Your online status Its 'Available' mocks me, to me? surely not. But I wouldn't care if I knew you were present for some who will cry. Those souls will not mind, if you leave all the deadlines behind, when you die.
Yesterday I turned fifty, and it was a day of many blessings. There was no huge party, no great announcements on Facebook and social media. It was just a quiet morning to reflect and be grateful.
I am lucky, and grateful, to have my mother greet me on my 50th birthday and celebrate with me virtually. As a gift she sent me long-forgotten, and blurry pictures of my childhood.
I am grateful that my child made me a birthday card, self designed, and adorned with a our picture, and Happy Birthday in 50 languages.
I am grateful that cousins and aunts sent me birthday wishes, some sang me Happy Birthday in English, German and Arabic, and one aunt drew my portrait, and sent it on Whatsapp.
I am grateful for friends who sent messages and virtual flower bunches, who commented on my old pictures and who just connected with me.
I am grateful that I could bake an ugly-looking cake that tasted heavenly of chocolate, coffee and spices.
At the end of the day I know that I am loved and remembered. Most of those who love me are in Germany, and those are the dependable family and friends whom I know and expect to care. Some greetings came unexpected from people I do not often think about. Two people who particularly wronged me at one time congratulated me, and I am grateful that I can let go of my grudges against them. I wish them well, although they can no longer stay in my heart.
The one person I missed most yesterday (as I miss today and every day) is the one who does not want to remember me. But even for him, I am grateful.
And my cake ? I can have it for breakfast today, because it did not pass the taste test of my chocolate monster. Too much coffee and too much spice, he said. So it is all mine, and I am also grateful.
Tell the dear one, who dwells within my heart That I see him there, even when we do not meet. That my eyes are attached to the sight of him, Even when we are far apart. I wish he knew that I never remember him, How I can remember someone I can't forget? And if he claims that I do not recall, God knows that I never forget him, even for a second. When he is absent from me, he inhabits my soul How could the heart forget someone who dwells in the soul?
أبلِغ عَزيزاً في ثنايا القلبِ مَنزله أني وإن كُنتُ لا ألقاهُ ألقاهُ وإن طرفي موصولٌ برؤيتهِ وإن تباعد عَن سُكناي سُكناهُ ياليته يعلمُ أني لستُ أذكرهُ وكيف اذكرهُ إذ لستُ أنساهُ يامَن توهم أني لستُ أذكرهُ واللهُ يعلم أني لستُ أنساهُ إن غابَ عني فالروحُ مَسكنهُ مَن يسكنُ الروح كيف القلبُ ينساه؟ - أبو الطيب المتنبي-
The first block of this post is my interpretation of the Arabic poem (above) attributed to the Arabic poet Al-Mutanabbi. I always find Arabic poetry very skilled in describing the deepest devotion. I call it Love (with a capital L), or love major. This is the stuff of pure love, that is less concerned with possessing the beloved and more with the experience of Love, the pleasure of seeing the beloved, or even just remembering and mentioning him/her.
It is not a coincidence that some of these Love poems are used in references to divine love, mystic, and sufi traditions. Love in these poems is transcendent and spiritual.
While researching the poem, I found a page that contains another English translation of the lyrics. The same page also contains a link to a link to a beautiful rendition of it in an Arabic song, by Faia Younan.
I send only one, of fifty texts that I draft then say it's the last. Chiselled from heartache, my words pretend to be light, love hides in plain sight. And each time I get a thoughtless response, or none I swear I am done. But these pregnant texts, seem to be writing themselves, yearning to be sent.
The negative aspects of quarantine are often mentioned these days. I have seen some adverse effects in my own life. Today however is a day to appreciate some of the nice and simple things.
This is now my third month of home-based confinement. Like almost everyone else I am still finding it hard to keep to a routine, find motivation at work, keep my child disciplined with online school, and, frankly, keep a clean and well-organised house.
