It is your chehelom, Baba Joon, forty whole days after your death, and I am still searching for the vocabulary that could explain this physical feeling of nausea that washes over me sometimes at the thought of you not being here, the overwhelming sense of asphyxiation as I lie in bed waiting futilely for sleep to come. No words, Baba Joon, no language. I can’t even find the proper line of poetry to use as an epigraph. I thought of “to nisti keh bedani … ” and “be koja-ye een shab-e tireh…” and “bozorg bood … ” but none can articulate the sense of guilt I feel for not having let you know how much I love you before you died so abruptly, so young.
Baba Joon, we have — had — fought so many times over the years. You — like so many of your generation and disposition — intensely abhorred the religion that had transformed our (your?) home country. You — unlike your exiled friends — had been to prison, had been purged from your job, had suffered in ways others hadn’t. They broke you Baba Joon. They imprisoned you, and shaved your head, and tortured you, and tried to take away your dignity. You had every right to hate their religion, even so dogmatically, but I, the non-believer, fought you over it. I fought you over so many things. And now, I can’t say to you that it really doesn’t matter. That I do love you, respect what you think even if I don’t agree with you. That, really, what we should talk about are all the things over which we have easy agreements: the music of Delkash and Shajarian, the chill of vodka-lime on a hot afternoon, the breeze at Palm Beach, the taste of khoresh bademjoon, the way you make — made — it. “Bayad ja biyofteh,” you would say. How do I translate that? How do I translate this absence that is you in my life?
Two weeks before your death, I saw you after a two-year hiatus and what struck me about you was how small and fragile you seemed. I was struck by your quiet withdrawal, by your silences. For years now, I have — had — (how final the ‘perfect past’ tense is, how imperfect) noticed the liver-spots on your hands, the slow greying of your hair, the imperceptible expansion of your waist. But Baba Joon, how is it possible that you are dead? How is it possible that your little granddaughter May will never know you, will never remember you? So many people have told me how perfect it was that you saw May only two weeks before your death. It is not easy to hear this. If May were a little older, then perhaps … . But, it aggrieves me, breaks my heart, angers me that May will never remember your protective cuddles, your saying “een eashghe-ha” when she clung to you, your silly maniacal laugh when you wanted to make her laugh, your stricken sensitivity when she cried before going to sleep, even your force-feeding philosophy.
Baba Joon, how small you looked in the airport as I said farewell to you for what it turned out to be the very last time. In retrospect, I should have taken you in my arms. I should have told you how much I loved you. But I was so ginger, so cautious. I was afraid of starting a fight, and so were you. Baba, we kept our distance. And that silence, that distance is what I can no longer overcome. That distance is what I cannot bear. It is my burden, that distance. You are dead, and when I saw you, when I touched you in death — you were so cold to the touch, so gone — I noticed how pale your liver-spots were in death. Baba, I forgot my prepared farewell speech. As I held your cold clenched hand, all I said, all I could say, was how sorry I was. How sorry not to have told you how much I love you.
In that last visit, we went together to the pharmacy to get medicine for May who was so ill most of the trip. When you quietly, cautiously asked me in the car why I hadn’t written for the Iranian for so long, I was evasive. I told you I was doing so much writing that I hadn’t much time left. Baba, I am sorry. I should have promised you to write something for the Iranian, I should have promised you then. Now, as I write this letter to you, knowing I will send it to Jahanshah, it does me no good to know that I am doing this for you. It is no succour, no respite. Baba Joon, you are gone, and all this regret … all this regret …
Baba Joon, you so hated the traditions of mourning in Iran. You probably thought that the idea of a fortieth-day ceremony is just another excuse to prolong mourning. But as I sit here in the silence of my bastardised manner of grieving, as I think about the things one does during a chehelom, I am amazed by the rationality of it. Isn’t the last act of a chehelom ceremony the shedding of dark clothes? Doesn’t this in a way delimit the mourning to those dark forty days? But I don’t want to give up my mourning, my black clothes. It is as if I am holding you close to me in my black clothes. It is as if I stopped mourning you, you will be gone.
But you are gone.
And I should have taken you in my arms and told you how much I loved you. When you looked so small, so forlorn, so quiet.
When seven years ago I visited your childhood home in Jahrom, I was struck by how the ceilings weren’t as high as I remembered them, the steps as precipitous, the veranda as vast. I realised that as I had grown up, the place had become so much smaller. You had become smaller too as I had grown up, you who have towered over my childhood, you who have towered over my entire life. I am who I am because of you, If I write, all that I write, my academic work, my poetry, my silly essays, all are — were — written to please you.
Baba Joon, you have towered over me all my life. If I care about the world, it is because you did. If I worry about injustice, it is because not only were you the victim of injustice, but you fought it at costs most people will not countenance. If I write about refugees and prisoners, it is because your experience of exile and incarceration has informed my world-view. If I listen to Beethoven, to she-tar, read Sadeq Hedayat, if I love Forugh Farrokhzad, it is because of you. You taught me how to read. You force-fed me khoresh bademjoon and taught me about the joys of wiener schnitzel, saffron-roasted almonds, chelo-kabab cooked the right way, tea brewed for the right length of time. Baba Joon, you were never impressed by wealth or status. When the Shah came to our primary school in Mashhad all those years ago, you told me — to my mother’s consternation and worry — not to kiss his hand, “because he is only a man.” You loved my husband, and shared with him intimate conversations, a love of Karl Marx, and your habit of smoking one cigarette a day.
Baba Joon, as I sit in this lonely darkened room, trying to bring light into the nebulous suffocating dark clay-pit that is my sense of loss, I am terrified that you won’t be there to see Iran change, to see my daughter speak, read, write your name, to hold a book written by me and dedicated to you, to celebrate the ripening of our lives in the slow pleasures of old age.
You, who towered over my life, my thoughts, my being, were in the end small and fragile. Mortal. And as I wear the black beyond the fortieth day to hold on to you, I shall repent that I did not take you into my arms, to confess that I am who I am because of you, to tell you that I love you.