Posts by primadonnab

Born in Saudia Arabia. Grew up in Canada. High-schooled in Dubai. LUMS grad and now back in Dubai. Confused? Try living it! An aspiring journ

Six Years and A Wedding

 

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It’s been six years since the very first time December 18th became a big day for us. Big in sadness, in loss, in remembrance and in reflection. Every year, on December 18th, we become a little more subdued, a little less animated, a lot more aware of what happened back in 2010 when you left us, suddenly, without warning, without even the thought of a goodbye. This year, we thought we could try and celebrate. This year, we attempted to use December 18th as a day of happiness, to kick off my wedding.

That’s right. I’m getting married. Can you believe it? I, your snotty-faced spectacled little sister who you caught eating Nutella out of the jar with a knife, am all grown up and getting married. It’s more than not okay that you’re not around for any of it. I can picture you around all the festivities, having a good time, sharing a laugh or two, mocking something or the other, and ultimately, walking me down the aisle with everyone. But all I can do is make do with old, faded memories and the dear hope that you really are around here somewhere, smiling with us and having a third helping of kheer.

Our attempt today to make December 18th something other than a sad day wasn’t as successful as we’d deluded ourselves into thinking it could be. Overall, the house was filled with laughter and music and prayers for a blessed future but there were moments in which your absence was as painfully felt as an open wound. There were moments when Ami broke down, and later Abu, and it was all I could do to not follow suit. All this happiness sometimes doesn’t sit quite right, it’s incomplete and the tragedy of this realization truly is overwhelming for all of us right now. We’re not quite the same, and we haven’t been since you left.

Sometimes, i miss you so much that the only way I can stay sane is to force myself to stop thinking altogether. I wish you were around to help us with all the wedding arrangements – you’d have such a great time in all the revelry and the late nights. I wish you were here to hand me off to my future husband – you’re both the same height and all I can do is just imagine all the pictures you should be in but won’t. I wish you were nearby to help me brainstorm what songs we should play at the events – making playlists just isn’t the same without your input. Most of all, I wish you were here to see your baby sister as a bride – I hope you’re proud of the choice I’ve made.

But since you’re not here, all I’m really left with are these faraway hopes and dream-wishes that I put out into the world in words. That’s all we can really do now, pray hard with eyes that smart with tears and hope with all our heart that you’re enjoying the glorious winds of heaven, strumming a guitar and crooning some old school Vital Signs.

So we try, and we persevere, as we must. It doesn’t mean we love you any less, or don’t miss you anymore. You’re with us all the time, wherever we go. There are some things that won’t ever change. Your place in this family, and in our lives is one of those things. We love you, Bhai, and feel your loss deeply right now. Send us some good vibes and sing a song or two, your baby sister is getting married!

5 Years & Counting

It hasn’t been a great week. It’s been almost atrocious, actually.

Typically, all of December is like that. This year, it was different, it had been going well.  The first two weeks of the month, I didn’t think too much about the 18th. I didn’t think about what it would signify.

I didn’t think about how it’s been five years. Five. A number after which I can’t quantify my brother’s death in a way that’s acceptable to me in my head. What’s acceptable? Being able to talk about the time that has passed since then, in words, rather than in numbers.  I was okay with saying ‘oh it happened a couple of years ago’, or that it’s been just ‘a few years’. Five worked too, I’ve been able to say it’s been a ‘handful of years’. But what now? Now that the 6th year has started, how do I quantify that in mere words? I can’t, anymore. There is no phrase of words in existence to quantify 6 years, or 7 years, or 8, or 9. The next acceptable phrase hits comes after 10, when it will have been ‘a decade’. So what do I do for the next 4 years?

It’s become bigger than me, something I don’t think I can make peace with. I’ve read about grief hitting in waves, blinding and overpowering at first, manageable and visible later. These aren’t waves, though. It’s like driving without breaks – you can manage long distances well, because there’s nothing to stop for.  But there are speed bumps every now and then, and though they’re quick, they’re still brutal, because there’s nothing you can do to lessen the impact. It leaves you shaken all over, and your stomach lurches up to your throat for a moment, and then just as suddenly as it happened, it’s over. You’re back to cruising on the road, one elbow resting against the open window.  You ease into it all again, focus on the song on the radio, the comfortable speed, and you forget the bump ever existed. Until it comes back.

