Nahal Suzanne Jamir | Essays
For Melissa Stephenson &
for Lee Alisha Williams
My father is buried by the ducks. Follow their sound, dear readers.
My father used to take us to this cemetery in Augusta, Georgia, to visit the grave site of Dr. Zíá Bagdádí, a well-known Bahá’í. Now, my father himself is buried there. After his funeral, my sister, her best friend, and I smoked cigarettes by the ducks and their pond. I remember us laughing a little bit about it. I remember my sister telling the ducks to shut up.
In “How’d Your Parents Die Again?”, poet Fatimah Asghar writes of her parents’ death and tells us “I have never been to my daddy’s grave.” My Persian mother has never been to her father’s grave. She couldn’t even attend his funeral because he died in Iran in 1987. She had become a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1984, but as a Bahá’í, returning to Iran meant that she risked never leaving. She stayed with us, here in the U.S. So, she has never been to her father’s grave, and I have never been back to my American father’s grave, not since his funeral in 2003. My mother has asked me to take her there many times for a nice grave-site visit, maybe to talk about love and family and our sorrow, maybe to cry a little or a lot, maybe for me to listen to her sorrows in Persian, a language well-suited for sorrows and for poetry, maybe a language well-suited to win me over. But I’ve refused to go.
In the Bahá’í Faith, followers are supposed to do some things that require journeying. One of these is a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which may include trip to Bahjí. Not Bali. Not Fiji. Bahjí in Acre, Israel.
This home, its garden and grounds, is where the prophet Bahá’u’lláh died. Around the shrine built to entomb the prophet is a circular path. In a medieval history class I took years and years ago, I was struck by the pilgrim’s circling of the holy site, how the end of all of this journeying has a such a redundancy and repetition to it. Circle Canterbury Cathedral. Circle the Kaaba. Circle the grave.
My mother says that with each circling or return, you’re supposed to feel something different, better, more intense. You are supposed to circle toward the holiness not just of the site but of and in yourself. I think of those childhood mazes on the back of restaurant placemats—how you draw a line in crayon, circling closer, only to have to go back out again. So, dear readers, here is your map. YOU ARE HERE: in the beginning. Don’t worry. There are guides everywhere you look. My mother has been to Bahjí twice. I’ve never been. We’ll go together, dear readers.
Dear Father, in your death, you have become words, so many words, and a handful of scenes. Some scenes are still lifes, and some are photographs, and some are photographs strung together, a flipbook. Some scenes are more imagined than not.
On Sunday, August 24, 2003, when I got on the plane to go home to South Carolina because you had, as reported to me the day before, had a severe heart attack, I mostly knew you were dead and that my mother and sister were lying to me about you being in the hospital. I didn’t argue with them, though. I bought the plane ticket, didn’t sleep.
In the hours just before morning, I decided on which book I would take as a talisman, because I use books like that. I decided on Holy Land by D.J. Waldie, a memoir about his family and place. I chose a picture of us to go inside it, but not one of my favorites. I didn’t want to sully one of those with your death. I am sitting in a high chair, and you are putting me into it or taking me out of it. You look stereotypically seventies, dear Father, with your sideburns and short-sleeved striped shirt. You seem to be saying something. Maybe you are telling me to sit still or that bananas taste delicious or that everything will be okay.
I have always used books as talismans. The pages I put the picture between is where the picture has remained for sixteen years. Those pages are about Waldie’s parents’ graves. Waldie writes, “The graves of my parents, by chance, face east, toward the city in which I live.”
The word pilgrim traces back to mean foreigner, stranger. And aren’t we all? Pilgrimage is a word that is inextricable from the idea of holiness. Yet, we do so much harm to those foreigners and strangers. We, in fact, try to keep them out, like we need all the holiness to ourselves.
The word pilgrimage always brings me to Dante’s Divine Comedy, which is a sort of unpoetic and unholy slippage, if you ask me, because, well, there are pieces of literature that are more, shall we say, realistic. Because as much as the Divine Comedy is a journey toward holiness, it’s a metaphysical-made-physical journey—rather than the other way around. And the sacred or holy so literal and glaring, an actual paradise. And the pilgrim and his guide so literal and glaring, actual poets.
A man in the middle of his life stands before a dark forest. So, it begins. My father was middle-aged but at the end of his life. So, our vulgar journey begins.
