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Babajun died on a morning in July. His life was simply over, suddenly and irrevocably,

like the dropping and breaking of a teacup.


He had not expected to die on the morning that he died—had not planned it, had not

desired it, had not foreseen it. There was no mounting evidence to suggest that his death was

imminent. There was no single precipitating factor, and no traceable chain of cause and effect.

Even in hindsight, it was difficult to settle upon a satisfactory explanation.


Babajun’s final night on this earth was imprinted in the minds of his wife, children, and

grandchildren in a series of images that had the clarity and precision of video-graphic recordings.

They could not have known as they stored these images away that they were destined to play

them over and over again in their imaginations, with varying sequence and intensity, for such a

long time to come.


It was odd how dissimilar and disconnected their images were. The oldest grandson

Kamran had helped Babajun into the shower that evening, and would forever picture the scar on

his grandfather’s chest, a remnant of his bypass surgery. Although the surgery had taken place

several years before, the scar, which was two inches wide and bright pink, looked fresh and

alive—almost angry. Kamran had known the scar existed, but was shocked and disturbed to see

it at such close range. Long after the ordeal, whenever Kamran attempted to picture his

grandfather, the image that pushed itself forward was of the sunken and scarred chest.


The final image that Babajun’s oldest granddaughter Ariane was to record of her

grandfather was tinged with guilt. He was sitting on the couch, and she was passing in and out of

the room with a telephone in her hand. He was calling out to her each time she passed, trying in

vain to get her attention with affectionate verbal jabs. She was politely attempting to hide her

annoyance, but it emanated from her and she was keenly aware that her grandfather felt it.


For Babajun’s young grandson Darius, who was seven, the final image was a eerily

tender one: his grandfather was calling him forward, asking him to remove his wool hat—the one

he had worn for as long as Darius could remember—and demanding a kiss on the top of his bald

head. Babajun had taught him the Farsi word for hat: “kola.” For months to come, Darius would

continually replay the sound of his grandfather’s voice uttering the word “kola” and would

simultaneously relive the sensation of his own lips on his grandfather’s cold, hairless head.

Shahin, Babajun’s only son, would not retain a concrete image of his father on the night

before he died. Instead, he would dwell on his own behavior that night—his excessive drinking,

his erratic mood, and his furtive escapes to the dark basement where he had assembled a

makeshift opium den and where the pipe sat warming on a hotplate.


Babajun’s daughter Roshan, in whose home in Virginia all of this transpired, recorded an

incoherent mixture of sound and image: the awkward way her father looked as he sat on the

couch with his bird-thin legs defensively crossed beneath him; the blaring of the television set at

which he stared blankly; the disorder in the kitchen where the dinner was being haphazardly

prepared between drinks; the cacaphony of voices which failed to form meaning.


For Babajun’s wife Jane, fifty years of images coalesced into a single picture of her

husband sitting hunched over on a couch. This image was accompanied by the echo of his

repeated and increasingly querulous demands for another vodka. As always, she had protested

half-heartedly, and then complied.


Wife, daughter, son, grandchildren—all would replay the sound of his voice traveling

across the house from the room where they had abandoned him. At first he shouted out to

them—but then, after he realized they were on another wavelength, he began to mutter to

himself. His tone was plaintive, then sarcastic, then hostile, then desperate—and finally, barely

audible.


And then, of course, the sudden image of his fallen body on the living room floor, his

forehead bloodied and his legs twisted awkwardly to one side. When his son lifted him from the

floor and carried him to the bedroom, the role reversal was shocking, incomprehensible.


And next, the springing into action: the mustering of sobriety, the perfunctory family

council and the collective decision to avoid the emergency room, the expeditious trip to CVS to

buy gauze and peroxide and butterfly clamps, the gentle dressing of the wound, the delicate

removal of shoes and belt and trademark hat and newly-purchased jeans and cowboy shirt, the

slipping on of the pajamas without which he could not sleep, the careful arrangement of the

pillows around the injured head.


And after he was safely in bed, the heedless, empty, continuation of merriment: the

repetition of jokes everyone already knew, the corny songs dredged up from decades past, the

giggles and cackles and croons, the indifferent rise in volume in one room while in the next room

he silently descended.


And finally, Jane’s voice waking them up in the half-light with the simplest, yet most

important, sentence she had ever uttered: “Children, I think your father is dying.”

It was not until after they had rubbed their swollen eyes and massaged their pounding

temples and heaved their sodden bodies out of bed that the stark reality of their mother’s

statement dawned on them. Only then did they recall the scene of Babajun’s crumpled body on

the floor and begin, groggily, to connect that picture to the words that drifted together from the

tiny, pathetic sound of their mother’s voice.


He was not dead when they came into the room, and he was not dead when they called

the ambulance—on the contrary, he burst forth with sudden venomous lucidity.

“It’s just an abrasion! Just an abrasion!” he sputtered. He was not dead when the paramedic

ripped open his pajama shirt and listened to his failing heart. “Who are you?” he snarled at the

grotesque crew-cut figure leaning over him with a stethoscope. “Where did you get your medical

degree?” He was alive enough notice the rolls of fat bulging beneath the paramedic’s uniform,

alive enough to smell the mixture of coffee and ketchup on his breath.


