September 27, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Grief in the Time of COVID-19

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One of my favorite memories of Didi dadi is from the summer of my freshman year when I was doing an internship across the street from her apartment. I had gone over during my lunch break to find the dining room table overflowing with plates of fresh mango and lychee, cookies, savory Indian snacks and madeleines. Somewhere in the midst of catching up on my first year of college and her move to Chicago from the suburbs, I guess I mentioned that I liked the madeleines. When I got up to go home, Didi reached above the fridge for the round plastic container full of them and dumped the whole thing in a bag, insisting that I take the cakes as well as a fresh, round watermelon home with me. I convinced her to keep the watermelon, but I was eating madeleines for days.

Didi dadi isn’t my dad’s mom — she’s my grandfather’s sister, which feels irrelevant since I still call her “dadi,” the Urdu word for grandmother. The elder women in my family have always been so tight-knit that I consider them a unit, and she was the silliest one of the three, always faking tears or an exaggerated angry face because I didn’t visit her enough. When she drew her eyebrows together, I was reminded that I promised her I would come over to eat her curry khausa (my favorite dish). I would sit next to her at family get-togethers, begging her to tell me stories, mostly about the grit it took to move to America with next to nothing. Each conversation ended the same way: “Go and get your education so you can stand up on your own two feet, then take care of your parents.” And then a smooch on my cheek. I have been lucky to grow up around so many women who demonstrate power and grace in the most subtle ways. For me, Didi dadi exemplified what it means to be selfless, to love without reservation and to value hard work and education above all else.

Just last week my sister called to tell me that Didi passed away from complications from a fall. I laid on my couch in Ithaca staring up at the ceiling, wailing and asking my mom, “What happened?”

In Islam, the grieving process is meant to be quick because the death of the physical body is also the transcendence of the soul. But it is a community endeavor. Normally, I would have flown home as soon as I found out. I would probably sit in the living room with a shawl draped around me and the whole family reciting tasbih loudly and in unison. We would go to Jamatkhana and we would find solace there, mourning Didi’s loss and celebrating her life together.

But nothing is normal anymore. I can’t fly home because doing so would endanger the family I love. I can’t attend any Jamatkhana, much less the one at home, because our religious centers are closed. I can’t round up all the people I love at Cornell in my living room because that would violate social distancing guidelines, and there is always some homework assignment due, or some dinner plans to attend. I tried to say tasbih in my room alone, but it’s hard to focus for more than a few minutes, and I find myself aching to hear a voice that is not my own. I thought about cooking curry khausa in Didi’s honor but I couldn’t find chana ka ata and ajinomoto in Wegmans.I called my mom and made her tell me all the details: Who sat where, who sang the hymn that I was supposed to sing. This week, I have mostly been running several business club information sessions, swiping on some lipgloss and putting on a big animated smile, telling everyone to feel free to reach out to me with more questions via email. I am running, running, running, because in this COVID-19 world where there is more grief than I’ve ever experienced, there is no time or space to grieve without so many of the support systems and coping mechanisms I took for granted. I am simultaneously mourning the loss of someone I love and the loss of all the normal ways I know how to deal with that loss.

I think I have worried my roommates enough with teary rants about how overwhelming this all is; at this very moment all the grief in my life is compounding and there is nowhere to put it. So I am thinking about new ways to process and find closure. Yesterday, it was skipping my night class to call a friend from home, although I don’t think Didi would be very happy about that. Maybe it is forgiving grudges or calling each of my grandmas and telling them I love them because, shit, life is so fragile right now. I think if I blew on it, it would literally fall apart. Maybe it is ordering a huge box of madeleines. Today, it is writing. It is taking the time to stop running, to acknowledge what happened, to devote time to reflecting on the incredible life of someone who meant a lot to me.

Aleena Ismail is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.