Dealing with Death in Farsi
Language, loss, and mental breakdown
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Maman died tomorrow. Or today maybe, I don’t know. Today is Sunday where I am in New York but tomorrow where she was, Iran.
My father calls me on Sunday to tell me he wants me to write something. He says it to me like he doesn’t even have the words to tell me my mother died but says it like all he can say is for me to repeat after him, My mother died today.
I don’t know what to say, so I ask him what he wants me to write.
Then time stands still, no, not time. It’s me that is standing still, but for a second there we are the same after not being on the phone for some time, my father and me. We’re standing there on either end of the line and between us is some memory of Maman.
Maman. Mother in Farsi, informally. Maman. It sounds more motherly than mother, Maman.
My earliest memory of Maman might be one of my earliest memories too. The word Maman written again and again when I was a child trying to learn Farsi and there was still the matter of trying or not trying enough. Maybe if I had tried harder I would have learned Farsi, but most of the words I still remember now in Farsi seem to stem from some French like Maman and merci. Stranger still is that most of them seem to begin with an M like morte. Maybe not all the words, but there are worse first words to remember in a second language than Maman.
Maman naan daad.
How many times had I written the same words, Maman and naan and daad. I don’t remember any other lines I read at first and wrote as a child and repeated more than Maman naan daad.
Maman naan daad means Mother gave bread.
The way it is though, translated word for word, where each word is, Mother bread gave.
There are however many languages there are unlike English that will have sentence structures composed with their verbs at the end, subject and object right up against each other in the interim — the subject-object-verb counterpart to the English subject-verb-object — German being one language that comes to mind, but Farsi also all subject-object-verb like Maman naan daad.
My mother, my father starts to say in Farsi on the other end of the line. Mamanam morte.
My father doesn’t have the words to tell me my mother died because he isn’t trying to tell me my mother died but his mother has died.
Maman naan daad I remember now isn’t the line from my childhood but Baba naan daad.
Baba, or Father, gave bread in a Lord’s prayer sense of give us this day our daily bread. I must have misremembered it as Maman naan daad because it sounds better in my head, but either way my mother will call me tomorrow to tell me my father’s mother died, Mamanesh morte.
His mother died this morning, my mother says again in English but it isn’t the same as Mother his died. What a difference there is between his and has, the same difference between I and a.
I have nothing to say but something like we all die from mourning in the end, so say nothing.
Maman tomorrow died.
Maman died today. Or, not my Maman, and not today if in Iran, but I still haven’t told anyone.
I did drink a lot last night. I like drinking at bars a lot because I can tell the same story a lot of times, a lot of times to the same person, but they won’t remember it or even if they do they won’t remember it the same.
My father is a lot older than me, I said.
Isn’t everyone’s father older than them.
Yeah but he’s a lot older, I told them. My father could be my grandfather.
Then they tell me about theirs or they don’t and we think our way through the rest of our drinks.
I wake up in the morning and count my teeth and ears to make sure everything is still there or more or less where it was before. I have heard more than once how the ears are supposed to keep growing even after one’s hair and teeth have fallen out, so I run my hands through my hair and I see the fallen-out hair between my fingers as I stare at my hands. I think I’ll take a shower to see what my hands will look like when I am old, but I still bring two bottles of beer with me into the shower, one to drink and the other to drink and to piss inside because the water doesn’t drain fast enough for how long I’ll be in here.
I open up the beer and back into the shower and the warm water outside me and the cold beer inside me feels good. I drink most of the beer with the water up against my back before I start to worry how long I’ve been in here. I try not to look at my hands, but they hurt.
The water at the bottom of the tub is up over my feet and I step in and out of it and it makes a different sound than the water hitting it from the shower head when I turn around to set the beer down on the shelf between shampoo bottles. I don’t piss in the shower now because I don’t like to stand in myself.
I don’t throw up as much as I used to, but I don’t drink as much as I used to, which isn’t saying much to how much we all want to keep our insides inside. I’ve thrown up a lot in my life because I’ve drank too much in my life, but what worries me more is pissing or shitting myself. Pissing or shitting oneself is something most someones my age must not find too worrisome, but maybe my grandmother must have before she died.
My grandmother died before she ever met me. I don’t remember much of last night, but I have yet to tell anyone, though it’s odd to think my body can be somewhere without me for some time, but what would I tell them if I told them. I’ll say, I’ll never know someone I never knew.
I don’t even remember her name, I’ll tell them and drink and I’ll try not to think how mourning is louder than dying. The nonmemory stays with me though because forgetting is still something. Forgetting is all we had.
Maybe I would have felt something if I knew her name or if it had been my mother, but I only finish the beer and open another bottle to drink from one while I piss into the other one. It feels good to feel something within me and without me.
