What I Know to Be True
After death, the body is buried, the burden held under mounds of dirt. But how is the burden of absence buried? Death is a finite end, but the absence of the dead is a nagging, crushing heaviness that follows everywhere.
My mother’s uncle died three years ago. Although he was my great uncle, we were very close. We called him Amoo Joon. In Farsi, joon means “life.” We attach it to the names of our loved ones so that every time we call them, we remind them of their significance. Every time we call them, we’re saying, “You’re my life.” We’re a sentimental bunch, us Persians.
He had grappled with pancreatic cancer for over ten years, restraining the damaged cells with medication and radiation. But following a failed surgery to remove the growing tumor, his body quickly deteriorated. Almost as if it weren’t the same body that had dealt with the disease for more than a decade. On top of that, he picked up a terrible bacterial infection post-operation.
I remember feeling something give way and sink inside me when he first told us about the surgery months before. But it’s not like we could talk him out of having it. He was so convinced of its success that we couldn’t possibly take that hope away from him.
After the surgery, Amoo Joon’s health was too fragile to leave the hospital, let alone travel, but he made up his mind to fly to Iran to be there for his youngest daughter’s wedding. This seemed to me the deepest portrayal of a father’s love. A decimated body still giving.
When they got back from the wedding, he was taken straight to the hospital.
My uncle and his family lived in Belgium. It was difficult being away from them when the doctors gave him only weeks to live. My mother spoke to them on the phone every day and asked my aunt and cousins to send her pictures of Amoo Joon so she could see him. She said the pictures calmed her, made her feel like she was there.
But I couldn’t bring myself to look at the pictures. I didn’t want those photos of him lying on a hospital bed to be the last images I’d have of Amoo Joon. Instead, I wanted to picture him as I saw him last—when we drove to the airport the last time he visited, clapping and dancing along to the music on the radio. I remember recording it on my phone, just in case.
When we received the call that he passed, my mother knew before she even answered the phone. We both cried, holding onto each other. I remember thinking how small she felt in my arms, crumbling into herself from grief.
* * *
Humans have a vast capacity for grief. I wonder where it all goes. In what corner does it get stored so as not to disrupt the body’s day-to-day movements?
Are depression and suicide the results of a grief storage unit that’s too full? So full that the grief overflows and contaminates other parts of the body, interrupting its function?
My mother told me about Tara’s accident a few days after it happened.
Tara and her family were our next-door neighbors and she was their oldest daughter. She was a sweet girl and a talented artist. Her younger sister Jordan and I were inseparable. We did everything together and spent hours over each other’s houses playing the games of young girls—the games in which little girls pretend to be grown-ups.
While boys played guns and robbers or smashed their Lego cities with action figure monsters, we were playing house and hosting tea parties and being mothers to our dolls.
Tara was older than Jordan and me, but she still hung out with us. She entered her senior year of high school when Jordan and I entered third grade.
Tara was in a car accident on her way home from a school dance, my mother explained. I later found out that she and her friends were all sober, but the driver of the car that collided into their car was drunk. None survived the accident.
I remember looking down at the book I had open in front of me after hearing the news of Tara’s death. I didn’t say anything for a while. My mother watched me in uneasy silence.
When I did speak, I said I would have to throw out her invitation to my birthday party next month. As if the card was her only link to this life and once it was gone, so was she.
Born in the leaf-saturated month of October, I soon became familiar with how easily beautiful things break away and die.
My mother nodded. There was nothing else to be said.
Once she left the room, I shut my book and opened the top desk drawer. Inside was a neat stack of cards ready to be mailed out. I flipped through the stack, found Tara’s invitation, and tore it into tiny pieces. It was my way of grieving at the time.
Somehow that gesture made the whole thing real for me. After tearing up Tara’s invitation, I knew she was gone. I knew she would not be attending my birthday party and that I would not be getting a hand-drawn birthday card from her.
* * *
Death comes in many forms.
One of my close friends in high school got raped. I was one of the few people she told.
She said she didn’t know what was happening at first. It was dark and she was home alone, taking a nap. She thought she was having a nightmare.
But it felt too real, too dangerous, and no matter how much she tried to wake herself from it, nothing happened. A faceless man was lying on top of her and had her arms pinned above her head. She couldn’t move.