It’s a ruinous process, one I’ve plundered through on my own. Sure, the loss of my brother impacted the whole family, but the grieving hasn’t been a collaborative effort. We’ve all stumbled our way through these past five years on our own, warily glancing at each other to ensure we’re at least all at the same pace, and no one has fallen.  It’s been dark, it’s been lonely, and I wonder if that will change, if I can let that change. It’s almost been a sordid badge of honour in a way. ‘Look what I can get through alone.’  Just because I have, doesn’t mean that I still need to. I’m not brave, just withered.

That’s the beauty of seeing death so close – it teaches you things you could have never known any other way.  It takes you into a deep, dark tunnel where you’re never quite sure if the ground will give away, or if you’re about to chance upon some treasure. You keep going, anyway, and you decipher clues from writings on the wall, uncovering one life lesson after another. It’s not reconciliation, but it is comforting.

Death informs life. My brother’s death has taught me a whole lot about mine. Even though I have no way of eloquently quantifying the 6th year of his death, here’s hoping it’ll teach me more than what I’ve understood in the last 5.

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The Weird and the Wonderful – There’s Something You Should Know

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On a spectacularly sunny California afternoon, the love of my life asked me to marry him, and I said yes.

There are certain things girls dream about. We fantasize, subconsciously or not, about the perfect ring, the ideal proposal, the classic dress and of course, the right guy.  I am no exception and while I’ve found the right guy, there is one thing I don’t think I’ll ever stop wishing – that he could’ve met you.

I think you two would have really hit it off. His sense of humour, though jarring for me at first, is so infectious that I now find myself cracking his kind of jokes right back at him.  We laugh more than we actually talk and I think you would’ve just loved that, I mean, you were quite a funny guy yourself when you were around.  If the two of you could be in  the same room, I think we’d all hear you both guffawing miles away.  He likes to horse around and just be silly, and, as grown up and adult as I sometimes consider myself, it’s a relief to just turn that off with him.  It’s a relief to just…be.

That’s not to say he can’t be serious.  In all my life, I haven’t seen anyone as dedicated to their goals as him.  When he makes up his mind to do something, that shit gets DONE.  You’d appreciate that about him, just as I do.  It’s reassuring to know that if I ever need help with anything, he’ll be there.  Even when it’s something he has no idea about, he’ll still do his best.  That perseverance calms me down.  I get worked up so easily about small, nonsensical things, and his steadfastness anchors me. It also makes me feel safe.  It’s a little like how, when I’d tell you I heard something outside, you would take a round of the front and back yards in the middle of the night, cricket bat in hand, ready to strike.  He’s like that, for me, all the time. It’s like having a bodyguard around 24/7, except this one safeguards my soul, too.

One thing you two would truly bond over is music.  His playlist is one you’d easily want for yourself and his love of Coke Studio could rival yours. Granted, you were only around long enough to listen up until Season 2, but the sheer joy and passion with which he enjoys some of the newer tracks often reminds me of you.  There are moments when he’ll be singing aloud at the top of his voice, and then suddenly pause to lament why he doesn’t have a good enough voice to properly carry a tune.  I tend to smile then, because that’s when I imagine the two of you together, listening to this music, with you actually singing it, and him being your happy audience, the way I once was.

You’d like him, you really would. I don’t just say that as a little sister who wants her big brother’s approval on her choice of partner. I say it because if you could see what I do, you’d agree. You’d see that he already makes Ami laugh and smile without even really trying, and instils in Abu a hidden hope of a son’s shoulder to lean on.  You’d see the effort he makes in learning about you, and keeping your memories alive for me, going as far as playing one of your favourite songs for our proposal. You’d see that he wants to move mountains for Ayana and get her every toy under the sun, without ever having met her yet.  You’d see that he worries about the aches and the colds of every member in the family, as if we were his own. You’d see that, in a matter of just mere months, he is family.

