August 2007 archive

The Body

In times when nothing stood
but worsened, or grew strange,
there was one constant good:
she did not change.

Philip Larkin 

It was two weeks ago, at 7 am, when I finally got the phone call. It was my father. He asked me if he woke me up, and I said he didn't and I asked him what was up. He responded in 4 words:

"Your grandma is dead!"

My father, the poster boy for sensitivity.

I didn't grasp it at first, and I asked him to repeat it. He did. I asked him when it happened, and he told me that it happened at 4 in the morning. That she had a fever for 2 days now, and they didn't want to make me worry. He stayed up with her till 330 am, and he went to nap for 20 minutes so that he can give her the 4 am pill. When he woke up at 4, she was dead.  No more!

Numb, I told him that I won;t be able to come before 10 am, since that was the first day one for one of my subordinates, and that I needed to make sure that this person is set up before I came. He said he understood.

I got dressed, I went to work, I set up the newbie, I told them that I had to leave early because we had a death in the family, and I left. All the way in the car to my grandmother's house, all I could keep thinking is " Granny is dead!". It doesn't ring true, especially that I was supposed to go visit her that same day. I tell myself that it is true, and I start thinking what will happen once I see the Body. That word starts playing in my mind. The Body. The Body. She is gone. All that is left is the body.

I walk in the house, the family house, where I lived with her until last February, and I see my father and his cousin sitting in the living room. My heart is beating faster now. This is getting real. This is really happening. The situation I was preparing myself for for the good part of the past 2 years is finally here. I greet my Uncle, hug my father, and he tells me: "She is still in her bed if you want to see her!"

I look down the corridor, I drag my feet, and I enter through her door.

If there was one constant truth, one real thing I could always depend on throughout my life, it is the love that me and my grandmother had for each other. When you are the product of a divorce between madly career-driven woman and a womanizing man-child, you end up having 2 empty houses, but no actual home. The one home I had, was her home. The person who truly raised me between my mother's social climbing efforts and my dad's 6th divorce was her. Every bad thing in me comes from them. Every good thing in me comes from her. I wanted her to be my mother so bad, that I hated my father for never appreciating what he had. For not devoting every fiber of his being in appreciation of that woman.

I don't have many happy childhood memories, but there is one thing that always made me smile. Walking into her room, as she lay on the bed, and bending over and kissing her hand, while with the other one she stroked my hair. That was always enough to make me happy. That was my happy Place.

I enter the room, and I see her, one her bed. The same way I've seen her a thousand times before. Only this time it was different. She didn't look up.  No signs of breathing in her chest. Just a peaceful look on a face that clearly has no life. I walk close to her, I kiss her hand like I always did, and it's cold.

It finally registers.

The next thing I know, I am slumped on the floor next to her bed, holding her hand and crying.

With my peripheral vision I could see aunts and female cousins in the room. I could hear them crying. My mind registers that someone patted me on the shoulder, my memory banks tells me that the voice accompanying the patting is that of my aunt. It doesn't reach me. I am overwhelmed with grief. I didn't cry in over 12 years. I wasn't capable of it. That moment I couldn't stop.

I grab myself together, I get up and I walk to the bathroom, where I wash my face and look at my blood-shot eyes. I realize that I can't go back into her room, and that I can't go in the living room like this. So I go to my room where I have a breakdown for half an hour. People start calling me on the phone, and I answered. I don't recall what they said, I don't recall what I said. Who cares. The little awkward conversation. The offer to help if anything was needed, even though you know that nothing can be done. The helplessness in their voices bring back the image of the slumped face of my father outside. He is an old 65 year old boy who just lost his mother. He is not going to be able to handle this. Someone needs to take care of the situation. There is no one else but you. Get yourself together. Get yourself together now. There is work to be done.

Someone has to bury the body.

So, you get yourself together, you wipe away your tears, and you walk outside to the living room, sitting with the men to greet the mourners and taking care of needs to be done.

