I’m not a big Hurricane Katrina remembrance person. Like a lot of people from the places affected by the storm, I usually unplug from social media on the days leading up to August 29th. It’s not that I want to forget or pretend it never happened. That’s impossible considering ten years later I can drive through New Orleans and find many houses still marked with the “X” codes left by search and rescue teams signifying the number of people, dead and living, found inside; some because people refused to paint over it – Katrina war scars – others because they have been abandoned and never reclaimed. It’s because the damages, the wounds, are still so present, so fresh, that when the stories start pouring in it becomes overwhelming.
I’ve never seen Spike Lee’s much lauded documentary, When The Levees Broke, because just the thought of Katrina news footage – houses under water, people on roofs waiting, hoping, praying to be rescued, people wading through waist deep water trying to find food and clean water – makes me involuntarily clench my teeth and have difficulty swallowing. It’s sadness for the many people who died during and after the storm, but, more so, it’s anger for how poorly government officials handled the crisis, and how people, mostly poor and black, literally had to scream for help to the news cameras that dispassionately documented their struggles as my city descended into lawlessness.
When I think about Hurricane Katrina, two words come to mind: loss and erasure. I didn’t lose any family members or friends thankfully, but so many did that the loss feels communal. Once at the doctor’s office where I was being treated for rheumatoid arthritis, a disease that took over my body only months after the storm hit, another patient, an older man, was telling me about how his wife died after the storm and he just wished to die too but he held on because he had to take care of the dog his wife loved. His story is so different from mine, but I understood his loss and felt it like it was my own.
Just before they take her away for her MRI, my mother removes her rings and asks me to wear them. They won’t allow metal in the room, and she gets four of her rings off easily, but there’s a set of three that are stuck. She frets with them as the orderly situates her in her stretcher.
“The tech will figure it out when you get downstairs,” he says soothingly.
She sits back on the pillows, looking tiny and forlorn in her hospital gown, and asks for her dupatta so she can cover her head. She hasn’t been out in public without her hijab for almost seven years now, ever since my brother was admitted into the hospital he never left. I know she thinks of this as they wheel her away. I know the beeps of the machine bring back memories we’ve all tried to bury. I watch her til the end of the hallway and try to quell all the fears a hospital brings while I wait an hour a half for her return.
I stare at my hands. I’m wearing my mother’s rings and they feel too big for me – not because of their size, but due to the weight of their history. Here are the two rings my father gave her all those years ago: the tiny diamond engagement and wedding rings that he could afford as a Naval officer in Pakistan. They commemorate struggle, sacrifice, the strangeness of a new life in a foreign country. The two other rings are bigger – the diamond circlet he gave her just before my brother got sick, the year we moved into a new house and were happy, the year things came together before blowing spectacularly apart. The princess-cut diamond he gave her this year, to celebrate their 35th year together and all they have endured. I know the permanence of these rings on her fingers is linked to what they commemorate: survival coupled with faith, faith coupled with love.
Wearing her rings still makes me feel like a little girl playing dress up in her mother’s closet. This, despite the fact that I am already ten years older than she was when my father first put the engagement and wedding rings on her finger, already older than when she had her first child and older than when, many years later, her twin boys were born. Younger, though, than the other two rings. Younger than when she lost her child.
When I was a child, Ramadan – like the life that stretched before me – seemed magical. Forbidden for the very young, fasting was a mark of adulthood, a rite of passage for which we were all too eager. You woke for the early morning meal with a sense of pride, keen to know what mysterious things adults got up to at this delicious hour.
As I grew older, Ramadan became a time to pause life, a time for reflection as well as a time for community. Growing up outside of our respective ethnic identities and cultures, this month provided the chance to regroup and reconnect with friends and family.
