By FULLA ABDUL-JABBAR
“ —this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity,
human authority, yet contains, for all its
horror, something very beautiful.”
–James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
I thought about calling my mother to tell her that I think I might be depressed. That I have the usual symptoms. That I’ve crawled into a little hole that I can’t crawl out of. That I can’t remember the difference between today and yesterday. That I can’t think of anything to say to anyone. That I smile and ask over and over, How was that? hoping to deflect conversation from myself. That I can hear myself boring people. That I heard it once with her. That I sleep too much or can’t fall asleep. That I don’t reply quickly anymore. That I’m worried about stomach inflammation.
I call my mother, and she doesn’t answer. She returns my call later that night after work. She sounds happy to be home, and I hear her chewing on the phone. I imagine her slumped against the counter eating something bready—still in her gray scrubs and mint-green sneakers which now smell after twelve hours of dragging patients around the hospital. I decide against it. Another time.
An emptiness persists. I think I have misunderstood what it means to lose one’s mind. I have supposed that to lose one’s mind meant to misplace it. And usually in a place that reflects the nature of your insanity. Like the man who lost his mind in his obsessive need to regain his lost overcoat. You are still in control of your mind if you misplace it in this way. It was you, after all, who put it where it doesn’t belong, so it is possible for you to find again whole and return to its place. But now I think this loss has more to do with emptying. Your mind leaves you in an unpleasant leakage like vomiting in your hand. You are less concerned with finding and returning what’s lost than with stopping your mess from pooling around you.
A family trait. My knowledge of it is incomplete and speculative according to traditions of evasion.
A grandmother—who heard voices, no longer living. She did not love her children. None of them would grow to learn to love themselves. She never called. I never knew her voice.
My grandmother—known in her circle for her beauty and style, who graduated first in her sixth-grade class. We once sat together on a bench at a mall so she could rest after walking a little too far. She was teaching me how to speak elegantly with my hands and then pointed to a woman in a short black skirt and wedged sandals who flew past us with a confident, bouncing gait. I used to walk like her, she told me, I ran. After her double-knee replacement, she asked the doctor how long she would have to wait before she could wear a high heel again. I love her and my mother loves her, but my mother reminds me often that she was a child raised by a child. What could she teach me about life? my mother said.
My mother—My mother taught me that you should ask for everything in prayer. It’s wrong to assume that there is anything that you can achieve by yourself. To avoid the guilt accompanying the brevity of my nighttime ritual, I got into the habit of saying, as a refrain when I’ve run out of things to ask for, Please let her be happy. I wonder when her suffering will end. I don’t want to see her strength fade. She needs rest. This can’t be forever.
Something terrible might happen.
My great-uncle held a photo of strangers in front of me. They were his—and my grandmother’s—siblings. The photograph was taken from a curiously high angle, making me wonder about the shape of the house they were in. It seemed to have something like an indoor balcony. I remember a woman—one of his sisters—wearing a light-blue scarf gently draped around her head and shoulders. All of them were sitting on couches squished together, leaning in, smiling towards a spread of tea and cookies in the center.
My uncle drew the photo back close to him for one more private glance—an understanding of the innocuous expressions on these faces that only their close bond could reveal. He showed me another photo from a few years prior…You can really see what the war did to them, he said. I wasn’t sure which war he meant—the father’s or the son’s. Do you see how their faces are different? I try to now, but the details of that earlier photograph have faded.
She died with all her children around her, my mom told me, speaking of her mother’s mother. Why are you crying? she then asked, laughing at my tears. It’s really nice, I said. I tried to rephrase to explain my feeling but could only repeat: It’s really nice. It’s a strange thing to not know your family—to see them in pictures, in slideshows. Being quizzed on their names. These are your family, they all explained. I had never seen a picture of my great-grandmother, but, in the story of her passing, I felt her love as fully and as present as my own mother’s, my grandmother’s, my own. My sisters and I have dreamed of her. I described her tight, dark gray curls to my mom. She confirmed. That’s her. My mother tells me that dreams know the future. In my dream, my great-grandmother wears a light-blue scarf.
These people whose faces I’ve memorized. Generations above me who have suffered before me perhaps for me. Who have suffered through war and each other and whatever else. Pictures of my mother in her youth. There is a happiness in her face that I’ve never seen. These pictures populate my mind along with an apparition of a daughter that I’ve always assumed I’ll have—a daughter to whom I’ll give my mother’s name—to lend her her strength and her eternity, but who will in her life give my mother a different world with less suffering.
I write these words with the knowledge that they are a patronizing dream. My mother seems annoyed at me whenever I mention how strong she is to have lived through so much—to have lived through so much war, so much loss. She has told me again and again that her life was beautiful—that it was mine that was hard. Have I become so Western that I always assumed that I had more, that I was more free? You have no people, she tells me, no place where you belong, your family is scattered. You cannot celebrate your holidays with other people.
Life is hard here. You are alone. But, I say, my life is my own. Or at least it sometimes feels that way. I have my privacy from a family who pries. That’s true, she says.
What’s the point if not other people?
Mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, I look at you and I hear you, but I will not understand what you try to tell me. If you could see my face now, will you say that it’s different? There’s a father again with sons of his own. And the tears fall again but they are no longer beautiful. Instead they seek to turn me away from a destination that is certain. Every day its blurry image swells. I don’t want what’s coming. It is unnecessary. Our suffering. Our glittering ornament.