[Part II of “Inner Rooms”]
If I were singing the poem of my husband’s life, I’d sing of his laughing eyes and husky, golden voice. But I’d end every stanza with a word that rhymes with “die.”
Looking back over forty-five years, all I see is our innocence. We were like babies who touch a candle’s flame. We didn’t deserve pain. No one does.
We had locked ourselves into the small room called marriage, an ugly little room that held us in broken positions. We didn’t love ourselves enough to face the scandal of divorce.
I was a lost child who ran away. In an Indian courtyard where magenta bougainvillea flowers hung over scalloped archways, I found a safe place where I was loved.
But my husband believed the legend of gold in America’s streets, and we moved to America. In India, he had been a gifted young man from a noble family. In America, he was a non-white with no job skills at all.
This was not a super-bright Indian boy who topped every calculus class. This was a dark, handsome man with a gift for gab. A year after he had flunked out of the university, he still put on his suit and tie, grabbed his briefcase and went to campus, pretending to go to class so that I would not find out. That’s how deep his shame was.
In America, it’s easy to get whiskey. Even though he drank, my husband loved Islam with heart and soul. In Islam, God is merciful, but the rules are clear: Drinking alcohol or eating pork means damnation. There’s no parable of a father welcoming a prodigal son. Mohsin knew he had already signed up for hell. He couldn’t get his salvation back, no matter how hard he tried. It was a done deal.
Alcoholism is neither a weakness nor a sin. It’s a terminal illness.
It is so easy to judge an addict. I did it, and everyone agreed, including the addict himself.
It’s so easy to label others. One day at work, a woman smiled at me when I got into the elevator. “I think I know you. Aren’t you the girl who married the foreigner? The one with all the problems?” It is so easy to judge.
This is not about forgiveness, not about someone good forgiving someone bad. It’s about seeing beyond, finally glimpsing the light that shines from a deeper place.
Looking back as an old woman, all I can see is our innocence. We were just babies who touched a candle’s flame.
One day everything explodes. I am pregnant, in spite of an IUD. The doctor says he’d take the IUD out if he could find it, but it’s gone. He says it must have fallen out and I didn’t notice. I nod because I am so young.
I had always wanted babies. This love is mine; this child is mine. Here is joy I can hold in my arms.
As I get big, I buy a quilt and a bassinet. My husband is happier than I’ve ever seen. A child makes sense to him. It’s what people do. It’s his.
One snowy day in the dead of winter, something goes wrong. I’m sick. The young resident at the university hospital guesses that the IUD is still there, carrying infection. No one knows what’s happening.
During a week of mild labor, the doctor tells me it’s not an either-or. It might be a both-and. The baby will surely die, and I might too.
No one I know has ever died. The sounds coming from the doctor’s mouth make no sense at all.
For the baby, birth and death wrap together like yin and yang. If he only breathes for ten hours, is it a life? I can’t grab even one of the shards. Not even one jagged thought makes sense.
On a Sunday morning as dawn quivers in the room, he is born. There are no NICUs and no grief counselors. I do not hold him at all.
While I’m in surgery, the tiny boy struggles to breathe in a red-lit incubator. No one is allowed to touch him, although my husband stands watching. His small chest heaves and he moves like a dream.
In surgery, the earnest doctors find the IUD hiding inside me and think I might live. The tiny boy dies, melting out of burning pain into the Divine Mother’s arms.
My husband tells me he has died. An orderly pushing my gurney stops beside the elevator and talks to me about God and the comfort of heaven. His words are all I have.
Muslims know what to do with death because family members care for their loved one’s body. After all, it’s the most important day of their existence. It’s why they’ve done their prayers and struggled to stay on the straight path. It’s the day they meet God. Close relatives wash the body and dress it in white pilgrim’s clothes so that their loved one can stand correctly in the Almighty’s presence.
Mohsin has done this often at home. My grandfather, a lifelong Presbyterian, helps. He likes my husband, and he knows about tending graves.
Together they wash the cold body, wrap him in white cloth and close the Styrofoam box. Mohsin takes the little casket out to a cemetery. The snow has been scraped aside. Mohsin does the funeral prayers while my grandfather watches, and they set the small white box into the tender brown earth.
Nothing stuns like what shines in utter blackness. In all human experience, nothing comes close.
Death’s fat black lines outline love. Shock slams us to our knees, and we break.
Here is true worship. A soft hand holds love above us. We look up.
In this place, light changes us forever. Nothing will ever be the same.
There’s only the precious, brutal truth: Only love matters. All we ever have is now.
My younger sister brings me some makeup in the hospital. “Let’s make a start,” she says. “This isn’t who you are. You can’t stop here.”
Today, singing my life, all the melodies end on a single note: joy.
The great teacher Stephen Levine said, “Pain tears the heart open.” My baby’s death ripped me open and I am grateful.
Goodness poured in, the reason for all life, the brilliance that feeds us and holds us, shining, making every being holy, making every touch a sacrament.
