Grief Lives

RANIYA HOSAIN
2-2.png

 

THE funeral of Mrs. —— will be held at 2 pm, on the 9th of June 2019. She passed away after a one year battle with cancer on the 8th of June. She is survived by one son and one daughter. 

 

—————————————————————————————————————

 

9th June 2019

 

Death – stupid, annoying, final. I did not like death before, and now I am even more opposed to the concept. What is it about death that makes everyone treat the bereaved like ghosts? Maybe it is something about how sadness smudges, until you are nothing but a reminder of loss. No one looks at me anymore. Grief is not contagious. But it feels like it is, sometimes. Like I am carrying a corpse in my back pocket. Like my mother’s absence is only noticeable in my presence. 

 

I stop the maid on her way to the kitchen, and tell her to bring me up a plate of the leftover peaches. Some people say loss destroys their appetite, but I am not one of those lucky few. It would be better, I think, to be skinny and sad. Instead, the waistband of my jeans dig into my hips, leaving deep red marks on the growing flesh. The sweatshirt I bought from Primark, because my mother said red was my colour, and I believed everything she said, constricts my upper arms and reveals the rolls of fat collecting on my back. More politely averted gazes. More reasons to not look at me when I walk into a room. 

 

I am thinking about the peaches, about the soft fuzz, and the sweet juice and I am feeling guilty because I am here, eating peaches, and my mother is in a box in the ground. I am thinking about T.S Eliot because my undergraduate degree never quite leaves me alone. I am thinking about how my mother will never read the T.S Eliot poem I am thinking about. “Do I dare to eat a peach?” Eliot was an ornery bastard, but he got it right there. Do I dare – plosives, consonance, something about the hot heavy thud of language rising up into the sweet, ‘eat’ and ‘peach’, assonance and fruit and things that poems can’t give you. 

 

My brother never reads poems. He also never eats peaches. I think he eats one meal a day, and it is mostly just grains and determination. I hate him. He shook hands with everyone at the funeral, and he hissed at me to be polite to our extended family. But I hate our extended family. They keep trying to touch me. My sister-in-law tried to pat my shoulder, and I willed it to pass right through me, to have her fleshy, ringed fingers prove me immaterial. You’re not supposed to be able to touch ghosts. My body is public property now – as if by hugging me, you’ll untaint me, and I’ll remember how to be human again. As if this unmothered girl, this savage cruel thing, will become once again domestic and kind if you just press down hard enough. As if grief lives in the space between your hand and my skin.

 

“You’re not the only one who loved her, you know,” my brother said to me, the night of our mother’s funeral, drunk on grief and whiskey. I was drunk also , but his drunkenness upset me for some reason. The uneven gait and the raised voice, something dark and unrecognisable spilled over his white shirt – it made me afraid. Which made me furious. “I’m the only one who loved her enough to stay.” He recoiled, hands going up to his chest as if to protect from an incoming bullet. A terrible part of me wanted to let him bleed out on the kitchen floor. To hurt him the way he hurt me. But I am not (yet) the terrible part of me. I thought of T.S Eliot – not with a bang, but  a whimper. I left the room. 

—————————————————————————————————————

 

11th June 2019

I SLOWLY stir two spoons of brown sugar into my tea. The pale liquid ripples and the delicate bone-china cup clinks, and I amuse myself by imagining earthquakes. My brother wants to sell the house and I can’t help but hope that a disaster strikes, a permanent disfigurement, a King threatening to cut it in two. This house deserves to be loved, down to its bones. It’s the last place that heard my mother laugh. For the past week, my brother has been half whirlwind, half forest fire. By which I mean, he’s been spreading the ashes of his sadness like confetti all over this damned kitchen. 