In your life, dear Father, you lived in so many places: Michigan, Nebraska, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and yes, for we cannot forget, Oklahoma. I wonder what you would think now of me, here in Stillwater. The city’s motto is “Stillwater, Where Oklahoma Began!” But we, dear Father, know that Oklahoma really began on May 5, 1979 at 10:53 a.m., central standard time, in Okmulgee, Oklahoma where I was born.
The story of my birth finds you being left at home to study for the bar exam. My mother, a registered nurse, went alone to the Okmulgee hospital where she’d been working for most of her pregnancy. Everything was fine until it wasn’t and the cliché of a dark-and-stormy night unfolded, knocking out the hospital’s electricity.
Of course, there were backup generators, so the weather drama ended almost as soon as it started, which is disappointing for tornado season in tornado alley. But that was that.
Then, though, my mother’s cervix wouldn’t dilate, so they had to put her on a Pitocin drip. To no avail. My mother’s body wouldn’t let me go. They would have to do a C-section.
This is where you, dear Father, enter the scene. You are called in by the tough Persian woman, who was ready, finally, for you to come and help.
Everything went well. You were the first parent to hold me. I was wrapped in tinfoil for warmth. And the dad jokes began: potato-head, spud.
Bahá’u’lláh died in 1892. He was entombed in a shrine in Bahjí, and this is the direction Bahá’ís pray—east for Americans. Obligatory prayers are to be made between sunrise and noon, between noon and sunset, and after sunset. Once a child raised in a Bahá’í household turns fifteen, they may declare themselves Bahá’í. My sister and I did so. We also tried to pray as we should, but it’s hard for a teenager to keep up with obligatory prayers.
Another Bahá’í requirement, for those who are old enough and young enough and healthy, is the nineteen days of fasting which precede Ayyám-i-Há, intercalary days which are a celebratory time. Though not religious now, my sister and I both fasted in high school. We could focus our holiness for nineteen days. We could go from sunrise to sunset without food, water, gum, or mints—or telling another Christian soul what we were doing and why. We are both proud of this.
My first name, my Persian name, Nahal, means “young tree” or “the hope you have at the beginnings of things.” I live up to this name, bending and hoping, hoping and bending. Growing sometimes, with pain.
My name comes to me from another. Not a family member. My mother worked as a nurse in Iran, in a city called Abadan. One day, a young girl, around four years old, came in bleeding. She had hit her head, her forehead, right in the middle. My mother tended to the little girl. When she asked her name, the little girl said Nahal. And my mother knew that this beautiful and rare name would be used later for her own child. An encounter with a stranger became a family story. The story of my beginning—or one of them because I’m always beginning again.
And many years later, I would be left alone with my father. I would accidentally fall and hit my head. I would bleed. I would make the old story true. I would bear the scar. And I would be a matriarchal Athena, antithesis, marked not by wisdom but by strangeness and separation and a story from a faraway land that my mother carried with her and wouldn’t let go.
Dante starts his journey before a dark forest. This dark forest is the first place. Then, the journey goes up and around. Dante moves his way through circles, a follower—not a religious follower but one who follows Virgil, himself condemned to a part of purgatory for not being a follower of Christ. Virgil, I suppose, is given his role because of his talent. But who gives Virgil his role? Is Virgil called forth by God to guide Dante, or by Dante to guide Dante? And we cannot overlook that Virgil comes from the same place Dante does, though centuries separate them. Maybe the men are also joined by the journeys they write, one a return and one to unknown spaces and heights. What was Rome to Aeneas? What was paradise to Dante?
Here and there in his journey, Dante is emotionally piqued by meeting someone from his town in Italy. This is how far a place can reach, how simple a place can be.
And you, dear Father, you were also named for someone. Vinson Brown, a naturalist and an author. He wrote about animals. The Secret Language of Animals is one of his famous books.
We grew up surrounded by books, and Vinson Brown’s were among them.
Since leaving my childhood home for college, I haven’t practiced the religion I was born to and have more often than not called myself an aetheist or an agnostic. My name is still officially registered as a Bahá’í with the Bahá’í Universal House of Justice in Haifa. My Bahá’í ID number is 162520. My mother prays for me. My mother says God is her therapy. My mother asks me if I remember my emergency prayer, and I do:
Is there any remover of difficulties, save God? Say Praise be God! He is God! All are his servants, and all abide by his bidding!