Darkness can’t win because of how love shines. In 45 years, that brilliance has never dimmed. Every time I love, the light stuns me.
It’s everywhere, the pleasure in every touch, the kindness in every glance—My three daughters, my beloved, my grandmother, the lovers who kissed me, the mother who showed me passion, the sisters and friends who held me up, the stranger in the elevator, the impatient clerk. There is no end.
How lucky I am to know that this moment—now—is all I have.
How lucky I am to know darkness so well. It makes the light so bright.
It’s not that there was no love.
Our second baby is a leggy little girl with black eyes and a cap of long, minky hair. He laughs as he nuzzles her neck.
Babies are his normal. He sings poems to her and bathes her. Like many Muslim boys, he had wandered in and out of the women’s courtyard, running errands for his mother, leaning against the knees of aunts who nursed babies under their shawls, fetching clean blankets for babies who spit up and wiping the mouth of the old aunt who was dribbling her food.
After growing up among women, he knows surprising things. “Every woman can nurse,” he says.
My mother scowls at him and turns to me. “Don’t even try,” she says. “You won’t have enough milk. I didn’t. You’ll never be able to do it. She’ll go hungry.”
My husband throws back his head and laughs. “Mom,” he says, “Poor villagers nurse babies for years and the babies are fat and pretty. No woman ever fails to nurse her own child. God would not have made such a mistake.” He laughs again and shakes his head.
My mother tells me I must never feed more than every four hours. I must let the baby scream. Our first week home from the hospital, my mother stands and blocks the door to the bedroom. “Let her cry!”
I push past her. Mohsin smiles and hands her some tea. “Mom, no woman can deny milk to her baby. It’s what nature wants. It can never fail.” Within weeks, I’m donating bottles of extra milk to the hospital’s preemie unit.
When the baby is six months old, we go to India for several months. I lean into the circle of sisters and cousins in the women’s part of the house, the zenana. Family men come and go in the zenana, sitting for tea, laughing with sisters and cousins. The old women scold this servant or that butcher. One of the old servants has dementia, so she makes work for everyone, but they keep her because it is her home.
Some women have more power than the men. My husband’s aunt is a strict woman who wraps her dupatta so tightly that it cuts into her soft cheeks like a nun’s wimple. Widowed in her twenties with two small sons, she has managed her estates alone for 60 years. When she looks at me, her eyes are severe, and she rarely sits idle. Men obey her without question.
Husbands stop in for a cup of tea, and sisters tease brothers while my tiny mother-in-law holds our baby and laughs. When my father-in-law comes in, husbands stop chatting with their wives and everyone jokes less. He tolerates no bending of Islam’s rules, but he is often indulgent. “Our Prophet, peace be upon him, taught only kindness,” he says, laughing when the baby pulls hair out of his beard.
As she grows, our daughter proves to be headstrong and hot-tempered. My husband sees this as proof of her blue blood. When she screams with two-year-old rage, he laughs. “That’s right, sweetheart,” he’d say. “Make everyone obey you! You have noble blood. That’s who you are!” He looks at me. “Do you think she’ll be a doctor? Or maybe a lawyer?”
On Fridays, when Mohsin prays with other Muslims at the Muslim Student Center, he feels at home. His title, given to the men of his family hundreds of years before, is “Mufti,” meaning an expert in Islamic law similar to a bishop or a religious judge. The other Muslim men, even the strict ones who wear beards, tunics and small white caps, pay attention to him because he knows Islam well. He sits for hours with the men, playing chess, drinking tea, talking about how to be faithful in the face of American looseness.
My friends are the wives. Most of them have graduate degrees but can’t work; many have babies.
Some wear hijab. It’s not an issue. 9/11 hasn’t happened yet. The women don’t need to show pride in the face of anti-Muslim hatred.
My friend Farzana has always worn a burqa in Pakistan. Now, in America, her husband, a PhD student in engineering, pushes her to stop wearing it. We are together at a dinner party. It’s the first time she’s been in a room unveiled in front of men she does not know.
Her face is covered with a fine sheen of sweat. She moans and rubs her stomach. “I’m going to throw up,” she murmurs. She has never looked in the eyes of a man she doesn’t know. She has never sat and chatted with men outside her family. We walk slowly in, leaning together. “You don’t have to talk,” I whisper. The women watch with kind eyes. Several reach out. They know what she is going through.
The men quickly glance away. In devout families, young men learn that men should not watch women. At home, they relax with cousins and aunts, but when a new woman comes into the inner rooms, the men leave. And so she made it through the evening, and it wasn’t too bad.
On another evening, we are at a dinner to welcome Amina, a new bride who has flown in that day. A tiny, lovely girl, she had never met her husband; they were married by proxy so she could get a visa. We have known him for several years. I find him to be an insecure, shrill little man. For the whole evening, he keeps her in the tiny adjoining bedroom. No one knows what to do. People raise their voices to hide the sound of her crying, and everyone leaves as soon as they can.
