A Hierarchy of Grief
For the past two years, Dr Nash has been prescribing sedatives and antidepressants. It must be the medication taking a toll, slowing my heart down so that I can’t climb stairs. Causing the breathlessness that wakes me up at nights, gasping for air and finding none.
My wandering irritates no one, there is nobody to be disturbed by the sound of the TV at three in the morning when insomniacs are peddled things they don’t need. There is no child to climb sleepily on my lap, such weighty love.
Dr Nash has shepherded me through the past years; she knows how fragile I have become, I, once undaunted by life. I had thought the universe modulated its flow to make my life easier, to make the desires of Aneesh and Anwesa come true because of the merits of past lives and daily prayer.
Then MH370 disappeared, like a star extinguished in the night sky, taking Aneesh and Anwesa from me.
When Kyra hooked me up to the ECG machine at Dr Nash’s office this morning, her hands were clumsy. She is young, interning while waiting for medical school acceptances, and very apologetic. She peeled the monitors off my skin again and again. When the sheets printed out and Dr Nash told her to wheel me into the emergency room at Northwestern Medical, she stumbled near the elevator, pitching me forward. My blood pressure registered 181/120. They did another ECG at the emergency room and mumbled about nonspecific T wave abnormality.
Kyra asked whether someone could be with me, and when I said no, she didn’t press further. She bought me lunch from Saigon Sisters upstairs (thoughtfully Asian and only slightly spicy), and I ate on a gurney in the emergency room. Kyra looked defeated when she left.
Now I am in the cardiac care unit, a place filled with old men my father’s age. I think of my father, so far away, seated in front of the TV, windows open to the tropical heat and pollution of Damansara Utama because he can’t bear air-conditioned rooms. It is early morning in Malaysia; my mother is reading the papers over her morning tea.
There is a cry from a room opposite, sobbing, then all goes quiet.
I know now to interpret signals of grief. Sobbing does not come to everyone, such easy relief.
I am watching the screen; a human heart in action. It is a beautiful thing, this pulsating pumping masculine organ within my female body, creating lines that squiggle into mountains and hills with flat lands in between. I inhale air and life, and then hold my breath wondering if it will change slightly. It doesn’t, this mechanical thing. The black lines on the page continue a traitorous path.
Anwesha is a writer. She talks of black lines on a page and their ability to transport minds like magic. She is learning to read and write Bengali now, and delighting in curlicues of the script in her own mother tongue. Aneesh and I tease her about it, but we are secretly thrilled that Anwesha is a freshman at the University of Chicago, and still so close to home.
Was close to home.
Ina, the technician, shifts slightly, allowing cool gel to probe the underside of my right breast, and a long tongue, flapping as if torn, appears on the screen.
‘Is there a problem?’
Ina is measuring cavities and edges with precise red cross marks. ‘That’s a valve that blocks the regurgitation of blood. Perfectly normal.’
‘Would you tell me if you saw something abnormal?’
She smiles. Her eyes are kind, used to dealing with frightened patients who find themselves in this room without much notice, but then again, maybe she knows. ‘The doctor will read these images and speak to you later. Let me put it this way ... if I see something concerning, you won’t get on that treadmill.’
‘So if I take the stress test, my heart is fine?’
‘I can’t tell you that.’ She carries on probing.
The radiologist is a blond Midwesterner who probably wants to be out on the streets, just like Ina, ushering in another New Year, with its promise of new beginnings. Instead they both focus on the pulsating screen.
How did that little heart keep on pumping through the months when it seemed so much easier to just give up? I willed it to give up, for my body to also become a non-corporeal thing, spiralling towards Aneesh and Anwesa in a galaxy of stars. To cease upon the midnight with no pain. A young English poet, I forget who, had written those lines, and died an early death. Anwesa had driven me crazy while memorising that poem for a slam event, juxtaposing its macabre lines with a modern poem on police brutality on black bodies. She had performed this dark piece at the Printers Row Literary Festival; on that bright summer day filled with young families, that performance had left the audience bewildered.
I now understand the conceit of singing in a dark garden, the happiness of death. I once stopped taking the medication that regulated this body, controlled my hypertension, until I had simply collapsed, needing to be whisked into Northwestern Memorial’s Emergency Room in an ambulance that shrieked past the holiday crowds thronging Michigan Avenue, and into a room of people asking me whether I knew which year it was, who the President of the United States was, and which city I was in.
I was becoming old friends with Northwestern Medical but the only room I really wanted to be in was their morgue.
I have seen therapists. I have mourned with Aneesh’s family and mine in Malaysia for thirteen days, loud bhajans every evening, the community coming together as a protective comforter around me for the two months I stayed. I followed the rituals, even taking imaginary cremated bones to the Malacca Straits on a boat and setting the flowers-that-were-their-ashes free. I eat nothing made out of any cereal at ekadashi, no onion, no garlic, no meat.
