April 20, 2014
I shift a little bit to find a more comfortable spot on my yoga mat that provides a thin cushion between my concrete floor and me. My friends and I are piled around my large room, all entranced with Disney’s Robin Hood that plays on Quinn’s laptop, set up on a chair. It is Sunday, our one full day off and we have a grand plan of watching Robin Hood, relaxing, having a beer or two, and relaxing some more. Chris sings along with every single word of each song as he hands out coveted Jolly Ranchers. Then it happens. Wailing. Or is it laughing? No, definitely wailing. A chorus of high voices, not quite crying, not quite screaming, just wailing “wayyo, wayyo, wayyo.”
Since I arrived in Butajira, my host grandmother has been sickly, hardly ever leaving her bed. I only talked to her once or twice, while sitting in her room having coffee and collo with the family. But for the two weeks before that Sunday, she had become very sick. Neighbors and friends brought injera and wat, so my mom and sister could spend time taking care of my grandmother. My aunt, Asma, began spending all her time sitting on the bed next to her mom, helping her drink and encouraging her to eat.
When the wailing continued, I got up from the floor and peaked out my bedroom window to see my uncle, Hamdi, sitting on the porch with his head in his hands. I knew then. I knew that my grandmother, Jemila, had died. Just twenty feet away, her body laid in her bed, but she no longer did. My eyes caught Andrea’s and sadness passed between us. My aunt, Asma, was her host mom, and Jemila, her host grandmother too. All pretty unsure of what to do, stopping Robin Hood, Quinn, Jamie, Jake, Ellery, Chris, Bay, Andrea, and I slowly and, as quietly as possible, filed out of my room and my compound. All except Andrea and I, headed to a place we called the Secret Garden for some lunch. The two of us slowly walked back to my house, holding hands. We slipped through the crowd of women pacing and wailing in the hallway and into our living room.
My host mother, Leyila, was sitting in a chair, wearing her beautiful blue and purple, flowered shitti that I have always envied, quiet. She is not crying. Her usually animated and smiling face was an expressionless mask. I have never seen her so down, so still, so broken. I sit down next her, holding her hand on one side and my sister, Elham’s hand on the other, not knowing what else to do. After a little while, my mom’s shoulders begin to shake and, finally, tears come. Visible sadness begins to flood over her. And, although, I did not know Jemila very well, I feel her loss greatly; heavy on my heart, as I watch the new family I have come to love suffer deeply.
Over the next two weeks, my house is a buzz of activity. Never quiet and never without piles of injera and unimaginably large pots of wat. A tent miraculously popped up in the road right outside my compound by the end of that first day. Our living room, front yard, and the room next to mine that was used as a language classroom were emptied of any furniture and become a place for people to sit, eat, and sleep. For those next two weeks, people pounding coffee, cleaning dishes, and cooking misir wat wake me up every morning. Carefully, I have to pick my way over pots and pans and countless women who sit on the porch outside my room. I have been introduced to most, but all their names except a few escape me. Even though I can still see the pain my host mom is in, she tells me to eat and drink and eat some more. I take comfort in this familiar Leyila.
Slowly and surely, things wind down. The tent comes down, fewer people sleep in every room of our house, the stacks of injera lessen, my younger sister, Haniya, comes home from Asma’s house. I can see light coming back into my mom’s eyes and I can see energy coming back into Elham’s movements. I feel as though my family is back, but closer, tighter. I feel more a part of it then I ever did.
About a week after Jemila’s death I saw a picture of her in my aunt, Asma’s house. A stunning, sepia-toned portrait. Her face strong, elegant, and gorgeous. Her deep brown eyes accentuated by the fushia headscarf she wore. This is how I imagine my family to remember her and this is how I will remember her. Not old and frail, skin and bones, as I knew Jemila, but with the strength and beauty I could see in that picture, with the amazing ability to bring an unlikely family closer together.