There are a few insignificant things in my life that bring back such strong memories. The smell of fertilizer, different spices, Johnny Bravo’s theme song and the feeling of someone patting my head come to mind. But the strongest one has to be the sound of a clock ticking in a silent room.
This mundane sound transports me back to my grandparents house in northeast Calgary. I can envision the gold clock hanging on the mantle of the fireplace, and my grandparents upstairs in bed as I sneak down to the living room for a snack, or just to sit in the silence.
Some of my favourite childhood memories were made with my grandparents, and the ones I look back so fondly upon are those with my Nani (grandmother).
When people think of Pakistani-Muslim mothers and grandmothers, they tend to be stereotyped as meek and submissive. My Nani was anything but that. She immigrated to Canada with four children, and would give birth to a fifth two years later. Not knowing the language but still managing to raise a whole family. That is anything but meek.
She was beautiful, caring abundantly about her appearance. Nani would not stand for one stray hair, or chudiyan (bangle). She always made sure to look her best: clean, ironed shalwar kameez, hair dyed with mehndi (henna), and dupatta draped over her head.
She would often tell me we were going to sit in the front lawn and instead walk to her friend’s house down Falwood Way. There, I’d lay by her feet for hours as she would gossip and drink tea. When we would return home, Baba (my grandpa) would be worried about where we had gone, and she would tell him we were in the front lawn and he simply didn’t look hard enough.
When I was young she would insist we take naps together, and I would begrudgingly oblige. I know now that it was just because she enjoyed holding me close.
Shortly after my Mamu — my mothers youngest brother — passed away, my grandma fell ill. She had two minor strokes, which wouldn’t be her last. Many years later, when I was 14 years old, my grandma had three major strokes at the same time. My Nani went from sneaking out of the house to chat endlessly with friends, to wheelchair bound, with speech so slurred it was almost unrecognizable.
I spent most of my days that summer in a rehabilitation centre, trying to put together scrambled sentences and translate what the nurses would say. My uncles, aunts and Baba were busy trying to move my grandparents’ belongings from their home to a single-level house that could work for my Nani when she could leave the care facility.
Despite everything, when she arrived at the new house, she was still herself. Not the exact same version of herself that I had grown up with, but a version of her. A bit distant, but still there nonetheless.
Nurses would come to the house to help Baba take care of Nani, and although everything had changed, aspects were still the same: Nani’s love for her children and grandchildren, and the phrase “kuthi di puttar,” which translates to son of a bitch, and her laugh every time she heard it. We all adapted too: learning to understand her slurred speech, how to change her clothes, and help her with tasks.
She was slowly gaining her strength back with the help of a nurse and a walker. She was able to do little laps around the cramped living room. One day in 2018 she walked a whole lap around the house with little help, and everyone was so happy. The very next day she had two more strokes.
A new version of Nani came home that time, at first she tried her best to communicate, but her speech was beyond repair this time. She would laugh the same for a while, but soon “kuthi di puttar” stopped working. Slowly becoming unrecognizable. The woman who lives in that house is someone I don’t know, and I think that fact breaks both our hearts.
Nani’s responses have lessened over the years. Laughs are rare to none. No longer attempting to speak. No longer engaging. Just existing. Bound to a life that offers her nothing that the human eye can see.
What is it like to grieve for someone who isn’t dead?
I would say it’s the most confusing, frustrating, saddening, guilt-ridden experience I have ever gone through.
You find yourself questioning everything, in a constant state of emotional exhaustion and hurt, and an overwhelming sense of guilt for feeling this way. The person in your life who was most important to you is still technically alive, but not the person you used to know. Just wishing — waiting — for them to pass away.
At the same time, it is the most humbling, beautiful, human thing I have ever experienced.
A reminder that nothing is guaranteed in this lifetime, everything is temporary. I am blessed to have the opportunity to love someone with my whole heart, and I am even more blessed to have received that love back. Lucky to have memories with a woman as powerful, and fierce as my Nani, to know the different versions of her, to remember, and know what it was to walk with her hand-in-hand down Falwood Way.