No one warns you that grieving is really just another game of one up-manship. In Malaysia, women who had been widowed, parents who had lost children, even women who had miscarried ... they all came to tell me they understood my grief. An Aunt told me about a neighbour who lost both her sons in a car crash, as if losing one child was easier than losing two, as if death was a hierarchy of grief. I had to get up and walk away. I grew tired of the ‘how are you?’ when no one understood how I tottered from moment to moment, veering between disbelief and hope.
I came back to Chicago, which has been home for the past four years but where we are still strangers. In this big city, I can go for days without talking about Aneesh or Anwesa, teaching my students, then returning to the closet where I sleep surrounded by Anwesa’s fragrance. Sometimes I sleep on Aneesh’s shirts, the ones casually discarded in the laundry basket.
Dr Nash wants me to not read the news reports or watch TV anymore, at least until I am stronger. So I don’t. But this morning, on the purple line to Evanston, the man across me was reading the Chicago Tribune and there was a picture of a little boy, like a doll, washed up on the shoreline.
My heart started to pound. I thought of the parents of this child, prayed that they too were washed up on some shore like this, instead of bearing the worst curse of humanity. I got off at the Dempster. I sat in the train station for an hour, but my heart would not subside.
I know the drill by now. Ina asks me to get on the treadmill, run until I can’t run anymore, and then quickly slide onto my right side on the examination table before my heart has a chance to slow down. I have my running shoes on.
‘Good job,’ she says. ‘This isn’t very comfortable, I know, but you’re doing great.’
She knots the hospital gown over my chest as a male technician walks in to look at the screen. He nods.
‘Can I go home now?’
‘Probably,’ she says cheerfully. ‘We’ll have to wait for the doctor.’
They will not find anything wrong with me. The midnight MRI, the stress tests and EKG, will be clear. No Evidence of Ischemia, No Arrythmias, Normal Resting BP with Appropriate Response to Exercise. I have done this before too many times before. Random pictures – a dead child, a plane in the air – sets my heart palpitating and sometimes that forces me into Dr Nash’s office, then the hospital.
I imagine Anwesa in the firmament, her hand clasped with Aneesh’s, and I know he will never let her go. If one of us has to be with Anwesha like this, Aneesh is the intrepid parent, the doting dad. But usually, this image is followed by Anwesa plummeting to earth with terror in her eyes.
Maybe there is a hierarchy of grief. I mourn for Anwesa in a way I don’t for Aneesh. Perhaps we both mourn for the child we birthed, but only one of us has been sentenced to this life of cruel and unusual grieving.
The nurse wheels me back to my room, where the TV is on. The dead Syrian child has a name now and the talking heads are debating on why the Middle East isn’t taking in any refugees, whether Europe can accept the burden of more; one man calls the parents selfish for putting a child on a boat.
Even if I don’t read the news, I know that what is happening in Syria on land is worse than the risks at sea. But why did we, Aneesh and I, take Anwesha away from her land of birth? We didn’t put her on a boat, but we too cast ourselves adrift from everything familiar to escape the ethnic politics that the government was fanning. When his multinational company offered to transfer Aneesh to Chicago, we grabbed the opportunity for Anwesha. That is what we told ourselves as Anwesha wrote through an alienated year of High School, grieving for home, one of the few brown kids in class. Always searching for something a flight away. We had taken Anwesha out of a failed educational system, a country festering in corruption, but we had also taken away who she was before she could become someone.
MH370 is still a mystery. The politics of Malaysia do not make the news, for Malaysia is no Syria, but we were allowed no public rage. We were herded into newsrooms and then dragged out if our grief became a national shame.
Our children are not washed up on seasides. They have disappeared, as if they had never lived.
Is there a right path? Sometimes we get to choose our own passing – a slow erosion or a sudden goodbye. I will leave no survivors to mourn my life, no legacy of this hierarchy of grief.
Dipika Mukherjee is a writer and sociolinguist. Her debut novel, Thunder Demons, Gyaana 2011, was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize; it is being republished by Repeater, UK and distributed by Penguin/Random House worldwide in Summer 2016. She also won the 2014 Gayatri GaMarsh Memorial Award for Literary Excellence and the Platform Flash Fiction competition in April 2009. She has edited two anthologies of Southeast Asian short stories: Silverfish New Writing 6, 2006 and The Merlion and Hibiscus, 2002, and her first poetry chapbook, The Palimpsest of Exile, was published by Rubicon Press in 2009. Her writing appears in publications around the world including Asia Literary Review, World Literature Today, Rhino, Chicago Quarterly Review, Postcolonial Text and South Asian Review. She is a Contributing Editor for Jaggery and curates an Asian/American Reading Series for the Literary Guild, Chicago. More information at dipikamukherjee.com.