In South Asia, in the evenings, people often sing poems. Mohsin loves low, rich songs and our friends love to hear him sing Urdu and Persian poems.
Sometimes he sings Bollywood songs. People laugh and clap along.
“Meri lal dupatta mul-mul ka, meri lal dupatta…”
“My soft red veil keeps coming off….”
A favorite by Jigar Moradabadi is about the heart’s loneliness.
Aadmi aadmi se milta hey
You meet person after person
Dil mugur kum kisii se milta hey
But hearts rarely meet
Bhuul jaata hun main situm uskey
I forget all his oppression
Wo kuch us saadgi se milta hey
For there was something about his simplicity, his holiness….
He loves to sing “The Rose.”
When the night has been too lonely,
And the road has been too long,
And you think that love is only
For the lucky or the strong,
Just remember in the winter,
Just beneath the winter snow,
Lies the seed that with the sun’s love
In the Spring becomes the rose.
His addiction grows. As the monster eats him alive, he turns crazy. He fabricates a feud with his best friend and spends months hurting him. He searches our bed for signs of a lover, demanding to know who our daughter’s father was.
Early one morning when our daughter is about two or three, she and I get out of bed. I smell him before I see him. It’s the stink of whiskey in his sweat. The room is dim. The only light comes from the grey-white snowy dawn outside. He’s just wearing his underwear from yesterday, and his hand rests lightly on the empty whiskey bottle. He’s almost out. No one except me knows.
I look at my child and realize she sees him. This is the end.
A few days later, I tell him, “Get me a gun. I’d rather kill you than watch your slo-mo suicide.” But he just shrugs. He knows the story’s ending.
On Christmas Eve he does not come home. On Christmas morning I tell my family the truth. Within a few weeks he flies to India.
We are babies who touch a candle’s flame. Forty-five years later, there’s only his innocence, the beauty of his voice, the warmth of his eyes. I hear him singing his favorite song as he sits looking out at the snow.
So bye, bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good ole boys were drinking whiskey ‘n rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die.
On a warm March day in 1999, I am home alone in Wisconsin. Gusts of wind make the huge oaks across the road dance, and the melting snow has left patches of brown and green. I’ve driven my two younger daughters to school and have meditated. I’m sweeping the kitchen. My eldest daughter lives on campus and is taking an exam that day.
The back door pops open. I close it. Right away it pops open again. I grin. The phone rings. I chat with a friend, laughing. “There’s a spirit here today. This door just will not stay closed. I can hear the wind laughing.”
That’s when I see it, him, a spirit, a golden youth. I don’t know who it is, but I sense its soft simplicity. This is a being of happiness, of golden radiance, of laughter and wind, like a boy humming as he watches the sun rise. I smile. “Welcome, whoever you are,” I think.
Maybe my mind moves on to cooking dinner or teaching class. Such things happen every now and then. I don’t think much about it.
The mystery is always close to me, just the other side of this moment. It surrounds me, calls to me in the wind, rises from inside me. It smells of clean sheets in a warm bed. It sounds like a robin that just came north in April and tastes of steaming milk tea on a chilly morning.
Three days later the phone rings. Mohsin’s cousin is calling from India to tell me he has died. His daughter, my eldest, needs to be told.
The cousin’s voice drops in shame. It was a pathetic death. Mohsin had been living alone in his rambling old mansion. The second wife had long since taken the children and left. One day, lost in alcoholic dementia, he went after his mother and she left in tears. Months pass. Finally, one morning, the cousin who cooks for him finds his body cold.
The cousin hesitates. “God has judged him for his sin—such disgrace for the only son of such a noble family,” he says. “We took the body away to be buried quietly. Usually, for such a man, the villagers and tenants and all the family would have gathered for the burial. But not for him. We took the body away to be buried quietly in another town. Even then, somehow the villagers knew. When the car carrying the body drove through the streets, villagers came out of their houses and made a procession, just the way they would have done for his grandfather. They walked behind the car to the next town. We buried him there.”
I count back three days and smile. The spirit visited me exactly when Mohsin died. Did he touch me on his way? Whatever I saw, it was Mystery brushing my shoulder.
I know that he is healed. There is no hell. He let go of horror, slipping free, jumping free to what is real. He is home.
The wild magic sees goodness and nothing else. The child lifts a glimmering hand and light itself vibrates. Hope sounds like a loon’s eerie call, the gong of a temple bell, the azaan at dawn, a casket’s lid closing, a child laughing as he dances on the wind.
What’s holy is what lies between you and me. My lifetime is not this body. My lifetime, the meaning of “me,” is the touches, the bonds, the glances, the words, the utter joy of loving one another. What lasts forever is the open caring between me and every person I have ever met.
I worship that holy gentleness.
I can stop singing my husband’s song now because I can hear his voice. The child melts into the mystery, singing, always singing joy
–By Jean Gendreau.
copyright © 2016 by Jean E Gendreau