Borrowed time

My mother’s fiance died when I was nine years old and for years after that, we would commemorate the anniversary of his death by sharing a box of Ferrero Rochers, his and our favourite chocolates. I don’t remember exactly how long we upheld this ritual before, gradually, year after year grief began to slowly loosen its grasp and now the day passes without me even registering its historical significance.

I don’t want that to be the case with the memory of my grandmother’s last days. In fact, I have a vivid fear of letting the memory slip away into a blur, especially since the memory is already so blurred over with overwhelming emotion and regret.

It hit me in the face the other day when the first anniversary of her death came and went and I nearly passed the day by, blissfully unaware of its bitter undertones. My mother brought me back to reality when she phoned and mentioned that the rest of my family back home would be going out for breakfast to commemorate the day and “just be together.” I felt guilty for forgetting, and my heart stiffened into a knot, tangled with a mixture of warmth, longing, and regret at the sudden conjuring up of the last memory I have of her.

On her death bed, holding my hand and looking intently into my eyes, she added a few more inches to the incredibly large shoes she was leaving for me to fill by imparting on me this profound purpose:

“Be everything to everyone,” she said.

That phrase clouds every memory I have of her now, because only after her death did I discover what she really meant and the great extent to which she embodied that phrase throughout her life. People of all different ages would come to me and tell me how my beloved grandmother had touched their lives, and I soon began to realize that although I was an only child, and had no siblings to share my gran with, she wasn’t only my grandmother. She fulfilled the role of mother and grandmother to so many other people that had need of the love she had to give. I inherited a family formed not only by blood but bonded by her love and acceptance.

In her beautifully written memoir, Letters to my daughter, Maya Angelou explains that while she gave birth to one son, she has “thousands of daughters.”

“You are black and white, Jewish and Muslim, spanish-speaking, Native-American and Aleut. You are fat and thin, pretty and plain, gay and straight, educated and unlettered, and I am speaking to you all, here is my offering to you.” -Maya Angelou

This quote reminds me of my grandmother, my very own Maya Angelou.

In her life, she served as a mother, a mayoress, a music teacher, a company director, an excellent cook, a good wife and a treasured friend. The list goes on. She lived out her life being everything to everyone, and she did so with enthusiasm, grace, generosity, and gentleness.  She epitomized the art of being formidable without raising your voice.

How do I commemorate the memory of a life so well lived? Maya Angelou also said that “Life loves the liver of it,” and my grandmother certainly knew how to live life. Boldly and with colour.

So here I am, sitting in a coffee shop, all alone. Sipping my cappuccino and filling the empty chair next to me with all my memories of her. I’m trying to refresh them, to see them clearer; shuffle them around and place them in order, but most importantly I’m trying to reassure myself that the memory of her; all that she means to me, hasn’t slipped away and faded like an old, colourless photograph that no longer captures the life of its subjects.

Three months before my entrance into this world, my grandmother was involved in a life-threatening head-on collision motor accident. The deciding factor of whether or not she would live to meet her only grand-daughter rested on a single heartbeat. Her heart stopped beating at the scene of the accident and if the paramedic hadn’t listened to that ludicrous voice urging him to give ONE more attempt at resuscitation, I would never have been blessed with the experience of knowing and having my grandmother in my life just long enough for her to witness me emerge into the first stage of adulthood.

I’m reminded of that bible story when King Hezekiah’s life was due to come to an end, but he pleaded with God for an extension, and God proved to be more lenient than some of my University Professors and granted him an extra 15 years.

My gran was supposed to die that day. She actually did die. For a few minutes, her heart ceased to beat. But thanks to a persevering paramedic, who went over and above his normal lengths of duty, my grandmother was given a second chance at life, and I was given a chance to have my grandmother around for just as long as it took her to teach me and shape me into the person I am, and into the person her influence and her life constantly inspires me to aspire to become.

