When the sun
falls behind the sumac
in diffuse evening shade
half-wild with loss
any way the wind does
and lift their
off their stems
Loss by AR Ammons
There’s a certainty in growing older. You don’t wear it in the crown of silvering hair glimmering in the autumn sun. It’s not something that can be recovered by a box of colour.
There’s a certainty in growing older that weighs so heavily in our being that, for some, it is too much to carry.
It is the certainty that the world you construct for yourself is regimented by the familiar cadence of time well spent, time ill spent, but time all the same, marching on.
It is the certainty that your world will grow smaller sometimes. It will grow so small that it constricts your own attempt to be. But there is a certainty too that your world will grow larger; it will rise within itself to reveal all the layers of you.
It is the certainty that your world, even if it is fleeting, will fill with love.
It’s just that love is never simple. All too often it’s love — our own, and others’ — that we must learn to manage, to eke out meaning from what we know as life.
I count myself among the fortunate few; those lucky enough never to have to feel the world withdrawing its love from children. I was a child in a home that, though poor, still found moments to nurture through its labour.
And I never did lose a close family member, or a friend, as a very little child. I never knew what it was to feel more alone in the world.
The first funeral I remember going to was that of a classmate. It was grade two, and Anver had been ill with cancer. Much of what I knew about him was from a class trip to visit him at home. I didn’t really know him. So when he died, I looked on, more curious than sad, more interested than heartbroken.
But then, months later, I would also lose my aunt Amina to cancer. In the days before she died, I remember sleeping in my grandmother’s bed only to be woken by the cries of my dying aunt’s anguish. Not quite afraid, not quite curious, I listened with the ears of a child — wondering what was yet to be.
As I grew older, my mother would remind me that I was a particular favourite of Am Foi, as I had called her.
“One of the last clear things she said was that she loves you.”
It is a little nugget of knowledge that has come to inform who I am. There’s a safety in knowing that this woman — who I remember holding a slice of toast with a poise I’ve never quite mastered, though I try often, a woman who I remember showing me off to her colleagues in the burrows of the Bank of Lisbon — remembered me. She loved me.
And yet, I don’t quite remember feeling a sense of loss when she left this world. I was perhaps too young to understand, or too young for that loss to have left an indelible print on the woman I would grow to be.
But if it is death that is the real inevitability of life, then loss is the inevitability of living. It is acquiring the slow consciousness of a pain that grips your being so tightly, nothing else is coherent. It is living, after all, that continues to strip us of life.
They say I’m too young to count the people I’ve lost but death has not been so discerning.
The people who fill my world have died variously.
Alone, a ninetysomething-year-old, single woman to her last breath, away from family and friends — alone in a home for aged Muslim women in Jeppe. Among her closest, her death summoned in a chorus of medicine and mantra.
Another died of a rare cancer, too young, too much at the end of a hard life, never to know the grandchild she had only just met.
He died just months after contracting lung cancer, a slight man vanquished by the butt of a cigarette.
She died of a breast cancer so greedy it consumed her whole. As a grandmother in the haze of “just a bad flu” but maybe a heart attack while I lay asleep in the room next door.
She died in a haze of bullets and theft but it was the robbery of a too-young life.
And, somehow, the pain of loss becomes a ritual of life, like drinking water to sustain being. If we’re lucky we learn to cope, some better than others, and some sooner than others, but we learn to apportion grief to the days to come — dividing up the pain among the people who huddle with us long after the lifeless one is lowered into the earth.
So even as the pain constricts our being, the world prises us open, forcing us to feel the sunshine that is other people.
But it’s not just other people. Most often it’s the women, always the women, upon whom the burden for mourning is that much greater, but upon whom the responsibility of healing is greater still.
It is the women who, in the shadow of their own tears, the distant sounds of dinner being laid outside, huddle together, reciting the word of Al Raheem, the Most Merciful, and it is their togetherness that is a mercy in itself.
It is in the chatter, the laughter, that there is ultimately a healing. There is somehow an affirmation of faith in the words of the Qur’an where we are told to enjoin justice, generosity and to be kind to our relatives.
It is love; above all, we are meant to live on this Earth with love. And that, however fleeting love may offer itself to us sometimes, it is the one certainty of living for which we continue to bank our hope.