years later?
But I think I’m done grieving now. Already, yes. I’ll have to let her go eventually, and it may as well be this soon. After all, all I truly have to offer are prayers. So – May God grant her a reunion with Baba in Jannat-al-Firdaus, the highest level of heaven. May He reward them for the love they showered on us, the decades during which they somehow shifted from neighbors and friends into people close as family. May their marriage of patience, strength, faith, and affection be an example for all of us. May their generosity always live on, multiplying infinitely. May He bless all their families, and guide them through their sorrow. Ameen.
Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rajioon.
Surely we belong to God and surely we will return to Him.