Each page is turned to enter grief’s accounts. Mother
I see a hand. Tell me it’s not God’s. Let it die.
I see it. It’s filling with diamonds. Please let it die.
Are you somewhere, alive, somewhere alive, Mother?
Do you hear what I once held back: in one elephant’s
cry, by his mother’s bones, the cries of those
elephants that stunned the abyss? Ivory blots out the elephants.
I enter this: The Beloved leaves one behind to die.
For compared to my grief for you, what are those of Kashmir,
and what (I close the ledger) are the griefs of the universe
when I remember you—beyond all accounting—O my mother?
Agha Shahid Ali, from “Lenox Hill”, Rooms Are Never Finished, 2001
Aabid to this day remembers vaguely the way his feet dangled goofy
—still remembers his Velcro shoes between the legs of his chair when his grandfather
had him rise to see his mother in her hospital room. Though this was before Dada jaan’s beard was filled full with snow, Aabid was too young at the time to remember him as anything but a Samarkand snowman age packed on thick. They entered with Aabid’s younger brother a few strides behind, nurses hurried about
closed a few curtains to conceal a lady making some of the most horrible sounds Mom had ever heard: Aabid, having been only 4, only truly remembers with reflexive independence: his mother in the contiguous station
she cried beautifully, supine; champagne Dad brimming over grinning, awash at her feet with his busy arms all bubbles. and two fresh twin girls on either side of the bed. Aabid considers this memory foggy
as in the memory plays like a summarized version of what it was, but with a haze that patchwork-quilt no character in the memory accounts for in their actions. stitched pastiche from cozy flannel afterthought, camcorder and oral family mythos.
When Aabid was 7 he had his first nightmare. At least
it was the first one he remembers. Fumes violently fled from the top of his family’s brownstone—burned like Jahannam into the creeping borders of his dream. And dream-Aabid watched on the curb, the whole scene flamed to edged bits while his nightmare’s grainy film reel self-conscious combusted. Featured in Dada umi’s intricate pheran bedight with paisley: fractals squirming, Dad akimbo. And with a third hand cupped palms with what might’ve been taaya, bearded still young but frayed as Aabid remembers him, only from the pictures, under the yelling eyes something sermonically
—too muffled to make sense of—at Aabid. His mother was crying almost silently to the twins, swaddled impossibly under her denim shoulders hovering with her sister mausi legless nearby, consoling lonely. Back in Real Time escaped from the sandman
for breakfast the next day Mom forsook the waffle iron in lieu of Eggo; Aabid’s urine-soaked sheets needed immediate attention.
At 11 Aabid saw his first R-rated movie with older friends. He still remembers when his mother found the ticket stub laundering
—her face’s implosive and succinct gymnastics during the washing-machine confessional
— Medusa eyes pervasive at the routine’s center setting everything in stone. And Mom was munificent enough with admonitions to render useless our hero Perseus. Disguised in genuine Aabid puppy-face he was nevertheless incapable of wrenching that single Graeae eye ransom. It wasn’t until afterwards that boy and Mom both cracked. Cracked under warranted but taken-too-far verbosity, wasn’t until turning to close his bedroom-door that—cracking also the boogeyman slit characteristic to the household, despite being old enough
—Aabid saw his mother’s face give. Her hands stole away her eyes trembling. As if they hid, or perhaps
were birds made anxious—stolen from flight. “Memory’s placed its hand so on Time’s face, touched it / so caressingly”…fast-forward to what only feel to Aabid like later that day: his mother acquiescing to Dad taking him et al to their first majlis, all dressed awkward to mourn Karbala; Karbala indicating the location’s metonymy with that which happened there on Muharram 10 in 61 AH. This all took place—remembered (memory’s powerful Maya) as the same day
around when Aabid began to realize his parents didn’t ever actually want to yell at him. That they too were fallible things in a world that had been theirs for longer than it had been his.
