Half a Goodbye

I wonder if it is a kindness or a punishment of fate that the south-facing window of my aunt's house in Old Lahore opens into the graveyard where her son is buried. I imagine her standing for hours on her frail legs, her small frame wrapped in a shawl, next to that window, looking upon his grave. As my cousin's illness ate him up by degrees,  his mother was certain he was going to die even on good days. She didn't understand the biology behind the Hep C that wasted away her son's liver, but she knew he would not get better. She had learned it in her dreams. 

We had been close as children, my cousin and I, but I don't remember that time well. We drifted apart as we became teenagers, the five-year gap in our ages accentuating our differences as individuals. When I think back to our shared childhoods, I only recall images and sounds. His big grin. His hoarse voice. A song he liked to sing. His beautiful penmanship on a small chalkboard in my house, in a long letter, the only one he ever wrote me. I wish I had saved it.

I have learned that in his last days, his younger brother showed him pictures of my family on Facebook. I have learned that he saw my daughter and said to his mother, "Ammi, how beautiful is this little girl!" But he said it in Punjabi, so it sounded sweeter, more like him, and it hit me like a slap. Ammi, aeh kinni sohni aey. I wish selfishly that my aunt had picked up the phone then and called me. I wish selfishly that I had talked to him, said goodbye. I wish selfishly that I had known more about his illness than the vague, blanket statement, "He's sick." When you learn someone is sick, after all, you expect them to get better. You don't expect to get a g-chat message from your sister when you are in your office and have no choice but to remain entirely composed, saying, "Did you hear about Jugnoo Bhai?" And you certainly don't expect your shocked response to be whispered into your palms as they cover your face, "You silly boy," as if he had simply made a mistake and could undo it with your admonishment. 

I have felt weary after his death, like I have been angry and resentful too long because of things and people that don't really matter. When I mourn him, I also mourn my childhood, that sense of being safe, one that he probably had for only a handful of years. He had to grow up really fast. I did, too, but I had more good years of happiness, and so I fared better. When I feel the pull of Lahore now, resurrected in the wake of my cousin's death, I don't miss the city proper at all. I dream about Old Lahore - the narrow alleys and streets of the neighborhood where my father grew up. The tomb of the saint, the darbar, lights strung over the dome like an army of glowing fireflies in the night for the annual Urs, next to the huge pre-partition stone building that was my grandfather's family house, divided into several enclaves for his brothers and their children, the hand-pump in the middle of the verandah, curious faces in those windows... There will be different faces now, some absent, some aged. 

When I go back home now, it will be a journey to connect the dots, trace my way back to my roots to claim them. I will go into the house my grandfather and my father shared with their family. I will walk into my aunt's annex, look upon the saint's tomb and the graveyard that encircles it from the south-facing window of her small apartment. I will see names that I recognize on the gravestones. It will be a fitting homecoming, a lasting goodbye.

Photos from the Facebook page of Hazrat Shah Abul Muali