26th June 2019. It started off as a hard morning. I was physically spent and mentally slow from a packed weekend and zero recovery time. My son had kept me up from 4:30 – 6am. I was not in any shape or form fit to travel for work but I had no choice.
I dragged my feet through the morning routine. Made it to Southampton Central in an Uber. Grabbed Costa and some toast on the go. Messaged Nizar as I waited for my train to London. I feel like turning around and going home.
I dialled into my 9 am telecon. Rehearsed some quick responses in my head. The telecon had not started so I sipped my coffee and waited. I rejected my sister’s call from Dhaka. Few seconds later, my sister from Sydney started calling. I rejected that too. I almost missed the message that flashed across the top of my phone. Sam…Nanu…
And I knew. I just knew.
I immediately cut the conference call and dialled my mom. I could hardly see through the eyeliner streaming into my eyes. The bit of toast stuck in my throat felt like sandpaper. I could hear my Khala wailing in the background. Or was it my Mami? I couldn’t tell. There was too much confusion. My mom wasn’t making sense or talking to me but I stayed there, a disembodied voice. Maa, amar charge nay. Ki ey bidesh jibon, charge shesh toh connection shesh.
My train pulled up at the platform. Maybe I should have turned around and gone home. Instead, I got up and alighted the train to Heathrow. My mind was completely blank, my limbs following pre-programmed instructions. I worked throughout the day like a machine. I was numb but my autopilot had kicked into gear as it did during moments of crisis. I lived the workaholic immigrant life, the luxury to grieve had to wait till the work day was over. I stared at the planes taking off around me. My mind lingered on the passport in my bag. For a wild minute, I considered getting the next flight out to Dhaka. The burn in my breasts reminded me I couldn’t.
I have always feared death. I suppose we all do. It wasn’t so much as dying than it was losing a loved one that scared me. In my 30 years, barring the death of my father which I cannot remember, I had not lost anyone close. Maybe that was why I struggled to accept the finality of death. I have always had trouble believing someone could travel that far. So far that they become unreachable – permanently. I could not make sense of that. To me, dead people just stepped behind the curtain backstage – invisible, but not gone. I mean, where do they go, anyway?
Heaven. That’s where a lot of us hope to end up. But as I sat there, thinking about my Nanu, I questioned that thought. Did we really know if heaven existed? The concept of afterlife was a spiritual consolation, not a factual certainty. I stayed with that idea for a while, let the discomfort wash over me, before banishing them as blasphemous thoughts. I believe in Islam, in Allah and the Heavens. There was no doubt in my mind about that. But death rattles you, as it had rattled me, my faith, and the core of my existence. There is no escaping the uncertainty of ‘the other side’ and the uncomfortable emotions it evokes.
Death. It makes you think funny things. I thought of my Nanu‘s eccentric one liners. Bilay par kor. Bela kayet hoye gese. The curl of her lips when she cracked a joke. Her eyes. Her soft face, hardened by years of trials. She did not have an easy life. I thought of all the fond things I remembered her for. And I wondered, rather selfishly, how would people remember me when it was my time to go?
Messages of condolence poured in through my phone. She is in a better place. I really hoped that was true. I hope she finds Nana after 35 long years of separation. Even though he passed away before I was born, he had lived in my life through the stories of my Nanu and Khalas. I couldn’t help but love him. My Nana was a gentleman, a doting father and an exemplary husband. Nanu loved him till her dying breath.
Widowed at 32 with 5 children was never going to be easy. My Nanu fought that insurmountable war, got a job, built a house, and worked up to old age. I would proudly tell my friends that my Nanu was a working woman. It was almost unheard of in my age group.
My Nanu wasn’t your average grandma. She would come home from office and head straight to kaacha bajaar to suss out the freshest produce. She was always telling my mother off for refrigerating so much food. She was a seasoned cook yet every time we sat down at her dinner table, decked out with her vintage crockeries, she would lean forward in earnestness and ask, gorur mangsho ta golse toh? She always took care of the littlest details.
Both Ammu and Nani had married early. Despite spanning three generations, our age gaps were pretty narrow. I turned 30 this year. My Nanu would have been 67 in July. When my father passed away, my Nani was the pillar that sheltered Ammu and her children. She saw us through – financially, mentally and emotionally. Enduring the loss of her husband and her eldest child’s husband one after the other could have destroyed our family. Losing the two most senior male figures in a patriarchal society hurt us in ways that many of us have still not recovered from. If it wasn’t for her strength – and God knows where she got it from – we would have withered away. She saved every penny to secure our future. She hated wastefulness and always said, ‘kapor kine gadha, shona holo adha, maati holo khaati’. (Fools buy clothes, gold loses it’s value, only land is a pure asset).
Watching her deteriorate over the last few years was painful. It started happening as soon as she retired. Slowly she became tied to her bed. Strength left her limbs and her eyes starting losing its lively sheen. But she remained the head of our family, the wise old bot gaach that we huddled around for shelter. My Nanu bore 5 children who in turn bore 11 grandchildren and 5 great grandchildren. She is Mother Nature personified.
I wanted to avoid the rush hour crowds so I got an upgrade on my way home. I sat in First Class and sipped tasteless tea for free. I stared at the green English lands whizzing past, the sun bright on my face. It couldn’t touch me. There was no warmth. My Nani was headed for the grave. It made my hands cold despite the heat wave.
I sat and typed. Typed and sipped. I had a headache, and my face was bloated from the bursts of tears that I wiped away alone. I had finally paid the heaviest price for living away from my family. I deserved this loneliness. Had I not chosen it? I watched my Aunt cry in agony across the pond in America, unable to touch her mother for one last time. I watched my sister cry as my Nani was lowered into her final resting place. I stayed with them. I cried with them. Till someone’s charge ran out. Ki ey bidesh jibon, charge shesh toh connection shesh.
Last year, June had added a new person to my life. This year, it’s exacting that by taking my Nanu away. My Nanu, The First Man. My beginning, my root, my lifeline. If my life is a series of people and their demise the end of it, I have just taken one step closer to the finish line by losing the first person who mattered to me. She is, and always will be, the First Man in my universe.
At home, I finally let go. The last bit of myself that I had held back. I stroked Aryan’s hair, as fresh tears rolled down my eyes and into his soft cheeks. Life and death was closer than a mother and her son. I thought of my Nani, the softness of her hands, the grey of her hair. I am because she was. My First Man. May Allah grant you the Highest place in Jannah. You deserve nothing less. Your sacrifices and your hard work will never be forgotten. You will live through us, our children, and their children. We will make sure of that.