Nadia Misir was born and raised in South Ozone Park, Queens. She is a former Asian American Writers’ Workshop Open City fellow. She received her BA in English from SUNY Oswego and an MA in American studies from Columbia University. She is pursuing an MFA in fiction writing at Queens College, CUNY, and was a Writer-in-Residence at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Her writing has been published in AAWW’s Open City Magazine, No, Dear Mag, and Kweli Journal. Follow her on Instagram @nuancednadia.
Grief, Gods, and Nails
How does one define belief, belonging, and mourning in a life that has been built on fragments of land, sea, and memories scattered across the world – across cultures and religions – across a double diaspora? Nadia Misir’s engaging literary essay battles these questions in a quest to discover one’s own faith among an identity that is built on multitudes.
My grandmother’s movie star nails sloped up and then down again like a hill on the horizon. In South Ozone Park, there are no hills on our horizon. Only low flying planes en route to John F. Kennedy Airport. These planes skim our rooftops. I hear them well before they come into view. For a second that feels like the length of a lifetime all other sounds are snuffed out. And on Sunday nights, I imagine reaching up to peel a letter off the side of each plane. Like a stamp you put on an envelope with no address.
This is what it feels like to pray after I lose my grandparents.
I paint my nails on Sunday nights, let them grow the way my grandmother grew hers. I inherited her hands, her nails with the sloped hills. Star gyal nails, we used to call them. In our home, we invoke the Guyanese-Creole word for movie star. St-aaahr gyal. St-aaahr bai. In this creole, your mouth must hold on to that ah sound, allow it to stretch its back like a cat.
My grandfather reminds me in my dreams to prepare for rain on Good Friday. My grandmother sings a Jim Reeves song. She sends me back to the waking world with the mournful timbre of We Thank Thee. I hold the words in my hand. They are heavy with the weight of the feeling that their gods have been on a joyride.
Where are her gods when grandma asks why me? Are the planes that flood my room with their light disturbing their hearing too? What is the patient to god ratio in hospitals? Watching my grandmother’s breathing deteriorate swiftly, witnessing the way disease took away her ability to walk, witnessing the way it confined her to her bed and the three-foot oxygen cannula that bruised her nose did eventually push me to my mother’s altar.
But if ever I prayed, it was an angry prayer with desperate words:
Why our family?
It was also a prayer in parcels: one for Jesus, one for a pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses, another for the ancestors in our family who, according to family lore, would be the ones to escort my grandparents out of this life and into the next.
She like walk whole day. That’s how everyone remembers my grandmother. This was the woman who rode the A train to Far Rockaway when she needed solitude. She told me she’d pick a window seat and watch the rooftops turn into sand and ocean. I am told I come from a people who were brought to British Guiana on boats and who then left on foot, on boat, on plane. We like walk whole day.
The cruelest part of dying is not actually dying. It’s all the ways your body betrays you.
It always rains on Good Friday: this is what mom tells me when I wake with heavy hands. Though they are gone, my grandparents’ altar remains unaltered: portraits of Jesus, Mary, Hanuman, Lakshmi and Ram—this is what it means to inherit gods that traveled on ships to a green country on the coast of South America, to inherit the gods of empire, the gods that pull a veil on the indigenous gods that swim the country’s deep rivers.
Dad follows We Thank Thee with a bhajan. In my family faith is a mix and match kind of thing, a we-come-from-a-country-where-there-are-too-many-problems-so-why-wouldn’t-we-pray-to-every-god kind of thing, a jhandi and prayer service in the same year kind of thing.
This Good Friday we find ourselves at the same hospital we ferried my grandparents to. We find ourselves staring at the same wall of scratch-off lottery tickets on Main Street, ordering the same bubble teas and blueberry smoothie.
To be in a constant state of grief is to time travel every day. It is to see the cigarette butt hiding between crocus blooms before noticing the deep purple petals. To grieve is to fear running a finger over those petals because they remind you of the purple bruises that bloom on human skin where the I.V. conquers the vein. It is to turn every experience into a metaphor for grief. To not know where to put all the strange things you learn about the body, and about hospitals when you try to sail your faith and these gods you’ve inherited, back to where they came from.
But what do I know about sailing?
Summer, a few years before my grandparents died.
An internship in Manhattan.
‘What would Nadia know about ships? That’s what he told me’. Mary gave me a knowing look, a duh-how-could-I-have-even-imagined-it-any-other-way kind of look.
