Illustration by Mima Chovancova
I HAVE attended three funerals in my life. This feels like a prophetic number, but also a reminder of grace – a blessing, to be able to count loss on one hand.
The first was for a woman I barely knew, a relative I saw on Eid mornings. The only memory I have of her is a house with mossy vines growing on the balcony, the smell of spices wafting out of an over-crowded kitchen, a hundred rupee note pressed into my hand with a firm grip.
The second was for my father’s uncle. He always walked as if he was heading somewhere far more important than where he was now, brisk and even. He offered me my first sip of champagne, eyes twinkling with the untouchable mischief of a man unbeholden to authority. Every spring, he would take extended, solo vacations. Sit by the lakes, and eat lunch at the local pub, and fight with the geese. My father didn’t cry at the funeral – just stood a bit stiffly, the humour and ease drained out of him. A week later, I caught my father crying in the living room, and pretended I hadn’t. Grief has its own pulse, its own odd rhythms. The thing about love and loss, is that they are often synchronous. The moment you begin to love someone, you begin instantly, inexplicably to lose them.
The third funeral I attended was my husband’s.
I married at 33. All my friends had long since coupled off, had wedding photos on their mantles, and the smug air of superiority that often accompanies matrimony. It was all sneaked cigarettes, and furtive sips of vodka, and scandalising low cut tank tops under heavy jackets, and sitting underneath the stars and talking about sex until about 24. And then – “must go home and get dinner ready”, “sorry I can’t, my husband doesn’t like me staying out late”, “oh God how do I make food that’ll impress my bitch of a mother-in-law.” I had let my faint romantic tendencies float away with the ease of my twenties – by 33, I was a cynic, a spinster with aching joints and nicotine stained teeth. That’s not to say I was lonely – I had a few friends from university, a commitment-phobic room-mate, a handful of acquaintances who frequented the same gym I did. Also I had my cat
Snowball – half Persian, half demon, quick to snarl, quick to cuddle up beside me, always whining or scratching or pissing. Her hobbies were taking long naps in sunlit corners, and licking my face while I slept. I loved her ferociously, let her sleep on my bed and bought her fresh fish from the farmers market every Friday. She was probably another reason I stayed single so long – she kept me company, listened to me talk, sat on my feet on cold December nights. I didn’t need a man as an antagonist to loneliness, or emptiness. If I ever did marry, it would be for more than a warm body or a voice to keep the dark at bay.
When I first met Mark, I liked him because my cat liked him. Mark quoted from obscure German poets, and always left a spot on his jaw while shaving, and let his hair grow far too long before deciding in a fit of pique to cut it all off again. I met him at an awkward half-grown out phase, and liked him more for it. There was something unfinished about him. Snowball, who usually hissed at strangers and sometimes at friends, immediately jumped right beside him on the sofa and butted her head against his thigh. Mark laughed and scratched behind her ears, unconcerned by the white fur that collected on his navy trousers. “She’s usually quite suspicious of strangers,” I told Mark, almost embarrassed by how affectionate my cat was being. “Stop that,” I telepathically scolded Snowball, “he’ll think we’re desperate”. Snowball blinked condescendingly in my direction, and put her head on Mark’s lap.
A few months later, as Mark and I sat in the half-lit corner of a garden party, giggly with champagne, he admitted that he hated cats. But he liked me enough to pretend. Under the balmy spell of autumn, while my (our?) friends danced badly and off-beat in the distance, the air fizzing with remembered – I thought that was the most romantic thing I’d ever heard. “Are you still pretending?” I asked, faking sternness. He laughed, tilting his head in consideration. “Now that I’ve gotten to know her - I’m in too deep to pretend.” My breath caught in my throat, as drunken renditions of Cyndi Lauper floated through the air. His hand found mine, under cover of the almost-darkness. The softness of his touch was, frankly, terrifying. I am the kind of person whose desperation for love has somehow manifested in the complete inability to let myself be loved. My heart is a tangle of contradictory impulses. I wanted to respond to Mark, say something affectionate and kind. But I didn’t say anything. We sat at the very edge of the party, at the very edge of what-could-be-love, holding our breath.