Maman died yesterday and is behind me now and no longer ahead in time because she is dead. It is still tomorrow where she was, but she isn’t.
The ambulance is red and white and loud passing by the bar and it’s been passing by for some time now, but sirens are supposed to pass by and sound higher pitched when they do, but when I turn to look I see the siren is still going even with the ambulance standing still. It is standing still long enough that I remember sometimes I forget there is someone in there. Some of the others in the bar cover their ears with their hands and they stare at the ambulance because being deaf must not hurt as much as seeing the lights.
The word ambulance sounds like ambulance in French like in Farsi even if it isn’t pronounced the same, but sirens don’t always sound the same.
Life and death, I say to their deaf ears. Life and deaf. Death after all the dying is quiet, isn’t it.
Once I tell someone she is dead, I tell everyone because all I can do after I tell someone is tell everyone else. Maybe I tell them only to hear what they say, because when someone else is dead you can always say how sorry you are to have heard.
I say it because it is something to say, but my father wanted me to write something for him in English to say something about her passing, so he had something to say.
My father hadn’t seen her for forty years and he was in his forties when my mother had me, so I’m at the same age he was when he last saw his mother. I try to remember what my mother looks like, but a photograph my father sends me of his mother comes to mind instead and I see how she looks like him, or he looks like her rather, but everyone starts looking the same nearer to the end. Maybe soon I’ll stop looking like my mother and my mother will start to look like me.
My mother and father married and left Iran around the time of the Iranian Revolution and left for Germany where my brother was born then Los Angeles where I was born and when we were children and they would argue they argued in German because we both sort of understood Farsi, so it just sounded like sounds, though I’ve heard English is made up of French and German, but I still don’t know it as anything more than sounds, sounds that sound like words sound.
Non-experience is an experience though. I still don’t remember her name but namelessness is something else. We have so many names and still some of us have the same names, what matter is her name and if she isn’t my Maman. Maman is still Maman whether or not it is Maman.
Someone tells me I look like someone else, so we drink a round or two together.
It’s better than looking like something else, I say.
We see everything through similes to the point that we see through the similes, to the point that we explain everything in our lives through something else in our lives or someone else’s life. It’s just like something it isn’t.
Maybe there is some verb, some word in some subject-object-verb language, that will come at the end to make some sense of this mess, but for now there are words that only sound like sounds to me, but are they words if they’re just sounds, if there are words like Maman and naan and daad I will never remember and will never have tried or not tried enough in childhood to have remembered.
I walk home wondering how I am thirsty and have to piss at the same time.
My memory is only as good as my writing because there is a give and a get, for we don’t have to remember when we have something else to remember for us. All we do is forget to remember, because something has to be a memory to be remembered.
We don’t have to remember when all we have to do is remember to remember.
Knausgaard says something and I have trouble hearing him over the laughter. I won’t remember what he said, but I do remember he is larger than life in front of his hundreds of fans here in this bookstore in Brooklyn, all the ones here to see him for his My Struggle: Book Four. He is larger than life simply because he is alive.
For some, life is enough to be alive. You live and then you live and then you die and then you lived, but Knausgaard is our self-obsession with ourselves and with a self. We overlay ourselves on the lives of others because it is after all, before all, an age of self. Knausgaard is you and me. You as subject and me as object and the verb, of course, Knausgaard.
It is not to Knausgaard or not to Knausgaard because it isn’t a question, though questions are an instance in English’s subject-verb-object language in which one might invert the natural order to verb-subject-object, which isn’t that as close as one might get in English to subject-object.
They laugh at what he says that isn’t funny and don’t laugh at what he says that isn’t funny, so it’s hard to say who is humoring whom, but they still get in line to have him write his name again and again, signing hundreds of copies of their My Struggle: Book Four.
I’ve worked as a bookseller in this bookstore almost more than a year now and I couldn’t even remember how many books of his I’ve sold and how many I’ve not sold, but I have seen his face a lot, not more than I’ve seen my own, but maybe more than he has.
Someone hands me a lager and says no one drank from it, not even Knausgaard. Knausgaard’s people got it for him, but he doesn’t drink, so here is this beer that was his. I suppose we’d get along because I wouldn’t drink a lager either, but some people Knausgaard must have.
Maybe they misheard, but maybe it’s how he sounds. I’ve heard that Norwegian sounds closer at its roots to the first sounds man made, like in caves. That sounds too true to be true, but I’m no linguist. There are a lot of writers that are that must be better writers than I am, in a phonological sense, but all I do know is how we respond to sounds that sound sort of the same because that’s a way to make sense of what we don’t know.
The beer is warm and someone else tells me he saw Knausgaard drink some before he started signing. I don’t remember that but I do remember Knausgaard saying, “For me length is a failure.”
