I knew my Booba was gone before anyone told me. My phone screen showed a missed call and voicemail from my brother in Dubai, and the tears came right away. “I don’t wanna check that voicemail. I know what it is,” I said to my best friend.
But I did, and after listening threw myself onto that spot – half-chest, half-shoulder – and sobbed. My Booba, my mother’s mom, the woman who infused generations to come with ideas of kindness, warmth, generosity, and above all love, love, love – had died.
It was March 2010 in Toronto. Mid-week. I was enrolled in a Master’s program with a full course load, a thesis project, and a job as a tutor. There was no way I’d be able to fly to Alexandria, Egypt, for the funeral. According to Islamic custom, burials take place as soon as possible. She’d be buried before I got off the first of two flights it would take to get there.
I was 25, and I’d still never seen death up close. Not my kind of death, where a life ends sometime before dawn and is put to rest before sunset after a final cleansing. All my life, deaths have taken place in Egypt, where I was born but had never lived, and I was never there when death came.
The first time death struck close to home it was my cousin’s father Khalo Mohsen, a heavy smoker who was just recovering from a heart attack. I was barely 10 and my cousin Mai, just a couple of years older than me, had already lost her mother to a car accident. Mai, whom I’d always envied for her beauty, was suddenly an orphan and completely unenviable.
Mohsen’s life didn’t match his happy childhood with Booba (um al umahaat, or mother of all mothers as she’s still known). As an adult he’d lost a wife to an accident and married again, only to divorce shortly after and have his second daughter relocated to another country. But after his heart surgery, things were looking up. The day he died, he put on a tracksuit and went for a walk – probably to buy cigarettes, that great cancer of Egyptian society. Mohsen never made it back home: he was found collapsed in a heap on a busy street.
My family was living in Saudi Arabia at the time and I only heard about all of this a summer or two after it happened, on my next visit to Egypt. I never saw Mai’s grief up close, or brought it up when I saw her. My distance separated me from the reality of death and how brazenly it would make itself known to my family.
Death re-surfaced when I was 15 and my family had moved to Dubai. Late one weeknight I was sitting studying under an old, unreliable lamp when my dad appeared behind me in a suit, suitcase in tow. He was going to the airport. For the first time, intuitively, I knew. His father had died. My Gedo was a man’s man who’d served in the Egyptian military, curbed a 30-year smoking habit, raised four children, and married twice. Gedo was my father’s eldest, best friend. It was the first time I saw tears, glistening and full, in my father’s eyes. I hugged him hard and he left to face his father’s death. I had only my textbooks to face.
Then there was my mom’s eldest sister, my severely diabetic Lolla (poor mom, burying two of her siblings and her father before her own children were even old enough to marry). My parents made the three-hour train journey to Alexandria for the funeral, but my older brother and I expressed our condolences over the phone from Cairo, shielded from seeing death up close, again.
In September 2011, my dad’s brother, Amo Amr, died at dawn at the apartment he shared with his mother. He’d never married, but made up for it with cigarettes: a heavy smoker till the end. The lung cancer came quickly and spread to his bones. My parents were with me in Ontario, settling my younger sister into her first year of college. When the phone call came, I walked into my dad’s room, crawled into bed and hugged him as he listened to the caller on the other end. It was cruel: it was his 60th birthday and he’d thought this was the first of many celebratory phone calls from family at home. Instead, he was an ocean away when his brother died, settling his youngest daughter into her first year away from home. More tears, more tough choices.
And then, this past June, again. I was rushing out the door, late for work, when my Dad called. I picked up, out of breath, hinting that I was already late; what Dad said next making me immediately regret it. “Teta died early this morning. May the rest of her life be given to yours.” His mother in Cairo, the last of my grandparents, the end of a generation, and another funeral I wouldn’t attend.
Every time I can’t attend a funeral or burial, shame and guilt move through my veins. My Booba’s passing in 2010 was perhaps the worst: I wasn’t there, holding her hand and crying with her as she died, and I was working at school, helping students with essays, as my um al umahaat was being laid to rest. My brother was able to make it to Egypt, and helped carry my Booba’s shrouded body into her tomb. He told me how Dad’s side of the family came to pay their respects with their usual pride, dignity, and honour. Alone in cold Toronto, I thought back to when I last hugged Booba, in Kuwait. She was bundled in her blanket, half-asleep.
I’ve never seen death up close when it comes for my own flesh and blood. I’ve been spared the difficult details of final cleansings and crooked doctors. Death is something I live through loved ones, who witness it for me. I dread the day when the distance between death and my family disappears. When I’ll have to cross it, and the ocean in between, to bear witness. For now, I mourn differently.