The Islamic burial rituals are as follows: You wash the dead person's body, you wrap them naked in a big shroud and you tie the shroud on both end, making the person look like a giant Sausage. That's how they are buried. The person who does the washing is usually the undertaker if it's a male and his wife if it's a female. However, if you are a fancy socialite like my aunt, you belong in a social circle of rich French-speaking women who have weekly Quran learning sessions with a young handsome sheik who gets paid a thousand dollars per session. He has thought them that there is a great reward that god gives to those who wash the bodies of the dead. So when the news reached that circle of women, we ended up finding two of them arriving at our house at the same time, each offering their services as body-washers for my grandmother. They then started fighting with each other and yelling at each other in French over who gets to do it, and each reminding the other who washed more bodies and who needs more Thawab. They finally decided that they will do it together, so that they can both score brownie points with God. It was surreal.

I look at all of this and I ask my father where my cousin S. is. He tells me that he is at the newspaper, giving them the obituary. I asked him when the wake will be, and he tells me that there won;t be any, because that was my Grandma's will. She apparently wrote that in her obituary. I look at him and I ask: "She wrote her own obituary?"

He looks back at me and says : "Yeah. She also paid for the Shroud and the costs of the funeral car. You know how she!"

I half smile. Yeah, I do know.

My Grandmother was 94 years old when she died. Born in 1913, she lead a life that is nothing short of extraordinary. She was a famous Philanthropist, gave away land to charity that now would be worth billions. She has a Mosque and a square named after her, and she was the matriarch of the family.

She took care of everybody.

When my grandfather, the general in the royal guard, died in 1951, one year before the blessed revolution, she was still in her late 30's. She was still pretty, was very well off and could've easily remarried. She Chose not to for the sake of her kids and for the love of her Husband, whom she loved dearly, and whom she believed she will be re-united with in Heaven if she stayed faithful to him, as Islam says. She sold their big villa, moved into a giant apartment in an apartment building, and wisely spent her money for the next 56 years. She married off all of her children, took care of their kids and had a house that was always open for everybody, never passed judgment or interfered in any body's business and never, ever forced anyone to do anything they didn't want to.

She ruled the family with her love. You were not afraid of her, you were afraid to upset her. Everybody loved her that much. She was the model of the "perfect Muslim", if there is such a thing. If there was ever an advocate of how Muslims should behave and act, it was her. Never stole, never lied, never judged, and never insulted anyone. But she wasn't naive either and not to be underestimated.

There is a story a friend of my father told me that happened in the 1970's. He had just opened a dive bar, which she naturally disagreed with, but never publicly voiced her disagreement or disapproval. Instead, she woke up one day, and walked into his bar with a gift. She congratulated him, and told him that she brought him a gift in honor for his grand opening. He unwrapped it, and it was framed calligraphy that said "God is Great". She told him that she brought it for him to hang, so that God can bless his business. He told me that he found himself unable to act. To put the gift on the wall is blasphemy, but to not put it on the wall is an insult to my grandmother and her gift. Unable to make a choice, he closed the bar that same day and never opened it again. 

That story is 100% True. 

"The Body is washed and ready if you want to say your final goodbyes to her", One of the body-washing socialites told us. I get up, and my dad gets up, and we head again for the room. The Body is laying wrapped completely, cocoon-like, except the face, awaiting our final kisses and goodbyes. The Table she is laying on is musky, smelling of Jasmine and rose water, and so does her body. The room is full of people, and they are all trying to catch the final glimpse of her before she is gone forever. At that moment, her two maids had heard the news and arrived, one has been with her for 20 years, the other for 50 years. They start wailing, kissing her feet, screaming about how she is finally rested and at peace, given how much she suffered with doctors the past few months. The situation becomes too intense, people start crying again. My aunt gets up, and covers her face. Now the body is completely covered.

Then the discussion begins:

"How are we going to take her down?", my aunt asks.

" I don't know. I don;t think A. (My dad) can carry her. Hell, all of the men here are over 60, except for Sam. Y. is traveling, T. Can;t leave work, M. just found out and is coming from college. Maybe we can wait for him?", My author aunt says.

"I will Carry her", I said softly.

As if they didn't hear me, my first aunt continues, "No, we have to catch the Noon prayer, he will make it to the mosque but not here on time. Maybe I should get my driver to come up?"

