The Death of A Matriarch

It isn’t customary to eulogize the dead in the community in which I was raised, and obituaries are never written. But, on the occasion of my grandmothers death, I will attempt to write a, albeit self-reflective, eulogy to memorialize her.

She deserves that much, doesn’t she?

She must have been a prudent woman. She died at ten to five on the evening of Friday, September 27, 2013 – the end of the work week for many. I got a call from my sister around 5, letting me know that my grandmother had likely just died and that I should hurry into town to be with the family. I rushed home, packed up some clothes, refilled the cat’s food and water bowls, and headed out. I stopped at a coffee shop, before hitting the highway.

My consumption of coffee is directly proportional to my stress level. The relationship is mutually reinforcing.

I reached Toronto around 7 pm, and my grandmother’s apartment around 7:15. I never have to buzz up, because there is always a random stranger at the main door who isn’t afraid to let someone in. I got into the elevator, and, just as the doors were closing, my cousin walked in. She is about a foot shorter than me in height, but about ten feet taller than me in familial-clout. She stood next to me, her arm brushing against mine, in the empty elevator. I wasn’t in the mood to be consoled.

This is the last photo that I took of my grandmother.
This is the last photo that I took of my grandmother.

We walked into my grandmother’s apartment, only to be met by my immediate family in the doorway. We hugged each other, and then I hugged my aunt, my cousin’s mother. My aunt asked if I would like to see my grandmother’s body, and I told her that I will after I go to pee. She, jokingly, told me that I wasn’t allowed to pee. I walked away on my tiptoes, toward the washroom.

I walk on my tiptoes when I’m uncomfortable in the environment that I’m in. Perhaps it’s the materialization of stepping lightly. Or, perhaps it’s knowing that I’m walking on a tinderbox when I’m biting my tongue.

After using the washroom, I met my immediate family at the door to my grandmother’s room. My aunt was ushering us in, as if we were guests. I let the rest of my family enter first, and then stood next to my mother’s right. My father stood at the foot of the bed, and my sister across from my mother and I. I wrapped my left arm around my mother’s shoulders, as we stood there staring at the dead face of my grandmother.

My sister and father left the room, thinking that I would like a moment alone with my grandmother and mother. I met my mother’s eyes in the mirror at the end of the room, and she told me that it was okay to cry. I told her I was okay, while rubbing my head and beard in quick succession.

I rub my head, and maintain a queer grin, when I’m thinking. The rapidity of the rubbing and the extension of the grin are directly proportional to the amount of mental work that I’m performing. In this instance, it took my right hand about two seconds to navigate from my frontal lobe to my occipital lobe. My hands are disproportionately large.

My mother then told me that my grandmother looked like she was at peace. This is something she was saying to reassure herself, I’m sure. The ghostly face of my grandmother was cocked back, unsupported by a pillow. Her toothless mouth was agape, and her eyelids were wrinkle-less over her eyes. Her skin was grey, not yet dry, and not quite as white as the sheet covering her body or the roots of her hair.

My grandmother suffered throughout her life, and in her death. Her husband died when he was 42. My grandmother lived the next 45 years of her life alone, with only her children, community support network, and God left to fill her widow’s void. She struggled to survive, but accepted her fate with the conviction of a woman who lives for the generation she is leaving behind.

She used to tell me that the only way to present yourself in society is to put on your lipstick (red, in her case), and never show the lesions that scar you inside. I’ll never know the extent of her suffering.

My sister, however, had a closer relationship with my grandmother than I did. My sister knew many of the things that troubled my grandmother, many of her worries, fears, and feelings. My sister even knows a little bit about my grandfather. My sister is associated with the medical profession, and knew that my grandmother suffered during her death.

Left unable to speak by her condition, my grandmother communicated her desires through groans and hand motions. The flailing of her weak arms and shrieks emanating from her collapsing throat were sure signs of pain that were left under-treated by her caregivers. An insufficient amount of morphine was administered to relieve my grandmother’s pain, but it was just enough to soothe those who wanted to see signs of life in her.

