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!

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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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Are you there, big brother? It’s me, your baby sister. Help.

I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately.

You’re often loitering at the back of my mind as it is.  Bulk nestled into the grey beanbag, legs sprawled out so long it’s hard for anyone to cross the room, fingers lazily plucking chords on the guitar in your lap, foot tapping against the adjoining table leg to the acoustic rhythm. You seem to be waiting for something.

Usually, I am able to distract myself. I’ll run an extra mile, raise the volume on my headphones, read another dead poet’s verses, watch a half hour of mundane television.  It’s become increasingly difficult to do any of that now.  You’ve shifted from the periphery of my mind and begun to make yourself comfortable at its forefront and I question why.

You’ve set aside your guitar now (against the wall, careful) and are now sitting up.  The anticipation is as palpable as the tufts of hair that fall when I brush my hair each morning.  Light enough to float away into obscurity, but visible enough to stand out starkly against the white linoleum. Tangible. Dead.

I rack my brain for what to do but it seems to have taken flight in your considerable presence.  I’ve been overworking it lately. It’s likely to have left me out of exhaustion, with a sole lingering sentiment of comfort, “Your big brother is here now. Talk to him.”

And I want to.  It’s unbelievable how badly I want to talk to you right now.  I think back on our last interaction, a few hours before you left.  We’d sat across from each other, I on my laptop, you on yours.  I remember the song I’d made you listen to, and it angers me now.  I could have used those 3 minutes to tell you how much I love you instead.  But that was quintessentially us, affection manifested in a shared taste in music and words.

I try hard to remember some of those words now.  Each attempt seems as feeble as measuring a mile with my fallen hair strands.

I want to be 10 again, in the car with you to Dairy Queen, slurping sagely on a Peanut Buster Parfait as you speak about your current heartbreak.   Did I think it odd then that you were already talking in reminiscence of something that was still present in your life? I think the fudge may have been a sufficient distraction.  You didn’t want any, though, you were too preoccupied voicing the obscure notions plaguing your mind: love, life, and companionship.  I did listen, though, I promise.

I want to be 16 again, choosing to sit in your car and no one else’s, as we head to a family lunch.  I want to sink into the passenger seat, head and heart embroiled in the pitfalls of teenage romance, and stare out the window with eyes still swollen from the waterfalls of the night before.  You hadn’t said much on that drive, the need for conversation had eroded when you’d turned on the stereo.  Ronan Keating’s ‘I Hope You Dance.’ “Listen,” you’d said, “just listen to the words.”  I listened then, too.

I want to be 20 again, trundling around the airport parking lot behind you with my too-heavy suitcase.  I want to turn up the AC as soon as you switch on the engine and remark exasperatedly how the weather in Lahore is just so much better than Dubai’s.  You’d bait me into a playful argument, and I’d keep smiling, holding my tongue, as you poked fun at my new found Punjabi-ness and asked whether I ate channay and lobia for dinner every day.  For the record, I didn’t, but I never much had the chance to say so because then you’d move swiftly on to loudly claiming that you were sure I was failing.  You’d made the exact same claim just a few months ago when I’d called home to report that I was on the Dean’s Honor List.  Each drive home from the airport concluded the exact same way, with you asking if I was hungry and wanted something to eat.

But I am not 10, or 16, or 20.

I am 23, and poised at a liminal point in life, my head has abandoned me and my heart is in no mood to co-operate.  Don’t just sit there, help me.  Give me advice, tell me about a song, point me to the right words. All I want is a conversation with you, Bhai.

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2 Years: It’s been long, but not long enough

Let us take a moment
to pause and stare
Pause and stare at the fresh grave.
At the immeasurable spoonfuls of dirt
that will soon fill
it to the brim.

He died on a spectacularly sunny Saturday.  We left Canada almost a decade ago to relocate to the UAE, a country with one season reigning supreme all year long: summer.  Unlike this year, December wasn’t all that different from March or October in 2010.  To me, it had just been a day like any other in Dubai, hot, humid, and treacherously sweaty.

I had returned home for my annual winter break from college a few ago, and spent most of my time writing or playing with Ayana, my one-year-old niece.  Like my father, my brother was a banker and though Saturday is a working half-day for most banks in Dubai, my brother had been home all day.  In fact, he had decided to take his annual leave early and was going to be home every day for the next two weeks, a fact that did not register too well with me since I’d been planning on spending my days careening across the city and roaming the endless malls.  This would not be easy to do, with an older brother at home who had an inclination to call every hour, enquiring of my whereabouts.  Unknown to me, God had his own plans in motion.

Let us go
Let us embark on a journey
of thought, and descend
six feet under
to pause and stare some more.
Pause and stare
at the body that lies
beneath.

