An ode to death
Death doesn’t knock on peoples’ doors and asks permission for entry. It doesn’t leave when you dismiss it. Death lingers, death is always here and death is not a guest. Death is a promise, it is a right to be received by every son of Adam and every daughter of Eve.
“Many may be the reasons yet death remains as one.”
Way before my grandfather’s death, my mother carved this mantra into our minds. My brother and I would look at each other for a second or two, straight-faced but sighing on the inside whenever we heard our mother ranting and raving about life and its sublime atrocities.
She’d explain, often beautifully so, with her eyes contemplatively pointing upwards, the terrors and joys of life while we sat there waiting for her to conclude. Or we would wait for another clever phrase. Or, in more unfortunate situations, she’d conclude with a cuss in Farsi at one of us then we’d be sent to bed early. 7 p.m. early. The only diurnal creatures who would be sleeping that early were my brother, myself, and, of course, the dead.
Our graves of slumber, parallel to one another with a dark oaken night-table in between and two glasses of water resting at each side, laid opposite my mother’s bedtime-stories chair. A throne of spoken human nature with the light of the hallway sneaking through the half-closed door and coalescing on my mother’s pearly face. Stories about the light and dark, good and evil and, naturally, stories about what happens to disobedient little boys. My brother could be heard snoring louder than a pierced Harley-Davidson muffler within the first 10 minutes of the first story. I never could sleep that fast.
Thirty minutes was the usual life span of our mother’s bedtime stories. An array of religious lore, tragic love stories, demonology, the Mercy of God… mother would tell me about everything she knows. All the books she’d read as a psychology major, from the works of Machiavelli and Freud to the writings of Imam Ali and Naguib Mahfouz. Her mind was the construction company hired to build the library currently existing in mine. A barrage of information that a 14-year-old stored to feed his insomnia. My perseverant insomnia. Two hours, four stories and a dimension of mind-altering themes later, my slumber would begin. At least to her perception. I would stay awake for another three hours thinking about everything all at once—mostly because my insomnia left me with no other choice. Like any curious soul, dangling between convoluted cynicism and complicated convictions, I thought of everything in relation to life and death, inquisitively whispering those words until I slept: many may be the reasons yet death remains as one?
What does it mean? What is death and love? What is God and what are demons? Anything I couldn’t understand would be archived in my mind-palace and under one of my many mental categories, the nooks and crannies of this remaining palace. These curiosities were assigned to their respective corridors of importance. I put love and hatred under the ‘to be experienced later’ category, God and demons under the ‘must work on’ category and insomnia under the ‘helpless but surviving’ category. Since the insomnia is thought-induced, like much of my suffering, it remains an absurdly cherished ailment. As God would have it, I survived the migraines of categorizing my curiosity. As flooded as it would get up there, a thought can always find itself its own shelf.
Death had its own and a shelf grew into a corridor, that corridor grew into a mausoleum. One irreparable design flaw for Death’s mausoleum though was not installing lights. Death had no subcategories, any idea related to death would have its own by proxy. War? Had its own. Famine? Had its own. Conquest? Same rules apply.
It was only a matter of time until everything in my mind had its own place and everything was related to death. It was only a matter of time till I would seize that elusive monster and squeeze the truth from its neck. Till I would quench my curiosity’s thirst. At least that’s what my foolish self believed: you’re in control!
Silly boy, death and love. We were 14. What of death did you know? John Donne’s Death, be not proud? Some line you memorized from a Slayer song? Always time for poetics with you, isn’t it? No. You know not death until you’ve either died or wanted to die. Or had loved someone who died. We did, didn’t we? Love him to death.
I was still 14 on June 9, 2009. My mother filled the house with a sorrowful wail an hour before sunrise as the feet of my father and brother scattered around the hallway on a Tuesday morning. They were trying to look for her, echo-isolating her crying while I was too busy being startled. My father found my mother in one of the bathrooms, her cries amplified temporarily when the door opened and returned back to its muffled sound when the door was closed. Then there was only one pair of feet scuffling about, my brother dragging his large grizzly bear body to our room.