"I will carry her!", I repeat.

"Well, if you do, bring the Bawab as well and the car from the funeral car", my other aunt continues, also ignoring what I said. I am angry now!

"DO NOT BRING YOUR DRIVER OR THE BAWAB OR ANYBODY. SHE IS NOT A PIECE OF LUGGAGE. NOBODY IS TOUCHING HER BODY. I WILL CARRY HER", I scream at them. Seeing the look on my face, taken back, my aunt reiterates "But You can't possibly carry her by yourself!"

"Yes, I can and I will."

"We are on the fifth floor and this is a dead Body!"

"That's my problem and not yours!"

"You are not going to be able to do it!"

"Watch me!"

"Why are you being difficult?"

"Because she is about to leave this house and NEVER COME BACK. EVER. If someone is to carry her out of here, it has to be someone who loved her, not someone who is treating her like a piece of Baggage. I am the only person here who loves her who can do it, and if you imagine I will let anybody else lay his hands on her, you will have to go through me!"

I could see the calculations being played in my big aunt's mind. She knows me. She knows how much I've loved that woman and how crazy I get when it comes to her. She decides to let it go. Resigned, she tells me: "Fine. You carry her down!"

"Thank you", I respond. "Now please leave me alone with her for a minute so I can say goodbye to her."

They look at each other, not knowing what to make of this. No one has ever made a request like that before. I don;t give them a chance to respond. I authoritatively say"Out. Now. I will only need a minute". They look at each other again, and then they scamper outside, mumbling about how crazy I am acting. I ignore them, as I sit on a chair next to the table, and rest my head on the table next to her wrapped feet, taking the whole thing in. 

Grief, I believe, is such a private thing, but not so much in our culture. We seem to like to grieve collectively, with everybody seeing everybody else at their worst emotional moments. You are not allowed any private goodbyes. No moments alone. No chance to make your peace with the event. Somehow that is not important or logical in our culture. So I knew that I had to do this. To act crazy. To kick them out. Otherwise they wouldn;t leave me alone with her.

I raise my head from it's resting place at the side of the table, and I get up, and kiss her head, and then kiss her feet. "Thank you for everything", I say fighting back tears. No time for that now. I get up, I open the door, and I go back to the table. I put my hands underneath her body, and I start carrying her out of the room. 

A lot of people asked me how I managed to carry her down. Not the physical aspect of it, but the emotional and psychological aspect of it. The truth is, I didn't think about it at the time. That I was carrying her dead body in my arms. At this moment in time, you don't think complex thoughts. You just think Baby steps. I will carry her down the hallway. I will get out of the door. I will walk down the stairs. 1,2,3.

As I carry her out, the women start the final wailing and lamentation. This is now for real. Her final journey begins. They seem to come from every room in the house. I walk past them. They don't matter right now. Nothing does, except getting the body into the coffin.

I don't remember how I walked down those 4 flights of stairs carrying her. I didn't feel any pain or discomfort, or well, anything. I became robot-like. I had a task to complete and I was completing it.

I reach the ground floor, and the driver is awaiting me with the coffin. I place her inside, we close the lid, and we place a green piece of cloths on it. You then proceed to carry the coffin to the car, when suddenly everybody is running to carry the coffin with you. You don't mind the help this time. You put the coffin in the car and you get inside. It's time to go to the mosque. It's time to finish this! 

At the Mosque, by the time we arrived, there was a full fledged circus taking place. Over 70 cars parked all over the place. I counted 3 current government ministers, at least 7 captains of industry, and people whom I have just met in passing. They all left all that they were doing and came to pray for her. The street was blocked. People were asking who died exactly, and nobody had a sufficient answer amongst the by-standers. But they sensed it was somebody important, so the scene that played out once people saw the coffin in front of our building moments ago played out again. Poeple going inside the mosque see the coffin, they run out to help us carry it. Imagine a coffin with 15 pallbearers, all pushing and shoving one another to be able to carry part of the coffin. One of them was my cousin M. , finally here. I was incredibly glad to see him. 

