“Thank you Beta.” His knuckles brushed my skin as he handed the credit card back to me, and I felt recognition pass between us, a fleeting intimacy that made me think of my father. He was Sikh, his eyes crinkled from the cold, hands rough from labour, and he called me daughter, Beta, in passing endearment. It was in the noncommittal way that someone may call you dear, sweety, or honey, in the way that women unfailingly often are. It was in a way that brought tears to my eyes and made my heart ache. He turned and walked to the next customer, and just as quickly, my vision shifted back into focus and the sharp smell of gasoline filtered into my car, rousing me from my grief. I drove away from the gas station feeling vulnerable and alone.
My father died 3 months ago. His loss has followed me into every shopping center and doctor’s appointment, it makes itself known in every long uninterrupted drive, and every time I see an elder Pakistani/Indian/Sikh/Bengali brown man. It sits as a specter next to me at the mosque, at family dinners where he would poke fun at the food and unfailing launch into long winding stories, eyes shining, hands waving emphatically, laughing in a chortle that I have inherited. I can’t eat suji ka halwa, his favorite dessert, without tears coming to my eyes, nor can I bear to hear old Bollywood songs playing in the background when I go grocery shopping at the Indian store, the household task that was his and his alone.
He called me Beti often, but Beta when he was feeling particularly affectionate, eyes softening for the briefest of moments. I wish deeply that I hugged him more, that that form of affection came more easily to us, but ours was a relationship defined in extremes. He was quick to anger, but quicker still to soften in pride, the first to beam with joy over his children’s accomplishments. When my siblings and I went through his wallet after his death, we found all of our business cards stacked neatly in a row. Some were discolored with worn edges, listing outdated titles from careers of years past. Mine was the shiny new card I had handed to him a week before his surgery. He had slept with it sitting next to him on the bed that week before he went to the hospital.
I still struggle with my language when talking of him to strangers. The finality of using past tense brings such intense heartache, irrevocable and absolute. It feels immensely wrong. Referring to him in past implies a peace with what has happened, and that finality is something I cannot bear to accept. My family doesn’t cry together. We take turns grieving and comforting, but we can not mourn together. It is so difficult to let that much pain exist in one space.
Abu had a childlike love for planes, and could spend hours talking about the mechanics of different models. He would take my siblings to the airport for fun, to watch the planes depart and land. When I think of him, a specific image appears – he is exactly as he was when leaving for his next work trip, wearing his black blazer and khaki pants, passport in one hand, printed itinerary in the other, smelling strongly of black coffee and cologne. His favorite perfume bottle sits on my bookshelf, and I’m afraid I will never open it because the smell of it, the smell of him, will hurt too much.
He is buried in a cemetery next to an old airplane hangar and flight school, and planes fly overhead often. If there is any poetry in death than this is it – silence gently interrupted by the hum of planes as they circle over his grave.