I remember staring at her before laughing and nodding my head yes-what-would-I-know-about-ships. She lived in a different kind of New York, in the Brooklyn Heights-brownstone New York, right by the water.
I cannot remember why we were talking about ships, why I came up during dinner with her husband after work. I remember being asked to plan a trip to Ellis Island, I remember looking at a ferry schedule for the first time and calling up my father, asking him to help me decipher it. Mary’s question taunted me the entire time.
‘What do I know about ships?’
What do I know about Mahadai Das? The Guyanese poet who died before she turned 50? What do I know about her poem, “They Came In Ships”? What do I know about these lines:
They came in ships
From far across the seas
The dancing girls,
Crossing black waters?
What do I know about the way ships uproot entire ancestries? What do I know about the way sailing rewrites entire histories, about the way sailing created an entirely new labour diaspora? What do I know about ships with names like The Whitby, The Hesperus, The Eliza Stewart, The Zenobia, The Resurgent, The Clyde? Would you board a ship if your mouth could not wrap itself around the pronunciation of its name, or if you could not decipher the meaning of its name?
Here is what I know.
I know Guyana is covered in water. I know it is a coastal country with wide, winding rivers and a view of the Atlantic. I know rivers have tides. I know boats—speedboats, tug boats, ferries—are common modes of transportation here. I know I goin’ across di rivah is as common as saying I’m gonna catch the train.
When someone mistakes me for desi, for South Asian, I want to scream the name of every river in Guyana until they are drenched in my erased histories, until they too have to assume the roles of geographer, navigator and historian.
I am profiled on dating profiles with the ‘but where are you really from’ question. I refuse to condense hundreds of years of multiple forced migrations and the enslavement of black and brown bodies in a sentence or two over a blue drink at some trendy place in the East Village in that part of New York where I am the tourist dropping in on the new hipster natives. I am asked to explain what a double diaspora is. I reply with I am always moving from the traumas of rush hour delays to the traumas of being twice displaced. I am told I am Indian in looks, but not Indian enough.
I am told by doctors and nurses that my grandfather’s English is better than their own, that my grandmother’s English is pretty good for a woman of her generation. I notice the way these doctors, nurses, PCAs and other hospital staff treat my grandparents with more dignity and patience after learning that English is their first language.
Grief is watching your grandparents code-switch to bargain for better care.
Have you ever read the PARIKA, ESSEQUIBO RIVER TIDE CHART, posted at the Parika Stelling? If you lived there, you’d have to. There are few bridges connecting riverbank to riverbank, riverbank to coast. Instead, people rely on the sun and moon rise to guide their migration.
But what would I know about ships? About words like stelling? A stelling, according to Wikitionary, is a site or position (especially at shoreline or with reference to (former) Dutch colonies). In reality, a stelling is the place where wood meets water, where boats are docked, where you vainly look out at the expanse of water in front of you and strain your eyes for the ship your great-great-great-grandmother arrived on.
Here is what I know.
There were three phases of what Walton Look Lai calls ‘the East Indian influx into the British West Indies’. I know these indentured labourers were brought on ships to British Guiana, Trinidad and Jamaica. I know how to read Table 5.1, know how to do the math, know that out of 419,260 labourers, British Guiana received 238,909. Is there an algorithm on Excel that can reveal the true spelling of my last name before a colonial officer’s pen re-rooted my ancestral tree? Is there a mathematician that can calculate the number of dreams that drowned with each body that did not survive the voyages?
I know that there is a tree growing at the back of my throat, a language thrown overboard, still wet with Atlantic waves. I know that there are times I cough bits of it up. It lands at my feet, sputters and dies before I can ask ‘what kind of wood were the ships made of?’
But what would I know about ships? About grief?
Grief is forever waiting for the A train in my part of Queens, in that part of Queens tourists bypass on the Van Wyck when they deplane. On most nights, the noise outside my bedroom window comes from those planes. Their wing lights illuminate my room, bounce between my walls and the hanging mirror on my closet door. When I was a kid – before the noise of grief gifted me insomnia – the low rumble of each plane sailing in lulled me to sleep.
On Friday nights, the noise comes from cars doing donuts in the parking lot of the Catholic Church next door. On summer nights, it’s the wedding house music, the boys with strong arms knocking di tassa drums, it’s the soca song that comes knocking at my window from two blocks over or the loud screech of the green clothing drop bin opening and closing.
And on nights like tonight it’s entirely too quiet—even for this part of Queens – this addendum to the rest of the city. I’ve always felt that living in South Ozone Park-Richmond Hill is like living in an endnote, an afterthought. When I think about my mother’s view from her grilled bedroom window in Guyana all I see are the green leaves of the gooseberry tree dripping rain. ‘Da ting can wake up di dead’.