The man placed his scratchy mouth over hers and forced his hot, alcohol-coated breath into her lungs. He swallowed her muffled screams. With one hand, he yanked off her shorts and, with it, her underwear.
All she could see was darkness around her and the black, looming figure crushing her. He was much darker than the room—made up of the blackest black. She listened to the loud screaming in her head to drown out the man’s grunts, wondering how she could be freezing and burning up at the same time.
The onyx man told her he would kill her if she screamed. She gazed at the endless black ceiling through her tears and imagined it was the night sky, but a sky in which the moon and all the stars had died. Swallowed up by the liquid darkness. Extinguished forever. A dead sky.
The man disappeared as quickly as he appeared. She vaguely recalled him climbing out of the bedroom window she had left open. It was her own stupid fault. Her mother had warned her not to leave the window open countless times ever since they’d moved to Baltimore City. She never listened. This is what happened to girls who didn’t listen.
She imagined all of her insides had melted. That they would pour down her legs and to the floor if she tried to stand up.
The real sky outside bled moonlight through the open window. She stood up, wincing, and limped over to the window to close it. How could she have been raped with the sky looking that beautiful? The moon wasn’t dead. Neither were the stars.
She didn’t tell the police or her family. She drove herself to the hospital to be examined and tested, asking the nurses and doctors to be discreet. She didn’t want to involve the police.
It was hard to believe that her insides were intact and that aside from minor bruising, the tests all came back clear. How could that be? How could such a violent, permanent act only leave behind minor, temporary bruising?
Later, she found out that the real damage was not physical, but psychological. She could no longer stay home alone or stand being in the dark. She would often wake up in the middle of the night, screaming.
But worst of all, she could still feel the onyx man’s weight on her, his hand holding in her screams. She couldn’t fall asleep until the morning.
She called it a slow death.
* * *
There have been times I’ve heard my voice coated thick with grief. It pushes up from my throat and fills my mouth until it spills out in broken fragments. Other times, I cannot say anything. I am unable to form words that can carry the heavy, boundless words of loss.
In elementary school, I befriended an aloof Korean girl named Melody who also lived in my neighborhood. We used to walk to school together.
One day, I noticed that Melody was acting weird. She avoided eye contact and talked less than her usual two or three sentences. It almost seemed as though she found talking to be a hassle. But I liked her quiet company—there was this sort of loyalty in her silence.
That day, though, something was off.
I invited her over to my house to see if she would open up and tell me what was bothering her. I worried that maybe she was upset with me. It was a hot afternoon and as soon as we got to my house, we shrugged off our bookbags and grabbed cold juice boxes from the refrigerator.
Melody took a long sip of her Hi-C strawberry juice and then whispered, “My mom died last night.”
I almost choked on my juice.
Melody’s mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer a year ago. Once she started losing her hair from the chemo, she wore these pink knitted hats to cover her balding scalp. She used to pick us up from school sometimes and I still remember the car she drove—a navy blue Honda hatchback.
One day during lunch, back when her mother first got diagnosed, Melody announced the news of her mother’s cancer. She said it as casually as if she were telling me what her mother had packed her for lunch.
I stared at her in disbelief.
Melody just shrugged her shoulders, tossed her straight black hair, and stuck a spoonful of vanilla yogurt in her mouth. I think it was her way of coping.
Both times, I didn’t know what to say.
* * *
In the Persian culture, dreaming of a dead loved one means one of two things; they are either happy or unhappy with you. If they’re unhappy, then you have to figure out why and do your best to make amends.
Maybe you’re doing something that’s upsetting them, or you haven’t yet fulfilled a wish that they entrusted you with. Whatever it may be, it is your responsibility to fix it.
My other uncle—my dad’s older brother—passed away five years ago. Uncle Abraham was a retired surgeon and died from pulmonary fibrosis two months after he turned eighty.
My aunt held a birthday party for him and invited the whole family.
A birthday party for a dying man.
After dinner, everyone gathered around my uncle as he sat in his favorite armchair and opened the gifts everyone got him, reading each card out loud. After he got through the last gift, he looked up at us with watery eyes and patted his oxygen tank.
“I love the cards, but you didn’t need to trouble yourselves with gifts,” he said. “I won’t be able to use any of this.”