I never allowed myself to think too much about who I’d marry or how it would be, because anytime I did, my heart would shatter remembering that you won’t be around for any of it. Now, when I have someone who makes all the cliches about love and life ring true, I think about how it will be and I wish, more than anything, that you were here for all of this. I wish you could see your baby sister next month, getting engaged in front of family and friends to the man she loves. I wish you were around for all the planning, and the gossiping, the freak-outs and the dancing. I helped you make your wedding playlist, and I had always imagined you helping me make mine one day.

I wish you could be a part of this magic, in person. But because you can’t, I will console myself with what I know to be true – that I chose someone my brother would get along with, fantastically well.

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If I Were You, I’d Have Just 5 More Years

I turned 25 this week. In my head, that always seemed like a definite sort of age.

At 21-22, you’re still figuring your life out, getting used to the real world after the college bubble, learning how to deal with the perils of a full-time job and finances and bills. 22-23, for me, were years when these new adjustments solidified, and I began to make real choices about what I wanted to do, who I wanted to be and be with, and where I wanted to go exploring.  24 was quieter and louder at the same time, a sense of restlessness creeping into the routine of work life, but not enough to make me want to up and leave again, helping me build a resolve to stay and power through whatever needed sorting out. 25 seemed to me more decisive than others, a turning point from struggling to figure it all out to actually having a game plan set and in motion. Is that the case? Not really, and oddly enough, that feels more than okay. I didn’t expect much from 25, or from the months leading up to it. Perhaps this is why, the happiness is a welcome surprise.

I didn’t expect I’d want to celebrate this year, seeing as it hasn’t been much of a priority the past handful of years.  I didn’t expect to feel the euphoria I did, surrounded by friends and family at home and otherwise.  I didn’t expect to rediscover the old excitement I used to feel on my birthday, counting down the days like a kid and planning what I’d do, wear and experience. And, as much of an advocate of happiness as I can be sometimes, I truly did not expect to be so fundamentally happy.

A last thing I also did not expect was to be visited by you in my dream this week.  It has been so long since it last happened, that it actually took dream-me a moment to recognise you and register that it truly was you, my brother.  If someone had told me 10 years ago I’d have a hard time recognising my brother if he appeared in front of me, I’d have laughed dismissively.  But that is exactly what happened.  You showed up and my dream-state-mind needed some time to put the puzzle pieces of your face together.  The shock and surprise dream-me felt then, I can still recall that feeling right now as I type these words, and that fact, is as sorrowful as it is real and true.

The first year after you died, I had phases where I was in so much pain, I’d make myself feel better by picturing a time much later in life, maybe 4-5 years down the road, where your death was simply a fact of life I’d gotten used to and thinking about it wouldn’t hurt me. Heck, just the thinking itself wouldn’t happen much.  Guess what, though? That time is here, it’s right now. It doesn’t hurt to think about you, and it’s true, I actually DON’T think about you a whole lot normally. In day-to-day life, there are things alive that preoccupy my heart and mind.

This might sound callous or harsh but there’s only so much of the past I can allow myself to emotionally relive. I don’t usually talk about you or allow myself to think about you because I haven’t wanted to share these thoughts or tales with anyone.  It’s been an entirely internalised process, silent and inherent, not to be shared, not even to be self-acknowledged.  Lately, however, there’s been a slight shift.  I’ve been sharing your stories, and just through this act, I’ve been thinking about you, remembering your characteristics and habits, recalling your likes, dislikes and irritations. By using you as a topic of storytelling, I’m able to fondly step back into a time where I’m 10 and oblivious to what will happen to you when I’m 20; I’m able to think of you as ‘my big brother who plays the guitar and can charm an eskimo into buying snow’; I’m able to trick myself into putting you back into the present tense again.