One of the responsibilities I had to take on recently was kitchen duty. Before quarantine, I ate lunch at the staff cafeteria, and my child had his main meal at school. We complemented this with eating out at weekends, and some light and easy to prepare meals, mostly omelettes or other quick pan-fried meals.
My domestic skills have always been challenged, but a woman (and a child) got to eat, now that all our sources for cooked food are gone. Now, I have to create our dishes from scratch. Fortunately, this is fertile Africa, and raw food is readily available especially vegetables. I signed up with a weekly fresh vegetable basket from a nearby farm and got to work.
My weekly veggie basket has become a notable highlight of my quarantine life. I cooked the traditional African greens like sukuma, terere and managu. Some of those I would have readily mistaken for weeds, if I ever saw them in the wild. I enjoyed salads with arugula, and at least four different types of lettuce. I searched for recipes that combine wildly different ingredients (bok-choy and beetroot; lentils and celery; chickpeas, leek and parsley; green banana and peanuts). To compensate for my lack in knowledge, I took photos of unfamiliar vegetables trying to identify them online. I also asked my neighbour for tips on local plant names and cooking instructions.
The vegetables I received, weren’t always as familiar as your broccoli, cabbage and leek. I know what rhubarb looks like, but was never tempted to buy it, nor bake a rhubarb cake from scratch. But I found the red stalks three weeks ago in the basket. Now even my long disused cake pan is getting a workout. I also got to meet live specimen that I only saw before on a food plate, like baby bok-choy. I had to explore the versatility of some strange items that are neither fruit nor vegetables, like chayote. I also suffered a few cases of mistaken identity. Last week, I prepared a smoothie with what I thought was a guava. Much later I learned that it was White Sapote (some strange fruit that is sometimes called Mexican apple). The smoothie tasted a bit like bitter almonds and I feared that I had ingested some toxic substance from the seed, but it tuns out that the slight bitter taste is normal in this fruit.
In short, I had to work with ingredients that I would have never bought from the grocery. I am a simple potato, onion, tomato and green pepper girl. Anything more requires research and a recipe I probably never cooked before. Furthermore, I always considered cooking a chore. I was, after all, raised by a super-human mother who spends half her day in the kitchen, producing delicious fare that took so long to prepare, and no time at all to polish off the plate. To complicate matters further, my child is a very picky eater, who dislikes almost every kind of food, so there was never any motivation for me to try anything new, and I stuck with the few tried and true dishes he liked.
Surprisingly, and even with the lack of encouragement from my younger quarantine mate, I managed to find pleasure in the simple farm order. One day I received the basket while I was on the phone with my friend. She laughed at me when I became excited at finding a small bunch of radishes hiding in my basket. I have always been a huge radish lover. But getting it from the farm was a treat because in addition to enjoying its crispy bite, I could also do something with its leaves. They are wonderful in an omelette and can also be cooked like spinach greens. When cooked, they retain the slightly spicy taste of radish. The radish itself, can go into salad but I love eating it on buttered toast with a little bit of salt and pepper. It is a poor-man’s feast and something that takes me immediately to my childhood. I think it was something that my grandmother ate with great enjoyment. My mother introduced it to us kids, as I introduced it also in my home. Even my finicky child liked it, so there must be something genetic about loving radish.
Radish the humble ingredient, is always present at the breakfast table at my parents’ house in Germany. Mostly for my benefit I guess, since its season is very short here, while in Europe it is cheaply available all the time. My father laughs at me when I eat it raw like a piece of fruit, but he always buys me fresh bunches whenever we visit them.
I have always been a sucker for simple pleasures. Now I am discovering the simple joy and adventure of cooking. I approach it with great abandon, like love. And while I chop and mince the ingredients, I am not afraid to try adding something different, or leaving something out. At times this works well, and at other it turns out horrible. I learned for example that chayote, as tender as it is, takes time to soften, so it is best to add it first not last to the pot. Otherwise it remains crunchy, while the rest of the vegetables turn to mush. I also learned that it is ok to alter cake recipes. When my rhubarb cake tuned too moist the first time, I added less milk on my next attempt and it turned out in perfect balance the second time.
