A Letter to my departed Grandfather
It’s been a long time coming.
In the winter of 2014 I left my home in Glasgow and travelled down to London to live with you and grandmother for a while. That ‘while’ stretched into five months that saw the bitter British winter, milder there than anything I’d experienced in my home country of Scotland, fall carelessly into a chilly spring.
Those five months were, and remain to this day, the happiest months of my life. I was nineteen years old, universally recognised as a difficult age for a young woman, regardless of her background or the time period in which she lives. To be a young woman suffering from something that you also suffered as a grown man after the death of your father and my great-grandfather so many years ago, something that in those days was surrounded by an even higher caliber of stigma than it is today, did not help matters. To belong to a culture that, for all its merits, did not encourage talking about or even acknowledging depression and mental illness probably did not make it easy for you-and it would have been so much harder if you hadn’t had my devoted and loving grandmother by your side. The horse tranquilizers the doctors of that time gave you were the only thing they could do to ease your pain.
You married my grandmother, a woman who has indelible strength rooted within her. No tragedy could weaken her caliber. She was exactly what you needed-and you, with your gentle, rational presence, measured words and utter kindness, were always perfect for her.
I come from a family whose inhabitants are scattered among all corners of the world, whether by necessity or design. My brother left home at sixteen. My parents divorced when I was a teenager. The love, respect and appreciation I saw between you and my grandmother is unparalleled with anything I have ever seen before. I can’t help but think that if I can feel such pain at your passing, having only truly known you for half a year-living so far away, the most time I had with you were a few annual visits-that your wife of fifty years, the love of your life, must be going through unimaginable torment. The respect I have for her, and her patience, is impossible to measure and cannot be expressed.
When I lived with you, all the hurt that I had felt up to that moment; the divorce, the responsibility that fell on me as the eldest after my mother left, my failure to complete the second year of my journalism course due to depression, the arguments, the isolation I felt despite having so many friends around me as I descended into something dark and impenetrable which spiraled into an attempt on my own life, all culminating in me taking a clean break for it all and come and live with you-all of that vanished like an old sheet being thrown out to make way for the freshly laundered.
I have never felt so taken care of in my life. Sometimes, I almost wish I hadn’t experienced it-the fear that I never will again engulfs me from time to time.
Well, dear grandfather, I did not realise until a few days ago, hardly two months after you left all of us, how much I miss your existence. I have never experienced the death of someone close and yours is undoubtedly a hallmark, a guiding compass that will point me towards the tunnel of loss that every one of us passes through at various moments in our lifetimes.
The last night that you spent on this earth is etched into the back of my eyelids, not least because besides the nurses coming in to monitor your hospital bed every now and then, I was the only witness for all of it. You suffered, grandfather. Your breathing was heavy, laboured, and painful to listen to for the twelve hours that I did as I sat at your bedside. The wheeled table upon which had sat fruit and flowers was my makeshift desk as I inscribed the cryptic symbols of Teeline shorthand over and over again-practice for an exam I was to have in a few days. An exam I had failed twice, before I came to live with you, that they said was vital for any journalist who was serious about their profession, that I spent months after practicing as both you and my grandmother showered me with prayers, and love and encouragement and good, healthy, traditional Pakistani food.
After your funeral, after arriving back in Glasgow, one year later than everyone else who had been in my year, I passed that test.
And after you passed away that morning, I didn’t have time to grieve. I stood by your coffin, probably the only dry eye in the room. I don’t recall feeling any heart in my chest for the next few days. Where was the time? So many people came to mourn your passing. Thousands passed through the doors of your home-so much so the flat opposite had to be borrowed for all those coming to pay their respects, a gazebo set up outside in the residential yard, chairs loaned from the mosque down the road and left there for weeks after. There were those who came all the way from America, Australia, Africa to bid you their farewells.
And of course they would. Carrying on the legacy of your own father, who was a journalist, an intellectual, scholar and excellent debater, you have achieved so much in your life.
Grandfather, for the last few weeks it has come to my attention, through the testaments and reaction of those who I love and who have come into contact with me, that I am breaking. That all the calm and coolness I had preserved during those sweet five months is slowly, surely tearing apart at the seams as I lash out at those who loved me, as I turned away to those who want to listen.
The biggest indicator that something is wrong is that for the last two months I have not been able to write-not as I used to, not in the way that reminded why I had fallen in love with the calling. I sit at my desk, my fingers typing, their movements dictated by ghosts longing for past things, until mere mimicry can no longer sustain the hollow words hanging limply against my peripheral vision.
