Whenever I close my eyes I see her. Her ageing face, pleasant with a few incipient delicate wrinkles; her skin, dark against the resplendent multicoloured stole gently resting on her shoulders; her wizened eyes still bearing the same reprimanding look that she had always effortlessly maintained; her greying hair neatly tucked away under the pale black scarf, with a few protruding strands softly lapping at her brow; her cheerful disposition and her ‘always vigilant’ outlook on life. Now here she lies, withered and wasted, under the soil that constantly gnaws away at her bones; her throbbing heart had finally come to rest, her muscles have renounced the battle, her limbs lie unconstrained and her body tranquil.
It was a sombre March morning when I became aware of it, 19 March 2006 (two years ago today) to be precise. A forlorn mist ominously hissed past the damp and empty Greenwich streets. It seemed colder than usual. The car’s windshield had been frosted with a thin coating of ice and my friend Abdi, drove along the A406 with extra care. I gazed out the side window into the early morning mist; the yellow sun’s lingering rays were slowly emerging, with a few fragmented beams that thawed the thick fog on the bare-branched trees along the road and far into the fields. The fields themselves seeped of insipidity and a motionless mist had cast a permanent gloom over the grass. I was on my way to the airport that Sunday morning when I received the call that changed my life as I had previously known it. ‘Unknown’ said the little screen as my hand hesitantly held it up and answered it. A crackling noise, with half unintelligible words and half drowned by the fading signal, greeted me on the other end. My brother Mursal’s voice it was, I recognised. And though indiscernible it may have been, the message was deafening clear. She had passed away; my aunt Maryan.
Ever since I became aware of my surroundings and was able to determine right from wrong, I remember her as always being there – a statue-like figure, imposing in its appearance, permanently ingrained in my mind’s eye so that it constantly stared down at me like a silent sentinel. Like a majestic tree in its full glory she once towered over my life. Not like the trembling Aspen whose lithe frame and slender branches sway with the slightest breeze; nor like the beautifully soaring Beech with its vivid mosaic of colours and a canopy of foliage that falls off at the hint of autumn, but like the mighty Oak whose sturdy trunk and rigid roots, though furrowed with age, stand strong in the face of unsettled seasons. Such was her character – bold, brash and dominating. Now, drained and debilitated, the mighty Oak has, at long last, given in. Its broad leaves have now wilted and finally dropped; its inflexible branches, that once sheltered a variety of life, have now shrunken and its strong roots have shrivelled.
Along with the frost and mist, time too had frozen. The seconds slowly gave way to minutes and minutes to hours; faintly the tarmac rolled, like a giant carpet that was being pulled smoothly beneath me in slow motion; the wind howled past at great speeds; horns blared and brakes screeched, but I was benumbed by the news and deaf to the noise, and quietly insentient and oblivious to my surroundings. Her face had covered my horizon – her image draped itself on the canvas of motorway signs, her words chimed and swam soothingly in my ears and my mind relapsed to a time many years ago when I left her.
Had it not been for a broken leg and the bouts of illnesses she had suffered a few years prior to her death, no age could wither her nor slow her down. At 66, she could walk faster than any man her age so her death was a bolt from the blue. Having grown from toddler to a man under her care, my entire life revolved around her. My parents, nomadic pastoralists, have entrusted me into her care at the tender age of five. So I was beholden to her for things too many to mention, but before I could be of any service to her and repay the kindness of her guardianship in my childhood with compassion and care, we became separated as I left for England.
And as distance makes the heart grow fonder, everyday life’s little pleasures had started to dwindle without her presence to illuminate them. And now, all life’s subtle joys and attractions have abruptly been terminated when that stream of consciousness was ended by her death. The cool shade of the oak had been lifted and the cloud that constantly overshadowed and sheltered me from life’s trials, even in her absence, had, in that very instant, disappeared – it felt as if she had entered into a deep slumber, taking all she’s ever given me along with her. Know my Aunt, that the caravan awaits and I am coming too…
My mind now solemnly gravitates towards the lost stream of consciousness; towards the unattainable past. Her malevolent scolding has now mellowed down to a mellifluous melody with a tuneful, comforting resonance. And her memory leisurely lingers to fill me with hope. The Mighty oak may have withdrawn its branches and departed with its abundant shade but it has dropped its acorns, and from among these acorns another mighty oak shall soon grow…