I am scanning my Grandmother’s congested twelfth-floor apartment just north of Fremont, trying to collect the items she’ll need for today. Away from the roaring symmetry of roads below, the air in the room feels stagnant. Heat clings to the surfaces and the little light that enters from the window creeps over the dusty shelves and ancient couches. “Victoria hasn’t visited in a while,” I mutter, squinting my eyes, and aware that the space has seen better days.
The apartment is a time capsule, loaded with sentimental objects and precious heirlooms I once narrowly avoided as a child, while carelessly chasing my cousins. In the last few years, Bibi’s limited mobility has made the hygiene standards she instilled in my mother more difficult to maintain. Now, other family members step in every so often to help with errands and upkeep, and much of the apartment is disused.
While I dig through the piles of junk scattered across the room, Bibi sits serenely beside the dining table, tracing the wood’s rounded markings. Bibi, who once seemed monolithic and omnipotent, who carried entire families on her back across borders in the dead of night, now appears dwarfed by the furniture around her. The slender fabric of her headscarf envelops her hawkish features. She would’ve feigned such sorrow if I ever rejected her offer for food growing up, I think. Now the glass bowls of nuts and dried fruit, which I uncover from their plastic wrapping each time I visit, remain untouched. My impulse to linger ends abruptly as I look at my phone and see the time.
“Yella, Bibi. We gotta go.”
Her eyes have been glazed over since I arrived an hour ago, something I’ve been noticing more frequently. Each time I visit, her mood is sourer and more detached. At times, even eye contact feels dislodged.
When I mention this to my mother over the phone, she signals her disapproval with a clicking sound. “Chi meegi tu. Bibi is the sharpest woman in the family,” she insists. I imagine my mother turning her face away as she speaks, in protest at the mere suggestion that her mother’s condition might be deteriorating. “Bechara lonely shood. Probably she’s tricking you into spending more time with her. Kam meree ba didan ish. You should see her more.”
Bibi has always been the whip-cracker of our family. While Baba Jan, her husband, made a show of smacking his children into shape, it was Bibi who always broke the family’s fall. Not with softness, either. Bibi’s authority commands the wisdom of one who spent her entire life observing from the margins.
Beneath a sewing tin in one of the kitchen drawers, I finally find the CAT scans I’ve been searching for and slide them into Bibi’s beaten-up black leather bag, along with her immigration documents. As I move to the door, I hang her bag on my shoulder, where it meets my own bag, work laptop poking out and visibly less worn.
“Bibi jan, bekhe ke berem.”
I raise my voice, thinking perhaps she hasn’t heard me. In the past, I’ve been reprimanded for becoming impatient with her, but I’ve learnt never to schedule meetings right after a visit. Neither her eyes nor her body acknowledge my pleas to depart. When she dissociates like this, she is especially difficult to rouse. In this state, with her chin lowered and her eyes vacant, she seems sunken in place. I open the front door and I’m greeted by a wall of characteristically dry Californian heat. I look back into the room, taunting her with abandonment, the same trick I use on Khusrow, my four-year-old.
“Bekhe, dega, Bibi Janum,” I entreat again. “Boz der misha.”
Her thin hips remain fixed stubbornly to the seat, her eyes locked on the glass cabinet on the far wall, which displays the only objects remaining from Afghanistan. On the table, her ornate glass lets off wisps of steam into the room. Understanding that the process of departure will take more work, I close the door and move back into the apartment. I turn my face to the far wall and scan each of the cabinet’s little glass windows, hoping to see what it is that’s captivated her. Like everything else in the room, the cabinet hasn’t changed in years. Reluctantly, I go to the seat beside her, aware that traffic is getting worse by the minute on the 101.
I suggest, in jest, that she has become hard of hearing in her old age.
“Bas dega, dewana,” she retorts at once, startling me. “Bishi.”
She is quick to bite back at every comment made at her expense. Her sharp voice, beckoning me to sit, shatters the silence between us. While others of her generation have softened in disposition over time, Bibi certainly has not. In one deflated move, I unload our bags to the ground and take my seat. I interlace her fingers with my own to stop her fidgeting hands, which are still drawing oblong shapes on the table. I can feel that she is shaking. With each breath, she draws her chest further in.
We touch and her gaze pulls back into the room around us. I stay quiet while her pupils contract and readjust. As her focus finally finds my impatient face, her body tightens. For a long moment, our eyes connect. Holding her hand with mine, I try to gently raise her from the table and guide her away, but she resists. Given her age, the strength with which she keeps me down is surprising. I am almost standing, still trying to drag her away by her bony, paper-thin wrists, when she starts uttering words in Farsi under her breath.
“Tuh re yarhd kahrd abood um. Ba Padar et nolat, ku jah beraft abudee?”
Her words emerge feverishly, picking up speed and flooding the space between us. There is panic in her voice as she speaks, but it takes me a few moments to realise what is happening. She has misrecognised me, her own granddaughter. Looking into my eyes, she is speaking to someone else. I rack my mind. Who could she be talking to, which female relative could she be calling out for? Her tremors increase in frequency and vigour, sending nervous energy through her hands and into mine, frightening me.
“Dilbarum, azizam, oomrah khudah ba tu poleedum. Chee shudi?”
She asks about a lifetime I’ve never lived, people I’ve never known, covering me with misfired affection. As her delusion deepens, I shrink. With each word, I watch my grandmother disappear further into the vaults of her memory. She pulls one hand away from mine and cups my jawline and chin with her trembling fingers, stroking my face with her thumb. The pleas she utters are not for me, but I let out a long exhale and try to reason with her by listening. Something is pulling at my Bibi from within, lurching her forward on her seat, though her frail body can barely handle the onslaught of emotion.
“Pas beyoh, paykhombarum. Goom nasho. Qalbum.” Her words trail off.
At once, she withdraws her hands and brings them to her lap, avoiding my gaze and pulling her chin further into her neck. There is a long moment of silence. My heartbeat slows and the apartment comes back into focus. Bibi remains still. I get up and hug her from behind, as much for my own comfort as for hers. As we separate, she readjusts her headscarf.
The temperature is even higher when Bibi finally emerges into the late afternoon. I am trailing behind her as we cross the median to the carpark, balancing our bags on my back and calling Khusrow’s pre-school to let them know I’ll be late again. Bibi curses at the heat rising from the asphalt and delivers one of her signature pellets of spittle to the ground, as though protesting the audacity of Midsummer to be so unforgivingly hot.