Every time I dream of Mark, we’re sitting in the corner of that garden. Sometimes he gets up and leaves right as I’m about to say something. Sometimes the sun is bright in the sky, and I start sweating so much that his hand slips right out of mine. Sometimes the congenital heart issue that ended his life decides to strike early, and his face goes pale and cold, his body stiff, while eighties music preaches hedonism in the distance. What does it mean that I only ever dreamed about him after he died? You know how you ignore your body, sometimes? The mechanics of nerve-endings, and the chemical realities of flesh seem irrelevant. Then you have a back-ache, and you think – of-course, oh fuck, this body was always all I had.
Every day since Mark left, I have felt him like a blunt trauma to my spine. I feel like I have lost my shape since he left - when he was with me, I was a person, and now I am a vague after-thought with a heartbeat. Isn’t it funny, how grief re-shapes memory? I always remember us happy. I think I would be less sad if I remembered the passive-aggressive nights spent facing away from each other, how he told me marriages were about sacrifice, and I wasn’t the kind of person who ever gave without holding my hand open to receive. Somehow, all the hurt has been Eternal-Sunshined away. Forgetting is easier than forgiving, after all.
The neurological explanation for my memory loss is something about chemical pathways, and synapses, repression as an important evolutionary mechanism. Mark would have thought that was unromantic. He would have said something illogical and tender - in his professor voice, sounding as though he had figured out all the world’s secrets, and was waiting for me to catch up. “Grief doesn’t transform, it summarises” – and then The Look, his eyebrows slightly raised, daring me to ask him to explain what the fuck he meant by that.
The first time I heard him talking about something seemingly significant, and completely indecipherable, I mostly just smiled and nodded. He was talking about Milton, about Satan and determinism and how God created his own worst enemy. “Life,” he said, “only happens to you if you let it.” “The fault is not in our stars but in ourselves?” I replied, half-joking. “Yes — but no — it’s not that simple,” he said, self-important and beautiful. “The stars set the course, they make things occur, but it is peculiarly human to make things happen.” It must have been our fourth, fifth, sixth, date. We were sitting in his living room, and he had removed the arm he’d placed around me to gesticulate wildly while discussing Paradise Lost. I must have looked ridiculous – staring at him like Alice at the Cheshire Cat, half-aware he was talking shit, but unable to shake the feeling that he saw into the core of the universe.
Illustration by Mima Chovancova
I’ve always thought that love is a little bit like Wonderland – a world of bright and painful nonsense. “The rule is,” the white queen says, “jam tomorrow and jam yesterday but never jam today.” It’s a metaphor for life, or happiness, or disenchantment, I think. Mark would have known - would have spouted off about surrealism and Dali’s illustrations and the absurdity of pleasure delayed. He was all about abundance – jam everyday! jam for all! orange jam and pink jam and sweet jam and tart jam and jam falling out of the sky! Snowball got fat after I married Mark. Her graceful leaps onto the window sill turned into uncoordinated, thudding plops. I scolded him about it on a weekly basis – “Stop giving her so many treats - she’ll get a heart condition!” He would only laugh, and say, “At least she’ll die happy.”
Mark died at work. He was in-between classes, sitting in his office alone. He might have been bored, or impatient, or thinking about what to have for lunch. He might have noticed a sudden pain in his chest, might have tried to call for help. He might have been terrified. He might, a small voice in my head offered, have thought about me. There was a half-empty cup of coffee on his desk when an unsuspecting TA found his body. Mark had walked down the hall, put the kettle on, measured out two spoonfuls of instant coffee, poured in a splash of milk. He had intended to sip it, slowly like he always did. He had intended to finish what he had started. He had intended to live.
