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5 / 13

Untitled – Talah

Illustrated by Lee El Sayed

I’m sitting in my room and it is five years ago. I’m sitting in the middle, looking straight ahead. If this were a picture, I’d be staring into the camera. Around me is light, cosy, bright. Plants and lace curtains that the sun filters through. Things I put up, trying to make it home. Things that would make you think this has been home. Things I’ll move to the next room when I need to try again. We’re light on the eyes, if you’re looking through the camera,

but welcome to my head, where the room sits and the air is thick with a blurry silence, and an aura of silhouettes, each a reminder of every person I know, or am trying to be, or want to impress, or want to hold close, or want to make home of and with. And somehow, these are all one and the same. So a shadow casts over them, a blanket. It’s not their fault, that they sit heavy around me. I know that if I squint through the fog, I’ll see faded hands reaching out. If I put my ear against the gloom, I know I’ll hear voices trying to interrupt my thoughts, trying to soften the block I feel resides in place of a flexible mind and a flowing heart.

But the air stays thick with my own projections, and I stay stuck in my head, my eyes and ears closed to the world, knowing what’s to come. Knowing in 5 years, I’ll still be in this moment, wanting home, just with many more reasons not to be.

My grandfather appears. He stands by a door, open enough to feel possible. My skin feels a little lighter around my flesh. I observe him. He looks so calm, smiling, relaxed, holding his hand out, ‘come along now’. I don’t think it’s something he ever would have said or gestured, but I can’t help but to be taken into his peace. There is sun and there are trees where he is. There is a round white table we might sit at. I’m not sure if he is alive. He feels like a message, more than a person, but Jeddo all the same. Even in life it was hard to tell the difference, sometimes.

I jump out of myself – my mind, my body, the room, home – and walk to him. Then I walk with him. We sit at the table. No words, for now. We are both just relieved that I listened. I jump but I don’t leave my shell behind; she is still full. I’ve cloned myself. I’m going to exist in both places at once: my head, and in peace.

In these five years, I try. I try many times to make sense of the building blocks around me that look like they should fit together. They do fit together, and they do fit around me. But they don’t quite grasp me. What holds me, nearly and dearly, is fear. Fear of the known, of all that exists, of all I am told is real. Fear, a magnetic force: one that is drawn to me, and one that pushes safety away. What can get through fear-thick air, and a head full of questions? I run away from the table – I don’t want to be here – but not back towards the door – I don’t want to go back inside. I look behind me, panting and sweating and crying, terrified and guilt-ridden that I’ve left him sitting alone, that I failed. But I am still there, sitting, smiling. Also crying, but in a good way. I look ahead of me again, still running, but with each sprint falling out of guilt and into a comfortably scared step.

I want the question to be, ’what’s going to happen?’, rather than, ’how am I going to feel’?. The second one prepares you for fear; the first, for experience. I want my relationships to be interactions, rather than events in my head. ‘Life is more than yourself’, I repeat. A lesson I’ve learnt time and time again from those who raised me, always making sure I am attentive to the beauty and horrors of the world, and to all the collectivities we are embedded in.

Sitting with Jeddo, I almost ask him what he is doing here. But I remind myself: interaction, not event. So instead, I ask what it felt like, to die alongside his sister.

‘It only makes sense that we died together’.

I nod. Somehow I understand what he means, and it makes sense to me too. Although I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen them in the same room, the chemistry between them buzzed. From Beirut to Khiam while apart, from street to street when neighbors, from hug to hug when together. It buzzed with love through my favorite photograph of them together, or maybe the only one I know, the one where he is sitting at her table with juice and coffee in front of him, giving her a kiss as she stands next to him, her arm around him. I loved him, which means I loved her. The first time I remember meeting her, meeting her properly, he was not there, but I got to feel my own glimpse of that buzz. Maybe it was because he and I had our own force between us – as he did, uniquely, with each of his grandchildren – and she felt how I carried him, especially that day, visiting her in the village they grew up in. Or maybe it was because Auntie Sobhiyeh was herself to be reckoned with. During our encounter, I told her I loved the shirt she was wearing. The next time I saw her, in her home in Beirut in a building neighboring my grandparents’, Jeddo was with me. She gave me the shirt.

