We tend to think of death as that one moment, the one that stands between the final breath and the void that follows in all its silence and emptiness. Until that point, you’re alive. This may be true regarding the life of sentient beings but there is more that lives and dies without a mortal body. Plants and animals begin to decay only after death. However, all that we give life to in our hearts, our emotions, can begin to decay sometimes long before death.
There is much that we feel that remains in the realm of emotions, unlabelled and unworded, despite the gift of speech bestowed to Man. We are born helpless but trusting, with hope and anticipation. Those of us who learn we have sure footing in early life may assuredly go forward, safely and without hesitation, harnessed to a strong wall. Some of us learn early on that we must build our foundations with caution, with defences, and build strong houses to live in. Between the two we find limbo, the space where all who once believed, lost their confidence and found themselves with nowhere to return to.
My mother once told me that after birth, it is only the physical cord that is cut. A mother is always tied to her child, feeling their happiness, their sadness and their pain, all as though their blood was still pumping through one heart. All mothers give their life to their children – a mother’s life is not lived for herself, but for them. A mother’s love is the closest thing to a manifestation of divine love on Earth. A mother’s love is the only unconditional love – the body that feeds you in the womb before it nourishes even itself, the love that cannot be diminished by the immense pain of labour, the unending concern for her child’s wellbeing, long after anyone could describe them as a child. This, she said, was true love.
For most of my life, I felt that cord. I was a strange child, four going on forty as they say. I occasionally got lost in romantic daydreams. I was often grave and pensive, and took myself very seriously. It’s safe to say, my siblings did not. When they made fun of me, my mother was the one who understood me, and defended me. I was safe in the knowledge that I had an ally and protector.
When I moved away from home for the first time, she would call me out of the blue. “My love, are you praying on time?” she would ask me. Embarrassed, I would admit that I hadn’t been. There was no censure. “I felt it”, she’d say, “that’s all”. On days of deep emotional turmoil, she would call me, even from another continent, “My heart felt restless,” she’d state, “tell me what’s wrong” and my brave face would go to rest while my own heart opened up in the relief that I had someone who understood me, with or without words.
It would seem easy, even logical, to say that things changed when I asked for my divorce. It would be closer to the truth to say it all changed with my marriage. I was expected to give an answer to the proposal within a fortnight of meeting him. The nikkah was set a mere 6 weeks after my answer – likely to have been set sooner if not for Ramadan. None of my other siblings were given such a short timeline. My father was quite ill at the time.
The contrast between how she treated my eldest sister and myself is stark. My eldest sister was told she could back out if she felt unsure, minutes before she accepted the marriage, while her groom to be was in the same house. I was told, minutes after the paramedics took my unconscious father to hospital, that I ought not dare to stall my wedding.
Three years later, when I told my mother that my husband’s treatment of me was unbearable, that I could not stand his touch, she told me I needed to keep those feelings to myself and continue on. When I separated from him, she made me promise that I would not ask him for a divorce, that I would not even utter the word, unless I wanted to lose my relationship with her. (She didn’t know I had already asked him prior to her demand). No time was stipulated on my silence – it was indefinite, however much I begged for some approximate time of my sentence. I was told to stay silent, I did. I was told not to scupper his visa application, I did not. I was told that when the time was right, she would speak to him.
She spoke to him almost every day. “He’s heartbroken”, she’d tell me. “He doesn’t understand. He said that nothing happened between the two of you”. My side of the story was met at times with heavy scepticism and at other times with complete dismissal but always with a defensive anger. After all, I was the one who wanted to break a marriage. He was the one who apparently wanted to hold it together. He would visit my family on all his holidays from work, regardless of my presence at home.
Finally, the day arrived when his visa was approved. I was relieved to think that perhaps now my family, especially my mother, would speak to this unreasonable man who had been refusing me a divorce for over 2 years at this point. Given how she had used every opportunity to tell me, almost daily, about the impatience, the intolerance, the lack of fortitude, strength and even imaan of ‘women these days’, I will admit I was a little naïve. She told me the divorce was my request, my problem, I was free to speak to him. He refused, as I expected he would, on the basis that I had, in his opinion, no grounds for asking and also that I had consented to this marriage…!
Her commentary on ‘women these days’ continued till the day my father, Allah yarhamhu, passed away and her anger continued past the day of my Talaq, a day I faced with no one but Allah by my side and one friend on another continent. The day that brought me a little peace, made no difference to her. As far as she was concerned, I needed to maintain a stony silence to everyone in the community, to tell them nothing, to remain silent even now, after he has moved on, married to another woman. She remains in regular touch with him, sympathetic to all his troubles and celebrating the birth of his first child.
The gift of true, unconditional love I took for granted is gone. I love her by remembering that the amazing woman who gave birth to me is deserving of my respect, compassion and even awe. She entered her marital home in her teens, crossed continents in her twenties with babies in tow. She raised seven children in a land, often hostile and always alien, as Muslims proud of their identity and heritage. She is sincere, God-fearing and hard-working to a fault. Her courage facing all the hardships she encountered and overcame have always inspired me.
She chooses to know very little of my life, or my feelings. Sadly, there is no more cord. It was severed and buried, as tradition demands. I am untethered, uncertain of how I connect with the Mercy of the Divine without the connection of that mercy on Earth.