 

My brother – what can I say about my brother that my mother has not said already, her voice like church bells, calling the world to worship at the altar of her son? I hate him with a quiet, blasphemous fervour. I didn’t always. We used to bake cakes together. My brother would always be in charge of reading out the ingredients – precise, sensible, like an accountant in a madhouse. Lemon cakes in summer, and rich chocolate in winter. The first time I tried to bake after he got married and left, my banana bread collapsed inward, raw in the middle. He used to leave the kitchen light on when I would stay out late, and it made me feel like a three year old. Which made me feel, reluctantly, loved. He used to quietly steal and throw away the packets of cigarettes I sneaked into the house, never mentioning it but always looking extra pleased with himself the following day. He used to care, until he left home with his new wife, and misplaced all the love he had for us in the move. 

 

We became an ‘us’ after he left, me and my mother. She was sick when my brother got married, but she told him to go anyway. To strike out on his own. To build a new family. The old one consisted of the dying (her), and the fat (me), both of which are very unlovable qualities in a woman. The nikkah naama was signed on our living room table, with my brother in a suit, and his new wife quietly furious in her red lehenga. “No, no Ami,” she said to my mother, with a smile that wouldn’t look out of place on a viper, “I don’t need a big wedding. All that can wait until you get better.” We knew my mother wasn’t getting better. What my sister-in-law meant was: after you die, we will wait a respectable amount of time and have a huge party –  I think about half my hate for my brother is just transference, from his proximity to the most hateable woman alive. The visits from my brother petered off, from a waterfall to a leaky bathroom sink to a drought over the course of a few months, and I swear it was my sister-in-laws hands twisting the tap. 

 

She bought me a kameez for the nikkah, telling me she got it made specially for me. It was at least two sizes too small. I felt every inch of my body in it – hyper-aware of my bigness, like Godzilla in a room full of delicate, elfin creatures. I barely moved the whole evening, too afraid of ripping the seams of my kameez to exist in any way that wasn’t quiet and still. “You look so pretty,” She said to me, “Carbon copy of Ami. But you know, na, I should have gotten one size up. Just for your comfort.” I had told her my exact measurements before she bought the outfit, but I forced a smile and imagined rampaging through the living room, crushing the blushing bride under my giant feet. I retreated to the kitchen half-way through dinner, leaving the party of thirty people to their uninteresting, unnoticeable bodies. I poured myself a glass of mango juice, felt it slip golden down my throat, imagined myself becoming prettier from the inside out. My mother walked in to check on something just as I took my first sip, and her face twisted in distaste. “Do you know how much sugar they put in those juices?” She asked me, “You need to learn some restraint.” I hated my mother then, viscerally. But now she’s dead, which makes her much easier to love. 

 

That’s an unfair statement. This whole journal has been a series of unfair statements. My mother was not difficult to love - difficult to please, yes, but not to love. Have you ever loved someone who didn’t love you back? It’s the easiest, and most complicated, thing in the world. 

 

—————————————————————————————————————

 

13th June 2019

 

THE sparrow outside is singing. I try not to begrudge it joy. I eat my toast, and put all of my energy into not becoming the kind of person who hates birdsong. I used to love dawn. The day stretched out, like an endless possibility. Now the day stretches out like a void, motherless and cruel. Who is happy? Who could be happy, here, in this world, where this bird will drop dead one day and be eaten by stray cats? I wonder if the stray cat in the neighbourhood is around. I imagine it walking softly into the garden, pouncing on this choral creature, leaving the morning silent and dead. 

 

During the last year of her life, my mother and I would sit in the kitchen every morning at sunrise, watching the sky begin to stumble into brightness, the yawning horizon widening and reddening, the world catching fire before our eyes. She would sip her coffee and shuffle around, cleaning last night's plates with shaking hands, checking the expiry date on the milk in the fridge. I would do the crossword, occasionally asking her for help with a clue. When she got too sick to move around, I would wheel her into the kitchen, and let her stare directly at the sun. Even in stillness, her voice would echo out, demanding I put the forks back in the right drawer, that I double check whether we had enough eggs for the week ahead, that I turn the heating higher or lower. 