He laughed his booming laugh—the only part of him left untouched by the disease.
He meant it as a joke, and we all laughed along, but I know we were thinking the same thing: what sort of gift is appropriate to give a dying man on his birthday?
I thought of all the times my father called Uncle Abraham whenever we were sick, in pain, or came down with a mystery rash. He either reassured us that it was nothing serious, or gently recommended we get it checked out just to be safe, even though he was 99% sure it was nothing.
He saved my cousin’s husband’s life by warning him that the symptoms he was experiencing (and would probably have ignored if my cousin hadn’t called Uncle Abraham) were those of a heart attack and to get himself to an emergency room immediately.
He was always a comfort, a reassurance that everything would be okay. He was our unofficial family doctor. Ever since I was little, we all called him Amoo Doctor, or Uncle Doctor.
It made me sad (and a little panicky) to think we wouldn’t have that anymore. And what’s worse, now he was sick and we couldn’t tell him it was nothing. We couldn’t comfort him in any way. No one could—not even himself.
“There have been times I’ve heard my voice coated thick with grief. It pushes up from my throat and fills my mouth until it spills out in broken fragments. Other times, I cannot say anything. I am unable to form words that can carry the heavy, boundless words of loss.”
A few months after he passed, Uncle Abraham visited my dream. He was happy.
I dreamed I was sitting on the front porch of my parents’ house when he came walking over to me. He looked forty years younger, handsome, and wore aviators along with a leather jacket.
Then he smiled. His teeth were unnaturally white. They looked perfect; that distinct gap between his teeth was no longer there.
My last thought before waking up was how someone with teeth like that could be dead; those teeth could not belong to a dead person. He couldn’t be dead—it was all a big lie.
But when I woke up, the realization that he was in fact dead made me cry. Only dreams have the power to make you believe something you know can’t be real or true because they trick you into living it, even if for a moment. Even if it is just in your subconscious. And you’ll do one of two things upon waking: you’ll either ache or sigh in relief.
* * *
It’s easier to let someone go when you have memories to fill their absence. But how do you let someone go when you haven’t had the chance to know them, live with them, or make memories with them? How do you grieve their passing?
My Grandma Afsar had a brain stroke in the middle of giving me a bath. I was one month old. She screamed that her head was on fire.
By the time they made it to the hospital, it was too late. She was forty-five.
And my mother, recently married with a one-month-old infant, was twenty-one.
Time was not kind to us.
Me, for being too young to remember her.
My grandmother, for only spending one month with her first grandchild, robbed of life too soon.
My mother, for losing her mother at so young an age.
I have tried to know my Grandma Afsar through what she left behind, including myself. I resemble her a great deal. Old photos confirm that I have the same cleft in my chin, the same lips, the same large eyes of dark brown always asking a question.
Grandma Afsar had a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and her condition was the main cause of her premature death. My grandmother’s OCD was with urine. She could not stand urine being anywhere near her and if she suspected that even an infinitesimal drop of urine spoiled her pristine home, she would hose down everything.
If something has been soiled by urine, in Farsi, we call it najes, or “impure.” But once I was born, my mother swears grandma loved me so much that she changed my najes diapers herself.
Now, all I have of her are my mother’s memories, old photographs, and a few of her belongings. Somehow, this does not comfort me. Is this all I get?
A few years back, my mother gave me Grandma Afsar’s watch. It is a dainty, vintage piece with a round, reddish face and gold mesh straps.
The watch died long ago, but I have never put new batteries in it. As a dead watch, it holds more authenticity. It respects the fact that the woman to whom it once belonged is also dead.
If I put fresh batteries in it and resurrect the watch, it will seem almost as a mockery. And so it will remain a dead watch, paying silent homage to the woman whose plump wrist it once adorned.
Besides, time and its devices don’t deserve our kindness, either.
* * *
In Farsi, “goodbye” is khodahafez. It translates to, “May God protect you.” It is almost a mini prayer. That once you leave your loved ones, or they leave you, you pray they’ll be placed in God’s hands. It is the most comforting farewell I know.
My Grandpa Fakhreddin lost one of his legs from the knee down due to diabetes. He lived in Iran and we only saw him when we vacationed to Iran during the summer months.
We had plans to go the summer of 2006. My mother was anxious to see her father; he had suffered a serious heart attack in March and somehow pulled through, to the surprise of his doctors.