We place the body inside the mosque, and we sit down. This is my first time in a mosque in over 4 years. We pray for her. I hadn't also prayed in 4 years. Never felt the need to. This time I did. For her.

"I can't believe she is gone", M said.

"I know", I respond!

"She is better off now. She was really suffering those past few months", he says.

"I know, I know!", I say sighing.

"You just know she is going to Heaven though. I mean, if she doesn't get in, who will?", he looks at me. Smiling. Thinking of her. Thinking of Heaven. 

"Well, she better be in Heaven, or else God will have a serious problem with me when Judgment Day comes.", I respond to him.

"Don't say that. That's Blasphemy!" He looks at me, half scared at the thought of Blasphemy being said in the mosque.

"I am just saying. She better have a place there."

The call for Prayer saves us from this conversation. We get up and we pray. 

The praying for the soul of a dead person always happen in a separate prayer after an official time for prayer. The moment the group noon prayer was done, I awaited the Imam to start the prayer. He instead steps up, and says in the Mic: "We are about to start the prayer for the deceased lady. Can her closest of Kin please come upfront and lead the prayer for her soul?"

A wave of confusion sweeps the crowd. Everyone suddenly seems uncomfortable, not knowing who to turn to. The closest of Kin is my father, but he prays using a chair due to his back problems. I look at him, and he looks at me back. Suddenly everyone is looking at me. He is her only male son. I am his  only male son. That makes me next in line.

So I step upfront next to the Imam, give my back to everybody, and think to myself: "The things I would do for you, granny. The things I would do for you!" …

…And I lead the prayer! 

I have agonized for months on end on this blog over the Islamic culture of death. How much I've hated and resented it. But I didn't have anybody that close to me die before and for me to have such an important role in their funeral. Being in that situation, I have to say that I have developed a small appreciation for it. 

Ignore all the Jihdy crap. Ignore all the emphasis over suicide-bombers and terrorists. Ignore the 72 virgins, the paradise and all of that crap for a second. Just ignore it. And look at how the people act. The respect and reverence given to the occasion. The ladies fighting over who gets to wash her, the people fighting to carry the coffin, the amount of people who have left their jobs, their vacations, their lives, on a 1 hour notice, to come pay their respects to you. That's..It's overwhelming. And also incredibly sweet. The people coming together. The appreciation they have for the deceased and the sense of duty and love that brings them together to do this. I keep going back to the word reverence. No other word describes it more accurately.

It's hard to explain…. 

You drive away from the Mosque, with the body, and you realize that the car is not heading towards the family burial ground. I ask my father what's going on. He tells me that he was just informed that my grandmother had bought a separate burial ground for herself away from the family one, and only told my aunt. The same way she only told my dad about the obituary, and my other aunt on the location of her closet key. She gave each one of them a piece of the puzzle, so that they would have to come together when she dies. "You know how she was like", my dad says again. 

Yeah, Yeah..I know!

I found out later that she was originally supposed to be buried next to my Grandfather, but apparently right after he died, all of his brothers died after him, and they hadn't bought their own burial ground, so they all got buried next to him. And then their wives died, so they all got buried with their husbands, and now their sons are all like "Well, my dad  and my mom are buried here, so I will be too". I asked how come we are not telling them that they can't be buried here, and that they need to get their own burial ground. I was told that you can not turn people away, especially not  family, if they needed to bury their loved one in your burial ground. You just didn't. 

So, my granny, seeing how crowded it was getting over there, chose to buy her own burial ground, just for herself. When I think how she arranged all of this while being that sick. How she wrote the obituary, bought the plot of land, paid everything off, I can't decide whether to think what an amazing Lady she was, or what that says about her confidence in us. I was always told to never second-guess the dead. I now know why. 

Once we get the coffin out, we open it. The way Muslims bury their dead is buy building an underground room. Like a basement. And you walk downstairs with the body and you lay it in there, and you personally lay dust on it with your hands. The room is then sealed, only to be opened when another person dies and needs to be buried next to you.

At that moment my cousin S. had finally showed up. He missed saying goodbye to her and the prayer in order to have the obituary reach the paper and get printed in tomorrow's edition. He was a mess. Repeating how "I didn't get to say goodbye, I didn't get to say goodbye!". I hug him, and tell him that he, and no one else, is carrying her down there with me. That calms him down a bit.