 

Through the final throes of illness, I became a body my mother could use. After my brother left, I was the second-hand planet my mother was forced to orbit around. I put her socks on in the morning. I patiently fed her soup, and held her cup of water to her lips. She talked, until the end, my mother. Even when her fingers, her bones, her traitorous tumorous womb, betrayed her, she kept custody of her tongue. “Why are you looking so sad today? Cheer up, I’m hardly the first mother to die,” she would say, and cackle loudly. She would talk to my brother on the phone, as I held the mobile to her ear (she thought speakerphone was vulgar), and tell him how good she felt, how fresh, how there was no need for him to visit. 

 

At dinnertime, my mother would direct my hands like a puppeteer. Tugging at strings, she would force me to add more cumin, to chop finer, to turn the stove on to low now, was I going to let her last meal be bland, and burnt. After her first bite, she would always let out a shocked gasp, tell me I had inherited her cooking skills, that any man would be lucky to have me as his wife, that if this company, this taste, was the last thing she had, she would go happy. The thing about having a difficult-to-please mother is that pleasing her felt like being Abraham, looking down expecting a beloved’s corpse, and finding instead, a shocking, joyful, dead goat. My mother was especially generous with her dead goats in her final months. 

 

I make it sound like she had accepted her death. She hadn’t. She would wake up sobbing at night, and I would pretend I didn’t hear. She would spend her afternoons, curved over the kitchen table, laboriously moving the beads on a tasbeeh, and letting her lips form Arabic words, asking for grace in the only way she knew how. “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” said T.S Eliot. I saw fear, heard it, had it living in the room next door, held it tight to my chest. I know how fear speaks. I know how fear prays. 

 

The table I am sitting at, trying not to spill bread crumbs, is where my mother prayed to survive. The bedroom, the second one to the right, was where she didn’t. This house is holy, it is a place of worship, it is where my mother was kind and miraculous and, for fifty six years, alive.

——————————————————————————————————

Illustration by Gaia Meera

5.png

Illustration by Gaia Meera

15th June 2019

 

THE wisteria my mother planted by the front porch is beginning to wilt, heavy with the loss of her perhaps, thirsty for a kind of love only she could give. She always talked to her flowers, even after she got sick. I almost exclusively talk to myself – I am of the opinion no one else could ever understand me. I talked to my mother, but that’s only because she had perfected the art of pestering me. I retreat to the kitchen counter, picking out fresh strawberries from the fridge and revelling in the bright bursts of sweetness on my tongue. They say the kitchen is the heart of the home. False. My mother was the heart of my home. The kitchen is just a body, limp and lifeless now, all the light dispersed. “I had not thought death had undone so many,” said T.S Eliot, and I can’t help but return constantly to his words like a sparrow determined to bang its head against a glass window. Animals have a better language for grief than we do, they don’t get caught up in words, and thoughts, and (God forbid) feelings - they always sound exactly as sad as they are. 

 

“Hello,” my brother says, his voice quiet, walking into the kitchen like he belongs there. Him and his wife have been staying here since my mother died, to make ‘arrangements’ – I wish they would leave. I examine a strawberry for signs of rot, pressing my finger down on the cold, red skin. My brother has been quoting economists at me for a week straight, telling me it’s a good time to sell, that we have to act fast, that he has a potential buyer all lined up. We would just have to fix up some things, he said. The cracked plaster on the wall in my room, from when I had thrown myself bodily onto the wall because I had just seen Spider-man and was convinced I would stick. The blue room would, of course, have to be repainted – cerulean wasn’t a good look, the market favours minimalism. 

 

The three of us had painted the room blue together, right after my father had left, back when my mother was breathing and warm. I told Mama I wanted to go to the sea, and she said we would bring the sea to us, while my brother looked on in rational dismay. I carefully sketched out small, pink jellyfish and orange clownfish and blue dolphins as high as I could reach. My brother laid sheets on the floor so paint wouldn’t get on the carpet, and grumpily told me real fish did not have smiley faces on them. His love was always logical, always cause-and-effect. My mother told him not to come. He didn’t come. My mother forbade me from telling him how much iller she was getting. He didn’t know, and he didn’t come. The first half of that sentence explains, forgives even, the last part of it. But the syntax of sadness is not a simple thing. 