‘It sow-wahhh’, mom tells me when I ask her to ID the fruit tree. She tells me she used to sit on top of the fowl pen and reach her hand out to pick a bunch. She’d eat them with a handful of salt and pepper. ‘We coulda nevuh starve in dat yard. Every tree was so fruitful. Dem birds use tuh propa help themself. But those were the sweetest fruits. So we use tuh cut off di bird part and eat the rest’.
When one of Jamaica Hospital’s lung specialist takes my grandmother’s hand in his, he elicits a ‘Woo. Look at those bad boys’. I can’t remember if this is before or after my mother sits down with a team of palliative care doctors to discuss options for my grandfather. I can’t remember if this is before or after we realize that his hospice, the one he will sleep in for just three nights, is really a nursing home perched on the closest thing to a hill I’ve seen in this part of Queens.
‘Woo. Look at those bad boys’. When the Jamaica Hospital doctor runs a finger over each convex nail I imagine throwing him out of the window and on to the Van Wyck Expressway outside. How could we have known that the way my grandmother’s convex nails sloped, like the dome of the blue mosque outside the window, meant she was dying? Meant her lungs had been dying for years? Hippocratic fingers, watch-glass nails they call it. I looked at my own nails, the way each one mirrored hers. I think about the cigarettes she never smoked and the one I had the night before with Sanjay in front of a midtown bar right before he pulls me to him, plants a whiskey sour soaked kiss on my forehead.
I was six years old when I ran teeth first into the glass table in our living room. I managed to knock my two front teeth out clean. My mouth filled with blood. It tasted like saltwater. It took years for the gap between my teeth to disappear. It was the first time I experienced grief. The teeth that grew in were jagged and stuck out like two bent exclamation points. Braces straightened them out and I mourned for them too, for all the things we force into straight lines.
After my grandmother died, we packed her nightgowns with the long sleeves, short sleeves and no sleeves in a brown shipping barrel from LeParkan Shipping Company on Liberty Avenue. It is big enough to fit my body and hers, to fit a life divided by ‘Back Home’ and ‘Over Here’.
There is an entire economy devoted to the shipping of barrels and boxes from New York City to Guyana and elsewhere in the Caribbean. The barrels are embodiments of life lived Over Here, not Back Home.
The first time I went to LeParkan Shipping Company with my mother, I ran into a map. On it were lines drawn in black magic marker that connected New York and other points of diaspora Back Home to Guyana. If I were to map every barrel, every box that has migrated from Here to There, what shape would it be?
We packed each hospital room, each view of the mosque with the turquoise dome, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Lincoln Motor Inn in between the folds of her clothing that still smelled like her. It smelled like wet flowers and moth balls.
And then we threw in the nurses, the attending doctors, the PCAs, who wouldn’t pray with my grandmother, who assumed they knew her gods, who assumed she couldn’t speak English. We added the respiratory technicians who left her nebulizer treatment on for too long.
We stuffed each failed attempt by the phlebotomist to insert an IV line in her tiny veins, each vial of blood they took for “testing”, each time the senior care van got stuck in a snow bank, the red and white visitor passes, the ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ wristbands, the palliative care brochures with stock photos of people smiling, the green oxygen tanks, the plastic cannulas, the prescription bottles filled with prednisone tablets.
We packed it all away into that barrel and sent it back to a country the color of our grief.
My religion was never praying in a language I cannot understand. Prayer to me has always evoked images of erasure, of vacuum, of empty space, of negative space. Prayer to me was repeating words in a language I did not know, would never know. It was making my mouth in the shape of a shadow.
But my grandmother’s faith was unwavering even until her last breath.
Because of grief I can now tell when morphine has made its home in someone’s body. It’s in the way the lips open like the mouth of a river for air, in the way each breath is hauled in with the same force that takes breath away all together. ‘Haulin fuh breath’, my mother says. Two years after my grandparents die, she will cry at her aunt’s bedside in the hospital we know too well. She tells me she must cry for her father, for her mother. She tells me she must cry the tears they would have cried.
If it is true that we take on the grief of those who have already died, then let me be greedy, let me mourn every person, every living thing, every plant, every bird, every tree, every creature, every draft, every dream my grandparents would have mourned so that I can feel them close to me again.
Let that be my religion, my prayer.
The Grief, Gods, and Nails Slideshow — Photos by Nadia Misir