Society Of The Grieving Sisters

For N.

I am now part of a sorority I would have gladly passed on. The sorority of women who have lost their mother. There seems to be a growing number of friends losing their mother around me, more than it seems that our hearts can take.

In this sorority, we neither wear nor want badges of honor. You can recognize us by our ability to have our eyes brimming with tears in under a second and our equal ability to choke them back in under half a second. We look a little lost too, like we don’t know what to do with ourselves. Like we’d like someone to tell us, but we can’t quite place that someone.

I’ve lost mine five years ago. My therapist wants me to write about her. Yes, I have a therapist. Yes, she wants me to do things. One of them is feel and stuff. Blagh. Blagh is how I feel about this particular assignment. I’ve sent a long time teaching myself not to feel after my mother passed away, and when everything I had pushed back so deep pretty much exploded back in my face I found myself in need of help to re-learn how to feel properly. I’m still re-learning. It’s a lot of work and tedious and overwhelming and at times it feels like my heart has become a puzzle I need to put back together, except I’ve always been shit at puzzles. J’ai pas la patience albe.

What I got from that exercise however is that asking for help when you need it is good. That there are people willing and able to help, people who gladly want to if you let them in. It took me years and it still bothers me to do it. Breaking down walls you create around you takes time. (Rereading this paragraph makes me want to cringe. Do I sound like a white woman in yoga pants posting Rûmi quotes taken out of their context? If I do, please forgive me and rest assured that I’m my usual Arab self still in her night t-shirt, writing before getting to work and knocking back Lebanese coffee like the sleep-deprived person I am).

When she passed I felt numb, a huge hole of nothingness I lost myself in. I do not recommend, but that’s how I coped, and everyone copes differently. Five years later and a lot of feeling everything and its opposite under the sun, it seems that I have learnt to live with it. Tentatively.

It’s interesting, how I can talk about grief at length, but can’t seem to be able to write about her. Grief is something I’ve become familiar with, I can rationalize it, I can intellectualize it. I like classifying things in my brain, I like studying things from a distance. Hearts are too complicated and fragile and they break and who needs that negativity in their lives.

My therapist usually patiently answers ‘everyone’. Apparently, we all need to learn to process negative emotions, whatever they may be. My usual answer is ‘ok but how about no?’. My therapist is a patient woman.

I don’t know if the relationship you had with your mother determines how easy or difficult the grieving process will be. I don’t think it’s ever easy though. I had a complicated yet close and loving relationship with mine. I was her second and last baby, we both had personalities comfortably big and came at heads a lot, we reconciled equally quickly. It was tumultuous and hilarious and painful and tiring at the same time. When she got sick, I became her warrior and read everything I could get my hands on to alleviate a bit her suffering.

Sometimes you go to war and lose and don’t want to admit defeat.

My therapist wants me to write about her because she says that’s how you accept and come to terms with the person passing away. She also stresses the importance of letting yourself go and cry in a circle of friends and/or family. Of letting people embrace you and take care of you and make room for your pain (I don’t do that or very rarely, which might explain why I’m still stuck five years on so please don’t do what I did and go with the trained professional’s advice. I got great tattoos to channel the pain though, so you win some you lose some).

Anyway, here goes. My mother was kind and completely hilarious, and no-nonsense. She had great style, so much humor, called out my drama queen shit every time it was needed (a lot, trust me), she had a sharp intelligence, she loved life and life suited her wonderfully. I can tell you all of that, and more, what I don’t have words for is to express the love we had for each other. They have not invented words for it, it something you just have to feel. No matter how complicated the relationship, that feeling was there, that feeling of deep, deep love, that is made of memories of fights and shared laughter, of small gestures of care that were completely normal to her and have been made so special by her absence. Like making my favourite dish, listening to me when I needed it, telling me I was bala marba a thousand times a day even though she is the one who raised me (I have a slightly rebellious streak sometimes).

They say there’s a tendency to erase and idealize people who have passed away. I like to think of it as a nugget of wisdom from the people who stay on: we know the people we lost were not perfect, we know they drove us up the fucking wall so often, but we also know that when all is said and done, the only thing that remains is how much love you give, how you give it, and how careful you were of other people’s feelings. And if the relationship was fraught and the love was not there, or not shared respectfully, my heart goes out to you: grieving someone you still want to scream at must be a tough, tough thing to do.