Yes at times one might go wrong, but it is about the journey, not about this one dish. I am taking it as an adventure.
Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.Harriet Van Horne, Vogue Magazine, 1956
Time passes quickly, and things could change in the blink of an eye. It has been over two months since I broke one self-imposed silence, and two weeks since we all had to self-isolate. I am glad that I met him while I could, before the offices, and our shared coffee stations closed. And somehow it was a necessary step towards letting go and accepting.
It happened on a Monday, my second week at the office after returning from holiday. I went through my usual routine of looking him up, to see whether he was away, or had blocked some busy times for meetings. His public calendar showed that he was free for the next 8 hours. I opened a blank email message, stared at it for only a minute or so, then drafted a single subject line. Do you have time for Coffee today? Without hesitation, I pressed send.
I don’t think I planned it. It was just a normal day, and on a normal day I think of him at least a dozen times. Thanks to technology and social media, I always know, in the broadest sense, what he is up to. I had needed to know, sometimes, even while I kept the pretense of trying to forget him. By the end of last year, I knew that my attempts at forgetting were futile. I also dreaded the prospect of a chance meeting that will disassemble me anew, and painfully remind me of things I never forgot.
The year I spent away, trying to get over him, had served its purpose. First, I walked away with my wounded ego, when I felt that he rejected my open adoration. Then I was confronted with the layers of my pain, and by chance discovered that it all originated from a deep unfulfilled need. Because while I had a wonderful childhood where I was loved and unconditionally by close and extended family, things drastically changed when I became and adult. As soon as I grew into a woman, I was judged superficially for my appearance rather than my essence, and found that I need to work very hard for genuine appreciation and validation from others, all the things that I received freely as a child. The moment of realization came one late afternoon. I was complaining to a close friend and colleague about lack of recognition from my supervisor, then I found myself talking with bitterness and pain about the abuse I suffered in my marriage. Finally, I dissolved into tears when I remembered the final rejection from the man I loved. This meltdown sent me on a journey of self-discovery, where I learned to be kinder and more accepting of myself and others. I now know that I can always offer myself the love and compassion I needed, and I no longer crave as much validation from others as I did before. The journey is ongoing, but I have gained a better sense of my genuine self, and I realized that letting go of the ego, means less pain or at least less suffering.
My trusty therapist accompanied me on this journey. After ten sessions of talk therapy, she told me that I was now better, and perhaps I did not need her on a weekly basis. At the time I was going on holiday, and it felt right to have a break. However, one question she asked stuck with me and tortured me. She asked me whether I saw the man I loved again, and I told her that I have successfully avoided him after our last chance meeting some three months ago. During the calm time of the Christmas holidays, and embraced in the safe caring circle of my family, I spent long times ruminating about this problem. Does avoiding pain really equate to healing? How can I be over my heartbreak if a chance meeting would tear me apart?
By instinct I knew that avoiding my almost-lover was useless. I always criticized others for trying to run away from themselves, yet here I was trying to avoid my soul’s deepest desire. How could I ever think that I could leave him, when he has never left me? But this had been a recurrent pattern of my life. My intuition and heart were always way ahead of my mind and intellect. So on that day in January, I let my heart lead my fingers as I typed the email asking to meet him.
When I sent the email note, I did not know that he was in the middle of one of his usual work crises. It took him some time to reply but when he did, he accepted my invitation without hesitation. Later he commented on my timing and how I caught him at the worst possible moment in his working life. I seem to have a knack of doing that all the time. He never asks himself why it is so, but I know that my soul must be very close to his that I feel his distress.
We did not meet for long. He bought me coffee and I filled him in about the most important events of the past year of my life. I filled him in about my trip home for example and the reason for it. He told me that he thought I had left, since he never saw me on the street. I said I was still here, but did not mention that my departure was still a possible future outcome. He did not say much about his life, preoccupied as he was with the immediate work concerns. I tried to point out that work was not everything, but he was quick to counter that it was a bad time for advice.
