Your Death & My Life
Written by Taneet Grewal
I will never be able to understand it.
The sun sits peacefully among the endless blue sky, blowing me soft, warm kisses and the fingers of the breeze brush them from my skin and into my hair. Summer is slowly biding me farewell, but it’s hard for me to let go. I scan the horizon and the view seems all too perfect. I wonder if that’s him sitting there - disguised as the big bright circle in the sky, watching me admire his beauty. I try to swallow my lump of emotions, but it has already begun its regurgitation; blinding me, choking me. I just don’t understand it. My mind is spinning so fast, the only thing keeping it from exploding is my skull. The fists of my heart pound against my chest like a caged demon. My eyes stay fixed on the clouds, which move across the sky as if they are strolling through the park. This must be a dream. Am I the only one dreaming? Or - is this entire world in a dream? I just can’t bring myself to understand it. It would make much more sense to know we are all dreaming. Because God can’t possibly take someone away from you in real life. So, why am I not waking up?
I lower my gaze to the bundle of long green stems my nervous hands hold, and see their many red headed petals gazing right back at me. I tighten my grip and shut my eyes quickly, turning the world into a sea of darkness. How did this all happen?
The black blanket that covers my eyes slowly turns to color, taking me back to the day it did happen. It suddenly turns cold.
* * *
My eyes shot open as I felt the pillow beneath me move in a frenzy. Still not fully awake, I reached for my cell phone that was dancing under the tangled mess of bed sheets. I sighed happily as I flipped it open, seeing a text message waiting to be read from my sweet darling. It had become a morning tradition over the summer, receiving his texts as an early wake up call, starting the day with a smile.
I pushed the OK button to read his message:
guye mohammad just told me naveel passed away last night ina car accident? wtf is goin on
My smile vanished as quickly as it had appeared, and I lay there, bewildered. What? I questioned whether I was still sleeping, but the pain of something punching me hard in the gut told me this was real. I had never been more awake than I was at this moment. All at once my throat felt as if it was closing in and I began to breathe heavily.
Naveel? I thought, Our Naveel? I read the message again, jolting upright in my bed. What does he mean, passed away? The phone shot out of my hands across the bed like a bullet. I refused to touch it, as if suddenly it was infested with disease. Is this some kind of sick joke?
My face wrinkled and twisted into a collision of confusion and anger, releasing furious tears that ran wildly down my cheeks. I was burning. I ran out of my room, screaming.
I was up before dawn the next morning. Even the sun was still sleeping. The
events of the previous day flashed before me as I took my white salwar kameez off the hanger, ready to be worn for Naveel’s funeral. I stared at the reflection in the mirror. No make-up. No jewelry. Skin as pale and white as my outfit. And two brown eyes full of confusion and fury. My mind was numb and the only question I kept asking myself was, am I really going to the funeral of one of the best friend’s I’ve ever had?
“Chalo beta, let’s go,” the soft voice from the doorway said. I broke the gaze between me and the girl in the mirror and looked up to see my beautiful mother. Like me, she was wrapped in white, but instead of looking frail and weak, she looked like an angel with invisible wings.
We left our small city of Windsor just as the sun was waking up, stretching its long pink and orange arms across the light blue sky and we began the long drive to Toronto. I stayed quiet the entire time, afraid that if I opened my mouth my ability to speak would be flooded with tears. I pulled out my sheets of paper and pen, and began to write to him. He had always wanted to read my poetry, and this was my last chance to give it to him. I titled it, ‘Naveel’.
Three agonizing hours later, we arrived at our destination. My cousin opened the front door, still in her pajamas. We hugged for what seemed like several minutes, my head resting on her chest and our arms wrapped around each other. A big lump was forming inside my chest and crawling into my throat. I didn’t know if I was going to barf or if it was all my fear jumbled together, unable to go away.
After arranging to pick up two other friends before heading to the funeral, my cousin was dressed in her white salwar kameez as well and we were ready to go. As we drove in and out of streets, the fear inside me was building, the sick feeling was increasing, and my eyes unlocked all the tears they were holding in all morning. My tears quickly disappeared when the van filled up with all five of us. For a little while, it seemed like things were normal. We were even laughing and speaking of Naveel as if he was right there with us. Until-
“There it is,” my cousin said, making a left at the intersection. I swallowed hard, but that lump had gotten ten times bigger than before. I saw the Mosque ahead of us and my whole body turned into jell-o.