 

“Listen,” he says, and I am jolted out of my thoughts. “I should have been there. I’m sorry. I know I should’ve been there.” I watch him fiddle with his collar, and adjust his sweater cuffs. “It — I didn’t — I”, his voice breaks, and I can see he is adrift. “There was nothing you could have done,” I say, simple and honest. It is the furthest my mercy can stretch, for now. “I know you don’t want to sell the house.,” — like always, my brother finds a way to turn an emotional conversation into a negotiation of terms — “but you can’t live here all alone, and it makes no sense to leave it empty.”  I turn my face away from him, and pretend he doesn’t exist. It’s quite a pleasant thought. “I’m not doing this to hurt you. I’m doing this because I care. You hear me? I don’t want you trapped in this mausoleum all by yourself.” 

 

“You don’t get to pick and choose when it's convenient to care,” I say, and I can feel the terrible part of me grow inside my body, like a helium balloon, or a hideous progeny. “Leave me here to die, what does it matter? That’s what you did to Mama.” My brother’s entire body shakes, and he releases a sound like a wounded animal. He is small, in a way he has never been, and helpless, in a way I never thought he could be. He reminds me of a moth I found on our kitchen counter, half-dead, barely crawling toward brightness. 

 

My sister-in-law walks in, a shadow across her face that tells me clearly that she was eavesdropping on our conversation. I’m sure she’s the one who wants him to sell the house - it’s like that bit at the beginning of Sense and Sensibility, remember? I think of her in Regency dress, outfitted with brocade and lace, looking imposing and awful and thin. “Good morning,” she says, sliding next to my brother, and wrapping herself around him like a tentacled sea monster. He leans back into her touch. “How are you two feeling today?” She asks this every morning, syrupy sweet, eyes glazing over immediately the one time I responded in more than three words.  “I feel like it’s time for you two to go back home,” I say. My brother does not reply. I think he is still a little bit breathless, winded by my cruelty. My sister-in-law looks at him, placing a soft hand on his shoulder – even evil bitches can be concerned wives sometimes. “I understand you’re hurting,” she says, lips pursed, “but this is his home too.”

 

I walk out. I can’t stand it – this false equivalence, this same-ing of us. He was raised here, but it isn’t his home. Home is meant to be a place you can’t leave, like Atlas’s sky, or Sispyhus’s rock, a burden you can’t shake off. I go to my room. The light filters in, cautious and kind, illuminating the specks of dust hanging in the air. My room has remained unchanged since I was about ten years old– the pale pink carpet is a confused brown now. The bed is slightly too small for me, but I like curling up, occupying less space than my stubborn body demands. I remember running up here every time I fought with my mother, over a curfew, or undone dishes, or her aiding and abetting a truly bitchy relative in making me feel like a giant squid instead of a person. I remember her sharp knock on the door, always, about an hour after we fought. “Dinner is ready,” she would say, or “do you want some fruit,” or, “come have chai with me.” For her, apologies were always subtext. 

 

I would accept the apology, of course – easy, unwilling, daughterly. I spent half my life hating my mother and the other half forgiving her. I’ve only ever loved her here. She’s only ever loved me here. How could I leave – how could I ever leave? I lie in the bed of my childhood room , and I am bigger and more invisible than God, I have all of life and all of death setting off fucking fireworks in my chest. 

 

—————————————————————————————————————

 

21st June 2019

 

MY aunt is a stiff woman – I offer her biscuits, and she accepts with a terse nod, like a cardboard cutout of a person. My brother has called her here to discuss my living arrangement – I am supposed to move in with her, she has a spare room, and a womb that has never done what was asked of it. I pick out two shortbread cookies and position them carefully on her plate, and put the remaining four on a plate for me. My sister in law is watching me as I sit and bite into the sugary warmth. I smile at her widely, showing off all my teeth. She looks away. 

