My grandma used to be a mountain.
I remember that clearly – in a small flat in Warwick Farm, garishly furnished in bright Arabian carpets and tapestries, there was a mountain. She stood tall over us all, her face creased into a smile, and I could barely circle my arms around one of her legs. The kitchen was small, and thinking on it now, I have no idea how she fit in it, how this tiny flat managed to contain her with all her valleys and peaks.
She was my Everest.
I spent endless days with her as a boy, generally bored out of my mind. My grandfather would sit and watch Arabic soap operas, a language I never fully mastered, and my grandma would be in the kitchen, either cooking, praying, or on the phone. Sometimes though, my grandfather would put on Western action films, which he loved, though he didn’t speak or read English. He seemed to enjoy them nonetheless, perhaps in part because we kids obviously had fun watching too.
I regret endlessly now that I never learned Arabic and was never able to have a conversation with my grandma.
She would speak to me, of course, ask me questions and what I understood, I answered. It was usually of the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ variety, and we’d soon lapse into silence. I always hated when she asked a question I couldn’t grasp, and all I could do was look uneasily away and wait for someone to translate for me. I could never look her in the eye and she would simply sit and stare at me sadly.
I hate it even more now.
The days I love most usually fell on Sunday. Every week, the family would gather at grandma’s to pay their respects and, in the tradition of all family get-togethers, feast. The babble of voices, lilting in Arabic, shouted in English, the smell of a dozen different dishes heavy in the air and the roar of us kids running up and down the stairs, in and out of the building. We explored the surrounds, we lived and laughed and loved in summer, winter, autumn and spring, until the day grew fat on our exuberance and became long, tired and dim.
Through it all, Taita loomed.
I’m not sure when exactly the family fractured, and who it was that fought with whom, but that tradition soon diminished. People still visited but, in an eerily silent choreography, only when others had left. I saw her less and less, then. But as all great mountains do, no matter how far I went – around the world to a dozen different countries and more – or how often, she always remained in the picture, her shadow long.
She was my Everest.
For the life of me, I can’t remember when she got so small. The first time she broke her hip, perhaps I saw it then but disbelieved. Certainly in the hospital bed, I saw it but I was more transfixed by her face, her still-bright eyes. She was still my grandma, still my rock, one of the only constants in an ever-shifting, tumultuous life.
That was a few years ago now, and as these things go, when the urgency faded, so too did the visits. It was an adjustment seeing her with a walker and we all took much greater care thereon but there’s nothing you can do against time, and even less you can do about dementia.
I was in my new, recently-moved in house two weeks ago when I got the phone call. I was clumsily, angrily trying to build an IKEA chair with limited success. It was my aunty calling and she said, after my usual exuberant greeting, ‘Listen Omar, I have some bad news. Taita’s in the hospital, she’s got a blood clot in her leg. The doctors said they have to amputate it but don’t want to risk an operation. It would be too cruel. We’ve just gotta make her as comfortable as we can now. There’s nothing more we can do.’
I stood in the kitchen, and all I could feel was cold. Cold leeching through my socks on the hard tiled floor, cold in my head and in my chest. I cried some, then, when the call ended. I cried even more later that night, curled up in bed. They were going to let her die and it wasn’t right, and it was, and that made it all the more horrible.
Mountains aren’t supposed to die, to crumble. Not like this.
I went to the hospital the next morning, this gigantic white space, all tiled and bleached. Sanitised, cleansed of emotion. I fucking hate hospitals. There were signs along the way saying if you had a cold, or a flu, that you should wear a face mask. I asked about it and a nurse told me just to be sure not to touch my grandma.
I walked into the room, and there she was, so small and shrunken. Her skin was almost yellow, hair thinning and white-grey. Even in sleep, there was a grimace of pain on her face.
My aunty was waiting, bright-faced. She said, ‘Come, look, it’s her leg, poor thing.’ And she peeled a portion of the blanket back, and I saw Taita’s foot, bandaged. The few toes I could see were black.
