Earlier Than Most by Siamak Vossoughi
Earlier Than Most
by Siamak Vossoughi
“He did not understand that once you left your country, friendship was work. It was the work of remembering. After all that work, she deserved to be remembered how she wanted.”
Earlier Than Most
by Siamak Vossoughi
They rushed the wedding date up to September when Mahin Amini got sick. She was the mother of the groom. It cannot be a big wedding or a fancy wedding, they explained to the guests. We apologize for the short notice.
It was two things. It was a happy time and a sad time. Her son was getting married and she was dying. There were times when she stepped outside in the morning to check on her garden when she saw that it had always been two things. The particular arrangement of the sky and the trees and the morning air was beautiful and it was dying. Okay, she thought, my life is the same as this garden. I did not aspire to be more than that.
She watered the flowers and cleared away the fallen leaves and felt as though she was watering and clearing away herself. What would the wedding be if she were not dying? Would it be a day that captured and exalted her motherhood? That explained once and for all what it had all been for? She thought of how much she would be asking of the day if she were not dying, and she smiled at the innocence of it. As if a single day can do that, she thought. The living can put all their hope and faith in a single day, because they can afford to be casual with the days leading up to it. But it is the sum of days, the very thing that the living cannot hold in their hand, that contains the specialness they try to put into a single day.
In the garden, among the particular arrangement of sky and trees and morning air, her whole life had been her son’s wedding day. Before she was a mother, before she had come to America, before she could have even known what a wedding day was. It was from love that they had rushed the wedding date up to September, and it was from love that she had thanked them for it. It was better to see her son get married than to not see him get married. But they were still missing the real occasion, and she was now joining the poets who found it impossible to tell them.
When the day came though, she was surprised. She was as excited as any member of the living. She could still be a child about a single day, and she forgave herself for it. She could still look out a car window on the way to a wedding and see something throughout the whole city that was marking the day.
When she embraced the guests at the wedding, she embraced them as both the poet and the child. They felt it and embraced her back in the same way. There was a hello and a goodbye in the embrace. Mahin felt then that every embrace in her life had been a hello and a goodbye. It was foolish how people tried very hard to make a distinction between them.
No one said it directly, but it was a known thing that the smallness and simplicity of the wedding were because of her. Mahin apologized to the bride’s mother.
“I am sorry that because of my cancer, they could not find a bigger place and invite more people. This is your only daughter, and she deserves a proper wedding.”
The bride’s mother, a white woman who was humble herself, was momentarily speechless.
“Please do not apologize for being sick.”
“There were several other places we had in mind,” Mahin said. “Better places. If we had more time.”
Mahin looked around the room and wondered if all the guests knew she was the reason it was not a proper wedding. She could not apologize to each one of them, but she would have liked to.
They were different about these things though, her son and his bride. They had told her they didn’t care about the size or how the place looked. What mattered were the people and what they spoke about each other. American weddings were full of people standing up and saying how much they loved the bride and groom. Her own wedding in Iran had not been an occasion for any of her friends to stand up and say how much they loved her. She’d surprised herself how tightly she’d held on to traditions when they left Iran, but at this point she could not say which way was best. Maybe Americans had it right. The people stood up to speak and very often they cried, not from sorrow but from the weight of emotion itself. It was fascinating. She genuinely did not know if it was from being unpracticed or overly-practiced at expression that their tears came out.
The bride’s mother was a quiet woman. She did not mind the place they had chosen at all. I think we would become friends, Mahin thought. Some American women were very loud. Everything seemed to be coming out of them at once. We would become friends because her daughter is a good woman and my son is a good man and that is a very good foundation for two mothers to become friends.
It was funny to think that after all this time, she could finally imagine having an American friend. She had not wanted to see her Iranian friends since her diagnosis. She spoke to them on the phone and they sent flowers and cards, but she did not want to be seen in this way, a tube connected to her stomach to receive nutrition since she could not eat. Let them remember our gatherings together at our house. Let them remember the meals I made, and how we sang late into the night. For a while, her son had asked her each day if she was sure she did not want them to come and visit her. He did not understand that once you left your country, friendship was work. It was the work of remembering. After all that work, she deserved to be remembered how she wanted.
Her son had asked her if she wanted to stand up and speak at the wedding. She had said no, believing that it would interfere with the emotion of the occasion. The people would look at her and feel sad, and that was not the thing for a wedding. She felt affirmed in her decision. There was a correct way to be the mother of the groom and she could not do it. She believed there was some grace in admitting that.