For a few summers, Aabid and his family would go to a lake in New Hampshire with a long Native American name that Aabid couldn’t pronounce. And so even now he can never recall it properly. Each time over all the following years that Aabid tried the name, he pronounced it slightly more wrong than the last. This continued to the point where, in his memory, it has stale slowly disintegrated into a pile of wrinkled syllables, like well-worn laundry old. But when everything was younger, his brother had even more trouble with the Native American nomenclature. For Aabid, one particular image of himself, age 15, with his family at the lakefront remains a mnemonic billfold print still un-ragged. Trying to reach some semblance of mutual understanding only minutes after settling the shore, Dad repeated the name over and over to Aabid’s brother who chucked the crumpled thing back
pieces of paper at Dad’s face turning intolerant slowly upside down, piece of paper chucking dogmatically forbidden; and matching-bathing-suits-young
the twins’ bottle-rocket faces went off with attempts at the name including syllables giggled akin to butt or poop (but maybe by accident once dick and once cunt) and Aabid’s father became adamant
couldn’t give up while the young boy carried obscene noises on unrelated to his father’s wholly—language games and bottle-rockets building, the momentum of Mom’s laugh crescendoing teary and boisterous guffawing until sunburn Dad stubborn, threatened to cancel 4th of July—Noah to a toe-squeezing monkey like
cut the disrespect, need I remind you why we’re on this arc in the first place…
I mean it—
swore he’d personally darken the Independence Day sky
…Prometheus wiping her eyes Mom distilled the torrent for her Deucalion children with a
seriously bookended between two unadulterated dismissals of air and condescension from the back of her throat, among other things. While she did this, the kids together issued their own refrain of harmonic derision swiftly—
unfair scowled and choral I hate you’s—in action and effect like the bite of the daimon Koros until
Dad sighed too, with a mushy
and the whole scene exploded once more. This image still makes Aabid very happy. Though they were on a summer vacation, never celebrated Christmas and Mom couldn’t knit, Aabid likes to imagine that this campfire memory fits like home might be said to fit. Like a goofy wool Santa sweater, made especial by his mother to be hand-me-downed—oxy-moronically cluttered with significant space.
Aabid’s family had reserved their seats for his college graduation right after he had matriculated. So if they were at Sea World they would’ve been in what’s-called the Splash Zone, Aabid remembers thinking. Can’t forget thinking actually. While the college gave out honorary degrees, the would-be soon-to-be
alright-already graduates sat on stage in tiered risers looking out into the audience. Aabid’s mother cried only a few rows back. And he still remembers having this thought: maybe it was himself in the proverbial Splash Zone, not his family. His mother continued to cry and looked down
—Aabid feeling each breadthless moment stretch expanding into longer moments; he felt this ~minute accordion into something bigger with his mother’s tears flowing proud, making everything slow like syrup-time sticky in a clepsydra; he felt bad for Splash Zone—for having such a trivializing thought about his mother at such a mature moment
Orcus towing him under oath, the pressure of 22 years of knowing-better encumbered atop his head; he felt thankful that Mom didn’t have to personally manage her own tears but, out there with Dad sisters brother, chose to do so nevertheless; he felt even worse all of a sudden, like an asshole for thinking about Sea World with the word proverbial. Ultimately, he remembers most feeling that the stage was maliciously still and hot
his subsequent Hell for this snarky manner of habitual ingratitude. Speeches wrapping up, Mom still dripping, Aabid—moist too as if flecks were crying cast boiled from an aspergillum—sweating because flung familial gazes function much like a clap-on for a conscience with the polite applause to preface the recognition of graduates and moving on…then it started:
names and names were read and corresponding areas of the crowd pixilated lit up to illuminate that-something-bigger. Acknowledge something of lore, something over all their heads not conceptual but physical, like how Aabid was physically struck idle
in awe motility stuck pinned by the covenant he was now accepting. As well as the one which was more ancient, the one which he had just broken. As is tradition: Mom is among The Women Defended Against Jest-Making Attempts Eternally. Shame for Splash Zone. Aabid accounted for jest and vain name-taking heavily enough to keep his anxious legs from jittering about the way the Dean may take his own name—remorse tied around Aabid’s head like a shitty lead balloon weighing him Davy Jones down. Like around the dinner table it was OK when one of his young sisters would make fun of the sounds Mom made when slurping yakhni
—they could make 99 some-odd names for the gurgly grottiness but
—it was Not OK—
Fun Shalt Not Be Made when Mom was brought up, for example: called 99 just wrong some-odd names by freshman-year roommates—at one time a mandatory subset of Aabid’s college buddies that finally faded into insignificance as, names called, they left the stage and Aabid’s life for good
faded like black eyes. Faded as Aabid remembers thinking, hoping it please would (Mom staring eyes drying slow): the intermittent applause. Or at least its expectation. So too did Utanapishtim’s birds gauge the receding tide. And though this inter-family jest-making seems less profane, Aabid remembers it vividly nevertheless, profanity clearly coming
splashing with a sense of profound delugical guilt. As he still can recall from that tireless moment sometime within which he accepted material proof of his merit—adrift in a sea of future, Repun Kamuy above breached in slow-motion doling tentative generosity, Friendly Floatees and diplomas to stave hunger—
soaking graduating memory drowned by that which is both killer and beautiful, like water.