It’s soothing to recount anecdotes of your life that make me laugh, because I can now share that laughter with a keen listener, who will join in and extend the joke and talk of you as if you’re still around.  It’s probably exactly what I needed without knowing it.  It’s been tough to recall the stories, not because it hurts but simply because they’re old and muddles in my head, and my memory muscle isn’t too strong.  Maybe your long-awaited reappearance in a my dream a gentle reminder from you, of you. There’s no way to know, but I’ll go with that interpretation. There are some bits I remember all too well, like how enraged you became when I secretly decided to tune your guitar and broke a string, and others that are blurry, like a song you had taught me how to play which I can only remember the first few notes of. Certain triggers, like this song, are still as strong as ever and will cause my eyes to smart quicker than raw onion juice.  Other triggers, like seeing the car you drove on the road, have, over time, settled into a state of relaxation enough for me to drive past with ease.

I just turned 25, which means that, in a few days, you would have been turning 35.  I used to wonder how my life would be if you were still around but, as alarming as it can seem sometimes, I have come to like the life I have right now, even without you around.  I’m powering through, trying new things each year, visiting unfamiliar places, connecting with unexpectedly like-minded people, and attempting to set goals that don’t always align with practical considerations. Am I fulfilled? No, because I keep wanting more and more and that’s okay, because if I were you, I’d have just 5 more years.

Happy birthday, to you and me both, this month.

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Just Because I Don’t Write About You

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Mom asked me the other day why I haven’t written about you in a while.  My answer was simple, instant, truthful.

“Because writing about him means I need to think about him.”

Perhaps it sounds callous, but it is candid.  I’ve become so accustomed to not thinking about you that it’s more a default way to function.  Does that mean you no longer matter? Does that mean I’m used to you being no more? Does that mean I no longer wish you were still a part of my life?

The answer to all those questions is a resounding NO.  Just because I don’t write about you much, doesn’t mean you no longer exist.

Next month will mark 4 years since you passed away.  That quantification baffles me.  4 years is seemingly a long time, and it truly amazes me how we’ve adapted to your absence.  We have filled in the gaps you left behind as best we could, and seem to be moving along now at a steady pace.  The hiccups are few and far in between, like when Ayana is at a birthday party and one of the games involves the kids bringing along their daddies, and she quietly sits it out, painfully aware that hers is no longer alive.

But what I said to Mom holds true.  I don’t consciously think about you much. Why? Because it’s still more painful than pleasant, it still inspires more conflict in my mind than any sense of serenity or contentment.  After 4 years, people would assume I have come to accept you’re gone.  But I am not.

It’s not okay that my big brother is no longer alive. It’s not okay that when I have a bad day personally, professionally or just for no reason at all, I have to resort to trying to find calm by listening to something you liked.  I can’t bitch to you about random, nonsensical crap the way I had imagined I’d be doing at 24.  Instead, I have to make do by wondering and assuming what you’d say.  I have to think. I have to think about what you would have done rather than having the luxury to interact with you in the present.  I have to think. I have to go back into the past, because that is all we have of you now. And that’s not okay.

I am not ‘at peace’ with it.  I am not okay.  You are dead and it is still unfair.  That’s the simple truth but that’s not something I can voice aloud to Mom.  Perhaps, she will read this and understand and not ask again.

 

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The Man in the Bookstore

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You hear about it sometimes.  You see it in movies, read about it in works of fiction.

You never thought it would happen to you.

You never imagined you would walk into a bookstore, browse languorously in the poetry section and end up having an hour long conversation with a total stranger about the kind of words you both love.  You didn’t think instances like this existed outside of anecdotes.  But they do, and now you have one to share too.

You can now tell people how, while holding on to a Lorrie Moore novel you’ve been meaning to read, you were tapped on the shoulder gently and told, ‘You’re going to love that book. It’s one of my favourites.’  You can reminisce on how you responded with surprised but suppressed glee and told this man that Moore is one of your favourite writers, one that has greatly influenced your own writing style.  You can recount how you both then stood in the poetry aisle in companionable silence, which was soon broken by him picking out a slim anthology from the racks and asking you if you’ve ever read anything like it.

