“Our mourning, our letting ourselves grieve over the loss of loved ones
is an expression of our commitment, a form of communication and communion…
Love invites us to grieve for the dead as ritual of mourning and as celebration.”
– Bell Hooks, All About Love: New Versions
The morning is a membrane of black, pulsing stars and police sirens in the distance. It is just after 4 AM. My flight takes off at 6 AM. The dawn air swells with the warmth of summer and my heart constricts with the anxiety of leaving you. I knock on your door to say goodbye. You will head to the hospital later. I am headed to an ocean city. You walk me to the door, give me a hug, and your usual parting words. Utiphatse kahle. Carry yourself well.
You die a few months later.
I have not stopped dying since.
This was 10 years ago.
Earlier that day, I pester you for your wedding band. That plain gold ring is of you. I do not know you without it. I am overcome by an inexplicable fervent need to have it with me. You give in, and pull it off with much strain and place it in my hand with great annoyance and love. It is as if I knew I needed a material part of you to carry with me. A material part that has been close to you, soaked up your heart, soaked up your tears to stay with me after you have gone. I will hate myself a few months after your funeral when I accidentally lose your ring down the gaping mouth of a sink. I still hate myself for that and more.
Grief aggrieves me daily. How can it be so hollow but push at every corner of you and fill you to the brim with its empty fullness? It empties out of me every time I think of you, of what I lost, of what I am yet to lose. This hollowness is lodged in me, grown into a nameless fetus that I carry but no one acknowledges. A fetus that I sometimes disregard too while my back bends from its heaviness.
I am the aftermath of a mother who did not want me and a father who left. I am learning to embrace this aftermath the same way you embraced the death of your husband, my grandfather.
Did you collapse in his arms when you crossed over?
Do you take walks in the colours, where he places kaleidoscope flowers in your hair?
I do not even remember what your favourite colour is. Please forgive me. I would like to think it is green, and not the black you had to wear for three years after he died. A widow. Yet you wore it so gracefully, it may have been attire to mark your loss. But for you it symbolised one who loved long enough until death.
It is this long love that continues to burn a path at my feet and fires through the friends I have made.
How did you love so much and have any left for you?
Did we love you enough enough?
Were you loved the way you wanted to be loved?
How does love feel in the afterlife when love itself is your actual world? It must hang low off every tree or grow abundantly as the purple grass that tickles your feet. Are there really fields of gold where you roll around all day and the sun makes you gold too? I know there cannot be days in a place where time is no longer a determinant. Where winter never comes and spring sits at your doorstep. I hope this is true.
I cried the other day. I cried because I saw your face in a reflection. You were looking at me through the face of an old woman I do not know. Sometimes I look for you in the faces of people: this is how I keep you here. I cried because the memory of you ebbs away and settles in my belly as an ache, that sculpts itself into permanence. My body grieves you beyond itself. My grief subjects my body to devastation akin to your cancer. I heard people can die from a broken heart. A broken heart in its purest form is grief. Will my grief take me the way cancer took you? Some days, I wish it would.
I measure my life before your death and after your death, Grandma. Your death is the semi-colon of my life that has made it exist in two doomed separate clauses. As I continue to write me into existence, I gather sentences that serve to remember me through you. The grief hinders me by never failing to remind me how my book looked when you were part of its pages. But I continue, placing words on paper in hopes that I will find healing in the hard corner of an L, or the unoccupied middle of O, or the piercing chalice of V, or in the two chambers of E.
You will scold me for this, but I have not prayed quite right since you passed on. Since you were in hospital. The walls in my dorm room know how many times your name melted from my mouth in hopes to reach the sky. Yet my prayers floated in the air like poorly pleated paper planes, that feign a strong flight upon lift off but never pierce the sky high enough to reach the blue of heaven, in order to touch the ears of deities so they could keep you here. Instead, they drooped to the floor, with a slow bruising; I rushed to catch them before gravity laughed at their fall. I have kept each prayer and tucked them behind my throat. They launch from my tongue every time I say your name but now they reach heaven, because you are the destination. You existed to wield prayer like incantations, from a spell book, binding me to creation’s grace. Maybe that is why I do not pray as hard anymore—my prayers will never have the same torque, the same forwardness as yours.
Do you see God some days? I have always wondered about him when we die. Where does he go in himself to meet his children’s brokenness? Does he have to die daily, to bury our pain, fold it into small blossoms he uses to decorate his own grave? Did he cry when Jesus wept? Does he care even? Maybe we are our own gods, I know this to be true because you crocheted provision like a god.
As you can see, I have many questions since you left. The only answer lies where you are. I have read about death since you to get answers, to understand—sometimes I die in my dreams and wake to die again while the sun bakes the day. We begin to die, the moment we are conceived, says Zakes Mda, so with my every inhale and exhale, I am nearer to you than when you left. It is such a sharp observation: dying is inside us, intercalated in our DNA, replicated with every mitotic separation. Every day we wake up, we survive death. It leads us more than breathing.
I am sorry to disturb you in your unending nirvana with all these questions. It has been a decade yet it feels like you were here yesterday scolding me for not warming the milk in your tea long enough. As time passes, I am scared I will forget the thunder of your voice or the lightning of your kindness. This is why I hope you become one of the many selves I hear in the middle of me some days. Some say those voices are our creator guiding us, but why not our ancestors’ voices? There is a distance created by the word ancestor, as though it can only be those we are descended from that were already ghosts when we were born, but you are an ancestor I know, an ancestor I experienced—why would I not bow in the presence of your love now that you too have become light as air?
A boundless sky parts us now. Some days I grieve you to keep you here. The more I grieve the more tangible your memory feels. I grieve you to remind myself that my ability to love respires still, even if I do not feel it. After ten years, I imagined it would be better, but I find myself wading in denial one moment, the next bargaining, at times a seething anger, a slither of acceptance some days but it has mostly been depression.
After ten years, I imagined I would feel you less, but my sadness and joy are mere replications of all your teachings. You were sedulous in how you loved me; I will be the same in how I grieve you until my heart returns to the death and silence of my conception because this grief is me now.
Zanta Nkumane is Swazi writer, journalist, and ex-scientist living in South Africa. His work has appeared in the Mail & Guardian, OkayAfrica, This Is Africa, Huffington Post SA, Genderlinks, Rape Crisis Blog, Racebaitr, The Johannesburg Review of Books, City Press, Kalahari Review and New Frame.