In the evenings after dinner the five of us would gather around her in the living room. We were Firoz, the eldest, my sisters Naila and Safia, myself, and Salim, the youngest. Mother would be sitting on her large bed, both legs pulled up, one crossed and the other stretched out in front, cutting patterns from a bolt or two for the next day’s sewing, or catching up on her bookkeeping. The large six-band radio atop our display cabinet was the other focal point of the room, playing Hindi or English songs, and bringing us news from the BBC, which also told us the exact time, “eighteen hours Greenwich Mean Time,” by which to set our clock for nine p.m. Dar es Salaam. All the day’s news we would discuss then and enthusiastically greet the songs as they were announced, especially those of Elvis or Connie Francis or Cliff Richard. Our best evenings were when Mother or Naila told a story, Mother from her younger days, Naila something she’d brought back from school.
Now in another world a continent and an ocean away we had gathered by her bed once more, this time to help release her from her life—as the righteous euphemism puts it—but in fact to watch her finally die. To watch and cheer, I couldn’t help thinking. It’s all over and done, the burden has lifted from our lives. The solemnity at the nursing home felt as false as a badly acted drama. This was celebration.
The doctor was reached on the phone and said to increase the morphine. The duty nurse looked at me, I turned to my cousin, a former nurse. Maimuna nodded, “It will make it easier for her.” I said, “Yes, okay.” The syringe went in.
It had fallen upon me to decide whether or not to give her a chance to revive; two years ago I had said let’s wait, everyone agreed, and she revived. And told more stories. But this time a sense of finality had come over us, the hovering angel of death had been allowed to descend. People justify with all sorts of reasons end-scenes such as this; ours was: old age, it’s time. Leading busy lives, we had little time for her and had grown weary of waiting. And it was quite apparent that the home needed another bed.
I don’t want to wallow in guilt, nor do I wish to excuse myself. I’ve learned irony and I wish simply to record the death of my mother. And to remember her a little, allow that other world to tug at me before it’s completely vanished.
I went to stand at the door, before me this scene at her bedside, behind me the long empty corridor bright with a fluorescent sunshine reflected cheerlessly off the yellow walls. My two sisters were beside the bed on one side, my cousin and my wife Jena on the other, and at the foot sat Mariam, the woman who came to help her for one hour every day. She would not have missed this finale. She had earned it. My two brothers, both out of town, had yet to arrive.
Mother’s face looked surprisingly radiant, as she lay under a blanket breathing in shallow rapid gurgles, the air making its tortured way through her congested trachea. An oxygen tube ran under her nose. She had been returned from hospital at my say-so and upon the ER resident’s recommendation. Was it worth, after a few hours of lying on a gurney in a hospital corridor, putting her through the extra ordeal of an insertion up her nose to clear her breathing passages? “We’ll take her back, then,” I pronounced, after a moment’s hesitation, feeling only slightly coerced with a tightness in the stomach. The resident, a young woman, had looked relieved. It was two in the morning, and more stretchers had queued up in the corridor.
Her breathing became lighter, and the four women in the room, at Mariam’s practiced instigation (“She’s ready to go”), began chanting fervently all together—Allahuma salli ala …— their faces pinched, their eyes lowered, swaying backward and forward. The room filled up with the chorus. God bless the Prophet, indeed, but my mother was having none of this. She was a stubborn woman. Her face, still radiant at her age, was composed, her lips were just open, and I swear I saw the familiar grim smile on her face, and I imagined her saying, I’m not going yet, you pray as much as you like. That voice. They gave up after a while and sat back cheerfully to chat. False alarm. I returned to sit down with them at the bedside.
In lowered voices we told stories about her, marvelled at her eventful life and resilience, her funny ways in the last couple of years; and we recalled stories about each other when we were young. This dying moment had brought us closer, we who had lived eight people to two rooms as children, but recently had so little time to see each other. She had gathered us, as we gathered around her when we were children.