You can narrate then how responded in the negative but launched into a tirade about the kind of poetry you do enjoy, about how Zbigniew Herbert gives you goosebumps and Jack Gilbert makes you want to sit on a bench under a tree and weep.  You can tell people about the stories this man told you, about the poetry festival he organises and the many great writers and poets he’s interacted with.  You can smilingly share with them what you shared with him, that words will always be your first love, no matter where you go or what you do; that even though your career path has nothing to do with stanzas and plots, it’s what you think about and indulge in on your daily commute across the Charles and the small hazy window of time right before you fall asleep every night.

You can elaborate on the characters he told you about, the Moroccan store-owner who speaks a new language every time they meet or the owner of a Central Square tavern who happily displays this man’s artwork, the artwork you were amazed to hear about because of its sheer simplicity of it being a collection of pieces made up of broken and discarded bits of picture frames.  You can tell people of how stunned you were to hear about this, and how it only added to the beauty of the strange but welcome encounter.  If you are interrupted, you can veer the conversation back with another quiet but simple story he shared with you about one of his favourite poets, who writes about a refugee who, at displacement, took his house door off its hinges to take it with himself to wherever he was going next.  You can go into detail the way this man did about how this refugee, if he ever returns, will reattach the withered door to his old home to solidify his return; or will place this old door to wherever he settles next and will build his new home around it, to remember the foundation of where he came from.

You can muse on how this stunning story touched you because you could relate, because you have been displaced your whole life and have no doors to carry, only the idea of something that could feel like home but has yet to be discovered.  You can tell people how you asked this man more about this poet he loves, and in return, told him about a poet you love, a poet whose writing is so frenzied and manic you feel like you’re helplessly dancing along to a rhythm so remarkably fast your feet ache to catch up.

You could go on. But you won’t. You don’t need to tell anyone you bought all the books he pointed to, including one by the poet he loves.  You don’t need to tell them how you walked into this bookstore because your soul was down and the only thing that could revive it was some old-fashioned make-believe. You experienced something sacred today, something that added a bounce back into your step, something that made you grateful for who you are and where you are, something that reminded you that there is still magic in the world, even if it is just in a bookstore around the corner.

 

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‘Do Tell’ by Richard Hoffman

 

 

3 Years: Choosing Happiness

Around this time last year, I’d made a silent resolution.  I had decided that I was going to be happy.  I had made up my mind that I would, as often as I could and for as long as it was possible, choose happiness.

My brother’s life may have been brief but it was never dull.  I don’t think he was ever conscious of it, but everything in his life, every event, incident or occasion, was amplified.  Perhaps it was just his flair for drama that contributed to this, but his emotions ranged in the extreme.  When he was happy, he would be overjoyed.  When he was angry, his wrath would evoke dread.  Whatever mood he’d be in, it was always exaggerated, always infectious to the point where the whole house would be subdued if he ever was. Maybe, without knowing, he was compensating for all the emotions he wouldn’t be able to feel after death; maybe, in living large, he was making up for the short span of his actual physical presence.

He was nowhere near perfect, but one thing he always got right was happiness.  My brother was not the type of man to lull around days on end in a haze of depression or melancholy.  Certainly, he felt despair and anguish but he didn’t cozy up to those sentiments and hold on to them for long the way so many of us, including myself, tend to do.  A free spirit like him, he always turned to his music.  It was through composing, singing, playing the guitar and performing that my brother found the true way back to happiness, every time.  His music was not just his passion or his hobby, it was his north star.

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Last year, I had resolved to follow my north star, wherever it may lead me to.  For a while after my brother died, I clung on to one, simple dictum: life is short.  He died at 30 because his heart suddenly decided to stop beating and that’s all I could think of: that maybe I only have till 30 as well.  I used it as an excuse for many of my actions, and as a basis for decisions both made and avoided.  I’ve refined that approach a bit this past year.  Life is short, certainly, but it must have some meaning. Quality > Quantity.  For me, meaning derives from experience, and I wanted my life to overflow with some top-quality euphoria-inducing instances.

The past 12 months have been full of surprises, mostly good.  In my pursuit of happiness, I have been to more concerts this past year than I have in the 22 years preceding it, I have traveled to brand new places all alone and fallen in love with new cities that feel like home, I have taken risks and forged connections with new names while erasing some old ones from my memory book, I have rediscovered an old hometown and reconnected with faces I hadn’t seen in a decade, I have changed the course of my professional life and plunged head-first into avenues I had never imagined I would ever be interested in.  Through it all, I have had this one constant thought at the back of my mind: just be happy.