I’ve learnt to carry my mother within me everywhere I go. I recognize myself in her so much. She is right there on my face, and I also always wear something of hers. Not because I want to remember her, I do but I don’t need that, more because keeping something of hers on my feels like the ultimate protective amulet.

She is still here, in some shape or form, her energy transferred on to me, and she and I continue our relationship. I know she is there when I need her, she made sure of that.

Five

I was wearing a red top and grey jeans.

My hair tied back in a ponytail.

I remember exactly what I was wearing, but could not tell you what I felt. My brain had to concentrate hard on external details to prevent me from falling apart entirely.

I kept that top.

I’ve never worn it again.

It’s folded in the limbos of my wardrobe, neatly waiting for me to decide its fate.

I will never throw it away, nor will I ever wear it again. It’ll have to stand the test of time alone, buried in the darkness of my closet.

I feel it’s important to remember what you were wearing when your world ended. How you thought it was going to be a normal day. How you thought you would be able to make it unscathed.

When it happened everything around me just melted away and liquefied. I wasn’t walking or talking or breathing. Swimming would be more like it. Swimming, gasping for air, trying to make sense of basic information.

I cried. Tears to match the sea around me. I felt my sister’s arms around me, trying to tether me to life. That angel whose initial response to her own grief was to reach out to protect me.

And still I wasn’t feeling anything. Not then. Not really.

I drove. I don’t know how. I think I spoke to myself the whole ride, splitting into many trying to keep me just sane enough so I would not drive into a tree. I ate. I don’t know how either. I went to pick up my child from daycare and her teacher thought I either was a monster or the strongest woman that ever lived because I wasn’t crying.

I picked up my child and went home. Took care of her and put her to bed.

Took off the red top. Folded it neatly. Left my heart in its folds. Buried my feelings and myself so deeply within me I am barely able to find them again.

And I kept going.

I was back at work five days later. Tears from colleagues fell on my stone cold silence and ‘I’m okays’. More assumptions of me being a monster. Or demented by grief.

That one was correct.

It wasn’t strength. Or me being a monster. Or having an iron will.

It was self-preservation, my mind mercifully shielding me from the cataclysmic loss I had just endured. Had I felt then, I would have died. I needed to ration that grief. Cut it up into bite sizes I could swallow.

I still can’t swallow properly. There’s something in my throat that just won’t go away.

It’s five years later. I had to look at these feelings. I had to extricate them from within the wall I had buried them in.

It is excruciatingly painful. To pull at that thread and unravel it. To untangle these knots and plant news things in their stead.

It’s a labor of love mostly, and self-love is hard to come by. I am ever so grateful to the hands that came to help, soothe and carry.

For the hands that wiped out the tears, for the arms that held, for the lips that kissed.

It’s been five years.

The top is still folded.

My heart is no longer in it.

Magic

My friend has lost her mother too.

Not that we’re particularly happy to both belong to a club we can’t ever remember applying for, but the shared pain creates a bond of understanding between us. She, too, understands how you can break down in public spaces over seemingly mundane things. When I tell her I like crying in the privacy of my car, music blaring and make-up running, she takes it in stride. ‘I broke down while filling out a form at the doctors’ she tells me evenly, and I understand and I let her be. We are emotional ticking time bombs, and we’ve stopped trying to apologize for it. She, too, sometimes needs to create silence within herself to quiet the raging grief within, needs to make space for feelings that are way bigger than our frames.

She gets the rage, and the longing.

When we meet at the beginning of the year we speak about what intentions we want to bring to the next months, as if the mother-shaped gaping hole in our lives can be filled with flowers we’re planting through the cracks, not quite filling it, yet blossoming despite the pain into something radiant. The triumph of life and love, if you will, or something to that effect.

We speak about food and cooking, and about the joy it brings. We both want to start documenting the recipes we got from our mothers, and laugh at the synchronicity. Cooking has always been a way to convey love, and in this platitude lies a lot of truth. ‘Here, let me feed you’ is pretty much ‘I love you and will take care of you’ in human language. Cooking is very similar to magic: spices, ingredients, flavors, none of it comes together without a small spoonful of magic, or nafs el akl as my mother called it. She was a fabulous cook and I have learnt from her how food can say more than words, how lovingly preparing a meal for people can bring them, and you, joy, comfort, feelings of love, warmth, affection and solidarity.