He was still alive when they strapped him to the gurney and drove him away.


There must have been a precise moment, as in all deaths, when his life ended—when the

impact came and the teacup shattered. But the clocks in the hospital where he died continued

their dutiful, omniscient ticking throughout the event, without a discernible pause or a rise or fall

in pitch or volume. The nurses and orderlies moved through the hospital rooms soundlessly, as

they had been trained to do in such moments. They spoke in whispers and adopted other-worldly

expressions to suit the occasion. It was pronounced: “He is dead.” The death certificate was

signed and submitted, and their work was over. Everything was clean, professional, and

appropriate.



***


Greenlawn Cemetery is a sprawling oasis wedged between a gas station and a Wal-Mart

on one end and a liquor store and car dealership on the other. The green grass the cemetery’s

name promises is incongruously lush, considering the asphalt that encroaches upon it from all

sides. Flowers of every season and clime bloom simultaneously in a garish effusion of color, and

stone angels and flags intermingle in the solemn duty of watching over the dead. The literature of

Greenlawn Cemetery does not lie when it claims to tailor-make its burials to suit the wishes of

the bereaved family: Muslims and Hindus and Catholics and Protestants have all been

accommodated there, and lie peacefully side by side.


The funeral director was polite and solicitous: he had performed every imaginable kind of

rite, he assured them, and he understood and respected their desires. He even provided, free of

charge, a temporary marker to place over the mound and donated a bouquet of plastic

geraniums—a favorite, he knew, among Muslims—to place in the complementary vase.


Babajun was wrapped in a shroud and the simple pine box that served as his casket was

hinged on one side so that his body could fall into the earth according to Muslim custom. And so

he died, and so he was buried.


***


But this was not his death: not the alternating drunkenness and hilarity and confusion and

neglect and solitude of his final night; not the hematoma from his fall against the wooden chest;

not the failure to take him to an emergency room; not the hour and minute and second recorded

on his death certificate; not even the suffocation of dirt and the covering over with grass and

plastic.


As his body tumbled into the earth, his children had the sensation that Babajun was

tumbling not down, but backwards through time. The teacup that was his life had fallen through

another part of the space-time continuum—a part that defied ticking clocks and death certificates

and numerical measurements. He had been falling toward death for a long time—forever, it

seemed.


He had probably begun to die a few years earlier, they thought. Perhaps it was when he

first started to feel that his children had ceased to care about him, understand him, or even hear

him; when he began to feel irrelevant; when he retired and his status as a brilliant doctor no

longer carried weight; when he first looked in the mirror and saw how hollow his eyes had

become; when he began to need assistance to get into or out of a car.


But in their hearts, they knew that it had begun earlier than that. He had begun to die

years and years ago, maybe as far back as the time when they had returned from abroad with

degrees in Philosophy and Anthropology and Music, boasted of their alternative sexual

orientation, and brought home blond “partners” whose English even his non-native ears detected

as improper.


It was even possible, they thought, that he had begun to die slowly during the years when

they were abroad, studying at the finest and most expensive American universities, at Stanford

and Duke and Columbia, and they squandered the monthly allowance checks he sent them on

trips to Yosemite and the Grand Canyon—they, who had grown up surrounded by the Alborz

and Zagros Mountains! Each letter they sent home about their trips to Denver and Boston and

Philadelphia must have been a death blow to their father, they now realized. They remembered,

with a stab of guilt, how insensibly they had blared Bob Dylan and Santana in the car while

driving with their father to Persepolis and Isfahan and Qom and Hamedan, through the Iranian

landscape he wanted them to love.


But certainly his descent into death had begun even earlier than that. He had begun dying

when, as adolescents living in Iran, they insisted on wearing patches on their faded jeans and

growing their sandy-colored bangs over their eyes and walking with a gait that to him seem

lopsided and aggressive and weak. American.


Or was it even earlier, when his elegant Farsi was muffled, even to his own ears, by the

nasal sounds of their American English?


Did he begin to die as a much younger man? Could his death have begun when he

returned to Iran triumphantly after thirteen years in the United States; returned with a medical

degree and an American wife—their mother—and she persisted in walking barefoot, letting her

fingernails get dirty, wearing her hair loose around her shoulders, refusing to put on lipstick, and

laughing with her head thrown back, in direct defiance of all the social customs and rules of

propriety he had grown up with?


It was very likely that his death went back even farther that that—that it went all the way

back to the moment when he left Iran to go to America, abandoning the father he revered and the

mother he adored, forever compromising and confusing his sense of himself.


No, it was not possible to pinpoint Babajun’s death, although they would never stop

trying to do so. They would sweep up the jagged pieces of the broken teacup and move on, but

Babajun would die, again and again, for the rest of their lives.




Suzi Ehtesham-Zadeh was born in her mother’s native United States and raised in her father’s native Iran. In search of a happy medium between her two cultures, she later lived for many years in Spain. Somewhere along the way, she received a degree in Philosophy from Stanford University. A career English teacher, Suzi has taught scores of students on several continents over the past two decades. She currently resides on a mini-farm in Woodstock, Georgia, where she is writing and illustrating a children’s picture book titled A Kind of Magic Carpet. Her work has appeared in Quiddity Magazine.








 





  


Copyright 2009