Aabid went to Kashmir even though his parents had told him that this was something he definitely shouldn’t do, i.e. going to Kashmir was something they definitely didn’t want him to do. Things had gotten first better but then a lot worse since Aabid’s pregnant mother
—and each member of Aabid’s family (save the great-grandparents and senile second-cousins: rooted deep like Nanga Parbat)—left. Pregnant themselves with atavism
historicity weary and sacred white clean geo-politics—borders treated virginally all-the-more penetrated. They cited last straws pulling out
fed up. And none of his relatives had returned to Srinagar since. Not a single one homecome to the motherland since Lal Chowk; Lal Chowk indicating the location’s metonymy with that which happened there on April 10, 1993. Aabid’s memory of the event was that of events which pre-date one’s birth. Events whose recollection capitulates re-imaginings images of parents uncles aunts grandparents in the exact time manner space when the happenings happened; happenings carrying varied personally experienced effects. Like partition or Bangla Desh or the assassinations of John Lennon and JFK. With regards to Lal Chowk though poor young taaya
the effects have been such that none among Aabid’s Americanized kin even ever wanted to return to Kashmir (save Orpheus mausi whose fiancée—legendary for his smooth Oak-colored skin—disappeared in the chaos). So contexts provided for, sometimes it’s really difficult for Aabid to force himself to ignore what happened when he visited the gardens of Shalimar Bagh
when he went to Kashmir recalcitrant to his parent’s strict orders old enough. It was here that Aabid was directly confronted first-hand with the fragmented sloth of disturbing jarring things. Snowballing profound mechanisms with effects felt distorted, as concise, sharp and biting seemingly all-of-a-sudden. Really fucked up things—the things that shake taken-for-granted abutments in their nuclear wake take most of history to properly unfold. Despite the all-of-the-sudden violence of the loaded moment. The moment that feels sudden in which, see: the bomb’s suddenly ever-impending detonation without any consider time functional to stop it. So at the very first, piercing exclamations were made in at least three distinct languages. Throughout the next, simultaneous cacophony and silence
ear-rupturing paradox discombobulated: ducking fetal finding shaking shelter Aabid will never forget the dog that broke away from wounded handlers, their hands mangled by shrapnel like a garbage disposal. Poor dog ol’ fella—suffering akin to Aabid: loopy symptomatic failures of inner-ear and independence—motioned to bite frightened a masked militia-man. One who wielded rifle laterally by grenadier hip, crowbar also swinging high over head. He brought it down on the poor dog ol’ fella. More explosions
sacred stones hurled into the air before ol’ fella could do anything more than rise onto his hind paws. The crowbar’s first strike was only a delay and the poor dog was sent onto his side by that which is pent-up aggressive in heavy metals, again. Aabid can’t remember if he then tried to do something. Can’t even at least remember if he effectively tried to do anything, pleading with the masked man—the masked man who was lost wound tight around the crowbar gesturing silent raucous. He who hit the poor dog again before ol’ fella could rise. Aabid pleading more. Dog whining bleeding. Aabid wondering dysfunctional—he can’t even remember if he actually pleaded at all or if he was just so pressurized with pleas at the time that they all fell from his skin silent—through his goose-pimpled pores—emitted at frequencies audible only to dogs. But there was zero hope emitted from ‘ol fella: his one remaining ear emitting something else entirely more gruesome, real painstakingly—emitting something beyond English like a ghazal, both meanings
both the couplet-cry of Urdu poets and the stuff of universe death cornered gazelles wailing. The sticked-man angry man brought finality himself down on the ol’ fella again. And again. And again—Aabid’s pleas dampened under the volume of explosives like how the interests of B are subsumed by the immediate sensual primacy of the letter A. The man gave the mashed corpse one more go before he dragged it out of the garden upon exeunt. Casting poor dog ‘ol fella into the street, he hopped into the bed of a pickup truck. Aabid then did the closest he had ever done to nothing for a few long seconds
before his pale hands fumbled beside the Shalimar, remembering their body’s geographical disobedience and the cost of roaming charges. Before he remembers calling his mother. He was able to reach her at her office
