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by Maham Khan

‘How It Begins’ by Marisa S White

I feel divorced from most discussions of grief and loss. In many ways, absence to me has been more bearable than other kinds of pain. It is better than hatred and disappointment. There’s almost a relief in not having to grapple with a living, changing person who is morphing and taking up space in unexpected ways. But sometimes I think of the losses I will incur over time anyway, and how unprepared I am for them. During the pandemic, left alone to my devices, I had time to ponder things I normally never made space for. What will I be left with in the empty space where there will be no possibility of changing? Where will I leave things with someone I love, or tried to? In the poem Apple by Ayesha Raees I find the perfect encapsulation of how it feels to turn away from the possibility of pain; to revel instead in the abundance of everything else. But it is in moments of good fortune when I have felt my losses most acutely.

Raees describes herself as a “hybrid poet.” Her writing holds the promise of resolutions, some of which are universal, but most are ancestral and personal to her own history, only enhancing their familiarity. Raees’s poem are experimental and rich, especially this one. I think of how there are multiple connections between the fruit, the tree, the soil; the child and the mother; health and illness. The images travel in a circle, arriving at a single point of origin. 

There was a longing in 
the carvings of the knife 
my mother held against the fruit.
She peels with 
quiet permission.

There’s something unsettling and yet oddly calming about the opening verses of Ayesha Raees’s Apple. Permission from whom? Who is withholding, and what? I know the answer: permission from the vagaries of fate, unexpected setbacks, chaos and tragedy. Permission which I refuse to take because I know it will never be granted. Fate and I have an antagonistic relationship. For a long time, I refused to give into grief as though by doing so, I would be admitting its power over me. Instead, I trudged right past it, collecting all the ways life had wronged me, plotting my triumph. When I think of my grandmother’s death, it’s a foot in the door that lets in all my turbulent and ugly feelings about grief. 

My Nani Amma loved ramen noodles. She loved them because they were soft and she could whip them up quickly. Towards the end, when she was really sick, she made herself some noodles and added in the seasoning, packet and all. I fished out the little packet from her bowl, and we all laughed–my sister and I, packing up her clothes (my sister’s wedding was a few weeks away). “I was wondering why I couldn’t taste anything,” Nani Amma chuckled, shaking her head ruefully. By the time the wedding took place, Nani Amma was deep in a coma in the hospital, the outfits she had delightfully picked out for the wedding in a plastic bag under my desk. We knew she was dying, and, like the weather, knew that we had to plan around it. When it eventually happened, I was at school, laughing with a friend. My mother called me and told me they were going to pick me up a little early for the funeral. And that was it. At the time, and for months afterwards, I had no real understanding of her death. We had been anticipating it for so long, I was simply relieved. Now nothing worse could happen. The clothes remained under my desk for a full year, until my mother put them away.

Earlier in  the 
day,  I ate without 
touching from a tree– 
some hanging  game  
with my hands tied 
behind my back, the  
apple stalk noosed  by  a 
single white thread, and 
my mouth snapping to 
catch the fleshed body 
at sway.

Apple carries in it the desperate juxtaposition of things which cannot be reconciled. It is as though the narrator is warding off a truth they are not yet ready to assemble and face. Hands tied behind her back, grappling with unease and awkwardness. Ayesha Raees takes the image of a whole, healthy, juicy apple, but as she bites into it, this central image falls apart. What lies at its centre?

The undercurrent of sickness and grief in the poem can be felt in its discussion of the apple which to the mother is a last resort, but something almost disgustingly abundant for the narrator, when she writes “Grossed heavy/in spit and juice, all/that is my mouth drips/down my chin”. The mother’s apple is subdued but resilient, “still alive without/its season”. The other apple, however, is “noosed”, hanging almost like bait, but it also reminds me of a kind of atonement–a different kind of hanging. Artificially connected to the tree, it is bursting with life, turning the narrator into something less human and more “animal”. It gives no wholesome nourishment but only serves as a reminder of a kind of lack; the opposite of health and appetite. The apple is grotesque. Life, in the presence of death, is unseemly and unbecoming. After loss, I almost cannot stand the injustice of other people getting to have and to hold–so easily, so carelessly–things and people they love, while I feel like I have had to beg for crumbs. And at the same time, I am disgusted with my miserliness. Do I believe my grief is a punishment? Are other people not being punished enough? Is suffering penance? People are allowed to be happy, I tell myself. Ingratitude is unbecoming. And it’s tiring. 

It sugars 
the dead leaves of 
autumn fall, dampens 
the soil enough for it to 
hold close my drenched 

I think of my Nani Amma’s wrinkled hands. Her last days when her appetite dwindled and she said she couldn’t taste anything. In many ways, she was my origin, and in many ways now, she continues to live on in me. In many ways, I’m glad she’s not here. Pain was a frequent visitor in her life. Had she been around now, I would hate the thought of having to explain the pandemic to her. It’s one more painful event I’m glad she gets to sit out. 

For my mother, the loss is deep and acute, and seems to be getting worse as she gets older. At times she talks about it as though she had a responsibility, almost a motherly one, towards her own mother. She recounts small slights, little (and big) arguments and disagreements, and wonders how she could ever have let them happen. I told her once that there is no way she could carry that; no way for her to parent and protect her own mother. In that moment, I was doing for her what I think she wished she could still do for Nani Amma–console her. It is an act of service that is now denied to her forever. 

Perhaps the lesson here is to be thankful for the things the universe provides, unasked, even as the things we love are taken away. It is a cruel benevolence, and I am a long way from acceptance.

Maham Khan is co-editor of The Missing Slate.

Marisa S White is best known for seamlessly stitching multiple photographs together, weaving her own personal narrative through surrealistic and fantastical imagery. Marisa has received numerous accolades for her art, has exhibited across the US and in Europe, and is collected internationally. Her work was recently featured at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California. She currently resides in Colorado with her husband of 10+ years, whom she fondly refers to as Captain Awesome, and their two fur babies.