Among the many documents I found after my father’s death, there was one document that was short, straightforward, more concrete than not. It was titled “True Stories for Nahal and Nasim about Their Family by Their Father.” Here is an excerpt:
I also have happy memories of visits with Baha’is and Baha’i meetings, especially visits to the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, near Chicago in the State of Illinois on the shore of Lake Michigan. Those visits were fun for everyone. The journey was not too far from our home, but far enough so that we got to stay in a hotel. Your grandparents attended an important meeting called the National Baha’i Convention, which took place in the great hall called “Foundation Hall,” beneath the House of Worship. Every picture you have ever seen, and every story you have ever read about the House of Worship is only a whisper of its magical beauty and charm. . . .While the adult Baha’is attended sessions of the Convention, their children attended classes of their own or went on outings. . . .I met a girl whose name I cannot remember now. We became friends for those two or three days and promised to write to each other after returning to our homes. That was the first time I took another child’s address. I would have written to her, but on the way home I discovered that the address she gave me was missing a street and house number, or even the city and state where she lived. I had promised to write but there was no way to find out a better address because I could not even remember her last name. So I could not keep my promise to write.
One special moment we shared together was the discovery of a huge model of the House of Worship which was hidden behind a curtain in a room by itself. When I suggested to the girl that we go into the room to look at it better, she said she better not. I asked her why, and her answer was that she was afraid to get in trouble with her father. So we did not go into the room but just looked from under the curtain at the beautiful model of the very same building we were visiting.
I never thought much of Bahjí. The word, the place never really meant anything to me, though I know I must have heard it many times in my Bahá’í upbringing. Then, in June 2018, at the age of 39, I came home to live with my mother, which, believe you me, dear readers, I never thought would come to pass.
My mother has severe eyesight problems, so very quickly, I was assigned tasks that were small enough that she didn’t want to trouble anyone else with. One was to put in the Bahá’í newsreel. Well, that’s what I call it. Of course, it’s a DVD.
The summer of 2018 began with me putting in this Bahá’í DVD on the state of Bahá’í things. There’s some news about Bahjí. It sounds super exotic, so I look up from my laptop and listen. I ask my mother if she’s ever been. She tucks her chin, as if I’ve asked if I come from a good family. Of course, she’s been to Bahjí. She’s been to every holy Bahá’í site, some more than once. She’s got martyrs in her family, our family. Have I forgotten? Have I forgotten the family I come from? We go back to the beginning of the Bahá’í Faith, dear readers. My great-great-great grandfather, he gave a stranger a ride from Shiraz to Nayriz, and this is how he met the Báb, which is to say the Gate, which is to say the one who would prepare the way for the prophet Bahá’u’lláh. And get this, dear readers: My great-great-great-grandfather knew before anyone else, just because of a feeling. It’s true. This is more exciting to me than the martyrdoms. This is a story about the beginning, a story about a kind man who had nothing to go on but a feeling, and yet, he gave a stranger a ride back to his own hometown. Back home. Do I know the family I come from?
Let us not forget, dear readers, that Virgil was sent as aid by a woman, Beatrice. And that Dante invokes the Muses before truly starting his journey. Most of us only remember that thing about abandoning hope, but there were women all through the epic, protecting and guiding my dear Dante.
Just days before your death, dear Father, I had been home for a long summer visit. You saved me episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise so that we could watch them together. Your side of the family, the Jamirs, their legacy rather than one of religion was one of science fiction. You would never see the end of the Enterprise series or any of the Star Trek movie reboots with Chris Pine.
Mere days before your death, we sat on the couch, and you put in the VHS tape. We started the episode, and here comes Mom, with some crap that isn’t important. You pause the video. You answer her question. You rewind a little, then start the tape again. Mom comes at us with another question. You pause the tape. You answer politely. You rewind a little, start the tape again. When Mom comes back into the living room, I speak before she can and say, loudly, “Woman, would you let us watch our Star Trek?” And she leaves us alone. You turn to me and say, “I’m so glad you’re home.”
You rewind a little, start the tape again. And we watch our Star Trek, always attentive to the Vulcans, in this series, the female Vulcan T’pal. We love the Vulcans. They don’t talk too much and never interrupt. And, of course, they are logical.