That scene of my mother’s last hours in the nursing home lingers: the change in breathing, the frantic piety of the cheerleading, her refusal to go, and the resumption of chatter. This rigmarole was repeated three times, and each rehearsal it brought an irreverent smile to my face. Perhaps I was a bit hysterical in the circumstances and simply wished to laugh out my tension. What were the prayers for? I suppose—no longer believing in them—they were to ease the soul’s passage out; but it seemed more a way of pushing it through in a collective heave-ho: There you go, Mummy, no point sticking around; it’s going to happen, let it happen. Go.
We’ve become a practical lot in Canada. We like to do things with maximum efficiency and little fuss.
The gentle lines on her old-pretty face bore all the versions of her that I could recall over the years, one image impressed upon another. And as I watched her, the frantic prayers failing to coax her into leaving, I couldn’t help thinking, You show them Mummy! You’ll go when you are ready. Give me some time.
In the Indian tradition, sons look after their parents when they get old. They are also favoured. I, the second-youngest, was her favourite, her laal. So she would say to me. So I believed. She became a widow at thirty-three when my father died of a sudden heart attack. She never remarried; to do so— and she had good off , I know now—would have been to abandon her children to adoption. Others drowned unwanted infant girls in milk, our widows were asked to give up their children in order to remarry. She liked to tell the story of Shravan, the young man who would carry both his old parents on his shoulders to take them for their pilgrimages; one day in a forest he put them down to rest under a tree by a river, and as he stepped to the water and bent down to take a sip, a king who was out on a hunt mistook him for a deer and shot him with an arrow. I was never quite certain what the lesson was, but evidently Shravan was a devoted son, just as she was the devoted mother who had foregone a secure life with companionship for our sakes. When the great Indian epic Mother India came to town, she sent us all to watch it. She herself, minding her store, must have been the only Asian woman who never saw it. The story was about a widow who, despite her travails, and the harassment of lecherous men, brought up her boys as responsible, upright citizens in the new India.
One evening when we were all gathered in the sitting room, she as usual on her bed with scissors and cloth, the radio playing song requests, she said to me, “No, Karim, you won’t look after me when you’re grown up, you’ll just throw me aside.” I must have boasted of my undying devotion to her and therefore protested with all my ten-year-old’s indignation, “Of course I will! I will always look after you, Mummy!” To prove which I wrote down a note promising precisely that: When I grow up I will always look after Mummy. And I signed it, and she put it in her bosom with a smile. My promissory note, my hundi. But at twenty I went to America to study and we never lived together again. I wonder why she let me go, using all her savings for the plane ticket; and I wonder where my note ended up. It was never mentioned again in my presence, perhaps out of kindness to me.
In Toronto, no matter who else had visited her, if her laal had not arrived yet, she would observe, simply, “No one came, today.” And when I walked in, she’d announce, “Look, Karim has arrived.” To any nurse who happened to be around, she would proudly point at me: “My son.” Inevitably my wife Jena, if she was with me, would complain afterwards, “You see! She didn’t even notice me,” and with sinking heart—for I had hoped she hadn’t noticed—I would explain, “She is old.” I have often wondered, Why do we take abuse from our children yet not tolerate an aged parent’s slightest oversights?
She had been practically bundled off to the nursing home by Naila and Firoz. One Sunday I saw her in her apartment, frail but on her feet, and she made me tea. The following week she was in a wheelchair by her bed in the home, looking dazed in an alien world, her lips compressed. She didn’t speak a word. This was not what she had consented to. Later, often, she’d pronounce, “It’s a prison.” A qaid-khano. She who had always been independent, negotiating a man’s world. And so it was hardly surprising to come upon her once in a while saying, “Send me back to Dar es Salaam, I can look after myself.” She would have stayed up half the night nursing this resolve and making her plans. We would laugh and cajole, “Mummy, you can’t even get up from your wheelchair!”