When a friend was going through the heartbreak of her life, I spoon fed her lemon rice, until the tangy comforting flavour warmed her insides and allowed her to let all the tears that needed to be shed flow. When I am struggling with anxiety my friend sits me down and forces a snack down my constricted throat. I resist out of principle, because she wants to care for me and I won’t let her, wrapped in my own distorted understanding of what it means to be a strong woman. She doesn’t give me a choice. Cooks can be very stubborn. Accepting what she gives me is accepting to be loved, to be vulnerable. I equally hate and love it (as much as I like to write about feelings, I actually can’t wait to be a robot).

My mother taught me that the kitchen is a sacred place, where people who cook together share more than recipes and suggestions for improving the taste. I find it easier to talk about feelings while cutting up vegetables, find it easier to listen, really listen to someone when we’re in the kitchen together. Cooking gives me focus, and a kinder, more patient heart. I have friends with whom I cook and we yell at each other over cooking space and pots ans pans and taste each other’s dish, and in the middle of this fragrant chaos our friendship comes alive, and some secrets are shared.

Cooking in the diaspora also goes beyond sharing love and flavours: it’s a way to recreate home even if you’re not sure where home is. Home becomes the smell of your teta’s kitchen when she expects you for lunch, home is your plate lovingly arranged by someone who loves you at the end of a long day. Cooking in the diaspora is also eminently political: it’s a way to resist appropriation (all the Karens of the world will never have me accept the defilement of hummus), and a way to assert our presence. Nothing gets racists riled up like the smells coming out of our kitchens. Add another clove of garlic please, watch them wither. Diaspora cooking is us trying to remember a feeling of ease and belonging, where abroad doesn’t necessarily mean foreign, easing the feeling of exile and otherness into familiar flavors, our complicated and hurtful relationships with families and the very concept of home tamed if only for a moment.

Since my mother died, cooking is not just that any more. It’s not just about sharing, or about making a political statement, it’s become a work of love in a different way, a work of love dedicated to her, where recipes bind me back to her, where her voice comes alive in my kitchen, even her strong opinions about my cooking, especially her strong opinions about my cooking, it’s become an exercise where I can remember her and be filled with joy, and laughter and love. Where grief needs to shift and move away for a bit and make space for a tiny bit of peace. Since she left, cooking is a way of honouring her legacy, and through her, of honouring the caring strong women that came before her. Keeping their recipes alive links me back to her, and to her mother, my teta, and feels like a never chain of witches brewing magic, one garlic clove at a time.

My friend who has lost her mother too gets it. She gets it so much that back in October when my country started revolting against oppression and she knew my emotions were all over the place, she baked something in her New York kitchen and dedicated it to me. I didn’t need to be there to taste it. I felt her love reach out across an ocean. That’s how magic works.

I didn’t have the right words to thank her properly at the time. I hope I made up for it.

 

Grief, revisited

Eat. Or at least try. Sleep properly. Or at least try. Get some rest, read a book, escape in words to forget those lodging themselves in your head, unwilling to move.