When I landed in Columbia, SC, on August 24, 2003, my little sister was there, waiting. We sat on the marble edge of huge planter for a tree locked inside the airport’s arboretum. I had just flown out of this same airport four days ago. I had hugged my father, despite my disdain for hugging. He’d made no move to hug me, and I had thought he was mad at me for getting carsick on the way to airport. So, I hugged him.
On this day, four days later, I sat with my little sister who told me that my father was dead. We didn’t hug or cry. We nodded. We looked each other in the eye.
My father’s older sister, my aunt Karla, was there, too, standing apart from us, waiting for one sister to tell the other their father was dead. We drove back to North Augusta, and we all tried to talk but instead kept making jokes.
My father had indeed died the day before. Several times over the years, my sister has apologized for lying to me, telling me he was still alive and in the hospital.
My family began in Oklahoma in 1978. My father’s family had moved here because of my grandfather’s work a few years before I was born. My father got his undergraduate and law degrees here. My parents were married here.
After their wedding, my parents went to the Marshall Islands so my father could complete his pioneering for the Bahá’í Faith. Late that summer, I was conceived, a Peace Corps baby.
One more thing: the Marshalls oldest story is of how two strange people—pilgrims or foreigners, we might say—came to the islands and started the Marshallese civilization, started everything. Then, later, of course, the Bikini Atoll bombings by the U.S. But things grow back. But the Marshallese endure. So do I. So do we.
Is it strange to begin and begin again, dear readers?
In 2002, one year before your death, dear Father. Winter break. My cousin Biz and I, the only two of the cousins home, decided to go see Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. On a whim, I asked you if you wanted to go with us. You did, of course. When we got home, you said “thank you” in such a small and quiet way. I hadn’t realized that something like that would matter so much. I thought I would have to remember to go see other movies with you. But we know how that went. The end of a trilogy never seen, the journey never completed. What did you miss, dear Father? An ending that needed a lot of editing.
Bahá’u’lláh died in Bahjí in 1892 of a fever. His son Díyá’u’lláh was enshrined with him in 1898.
Bahá’u’lláh left full instructions, a book titled The Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, for the legalistic matters of the religion after his death, the first prophet in history to do so. Despite the specificity, arguments arose as to whether his son `Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’u’lláh’s chosen successor, or his son Mírzá Muhammad `Alí, should lead the faith. Another of Bahá’u’lláh’s sons, Díyá’u’lláh, who couldn’t decide between the two. Díyá’u’lláh was declared a convenant-breaker, along with Mírzá Muhammad `Alí. And in 1965, after all those years, the body of Díyá’u’lláh was removed from the shrine of Bahá’u’lláh to purify it.
This logic has never worked for me. Just for being uncertain, a man, a follower, a son, a brother, was declared a convenant-breaker? And wouldn’t the body of a prophet purify the sinful rather than be tainted by them? How is the holiness of a prophet reliant upon his grave, his shrine, upon humans? And what becomes of the children who are unsure? And what becomes of the dead removed from their graves? And what becomes of the graves that aren’t visited? A sound like a tree falling, in a dark forest.
Dear readers, you are wondering, perhaps, How’d your father die again? He hanged himself, and at the beginning of this academic year, we learned that we should say hanged and should not say hung.
There are other things that you’re not supposed to say, like Why? or It’s my fault or I wish I had or If only I had . . .
We’ve made the successful suicide a thing untethered. There is nothing before and nothing after. We are supposed to let go of its heaviness. Our words about it are supposed to exonerate not only the survivors but also the dead. Our words about death are supposed to be past tense.
Dante’s epic circles itself with its meta-poetics. Dante makes himself a pilgrim. He also makes his reader a character through direct address. I’ve tried to find rhyme or reason to the moments when Dante calls his reader forth.
I think that all there is to say about these moments, dear readers, is that in them, my dear Dante felt a little lonely amongst the dead. I think it’s hard to talk about religion and pilgrimage without talking about the idea of community, of belonging.
On August 24, 2003, when we—my sister, my aunt Karla, and I—arrived home in North Augusta, SC, we went to my aunt’s house, where my mother and sister had been staying. Other aunts and uncles were there this afternoon, too.
My mother embraced me, crying, and said, “If you’d stayed longer, maybe he wouldn’t have done it.”
