In a bed of wounds,
My grandfather moves his eyes,
Leaving a gaze somewhere in the distance;
A spot on the ceiling?
A place in the past?
He is made out of deep wounds and
Sore muscles, and Contracted knees.
It snows on Baba Jaan; the fallen flaking skin.
I sweep the memories,
And the dead skin too.
But the smell remains.
It’s the scent of dying.
“Can I go now?”
My mother gets angry
if children hold their nose
Upset, if I refuse to take the urine basin out.
She cries too.
“We shouldn’t make Baba Jaan feel ashamed,” She says.
I am eight years old. I ask my father what brain atrophy is. He shows me. He squeezes a walnut in a silver nutcracker. Brown and black, the crushed shells fall on the steel counter. He takes a walnut piece and puts it in my mouth. He cracks another and eats his harvest. The crunchy pieces of walnut tingle the tip of my tongue, but I keep chewing in hope of finding the answer in the dry taste of my mouth.
I wait and follow my father’s movements. He has beautiful hands with long straight fingers. Blue blood runs in his swollen veins that lay beneath his fair skin. He holds half a walnut in his palm and lowers it to my face. The pieces are attached like Siamese twins. The one on the right is deformed, dried, shrunken and black. The other is a whole.
“This is your grandfather’s brain.” He says.
In my cheeks, I feel the rush of heat from horror and amusement. I fear he would notice the hair standing on its end on my bare arms. I chuckle to look brave, but he knows I’m bothered at the thought of a piece of brain in his hand. He abruptly adds, “this is just a walnut” and breaks off the dead end, throws the healthy side in the air and catches it with his mouth. As he chews, he winks at me and says, “Atrophy means koochik shodan.”
I learn my first medical term.
One side of Baba Jaan’s brain is shrinking. When my father finishes explaining the science of this incurable disease, he says it’s Karma. He says grandfather deserves it. I wonder how an atheist could believe in Karma.
Iranians take pride in their sense of community and coming together especially in times of needs. Visiting the sick, for example is a moral duty not only promoted culturally but also demanded by the religion. But, not many have the courage to come visit my grandfather. It’s a rare disease and some can’t bear the image of a live body that does not move. Others are afraid he is contagious. My uncle says it’s hard for some people. My grandmother thinks people have forgotten him.
It upsets my mother, so she makes sure those who know him hear about his state. She always talks about her father. At a family wedding, she moves around the room to greet everyone. When guests ask how he is, she gives them all the details. She asks if they’ve ever tried wiping a baby’s mouth. She asks if they’ve ever seen how the baby thinks the napkin is food and tries to eat it. Then, she falls silent and stares at the flowers on the rug. The cowards know that’s what feeding Baba Jaan is like.
My grandfather is “aging backwards from adulthood to childhood,” my mother puts in comprehensible words. I wonder if he’ll shrink enough to fit back in his mother’s womb. Relatives and friends wonder why we don’t put Baba Jaan in a nursing home. Many ask whether he will have better care there. The answer is no, plus in Iran, you don’t do that your parents. In Iran, you bear children to take care of you in your old age. In Iran, you take care of your parents to repay them for bearing you.
My mother recites from the Quran, chapter seventeen, verse twenty-three: “Do goodness to your parents. If either or both of them reach old age with you, say not to them so much as ‘ugh’ nor chide them.” My mother knows her place.
As my grandfather’s brain shrinks, my mother’s happiness and beauty fade. She loses weight and hair. She breaks out in spots and pimples. Dark circles appear around her eyes. She can’t sleep at night. “It’s stress.” Doctors prescribe sleeping pills. People say with the care she’s providing for her father, she will have a grand reward in the life after death. In Iran, everyone talks about the afterlife. I wonder why can’t she get her prize now.
No one can stop this shrinking of her happiness and her father’s brain. The last words grandfather says before losing his ability to speak is, “ba khoda ghahram.” He declares his heresy slowly, but deliberately. My grandmother wails and begs him to repent. She prays for Allah’s forgiveness. My mother doesn’t say much. Her tears roll down her cheeks and drip into her mouth as she bites her lips when Baba Jaan says it again, “I don’t believe in God anymore.”