 

“Excuse me,” I say, because not being looked at is somehow worse than being looked at, “I have to go check on something.” My aunt doesn’t respond, sitting stiff on mama’s favourite velvet chair, probably erasing the last imprints my mother’s body left on the world. I walk into the kitchen and notice, distantly, that I am trembling. My brother calls out after me – he has been extra nice to me since I left him for dead in the kitchen. It’s irritating – he’s easier to hate when he’s not around. I collapse into a chair in the kitchen, feeling as though my body has given up on me, I will just sit here, collecting moss until I die too. It is a better fate than what my brother has in store for me. 

 

I hear footsteps, and look up, expecting to see my brother’s hangdog expression. Instead, my sister in law stands there. Still in black mourning clothes, she looks like an elegant Victorian widow – I half expect a well-dressed gentleman to come out of the woodwork to try and teach her to love again. “Your aunt is kind of a stuffy bitch,” she says - and I am shocked into laughter. “I didn’t know you swore,” I respond, unable to think of anything else to say. Her expression shrivels, and I wait for her to hurt me as she has before – “There’s a lot you don’t know about me.” I blink. “A lot that I think you don’t want to know about me. I just – one thing I want you to know is that I’m on your brother’s side. And he’s on your side.” 

 

“If he’s on my side,” I say, my voice wavering annoyingly, “why is he sending me off to live with the stuffy bitch?” She shakes her head and I realise I am jealous of her. I am jealous that she is standing there, beautiful, while I stand here, brotherless. “He doesn’t realise – he’s so caught up in putting all the pieces into the right places, he forgets that human beings aren’t spreadsheets. I’ll talk to him.” And all of a sudden, I remember why I thought she was an evil bitch. “I don’t want you to talk to him for me. He’s my brother. This is my house.” Subtext: you don’t belong here. Her face tightens – and I notice, with vindication, that I still dislike her when she’s ugly with anger. “I didn’t mean it like that. But he’s obviously not listening to you. I could help.” She is being reasonable, I know this in a far off, unreachable part of my mind. I am sick of reasonable. “Don’t bother. I have nowhere else to go.” Subtext: I don’t belong anywhere.

 

The silence in the kitchen is heavy. A weight pressing down on us. I think – hating myself for thinking it – of T.S Eliot. “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” It is evening - outside the window, a squirrel is scuttling up the wisteria tree. In the corner of the kitchen, a spider is clinging to the glistening threads of its web – like a sailor to a life-boat, like a psychic to a fate-line. It feels like everything alive has somewhere to be, somewhere to go, a small corner of the universe that is theirs. My sister-in-law goes to make a cup of tea. I stare at the spider. It slowly, carefully, moves down the ceiling on a single line of silver, catching the setting light like a halo. I imagine what the spider would do if I cut the thread. I imagine myself as a spider, stuck on my back, legs waving around, threads and life-boats and fate-lines cut. I am sick of imagining. 

 

“If you tell him how unhappy you are,” my sister-in-law says, “I’m sure you could figure something else out.” She puts three cups of chai on the tray, arranging it to take out to my aunt and brother. She sets a cup down on the table in front of me – it is steaming, sweet-scented, made exactly how I like it. She leaves. I try not to think about my mother. I fail. 

—————————————————————————————————————

 

27th June 2019

 

I AM sitting on the porch, eating a plate of apple-and-cinnamon crumble drizzled with cold cream. I can feel the sweat collect on my forehead – even at dusk, when the sun has calmed down a little bit, the heat is still mythical and huge. You know those comically large foot-prints that people claim to find as evidence of monsters? Where a whole human could fit inside it? This whole city is a patch of wet cement, and the sun is a giant Doc Marten crushing us all, impressing its contours irrevocably on to us. My mother hated the heat, but she was too stubborn to admit it. She would sit on the front porch every day, pretending as though the weather had no effect on her. A glass of warm milk with turmeric by her side, she would look at her garden and examine it for weeds, for faults, a petal out of place. The sun was tiny compared to my mother’s determination. 