I looked away.
‘She doesn’t know anyone anymore, even me,’ my Aunty said. It used to be that she could only recall those she saw most often, and as her primary carer, my Aunty certainly qualified. My grandma didn’t know who I was, and it still hurt. It was by no means the first time I’d been faced with that knowledge but it turns out repetition is no aid, no safeguard. I sat with her anyway, and I watched and waited.
I thought of how horrible it must be to lie in a bed, in a foreign place, surrounded by people you don’t know. How terrifying it must be. She drifted in and out of drugged sleep – sometimes, she would wake and more people would be there. Sometimes less. She took no notice.
‘You know, the male nurse tried to take her to the bathroom and she went off at him,’ Aunty said. ‘Ma’shallah, even though everything else is gone, she still remembers God and everything to do with her scarf. She didn’t want a man touching her, even to take her to the bathroom.’
Something beautiful happened an hour after my arrival. My uncle arrived, brood of children in tow, and they surrounded her. My aunty got up to do her little show, lifting the blanket and revealing the gruesome injury – the kids poked their heads around one another, clambering for a view. My uncle stayed back, which is just as well, as we’re not on the best of terms.
The beautiful thing was seeing my grandma smile. She had no cause to, she knew no one in the room, but she saw the children and she smiled and it lit her up. I thought of how even now, with no clarity in her mind, she had the grace to smile and how great and beautiful a thing that was.
We took her home a few days later. She needs constant pain relief and on top of a 24-hour painkiller she is to receive regular doses of morphine. I cannot even begin to conceive of the pain she must be going through to need such medication, cannot begin to conceive of the titanic strength of will it must take to endure it.
Sitting in my aunty’s lounge room, I gently massaged Taita’s shoulders. This was a ritual we had throughout my childhood, one shared by all the youngsters. She would draft us into massaging her legs, her shoulders and her back, a whole team of us assisting her with her various aches and pains. Of course, we’d all try and wrangle our way out of it as soon as possible. My favourite trick was saying I needed to go to the bathroom, and then never returning.
Now, I’m all too glad to sit by her side and ease her pain, however I can. Each breath seemed a groan but on every second one there was a whispered thanks. I think on the past few weeks, on the cloud that’s hung over my every thought and action, the mourning that began the moment I took that call and how truly awful it is to mourn someone that’s still with you, that sits next to you, and speaks; no matter whether it’s in English, Arabic, or just a nonsense babble.
We all sat in the lounge room and my Aunty said, ‘She was such a strong woman.’
‘Was?’ my cousin questioned. ‘Is, she is such a strong woman, mum. Just look at her.’
‘I would long since have given up, if it were me,’ I added. ‘I can’t even imagine.’
And I can’t. My internal landscape is changing, is becoming smaller and meaner and less bright. So I try and cherish every last moment, as one does with the day before the onset of night. I suppose I should take comfort that even in the night there are stars and those stars will be my memories of her.
It’s hard though. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, to even try and think positively. She sits and she stares and that’s the worst thing, that terrible blankness in her eyes and face. People talk and walk around her, as though she were part of the furniture. I don’t mean to denigrate my family – they do a phenomenal job of caring for her, taking it in turns to get up in the night every few hours and administer her medicine, to help her go to the bathroom, to eat. We each deal with it as best as we can.
The other day I grabbed her hand because I couldn’t stand to see it shake so much and I kissed it, once, twice, three times and I said over and over again how much I loved her. Then I sat with her. Moments later, she leaned toward me, slowly, shakily and brought our joined hands up toward her lip and kissed it; she gently gnawed on my finger until I pulled away.
When I hold her hand, I feel okay. I feel safe and I love that she squeezes back, I love that every now and again, she reminds me – reminds us – that she’s still here. And she’s surrounded by family. Today, a half-dozen kids and family members were running about the house and Taita shouted imprecations at the running children, as she would have of old, and I knew she was surrounded by love. That there was nothing more we could do.
She’s my Everest and she always will be.