Hold your judgment for a moment, dear readers, and think of this: My mother thought love was this strong, that it could keep a dead man from his death. My mother immediately thought and said what all the experts say not to in the face of suicide. And yes, maybe she shouldn’t have said that to me, but I love how my mother wouldn’t succumb to the American notions of silent grief and wish that I had spoken more of it over the years.
Yes, dear readers, I know about Dante’s Seventh Circle—the suicide trees and the harpies. Do you, dear readers? Do you know about the endless torture Dante envisioned for the suicides? The self-murderers? Locked in trees, voiced only in and through pain.
My favorite picture of my father is one in which you cannot see his face.
He wears a seventies shirt—yes, another one. A short-sleeved blue and orange plaid one. His face is turned sideways as he looks through a telescope. There’s a sort of peaceful smile on his face, like he’s seeing exactly what he expected to see, what he wanted all along.
Dear readers, I’ve never been on a pilgrimage, except for this one, and I don’t think so many words and memories and their inherent contradictions count as any kind of holiness. Last year, I lived in Wisconsin, a mere three hours from the Bahá’í House of Worship of the North American Continent. There are only seven Bahá’í houses of worship in the world.
In 1992, when I was fourteen, my family went to the Bahá’í World Conference in New York City. This was the first real vacation my family had been on, the first time we’d flown anywhere. We went to Chicago first so that we could go to Wilmette, Illinois, to this Bahá’í House of Worship.
When she was younger, my mother worked as a nurse at Evanston Hospital right next door to this house of worship. She told us this many times. She said you looked out a hospital window and saw the House of Worship. Her work has always been holy somehow.
On this trip, I was bossed around, dragged from place to place, fretted over, commanded to stay close. I was told to pray. Always told to pray. I was told to see the beautiful fountains and gardens and the inscriptions on the nine sides of the House of Worship, none saying to abandon hope. See the beautiful things, pray to them. Say the beautiful words out loud. Look up. Let the dizzying circle make you holy.
Well, it didn’t work, dear readers. The holiness didn’t take.
So, last year when I lived in Wisconsin, I thought many times that I should go again to this Bahá’í House of Worship. I kept meaning to go, but it was a long winter and cold spring. The snow kept coming down, the last snowfall on April 29. And other things kept coming up. Until it became clear to me that I would have to leave Wisconsin for Oklahoma, the trip to Wilmette was delayed.
I went, though, finally on Tuesday, June 18, three days before summer solstice and my last day in Wisconsin. I went through the visitor’s center first. Get this, dear readers: I asked for a map. They didn’t have maps, which is just so Bahá’í.
So, I went on up the stairs to the temple. The day was foggy, and the white building blurred with clouds, like some wretchedly clichéd dream effect from an old movie. There were gardeners tending to the gardens, which surround nine reflecting pools, which all surround the temple. I took pictures of each of the gardens first. I began my second circle around the temple, and started taking pictures of each side, each inscription, but then, I grew tired of this.
I went in. The interior is filled with red chairs and a musty smell. But like the TARDIS, it’s bigger on the inside. The high domed ceiling makes it so rather than any dimensional transcendence.
There were a handful of people praying here on this weekday in June. One man looked much too relaxed to be praying, though, both of his arms slung back on the chairs adjacent to his. He looked at me briefly. I looked up, to avoid his gaze and to see if there was anything up there worth seeing.
I picked up two copies of the brochure, one for me and one for my mother.
I said my emergency prayer—the only one I remember, to be honest.
Back outside, I decided to circle the temple once more, for good measure. I passed a family of four: two parents, one girl, and one boy. I think the boy must have been about the same age I was when my family first came here. The boy asked how long this would take. His mother said, “Not long. We’re just going to say a prayer.” The boy asked again, “Yeah, but how long will it take?” And I smiled, dear readers, to think of how my young friend must feel, and to wonder if he would grow up to bring his own children here or if he would grow into a more tortured kind of faith, one good for exploiting heritage and weekday pilgrimages.
In Purgatorio, Dante is branded with sins, the seven of them, as designated by the carving of the letter “P” on his forehead by an angel. Having made his way out of hell, he is branded with sins. Dear readers, I implore you, does this make any sense? Is it logical? I suppose we are to see purgatory as a place of possibility, and so, our hero must become less than witness and more than pilgrim. He must become center and central.