I did not need to tell him that I was still ‘weird’, I felt our connection just like before. I still looked at him in the same way, and he asked me, like he usually does, to stop staring. He said that we resembled an old divorced couple, and he joked that he did not remember the middle bit, just the divorce. He said it would be nice if we met again, every quarter, then left to resume his professional battles. I finished the rest of my coffee, alone but for the warmth he left in my heart. I knew that I still loved him, perhaps more than before. The pain was still present, but I would live with it. Neither of us could change what was and would perhaps remain between us. We were just one and the same. Time and space meant nothing when we were together.
I meant to write that love letter then, to tell him how meeting him, and recognizing him as my twin soul was one of the most unsettling and challenging events of my life. It was, and continued to be, my greatest learning experience, and the catalyst for my ongoing spiritual growth.
Before him, I was hiding inside my protective shell of cynicism and apathy. I saved my love and affection for only a few select people, and avoided the rest of humanity. Then he found me and eventually broke the artificial barriers I built around my heart, to shield myself from disappointment and pain. He broke through my defenses because he knew me, and I was not prepared to love so selflessly, to relate so completely, and to look into the mirror of my soul. The ego resists and rejects experiences of true love, because they threaten the boundaries we keep between the self and the other, between what is wholly ours and what belongs to God or the universe. But as love destroys the ego, it offers the clearest passage to enlightenment. I finally understood what God was. God is love, and love is where he is, in my heart.
I remember the only time I held him. In a hospital room, I told him that everything will be Ok. We will be fine. Then, I looked into his eyes and said: “You will learn something”. Undoubtedly it was my intuitions speaking even then, because -unbeknownst to my rational mind- my heart had already opened up to the spiritual journey, that our twin soul is destined to to take.
I never managed to write this letter, not on the first day we met, after such a long time. I still had so much to process. But I thought I would write it later here to celebrate his birthday in February.
But his birthday has now come and gone. I sent him a greeting on the day, even though I knew he was away, and invited him to a celebratory coffee a few days after his return. A day before the appointed time. His message ringtone chimed on my phone and I was dumbstruck at first then delirious with happiness. That ring tone has gone quiet for over a year, and I could never assign it to anyone else. For the past year, it had always unsettled me whenever I heard it from a stranger’s phone. The shock could hit anytime, in the supermarket, in the cafeteria, or worst while boarding a plane, and I would be back to the twin thrill and disappointment of hearing it, then knowing it was not coming from my phone. This time I was to keep the thrill. His text adjusted our meeting time, and I was drunk on my own happiness for almost 24 hours in anticipation of a small meeting over a cup of coffee.
That meeting was a bit longer, and he was more relaxed. He talked to me about his business trip to a desert kingdom, and his real and imagined adventures there. His real escapades included skydiving and bar-hopping and what I suspect some less important socializing. The imagined ones included running away to live with the Bedouins in the desert, and I said that I would join him for that.
While we were talking I thought I misplaced my phone and looked for it for almost a minute in my purse before I realized that it was sitting there next to my coffee cup. He confuses me this way, whenever he sits opposite me. He said that my forgetfulness reminded him of a movie he saw “The Notebook” where one character was suffering from dementia. I reminded him that I was not a movie person, and he said, that it was a nice love story.
This time I told him that I was waiting for news about an application I made to transfer to another duty station. He asked me when I would know the outcome, and I said, perhaps it would be a month. We parted, and I told him I was giving him a virtual parting hug.
That second meeting was tougher on me than the first. I felt more, and I feared saying goodbye soon. After I left, I shed some tears in the privacy of my office. Later at home, I realized that I had seen the notebook in December. My parents are TV addicts, while I only enjoy televisions programs as part of family time with them. I watch with half of my attention, while knitting or crocheting. Most of the time I listen to improve my German, but sometimes the story sucks me in. I was only half-watching for the first part of the movie. Two young people in love who end up together despite the obstacles. The second half seemed unrelated at first. An elderly man visiting a care facility and suffering the rudeness and maltreatment of a woman resident. He is often berated by younger visitors that he is wasting his time. At some points, we the viewers find out that the elderly man and the woman are the same lovers whose story we saw earlier. The man is retelling to the woman, through letter, or through this notebook he kept. He visits her all the time waiting for the one rare moment she returns, and recognizes him. I cried my heart out when I saw the movie. I cried again that Thursday evening, because that story was a metaphor for how I loved him. I was just waiting, never abandoning the distant hope, that one day he would, maybe, recognize me.