“I think grandfather just died in the hospital.” Dry-toned and confused, my 11-year-old brother continues. “Dad says we should get dressed, I think we’re going to a funeral.”
My father had a green Mitsubishi Pajero, ugly but efficient. My mother bawled and blubbered in her black cape veiling her tears on her anguished face as our father dashed us in his ugly green chariot to what had become my grandmother’s house. I sat behind my mother. I squeezed her shoulders throughout the ride and held her body from collapsing until we reached her childhood house. Between the front gate and the front door was my grandfather’s soon to be neglected yellow and green garden. Lemons and limes abundantly filled the garden, they were softly caressed by the wind that morning as if they were little bells teasing the thought of tolling. Waiting inside were the tormented children and wife of my late grandfather; they lounged silently in the living room waiting for my mother who is the youngest of six. My three aunts also veiled in black rested on the left-most couch, my two uncles on the right and my grandmother on what used to be my grandfather’s recliner, in the middle. The spring-inspired couch set, doused with yellow and green flowers seemed to have lost all colors as my aunts, uncles and grandmother mourned the life no longer pulsing in their house.
My mother had fallen to her knees as soon as she stepped into the living room. She screamed words that made no sense, incoherency induced by short breaths, loud wails and the frustration of unbearable pain. I remember my mother taking a big gasp of air only to scream a two-syllabled cry of desolation:
It did kill us, I remember. I remember Aunt Haifa’s malnourished face nodding to us, go away child. You shouldn’t be seeing this, that’s what her eyes said. Funny little boy, obsessed with death, are we? What about your killer curiosity now, little cat? Did the truth bring you back? Death isn’t just an end to life. Do you remember gripping your uncle’s hand when we walked him towards the grave of grandfather? Do you remember him not gripping back? Who held our hand? This is what happens to curious little boys, insolent and pestilent in their hunger for knowledge. This is why we can’t go to sleep as easily as brother does. Death doesn’t knock on peoples’ doors and asks permission for entry. It doesn’t leave when you dismiss it. Death lingers, death is always here and death, little boy, is not a guest.
I was a pallbearer, one of six or seven to carry the corpse throughout the burial rituals before escorting my grandfather’s cancer-ridden body to his resting place. It’s poetic more than cathartic, human burial is more concerned with honoring the deceased vessel than the disposal of it. The lifeless body is not put into the earth with the thoughts of ‘no longer in use’ or ‘out of order’. It’s not a broken toilet or a vending machine, it was a vessel carrying a soul. It’s the sentiment of ‘farewell, old man’ or ‘see you soon’. A soul addicted to Marlboros and overused shit-jokes, an elegant retired post-man with a knack for unsubtle humor.
We carried the body after it was washed and wrapped in a white garment, carried it to the women’s reception hall before burial. The hall rang with dejection and resonated with despair; the women were all weeping aloud knowing that the face of grandfather is traditionally revealed to them before burial. A moment I had not known to be customary in Islamic burials. The body was carried with us, the men, chanting:
“There is no god but Allah. God is most merciful.”
The body rested on the wooden contraption used to carry it, we placed both on the marble floor in the center of the women’s room. One by one the women came in and say their last goodbyes; a niece, a cousin, a daughter. My eldest aunt Miriam, I unfortunately remember, had collapsed as soon as the face was uncovered and she was then tended to by other women whom I was unfamiliar with. Their faces were never before seen to me and their first introduction to me was unforgettably hollow and starved. I remember thinking to myself how afflictive pain must be for it to drain the body that quickly, for it to deplete the body so rapidly in a matter of hours after a death. I was shocked into numbness, I couldn’t feel my body.
