My grandmother died earlier this month. On Saturday morning, my mother woke up in a panic, urged by some feeling she could not name, to call her sister who lived with my grandmother. Something about that phone call prompted my aunt to check up on her mother, only for my aunt to realise that she was not breathing.
I woke up to my mother’s keening wail which seeped into my dream-state, nudging me onto my feet. My father knocked on my door just as I was swinging it open. Even before he spoke, I knew. A lumpy deadweight formed in my stomach.
My mother was uncontrollable in her panic, her sorrow, her disbelief. I was on the phone, speaking to the nurses at the hospital (by then, my family had rushed my grandmother to the hospital and the attending physician had declared her dead from a heart attack). No one in the hospital, not one of my many aunts and uncles, were able to comprehend the nurse’s instructions, to deal with the finicky details and administration that follows death like an impenetrable stench.
I swallowed my grief, felt it settle atop the deadweight in my stomach, and sprung into action.
My parents had to be flown back home. We were still living through a pandemic – there were quarantines and COVID-19 tests and flight bookings to navigate. There were the muddy waters of grief to shudder through. There were, there were. It was neverending.
I did not sleep for two nights. None of us did. The night after we received the news, my parents left for home, so that they could make it back in time for the funeral which would be held later that week. I walked out of the airport alone, looked up at the sky and let a howl of grief.
The tears did not stop.
Not through the car ride back to my own apartment, that was dark and cavernous save for the light in my dog’s eyes, not through the night where slideshows of memories long-buried resurfaced, a video montage of things I had forgotten about my grandmother, not when the sun started rising slowly and I realised another night had passed, another day had begun, that time had continued even though it felt that a specific part of my heart had stopped.
The tears did not stop for a long, long while.
My husband and best friends, relentless in their need to make sure I made it through – through what, how does one make it through this? – urged me over and over again, to write.
Write, they said.
Honour your grandmother in the way you know best.
Write your feelings out, write your way out of grief the way you have done before, write so that you can thank the past for the time it gave you with her, acknowledge the present sharpened by her absence, embrace the future for what it can offer.
You channel when you write, they said.
Write to her, they said.
I tried to put pen to paper. The bile rose in my throat and I cried out, choking. I did not dare touch my pen for another week.
My mind meanders often since my grandmother’s passing. I do not think linearly – my thoughts jump backwards and forwards haphazardly. Occasionally, they trigger an onset of tears, which I am not even aware of, until hot drops touch the top of my lips. I wipe them away with my fingers, take a deep breath.
Life does not wait for my sorrow to pass.
I bring my dog down for a walk. I sit in the park, stare at the fading green of the trees. It is apt that she has passed in fall, as peacefully and quietly as changing colours of the foliage. I watch a weathered brown leaf float in the wind and fall by my feet. My dog watches me quietly as I cry, big ugly fat tears. He bears witness to my sorrow – silent, compassionate, patient. He licks away the salt.
We stand up, I pocket the leaf, press it in between the pages of my journal when I return home.
The dark green nip of my fountain pen stares at me. It too, is bearing witness to my sorrow. Silent, compassionate, patient. Waiting, waiting.
My husband tells me he is coming home. The deadweight in my stomach which I have now become familiar with shifts slightly. Today, I can take a deeper breath. I swallow.
That day, I start writing.
I think of Caravaggio’s “Saint Jerome Writing”. It is a luminescent image of an old man, writing, his quill outstretched, being witnessed by the dark, hallowed sunken sockets of a skull that sits atop a large tome. I think of the vermilion of his robes, the black of the shadows, the grey and white tones of the pages of the tome, the Saint’s beard.
I stare at the picture of this painting unblinkingly, feeling the familiar colours settle inside
of me, brushing against memories of my grandmother. I think of the black of her sari that I wore for my wedding, desperate to have her with me even when I knew she could not leave her bed, invalid that she was. I think of the soft white of her hair, how even in death, it lay around her face like the softest cloud, as if death had pityingly left it behind as a gift to us grieving mortals. I think of red, her love for deep jewelled tones, the same red that I have painted on my nails, another act of desperation to keep close symbols of her even as I know that she is now long gone.
I look at Saint Jerome again, and it hits me. I laugh. I see what he is trying to do. He is writing, believing that his words are a witness of death. He knows too, that his writing is witnessed by death, just as all life is. Maybe he is trying to beat the indefatigability of time. Maybe he is surrendering.
My laugh turns to a sob when I realise that I too am doing the same, feverishly penning words in hopes that my words will be a witness of my grandmother’s death, and ultimately, her life.
Just then, my best friend texts me:
“The moment we became alive death was waiting, chasing
And all of us fell and kept breathing
One day, today
A spirit’s alive, a body has died
And death has been swallowed up by life
This death will rise
Dying to death and raising to life
With mournful joy she finally lets out her cry
Death has been swallowed life
This dead will rise”
The tears start rolling down my face again – maybe they never truly stopped. The picture of Saint Jerome Writing blurs. I close my eyes.