It rained on my way to work today. I’d noticed the clouds when I left home and prayed the showers would hold on till I got to the office and away from the possibilities of spending the rest of the day with itchy skin. The heavens opened suddenly, half-way through my long commute and my dress bore the marks of the large drops I tried to avoid, with little success.
It was enough to dampen my mood, but as I progressed, I was blessed with visions of the most beautiful green sprouts on land that had, until last week, been brown and bare. I took it all in, grateful for the ability to see the light within the storm. My thoughts were loud enough to drown the conversation among my colleagues, as I got lost in dreamy appreciation. This got me thinking about the past month and how similar this new growth from bare land was, to life and living on this Earth.
It’s been exactly a month since my father passed, and I’ve gone through the whole whirlwind of emotions from shock and denial to reluctant acceptance. The image of my aunt coming out of the hospital ward where he’d drawn in his last breath, tears flowing down her cheeks while she broke the news, remains stuck in my head. The details of what I did and said after that moment are still foggy, but I still remember the piercing scream from my sister when she got wind of our new reality, and that was enough to send me down on my knees. Papa was gone… this time, never to return.
Within the blank, I could hear the voices urging us to ‘be strong’, to ‘accept God’s will’, to ‘have more faith and pray’. I had said the same words on countless occasions to bereaved friends and even strangers, and it was quite sobering for me to be on the receiving end of these attempts to comfort, to encourage, even through the gloom and loss. From within, a tiny voice stayed in my mind reminding me to ‘stay strong for my younger siblings’. It is a voice I know too well, one that has helped me build up defenses and muster strength when weakness threatened to overpower me. It is the voice that had guided me through many difficult situations, even when I wanted nothing more than to ignore it, give in and up.
Messages of condolence began to pour in as the news spread, and the one recurring trend was strength. For some, I am the strongest person they know and so I could get through this, too. For others, there was an understanding of how it felt to live in that moment, but I still needed to be strong and eventually it would get easier. I was comforted by the outpouring of love, prayers and goodwill messages. I also had my escape blocked by the expectation to stay composed, to grieve but not so much that it would show a lack of faith, to be the strong woman everyone knew.
Through it all, I remembered the words of my sister Yassin who bent over me and told me to ‘take time out, be selfish with my grieving and let my emotions run their course’. I held on to that new-found freedom for a fleeting moment, but I found myself dragged back into living up to the expectations as usual, and getting through the days ahead with a straight head.
This meant numbing my feelings and attempting to shut out the images in my head that would remind me of my father. It meant smiling at the sight of his freshly ironed haftaan when I walked into his house that night, instead of crying from the reminder of his permanent absence. It meant riding home with his shroud beside me and shutting out the thoughts that they would be his last garments on Earth. It meant smiling too, at the many people who filed in to pay their condolences to the family, and thanking them for coming. It also meant narrating the story of how it all happened, in answer to the many questions, while fighting tears through muffled breath. I was supposed to be strong; I was being strong. Perhaps a little too strong.
After the flurry of activities and an eventual descent of calm, I searched for those feelings I’d tucked away, to no avail. Some days, they would rear their heads for a swift moment and return to their safe place behind my wall of strength. Twice, they’ve come to me in full force and opened the floodgates before I could stop them. However, with each day, there is always a reminder -even if subtle- about living with our new truth. The sight of my eldest brother, a call from my youngest, a chat with my sisters… it all keeps coming back and I realised that we can only be so strong for only a short while. After all the comforting voices die out, we are left alone to face the reality of what had happened and getting used to no longer having our father here with us. After all the attempts to show strength die out, we are left with one another, to be perhaps more united in his absence than we could be while he was still here.
A visit to his grave brought me some closure, even as I pondered on so many questions that might never get answers. Yesterday, my sister shared a dream of him, and we realised he was probably closer to us now than he’d ever been. In these moments, our vulnerabilities shine forth, our grief becomes clearer and the need for strength is overpowered by the true feeling of loss and our right to own our process of mourning him.
This experience has been one of learning and acknowledging what really matters, what needs our attention and the futility of life as we know it. It has also been my chance to reconnect with the most human parts of my being, accepting my vulnerability as necessary and my feelings as valid, even if they do not meet outside expectations. Today, all that really matters for me is how I feel, how I’m dealing with it and what I can do to make sure I do not shut out parts of my wholeness, just to avoid disappointing. I appreciate the goodwill and the great intentions behind all the messages and encouragements for strength. I also hope that when my cover falls and my smiles are replaced by tears, it will be understood as necessary in the process to accepting life as we know it now.
A month ago, at around this time, I was lost in prayer for my father’s health. Today, I pray for our ability to accept and go through all the necessary phases it will take to get used to. I pray too, that wherever he is, his soul is at rest, his burden lifted and peace be his.
Till we meet again. R.I.P Alhaji Momodou Mactar Gambi Jack.