THE OPEN DRAWER…….
I opened the first file and what stared at me was gut wrenching…….. I did not close the drawer immediately, did not slam it but pushing my old work ethic to get the job done I kept going through the papers.
A is for Ammi which in Urdu and many other languages means mother.
My life had changed, I had closed my office and taken a fellowship in Istanbul coming home only for the holidays.
The boxes in my house from the office remained unopened. I did not know before opening them which was the Pandoras box and thus should be avoided. I worked with a friend and slowly without looking at the contents we filed them alphabetically. Ammi’s file in the office were documents, not cherished mementoes, those were at home.; But now both had merged and Ammi’s life was in a hanging folder with several files in it.
It was a quiet day of solitude, I thought I should make some headway in culling papers and getting rid of the excess so the other boxes from the office could be opened.
A is for Ammi so I opened her first file it was pretty harmless, it contained bank documents and amounts that had been distributed to the heirs, next was her obituary, her sad, wise though innocent eyes stared out at me and then beyond. She had suffered all her life starting with her birth. She was just a few months old when her father( my grandfather) was called into the British army as he was the only Surgeon who was also qualified in Radiation therapy.
He held her in his arms in a formal photo and then disappeared into the trenches of or near Gallipoli.
I asked my only surviving maternal Aunt for the source of the solid Gold Liras that my maternal Grandmother wore and after her death were distributed to her children.
Having been in Istanbul for several years I had a new vision of the historical perspectives of the Ottomans and having been driven by Gallipoli was intrigued that my grandfather may have tended to the injured here.
Once as a preteen while visiting him in Lahore I asked my grandfather “When did you get white hair?” He smiled and assessed my level of understanding before he answered. “In the trenches at war” he replied “ I went out to get a wounded soldier and the bomb fell very near me, and the next day I noticed all my hair had turned white”
I thought he was joking but later while studying PTSD and shell shock there were many reports from soldiers with similar happenings.
Going back to my mother’s suffering days of childhood: When my grandfather went to war, my grandmother went back to live with her mother who was not happy to have her back, she would say a Punjabi idiom which talks about wheat” I grew you, cut you and sent you off to the market for a new owner and now you are back to the beginning”
Thus, my grandmother was treated as a second-class citizen in her own home by her own mother who favored the wife and children of her son who lived with her.
Here are my mother’s words relating about herself, “ I was maybe two or three and my mother was carrying me and talking to her sister-in-law who was carrying my boy cousin, suddenly he slapped me on my cheek and I started crying, His mother slapped him and he started crying, I reached out to pat his cheek and said in Punjabi “ its ok, its ok”” My mother turned on me and said, “what are you doing? He just slapped you!” Thus, gentleness and compassion were embued in her cells.
After five years her father came back and they moved out of her maternal grandmother’s oppressive environment. what she did not realize was that streak of misogyny was embedded in my grandmother also and expressed itself in different ways and at different times.
One expression of this misogynist attitude in my grandmother came out when my mother wanted to go to medical school which was in Delhi and too far from Amritsar where they resided thus that was nixed. The next foray was when she wanted to do her masters for which she would have to go to a co ed college, which my grandmother opposed but my grandfather overrode her objections saying that she was going for study not for flirting with men, and sent her to do her masters in a coed College.
She had the wisdom of her father on knowing when to remain silent, a characteristic that she had solidified by reading Shibli Normani’s books, She also advised me to read them and bought one for me from Pakistan. Shibli Nomani received a traditional Islamic education. Nomani was named after Abu-Bakr Al Shibli who was a sufi saint and a disciple of Junayd Baghdadi.
My mother had many characteristics of a sufi in her character, it is not clear whether that came from her readings of Shibli Nomani or Imam al Ghazali, her two favorites.
Her father was her champion, he also vetoed an early teen marriage for her to one of the richest heirs in Punjab with thousands of acres in Estate, and allowed her to complete her masters.
One time as a teen she developed rheumatic fever and was very sick which may have been the reason for her not being sent far away for medical school.
She attributed the illness which had a tachypneic component to it to her down pillow, She discouraged me always from buying down pillows or comforters. She would say “I got better when my father removed the pillow”
Little did she know that the rheumatic fever would give her rheumatic heart disease, with valve involvement which would be her nemesis in her end days.