Since that second meeting that left me in tears. I reached out to him twice. Once near the end of February. He answered me that he was going to be unavailable for the next three weeks, on short leaves and then workshops. Then last week I wrote to ask him how he was doing with the self-isolation, but that email is not yet answered.
I wrote so many letters to the man whose existence in my life was an outward curse but an inner blessing. Two of them, separated by almost a year of suffering, punctuate and chronicle the evolution of my feelings for him.
In the first, the theme was an awakening. I described a cynical woman who has long given up on human connection, let alone a belief in love. On a sunny afternoon, the woman was enjoying time alone with her book and a cup of coffee, when a tall older man, with charismatic blue eyes, intruded on her space and insisted to make a conversation, which evolved into a connection.
Their meetings for coffee continued, and they were always more than just chats. The two connected on deep levels, even while they joked about their funny friendship. When the woman had to be admitted to hospital, he watched her awaken from post-anesthetic haze, held her hand, and planted a chaste kiss on her forehead. She knew by then that she loved him, more than she had ever loved anyone in this lifetime.
The connection was too intense for her, she refused to accept it even when it was exhilarating. And when it became heart-wrenching during the longer periods they stayed apart, she yearned for the times she was free of heartache. More than once, she attempted to walk away. She tried to regain her autonomy, her freedom from this connection that sometimes felt like a restraint to her free spirit. Yet even when he was not around, even when she refused to speak to him or contact him, he stayed with her. He was always the first person she thought of when she woke up in the morning, and the last image her mind conjured before she drifted to sleep.
Sometime in that first year, the woman conceded defeat. She simply could not resist the pure joy, the energy that their meetings generated. She realized that the few moments of connections she experienced with her love were more precious to her than some years of her life. The mere thought of them waking up in the same city or listening to the same rain shower was sometimes enough to give her a smile.
By the end of the letter, I asked to restore the connection. I asked the man I adored to write to me, text or email me, every once in a while, because I knew that I could not severe our bond.
To my knowledge, this first love letter remained unread. He refused to look at it, for fear of being drawn into the web of what he thought of as ‘my emotions’. Instead he took a course of denial, trying to dismiss or disbelieve what is written in the stars.
The second letter, was meant as a goodbye letter. A letter to forget. It was never intended for his eyes, and was not even meant to be kept. The therapist asked me to write it. The theme here was letting go of grief for the unattainable, even if it was true love.
In this letter too, I told the story from the beginning. I described our meeting, and the growing awareness. There were more memories, the kiss on the cheek that I stole from him as he collected our used coffee cups, and the way I turned away and ran after this unusually bold act. The surprisingly profound pronouncements I made from my hospital bed, with my brain in the semi-dazed state of pain-killer haze. I told him, that I felt him, “here”, and pointed to a space on the left side of my chest right under the rib-cage.
I recalled how every meeting with him felt like a sunshine in the heart. And how every short stretch we walked in step together felt like a winged flight above the clouds. I remembered the moments I felt he cared. But I still reproached him for starting this whole thing up, for persisting on breaking me out of my shell then retreating behind an indifferent mask.
In this letter, I still struggled to make sense of the experience, to put it to bed, to bury it, and say goodbye to it, because even the beautiful memories caused me pain. I cried while writing about them and I cried again as I read the letter to the therapist.