A colleague of Mark’s sent me a picture of his office door a week after he died. There was a disorganised mess of bright post-its placed on the dark oak. “We miss you professor!!!!” one read. “You didn’t teach me about literature – you taught me about life <3” said another, in neat block letters. I was numb to all of it. The emotions of everybody else seemed distant and faintly improbable, like Jupiter’s seventy-ninth moon. What did I care about the sadness of strangers? The only memorialising post-it which prompted a response from me was bright yellow, and read: “For his mourners will be outcast men // and outcasts always mourn.” I couldn’t help but laugh - Oscar Wilde’s epitaph, used for a middle-aged straight university professor. Was Mark an outcast? He watered the garden obsessively. He drank exactly two and a half cups of coffee every morning. He wore socks to bed in the winter. He was completely, utterly mundane. He didn’t know the secrets of the universe, of course he didn’t – I just loved him enough to pretend.
I didn’t realise I was pretending, before Mark died. I thought I was clear-eyed and level-headed, a pragmatist at heart. Mark always knew, I think – he told me often that I was the most logical hysterical person he had ever met. He told me often that I loved him too much, and didn’t like him nearly enough. I don’t remember the last words I said to him — see you at dinner? have a good day? bye, honey? — but I remember the last meaningful conversation. It was in the living room, sitting on the plush green sofa. The wan light of dusk was reflecting off Mark’s glasses, in a strange pseudo-halo. He was frowning and quiet. It was infuriating - how badly I wanted to make him smile.
Before I fell in love, I would deal with people’s bad moods by not giving a fuck about their bad moods. It was a very effective system. But Mark – Mark’s emotions had a gravitational pull. Sometimes, this meant I was floating. But sometimes it meant I was lying, cracked open on the side-walk, Humpty-Dumpty like, crushed into a one-dimensional mess of spilled yolk and bone. Every new expression on Mark’s face made me feel like I was walking on the moon – disoriented, heavy, stupidly miraculous. If I was Newton, I would have tossed that apple right back at the damn sky. Of course, the problem with that is obvious - eventually, it all falls down.
“What’s wrong?” I said, reaching out to clasp his hand. His palms were cold, and his fingers tightened around mine until it almost hurt. “I don’t think I can live like this anymore.” He was staring in the distance, otherwise he would have seen the wreckage of his words on my face. “I’ve got to quit my job.” I calmly ignored the rush of relief flooding my system. “You love your job,” I reminded him, “You said it was the only spot of brightness in a cold, dark world.” His answering laugh lit up his face. ‘One small step for man,’ I thought, breathless, smiling back at him softly. “That might have been a little dramatic, in retrospect,” he admitted. “Oh sure, you’re a little dramatic, just like hell’s a little hot, and Snowball’s a little fat.” “Snowball is a beautiful lady,” he said - and his fake-frown was warm at the edges, his lips turning up in amusement. “It’s just - I don’t know. I feel like I was meant to do something bigger, you know? Something important.”
“Like what? Your skill set is severely limited, darling.” I said, trying to be gentle - but knowing he needed honesty more than the brief pleasure of false flattery. Mark knew a lot about poetry, and philosophy, and romance, and very little about everything else. “I think I want to write a book,” – and the casual tone of his voice told me this wasn’t one of his manic whims. This meant something to him. His posture didn’t shift, but the fingers in his free hand began drumming unpatterned rhythms against his thigh. “Well then,” I said – and his gaze burned into me when I started speaking, his eyes bright - “you better make it happen.” His shocked, nervous little smile unsettled something in my chest. I was flying up, up, over the city, above the atmosphere, watching clouds and meteors and angels pass by. He would write his book even if I had to pull it out of his brain with my bare hands.