We became used to a melding of cultures where we’d reach for spices in two languages during iftar, knowing only our ethnic name for certain spices and only the English one for others (I will never call “saunf” aniseed or “dhaniya” cilantro, but “namaak” will always be just plain old salt to me). We indulge in kibbeh and kunafeh at our Arab friends’ houses, in pakoras and dahi bade at our South Asian friends’ houses. During Ramadan, we seem to make up for the things we never realized we were missing – the sound of adhan from all corners, mosques on every block, altered work hours to make the fast easy: all things available in the Muslim-majority countries from whence most of us came.
After my brother’s passing, Ramadan became a month of refuge from the chaos of my grief. It allowed me space to breathe, mourn, to build up strength for the remainder of the year. The past few years, I have been able to recharge and re-center during this holy month by finding solace in the strength of the spiritual.
But this year? This year is different.
I stare at the palms of my hands, as if seeing them anew. They are fairer than I remembered, plumper and drier. All the tiny crinkles have deepened and the slash of my life line has lengthened.
I turn my hands on their sides slowly, looking at melanin’s soft edges. A short, thick, straight black hair is growing out of the side. I pluck it out, firm and deft. I notice another black hair, and then another. I pluck out each one. As I pull the last one out from the plush pad of my palm, it stretches, long and dense. It is a wet, raven-black feather. As I hold it, the shiny feather dries, quickly turning lush, but still as dark as night. I am amazed that it sprang from my skin.
With a startle, I wake up. My eyes open slowly and I stare at the shadows the gray morning light throws on the popcorn ceiling. Under the covers, I clench my hands, tracing their familiar smoothness. No hairs. No feathers.
A friend once told me when I was going through a tough time that nothing is permanent. As a person of faith I know not even death is permanent. That piece of advice has helped me when I stumble into fits of melancholy. I remind myself when I’m having one of those days where despite my best efforts, sadness or frustration or anger keeps blocking my path, that this day won’t last forever. But one thing I have also learned is that once you lose someone, the grief over that loss never leaves.
After my mother died, I was sad, of course. The permanence of her absence made me feel hollow. I had never really known how to talk to my mother, but suddenly that was all I wanted to do. I yearned for just one more conversation, just one more time to hear one of her rambling stories that never seemed to have any beginning or end. I would really listen this time. I would ask the right questions that would reveal something of who she was before the nervous breakdown that changed her permanently. I grieved over what was too late, what could not be brought back.
I have seen this grief that lives in me take on many forms. Sometimes it’s gentle as a sleeping baby’s breath on your neck. Its warmth tickles me, a remembrance of the way she girlishly covered her mouth when she smiled or the way she ended every phone call with, “All the best in the world to you.” Sometimes it’s invasive like a fist in my throat, fighting to breathe, pain touching every nerve in my body. Most of the time it passes through like an unexpected summer breeze but sometimes it stays on long past its welcome and I have to shoo it out the door.
Please welcome writer Eren Cervantes-Altamirano whose column Flirting with Fate and other Disasters of an Intersectional Muslimah will appear the first Thursday of every month. Her piece below, written in July 2014, sets the stage for her new column here at LoveinshAllah.com
Perhaps it is absurd of me to think that Ramadan will ever be a time of peace and refection. From the moment I converted, my patience, my love for Islam and my faith have been constantly tested. Beyond the struggle of belonging to a non-Muslim family, the reconciliation of new acquired identities and the challenges of trying to fit into mainstream Muslim communities, this year I started Ramadan off surrounded by death.
As the month of Ramadan approached and I prepared to fast, I lost my life partner in a sudden accident. He was planning to travel from Saudi Arabia to Canada to visit me after Ramadan. The news came as a shock to all who knew him. He was young, full of life and had many dreams.
Such an unexpected event brings the sudden awareness of the fragility of earthly life, and it also show us the best and worst of the Muslim communities that surround us. Saad’s death is something I had to think and rethink in order to rationalize completely. I can’t say that the process is over yet. But his death has also made me question my own place among Muslims as a convert, as an Indigenous woman from Mexico, and as a “sinner.”