—stumbling dreading, Aabid remembers the haunches of the pickup truck. The angry man in back heaving through potholes like Mom’s various speed-bump secretaries. When Aabid retold the happenings her voice skipped and he swore he could hear her tears all-of-a-sudden drip fall explode strongly, uncharacteristic. At the time neither knew about casualties nor grand consequences. And inactive Aabid paralyzed because there was just so much activity around him that it felt like it was all everything happening somewhere inside him, while his mother flooded over the phone listening soggy—so among other things Aabid’s balance, words and aldosterone suffered drunk. He only rambling considered his so much empathy for the poor dog, ‘ol fella, still
still in some idle style of perplexed shock. Rationalizing feelings irrational like maybe he didn’t have to feel bad about how he was dumb deaf wishing-blind to everything around him at the moment—thoughts with the ‘ol fella because maybe it was because animals with large eyes are cute—since human babies are comparably helpless and large-eyed, and cute—helpful evolutionarily for mature responsible adults to see their loving anaclisis as cute. But Mom didn’t know the dog like Aabid knew the dog and they had never had a dog—Aabid’s mother was crying and he felt sinking because really who gives a shit Aabid (Man Tus Shudi, Tu Man Shudi, Ta Kas Na Goyed, Man Degram Tu Degri, indeed!), Your Father and Myself forbade you…
bizarre to hear expletives blizzard from her over the phone. And also it was worse to hear Mom cry over such a distance fear—hearing her cry already bad (rare occurrences were previously, even in Aabid’s dreams, tallied at just five). Worse, much worse
—what is happening now Aabid? Go find help!—
sixth time proving this is much worse now than it had ever been in person. Predeceasing events all bundled up snowballing—to this day as it did then—still slow dynamo of altricial biography can make Aabid cry too. Neither he nor his mother will ever forget this.
An intern at Lenox Hill, Aabid worked reluctantly in the ICU entering the hospital from the entrance on East 77th at odd hours of almost all days. And most of almost all days Aabid entering at East 77th as he would a highway from a left-lane on-ramp—
once or twice birds were flipped with tropical language. One day his mother surprised him at work showing up smiles and brown-bags. She lingered after burritos to watch her son work
amidst the anxiety of the corridors was remarkably transparent with regards to her pride. Transparent like: a beaming ray, she would
nudge Aabid when trusted Hippocratic elders Helloed him in hallways or entrusted menial him with harmless tasks. Mom’s nudging measured on a scale valued from (1) to (3)—(1) being urgent, (2) wild and (3) violent. Note well: (1) when he effortlessly administered Panacea’s ibuprofen to the hypochondriac with a headache; (2) when Aabid hydrated a Dionysian ephebe with only an IV blessed isotonic for armaments; (3) when, a small child’s wounds stitched shut, he thwarted Moloch worshipping parents with just a passing-over of his hands, a needle and a thread. Aabid wasn’t as annoyed as he would’ve been only a few years earlier, though
—wasn’t as embarrassed with her laudations as he remembered from incidents in younger years, like Soccer games of seasons past but still present. Such praise, because of its source, was something he always sought then and something he still often seeks now. Also he remembers gratefulness, old enough. Feeling it that is. All of it—especially after one particularly impactful nudge. The two were approaching the elevator as an orderly and a nurse approached opposite, corner rounded wheeling man-on-gurney. Man-on-gurney they pushed through the elevator doors
—Aabid’s arm extended holding open doors to help maneuver the IV safely inside—
and man-on-gurney was Aabid’s rough equivalent in color, build and ostensible age, but with a shaved head. When their ride together was finished, those in scrubs recognized each other with nods indicating also the end of their lift’s muzak intersubjectivity. Cart wheeling squeaked over the border between elevator tile and flora rubber. When the doors closed the elevator lurched back upwards only slightly and Aabid still remembers her eyes when she nudged him, wet light like submersed saffron. But before mother and son reached their desired level, the return of her repose was promptly indicated
bugled regal into a Kleenex as if to triumphantly announce I love you.