But, was this a result of her own folly? She raised her children to be independent and self-sufficient. To make their way in this world, successfully and happily. She was never afraid to tell you how she felt or what she thought, and never sacrificed on a commitment she made. She was patient, and knew that life will bring you riches if you wait, and pray while doing so. I mean, she was given notice of her forthcoming death in February.

She also had a sense of commitment to her community. She was heavily involved with her mosque, and you couldn’t leave her apartment without sitting down to eat first. If she wanted anything from you, it was for your own benefit. Well, at least of me, the only thing she was adamant about me doing involved my own nourishment, education, wealth, and happiness.

So, the question remains: is this the legacy she wanted? Was she successful in teaching us, or did she fail? Did she want us to act on her advice, or mimic her behaviour and attitude toward others?

From what I heard, she had made her peace with those in her life. She sought and received forgiveness from those closest to her. She refused to accept anything without payment in kind during the last few months of her life. Still, I’m left with the sense that she didn’t die debt free. A part of me believes that she meant to make amends posthumously, but she doesn’t have much say in how that plays out anymore. I’m not speaking of financial debt alone, but more of remittances owing to the graces of others.

And this seems to be how she led her life, believing that no matter how much she did for others, without the expectation of recompense, she owed those who gave to her. I wonder if this is a result of her faith.

My grandmother had unrelenting faith in Allah (God, in the Muslim religion). Allah, to her, was the source of all. Belief in any god demands that one remain forever indebted. It’s not quite the same as a credit card. After all, how can you ever repay the gift(s) of life? With a faith such as my grandmother’s one will never find satisfaction through completion. There is always more to be thankful – a form of debt – for, no matter how much one prays or sacrifices in the name of God.

Even after death, in the community in which I was raised, prayer is the source of consolation. The living pray for themselves you, and the passage of the soul into what lies yonder. Prayer, in this instance, consists of the constant, melodic repetition of a mantra. Over and over again, the same mantra is repeated melodically. It can be done communally or individually, but all who partake know the words. This practice has a marked effect on me.

If you listen carefully, you can hear the individual voices making up the chorus. Some voices strain emphatically, while others whisper quietly. Some voices carry the poignancy of the experience, while others are simply there for support through inclusion. You will hear voices toiling through tears and snot-filled noses. You will hear the interruptions of deep, quick breaths unable to fill lungs with just one soft inhale. If you listen to these emphatic, poignant voices you will hear loss; these voices emanate from the living bodies of those who are unable to conceptualize the tragedy of death. This, the mantra, is their recourse.

Death is only a loss to the living. The living are the ones who experience death. Death is tragic because it pits one against an insurmountable existential problem: time (thank you, Heidegger). The mantra is simple. The mantra is repeated. The mantra is chanted. The mantra exists. The force of the mantra stands in direct objection to death.

It is this chanting, the ceaseless chanting, that I can’t stand. Tears well up in my eyes, and I feel like I’m suffering, as the chanting continues. The chanting is the ultimate acceptance of hopelessness for me, and it is the source of my discomfort. While I don’t participate in the chorus by chanting, when hearing others unable to speak more than a few of the same words, melodically and repeatedly, I am overcome with sorrow. It’s almost as if we have forgotten that the story of any song is told in the verses.

Imagine, that after 85 years of life all my grandmother could elicit from people – those who loved her most, and who she loved most – are a few simple words. Maybe that’s enough. After all, we are grieving.

We are the ones left flailing our weak arms and shrieking through broken hearts. We are the lost souls. We stand together in unison, staring at the dead, remorseless face of a matriarch, asking for forgiveness and consolation.

Only when we notice that her lips are no longer painted red can we read the scars that read our names, and we realize that we are to blame for the faults our matriarch carried for us.

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