I have something to say. I think that’s fairly obvious, considering that I’ve taken pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. I backspace fifty times, the fifty-first time, I know how I want to start, what I want to say. If I could say it out loud, this is what I’d do: I’d serve you a cup of tea with a warm cookie, I’d look you in the eye and tell you squarely, it is okay to feel tragic.
In the weeks following my mother’s passing, I end up in Madinah four times.
The first time, it has hardly been a week. We drive the four hours from Jeddah to Madinah for the day, my husband at the wheel while I slump beside him, expecting an epiphany and hoping for a cathartic cry. My Khala, my mother’s sister, gazes out the window at the back, in awe of the desert plains and the dizzying circle of life. Her flight back is in two days and over the next few months, her features will rearrange themselves to make space for grief, to meld into the faces of her mother and mine, while still retaining space for her own sparkling personality.
When we reach, we’re greeted by the pigeons, the street vendors, the cobbled streets, the men and women wearing slippers they can afford to lose and that vibe… you know the one? Everything says welcome to the city of your beloved Prophet, welcome to his home and yours. The tight ribbons around my heart unfurl a little because of that vibe, that pull. It doesn’t loosen completely. Even in the Qur’an, grief is a fact. It doesn’t just go away.
We cross the pearl marble, squinting into the sun, the sight of the dome a little like a hug. Inside, I sink on to the plush, green carpets and Khala goes off to do some exploring. I pray and I read, but mostly I spend a lot of time staring into space, wondering if I’m wasting time, unable to stop wasting time if that is indeed what I’m doing.
An aunty drops down beside me, whispering into her prayer beads, sighing as she sinks into the softness of the carpet, her eyes bursting with life, her face full of the sort of light only found in Madinah. She asks for my name, where I’m from, where my parents are. Oh, when did she pass? She asks. Monday, I say, my voice quivering. She gestures behind her, eyes wide with understanding, that Monday? I nod and the adhan sweeps across the mosque, across the entire city. I busy myself in prayer and hurry to another spot before she finishes her own, I have a desperate need to cry and an even more desperate need to pretend I am okay.
The second time, exactly a week has passed. This time, we are a busload of people, rooms have been booked. My father is at the wheel, not my mother beside him. Before we pile into the car, someone stands in her kitchen, the one she custom-built with pull out cabinets each with a specific function, and they stir a pot on her stove. I sit at her table, the one we lingered on for hours, cups of chai between us and the smell and the sounds overwhelm me.
The smell and the sounds of a road trip to Madinah.
I burst into tears. Assuming I can. Not really thinking it through. Someone gasps and lets go of the stirring, bangs the door shut, this is just the beginning! There’s so much more to grieve! Don’t let your father see! Get a hold of yourself!
The emotional switch in my brain turns off like a noisy kitchen fan. The whirring and the weeping stops. I have gotten a hold of myself. That is, in two seconds I have learned I should repress my grief, roll my eyes at my triggers, tell them to save it, they are an inconvenience to my busy schedule of life-living, pot-stirring, imparting unsolicited advice.
But minutes later, as they leave the kitchen, I stare into the spot that used to be my mother’s and realize that would be the entire kitchen, the entire house, my entire life. I am reminded that this is not the first nor the last time I will be taught how to grieve, that most people give garbage advice and this was the garbagest advice to ever force it’s way out of a person’s lips.
I will not be grief-shamed, I decide. I will be triggered to my heart’s content! I will cry into my tea and my books! I will stare into space and fidget until someone, a fellow griever, holds me by the shoulders, reminds me my tea is getting cold, that I’d better drink it as I cry. And here is a homemade cookie to dunk into it, you’re welcome! I watch it melt and break in half, I watch it fall in and it is lost until I, too, reach the end. Have I been served a cup of tea and a cookie, or a metaphor for grief? The answer is always both. Life and loss, they’re inseparable.
In the car, in between cups of tea and morbid jokes and bad metaphors, we all take turns tearing up. Back in the Prophet’s mosque, I go through an entire box of tissues and soak a circle on the carpet with crying that won’t stop. No one says I should stop. Grief is a fact, even in the Qur’an. Especially in the Qur’an.
The third time, we visit more family and I remember a time when her limbs were frozen, her ears constantly ringing, her words starting to melt into each other, I show her a picture of the Kaaba and gesture to my husband, we’re going here right now. Her face breaks into the first smile we’ve seen in days, she can not speak but cups her hands together. We pray with her, for her. Just weeks prior, when texting was an option, she sent hopeful, goodbye messages to everyone she knew. She invited them to visit her this time of year even when she had more than an inkling of what was to come. Even when she knew it wouldn’t happen, she made plans to host everyone she knew in the Holy Cities. Just a month after she’s gone, we sit together around a coffee table in a hotel that overlooks the Prophet’s mosque and we are reminded of the power of our intentions.
In many ways, she is there. In our mere presence and the memories we exchange and the prayers we say for her out loud and in between our cupped hands. I am reminded of another hospital-bed memory, we need to write about this, a book about what happened to me. To us. The cover will say: by Jahan Ara and Anousha Vakani.
I will remember this and in a few months, I will write a book for children all over the world and it will be about the stars in the sky. But because I’ve allowed myself to sit and simmer in my personal tragedy (alhamdullilah!), it will really be about mothers and daughters and how mama might not always be there to answer your questions but she’ll have taught you enough about Allah for you to always seek your answers with Him first. The Qur’an tells us grief is a fact and I pour part of my grief into a book.
The fourth time, I am about to leave the country I grew up in, to make a home in the house my mother built but never saw. I take off my blue ballet shoes, walk across the pearl marble, sink into the carpet. An earthy breeze wafts in through the open gates, rain pours outside and what is there in this entire world that comes close to rain in Madinah?
Everything says, welcome to the city of your beloved Prophet, welcome to his home, and yours, and hers.
Anousha Vakani is the author of Muslim Girl-Powered Books and editor at Auliya Women. Her first children's book, Najma, came out in 2019 and went on to win the Daybreak Press Book Awards for Best Illustrations. She has another children's book scheduled for publication in 2022 (InshaAllah!). She loves creating and curating content for, by and about Muslim women, ranting over cups of anything caffeinated and flipping conspiracy theories over in her mind. Currently, she is working on reading anything with positive, wholesome representation of Muslim life and has torn half her hair out in the process of writing her own novel. You can connect with her @mgpbooks and @anoushav.
By Chantal Blake