When I started to write this, the first thought I had for a first line was for it to start like, It ended like it had started like it would end like it ended.
Because it’s always good to go from beginning to end, ending like it did because it started like it did, now it doesn’t start like it had started or end like it ended, like My Struggle: Book Four. It became more like something lost in transliteration that, in translation, is found, like Struggle My: Book Four.
For three days two summers ago I saw, no, not saw, heard all of time as if it were at once.
I was hearing every voice I had ever heard in my life, in that it was all in my head, a thousand thousand — thous and thous — voices like a Greek chorus I was hearing over everything not in my head. It was like the opposite of someone speaking in tongues, in that it wasn’t one person making no sense, but everyone I’d ever heard now in my head and all of them together making some sort of sense.
I don’t remember much from the three days, but then there I was in an ambulance and I know there weren’t any sirens because I wasn’t dying enough to have everyone we were passing cover their ears. I told them, I hope the only other time I’m in an ambulance it’ll be worth the sirens.
In the ward I asked one of the doctors if I could have tinfoil for my head, but he only laughed at me, so I was sure he was there, which was good, but laughter isn’t always the best medicine. I made two horns with my hands against my head and my index fingers spinning into antennae to show him I wasn’t serious, but that he didn’t laugh at.
Once they were sure there weren’t any drugs in me, they put drugs in me.
In the morning I had stopped hearing voices and when I was being held in there and couldn’t get a line to non-New York area codes to reach my mother or father I asked one of the doctors when I could leave the ward.
Maybe you should brush your hair.
I tell him, I can hardly keep my head on straight and now I have to straighten my hair.
He doesn’t laugh, but he does smile at me. He sees my name and knows I’m Iranian-American because he is Iranian, so he speaks Farsi to me and I smile that I don’t understand too much Farsi. You’re a writer, right.
You should talk to the other patients. Maybe that’ll give you something to write.
He gives me a half pencil and a blue book like for a blue book exam, but I don’t write in it as I am afraid they will read it, so I keep all of my thoughts in my head and try to remember all I see, but what was there I heard in my head for three days and what was there I saw for the four days I was in the ward.
Everyone in here has their insides on the outside.
Out of mind, out of sight. Out of sight, out of sound.
The only reason I’m here is I’m here.
It is one thing to go up the mountain, but it is another thing to come back down.
Back on the outside everything is still the same. Everything was as it was then everything wasn’t as it was, but then everything was as it was again.
My father calls me and I hear his voice in my head through the phone and here we are in another time on either end of the line and between us is some memory. I remember I don’t like talking on the phone because it reminds me of things that aren’t there.
I try to remember if I heard Maman in my head, but my memory isn’t what it once was.
New York is full of sirens and shit, so I go to a bar to drink. I think I’ll tell the bartender, I’m here waiting on an ambulance. Everyone everywhere is waiting on an ambulance, I think he should’ve said. He doesn’t because I didn’t.
I wrote a lot of this out then went out and I did a lot of this I said I would do and I said a lot of this I said I would say, so where would this fall between fiction and nonfiction.
Fiction is to nonfiction as experience is to non-experience, in the sense that the latter two start with the prefix non, in the sense that Maman non daad or the sense that we’re all prefixed.
Fiction is the truth over time, but where does that put it in the past and present. What about all the things I said I’d do that I didn’t do, the things I said I’d do that I’d said I’d never do.
I come home drunk and like to look at myself when I’m drunk because I look less like myself. My hair is still black and my skin is brown, but I am worried I am growing bald, though my hair has never been that thick. My father told me when I was a child that I showered too much and I’d lose my hair because I washed it too much.
Now he tells me that I’m going to lose all my hair because it’s long, but it’s been long and thin for as long as I can remember it being long.
I always part it to the left to hide how thin it is on the top and show how thin it is on the side. My hair is thinning but has always been thin like my mother, like my mother’s, thin like mother was when she wasn’t my mother.
Maybe my father is right after all. The shower drain must be full from my hair, so right now I have to drink another bottle to piss in the shower, but tomorrow I clean myself up and after three days of mourning I take some time off after all the drinking and I even think I’ll write something, but then I find a hair in my hair that isn’t my hair but gold.
It’s dyed bright blonde and I take it out of the shower with me to see it in my room and see it shines in the sun. I don’t even know all the hairs on my own head, but everyday I lose more and more of them because my hair is too long and life is too long. Life is too long it feels short. If it was shorter it would feel a lot longer because there wasn’t so much.
Maybe this is the closest I’ll ever get to writing a multigenerational novel, but it’s always been more subject-object than Iranian-American for me, more only begotten than begat and begat and begat for me, more you-me to Knausgaard.