 

Sometimes, I felt like she looked at me exactly like she looked at the garden – trying to find all the places I was going wrong, all the things growing in me that should be tugged out and discarded. That was how she cared, I suppose. Some people love with handfuls of water, some people love with fistfuls of dirt. My aunt left this morning – I wonder, briefly, how she would have loved me if given the chance. If she even would have loved me. She told my brother before she left that he was making a terrible mistake. I could tell by his face that he didn’t disagree with her. But he had listened to me. Of course, he listened with all the grace of a general being told that his side had lost the war - but that was secondary. 

 

My sister-in-law had sat by my side while I talked to him. She had nodded when I spoke, and given my brother loud, opinionated looks. I was both irritated by and grateful for her support. At least my brother didn’t seem to give her opinion undue weight, letting his eyes focus on me as I told him I would die if I had to move out. I don’t know if I meant it. I hope I didn’t – I hope the only thing tethering me to life isn’t this old, dilapidated place, with the memory of my mother walking down the stairs.

 

You know what I think? I think grief lives in you, forever. I think I will always carry memories of my mother – like Atlas’s sky, like Sisyphus’s rock. My brother gave me a year. He said he would look for suitable husbands for me, that he wanted me married by next June, no longer alone. That he would get the old woman who worked for us when we were little to move in with me, and give him daily reports. I tried to find it in me to be furious at these stipulations, but it reminded me too much of being sixteen, stumbling into the house high at 2 am, finding the kitchen light on and a plate of left-overs from dinner wrapped in cling-film on the table. Love is not an insurance policy – except to my brother, it is. 

 

I watch the fireflies arrive – there are fewer of them than there were last summer. Every time I turn away, there is something being taken from the world. Every time, I look again the world is a little less bright, a little less beautiful than before. But the fireflies that are left are trying their best, dancing above my head in strange unpatterned rhythms. My brother comes and sits next to me, and I share my apple crumble with him. He has brought two mugs of chai, and I know with one glance that  his wife made them. There is something inside me unravelling. I do not love my brother. I certainly do not love my sister-in-law. But I can not hate them. It is the furthest my mercy can stretch, for now. My brother is not aware of my internal revelation. He is staring at the fireflies, a far away look in his eyes, reaching out half-heartedly as if to touch one of them. They scatter as his hand approaches. I can tell he is building up the courage to say something. I pretend I can not tell, eat spoonfuls of the warm flaky crumble and wait. 

 

“There was nothing I could do, with mama,” he says, and he is looking at me with all the desperation of a ghost trying to be seen. The fireflies are disturbed by his voice – moving to another corner of the garden. “This is something I can do, for you. It’ll...you’ll be better this way. You’ll have someone.” I shake my head, unable to bear the weight of his words, and I am annoyed by the tears that spill completely unbidden onto my cheeks. “I was supposed to have mama. I was supposed to have you,” I say, and I feel eight years old again, waiting for my brother to tell me that I’ll be okay. His eyes soften, and I can see the tension in his shoulders loosen. “And you always will,” he says, gentle as if I am a deer who will startle and run. 

 

The fireflies buzz, louder and louder, luminous and faithful. I can see my mother walk through the garden, retracing the steps she took almost every day of her life. I can hear her voice echoing out, calling my name – over and over. I turn to my brother, and he has an awed look on his face. And there is magic in the air, grief transformed by God’s hands into something miraculous, a parted ocean, a dead goat. The air is shimmering with it, and I feel mad, dizzy with loss, and alive, alive, alive.  

Raniya Hosain is a Master’s student studying Contemporary Literature, Culture and Theory at King’s College London. She won the 2020 Zeenat Haroon Rashid Writing Prize for women. You can find her on Instagram @raniya.hosain where she posts her writing and very strong opinions about literature.