But tonight, for the first time in a long time, for the first time in months, I am pouring my heart out to you, someone who has long departed from our atmosphere, someone who will never breathe the same air that is flowing in and out of my lungs. It’s strange isn’t it? I can express myself better to a dead person than to any of the living.
And perhaps this is the catharsis I needed and the way I should have done it before. Why drag the living with my dreams of the departed?
Now, I can’t help the tears as I remember you one crisp February morning, sitting on your special chair, it was designed for your back, and telling me that you thought what an annoying grandfather you must be to me, always making me run errands and make you the tea. I remember saying it was no such thing, and thinking how, even in your weak and sometimes confused state – you had survived a heart attack, pneumonia and a stroke at the same time the year before – you cared about my feelings. Why didn’t I express myself fully? Why didn’t I tell you how happy I was there? How much I had grown to love you, and all your eccentricities, your peaceful, ever smiling mien as you constantly cracked jokes and laughed heartily even in the fragility of old age? The way you, with the sharp tact of the most ethical diplomat, always came to my defense in the subtlest way if someone put me down in any way, or suggested my opinion was worthless, my position untenable, myself inadequate, even if it was a family member. The way we would discuss politics and history, whether of your adopted country, England, or those of your birth and childhood; India and Pakistan. The way you exacted a blanket of peaceful calm among the whole gathering no matter what tensions lay beneath the surface, and became the life of the party with your well-timed quips and anecdotes. The way you would let me sit in your chair, the way you would have me sneak you sweets without letting grandmother know, the way you would greet me so lovingly no matter how tardy I was getting up in the morning.
For me, these memories are static, unmoving in their warmth. Even now, as I write this in a darkening room, I have a fancy that if I just reach out my arms far enough, I will jolt awake into the blissful reality that was my life for those short, breathless five months. I will sit up on my sofa bed, blink as a sliver of sunlight streams in through the gap between the hazel curtains, hear my grandmother moving up and down as she cooks and cleans and says a few words to you or comments on the television and the ‘wretched’ political talk shows that you constantly watched with great gusto. I move through the day, watching as my grandmother teaches me to cook the aromatic, spicy food that made my taste buds water and you and your children smile in all your old photos, feeling the gust of fresh air sweep me forewords as I walk through the tree-lined park, feeding the swans gathering at the lake’s edge, breathing in the darkening sky and, after it starts to get chilly, come back home to a warm, lit house with a home-cooked meal and your smiles waiting for me.
Dear Grandfather, I am almost twenty years old, and although it seems you are slipping further and further away from me as time hurtles me on, I will never forget you. The impact you have had on my life, my thinking, everything, is highly unlikely to ever diminish. It doesn’t matter to me if one person or no person reads this. I don’t know if the dead can see their loved ones going on with their lives, but I never wrote a letter to you while you lived.
So as I write this now, don’t think of it as a belated epitaph or an elongated elegy.
Think of it as your oldest granddaughter making a promise.
A promise that from now on, whatever mistakes I make in my life, whatever hurt I feel or inflict, I will always think of you and remember your example, the peace that emanated from your soul to bask all of us in its soothing glow and I will do better.
I will try to right my wrongs, love as hard as you did, respect my fellow beings and take care of everyone as much you did.
I will work hard and focus on achieving something worthwhile. I won’t cry anymore or wallow in a grief that will never transport me to any place worth passing, that is impeding me from fulfilling the relationships and potentials of the life god that gave me to live. Remembering you, knowing you, feeling you, I, Haniya Khalid, daughter of your oldest son, will try my best to echo your life with the blood that thrums in my veins.
It is Tuesday, the tenth of August, 2015, 2am GMT.
My dear grandfather, your train left at different times for different people. For me, it is only just now, this very second, beginning to move. I see smoke rising from its old fashioned chimney, I hear the conductor’s last whistle piercing through the still air and your thin suitcase swinging casually in hand as you step on board. You only need to travel light.
Grandfather! Did you notice? I’m writing again. And I’m writing in the dark, not with fear or apprehension, but with the realization that at this time I will always be enveloped in the comforting softness that night brings. Thank you isn’t enough.
Before your train rounds the bend and disappears forever, let me say it now, let me shout it as I gaze at your smiling face leaning out of the carriage, as you wave cheerfully, as I return the gesture. Let me say it for the last time.
Grand daughter of Ata-ul-Karim Shahid