He continues.

‘The way we grew up, we were not encouraged to be alike, think alike, act alike. I left, she stayed. I came back, she stayed. She was around, but not in the ways she dreamed. She did not resent me, but she was hard on me. She took up her space fully, made a dream of what she had, and always invited into mine, of course. It was not always love, but it was always right.

‘For two kids from a village in the south who grew up in the same home, our lives could not have been more different, and we both thought that was it, that’s what made sense. But you could not keep us apart, in thought and in care. I thought about her every day, it got me through the years away. I thought about her and welled up with warmth, and sometimes with fear. Fear of her death, abstractly. I know she thought about me too, with pride. I know she feared for my death too, perhaps a little more concretely, as I dove into war scenes ready to heal anyone but myself.

‘And yet, I could have never predicted either of our deaths. But really, in the end, what truly makes sense, is that we died together.’

When I first asked the question, I couldn’t have imagined an answer that wouldn’t break my heart. But even in death, his scientific mind and his literary heart come together to form a neat bundle of understanding and acceptance.

I hug him.

I stand up from the table. I run back towards myself. I hug myself. We all disappear, and I’m back in the room. The air is free from looming presences. I stand up from the ground.

Five years later, I’m in the next room. I like the color of the walls better, and my small plant is thriving. More art and poetry decorate the space, books and jewelry and trinkets everywhere, it’ll be harder to move rooms again. I’ve become better at the facade of home.

Five years later, things are different but I am still stuck. Because five years are not linear, not one moment of time is. Because things have changed but the comfort I am still seeking is one that comes from a heart in the past. Too little is the same but I still want what she wanted. I have not let her go. She is not a shell, a fossil I can preserve, polish, love. There is life in her, and I desperately want there not to be.

Five years later, my grandfather has died. A virus forced home of his body, as it did in hundreds of millions of others. That virus chose to never leave, or maybe he never let it out. He joined millions elsewhere. He died in heartbreaking harmony, and we mourn in worldwide chorus.

Not one tear of grief drops alone.

He died thirteen days after his sister, one of the other millions taken in the same way and wave. I think that he chose to leave with her on the day of her passing. His body just needed a little time to hear him and to be convinced. They were home to each other, and now buried together, they took each other home. In life, I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen them in the same room. In death, I’ll never see them apart.

Not one heart alone can be gone.

He died and too soon after, my partner’s grandmother died too. Weeks after that, our partnership could no longer house us. It ended. The dissolution of two lives, grief for a life gone and for a life un-had, two homes and a heart disassembled.

Not one home stands heartless.

I am reminded of two years ago, when my brother left our joint home to build and live anew. At the time that he left I wrote to him, “that we may never make the same place home again is the strangest thought.” Now I write, that we may make homes of different places means we are sheltered together in more spaces.

Yrsa Daley Ward ends one her poems with the line, “Most things feel the same, up close”. Time feels the same, up close. Five years ago, unattainable futures, scattered loves, and the present, all occupied my body. They fought over space and it was hard to tell which one was pumping through my veins at a given moment.

Not one moment of time is linear.

Now, grief, in its current multiplicities, in its form as its own time-scape, in the fluidity of its flow, joins them. Heavy and hard, and ready to make space. Five years ago, I now hold in my hand. To embrace, to blow away, to cherish. The thought of impossible lives, live in my eye, their beautiful potential admired as a story that may have been, but with no regrets. Scattered loves sit on my shoulders, finally breathing fresh air. Life now, I carry in my body, as it softly mourns what grief has expelled, and revels in what grief cradles.