In the days following my father’s suicide, one of my maternal uncles said something else you’re not supposed to say: that my father never would have done that, committed suicide, that Vinson was too religious. This uncle proposed that someone had broken into the house and strung up my father. This “theory” gained traction.
As my sister and I were taking care of many other things that our mother couldn’t that week, I decided to deal with my uncle’s illogical theory. I set up a meeting with the coroner for anyone from my family who wanted to go. It must be noted that the coroner was kind to agree. My mother didn’t come. That uncle didn’t come. Those of us who did asked the question for that uncle and those who believed him: Did Vinson Jamir really kill himself? Yes, he did. We asked other questions—for ourselves. There were aspects of the concrete that helped us process and move through shock.
Later that fall, after I’d returned to normal life, I emailed the coroner and asked him if he would mind sending me the pictures of the scene. It must be noted that the coroner was kind to agree. He sent them, dear readers, and when I first conceived of this essay, it was a photo-essay.
In his death pictures, my father’s body isn’t centered or all in one picture. A Cubist suicide. Fragments, broken. My father’s body is an off-center bloated tongue, a leg to the left of an eight-foot ladder kicked back against the wall, black socks on poised ballerina feet sticking out of a hollow cement brick, a sliver of white wrist behind a white zip tie. Yes, he bound himself and weighed himself down. As do we all.
This is just what I remember of these pictures from looking at them in 2003. And, to think, I was going to make myself look again. And, to think, I was going to make you look, too. Dear readers, what circle is there for this?
In Purgatory, Dante has to say goodbye to Virgil. There is no more room or time for the brainy stuff. Dante has to go with his gut now. The man he has called father leaves, and he is left with the women. He invokes his three muses. Beatrice tells him to write for humankind. Beatirce tells him, Keep your eyes on the chariot.
The funeral, dear readers. A Bahá’í funeral is every kid’s greatest annoyance. It is thorough, extended, repetitive. Prayer upon prayer. My sister and I did not cry. We were the only ones. We looked each other in the eye.
The day, a hot and humid August one in South Carolina. The trees were dying; everything green was dead or dying. No breeze. Fire smiting the ground around our funeral tent. Shade and shadow no relief.
At the end of it all, my mother spread her arms wide, like a bird, like a Viking blood eagle, across my father’s casket, and her wail wasn’t a sound but an echo. My sister and I looked each other in the eye.
I learned about broken first as a child from my mother, from the way her culture broke us off from the rest of the Americans—then from my father in 2003.
His suicide note was a single-spaced, five-hundred-page memoir titled Shikastih, which refers to a type of Persian calligraphy and literally translates to broken. In the chapter titled “Marriage and Family,” he refers to my mother, my sister, and me as “three bitches.” See, dear readers, see how we were his muses? He proceeds to outline a “tragic” occurrence from childhood where my mother promised my sister a dog if she did her chores. After my sister complied, my mother reneged, and my sister never got her pet dog.
The chapter ends with love poems for my mother, dear readers.
This chapter was placed inside two unaddressed envelopes that I found after my father died, one labeled “Nahal and Nasim” and one labeled for his two sisters “Karla and Sally.” None of us has ever shown this chapter to my mother. My sister and I have never read the entire memoir. We are both proud of this.
When Star Trek: Discovery aired on September 24, 2017, I watched, despite knowing how much it would remind me of you, dear Father. The first new Star Trek series since your death. I was most curious about what they would do with the Star Trek theme.
Growing up, the theme for Next Gen was sacred. Back then, my sister was even into it. We would have our dinner prepared and be sitting at the coffee table on time for the seven o’clock start, ready for the breezy tour of our solar system, for the isolated notes and their fermatas, for the unsurpassed princely dignity of Picard’s monologue.
I watched Discovery’s first episode alone. I was concerned about this theme song, maybe because they’d kind of botched the theme song with Enterprise.
Discovery’s theme is slow and actually sounds like those theme songs from earlier series. It also sounds like something from childhood, not just mine, but childhood proper. The music is like a nursery rhyme played slowly in a minor key. The notes and beats overlap, making a slurring and snake-like progression. There is a tin-can hollowness to the music as it unwinds. It crescendos some, but not enough to make you smile or think that you’re going to conquer anything. And the music ends abruptly with two staccato notes, a sad and unholy pair.
