Speak, MemoryPosted: October 7, 2015
I groggily grab my phone. It’s 3 am, and I’m on a business trip to Chicago. I have a missed call from my little sister. I call her back immediately. I can hear that she is scared to tell me, to be the messenger of bad news. She tells me that my Nana has died. She knows how I hate to be told about deaths over the phone; I was told of both Mom and Nani’s death in similar late night calls. She says that he died in the ambulance going to the hospital from his home in Dhaka.
“Okay,” I respond, unemotionally. I check myself: no feelings. Just empty.
On some level, we had been expecting it. He was 87 years old and his health had been deteriorating for the past few years, ever since my Nani died. They were married when he was 21 and she was 16. He had lived for her. Without her, his mind unraveled.
When I went to Kathmandu to care for him in the summer of 2013, he was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. Of course, my family had not told me this at the time – they had just said he was a cantankerous old man. Overwhelmed and alone, I pieced it together after reading the labels on the boxes of pills I was administering to him daily. Those two weeks alone with him in that dark cold house were easily one of the most traumatic, mind-spinning periods of my adult life.
Dementia is a terrible thing to witness, especially in the early stages when the victim can tell their body is failing them. I would sit with my Nana and see the frustration on his face. He often forgot who I was. Sometimes, he thought I was my mother. I would remind him that she was dead, and that I was her daughter. A sad look of recognition would then drift across his face.
In the years since, his body essentially forgot who he was – reduced to a senseless state of being, unable to even care for himself. He was under hospice care before he died. In the end, the nerves at the base of his neck simply forgot to send the message to the rest of his body that reminded him to live.
As I lie back in bed, I try to remember what it is that I am supposed to say when someone dies. My sister and I sit silently on the phone, seconds of darkness ticking by. It has been six years since my Nani died, and four years since Mom died. You’d think I’d be able to remember. But I can’t. I’ve blocked it all out. I have forgotten.
Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.
Many Muslims believe that there are two angels sitting on either shoulder, writing down all of your good deeds and bad, everything you have ever lived or thought. And that on the Day of Judgment, if your memory fails you, your body will tell your story on your behalf. In the end, it is not about objects or money, it is about your history and memories. What do we have except for the stories that we have lived?
When I first learned this in Sunday school, I couldn’t shake this teaching from my mind. I knew, in some ways, it was a fear tactic. It was meant to keep us in check, to give us a moral compass. But I had always been obsessed with the idea of memory, and the idea of forgetting. As a child it was impossible for me to wrap my mind around the idea that things existed even when I didn’t remember that they did. I would ask my Mom for verification on memories and she’d respond, “Don’t you remember?” The idea that angels were writing on my shoulders seemed like the most foolproof way to never forget. I found a certain solace in this.
As I grew older and into my voice as a writer, my writing revolved around narratives that I didn’t want to forget. Writing become a tool for me to remember. With desperation, I’d write during transitions and travels, in love and death. I wanted to sear those feelings into my memory. And, if my memory ever failed, I wanted it seared into words. Yes, I always choose the life path that will lead to the better story. Writing is about remembering as much as it is about leading a life worth remembering.
When I talked to a doctor friend about my Nana’s dementia, he nonchalantly mentioned that everyone’s brain starts shrinking after the age of 30. Thus, as Nana’s memory faded, it made sense that his memories of the early years of his life were sharper, while the more recent memories were gone. Nana didn’t know who I was, but he would tell me how the Pakistani government locked him up in a concentration camp outside of Lahore in 1973 – down to the details of what he packed and what he was served at mealtime. I found out later through my Khala that this storytelling was slightly skewed – the camp cook gave Nana extra milk because he had known him for years beforehand. Nana, in turn, gave his share to someone at the camp who was ill and needed it more. Even in remembering, my Nana was humble.
I wrote like a maniac while he talked, desperate to capture his oral history. He would be annoyed at first but, after a little prodding, his stories would start flowing. Nana was, after all, quite the storyteller and always loved an audience. In the past ten years as I went on journeys to South Asia to collect family stories, I wrote on my laptop, collected video on Flip cams, and audio on voice recorders. I blogged, insistently and as instantly as possible, because I was scared of my memory failing. I wanted to capture the moments. There was usually so much distance between us that on the rare occasions that I was there, I wanted to never forget them. If only I could reduce the distance by how I wrote the memories. That’s what I had to do.
