The Head of the Table

I see them draping her bird-like body in a shroud. I see the men all in white, paying their respects to my grief-stricken uncle. Their voices are mere whispers — “our condolences”, “our apologies” — why apologize, I wonder? Should I wave my hand exclaiming to my uncle to accept their apology? Should he thank them? More whispers flood my ears, whispers that say “to God we belong and to Him we return”.

It is not the fear of death, nor is it the fear of grief; rather it is the time to grieve. In Islam we are only permitted three days to mourn, which means you have 72 hours to carry the heavy body through the various stages of grief. After the passing of 4,320 minutes you have to drop the body at the seventh stage: acceptance. There is wisdom behind it, I believe. Maybe God doesn’t want us to carry the body until our muscles ache and bones strain because we’re too fragile. Maybe we can’t be like Atlas; but instead of the world we carry a body, a life that was. Suffice it to say I grieve: I grieve for more than 3 days, for even more than 3 months. I smoke in heartbreak like a chimney. I let my grief punch me unconscious, skin me and wear me. I make my grief a human, I let it consume me. But how could I not? When she died with no warning sign. She was old, but not old enough to die. She experienced all of life, but not enough of it to tell you the difference between a peach and a nectarine – the variant is but one gene. She was my soul guardian, rather than sole guardian. She fed me, dressed me, hugged me and sent me to sleep. She encouraged me, scolded me, cautioned me and sent me to learn. She was the best half of a mother and the best half of a father.

My mind’s eye becomes blurry; the tears fog it up. The men, like an ocean of moonlight, line up for prayer in the mosque. In a sea of white I can’t tell where the line begins or ends. They pray, while she lies there also dressed in white. But her shroud is the white of pain. It’s the white of a once beautiful, dark eye becoming clouded with blindness. It’s the white of pale skin that’s never seen the light of day. It’s the white of broken porcelain.

Suddenly I’m in a room full of women, women in black with mournful eyes to match. The women sit together, huddling in the living room, whispering about the weather. Some try to grab the attention of a tearful eye with a funny story, while others stare pointedly at a relative they have never met before. But they all grieve in their own ways: some decide to pull you aside and share your grief for a millisecond, some grieve that you are grieving, while others come every morning for three consecutive days to dispel some more of their grief on you — in case your own grief wasn’t enough.

But soon, without you noticing, things start going back to normal. Like when the snow settles on the bottom of a snow-globe, everything else settles too. Suddenly your emotions feel a little less like a tangled necklace that’s choking you, and a little more like a ring that’s a size too big. Soon the family plucks up their courage and gathers again for lunch, except not in my grandmother’s house. She has died. But we are now in my aunt’s house, her eldest child. One by one, we all make our way into her house, we gather in the living room and wait for lunch to be served in the dining room across the hall. We kiss, we hug, and we high-five that one male relative who is too religious to remember that we grew up together. We joke about the time I peed in the closet playing hide and seek, we marvel at the latest news notification, and make our way to the dining room. We each pull a chair out to take a seat. Spoons, knives and forks orchestrate their clinks and clanks. A bowl of soup spills two seats down on my left, while a knife falls, clattering to the floor on my right. The salt and pepper shakers zigzag their way through different hands, while someone’s nephew cries for fries instead of fish, and a daughter yelps for a glass of that pink juice on the other end of the table.

Across the table I catch my uncle’s eyes gazing into the distance, lost. I question his state as he blinks at me, finally aware that I was speaking to him. “What?” he asks, as political opinions and comments about the weather are flung over our heads. “What are you thinking about?” I repeat. “My mother,” he whispers. Words float mid-sentence around us, comments are left limping, and breaths left held. Bewildered silence settles itself on the table. And I suddenly remember, I remember the grief and how my body felt like it was smacked into a pool of cold water. I remember how the pit of my stomach felt like an empty void. The cast around my heart shatters and falls hopelessly, leaving behind something broken. My eyes start clouding and I feel a shadow wave in the distance. I blink, folding my eyes into themselves and I focus only to see my grandmother sitting at the head of the table, with her golden burqa perched on the tip of her nose, waving for my attention. My grandmother, full of life, extending her arm for my plate, demanding to serve me more salad because I was looking too pale.



Artwork by: Kwang Ho Shin