Speak, Memory

Tanzila Ahmed

Tanzila Ahmed

I groggily grab my phone. It’s 3 am, and I’m on a business trip to Chicago. I have a missed call from my little sister. I call her back immediately. I can hear that she is scared to tell me, to be the messenger of bad news. She tells me that my Nana has died. She knows how I hate to be told about deaths over the phone; I was told of both Mom and Nani’s death in similar late night calls. She says that he died in the ambulance going to the hospital from his home in Dhaka.

“Okay,” I respond, unemotionally. I check myself: no feelings. Just empty.

On some level, we had been expecting it. He was 87 years old and his health had been deteriorating for the past few years, ever since my Nani died. They were married when he was 21 and she was 16. He had lived for her. Without her, his mind unraveled.

When I went to Kathmandu to care for him in the summer of 2013, he was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. Of course, my family had not told me this at the time – they had just said he was a cantankerous old man. Overwhelmed and alone, I pieced it together after reading the labels on the boxes of pills I was administering to him daily. Those two weeks alone with him in that dark cold house were easily one of the most traumatic, mind-spinning periods of my adult life.

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A Map of Home

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Lately, I think in the shape of maps. Cartography is a relevant metaphor as my boundaries are bending yet again. My tongue wags in the direction of due East. I am revisiting old languages while my writing hand rests.

2.

The immigrants gather together in my coffee shop, no matter the country of their origin. They call personal grammars from the air. The Persians gesture with palms towards the heavens; the Arabs stretch arms out wide as if to catch a word before it leaves the sentence; Indians write postcolonial diatribes with cigarette smoke. Some drink to lost memories hidden in their tea or coffee cups. A few read their stories from beer foam. They all remember somewhere else and some time from before.

He tells me that he would be disappointed if he returned home after thirty years of absence. Nothing will be as I remember, he says. He wasn’t supposed to stay here after the degree, but a political revolution changed the map of his world. He shrugs his shoulders. Now, his American-born children can’t speak the language well enough to understand the stories of their grandparents.

Like you, I say to him, I often have to choose which parts of myself I reveal to whom. We are always in the process of censuring our stories, speaking in languages half-mastered, or retreating to cultural corners where our imagined identities are safe and comfortable. He nods his head in agreement.

If one seeks stories of loss and regret, then that is what one will find, I remind him.
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