Monday, October 3

Lingering on hot coals

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I was a child when I lost an uncle. He was amazing. Penetrating eyes with a deep, moving voice. Each time he spoke, you wouldn’t want him to stop. A kind of voice that sounds like a cry is in the throat. A Qur’anic voice, if that makes sense. His face was always illuminating. He never seemed to stop reciting or doing zikr. Above all those unique traits, I observed he was always at the same place. The same compound. The same house. Sitting or lying next to a log. All the time. We would always encircle him as kids, tease him and eat his leftovers. That went on for as long as I could remember until one fateful day when, accidental or not, he hitched up his trousers and my eyes followed a chain from the tree to his ankle. I never understood how. But it explained why he was immobile. The image stuck with me. I thought about it all day. And, when I couldn’t keep it any longer, I asked my grandma, his mother, about the sad image glued to my mind. I had already stolen her coins that evening and she was patiently waiting to blast me. The question was simple. “Why is uncle in chains?” She was baffled. She was shocked. I then instantly got worried because nothing fathomable was telegraphed on her face. I didn’t know whether she was shocked because the question was offensive or I completely misinterpreted what I saw. You never know, the chains could have been just ornamental anklets and I might have wrongly thought it was cruel. But, as always throughout her life, she spoke the truth, even to kids. “Your uncle isn’t feeling well,” she rhythmically let the words out. “Then we should take him to the hospital,” I said, for I knew nowhere more suitable for the sick than a hospital. “It is not that kind of illness”. That was the quick response. I could see how much she was trying to keep the conversation as basic as possible. I wasn’t old enough to know enough. But I understood that it must have been absolutely necessary for her to accept such. In no time, her eyes welled up with tears and she couldn’t fight them back. She let them course down her cheeks and down to the veil on her lap. And then we both briefly sobbed. It was the first time I cried because I was actually emotional. The rest of the times, I was just spanked for being stubborn. Few years later, my uncle passed. My grandma and I had to do Episode 2 of that solidarity weeping. It was painful. Not for me, but for my grandma who lost her only son. And for my mum and her sisters who lost their only brother. The loss was devastating on grandma. It was irreparable. When his death was announced, all the kids were plucked from each house like ripen mangoes and encamped somewhere else. Far from the mourning compound. Every activity stopped. Chatter and noise quietened. People moaned and mourned the passing of an incredible man. That was my first loss. The first time I actually felt a loss. All the preceding ones found me too young to care. In fact, I used to think that those pronounced dead merely switched places. That someday we would bump into them in the streets. Indeed, we would bump into them, but in the earth where we wouldn’t even have time to greet each other. But his death and the resultant devastation on my family, especially my grandma, hastened my sensitivity towards death.

***

Between 2014 and 2016, my heart was struck with a dagger. And then with another dagger, both pinning me to the ground like Hamza. First, my dad passed. I waxed lyrical about my uncle. Now I don’t have any words for my dad. He was humble and contented. Poor but lived in dignity. I never wanted to be poor. It is gummy. It is sticky. But I’d gladly inherit my dad’s. I did anyway, whether I liked it or not. Seriously though, he was measured, lived within his earnings and instilled in us humility and piety. When he was around, I never thought he would go. I completely forgot the inevitability of death. That is why it was heart-breaking. I was shouting at top of my voice, probably talking about football, when I was told to answer to my uncle. I thought I would be chastised for causing noise at night but he called in two other people to bear the bad news. “I’m sorry but your dad passed away,” one of them mumbled. I was numbed and speechless. I only nodded. Stayed put and worked on my breathing. He was always around. Why leave now? I didn’t cry. I just collected myself and then walked out. Slowly in the streets of Bundung, I recollected how lovely he was. Compassionate and generous, even though he had nothing to give. His death tore us all apart and scattered us around town, as typical of extended families when the head dies. No one has been able to recover from it. And, barely two years later, my favourite brother, Zainul Abideen, passed away too. He was the kindest and the most hard-working man I ever knew. Everyone was looking up to him. My mum was shattered. My twin sister was broken. Zain and family were inseparable. Everything he had was for the family. He was the family. The family was Zain. Young and unmarried, leaving this world full of promise. He was the light in the family. It has been dark ever since his death. It is like taking a piano from Elton John. We are Elton, Zain was our piano. We’ve been lost without him. Dad was my second loss. Zain was my third. With their demise, I have literally tasted death already, even before my own time. Those two represented almost everything I loved about this world. The deen, hard-work, contentment, generosity, discipline and family-orientedness. My fragile heart still aches about their death.

***

On Christmas Eve 2020, I got married to a lovely woman, Oumie. I was buzzing. I was curious. I was restless. I was vibrating. And then I was terrified. I was scared that the monster in me, which I have tamed for years, would break free and wreak havoc. Few days into the New Year, we consummated the marriage. In between, I lost weight. The waiting was murderous. Three months later, we were pregnant. Some still thought we took long to do it. Smh. But the joy was indescribable. From a drop of sperm, clot of blood to a lump of flesh. I listened to the baby in every stage of its development in the womb. I’d even listen when there was nothing and try to initiate a conversation with it. If you know me well, then you would know I love kids. I love every kid, except a piglet. I love puppies. I love kitties. I love bunnies. I love chicks, not the side one. Anything kiddish has my love. That is why I wasn’t surprised I got so excited. My focus completely changed. Even my reading changed. I read dozens of articles on pregnancies and babies. So much so that I was convinced about the sex well before ultrasound confirmed it. For a moment, I regretted not becoming a doctor. I thought I was in the wrong field. To cut a long and sad story into half, I joined a team of midwives to deliver the baby last week. It was a humbling experience. The pain. The efforts. The risks. The uncertainties. The weakness. The trauma. The tears. The sweat. Childbirth is like staring death right in the face. I wish the baby stayed alive. I wish I could just spend some time with him. I wish I could tell him everything his mum and I planned for him. I wish I could teach him how to write. I wish I could tell him about the freedom and peace in writing which has been my own sanctuary. I wish I could play football with him. I wish I could watch him grow into little Gibran. I wish I could tell him about my grandma and his grandma who is still pissed she didn’t go to the hospital. I had so much to tell him. But it is okay. I am okay. I watched as he was wrapped and taken out of antennal care unit. He no longer needed care. While other babies wriggled and cried, he lay motionless and peaceful. I never felt so empty in my life. The next day, I was asked to buy a box, not a coffin. I brought the box and watched the nurse place him in it. I signed the death certificate and she gave me the box. That was it. Three months of hard-work to procreate and nine months of joy just strapped in a box. Quite hurting! I led Oumie and her mum out of the hospital carrying that box, containing the remains of someone I thought would pluck my grey hairs. From the entrance of the Labour Ward to the mortuary junction, a short distance stretched by loss. My long walk to grief. I would have named him Zainul Abideen, hoping he would outlive his namesake who died in 2016. Unfortunately, he didn’t. From last week Thursday, it has been heartbreak and re-traumatisation. Everyone would want to tell you their own loss just to console you. Well, it is not working for me. There is no consolation for me. I’m aware of the universality of loss. We all suffer the pain of losing someone precious. But the pain of losing a child is unique. The agony is never short-lived. It feels like not just walking on hot coals but lingering on them forever.

I apologise for not making this the typical rambling you expected from me. God knows I’ve been nothing but morbid these days. Until next time. Ciao!

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