I carry her with him, we both walk down the steps slowly and carefully. She still smells like roses and Jasmines. We lay the body in the corner of the room. We put the dust on it without hands. We get out, look back, and he finally breaks down. Almost 50 years now, and he knew her all of his life. She was to him, like me, the mother he wished he had. I hold him and we walk out.

The caretakers start putting large blocks of stone to block the entrance. Each block makes a thumping noise and and covers a piece of the view isnide that room. They then put sand and cement on the blocks and start mixing them with water, sealing the place forever. The women and men are all crying now. You can hear the Koran being played in someones cassette in a distance, the voice of the Koran reader sad and agonizing. This is it. It's really over. She is gone. Soul and Body. You will never see her again, you will never talk to her again and you will never hear of her again. Death, in many ways, is like a really bad break-up with no second chances. It's really stupid like that.

The cement hardens, the Koran stops playing, and the people start to leave. Her two maids leave roses on her grave. They've lost the means of their livelihood now, but they don't seem to care about that right now. Out of all of the people there, those two broke my heart the most. You expect this kind of love from family, not from strangers. But to them she was family, and that made them family to me as well. They were the last two to leave besides me and my father.

We walked out, we took a final look, we closed the gates, and we drove away.

That night, I called her and told her what happened. I don't remember the conversation, but I remember her doing her best to console me. She listened to me. She wasn't uncomfortable with the conversation. She didn't say the usual bullshit. She just listened. It was all that I needed.

She told me that after she hung up with me she couldn't help herself from crying. She never heard me like this. She understood what I was going through. She especially knows.

I figured I should thank her here. Some of my best friends couldn't handle it like you did, some even brought in some heavy drama in my life right when I needed their consoling the most. You were there for me.

Thank you!

Two weeks later. Today. Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek" on repeat, replaying endlessly in the background. I am finally able to write this post. So much has happened in those two weeks. So much.

I am still not dealing with it, especially because I've been dealing with a lot of problems and drama in work and in my personal life at the same time, and not the everyday bullshit either. Some intensely heavy shit. I feel like I am long overdue for a nervous breakdown, and I could probably use it, but since I am not allowing myself to have one since that day, I am not going to worry about that now.

My father has been staying in the family house ever since, which has turned into a House of ghosts with her gone. Nobody's visiting or coming up anymore. You start worrying about Ramadan and all the Holidays. The first ones will be the hardest, and you know that everyone will try to make the extra effort and come in order to show that we are as strong of a family as we were when she was alive. But we all know that after that first year, we won't try that hard anymore. She was the glue that held us together, and without her we will start to unravel. It already started on some level.

On the insistence of cousin S's mother, my eldest and craziest aunt, they opened my Grandma's room 4 days after her burial. My aunt wanted some things, and while we begged her to wait at least a week before doing this, she wasn't hearing it. She even started to complain to people that we are preventing her from her mom's stuff. So we agreed to open the room, give her whatever she needs and have it over and done with. When my father told me about this, I told him that there is one thing that I wanted from that room.

"What is it?", he asked.

"Her wedding ring from grandpa. That's all I want!", I responded.

He got silent for 10 seconds, and then told me, "It's yours!"

And that day I got that ring.

As I held it with my fingers, I looked at the inscription inside of it. It had my name on it. My first and Last name. It made sense, I am after all, named after my Grandfather. I was overwhelmed with emotion as I held it.

This was a symbol of their love. A love my Grandma carried for over 70 years, 56 of which after his death. The kind of love that we can only dream of having one day. It was at that moment that I decided that whomever it is that I am going to marry, I am going to marry her with that ring. Needless to say, that's going to complicate things for me considerably in that department. I can not just marry anybody i feel like marrying anymore. I have to find someone worthy of this ring. Someone who will understand what it means. That our love will have to equal theirs…

I will find her. One day I will. And I will love her the way she deserves to be loved. After all, in this life, what else is there?

RIP grandma. I will never forget you!