There was still room for happiness, and she felt happy as she watched the ceremony. She thought of how everyone else was watching the birth of something. Was it still a birth if you were not going to see the life of the thing? It was better to think of it as the end of something, an end to her sorrow and worry over her son. Whether or not it was the end of that she didn’t know, but she knew that the woman he was marrying saw inside him, and saw the places where Mahin’s sorrow and worry lived, her fears over whether he had something inside him to meet life head on. Someone would be taking over that role either way, and she trusted that it was being placed in good hands.
At dinner, more people stood up to speak of how much they loved the bride and groom than they had even planned for. Maybe Iranians could learn something from this, Mahin thought. Then again, maybe they were doing this in Iran now too. She had been gone so long that she didn’t know. Many things had changed.
She thought of how she would not be buried in Iran. She would be buried in America. She had bought the cemetery plot a week after the diagnosis. It was very expensive, but what was money to her then? It was a way to stay among the living, to worry over money, and it did feel more reassuring to her to worry over the money than to not.
It would be nice if there was one other Iranian buried in the cemetery, she thought. Just one. But with her luck it would be one of these royalist women. Better to be among Americans who didn’t know the first thing about Iran.
During the dinner, her son came to check on her tube. It ran from her stomach to a bag of nutrients connected to a pump with a timer. The tumor was in her ovaries, but because of its size, it blocked her normal digestion.
“How do you feel?”
“I am okay,” Mahin said.
“If you feel weak, you can tell Katti and she can take you home.”
“I am okay.”
Her son looked at her. “I wish you could eat, Maman.”
“This is how it is,” she said.
She appreciated his sympathy, not for itself, but for the chance it gave her to state the reality of the situation. She liked those moments when she could state the reality of the situation. They brought her closest to who she knew herself to be. They brought her closest to Iran, which she remembered now as a place of people who stated the reality of the situation, and to her family, who did the same. I am one of many who do this, she thought. And they have done it for much more difficult situations.
Even more than Iran, her truest home was among those who looked squarely at their suffering. They did not have to be close at hand. They were not to be found in a support group, as her doctor had suggested. Her husband had been one of them, thank God. While his mind had been right, he had been one of them. She was thankful that for her it was not her mind, and so she could still see them, the people who looked squarely at their suffering. She could still see them through time and place. She and her husband had both given up on God in their youth, having received nothing but wrath and shame from Him. Her husband’s heaven was a world where the workers owned the means of production. Her heaven was wherever she could be among those who looked squarely at their suffering. They knew her heart and she knew theirs. They would not have to say a word to each other. It might even be better if they didn’t. But they would know, they would know that they had approached their suffering with an understanding that each moment was beautiful and dying. To be among them, even if just in her thoughts, was a kind of heaven.
There had been enough of an overlap between her heaven and her husband’s to make a marriage. She knew his heaven and he knew hers. Unlike the believers in the usual heaven, they did not have to name it as such. They only had to know that heaven sat at the end of each day, and the work of life was to move through the world in a way that made them worthy of seeing it.
After dinner was the dancing, and then the cake. The poets would have something to say about someone who had spent her life making food for others no longer being able to eat. Try to be that poem, she told herself. It had been the same for leaving Iran, raising her children in America, the death of her own mother back home. Try to be the poem, even if you are not certain what it is. Let the heaven at the end of the day be your guide.
Little by little, the first guests began to say goodbye and leave. There was something funny in watching them leave. They would go out the door, out into the street, into their cars and then towards their homes, but all along they would still be at the wedding of her son and his wife. It was out there in the street, in the privacy of their cars, and in the quiet of their homes. They would go to sleep tonight and there would be a very soft wedding in their bedrooms while they slept. It was even the wedding of her son and his wife out where none of the guests would be going home to. Out in the empty lands of America where virtually nobody knew a single Iranian. Out there it was the wedding too. And the wedding reached all the way to Iran. It was the wedding for children and it was the wedding for mothers and fathers. It was the wedding for all of them. She wished they could have invited all of them so that they would know that they were at the wedding. People needed proof. It was one of the sad and funny things about them.
“I can’t believe they’re leaving the party so soon,” Katti said.
“Who?” Mahin said.
Her daughter motioned toward the door.
“Them?” Mahin said. “They are not leaving. Everyone is staying at the party. Everyone else is staying at the party.” She looked squarely at her daughter and she felt proud of having found her heaven earlier than most.
FEATURED IMAGE BY Ben Rosett via UNSPLASH
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Siamak Vossoughi is a writer living in Seattle. His stories have appeared in various journals and his first collection, Better Than War, received a 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. His second collection, A Sense of the Whole, received the 2019 Orison Fiction Prize. Find him on Twitter @siamakvossoughi. More at siamakvossoughi.com.