“You know - I don’t really have to quit, I could write a book in my spare time. It doesn’t – I know that it’s inconvenient with all the inflation and everything.” His voice was guarded – he was doing that thing, where he would cover up his desires with salt and shame just so I wouldn’t be able to do it first. He did that sometimes – in the middle of a particularly fervent speech, or when asking for sympathy or kindness, he would become suddenly uncertain as though he was burdening me. His knee would begin jiggling absently, his hand would go up to ruffle his hair, his jaw would tighten. As a firm believer in abundance – when he doubted himself, he threw his whole body into it. It was, I thought exasperated, his most frustrating and his most endearing quality. Mark had no idea what the inflation rate was. He might have been able to guess what our rent was if I gave him several hints.
“You’re allowed to walk away from things,” I told him, and he avoided my gaze. I placed both my hands on his face, and forced him to meet my eyes. “You are entitled to happiness.” He was unconvinced. “You’re allowed to have jam today,” I said, firm, “Strawberry jam, even. If you know what’ll make you happy – don’t hesitate.” The clouds cleared from his countenance, and I could tell he understood – that he had shaken off his anxiety. His uncertainty never lasted longer than it took me to reassure him. “I love you,” he said, and the world seemed to right itself, he went back to holding the universe together, and I fell back into my subatomic attraction.
The sky didn’t fall when he died, two days after that conversation. The galaxy didn’t untangle itself into a million useless threads. I didn’t float into the ether and disappear forever. That’s just how it felt. It’s outrageous how physical loss is – how it sits on your chest like an overweight cat and makes it difficult to breathe. Ellen Bass called it an obesity of grief. The thick, unforgiving flesh of missing him must make me the heaviest woman on Earth. My feet must make craters in the dirt, deep enough to be graves. Why, I must be extra-gravitational.
A blessing, I remind myself, to be able to count my losses on one hand. A sad, savage part of me doesn’t care if I lose everyone — if I lose handfuls and armfuls and life-fulls of family and friends — as long as Mark could stay. Just a few months longer, maybe. Just long enough to finish his book. What would he have written, I wonder? Fantasy, maybe. He would have liked that – to make up an entire world whose rules he could create. Would he have typed my name up, on the dedication page? Of course, he would have had to write a sequel. Maybe it could have even been a trilogy - just to give the hero enough space to struggle, to become worth his narrative arc. “It doesn’t matter if you spend all your time losing,” Mark said to me, once, while watching the finale of Masterchef. “As long as you win when it counts.” The hero would have won when it counted. He would have gotten the girl. She would have loved him so much. An obesity of love.
Getting married so late meant that love arrived as a surprise for me. Mark let himself into my life as though he had always belonged there, and had the nerve to act surprised when I convinced myself he was an illusion. I didn’t let myself love him for a long time, not truly, not properly – at least not out loud. And then we got married, which meant I had to love him, contractually. It was easier then – signing the papers made it permanent, made it real. I let myself relax into marriage, like an old wound into a warm, salt bath. It was silly of me. I should have known that the only constant in love is that it is the precursor to loss. I should have remembered how my father looked, sobbing on the living room sofa. Small. Helpless. Alone.
I could have gone up to him, I suppose. I could have offered him a shoulder to cry on. But what’s the point? When you are remembering someone a certain way, lovingly unscarred, any other person is a hostile witness. My father didn’t want me to intrude upon his sorrow - he didn’t want the reminder that his uncle was an alcoholic by the time I was born, always slurring, and banned from almost all the pubs in England. I have forgotten the last words I ever said to Mark, and I have forgotten the last words he ever said to me. I would prefer to keep it that way. My vision of Mark is wildly inaccurate, and entirely necessary. I am completely preoccupied in mourning his death; I have no space left to grieve his life.
At least this much is entirely objective, factual, an accurate recounting - I loved everything about Mark, except for all the bits I forgot. He wasn’t perfect, but when I look back – he is a giant, astride the world, holding all that was and all that will be in his sky-sized hands. He is the only thing holding up the universe, and it’s him, just him, all the way down.
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.