I looked at the open drawer and closed the file with the obituary that I had written for her. “She is survived by five sons and a daughter……. And numerous grandchildren….” It spoke volumes, and reminds me now that quality over quantity is more precious.
I closed the file, I felt I was in a theater, the lights had dimmed and one by one the curtains were being lifted. I felt I had seen this show before but had been half blinded with pain and then grief. After the first curtain lifted revealing that which makes you sad, and make you miss your mother, I proceeded to open the next folder. Without knowing what the other folders contained. The next one which seemed hefty I opened it and staring at me was my notes from a phone call from Hospice……”please call urgently” and then followed my notes on what had happened between the hospice nurse and the sibling who was living with her and on her and who did not believe in allopathic medicine and to whom in her conscious days she was very partial.
When you read phone messages it is not only what is written that calls out to you but the intact memory of the entire scenario rife with emotions of conflict, aggression, anger, helplessness and disgust come riding on each word and suddenly you are in the office holding the phone, unable to take action because the caretaking brother has barred you from visiting or caring for you mother…….on consulting other siblings what to do, some have advised a more “low ego approach” what might that be in these circumstances was incomprehensible to me then and now. Some had advised me to knock on his door with the police.
I remember sitting at my desk with the phone in my hand…… the feeling of helplessness drenching me mixed with grief and shot with anger and frustration. I felt I had no support or very little in the present moment, everyone was busy living their own life and directing me what to do or what not to do and go along with the care of the caretaker sibling. No one wanted to make any waves and all I said was whitewashed and my opinion and desire to see my mother marginalized.
The next page was her admitting note to the second hospitalization when she was admitted with a stroke. I remembered arriving in the ER and her talking gibberish to me as she had a stroke where you can speak but no one understand you. She looked at us with surprise on her face at our polite expressions as to why could we not understand her?
I read the dictated crisp emotionless note and saw observations of the physician that my grief-stricken eyes at that time had not seen before and yet more was to come.
The drawer was still open and the sun was fading I was only going to spend 30 minutes at a time sorting and culling papers from my filing cabinet, and here 90 minutes and fifteen years had passed in the blink of an eye.
I put back the admitting History and physical from her second hospital admission and turned to the next page and it was the history and physical of her arrival in the ER of her final admittance to the Hospital and exit on a stretcher from the morgue.
I was driving to Pennsylvania that day and had stopped for a night as it is a long drive. Tariq had broken his leg playing soccer and they were going to operate on him. I had convinced Paul to fly to go attend his surgery…..I had chosen to drive as I was unsure of my mother’s status as a wall had been place between her and me by my sibling who had her in his control as she was living with him.
My drive was going to be long and I may not get there in time for Tariq’s surgery but I was going to try.
Many months later Paul thanked me for insisting on sending him for Tariq’s surgery as Tariq in his happy moments of coming off his anesthesia told his Dad again and again “ I love you so much Dad”. Three months later Tariq died.
I was putting gas in the car the next day for my long leg of the drive to Pennsylvania and the phone rang…….” Ammi has been admitted to the hospital” It was my sibling from out of state.
I had not been allowed to see her for weeks/months so I was not sure how she was, the caretaking sibling had indicated to the rest that she was doing ok.
I turned around and drove home. At least I will be able to see her in the Hospital I thought and a sense of peace settled within me. What I did not know was the condition I would see her in and that she would succumb to the many illnesses and skin wounds within days.
I read and re read the admission ER visit and all my emotions of being deprived and of her being deprived came back like a Tsunami, what the hospice nurse had said was true and the outcome was staring me in the face in the notes…….
How can you be angry with someone for dying for leaving you bereft , being in the same city and not be able or allowed to see them. You tell yourself that Allah Subhanawataala has fixed the time of death and we come from him and to Him we shall return.
Can you be angry with someone who did not let you see her and did not let her see you?
I sat there looking at the open drawer, this file was pandoras box because the evil spirits had been set free and both the night and memory was long and unrelenting and were outside the box of logic. Forgetting and Forgiveness had always hung by a fragile thread stretched over 15 years but suddenly was on the verge of snapping with the opening of the drawer………