I have been broken by this and emerged as a different person. You have made me what I am, like the sleeping beauty that was awakened by a prince, and this is something I wrote in the letter you never read. I read every book I could on grief and how to survive it. But I often return to the theme of love, which I think I finally understand. I was always skeptical about the concept of soul-mates, and scoffed at love as a passing fancy. Now I know better, because it is enough for me to see you from afar for all this to re-awaken and torture me. I wake up at odd hours at night with this sense of loss. As if a part of my soul is missing and I cannot replace it. When the pain is too much I miss the days when I considered myself whole and above any feeling of desperate love.
In all my other relationships there was this desperate angst. The constant questioning and worry: Does he love me? Doesn’t he? will I be with him? This is totally absent in this one. I see photos of you on the web or on Facebook and I am struck by the single thought, that you are simply my twin soul. I am also certain that I love best this present version of you. The older man with the eyes full of pain and unspoken words. Not the goofy younger guy who was extremely handsome. If I had met you as a young man we would have completely missed each other.
I have exhausted myself talking about this and cried several times in the process of writing. I just pray that you are happy and at peace. If not, then there is nothing I would not give to make your life a bit less sad. I write this and the part of me that used to be rational cringes at what a pushover I am. I am the quintessential desperate female, but surely I am not on the lookout for love, or affection. It is just you are the one person who moved my soul. Again, lots of poetry and quotes about love seems to resonate with me and describe my condition quite truthfully.
In Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte makes Catherine say about her love for Heathcliff – I do not know what souls are made of but his and mine are the same. And Elif Shafak in Forty Rules of Love writes this– “Every true love and friendship is a story of unexpected transformation. If we are the same person before and after we loved, that means we haven’t loved enough.”
You were the only person who changed me so profoundly and for the better. I wish I could tell you this in person. Because I believe that, at least on some level, I changed you too.
It has been a while, but I think I wrote this letter before the wound of my beloved’s final rejection. Before he told me off for being weird, and invited me to fall in love with Jimmy the postman. My last attempt to walk away came as reaction to this rejection. It was my final stand for my ego, because after his persistence on breaking me out of my shell, and after his role in liberating my capacity for unselfish love, I felt that he had no right to deny me my right to express those feelings and live them.
I managed to avoid contacting him, writing him texts or love letter for 447 days. During that time, every chance meeting broke me. And he never left me. Perhaps I forgot about him briefly at times when I was preoccupied with my sister’s illness, or when I was visiting her. I might have felt invincible against the pain for some time after a long therapy session where I read that second letter, and for a longer euphoric period after I finished my first marathon. But when those events faded or settled back into normalcy, he returned where he belonged, in my heart. So perhaps it is time for that third, and final, letter.
On a recent visit to my therapist, we went through an exercise aimed at helping me find closure. I read a letter I wrote to the man I love, and tried to process it while listening to alternate drumbeats through the headphones. At the same time, the therapist, standing behind my chair, gently tapped on my right and left shoulders alternately. The session, as she explained, was aimed at taking the experience from the feeling side of my brain to the analytical side. I understood that this might limit my emotional reactions, and bring me back to the realm of logic. I am always in for that, but I am not sure whether it worked for me on that day.
I wrote the letter some ten days ago, on the same evening I had my previous therapy session. Writing it was heart-rending, I cried over the text several times and became exhausted by the memories it evoked. Reading was less intense, marginally. I could read some sections without emotions, so I am quite curious whether the alternate activation of my brain hemispheres did actually have some effect.
At the end of the exercise the therapist asked me to visualize the man, to make him progressively smaller. I jumped the cue on this and immediately visualized him very small and held him in my palm even before she asked me to do just that. Her aim was to make him gradually smaller, reducing his power over me. I am not sure whether that strategy worked for what ails me, where the man is concerned. As I saw him in my mind’s eye, small and vulnerable, my feelings for him changed, but not in the way the therapist expected. I felt tenderness towards the little creature he became, as if I held a tiny animal, a bird, a hamster or even a mouse. I wanted to hold him gently in my palm, and perhaps keep him safe, and care for him. I never had the urge to crush him or obliterate his existence.
