One of the stories mama told me started like this: she and khalammi had taken the car out for the first time, khalammi a nervous driver behind the wheel, mama riding shotgun. At one point, the car grazed another man’s car, and immediately stalled. A crowd gathered while the girls sat petrified with horror, and the man whose car was injured came out and began shouting at them. He also reached in and took the keys out of khalammi’s car, in an attempt to threaten and harass the two women.
Mama recalls coming out of the car and in a fit of bravado, yelling at the man to give the keys back. When he did, she handed them to khalammi, who promptly started the car and the two drove off, leaving the crowd behind.
In this story, mama was the heroine, but it was one of the few stories in which she was. For most of my mother’s life, khalammi was the heroine, the older sister, the protector – tougher, stronger, louder and much, much more strident.
Of the things I choose to remember about khalammi are these: that when my parents’ marriage ended, it was khalammi whose tiny house we stayed in, who gave up her master bedroom so the two of us could shelter, who sat us down and fed us and planned for us and encouraged my mother to begin the long and tenuous process of rebuilding her life. In urdu we say Dil main jaga honi chahyay. (the heart should have room). Khalammi had very little physical space to accommodate us, but she had so much space in her heart.
Other things I remember: coming home from school to find mama upset and crying. Usually this was because of something khalammi had said. It was strange, but it was always mama I felt annoyed with for not standing up for herself when this happened, for taking the comment(s) too much to heart. Inside, I loved khalammi’s outspokenness. Mama was my role model in so many ways, but I have always channeled khalammi when out in the big, bad world. Mama was the sweetheart, but khalammi was the warrior queen.
Despite the occasional tears and drama, I remember this: for mama she was always the older sister, the one who was correct, and whom she looked up to. The two of them loved each other beyond words, and never was this more evident to me than when we called khalammi in hospital, less than a week before mama’s demise, and mama cried at how weak and wandering my khala’s voice was. They passed within three months of one another.
It has always, always bothered me how much the women of my family suffered. At some level, I could deal with Mama being tossed aside after twelve years of faithful matrimony. It was terrible that she was forced to start a new life without the medical and financial resources she badly needed, and that she died before her time. But maybe it was fated that one sister would have the bad luck.
But that wasn’t the case. Khalammi too, struggled. Strained resources early in her marriage, two premature children one after another, and one baby who died soon after birth. Struggling to build up a life in pakistan, then starting from scratch to do the same in Canada. And finally, when things seemed like they were getting better, her kidneys failing, a transplant leading to a devastating brain infection, and again, death before her time. It seems so bloody unfair.
It hurts me so much when I think of her gone, the only other woman who could fully understand my loss of mama, whom I could have reminisced with, who would have filled the gaps in my memories. The woman who was a second mother – a shorter, more emphatic and more short tempered mother, but no less loving and caring. The way I wish mama was around to love me and witness my successes, the same way I wish she was around to do the same, and also continue to inspire me with her fearlessness and bravery.
My last, most strongest memory of her is this: lying on her back, one knee bent, one leg crossed over it and in the air, reminiscing about this that or the other, while my mother and I sat and listened. Full of stories and opinions, after a long day, a long journey, enjoying some down time with her sister. A smile on both their faces that lit up my whole world.
Oh mamas. How I miss you both.