The family had been drifting. Not necessarily apart, but into the lukewarmness of each being too busy with work, errands, the intricacy of living & holding a set of reservations, old burns & secrets against those they considered the closest. Expatriates coming home hold to the misconception that by doing so automatically makes them closer to family. But after the first month or so pass, the joy of seeing, talking, & being in each others presence wears off to become the reality of exhausted busybody’s.
Then there is the family wedding.
A chance to rekindle and renew, strengthen frayed bonds. Reliving the late nights of sitting in the veranda and speaking whatever came to our minds and knowing that whatever was said was heard & kept inside that circle. Hopes, dreams, disappointments painted those sparingly polluted skies where the stars could barely be seen. We laughed, we danced, and we remembered why we had fallen out of and again into love.
As we stare at each other’s faces on the dance floor, the bride & groom in the center, a look is shared and passed, reiterating the promise of no matter how long, how wide the distance we’d remain as such. A sudden grip comes to my shoulder, I turn to see the look on my cousins face and I know something is amiss. I could already see each family member becoming somber, quietly leaving the dance floor, leaving the bride and groom undisturbed. We are told to go home, change our clothes, wash the make up off our faces, put our made up hair into buns because our uncle is in the ICU. And as we sat at the side of the curb because visiting hours were over, music still ringing in our ears from the loudspeakers, rubbing at my hand at golden glitter that had come off of someone’s dress, we rest our shoulders against each other, puzzled at how the night had unfolded.
Next day, the number of shoulders increase. Leaning against marbled waiting halls, plastic chairs, or just sagging with the weight of apprehensive worry. Again that same hand to my shoulder, telling me to move because we need to go to grandmother’s. I ask why. She tells me just to follow her. And I keep looking over my shoulder, back at the hospital. In the middle of the street she gets a call, she listens, abruptly hangs and starts running. We run, because she runs. The words she says get snatched by the wind, or they get blocked by my mind, but I stop in the middle of the street and I ask her to repeat. She pauses.
And all I could do was run into the waiting car. We move, and a soft keening begins by my side. I want to plug my ears but my hands wont move. I hear my cousin in the front seat calling. The tent, the chairs, the food, the cups, the water, the coal, the buckets for the washing the 3angaraib… We arrive to my grandmothers and start organizing, storing away all the vases, lamps, potted plants, picture frames and I just realize… this is a bait bika. My chest tightens & I frantically remember what was the last thing I said to him.
I’d made him laugh.
The droves of wailers arrive, genuine or not with their tears. Even to those who hugged & wailed into my ear, I lightly patted their backs & simply said what I was meant to say. Even when his slight body was brought in to be washed. Even when it was carried out, his son that I’ve never seen once cry, tears now streaming down his face. Even when his daughter laid in astounded silence, weeping without even realizing it. Even when I walked in to find my aunt now dressed in white, head bent into a devastated submission, slight shoulders shaking in silent sobs. Even when I remembered how a cloud of cigarette smoke used to always surround him, my aunt complaining about how we girls were playing far too much in a tree that was too high & dangerous & were just too old for such things & he would smile and tell her let them enjoy their childhood as long as they can. Even when my cousin had hit me because I’d stolen his bike & I’d ran crying to my uncle & he held me by my shoulders and said you always hit back, boy or girl. Even when we’d discuss politics & through it the game of whist, the elegance & beauty of it. Even when I felt the telltale signs of a cry about to crawl out my throat into an anguished scream, my face remained impassive as we made our rounds among the women with extended trays serving water. Then serving dinner. Then breakfast. Then morning tea or coffee. Then water. Then lunch. Then tea or coffee. Then water. Then dinner. Then shai bil labban and lagaymaat or coffee. Then they would lean into each other & stare, and look, and judge, and gossip, and whisper, and fix their toub & golden bangles.
I went home for the first time in many days, and as we drove past the bika tent, looking out my window I see a young couple walking, their hands brushing against each other till finally they latch onto each other, smiling at the ground, sharing such rare intimacy in the cover of night, we pass by the thrumming beats of a band and singer, a wedding in full swing, a harried mother walking out with a child slumped in her arms, trying to keep the kid and glimmering toub from slipping, to a car overfilled with a family of a proud papa with his 3imma driving, mama in the passenger seat with a toddler holding up his sticky hand to the window, to the bored daughter sitting in a chair next to her mother who is a sitat al shai, swinging her legs then stubbing her toe to the dirt, to two brothers waiting at the side of the street for a bus, identical in the way they were eating and spitting tasaaly, to the blocked street that the driver had to reverse out of because it was blocked with another tent set up for a bika, like a merry’go’round our lives circle from the moment they murmur the azaan to our ear to the finale of salaat al janaza.
I lean my head against a cousins shoulder, and without any words, without any explanation we keep looking out the car’s window and I know that she wasn’t judging me because I hadn’t, still haven’t been able to cry for my uncle.