When she finally asked me to do whatever I wanted with the miniature man, I turned him into a bird and let him fly away. Then, on her request, I imagined walking away from him and from the situation of my prolonged grief. I walked away towards a sunset on Shela beach in Lamu. The wet sand was glimmering under the sunlight, and I could see the green of the mangroves, and the metallic blue of the lagoon. I was at peace, but a tiny bit of my heart still wished that the little bird I set free would alight on my shoulder again.
The only power the man has over me is his love. And the love I carry for him has no remedy, at least not on the therapist’s couch.
I have been silent on the blog, and it is less from lack of things to say and more from having too much weighing on my heart.
Just as the clouds lifted over my working life, a huge sadness cast its shadow on my family in early July. My only sister is seriously ill and has to receive long and exhausting rounds of treatment. My family was devastated by this news and for a while the diagnosis, the denial, the acceptance, the fear and the hope obliterated all other thoughts of minor problems like a bit of heartache.
The passage of time, however, does some weird things. We are still weighted down by this monumental sadness, and the inevitability of my sister’s suffering for the next year. We accept the course that the treatment will take, and the damage that it will do to her body before it will hopefully makes her well again. But we cannot walk this road with her, so we stand by, cajoling, encouraging and praying, while she alone carries the physical pain. We try our best to boost her spirit, which often falters, and this understandable given how much she was opposed to this type of treatment.
For months, I prayed daily for her strength, and thought only briefly, and only second, of what I now thought of as the insignificant problem of my broken heart. I suffered some guilt that it took my sister’s illness to relegate it to 2nd place in my mind. But the memory of the man I love was never completely absent. Even when I went home to South Africa I spoke about him with my friend, and stalked some of his public profiles, but I thought I was done with the deep grief.
Until another chance meeting that cruelly happened on the first day I went back to work. I was awaiting my turn at the protocol office, to hand in my application for work permit renewal, when I heard a voice, a familiar one. And there he was receiving passports from the reception counter, and regaling the office clerk with stories of his daughter, the singer, who will be his retirement plan. This was a familiar story for me, because I heard it before, and I could not help wonder why he related it so loudly to reach my ears. I was sitting down, my eyes helplessly going back and forth from his tall back and partial profile, to my visibly trembling hand. He finished his story, walked past my chair to a desk across the hall to say hi to some other protocol clerk, then came back to face me. Hi, he said and walked away. I think I replied or nodded back, I do not recall.
The next day, I cried my heart out on my therapist’s couch. I think what hurt most was the knowledge that he was still with me, after all this time. I tried to leave him be, almost a year ago, but he never left my heart. He knows what those chance meetings do to me. I told him that I am torn apart even if I glimpse him briefly. The sight of him brings back every moment and every emotion I experienced with him. It awakens the sleeping heartache, and revives the pain I thought I successfully buried.
After a week of unreasonable pain, interspersed with worry over my sister and headache at the workplace, I felt sick of this whole story. I was ready to pack up and leave Kenya at the earliest opportunity. Then I made myself stop. There are things that cannot be changed and can only be carried. I thought initially that my helpless longing for this man was one of them, but now I think I was wrong. My sister’s illness is one thing I cannot change. My insufferable workmates are another thing I cannot change. I am fine with carrying these, in the hope that a resolution, a healing, will happen sooner or later. My sister will get better, my workmates will improve, I will learn to tolerate and manage them better, or they will no longer be my problem.
This grief, however, needs closure. And the way that I left, and the fact that I allowed him to keep silent and passive are not helping my closure. I need a sincere talk. I need everything to be spelled out in the open. Last year I felt that I said everything that I could, and interpreted his silence for rejection. As long as we did not meet, I could convince myself that it was so. But the connection feels alive again – at least for me- whenever we meet by chance. This last time was worst, because I shared the same space with him for some time, and watched his behaviour. And after ruminating over the circumstances for days I have a strong suspicion that he was trying to catch my attention with his chatter and final detour to the clerk in the middle of the hall, which brought him, as he made his way out, on a head-on-collision course with me, sitting where I was and unable to leave my position in line.
