May 13, 2016
I have hardened. Tough as nails and all of that. I didn’t feel it coming on at first. I didn’t understand that the soft layers of skin and clothes were slowly crusting and curling and drying up in the sunlight. Like salt-water-drenched clothes hanging in the midday sun.
I didn’t notice I had become so stiff until the sun had already gone down, until it was too late to wash off the salt. The salt-stench is permanent now.
And yet beneath the hardened sleeves and shoulders, there is still life. There is a pain and grief so soft, so malleable, that a single breeze of memory could topple me where I stand. That a single word of anger could inflame every suppressed moment of patience within me.
I didn’t notice I had become so vulnerable until the words of people tore through me, until the seeds of buried memories grew and pushed themselves from the surface of my heart.
Grief makes enigmas out of us. We stand tall, hardening our shells, drying up our skin and clothes so we can bear it. But everything shriveled in the sun will eventually crack, and the holes left behind reveal a sadness so palpable that it breathes the same air as our lungs.
Hard but soft.
May 2, 2016
He was strewn on the bed, curled up in a ball, his back to us. The sound of his cries were the most painful thing I had ever heard – more painful than my own even. I touched his back to comfort him, and was surprised at how sunken his shoulders were, how uneven his back muscles were formed. Like hills and valleys, as though he lived a life of hard labour.
And he did. I mean, he lived a life of hard labour, but not the physical kind. Not really. Until now. Because there are griefs that become boulders resting on your back, carving your flesh and reshaping your bones. When the grief is lifted, you can no longer stand upright. Not really. And the things you use to smile are trivial things that you have to find, you have to muster out of nothing.
He took an injection for severe back pain that day. Even though he was never a physical laborer. The grief was very much real. It hunched his back and made him unable to stand up. Even if he wanted to stand up, why would he? Who would his arms reach toward? His dead son’s tombstone? Where would his eyes rest? His dead son’s untouched bedspread?
So he didn’t. He just lay there as we swam under the boulders of pain. He just lay there as we walked in and out of empty rooms looking for memories, looking for things to do, plates to wash, conversations to end. And all the while, he lay there in his sunken bed with his sunken shoulders waiting, waiting, for his own sunken grave.
March 15, 2016
On the 926th day, Kauthar sat on the mattress in her room, pulled the laundry basket between her knees and started folding the clean laundry that had been abandoned for 3 weeks. Her mattress was plopped right over the hardwood parquet flooring – very 90s. Her rusty metal bed frame was thrown out nearly two years ago but the mattress was still good. Even though it did have some lumpy bits beneath the surface, and the middle sort of sunk into itself, creating a breeding ground for crumbs to gather, and other lost items.
She spoke to herself as she folded her daughter’s clothes. Underwears and undershirts go here. White uniform shirts need to be hung up. Why isn’t this shirt white anymore? I washed it with that blue towel. Great. Okay socks. Where’s the other sock in this pair? I am not going to buy her more socks. She can wear mismatched socks to school, I swear to God I don’t even care.
The sock always turned up.
Kauthar forced the door of the closet open, it screeched in pained defiance, unhinged from its tracks. It was meant to be fixed. She grabbed a bunch of mismatched clothes hangers and noticed her wardrobe was all greys and blues. Some brown, some black, and the odd pop of a dark purple. It wasn’t that she hated colours, she loved them. She enjoyed the artistry of wardrobes in theory. The wild patterns that changed from season to season. But it was too much effort to keep up. And she didn’t have the will to try.
Her daughter’s side of the closet was brighter. Everything was patterned. Every shirt stamped with flowers. Every sweater with its cute buttons and detailed seams. It was easier to dress a girl than to dress a sort-of woman.
She still had Omar’s shirts hanging adjacent to her own. They weren’t there to remind her or to hurt her, they were just there. The navy blue Tommy Hilfiger shirt she bought him years ago, before they were married. It was perfectly his size.
His shirts took a while to let go of his smell. They teemed with the sorrow of sweat and perfume wrapped into the armpits of well-worn clothes. They had him in their cross-stitching, between every thread that held the shirts together. He was there, waiting. But time and dust and the dank, too-small closet space had stripped him from here. The only smell left was the quiet stench of peaceful surrender. It was okay. She wasn’t sad anymore about the smell that had gone.
She slid his navy blue shirt from its hanger, held it at chest level and placed it on her body. She took each sleeve, the right then the left, and wrapped them around herself and stood.
When Kauther sat behind the wheel of her massive hand-me-down minivan, she sometimes looked longingly at the passenger seat. Omar would be there if it hadn’t been for fate, his seatbelt begrudgingly fastened across his chest, and his knees grazing the glove compartment in those faded blue jeans he loved. (There were two things about clothes he loved – comfortable blue jeans and striped shirts. That’s all.) His head would be cocked towards Kauthar, making some comment about how she was driving, or saying that she had to learn to do this or that, even if she didn’t want to. What if something happens to me? He’d say, as the collar from his black spring jacket nestled the base of his beard.
She missed him in his familiar, worn clothes. Nothing about him was fancy or shiny. And now, nothing about her was either.
She stood hugging his sweater, his sweater hugging her, and the laundry still strewn about the floor in a mess. It was the happiest she’d been in a long time.
The bodies that litter the street are collateral damage, nameless victims, forgotten corpses buried someplace in the ground. Their existence vaguely lines history books and the emotionless consciousness of researchers.