 4:30 pm.  I left the house with my sister, anxious to get some shopping done and spend some of the money Bhai had given me the night before.  This was new.  Usually, I’d have to pull my ‘I’m a poor, broke student’ routine to make him cough up some pocket money but this time, he had given me way more than ever before without even needing to be asked.  Perhaps I’d shouted out “Okay, I’m going now!” from my room downstairs or maybe I’d just flounced out of the house without a word.  Either way, there had been no real goodbye.

7:30 pm. My sister and I were browsing for sportswear, and dreaming aloud about all the things we’d do in London next month, a trip we’d been planning for the better half of a year.  At the same time, my brother had left home, bidding his mother, wife and baby daughter farewell for the very last time, to come to the same mall we were in, Mirdif City Center.  He had a weekly cricket match at its indoor play ground. Till date, I feel uneasy going near that area.

8 pm.  I was strapping on my seatbelt, and my sister and I were about to head out of the mall and back home when we received an unnerving phone call from my father.

“Beta, Bhai has collapsed.  Come to Playnation right away.”

My sister and I had been bewildered, but not as shocked as we should have been.  I’d always seen my brother as having a flair for the dramatic, with every little symptom exaggerated to generate the largest amount of sympathy possible.  I saw this as typical behavior, rolled my eyes and actually thought to myself: Well it’s not like he’s dying. But he was.

8:05 pm. As we maneuvered our way back through the parking lot, a series of phone calls followed with the last one falling like a jagged boulder on our souls.

“Beta, Bhai has died.”

How could my father possibly sound so calm?  His voice seemed wooden, jarringly inappropriate to the words he had spoken.  I couldn’t think, couldn’t move but knew we had to reach him.  I ran through the mall, panting and crying simultaneously, face etched into a mixture of disbelief and hysteria.  My sister must have been running with me but I was no longer aware of anything else but how fast my legs could take me to my brother.  I focused my thoughts again on my father’s tone of voice, the inflection in his words, rather than his actual words themselves.

Notice
the freshly cut nails,
the neatly trimmed hair.
One will yellow gradually,
the other will be nothing
but tufts and wisps
of dark brown.

I pride myself on my descriptive prowess, but even after all this time I cannot figure out how to fully convey the impact of what happened that night.  What i’ve realised is this: its not so much the immediate impact of the death that matters as much as it’s long-term effect.  Our swollen eyes, sleepless nights and struggle to put on brave faces were all just temporary afflictions. It’s what we’ve all experienced since then that is vital.

  • We can say your name without being overcome by a wave of tears every time.  When people ask me how many siblings I have, I am able to mention you.  I can say, ‘I had an older brother’ without my voice breaking.
  • We can smile and fondly remember things you liked to do.
  • We can do some of those things on our own.  We had a bbq last weekend, the first since you left.  You weren’t there to do all the work, but just as we were about to eat, it drizzled for a couple of minutes.  Was that you telling us you’re still with us?
  • We can talk to Ayana about you, and try answering her many, many questions about her Baba.  I can tell her that her love for singing and music probably comes from you, as well as her desire to have a pet turtle.
  • We can still go through moments of hysteria while thinking of you, but then we move past it.  Coming back from Karachi last month, I saw a man who looked a lot like you.  Same stature, same face shape, even a similar way of dressing.  I probably unnerved him by how much I was staring, and my heart broke a little when I lost sight of him, but I survived.
  • We can have dreams about you but still wake up to face reality the next day.  For the past few months, I’ve had this recurring dream in which you come back to us.  I don’t know from where or how, all that’s certain about it is the elation we all feel, and the sweet relief that this whole charade is over.  And when my eyes blink open and I see the framed photo of you I have on my bookshelf, I don’t need to lash out.

Notice
the glassy eyes slightly open.
They have witnessed the yellowing, falling leaves
Of only thirty Octobers.
Notice
the ears stuffed with cotton.
They have heard a crowd roaring, an audience clapping,
a baby crying.
These senses thrived for three decades
but now are dormant.
Not seeing, not hearing.

The truth is this: nothing fazes us any more.  Nothing rings truer than the oft-quoted saying: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  The cessation of your heart ended your life, but the end of your life did not kill us.  It made us stronger.  And with each passing year, our strength grows, our resilience grows firmer.  There are still moments of weakness, but that’s okay.  It’s been two years since you died, sometimes it feels like twenty, sometimes it feels like no time at all has passed.  That’s okay too, because though it has been long, perhaps it hasn’t been long enough.

Time has ceased.
Temporality is no longer
an affliction.
This body will lie forever,
Still and silent.

Let us go now
and ascend back into existence.
The moment to stop and stare
has passed.
It is time now
to let the spoonfuls of dirt
do their duty.