A friend once told me when I was going through a tough time that nothing is permanent. As a person of faith I know not even death is permanent. That piece of advice has helped me when I stumble into fits of melancholy. I remind myself when I’m having one of those days where despite my best efforts, sadness or frustration or anger keeps blocking my path, that this day won’t last forever. But one thing I have also learned is that once you lose someone, the grief over that loss never leaves.
After my mother died, I was sad, of course. The permanence of her absence made me feel hollow. I had never really known how to talk to my mother, but suddenly that was all I wanted to do. I yearned for just one more conversation, just one more time to hear one of her rambling stories that never seemed to have any beginning or end. I would really listen this time. I would ask the right questions that would reveal something of who she was before the nervous breakdown that changed her permanently. I grieved over what was too late, what could not be brought back.
I have seen this grief that lives in me take on many forms. Sometimes it’s gentle as a sleeping baby’s breath on your neck. Its warmth tickles me, a remembrance of the way she girlishly covered her mouth when she smiled or the way she ended every phone call with, “All the best in the world to you.” Sometimes it’s invasive like a fist in my throat, fighting to breathe, pain touching every nerve in my body. Most of the time it passes through like an unexpected summer breeze but sometimes it stays on long past its welcome and I have to shoo it out the door.
I have a picture of my mother with the three of us, me in her lap oblivious to the camera, my older brother tugging on her forearm as she tries to reach out to my sister who has her hands at her temples like she’s having a migraine or trying to fix her hair. We all have our mouths open like we’re yelling. It’s my favorite picture of us and I keep it framed on the top shelf of my bookcase. I found my five-year-old son looking at it once. His eyes on the photo, he said, “I miss her, even though I never knew her. I wish I had known her.” I had to turn away quickly and pretend to look for something in the pantry so he wouldn’t see me cry. I smiled at the tenderness in his voice. It was a momentary grief that stung but cooled my veins with its sweetness.
Sometimes the grief terrifies me with its intensity. It brings me to a dark, silent place. I imagine it like a murky pool of water, so deep I can’t see the bottom, so thick I don’t think it has one. It grows arms of guilt and shame and paralyzing self-doubt as I harshly criticize myself as a mother, a partner, a daughter, etc. I don’t know why it manifests itself like that but I think it must be the same monster that took some of my mother’s spirit. I am afraid sometimes that it will pull me under too.
In those times I find it helpful to write out my pain in my journal, no matter how ugly my thoughts are. I write feverishly for pages and pages until I can breathe easily and I feel light, almost dizzy. I close my eyes and remind myself that Allah loves me, that He created me with His love and mercy. I remind myself, as the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him has told us, that Allah’s love for me is greater even than my own mother’s. That love gives me the light I need to pull myself out of the dark and return to the surface. The grief never leaves but I welcome it for the light I know it will eventually bring.
Read more by Ambata, here.
Ambata Kazi-Nance is a writer and teacher living in her hometown New Orleans, LA with her husband and son. She is a member of the Melanated Writers Collective, a group for writers of color in New Orleans. She writes for Azizah magazine and Grow Mama Grow, an online community for Muslim mothers. Her short story “Rahma” was recently published in Mixed Company, a collection of fiction and visual art by women of color in New Orleans.