But the bodies have names – names that their mothers gave them. Names that had meaning. Names they were called when they were needed. They were needed.
There is mourning somewhere over the conversations that will never be had, the grey hairs that will never be grown, the reassuring touches that will never be felt. There is mourning that you cannot record on paper.
Nor can Earth’s history books record the deaths of those who are still alive – those whose hearts pump blood but whose souls are already someplace faraway.
So do not search for those made of flesh who will empathize with the rattlings of your insides. Do not seek a historian to capture everything within you. Their ears are from flesh like yours – made from earth and returned to earth.
Search for the One whose pen has already recorded it all. Every moment of pained recollection, every ounce of gratitude, every word of reflection.
And every name of every child who was ever called upon affectionately, whether he lived or died.
November 17, 2015
My world is prettied up to sell to the highest bidder.
The sun always seems to tug at the right creases and highlight the right silverware.
But beneath the carefully crafted breaths of perfect lighting and flashing smiles lies the stench of an unwashed prison cell.
My prison walls seem to close in, its bars a flaky, rusted brown. Many have gone mad here before me, unable or unwilling to escape.
The straight jacket of this existence holds me from you, holds me from reality.
I am strapped in, forced to chase the shadows of you lurking behind every prison guard’s smile.
Slowly, I begin to love the cell. I begin to imagine that I smell roses and perfumes instead of the decomposing filth of dead hearts. I begin to think I can live without you.
Many have gone mad here before me.
November 9, 2015
Standing in line for coffee, you let me lean into you. I was wearing my black winter coat, stomach swollen with life and I was tired. For a moment, just one brief second of my existence, all was as it should be. I was safe, warm, loved. But as the line edged forward, you weren’t there behind me anymore. You had retreated, slowly leaving me, slowly pushing me to stand upright and walk up to the cashier, alone.
It was a stolen moment in the night, between layers of dreams and hours of wakefulness. A stolen moment between anger and envy and worry and longing. You left, as you always do. And I awoke to the empty, concrete cell of my lucidity.
Echoes of our life, mirror images of what we had, furtive glances in the vagueness of dreams. This is what I have left. And despite my trust, despite my gratitude, despite everything I know to be true…sometimes I want to yell and scream at you, grip you violently by the collar of your shirt and demand answers – why did you break your promise?
Why did you leave me to lean into nothingness?
Strange is the heart of woman
who yearns to be alone with shadows.
Flesh and blood do not interest her,
it is echoes and thoughts that she reaches toward.
But she is still flesh
she is still blood
and the essence of her heart, still beating,
is one part air, one part searching.
She is in the middle of existing and dying,
in the middle of welling up with potential
and winding down into the earth.
Strange is the heart of woman,
walking a tightrope of conviction.
The only thing she fears is the wind,
pushing her away from the shadows, pushing her into
the arms of flesh and blood.
August 15, 2015
I have wandered the earth in my dreams,
searching for the vague shadows of your existence,
searching for a momentary glimpse of your smile.
I often wander aimlessly when you are too far away to be found,
seeing and hearing people and places that mean little,
running through empty versions of my dreams.
Sometimes I do see you,
the side of your smile,
the edge of your lips,
the curve of your shoulders.
I have seen you on beaches, in rooms, in gardens.
I have seen you in lakes, in stores, on winding roads.
I chase you in these places, but you never stand still.
I push wakefulness away,
urging my body to stay asleep for just a moment longer,
just until I see you
and you see me.
No one hears me like you did.
They listen. But they don’t really hear the desperate underpinnings of my requests, or the vulnerability beneath my anger, or the despair of my boredom.
They talk at me, not to me. At least not to my heart.
And so I stopped expecting them to hear me. I speak into the air, hoping that the spoken words will drift off into some corners somewhere and create bridges of meaning, connecting my mind to my heart, my hear to my limbs, my limbs to the universe. My words are spoken just because words must be spoken. Because that is the way life must be.
But what meaning do my words hold when no one really hears me?
July 16, 2015
While I am reading, as you used to,
a sensation of your hand against mine stops me for a moment-
is it a memory of the past, or is it a silent meeting in the present?
The smell of your perfume with a slight twinge of summer perspiration
seems to live somewhere between my throat and collar bone-
The same place that knots and clots intermittently
when everything is fine, but also nothing is fine.
Sometimes I remember you as though your hand is still in mine, resting, breathing, understanding-
as though the silence of our years apart has not made it more difficult to know you.
And sometimes your memory inhabits another world entirely-
a world where the brightness of the day was a little more pronounced, where tomorrow was something to be anticipated, not tolerated.
Yesterday I said to you: don’t leave me
as I looked at your reflection in the mirror, smiling into what seemed to be eternity, looking past the unshaven bits on your cheeks.
We had each other, it didn’t matter if you were a bit disheveled.
I said don’t leave me, not yet. My heart hasn’t yet had its fill.
But you would always leave because you were needed somewhere else.
I still say to you in my heart – the heart that understands eternity – don’t leave me, not yet. Not ever.
You are in my peripheral vision, turning the corner and slipping into the grasp of some unknown place,
some unknown eternity that I am not yet a part of.
You are here, in the space between my throat and collar bone. Your shadow in my periphery,
the echoes of your existence beating through me like the blood that keeps my body working.
I told you, don’t leave me.
I tell you, don’t leave me.