My mother later recounted that one of the doctors said he only survived the attack and “fought his way back to life” because he was expecting to see his daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren. They said he was dead for a few seconds before they revived him, but he couldn’t go before he got to see us one last time.
When we arrived in Tehran in June, he looked so much weaker and grayer than when I saw him two years prior. The diabetes was causing his body to shrivel up, little by little.
Two weeks later, we took a weekend trip with him to one of the neighboring cities, Mashhad. This is a holy city, famous for the Imam Reza shrine—a golden-domed mosque in the heart of the city. My grandfather said he needed to make a pilgrimage there. So, I, along with my brother, parents, uncle, and grandfather, took the train to Mashhad. My grandpa’s doctors advised against flying.
Once we arrived and got settled at our hotel, grandpa said he wanted to visit the shrine that same night. There was a strange urgency in his tone.
I remember my uncle helping him into his prosthetic leg and wheelchair. Getting through the thick crowds of the shrine was difficult enough on two healthy legs and I worried how he would fare on a wheelchair. I prayed the people would be kind and let him through.
The men and women were separated once we got to the mosque, so I followed my mom to the women’s section while my dad, brother, uncle, and grandpa headed towards the men’s area.
Later, my uncle described what grandpa did when he finally made it to the shrine. He clung to the golden bars of the Imam’s resting place and wept as he prayed in silence, his frail frame shaking. My uncle said that he’d never seen his father cry like that before.
On the six-hour train ride back to Tehran two nights later, grandpa had trouble breathing. His condition seemed to worsen every hour that passed.
It was the longest six hours of my life.
One image from that hellish ride has been embedded in my mind ever since. I was kneeling on the floor next to the bunk bed grandpa was lying on in our sleeper cabin, massaging his legs. He was in and out of sleep, mouth open, struggling to breathe. At one point, a sharp, raspy exhale jostled his dentures, causing them to poke halfway out of his mouth. Then as he inhaled, they slid back into place. There was something jarring about that.
I looked down at the severed limb I was massaging. He wasn’t wearing his prosthetic leg and there was nothing to grab from the knee down, but I made massaging motions in the air with my hands anyway, all the way down to where his foot should’ve been.
And now, it seemed as if other parts of my grandpa’s body were following suit and trying to pull away from him. Like the soul pulling away from the body, little by little.
When we made it to Tehran, my parents and uncle took grandpa straight to the hospital. The doctors said his lungs were filled with fluid.
He spent three nights in the ICU. I was supposed to visit him once he got better.
He never did get better. He passed in his sleep on that third night. I never got to see him or say khodahafez.
Looking back, I know what grandpa prayed for that night. He didn’t pray for his recovery, as thousands do who visit the Imam Reza Shrine, known for healing the sick.
Now that he got to see his family, he had to let go.
That night as he wept, grandpa prayed for death.
* * *
Once, when I was sitting in a hospital waiting room. I thought about how in every corner of that sterilized sanctuary of beds, life-giving tubes, and life-givers in white coats, the constant signs of death serve as harsh reminders to the living.
They mingle with the coffee they drink to keep awake, gazing at the workings of death with wary eyes.
The living know no caffeine is strong enough to prevent that permanent sleep, but they do their best to keep death at bay while in such close contact with it.
They make loud declarations of life to keep it away. “See, we are eating and drinking! We are alive, you cannot claim us yet.”
We were visiting my aunt’s husband in the hospital. His lungs were failing and the doctors had given him days to live.
I recall just standing next to his bed, looking at this bloated, sleeping figure with tubes attached to him. I felt like an intruder.
“Take a picture with him,” my cousin said, holding up her camera. “Just something to remember his last days.”
I didn’t want to, but obliged. Her father was dying and this was the least I could do.
I wondered, should I smile for this photo? I’m taking a photo with a dying man, what’s the appropriate way to act and look for the camera?
I decided on a respectable half-smile. I placed my hand on his pillow and tried to get as close as I could without disturbing him.
Or was I trying not to disturb death, which clung to this unmoving form like a second skin, waiting to swallow him whole?
All I know is that as soon as the camera clicked, I hurried to the other side of the room— away from the dying man, away from death—to stand next to the warm body of my mother.