Guilt. This was the emotion I felt when I read my brother’s text: Tayabo has passed. I quickly shut off my phone, staring into the blackness of the screen, my face distorted in the reflection as the gears in my head stopped turning. A small ringing noise was the only thing I could hear until my friend, sitting next to me in math class, tapped me lightly.
“Hey, you all right?” she asked. I squeezed my eyes shut, opening them again and smiling. I nodded, watching as the worry disappeared from her eyes. She turned back to her book, but I wasn’t able to look back at mine.
It wasn’t like it was a surprise; my uncle had been battling cancer for almost two years. The doctors had told us long ago that he didn’t have much longer to live. Perhaps I just didn’t want to believe “much longer” was ever going to come.
I shoved my phone back into my pocket and slammed my math book shut. “Can I go to the bathroom, please?” I whispered, only loud enough for my teacher to hear as I quickly rushed out. Once I got there, my hands cupped the cool water, splashing it over my face. I stared at myself in the mirror. It’s going to be OK, right? But I couldn’t reassure myself.
The rest of the day sped by. I checked my phone every two minutes hoping my brother had just played a cruel joke on me. Unlike other school days, I didn’t want today to end. But before I knew it, I was boarding the bus.
A Decision I Will Always Regret
I sat in the back of the bus, watching the trees and people pass by; my reflection staring back at me. I felt such guilt. I watched rain roll across the glass.
So here it is: The night before, on the way to visit my uncle in the hospital, I asked my brother to drop me off at my grandma’s instead. My cousins were also with her and I wanted to see them. I’ll visit him tomorrow, I thought to myself. I have time.
When my brother picked me up, he described how much light from my uncle’s face had drained away and how much skinnier he looked, like he was just bones and skin. I hadn’t visited him for a year and a half, but I didn’t think I would miss the only opportunity to see him again.
I didn’t want to see him, yet I wasn’t sure why. Now I know part of it was that if I did visit him, I would be forced to accept that he was really dying. I also know now there was a part of me that wasn’t sure if my uncle even wanted to see me, a failure of a niece who hadn’t visited him for so long. Another part of the reason for not going had to do with a huge family argument ending in my parents no longer visiting that part of our family. But I still could have seen him. I was ashamed of my actions and I didn’t think he could forgive me.
In my family, showing your emotions was frowned upon, so I was also afraid I would cry in front of him and everyone else. Appearing emotionally vulnerable was not done. I didn’t want to seem weak in front of him, his children, my parents, and the rest of our family.
I thought of the last time I saw Tayabo before he got really sick. Him lightly slapping me with his cane as a way of showing his love, him stealing my glasses to tease me, and his mismatched eyes: One a pretty blue color, a color I want to believe had represented the serenity inside his soul. One dark brown, maybe representing the warmth his smile had brought to those around him.
Do I Deserve to Grieve?
Death is a hard concept. I had never lost someone this close to me before. My heart had stung when I received the text, similar to a physical pain. I wondered if this was what heartbreak feels like. I didn’t like that feeling constantly returning, knocking at the door and pushing its way in.
The funeral was the next day. I put on a long, black dress. My mother told me not to wear anything too fancy. I wasn’t aware of these protocols; the only time I had been to a funeral was when I was 7 after my grandfather died. I wasn’t close to him.
The loose, black dress rested over my figure plainly. When I got into the car, I stared down into my lap. The ride was mostly silent.
We were late, but just in time for the viewing. I felt a surge of panic. Am I ready for this? We watched my uncle’s son’s lift the top of the casket. My uncle’s eyes were shut and his body was incredibly skinny, just like my brother had said. Watching my grandmother cry while my father held her in his arms was heartbreaking. I quickly wiped my tears away.
What right did I have to cry? I never visited him. If I had just seen his face, even once, I wouldn’t feel like this. I turned away, covering my mouth, and squeezing my eyes tight.
Then my sister tapped my shoulder. “We’re going back,” she whispered. “Go wait in the car.”
In the backseat, I was grateful to the kids yelling, as it drowned out my painful sobbing. It was the kind of sobbing where it feels like there is nothing left, where the snot ran down my nose and fell onto the car seat and my plain black dress.
A Cousin’s Wisdom
Throughout that year, the pain of what I did and the loss hit me at random moments. I would sometimes close my bedroom door and just let myself cry. I didn’t think I could ever lift the burden off my chest. It felt like a forever thing.
Then, my great grandmother died. The night of her funeral, my cousin Safa pulled me out of the house. I assumed it was to get a breath of fresh air. We sat in her car, the rain pattering against it. “I don’t know why I thought I had all the time in the world to see her,” she said, as her eyes welled up with tears and her voice slightly cracked. I felt a sting in my chest. All the pent up guilt from my uncle’s death and the heartache from my great grandma’s hit me. I pulled my legs up and buried my face between them as I cried.
“Are we bad people, Safa?” I asked.
“I know it hurts, Arvaa. But neither of us really didn’t know when they were going to die.”
But I did, was all I could think to myself. I knew he was going to leave soon. The guilt in my chest grew bigger as Safa wrapped her arms around me. Then she said something that stuck with me forever. “What use is it feeling that guilt? Taking it with you everywhere you go? It’s not like you can build a time machine and fix your mistakes. The only way to move forward is to forgive yourself. They can’t come back and forgive you, so you have to do it for yourself.”
As she hugged me, I wondered if her words were true, if I was worthy of forgiveness. If I could move on.
That night while I was tossing and turning, I stared out the window. Then I realized my cousin was right. Grieving is one thing, but making myself carry the heavy emotion of guilt felt detrimental to my growth.
I could never move forward until I let go and forgave myself. I wondered why I was so OK holding that guilt close to me, and that’s when it hit me: it was the last thing that kept me connected to Tayabo. The guilt was the last string, and if I let it go, I was letting him go.
Getting past the part where I continued to hate myself for my decision not to see him that last time is something I think I may always have to work on. There were, and still are, times when I see or hear things that remind me of my uncle, and it still makes me feel sad. But I’ve tried to forgive myself for not knowing how to handle his dying. I continue to remind myself that, like everyone, I’m flawed, but I’m trying to be and do better.
Arvaa is a senior at Health, Arts, Robotics and Technology High School in Queens, NY. She loves to try new things and in addition to her passion for writing her hobbies include art, fashion, swimming, ice skating, guitar and reading. Her goal is to become an English professor and she hopes to impact people’s lives like others have done for her.