We all got out of the van, and I fixed my duputta over my head, using the window as a mirror. Not knowing where to go, we huddled close together, and walked toward the small crowd of people standing by the doors. They were some of the other employees we all, and Naveel, worked with. I hadn’t pictured being reunited with them in this way, at this place. My cousin and I introduced them to my mother, and I left her in a deep conversation with two of the ladies there. As I stood separated from everyone else, I scanned the area quickly, looking for my sweetheart. Where is he? More than anyone else, I wanted to see him at that very moment. Maybe if I saw him, he would tell me the text message really was a joke, and that this wasn’t happening at all. But he wasn’t anywhere in sight.
A van pulled up close to us, and head’s began turning to see who had arrived. I felt myself break into pieces; my heart ripped apart like stitches of an old wound, as I watched Naveel’s parents and younger sister step out of the van. His parents were surrounded by people I failed to recognize, who held them up as if they could fall at any moment. This is actually happening? His sister and I locked eyes immediately, and before letting another heartbeat go by, I was embracing her as tight as I could. I wouldn’t let her out of my grip or my sight. I wasn’t going to let anyone take her away, too.
“He’s gone, guys! He’s left us!” she cried into my shoulder. Over the same shoulder, my angel appeared again, putting her arms over both of us.
“No, beta, don’t cry. You have to be strong. You have to be strong for your parents, okay?” my mother told her.
We were now being told to go inside. As we made our way in, we removed our shoes and followed the elder women into a room where we all stood behind a wall that separated the men from us women. I wanted to ask someone why this was, but I kept my inquiries to myself, staying close to my cousin and mother. Naveel’s sister was close by with many other family members and friends, and his mother sat on a chair, crying out helplessly to him.
“Naveel! Look...look at how many of your friends came here to see you. You have so many friends,” she sobbed. Other ladies came and sat by her, putting their arms around her. I looked away. I can’t bear this.
Most of the women began sitting down and my mother, my cousin and I sat by Naveel’s sister. Her eyes stared into space and her face remained emotionless and dazed. She didn’t even blink. I kept my hand on hers and tried swallowing that huge lump again, but my attempt to make it disappear only made it bigger.
A man came in from another room and we were told we could go see the body now, with specific instructions not to touch it. Now he’s only a body? It was the moment I had been dreading. Taking a deep breath, I got up to face the biggest fear of my life. There I saw him; my jaan, my life, my everything, standing by the wall in a brown kurta, hands behind his back, lips pursed together. He looked back at me for only a moment and looked away, but for that one moment I saw in his face something I never thought I’d see in him. Fear. The same fear I was feeling all morning. In that one moment I wanted nothing more than to run to him, to be held by him, to tell him to take me away from here. But I kept my distance, realizing where we were. I approached the casket with my cousin and my mom behind me, the rest of the women following.
When I saw him lying there, it was as if all the oxygen from the room had been suddenly sucked out. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. I pulled my duputta across my mouth, which in no time was absorbing every tear that fell from my eyes. I was so close to him. And it really was him. So innocent. So pale. So helpless. Eyes closed, mouth open, wrapped in a white cloth. I was staring at him so hard; I thought I saw him move. When I looked up to see if anyone else had noticed, I paused seeing all the faces around me. So many women. Some only standing there. I heard moans and cries of agony behind me. I saw my cousin on the other side of the casket with my mother holding her, wiping her tears. Nobody took notice to my observing them. I looked down again to see him and he flashed before me so alive, so full of energy on my last day at work. He had his right arm draped around my shoulders, telling me not to cry, telling me four months in Windsor with my parents wouldn’t be so bad, telling me when I’d come back to Toronto, he’d be here waiting for me.
He had said he would be waiting for me.
Naveel! I screamed at him in my head, Come on, Naveel, get up. I know you’re not dead. It’s me, you’re best friend, you’re favorite buddy. I’m here now. Open you’re eyes. Get up! Please, Naveel!