As soon as I get back to Los Angeles from Chicago, I go straight to my Khala’s house. Our families have lived in the same Southern California suburb since they landed in the U.S. as immigrants in the early 80s. I sat across from her after she served me stir-fried ramen with frozen veggies. She said she didn’t feel like cooking.
“I can’t believe this is real. This is when I miss your Mom the most. She always knew what to do in these situations. Without her, I feel lost,” Khala said.
I hold back the tears that immediately start welling in my eyes.
I think about this unique brand of grief in the immigrant experience: long distance death. My mom and aunt both left their family in Bangladesh to start new lives in the U.S. with their sight unseen, arranged marriage husbands. They built lives away from their parents, seeing them every few years, whenever funding and time allowed. Death in these cases provides no immediate loss – there’s no change in the day-to-day schedule of their lives – just a knowing that someone around the world has passed away. Death messages used to come through telegraphs, aerograms and phone calls funded by calling cards. Now they come through Viber, WhatsApp and Google Hangout. The messages are sterile – because, after all, how much can you really say about the last moments of someone’s life? If you are not there to experience it, it’s an impossible task to describe that from across the world.
“When you lived in Pakistan, where did you live?” I ask my Khala.
She said they lived in Lahore. That my Nana had been brought there in the late 6os to teach – he had been an electrical engineer for the railway. She talked about how Nana insisted they learn at a Bangla-medium school – a political move given that West Pakistanis used the Urdu language as a tool to suppress Bengalis. Since they wouldn’t give them a school, they created their own – their classes were held in an Urdu-medium school in the afternoon after the day school let out. She talked about how when the 1971 war started between Pakistan and Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), how the family were under house arrest in the military compound. She saw Nana being taken away to the concentration camp – at least they didn’t handcuff him, she said. At least they gave him that.
My Khala and I continue to reminisce about the stories of my Nana’s life. I show her photos I took of Nana’s engineering college campus in Calcutta; I traveled there in 2010 to collect stories. When the Indian Partition happened, Nana had been part of a group of 17 Bengali Muslim men who had to escape the Calcutta campus surreptitiously during the colorful festivities of Holi. They took boats, rickshaws, bikes and cars to a secret location in the city where they were smuggled out of the country on a secret flight to Dhaka. I show her photos of the bank of the Ganges river where I thought the escape might have happened, and photos of the bridge that had to be crossed. I show her pictures of Nana from my last trip to see him. She asks me to send her copies of all of them.
My Khala’s memory is sharp – she was always the one with the best memory in the family. When I used to ask Mom for stories, she’d be dismissive, claiming that she had blocked it all out. But Khala always remembered. When I show her the old photo I found on my phone of Nana and Nani at the Taj Mahal, she talks about them as if they had never left.
Maybe that’s all there is. When you live at the intersections of struggles and revolutions and immigration and survival, sometimes all that you have are the things you can fit into one suitcase and the memories of the stories that you have lived. When you have thousands of miles between you and your family, what you remember is what you grasp on to –it’s a survival tool. It’s the only thing that can’t be taken away from you – these histories, legacies, and remembrances are yours to keep.
I had always thought it ironic that of all the people to die from Alzheimer’s, it would be my Nana, he who cherished his stories so much. His stories are his living legacy.
In the shadow of Nana’s death, I can’t think of any other way to better honor him than to share them.
Read more by Tanzila, here.
Tanzila Ahmed is an activist, storyteller, and politico based in Los Angeles. She can be heard and read monthly on the #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast and Radical Love column respectively. An avid writer, she was a long-time writer for Sepia Mutiny and is published in the Love, Inshallah anthology. Her personal projects include writing about Desi music at Mishthi Music where she co-produced Beats for Bangladesh, making #MuslimVDay Cards and curating images for Mutinous Mind State. Taz also organizes with Bay Area Solidarity Summer and South Asians for Justice – Los Angeles. You can find her rant at @tazzystar and at tazzystar.blogspot.com.