I also remember how foolish I was to have chosen to look the other way as opposed to facing death headstrong and face first. To gaze one last time at my grandfather’s face. But I chose not to, I chose to turn around and save myself from the scarring trauma of seeing a face I had wanted to remember as lively and smiling. I had turned away from ill fate, from death, to see something worse. My mother’s bereaved face. My mother’s orphaned soul.
With cowardice, I retreated at the sight of death. With its malevolent benevolence, death taught me a cruel lesson. An inescapable one at that.
Death is not for little boys. Many may be the reasons but death is one, right? I can’t remember ever thinking of that when we saw mother’s face. Did you? Oh, we shouldn’t have been so timid. So fearful. I could have lived seeing grandfather’s dead face but you, you’ve had us both living with mother’s tormented face for years. Don’t think it’ll ever fade away, either. To be fair, nothing good came from grandfather’s death but this. You wouldn’t have me and I wouldn’t have you if we weren’t so foolishly curious about things we weren’t supposed to be curious about. You wouldn’t have thought about what being a man means if not for his death. If not for mortality slapping you in the face and death laughing at you, little boy, we would’ve never become a man. I am your life now.
We had a massive family feast shortly after the funeral. All my uncles and aunts, their spouses and children. All their fake smiles and lethargic niceties. All their bodies moving sluggishly to fill their dinner plates. A last supper aimed more at the unity of the tribe in commiseration than at bidding farewell to its chief in commemoration. The week after, grandmother summoned us to fulfill my grandfather’s will and to receive what he had intended each grandchild to have.
I inherited a gold plated Rado watch which my grandfather would have donned majestically in the ’70s. It dangled on my left wrist, a man’s watch taunting a boy’s arm. How fitting. The day of the burial, I remember, everything went silent, slow, and scentless. The numbing view of my grandfather being buried lingered in my mind, inescapable in its loitering. Escaping it or pushing it aside for a moment or two was as impossible as losing my own shadow. I know because I tried.
The last time I saw my grandfather was in a dream. I was seventeen when Sha’aban’s ghost to my Hamlet had come to visit. Grandfather rode his maroon Crown Victoria into our garage, smiling at me with his slick bald head, his cool black shades and a Marlboro Red dangling between his lips. He honked at me, commanding me to come over. I walked down the side-door steps into our long garage that would easily fit four cars in a linear fashion, floating with joy as if to levitate my way to his side window. Grandfather had removed his shades to look me up and down as his smile began to fade. He had come over to arm me; to ask me a question I hadn’t the courage to ask myself. In his soft-spoken voice, he asked me a question calm in tone yet ferocious in intent.
“Are you a man yet?”
It’s not his going to death that makes Lazarus, it’s his coming to life. We would recite as children parts of the Qur’an, parts about life and death and the nature of living and dying. Death is a promise, it is a right to be received by every son of Adam and every daughter of Eve. “Every soul shall taste death” and “We are from God and unto Him we shall return”. Words that my classmates and friends would memorize for a grade or for the sake of tradition. Words that I memorized because I needed to prepare for something I remain unsure of. Words I had slowly fallen in love with. The love which would teach me that when I return to Him one day, I return as a man. As my grandfather and Lazarus were. Not little boys.
And now, I’m 11 years older than I was on June 9, 2009. Now, Grandfather still visits me in my dreams every now and then. I once read or heard that the believer encounters two deaths in their lifetime: one that happens when the soul rids itself of darkness and accepts a life of light; and one where I one day reconvene with the old friend with a gold-plated watch. Maybe we’ll go for a ride in a Crown Victoria, maybe we’ll live again.
There it is. Don’t you see it? The meaning of death! Little boy wants to be a man so his death won’t be in vain, so his grandchildren can remember us as we remember grandfather. The man. This is why you made me, why you need me. Isn’t it? I am the man to your little boy, little boy. We are the meaning of death; the need for life and the need to live every single second in hopes and aims of being that man. The man who would die one day, who must die one day, to become the man who can be as alive as Lazarus. Grandfather only died because he had lived.
Many may be the reasons yet death remains as one.
One for those who live.