It doesn’t take much, I realised.  It can be found sitting on the front steps of a purple house with a perfectly gooey cookie in one hand and a book in another, or in that breathless red-faced moment when you’ve finally beaten your own personal best time in a workout after weeks of training.  It’s when you manage to, after constant scheduling and rescheduling, get around to Skyping with your long-distance best friend and end up talking 2 hours longer than you’d planned.  Sometimes, it’s even when a client ends a long, frustrating thread of slightly passive aggressive emails with a simple ‘thank you :)’.  It happens when you’re lying on the grass in a way you haven’t since you were 6 and all you can see is sunlight speckled with cloud fluff and leaves and you’re bewitched by the simplicity of the scene.  It’s when you’re walking along a sunny street and are suddenly overcome by the impulsive need to hold the hand of the person walking next to you and you give in.  It’s when you realise there is no rush to finish the novel that you’ve been working on and writing under pressure just makes for crappy prose and you can take a short detour into verse and indulge your love for poetry for a while. It happens when you finally get to dance at a live concert to the song you’re used to simply hearing on your headphones and tapping your fingers along to.  It’s that glorious moment when you bite into the softest, flakiest pain au chocolat you’ve ever had and are glad you waited 35 minutes in line to order.  It’s when you see your baby nieces holding hands and calling out to you to come play with them.  It’s in that moment where you’re driving down a highway and waiting for the next song to play but there are too many commercials so you switch stations and Angels by The XX comes on and you grin like a sociopath and roll down all your car windows and pretend you’re driving a convertible because that’s how great it feels then.  It’s when you finally figure out that those beautiful droopy yellow flowers you saw in California actually have a real name and are called Angel’s Trumpets.  It happens when someone who hasn’t seen you in many years looks aghast and exclaims loudly about how much weight you’ve lost and you’re tempted to bust out a few moves to ‘I’m sexy and I know it’ but instead just nod and smile sagely instead.  It happens after you’ve written a few lines of verse and you re-read in amazement that the words turned out just how you wanted in only one go.  It’s when you receive an out-of-the-blue call/text/email/whatsapp/bbm/tweet/inbox message of concern from one of the many people who know and care about you.

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My north star, I have realised, lies in forming connections. I find happiness in shared history, common ground, similar likes and dislikes and the ability to discover something about myself I had no idea existed simply by virtue of seeing myself through another individual’s perspective.  These lead to great stories and, as anyone who knows even the bare minimum about me, I am a sucker for a good story. My happiness experiment has given me some grief this past year, it hasn’t led to permanent contentment, and it was an important part of the process for me to realise that it doesn’t have to.

Going all the way, going after what makes me happy, striving for things that bring a smile to my face – it’s this leap that matters, and I would take it again in a heartbeat.  Because, sometimes, that’s what stops. The heart.  Bhai’s did, and someday mine will too, and when that happens, I don’t want people talking about what I owned or achieved.  I want to be known for the unlikely connections I was able to form, the surprising friendships I pursued and the unexpected yet fantastic stories that emerged out of them.

It’s not easy.  Nothing real is ever easy.  Just writing this post is taking Herculean effort because what I’m typing out is how I think on most days but its conflicting with what I’m thinking RIGHT NOW. Right this second, I realise it’s the 18th of December and I’m suppressing flashbacks of seeing my brother’s body and remembering the touch of his cold fingertips.  At this moment, I’m trying to not recall the weeks and weeks of sleepless nights that ensued that first year and I am now wondering how I can ever get married without having him around to sing at my mehndi or walk me down the aisle.

Happiness is really hard work.  It still requires making tough decisions to eliminate factors in your life that limit your joy, and then communicating and implementing what you have as just airy-fairy ideas into actuality.  Happiness is a process.  It’s taken me 3 years and a dead brother to realise that, and I am nowhere near done.  But I’m trying.

The answer must be in the attempt.