I first knew there was something wrong with my grandma on Valentine’s Day. You see, it’s my son’s birthday on that day, and she didn’t call to say Happy Birthday. Never ever did we miss a call from her before. In fact, for the first two years of my son’s life, she called every month. No matter what went on in her life, we heard from her on the 14th of each month.
As the day progressed and I glanced at my phone, I started wondering whether she was OK. It was a busy teaching day, so I didn’t have time or space to call her myself. My anxiety grew with every passing hour, until my sister left me a voice message. She was in tears, heading to grandma’s.
My sister’s message confirmed my worst fears, but I still had another hour of teaching before I could call and speak to grandma myself. It was 9pm in Azerbaijan (5pm in England), when my grandma managed to gather her strength and call me. The moment I saw her name flashing on my screen, I excused myself mid-lecture and went to speak to her. She put on a brave face and spoke as if nothing was happening.
Needless to say, for the next two-to-three days I harassed all of my family who happened to have whatsapp. How is she? I held my breath until they woke up and answered my messages. Phew, she’s alive. Can she hang in on there until I finish teaching on 20 March? It looked unlikely.
Luckily, on 16 February, I ran into a colleague and told her what was going on.
‘Just go. Go now while you can see her alive. Not much point in going once she’s gone.’
I’m so glad we had that conversation, because the next morning started with my mum’s teary voice in my phone:
‘She says she’s got only three days left.’
I went to work and by 4pm I had permission from my boss to cancel all my teaching and go to Azerbaijan. The trip was as easy as it can possibly get. An Azerbaijani friend of mine was travelling to visit her family on Saturday 18th. I had a ride to Heathrow airport and company during the flight. Once I landed, my old neighbours came to pick me up and took all the way to my hometown.
Grandma was alive.
In fact, she told us poems and sang a song for me:
‘I’m ready to kiss the sand on which you have been walking.’
We talked. An endless stream of relatives and neighbours came to visit; people I haven’t seen for decades showed up to talk to grandma. She was fine. I soaked in her words the best I could.
‘If I could choose all over again, I’d choose this life,’ she said.
The life as an orphan, with a violent husband, hardship, famine, war, disappointments, hard work, a beloved son killed at 23….
The life in which she brought up two other sons, a daughter, and me (she brought me up as her own). The life with nine grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and even one great-great-grandson. The life of a matriarch, a strong-willed and much-respected woman.
The life where all her children, grandchildren and their children, endless numbers of relatives and neighbours flocked around her in the final hours of her life.
She passed away the next day.
There were no signs of her imminent departure, except she told us she’s got two hours left. It was hard to believe her words. In fact, an hour before she died, we had a doctor who said if she eats and drinks properly, she’d live for a long time. Reassured, my mum and sister were planning to have a bath. My grandma got up to empty her bladder. Once upright, we decided to make her comfortable. We cleaned her up, changed her clothes and bedding. A few minutes later, she got into her bed, and suddenly something shifted. Her breathing wasn’t right, and by the way she acted, I knew it was the beginning of the end. I kissed her forehead to say goodbye, and was there until she took her final breath half an hour later. She left quickly and peacefully surrounded by her loved ones.
Something in that experience has really changed me.
I used to think of death as something scary. Perhaps I was too young at 14 to appreciate its beauty when my grandpa died. My grandma’s death felt different. I could feel the spirits, and something magical in the air. She was ready to go, and her loved ones were waiting for her on the other side.
Perhaps, the grieving rituals observed in Azerbaijan helped me to empty out my grief and loss, but somehow, I feel at peace. I know her soul is with me.
And, I’m still sad.
She won’t call me today, even though it’s my daughter’s birthday. Nor will she call me on Sunday to tell me ‘happy birthday.’
Rest in peace, grandma. I will always love you.