My father went to Bahjí on August 2, 1970, dear readers. He writes of it in his suicide memoir:
Without doubt, that visit to the resting place of Baha’u’llah was the single most blessed day of my entire life. I can truly say that God blessed me with one absolutely perfect day. . . .I recall that when I was praying with my forehead on the ground in front of the Threshold, my eyes opened and I saw a tiny little ant struggling across the carpet. I wondered how that little insect got itself into such a sacred place, but it was only a few inches in front of me and I could observe its determination and direction. This became a lesson to me, taught by an industrious ant at the Holy Threshold of Baha’u’llah. We all serve in our own manner and according to our own God-given capacity.
The flipbook of us, if you string our photos together:
I stand in the front of a dark room in the blue light of a projector. You cannot see my face or what is behind me on the screen. Ahead of me, in a door frame, my father, in black and white. He would prefer to be Gregory Peck from To Kill a Mockingbird, but I make him James Dean from East of Eden.
He has one leg up against the door frame and wears a white T-shirt. A cigarette in his mouth and wry smile coiling up around it instead of smoke. My father smiles at me, right at me, for we both know the cigarette is a joke but the white T-shirt’s spot on. Then, he stops smiling and looks up at the ceiling, through it, and the blue light cuts off. Then, everything is silent and dark except the orange moon of a cigarette and the sound of a disappointed man inhaling.
Dear readers, you ask me, What’s the difference between a maze and a labyrinth? A maze has many branch-like paths and more than one way in and out; a labyrinth is circular, a single circuitous line with only one way in and one way out.
At the beginning of his suicide memoir, my father writes,
The following composition began as a simple sentence and gradually grew much longer. Microsoft Word (97) shows its length in characters is nearly a million. A person who is trying to ease a troubled mind might write a few pages of a journal, but I have written hundreds of pages. I have no trusted confidant with whom to share the concerns that I express at such length, and perhaps it is for the best that I do not burden another soul but instead engage in extended meditation on my deepest worries.
What follows is rambling and broken because I myself am broken in so many ways.
Dear readers, I understand my father. Dear readers, I have fewer than 30,000 characters, fewer than 7,000 words here, and I know now that I have so many trusted confidants, like you, who will hear me. So, I speak.
We’re back with the ducks now, dear readers, or the idea of them. Is it strange to end and end again?
The thing about suicide is that it is the opposite of a Bahá’í funeral. A suicide is rude. It is the act of refusing love and withholding gratitude, the act of writing one’s own ending, and we all know that you can’t do that. No one makes it to any part of the after-life alone, not even Dante, whose very name means endurance.
And these many years—fifty-two, sixteen, forty, who knows how many?—I have traveled with my father, and vice versa. I have been to Nebraska, though I have never been to Nebraska, and my father, he finds himself again in Oklahoma. The prairies, the hills of Carolina. Water laughing in Georgia and an entire lake in Iran lost to the air. Escaped fluorescent light dancing on the Pacific as things grow back. The pink tornadoes of Texas and the noble rabbits of Wisconsin. Water lapping on both sides of Lake Michigan. Escapes to and from Florida. The ripe oranges that finally fall and the hurricanes that always come in the end. The tides and the tall wheat alike moving as an old joke. And of course, a garden. We all spent the end of the last millennium in the American South—in North Augusta, South Carolina. And yet we are not wholly of our places. I have to rewrite my father’s ending, our ending, for many reasons, one of which is that we are weary travelers.
I’ll give it to you now, though it is no starry paradiso, no eagle, no saints, no wheels. And I don’t think this ending fits in Dante’s cosmos. And I must be clear that it is only his and my ending, that my story isn’t even close to over yet. And perhaps, my father and I haven’t earned this ending. Or perhaps, we’ve earned it a million times over.
Now, I’ll give you our ending. I’ll tell it straight, without sarcasm or witticism, without an eyeroll or a wink, without any of my Gen X indignation or my second-generation immigrant toughness. So, here you are: dear Father, I’m so glad you’re home.
Nahal Suzanne Jamir’s writing has been recently published or is forthcoming in journals like Cincinnati Review, Gulf Coast, and Notre Dame Review. Her short fiction collection In the Middle of Many Mountains was published by Press 53. She currently teaches as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Rollins College and for the low-residency M.F.A. at Mississippi University for Women.