It was not a bad place, the home; it was clean, and the dining room was small and not crowded; the corridors were not crammed with old folks drooling or crying, as in the other places we had seen. But which nurse attended her on any given day was the luck of the draw; there were some who were kind and called her mother, and others who could easily have stood guard at a concentration camp. The home was there to break you if you had not already given up the will to live. When I saw Mother being heaved by two strong nurses into the cradle of a machine to be lifted like a sack, I wanted to run down the corridor and scream. Nobody deserved this. I was never around again to witness this sight.
We can recall hardships, existence at disaster’s edge when every penny counted, moments when the elder siblings fought so viciously that Mother, in desperation, threatened to walk away to the sea, less than a mile away, and drown herself. No, Mummy, please! We’ll be good! Don’t go. Moments when she simply sat down and beat her chest raw and wept. Yet none of us would now say our life was unhappy. We fondly recall the best parts, are aware of the bonds we formed, and would rather not pause to examine the scars. We had been sent to school and in the end survived and thrived. She on the other hand ailed and decayed, became gradually alone and unhappy, unwanted—and was finally relegated to the nursing home to break and die.
I recall her sitting on her high stool behind the counter of her corner shop, looking over the two doorways, brooding, picking her chin. After many experiments she ended up specializing in children’s clothes; the customers were our African neighbours. Except for a few days at every month’s end, and during the month of Ramadan, business was slow. Over the fifteen years she ran the shop, she spent all her capital, which was the small insurance benefi she had received after my father’s death, but we all completed high school. Two of us went to university. Mother herself had quit school after grade six, because, as she told the story many times, her father withdrew her, saying, What’s the use of so much learning? She had cried. She could have been a teacher, like the ones I had in my early years, who had barely two years more of schooling than she.
There are things about our parents’ lives that we are not equipped to notice until we ourselves grow up and they hit us, stark epiphanies. Then we see the darker side of the world we came from. Of the few hundred shops run by Asians in our town, hers was the only one run by a woman. A young, pretty widow with small children and little money. Years later when she let slip a remark, I realized the obvious, that it was a man’s world she had negotiated through, facing the sly comment, the lascivious look, the obscene suggestion when she was late in her instalments to the collectors who came by every so often. She always took me or my younger brother with her when she went to purchase from the wholesalers, and later when we were barely in our teens she sent the two of us on our own to deal with the men. She faced the humiliation of having to ask the tailor next door to mind her shop so she could go upstairs to our flat to use the toilet, the rest of us being in school. Early every morning she cooked our dinner, and sent us off to school. She opened shop at eight in the morning, closed at six in the evening. At night she sat on her bed and did her cutting from the patterns she carried in her head, occasionally she’d bring out the ledger book and invoices. Her older brother, Kassam, had taught her to keep books the Indian way.
Sitting there she would tell us about her childhood in Mombasa, which had been hard, or her marriage in Nairobi, where she had been happy, barring the initial abuse every new daughter-in-law received. Her first achievement was to pay off all my profligate father’s debts. On a few delightful occasions she casually came up with English words none of us children had heard before. Affidavit. Mortuary. And off someone would run to bring the Oxford pocket dictionary to confi . Yes, Mummy does know English! Better than us!
Some Sundays we would take the unpaved back roads to the new suburb of Upanga where my grandmother lived with my uncle Kassam and his family, and in the evenings we would return via dimly lit downtown streets sucking on ices we had bought on the way. And years later, when both my sisters were married and Firoz was away, minding a relative’s store at Kenya’s lonely but dangerous border with Somalia, Salim and I would play three-handed whist with our mother.
She had always missed my father. Standing at our doorway during Firoz’s wedding, the bride and groom being received the morning following the wedding night, there had appeared sudden tears in Mother’s eyes. Why are you crying, Mummy? You should be happy! And she’d say, I wish he were here. As a widow she could not perform the ceremonies required of a mother, so Naila took her place. She saw him in dreams, wearing a suit, when he would pronounce something short to her: How Firoz has grown. Pay the electric bill, dear. But as the years passed she did not mention dreaming of him, or we didn’t ask. Too much was going on in our lives, final examinations, universities, sad departures, marriages.
