Faintly falling through the universe: A personal essay

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Zara Khan/Courtesy

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If I had to use one word to describe what it felt like when my grandmother died, it would be sweet. She died on a cold December evening, as the wind unforgivingly rapped against my bedroom window. I, meanwhile, in the midst of studying for finals, had been sucking on Sour Patch Kids. Swirling the tart sugars around my mouth, I had been using its bitterness to energize me into studying. Then, I got the call. By then, the gummies exterior coating had worn off and my only memory of that moment is the taste of pure, permeating saccharine.

It quickly veered bitter. Sharp. Biting. Acidic. The unmistakable stench of rising bile mixed in with fresh, clean cigarette smoke. The only way I can ascribe words to what happened is through tangential senses; to do so directly, even now, would be too painful. 

Throughout my grandmother’s sickness, one of the most imprisoning forces, for me, were the finite limits to language. Towards the end of her life, she’d been stripped of her ability to communicate, too weak to speak back to us. She let us know how she felt by placing her hands on her heart or blowing everyone kisses. Once, a kiss that she blew freaked her doctors out because they thought she was attempting to take out the tube in the back of her throat.

Those who met my grandmother, or Dadi, as we called her, knew that she loved, more than anything else, to talk. Breakfasts never really felt like breakfasts unless they were accompanied by Dadi dropping some bombshell family secret at the dining table. Enraptured, we sat still, fearful that the slightest scrape of silverware or the careless bumping of limbs would break the dizzying spell her words cast over us. 

One of my linguistic professors once described our words as a web of complex patterns, only truly understood by their authors. Whenever we talk, she said, we offer up a verbal object of our thoughts. Whoever we’re conversing with then catches such objects and layers their own impressions in order to better understand us. Conversation, at its core, is truly a collaborative act.

Talking to Dadi often felt like an expertly rehearsed gymnastics routine in which Dadi had complete control. At its best, you would twirl together, tumbling and jumping to new, unimaginable heights where she would surprise you with her dexterity, her ability to challenge and support you, always making sure to catch you, even if you felt unsteady on your feet. But if she didn’t like something you said, she could catch you off guard, leaving you to stumble, reminding you to never forget who was boss.

As she became progressively sicker, our conversations lost their luster. They became one-sided, drab and dull, like the hospital rooms they took place in. 

During those days, I hated the sound of my own voice more than anything. Time was closing in, and I knew my words were supposed to be laden with a profound, earnest sincerity, but the best I could come up with were the same old, recycled phrases. I love you. I miss you. I’m so grateful for you. What else is there left to say?

I started cataloguing every time I said one of these sentences to my housemates before leaving our apartment, to a friend halfway across the country, to a classmate who edited one of my essays. My cavalier usage of these words began to sicken me. Their meaning diminished. So I became pickier and choosier when I used them, believing that if I kept them on reserve, they could regain their weight. 

The etymology of the word “grateful” hails from the mid-16th century and roughly translates to mean “disposed to repay favors bestowed.” It encapsulated how I felt in the throes of Dadi’s illness. I constantly ruminated over all the acts of love, small and big, she’d bestowed upon me growing up, wanting to feverishly return that love before it was too late. The verb “miss” stems from the Old English missan, “to fail to hit what was aimed at.” It reflected my obsessive thinking at the time: What could have been done earlier? Was she getting the right treatment? What could we be doing differently? Lastly, “love” originates from the Old English lufu and its definition encompasses feelings of love, romantic attraction, affection, friendliness and the love of God, and love as an abstraction or personification.

The world’s vast explanations and connotations illuminate how language can often feel too blanketed, failing to express the nuances of our particular thoughts and emotions.

Language across nearly every culture contains far more words to express negative rather than positive emotions. Linguists suggest this disparity arises because “it’s easier to cope with joy than it is with shame,” which is why we have more words to express it.

As my Dadi left us, in the corner room where my cousins and I used to scan the blue-black night for Santa Claus, the last sound she heard in this world was her boys telling her simply, repeatedly and beautifully, that they loved her.

But when Dadi was dying, I wanted to go over the chapters of the life she’d written with joy. I needed her to know she’d filled in the early sketches of my life with bright, vibrant streaks of color. Wasting precious words on pessimistic language was for those who spent their lives confined to gray, bleary unrealized spaces.

Even in her final days, she was still awash with color. After a morphine drip replaced invasive procedures, Dadi found a surge of energy, speaking more words in her final few days than she had in the past couple months combined. All the thoughts she’d been keeping cooped up came spilling out of her in a stream of consciousness that rivaled Clarissa Dalloway. One minute she was telling us she loved us, only to disclose her secret cash stash on her next breath. She even pleaded with us to call her old insurance agent, Susan, so we could renegotiate her plan before it was too late.

When she was brought home from the hospital to pass at home, she forced my Dad to tip the ambulance drivers — never mind that it was illegal to do so — while ordering my grandfather to serve the nurses hot coffee.

A palliative pamphlet informed us that the last sense a dying person has before they pass is sound. As my Dadi left us, in the corner room where my cousins and I used to scan the blue-black night for Santa Claus, the last sound she heard in this world was her boys telling her simply, repeatedly and beautifully, that they loved her.

In the minutes, hours, weeks and months following her death, I’ve struggled to articulate how deeply affected and freshly cut I am by her newfound absence. It washes up in small waves, crashing onto the shore when I least expect it. A grandmother and granddaughter holding hands as they cross the street. A birthday card signed solely by Baba. Pomegranates in the supermarket.

If I had to pick a word, it would be empty. Due to the pandemic, usual life affirming activities that could distract and take me out of my head for a few, blissful moments have become few and far between. In its space crawls in an infinitely lonelier world, one that somehow continues to exist despite your matriarch no longer being in it.

Before school started, my mom told me she thought this semester would be easier since I would no longer have Dadi’s precarious health situation hanging over me. But I’ve found it to be the opposite. I would never want my grandmother to ever suffer again, but I miss having something to fight for. My days used to be consumed by my family. I’d wake up to copies of Dadi’s medical charts, text my cousin to translate them to me during breakfast, and log on to a group FaceTime call before lunch. A piercing emptiness has taken its place.

And, even though it is just an imperfect, messy construction we project our own baggage onto, language — all we’ve ever said — is the best bridge between all the living and the dead. 

Just like most crises in my life, I’ve found solace by turning to literature. 40 days after Dadi left, on a cold January night that reminded me of the night she died, I opened my copy of The Dubliners and read “The Dead.” All month, I’d been searching for a representation of how I felt in writing — some simple combination of words, some arrangement of syntax, some manipulation of language. I found it in Joyce’s closing words:

“It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

 It reads more like poetry than prose. The story’s narrator, the awkward, frustrated Gabriel had just left his aunt’s holiday party and excitedly anticipated a night alone with his wife, Gretta. However, she reveals the party brought back memories of her first boyfriend, Michael, who unbeknown to Garbeil, died at 17. Gretta spends the rest of the night mourning him as Gabriel looks out onto snow covered Dublin, contemplating Gretta’s revelation and the inevitable brevity of his life in which he too will one day be nothing more than a memory. He finds this revelation comforting and affirming; the dead are still very much a part of the living, actively influencing their lives, while rendered equal under the faintly falling Irish snow.

 I’ve started saying “I love you” to people again. And, even though it is just an imperfect, messy construction we project our own baggage onto, language — all we’ve ever said — is the best bridge between all the living and the dead. 

Contact Zara Khan at [email protected].