Mid-morning on a seemingly non-descript day in August 2012, my mother discovers a tumour on my upper palette.
I’m sitting by the kitchen-door watching my mother cook chapati, because it is a miracle that she is cooking anything at all. I was ten when my mother dragged me to the kitchen and made me cook ugali and since then, she only goes back to the kitchen on my father’s first day home which only happens every few months. I want to believe she’s cooking chapati because I’m home for the holidays for a few days and the pressure of sitting for my secondary national examinations in a few months has struck a chord. I don’t think so though. To date, I still don’t remember why she actually cooked. I keep oscillating between cooking for my grandmother who we were to see later in the day and her craving chapatis but having the misfortune of a firstborn that blatantly refused to learn how to cook proper chapatis.
I’m supposed to be doing dishes. I am however stalling because one, I’m witnessing a miracle and two, I generally do not like domestic work. Well, my mother’s raised voice and my younger sister’s judgement later, and I’m scrubbing the heck out of a sufuria. It is while I am doing this that my mother discovers a tumour in my mouth. She wants me to taste her chapatis but my hands are soapy so I open my mouth so she can put a piece in. And so it was standing in our kitchen, with a chapati dangling over my open mouth that we started a chapter in our lives that has left me with a hole on my upper pallete, underweight(or so everyone-and lately a bathroom scale-says) and mild psychological issues triggered by food.
Five hospital visits and two MRIs later, my first surgery is set for December 2012.
A few days before my surgery, fresh-out-of-high school-me, probably scribbling The script’s lyrics on a used exercise book, I learn of my paternal grandmother’s death. She has been sick for a while and when I hear whispers in the kitchen, punctuated with hushed versions of my name, I know something is wrong. I make my way into the kitchen where I’m informed by an acquaintance that she’s dead. The acquaintance says she didn’t want to tell me so as not to upset me before my surgery. I perform a nonchalant “oh!” and a smile, excusing my way back to the bedroom. I wonder what’s there to be upset about. Inside the bedroom, I hysterically laugh at my inability to feel the relevant emotions: sadness for my grandmother’s death, anxiety for my upcoming surgery. It is two years before I mourn my grandmother’s death and five years before I realise the need to process trauma in a timely fashion. In between: I fuck up and self-sabotage in varying proportions.
The eve of my surgery, a very fretful me breaks up with her high school boyfriend. How dare he? Asking me to be more emotionally involved and shit. Today of all days? How selfish can a brother be? And yes I’m pissed because I’m in a hospital and his name keeps popping up on my phone.
What I now recognize as anxiety because of my surgery, I took as valid anger for an outrageous demand.
What I know recognize as affection, maybe even love for him, I took as weakness.
What I now recognize as pushing people away because I was emotionally crippled, I took as a mature decision.
And now I know I should have said I was scared and needed a quiet night instead of breaking his heart.
And perhaps it is because of this, or karma, that I spend the next five years catering to everyone’s emotions but mine. So much so that when I get around to owning my pain, some relationships don’t survive it.
I stretch myself thin.
I love and give even on days I can’t get out of bed.
I swallow my pain, and pick up phone-calls and listen and try to say something deep and meaningful and heart-warming.
I get ignored when I finally learn to send that, “Hey. I’m having a bad day text. Can you call me?”
I don’t realise when something is done. I talk and apologise and concede and compromise.
And then one day, I’m in a bus headed home when a voice in my head asks, “what was it like losing someone you thought you’d never lose?”
A month later, here’s my reply:
Him? I lost him long before I knew it. But I have caught on and it is mostly emptiness, searing nostalgia and longing. You think resignation is peaceful and content. It’s tearing up in buses and blowing on window panes to stop the tears. It’s well-behaved grief; quiet and incessant.
Well for the most part.
It is also kneeling in bed, praying to gods I don’t believe in, begging to let go. It is sitting in showers, swallowing the mixture of tears and hot water until it is too tepid to cleanse my insides.
It is needing someone I don’t want.
But it is also liberating.
This ability to finally react appropriately to grief.
I still laugh when people talk about death. But I also know how to get in bed and scream if I need to.