In the nursing home, however, she saw him a few times. But our dad was now a distant memory, and her own memory was weak. What would he tell her? What she saw clearly, however, was an evil man who took away children and kept them prisoners. Where did he come from?
It was immigration that undid her, stole her away from her simple world where she was mistress and made her a prisoner in another. She became useless, a dependent, a victim. Conditions in East Africa in the 1970s intimidated many of its Asians into leaving, and Firoz was one of those who chose to go to Canada, having recently married. He and his wife set off for Vancouver and Mother followed, all three to begin a new life together. Three months later when I called her from my grad student apartment in New York, she broke down. What’s wrong? There was a parrot. What parrot? A parrot can’t hurt you, Mummy! Her voice was thick. She said she felt abused and she wanted to go back home. What went wrong?
She was lonely, she was hungry. There was no one to talk to. If they spoke to her they scolded her. She was crying and I could not console her. The next day she was calmer but sounded hoarse and remained adamant, she wanted to return. I advised Firoz that we should do as she asked, send her back to Salim in Dar es Salaam. He did not argue. A week later when she departed, I came rushing by overnight Greyhound to meet her in Toronto, where she had a stopover. I had last seen Mother back at home, a person of some stature, the caregiver who had brought us all up and could still hold her own as a seamstress; who had sent me abroad for my education, using all her savings for the ticket, and Salim locally to the medical school. The woman I saw at the airport gate that hot July afternoon was someone else. A woman broken—face crumpled and tearful, eyes wide with confusion, hair dishevelled—utterly defeated. Before emigrating, someone had advised her to replace all her teeth with dentures, which would be expensive in Canada, and she had foolishly done so and gained ten years; she was wearing the warm woolen coat she had saved from her younger days in Nairobi, and now she had to take it back with her and there was no room in her luggage. I can’t recall with what feelings I embraced her, clichés come to mind, but that memory of her emerging out of the gate at the airport, looking grotesque and barely recognizable, stops my breath. She was fifty-five, younger than most of us now sitting beside her, egging her on to do her bit and die.
What was it about the parrot, I asked her once, some years later. “She was feeding her parrot all the time but told me I was eating too much.” Her imitations of my sister-in-law Saida, cooing at her parrot, “Here, parrot, eat your foodie …” were actually funny. Mother spoke her mind easily. She came from a place and time where every morsel was counted, and did not understand spending resources on a pet.
A few years afterwards Mother returned to Canada with Salim, the last one to emigrate. Not happy in Calgary in the basement of his large doctor’s mansion, she moved out. It was a mistake. Salim, hinting at his circumstances at home, told me, “If she moves out, she will not be able to return.” Why? I wanted to ask. She’s your mother! But the rejoinder was obvious, she was mine too, what was I doing about her? I preferred to live in downtown Toronto in a house too small; she would not have managed the stairs. I would have to convince my family that we should move. Excuses apart, I should face this, I had lived away from her for too many years.
But she did move to Toronto eventually, to her own apartment before ending up here.
The doctor comes, gives a quick look around the room, then lands his gaze on my mother. “Did you give her the morphine?” he asks. A middle-aged Chinese man, his hair is ruffled.
There’s no expression on his face. The Filipina nurse who followed him in has gone around to the other side of the bed. “Yes,” she says. “The family consented.” “We should increase it,” the doctor says. He could be checking inventory. He turns around and with a quick nod towards me leaves. We have an understanding.