Even if I was wrong and delusional, there are a number of danger signs I cannot ignore. I am starting to seriously consider leaving my beloved sunny Kenya, a place where I have a simple life, and where my child is enjoying a happy school-life for the cold embrace of a European city I once fled and could not tolerate as a young woman. I cry every time I read the post I wrote in May. And when my therapist asked me to write a letter to him, as a form of closure she explained, I wrote for two hours and cried my eyes out for the rest of the night. The memories and emotions are real and fresh to me even after all this time, and their sincerity deserves a final recognition, and a fitting funeral. I will buy the flowers and the coffin, and bury the dead. I think I will be fine then.
I had decided that this is the only way, even before the therapist asked me to write the letter that will never reach the man I still love. I am, however willing to wait. I no longer act impulsively every time my grief stops my breath. I have made myself forget, or pretend to forget, his number so I am not tempted to text or call. I will breathe and wait. If I manage to finish my marathon, if I manage to go the physical distance to the end, I will seriously consider going over the metaphorical distance, to the end of this story as well. Among all the things I find myself forced to endure, this one I do not think I need to carry forever. Just one hour of honesty will be enough. I will either find the love that I lost, or bury its remains.
Love is not measured in minutes or days. If I added up all the moments I spent with you they will be one or two days at most. Yet I grieve your absence from my life, like a widow who mourns the passing of a husband she loved all her life. Because in that brief time, you were that to me, the love of my life. I let you into my world and shared with you everything I know and love. You sat at a table with my closest family. I saved you a portion of every treat I enjoyed. I broke with you bread and chocolate. I bought you dates as sweet and soft as kisses, and juicy baby tomatoes bursting with sunshine and flavour. I introduced you to my favourite books and authors, and to my stories and memories. You shared some parts of yourself too, but I left nothing out, I was an open book. I told how I felt, and I even wrote you a love letter.
You sampled and tasted. You took the gifts, but rejected the underlying emotions. Apart from the times your eyes or words betrayed you, you gave very little, only some impersonal or discarded pieces of your chaotic universe. You liked to see me, but did not want to see my pain. You wanted me to look at you, but not look into you. You disliked me reaching into your soul. You liked to feel adored, yet you left the love letter unread, because reading is getting involved in the emotions of another. It did not suit you that I was expressive, that I spoke my heart, and fully acknowledged and accepted what I felt. You labelled me weird, where I was merely honest. I went through my own phase of denial, but unlike you, I eventually realized that love is a wholesale preposition. You cannot cherry-pick the joyful parts and discard the sorrows. I could not pick out for you the parts that you wanted, so I decided to keep everything that remained to myself. Now I am free to be honest and emotional. I can weep with the memory, and laugh alone at a joke or an anecdote that I am sure you would have enjoyed.
I left you because you rejected the most elemental part of me – that I loved truly and deeply. You did not understand that it was the one thing beyond my will or control. You could have asked for anything else. I would have plucked the stars out of the sky for you, but you went and asked me to deny or ignore the one truth I cannot change.
I left you but you did not leave me. I still see your empty seat at the table. My joy in the simple sights, sounds and tastes is now forever diminished. They were only perfect when shared with you. A small piece of sorrow remains for me at the heart of every joyful moment, each time I taste a perfectly brewed double cappuccino, and every time I read a brilliantly crafted phrase, or an engrossing and touching story. I will never stop looking for you to complete those experiences, even in moments we never shared. I look for you to walk beside me when I am taking a solitary walk on the beach. Alone in my bed, I turn to you on the pillow next to mine, to read you a passage I found interesting. And I see you looking at me over your reading glasses, and your eyes tell me that you are truly with me, listening to me, and seeing me with your soul, not just your eyes.
The last day we met I left empty-handed. You did not give me anything that deserved to be kept. I only have the memories I lived, and the visions I fantasize. The most lasting of your parting gifts has proven to be the grief I feel, the sadness that keeps assailing me and eventually flows out of my eyes. And since it is the last gift, I am reluctant to part with it. It is the only piece of you that is truly mine, and the final proof that you, and what I felt for you, were real.