It wasn’t until April 2018, when I was 24 years old, that I experienced true, gut-wrenching, heart-shattering grief. Her death was life changing to the point where I can clearly divide my time on this Earth as the years before and the years after.
I am not talking about the loss of a parent, nor even grandparent. I am grateful that at the time of writing, both of my parents are alive and continue to love and support me as they have since the day I was born.
My paternal grandfather died in 1998 when I was only 4, so sadly, my memories of him are like a sepia photograph that becomes more and more faded when placed in front of direct sunlight. I’ve been told that we shared a great bond and rumor has it that I was his favorite grandchild at the time (don’t tell my sisters or cousins). I wish I could remember that. My earliest memory ever is the day he died, and the sight of my wailing aunts and grandmother at my uncle’s house has stayed with me ever since. Interesting how deeply grief affects our psyche.
Sadly, I didn’t have much of a relationship with either of my maternal grandparents because I have lived in the U.K. my entire life and have only seen them a handful of times on family trips to the ancestral village in Pakistan. The few memories I have of them, are patchy – few and far between – the intervals between each memory stretching years. We were not quite in the era of smartphones and Whatsapp calls; I doubt they had internet in their village anyway.
Who is this person then, that has occupied my thoughts for past year?
Her name was Taskeen. Taskeen Shah. She had a middle name too, but I won’t reveal it here because she hated it and wouldn’t have wanted me to use it. On the April 9 2018, shortly before midnight, Taskeen passed away. She was forty-six years old and had cancer. Fourteen months from diagnosis to death. Mother of three. Wife. Daughter. Sister. Auntie. The dreaded ‘C’ word that is snatching away so many lives these days, tearing out the heart and soul of families far and wide, ripped her away from ours. And, it was lung cancer, initially anyway, in case you were wondering what type – everybody always asks.
Taskeen was my father’s sister. As the youngest of five siblings, she was the baby in my father’s family and we were distraught when we heard that the chemotherapy was not successful enough.
Let me give you some context. She was not just an auntie to me. She was so much more, in many ways and for many reasons. For a start, her house was on the next street. (I still have recurring nightmares where I am running through her empty home searching for her) There was a phase in my life where Fridays were for sleepovers at her’s – popcorn, movies, chats about how dumb boys are. She was the cool aunt. Walking back from school, about three times a week, I would pop into her’s on the way home, and ring my mum to let her know where I was.
In Punjabi (I am British Pakistani), the word for your father’s sister is pupo. Jee is often added as respect, hence we would call my father’s sisters pupojee. Pupojee Taskeen. PT, we would nickname her.
She came on holiday with my parents and me to Pakistan with my uncle and their eldest daughter (the younger two children weren’t born until quite late in her lifetime), we went shopping in Blackburn Town Centre all the time together. Hell, we even went to Disneyland Paris together.
As a child, I found her so much fun. She would play party games, and she would fling open the double French doors so her two reception rooms became one massive playground for us. She introduced me to board games – I still have the cluedo that she bought me when I turned 13, somewhere in my parents’ attic and I’m saving it for the day that my children are old enough to play it with me.
I helped plan her children’s birthday parties, decorating the room with handmade paper decorations. I kept her company when she was bored in her house alone while her husband was at work. After a couple of years, when they welcomed their first daughter. I would play with my cousin, trying to teach her to read and count as soon as she could talk. I would make ‘get well soon’ cards when I thought my auntie looked down. Once, when I was 6, I caught her sitting by the fire, crying. To this day, I do not know what was wrong with PT that day, but what I do know is that she was probably lying when she told me she wasn’t feeling well (this was years before the cancer). I was touched when I came across the card I made her some fifteen years later.
She bought me so many presents over the years. Jewelry, books, clothes; Not just on birthdays, but just at random because she wanted to treat me.
I could go on and on about how much of me today, has been shaped by her. She was the only woman in my family who went to university and worked full-time for most of her life. She made me realize that Pakistani women could achieve a university degree too and have some sort of career. She taught me to be strong. To be happy. To not worry others unnecessarily. To stand up for myself, especially when faced with racial abuse. And of course, that teenage boys are dumb.
To this day, I am still reeling with shock. My mind can not compute. I can not help but ask – why her? She never smoked, she wasn’t old and she was a female. (All the stats point to old men who smoke as being most susceptible to lung cancer.) Her youngest child was not yet 7 years old. Why are my cousins going to grow up without a mother’s love? How is it that the youngest, will barely remember his loving, beautiful, caring mother?
How long is it okay to grieve for? Is it normal to go hunting for her in my dreams because she isn’t here when I’m awake? Is it normal that I still cry about her nearly everyday? That I have tears streaming down my face as I write this? Is it normal that I have pinned our final Whatsapp chat and feel compelled to read the exchange at least once every couple of weeks? How long is it supposed to take to get over the death of someone who you loved so deeply?
I think I’m starting to formulate the answer for that final question – grief is not something that you get over. Ever. You can only go through it. It’s like trudging through thick, knee-deep mud while scaling a mountain at first. Then, gradually, the mud becomes only ankle-deep, the mountain’s gradient a little less steep. But sometimes, you trip over an occasional boulder. Some days you slip and fall flat on your face, smashing your glasses, your face meeting the Earth with a resounding, painful thud. And sometimes you skid and fall on your back, rolling back down several meters.
But it’s okay. Life does go on. The show must always go on. You must keep going. Because in the end, pain is the price we pay for loving so deeply and instead of crying about why I lost her, I am learning to smile about the fact that I was lucky to have her.