I had these very words been said to me, by the very people who love me, their love their unique consolation to my pain. I’ve seen their eyes, pleading with me, willing me to be ok, willing me back to life, firmly anchored by their love.
Stay here with us, we’re losing you.
I know how they felt, as I have myself said those words to people I love, my love trying to bind them to life, refusing to let them go too deep in the pits of depression, and grief and sadness. I’ve urged loved ones to rest, to quell the never ending stream of suffering going through them. I pleaded, my eyes were the ones willing them to be ok.
Eat. Sleep. Rest. Is that all there is left when all is said and done, when you’ve been knocked off your balance so hard you feel the emptiness and the heaviness of the world deep within you, the anxiety coiled deep within your heart? Take out what and who made us who we are, take out the people who’ve helped build you and all you have left is a wounded animal who needs to eat, sleep and rest.
But no matter how coated in love these words are, no matter how well intentioned, they remain utterly useless, for grief doesn’t work that way. Once you’ve been hit by grief, it never leaves you, it makes a permanent mark on your skin, etching its passage in wrinkles, tears and frowns, as if it were carving the rocks of a conquered land. You expand to live with it, to accommodate it in your swollen heart.
Most of the time it is dormant, lurking at the surface, waiting for a smell, a song, a place to rear its ugly head and send your precarious balance off the tracks. Grief nestles itself in your chest and never lets go. You never forget. You learn to walk around with a neverending, incommensurable hole at your core, the shape of the person you miss. All these cracks on your once whole façade let in a lot of light, probably the ones who’ve made the final jump letting you know from now on they’ll be your light, your inner strength.
Grief is one of the few experiences where words don’t help, where they can’t break the barrier loss creates. You withdraw within a place buried so deep within yourself you end up wondering if you’ll ever be able to find your way back out.
But some things help. Some things get through you and bring you back to life, like ugly crying nestled in the shoulder of a lover, the indestructible power of women friendships, all of them building a protective wall around you to shelter you until the rawness subsides, each of them going out of their way to see a smile upon your face. This isn’t squad dynamics, this is the very particular understanding and acknowledging experience of pain women have, for better or worse.
Love and time and the iron clad belief that the people who left are loved, and thus still there, safely kept in your heart.

Gone

Every time
I think about this fateful day

My heart gives a jolt

Disbelief is still here

Lodged in my brain

Like a permanent bullet

Are you really gone?

It’s been a year, 

But the feeling is the same

A punch in my gut

A sharp tug at my heart

A quick draw of my breath 

Grief

That monstrous beast

Remains here

Curled up in me

Awaiting

A moment of weakness

To rear its ugly head 

Are you really gone? 

I’ll take you with me

I’ll take you with me. To all the places you wanted to see, to all the streets you wanted to walk, sunsets you wanted to catch and salty air you wanted to breathe.
I’ll take you with me. 
No matter how short your life was cut, no matter how little time we had together, I’ll tuck you safely in the folds of my heart and carry you with me wherever I go. 
From the rocky shores of Sardinia to the throbbing bazaar of Istanbul, from the dusty corners of Jerusalem to the pristine beaches of remote islands, I’ll go and kiss each of these places for you, I’ll bow my head to their mighty suns. I’ll take you with me. 

When the enormity of all that has been lost hits me with the deadening weight of finality, when my lungs fill with the lead of grief, when I feel myself falling in a never ending pit of pure sadness, I’ll dust myself up and summon your light, the unextinguishible flicker you’ve left in me. 

For you see, to me you’ve never really left, you only shed a painful shroud that was binding you to this place, and are free as can be, free to come with me, to be with me in every drop of salty water and every corner of dusty buildings, free to kiss away that salty water running down my face, your radiant love warming me from inside. 

Bind me with that love. Just once more.

And I’ll take you with me. 

The Minute After

She sat, her hands folded on her lap. She looked like she might have been praying, I wouldn’t know, I was never really good at that sort of things.

I wanted to comfort her, I really did, except it seemed I had forgotten how to breathe. I was drowning in liquid air, barely aware of walking, a rough buzzing had filled my ears, and only one thing was clear: I had to get to her, I had to make sure it had really happened. That it wasn’t all a terrible nightmare.

She sat, her head bent down, she seemed to be folding onto herself.

I tasted something salty, it might have been tears.

Around us, only shadows. Slivers of people running around, cries, orders being given, chaos. Around us, white walls and red tears.

She sat, and I wondered why I was still clinging on to the hope that it had not happened. She just sat there, her hands folded on her lap and her head bent down, and it was like every bone she had was crumbling under the sheer weight of everything she had lost today.

She just sat there, her hands folded on her lap and her head bent down, she sat there in silence; she needn’t speak anyway, her body was screaming for her, her whole posture a deafening scream of denial and despair.

And when I reached her, I put my head on her hands, these hands folded on her lap, and I buried myself in that screaming body, and at that moment, at that very second, our two beings were merged by the hands of grief. Unspeakable, piercing, never-ending and unadulterated grief.

I don’t know for our long we buried ourselves in each other. When we left, the shadows were still running, we were discharged into the grilling sun while we left her to the cold claws of death, forced as we were to carry on living.

How do you keep on fighting, when the ties tethering you to life have been severed?