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SOMETIMES A SHADOW, SOMETIMES A FRIEND by Zainab Syed

Graphic illustration of a hand holding half of an earth with a house on it

I am only fourteen when my cousin Jahanara dies suddenly. We live in Romania so I cannot make it back in time for the funeral. I never get to say goodbye. I learn early on that no matter where I live, I will always be too far away to make it home.

*

When my bari ami dies, I am cooking lunch for my young cousins in Zurich. It is just before 1pm and we’re ready to get on with our day; doctor’s appointment for Haider, tennis for Hamza. Instead by 4pm we’re on a flight to Lahore. I make up a lie about something urgent with work. They poke holes in my elaborate lie, but I don’t let up. All I know is, I need to make it home this time, and there’s absolutely no way I can break the news to the boys at the start of our fifteen hour journey. Instead I make them eat, give Haider some medicine, take Hamza to the toilet. Once they’re settled and watching movies, I turn to face away from them and cry silently, a stream of tears running down one eye. A part of me is grateful I don’t have to make this journey alone, that I have their whole loving hearts to hold me through this.  Another part of me finds a whole new appreciation for parents who fly with young kids. I vow never to complain about crying babies ever again.

*

While I’m in college, my best friend loses her grandparents five months apart; Uncle Asghar and then Aunty Jolly.  They had been married for 57 years. When I call bari ami about it, she tells me she wishes she could say, “Good for you Jolly, you’re lucky to follow so soon after”.  I am unprepared for this sentiment. The thought nauseates me before I steady myself and realise what it must mean for my grandmother to live without my grandfather for 19 years. How losing him leaves her a shadow of a woman, and a house that now shakes. The loneliness that becomes her.  That night, I sit by the windowsill of my third floor apartment in Providence, and watch the snow fall for hours. I imagine losing my grandmother – how it would uproot us all. I have so much fear. I do not want my family to unstitch. I do not want us to drift. I am afraid, when she leaves, we won’t have a place to land. That, with her passing, we will go so far away from her house, and her garden, that we won’t know how to find our way back. If she isn’t there, who will help us remember? Although I’m not ready to let her go, I start preparing for her death. But when it comes; I am completely unaware – I am definitely not prepared.

*

On the flight back to Lahore, I go over our last phonecall again and again.

Just twelve hours earlier:

Bari ami did you hear the news?

Haan, Allah ka itna karam hai.

She’s ecstatic – after three months of being wrongfully imprisoned, my eldest mamo is finally granted bail. During those agonising months, I watch my grandmother wither away with grief. So when the good news finally comes, we laugh together for the first time in 111 days. Finally she will breathe easy, I assure myself. Finally, we can all unclench our fists, unlock our jaws, we can sleep again.

Zainab, Allah promises not to place a burden on us greater than we can bear – I couldnt bear this anymore. He has sent us ease after this hardship. Allah ka itna shukar hai. 

Aur, how are you?  What are the boys doing? You look so beautiful today. Tum kab a rahi ho?

I’ll be with you in two weeks, for a whole month inshaAllah, I tell her. I know she’ll be overjoyed to hear it. She hates that I live in Perth, calls my citizenship process a siapa, and asks when I’m returning every time we talk. Most days even I wonder if it’s worth it – why I’m always so far away.

12 hours later, she’s rushed to the hospital. 2 hours later she is gone. As if her body had only been holding out for my mamo’s release, as if the grief had exhausted her, like she couldn’t bear this burden anymore. I wonder if this was what she meant by God’s promise of ease after hardship.  In 24 hours we go from rejoicing to preparing a funeral. My mamo never gets to meet her, which feels cruel.  He does make it home for the funeral and carries her body to her final resting place –  next to my grandfather, in a quiet part of the graveyard, under a tree – where the bees come to sit and it is always fragrant.

I, on the other hand, am scattered. Nothing prepares me for the absence that follows, for the loneliness that becomes me.

*

I stay in my grandmother’s house for 40 days after her death. I spend hours combing through the letters she wrote to her children: telling us there is barakah in unity, that although it will be harder when she is not around, we must anchor each other. So, I don’t leave her house. I tell myself I am holding fort for her.

I write down all my memories so I can give them to Ayla when she grows up – the things people don’t write in eulogies or speeches. I write how bari ami wore jasmine flowers in her ears; the scent of her favourite perfume; how she snored when she lay on one side; kept the lights on at night; the way her toes slipped forward in her sandals; the way she chewed her food and cut narangis to make jam; how she ate butter and malai with everything she could and her laugh – the way she hated mine, so loud and unbecoming she used to say.

Her mirror on the vanity, the eye pencil and pearls. Our Punjab Club lunches and arguments, especially the ones about my marriage. She just wanted me to settle and have a family now. How she’d have the oddest requests; a hose pipe, a grey kettle for one, knitting needles, always bobby pins that were soft because they made them better abroad.

Her saiwyan on Eid, and the chirya story.  The way her voice tasted like honey when talking about barai abu. Her many wisdoms. Her only truth. The grace with which she lived life, the goodwill she left behind. And in her silence, the lessons she taught me about what it means to love a man, to build a home and to raise a family worthy of their names; Haque, her greatest legacy.

*

Some nights, I close my eyes, forget the smallness of my body, and become larger than the echo of this grief. I clamour for my mother, who clamours for her own. Both of us feel a rupture we dare not name. A fragility we dare not unveil. I wake up, mid dream – body clenched, jaw locked – but unwilling to open my eyes because I don’t want to lose her again. On other nights, we are lying on her bed in 186 Shadman II, laughing as she tells me stories from her childhood; simple moments that make up the fabric of our lives.

And for a brief time, I do not scatter at the thought of her.  Instead, I am reminded that memories remain whole despite the passage of time, that love thrives, undaunted by the magnitude of absence and that grief follows us, sometimes as a shadow and sometimes a friend.


Zainab Syed is a poet, producer and educator. Since graduating from Brown University in 2014, she has been performing and facilitating workshops for school children, incarcerated women, trauma victims, migrants and refugees across the world. She was a finalist in the 2015 Australia Poetry Slam. In 2016 she co-founded the Pakistan Poetry Slam in Pakistan, illUMEnate in Perth, WA, and joined the Australian Red Cross as a Humanitarian Observer. Currently, she is an Associate Producer at Performing Lines WA.

 

 

Copyright © 2020 Zainab Syed. 


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