I had already signed a guardian’s consent not to revive her unless advised. But morphine is that extra step to ease her into death, because we’ve decided against inserting a tube through her nose to help her breathe. She would hate it, I am certain. She would say, I don’t want to live under such conditions. But would she mean that? Did she understand the consent when I explained it? Had I even explained it clearly enough? The morphine seems the right decision to make, we would make it for ourselves if we had to. Still, that doubt remains, to niggle at the mind. Isn’t this too easy? Haven’t we been in a hurry all along? I don’t want to be the one to give the fi go-ahead, Yes, more morphine, let’s gently push her off, but I am the son present, the decision is mine, and the rest are all happy for me to make it. They’re waiting, eyes upon me. It’s all right, it’s what she would have wanted, but you decide. I look at the nurse and give my nod.
She’s calmer, breathing steadily. Mariam, the companion, starts the prayers again. A diminutive woman, much smaller than the others, she carries the authority of experience and piety. Her open palms come together in front of her, her face pinches, and her eyes close. The others follow suit, the heads drop, the chorus begins, Allahuma salli ala … Mariam’s approach has always been practical: Your mother is waiting to go; not, We should make her happy and understand her. When Mother imagined the bogeyman who captured young people and held them prisoners, Mariam advised me that the mind was gone, and the old woman would follow soon. But the mind was not gone. My mother would smile when I came, her face would gradually light up, then we would chat. Sometimes about that bogeyman. I understood exactly who it was that was following her even into death.
My second sister, Safia, made it up to high school graduation, when suddenly Mother convinced her to accept a proposal and married off the eighteen-year-old to a man fifteen years older. Why, when she knew that his first wife had left him only a couple of weeks into the marriage? He was of a wealthy family, and they made promises … they would take care of Safia’s education, give her a better future than our mother ever could … and perhaps she hoped that her lot too would improve? But he was abusive, and all the promises made to us were quickly forgotten. Weeks after the wedding he hit her for not ironing his shirt properly. Mother never forgave herself. An eighteen-year-old given away just like that. My sister could have refused the proposal, but she was young and also swayed by the promises. She could have divorced him, but she stayed for the first child, who came a year later, then the next two.
This, the bogeyman who stole children.
The prayer stops, Mother keeps going. But she has slowed down. Everyone’s noticed, and there’s a hush in the room. The nurse has already gone.
Mum, you should see New York, I’ll take you there! You’ll be wowed—do you know there’s a building there with more than one hundred storeys! Go on, how can that be. Really! If you say so. And I’ll show you my university! All right.
She seems to have surrendered. “All right, it’s time,” someone says. And again the prayers begin, more frantically. I stand up and put my hand on her chest. My awkward goodbye. If only I could have expressed my love more obviously. But you knew it, Mum. I was the laal, after all.
There comes a commotion from outside, an unusual activity breaking the silence, and a few minutes later my brother Salim breezes in with his daughter. Officious as always—the doctor—he asks, “What’s up? She’s on morphine?” We nod. He goes and puts his hand on her head. She stops breathing.
An hour later, two young men and a woman from our Funeral Committee arrive and take over. We don’t have to do a thing, they’ll make all the required arrangements. We shouldn’t go near the body, we’re warned, she’s theirs now. We should all go home and rest. How can I complain when it’s all so convenient and easy? That’s how it is, the dead dispatched swiftly and anonymously with a minimum of fuss and ritual. They’re history. The next day at noon is the funeral. There are two of them, someone else has also passed away. The two funerals are perfectly orchestrated, like a military parade, and the Committee has sternly admonished the women not to weep. We believe in the spirit, not the body, is the line. And finally the short procession to the cemetery, way north of the city, snow squalls blowing around the graves. It’s vast, the size of a small town, each ethnic group to its own suburb with distinct headstones. Ours, next to the Ukrainian area, are all the same compact size and austere, laid out in neat rows. The headstones are foot-square tiles laid flat on the ground, all with the same inscription, a prayer to God. No, says a member of the Committee, you cannot have your own inscription on the stone. They all have to be the same, it has been decided. Your mother’s number is 1499.