“Oh mera beta!” His mother cried to him beside me, “my sweet, loving beta...”
Getupgetupgetupgetup!! I shouted again. I couldn’t understand it. Why wasn’t he getting up? Again, I saw him, my last night here. He had driven all the way to my cousin’s house just to say goodbye to me and give me a letter and CD with ‘Open this with a smile, otherwise don’t open it’, written on top. He hugged me and said he would see me soon.
My stomach ached from crying so hard. This was that same Naveel. My poor Naveel. So honest. So caring. So full of love. I tried to picture how his black Acura crashed into the light pole that came smashing down on him and it was horrifying. I scanned his face for any marks or wounds. But, surprisingly, there was nothing. Not one scratch on him.
A lady pushed from behind me, sobbing, “He’s sleeping! Just look. He’s sleeping in peace.” She stretched out her arm to caress his head, and his mother quickly pushed it away.
“Don’t touch him!” She summoned the lady, still sobbing.
Another woman, with a familiar face, stood across from me, holding the hand of a young boy, pointing to Naveel, asking him, dumbfounded if he had remembered him. The poor boy looked so confused. I felt a tight squeeze on my left shoulder. It was my cousin, out of breath from crying, holding me close to her, resting her head by mine. I glanced up to see her pretty face so full of pain.
“Oh my God,” we heard Naveel’s mother gasp. Everyone shifted their gaze toward her, and then to what she was gawking at. Blood was dripping from the head of the casket on to her foot. It was as if God was signaling to us, assuring us he really was dead. It was a cruel and harsh reality, which was unbearable for me to face. We were quickly escorted out by the men so they could clean up the mess. A huge crowd of us stood outside the mosque in the blistering heat, waiting for what was to happen next. So many people had come for Naveel. He had touched so many people. The main doors of the mosque flew open, and the casket was being carried out. I saw my jaan directly in the front and it appeared painful to be carrying. I wished I could help. I heard one voice wail out so loud over the noise of all the people, and through the mess of bodies I saw Naveel’s pregnant cousin screaming. Her painful shrieks must have haunted the skies, because for a moment, the sun had disappeared behind the clouds. And then she fell to the ground like a withered rose. People ran to retrieve her. I felt like I was in a traumatic Bollywood movie. This couldn’t be happening.
Another one of Naveel’s cousins stood by me, who was also in the accident. Seeing my terrified face, he took me in his arms as I cried onto his chest.
“It’s okay,” he whispered, “its okay.”
We followed the van that was carrying Naveel’s casket to Brampton Memorial Gardens, and all the men carried him to the spot where he was to be buried. The women were prohibited from being there, so we all watched from a distance. I saw my darling fall back on the ground, after they had thrown the dirt onto the casket. His face was buried in his hands and a friend of ours helped him up and walked with him away from the grave site. I couldn’t tell if he was crying, but I prayed he wasn’t. They can’t be burying Naveel, I thought. He’s only eighteen. He still has to fulfill all of his hopes and dreams. It angered me to notice that he meant more to me now, than he ever did before, but maybe he did mean this much to me when he was here, and I just never realized it. I had taken his friendship for granted.
“Don’t cry,” I heard my cousin say to me, “Naveel wouldn’t want you to cry.” I nodded my head. Then why did he leave me here... The women were beginning to walk to his burial site now, and I slowly followed behind. I saw some young girls placing single red roses on the dirt, and I wished I had a million to give him, but I didn’t even have one. I finally stood above his grave and stared into the ground, wondering how they could have left him there. I closed my eyes, and fixed my duputta as the breeze suddenly grew quick and cold.
* * *
It suddenly turns cold and I open my eyes. I try to swallow my lump of emotions, but it has already begun its regurgitation; blinding me, choking me. I begin to walk towards where he lay and fix my duputta over my head. This is the fourth time I’ve come here since that day, and it still feels like the first time. Holding on to my flowers with one hand, with the other I retrieve another letter to Naveel from my pocket. Looking up I see the clouds are still strolling through the sky and the sun peers down at me powerfully. I wonder if that’s him up there, telling me it’s okay. But it’s all such a mystery. Your death and my life. I will never understand it.