I like to think of it as borrowed time. Time leased out to fulfill a purpose. Time, that does not belong to us but is lent to us and the only way to pay it back is to pay it forward.  She was certainly a gift to me, a gift I can only repay and express my gratitude for by aspiring to follow in her footsteps, to continue her legacy.

All of our lives serve a purpose; we are all given ‘borrowed time’- time that one day we will have to give back. We better spend wisely because what we give back, is what we leave behind, and essentially, what we pass on to others.

We are all women, who in some way or another, at some stage of our lives, are called, or expected to be ‘everything to everyone’. Some see it as a curse, others, like Maya Angelou, and my grandmother, use it as a blessing to build others up and leave behind a legacy of love.

My grandmother was an exceptional woman, and I’m not just saying that in an attempt to ‘immortalize the dead’. She had her faults and her failures, but she never allowed herself to be defined by them.

She proved, to me at least, that you can do it all, and have it all, yet not be defined by it all. She was many different things, to many different people, but she is everything to me. And yes, she left very large shoes to fill, and it’s my life-long prayer, that I may never forget, that from her dying lips, she left them to me.

Discovering the stars within us

From a young age, I knew I wanted to be a writer; I was a writer. Writing, story-telling, came almost as naturally to me as breathing. I wrote everything down, lists of everything and anything, words to songs I liked, even poems and stories and my own philosophical theories. The other day I came across one of my four-year-old philosophical scribbles. My aunt had kept it safe in her diary for all these years, and hurled it out as ammunition for my 21st birthday party. The embarrassingly cute scrap of paper, messily scribbled in my just-learnt-to-write handwriting, contained quite profound views for a four year old, on how freedom comes from self acceptance (put in more plainer terms though), but more profoundly, it held evidence of an innocent young mind trying to, through the medium of the written word, make sense of this conflicted world around her and where she fits into it.

I remember I was about seven years old when I was given a notebook with a picture of three kittens playing musical instruments on the cover. I looked at the picture, and I suddenly felt words forming inside me. I felt the beginning of a poem coming on – a story of these three cat-musicians. The words began jumping out at me from inside my head and all I could do was turn over the page and write and try to keep up with the pace of my tumbling thoughts. It was like those games in arcades and the kiddies play areas in casinos where there’s a set of buttons and you have to hit the button that flashes, and it changes so fast and the other buttons start flashing and you’re literally just standing there pounding your fist in every direction, too afraid to miss a flash for fear you’ll lose the game (there’s always some silly little plastic toy prize.)

That’s how I feel about writing. A million thoughts spiraling through my head at the speed of light, and I have to get every single thing down on paper, quickly, before it all disappears- because how do I know one of those thoughts, words; skeleton of an idea, that momentarily flickered through my mind, how do I know that when it’s exposed in the flesh, it wont turn out to be one of the best thoughts I ever thought?  And if I don’t get it down on paper, before it fades away like a shooting star, who knows how long I’ll have to wait to see it again, if I ever do.

I guess that’s why Jack London imparted his pearl of wisdom to always keep a pen and notebook at hand:bc199bfdd1ce8822e645046dcb5b4680

I also resonate quite deeply with Lord Byron when he said:

“If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.”

I am a writer, by default (and a lifetime of practicing that will only end when I die). I write because I have a million thoughts spinning inside my head and the only way to release them is to purge them out on paper. The veins of my thoughts are filled with thick dark ink and my being; my  fingers wrapped around my pen, is just a vessel to help me make sense of who I am, how I fit into this world, and most importantly to tell my story.

As my favourite author F. Scott Fitzgerald aptly put it:

“You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.”

Ultimately, we all have something to say, we just use different mediums to portray it in different ways. Scientists, artists, writers- we all set out to discover the stars inside of us, and in the world around us. Some people however, have a story but no voice, or they have a voice, but it’s not heard. Those people rely on others to relay their stories. And that’s also why I write.