An hour ago Aabid arrived obese with memory. The air is dense too heavy crunches—Aabid experiencing bittersweet tasting moves thickly like over-wrought madeleine. Surprise recent elopee, Aabid is here at his father’s funeral with new wife, judgment and stares. Feel these things:
this is right now happening
— Aabid is currently ~twenty minutes and two small packets of generic pocket tissues into the ceremony. Mom has predictably made it this far. And now it’s time for her eulogy. Neither Aabid nor his siblings thought to ask if she’d be OK for the undertaking. Assumed somewhere in her no-bullshit emotional solidity lay a soft-spokeness, capable of waxing eloquent in such moments. A gibbous moon for the in-laws, Mom’s ability was magic unchallenged. Especially now from the way she is mentally preparing to stand up, Aabid knows she’s ready—that she feels and feels acutely. And though they are seated separated, the eldest son pretends he experiences this assurance physically with his siblings somewhere in his spine. Because all of them, themselves mourning, witnessed Mom’s lamentations in leading-up moments. Sorrow whispered in the pauses of phone-calls, charaded during family dinner the night before. All evidence attestable to a kind of grief that, though healing, is subtler than Phoenix tears—Mom of the philosophy that feelings even the bad ones, she would say, are best felt so that we can properly feel them. For Aabid and his siblings there is currently zero question: sitting here he feels no need to consider whether or not Mom can stand up in front of all these people and speak into a microphone about his father, her husband. Though Aabid is currently weighing some odds as she walks—considering the chances she pronounces euology correctly and also briefly considering what the relatives may think. If despite their Americanization they will or will not have problems with the ceremony’s stark secularity. Or (because everybody confident, nobody has any idea what Mom plans to say) if open-minded but nonetheless Muslim aunts uncles grandparents cousins might not understand Mom’s deeply Indian regard for death. But this question isn’t taking hold–Aabid’s attention is now being kidnapped reminded what it’s like realizing imbecilically: of course, naturally she’s still feeling the feelings still, admittedly so: it really has been some time since Aabid last saw Mom cry. And Aabid is watching her step up onto up to the podium—tears abounding this already strange. And it is strange. Strange like, watch: the moon is falling from the sky strange. Aabid knows she won’t get through her eulogy dry as planned. But his mother is resolute. Aabid doesn’t doubt her even though she is at present all tears so if only to him she resolutely cries. The congregation is otherwise silent
but not a polite silence because palpable politeness isn’t as genuine as Holy Silence. Everyone is waiting on Mom’s first words and Aabid knows his mother is OK—has faith that things will work out. It’s unclear how much time has passed but Aabid’s mother: still yet to speak. And those in seats still don’t say anything. Still. No babies goo-goo from parents’ grasps in back bouncing back-corners either. And Aabid notices this and thinks: who would bring a baby to a funeral anyway? It’s just his mother crying an altogether different thing than when a baby cries, Aabid also thinks. This right here is saturated, feel it: sloppy and sacrosanct because the kingdom of Israel was delivered through Gideon in the dew drained from his fleece at dawn. Neither silly nor cute nor meaningless, this is meditative. Mom’s crying reduces to controlled sniffles, everything else is like what we mean when we talk about quiet
the un-reflexive present of that which is now. That which is known as grace—something effervescent wells in the crowd, corresponding to the pressures alleviate welling in now-sneezy Aabid’s mother and her slow sinuses easing
easing. Alleviate. Allowed to be patient—waiting nose is being wiped. A queen woeful Mom is still, left armed ready to justify her Right. That which commands sentient attention from quixotic multitudes walloped by grief—ready to beat a dead horse towards the enemy dragon, the dragon that imprisoned romantics captive breathing trite-smelling fire. All on a quest to lose that creeping cliché tail-car. All searching for feelings. And also something like infinite divinity
she is breathing before the beginning. Elephant footprints are the most supreme. And everyone present leans in to hear that ruminative sound which clears throats where rivers fall into the sea. She is starting
Will Newman is a graduate from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. Much of his recent writing has been influenced by his archival work on a project focusing on Agha Shahid Ali. For more information, please visit http://www.dhinitiative.org/projects/belovedwitness