On Saturday, December 31st at approximately 3 p.m., my ninety-three-year-old grandfather uttered the words that would reverberate for hours. The words that I would carry with me into the New Year. “I am doing great. I want to be better, though,” he said, when my brother, his wife, and I blithely told him during our visit that he looked great.
And this time he truly did, unlike the other times when we said he looked well, only to make a wish and send it out to the universe. What we expected to happen when we pretended he was great I don’t know. He was no Benjamin Button, and did he even want to be? Were we trying to convince him or ourselves when we pretended that he was okay? The truth is, he has rarely been great. He is 93, often in pain, bored, fearful, and lonely; exhaustion ripples through his fragile body all the time. He is not sick; he is simply 93. But–
on Saturday, December 31st at approximately 3 p.m, he truly looked great, whatever that meant. Not sure what it was; he seemed more engaged and energetic. “I am doing great. I want to be better, though,” he said and continued to chew his raw mastic gum, almost in slow motion. Studying the three of us sitting dutifully on the beige plush couch across him, “I am going to be better. I do not want to die,” he added, enunciating the words that would reverberate for hours. He then went on to stare into space, chewing his gum as he always does.
We lapsed into silence.
I glanced at my grandmother who was knitting a scarf with an urgency that would make you think it had to be finished by the following day. Next to me, my brother was looking down at his hands as my sister-in-law and I exchanged looks full of sorrow. For a family that needs a drastic improvement of their communication skills, particularly for intimacy and discussion of difficult subjects, grandpa may have shared a little too much; it all felt uncanny. But I’m supposedly the one to proudly have broken the familial patterns with therapy, books, and practice so I wanted to say something
What do you say to your beloved 93-year-old grandpa who articulates his desire to escape death?
Well, grandpa, we all die? You have lived an amazing life and will continue to do so? It will be okay? (Will it, really?) We love you? Such is life and we can all die any minute?
I don’t have a clue. What I know is this: that moment is one of the few times when words failed me. And words rarely fail me. But in that moment at my grandparents’, we all pretended we hadn’t heard the words grandpa spoke and moved on to discuss the news.
What I know is also this: although I understand the tendency to safeguard ourselves from the notion of death as an existential threat, I actually could have looked him in the eyes and say something.
But I couldn’t.
And just like that, we discussed the news, my job, my brother and sister-in-law’s jobs, drank the Turkish coffee my grandma made, laughed a bit, hugged and then left. My grandpa’s words, though, were still with me as we got back into the car on our way to prepare for a New Year’s Eve party.
Okay, are you still reading?
If some people already stopped reading, I get it. I’m known to have stopped watching TV shows and movies about death when they got too uncomfortable and somber. But if you are still reading, I want to say that this is not a sad post. It is not meant to be sad. On the contrary, the words my grandpa uttered changed shape and form on the same night.
The NYE dinner party was on a gorgeous island– with lovely music, scrumptious food, good company, and a scenic sea view. And I was feeling bittersweet as I replayed my visit to my grandparents’. It had been getting stuffy inside; I needed a break and was outside, breathing in sea air. I was cherishing the unseasonably warm December weather, but I also wanted to get back inside–to see my new friend dance to Beyoncé’s beats.
I had made friends with an old gentleman who lifted everyone’s spirit at the restaurant. I noticed him when he, along with his wife and their friends, was being seated at the table next to ours. It warms my heart to see older people cherish life; I find it inspiring and encouraging. Seeing him arrive with a shiny party hat in a bright red sweater made me regret my choice to wear the black dress, but it also made me smile. And then, not surprisingly, he was the star of the party. When the first course was served, he had already been dancing around his table, with his glass of rakı in his hand. I must have been staring at him for so long, possibly with a foolish grin on my face; he came up to our table, and we started to talk. I got to know his story a little, but outside, I was thinking about how the first thing he said was, “I am 80, but I feel 18,” with a warm smile. Being human, I thought, is strange and beautiful and complex. Being human comes with a prerequisite: you need to be okay with the notion that all good things will come to an end. And somehow, we all seem to be okay with the idea: is there any other way? I then recalled the tweet Maya Angelou had posted a year before she passed. “This is a wonderful day,” she wrote, “I’ve never seen this one before.” This is a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before.
I could have told my grandpa: well, yes, death is inevitable, but isn’t today a wonderful day? We’ve never seen this one before. And perhaps I will tell him, if he speaks similar words again. Or perhaps I won’t even wait for him to say anything. I shouldn’t wait for him to say anything. None of us should ever wait for anything to happen to replace “I don’t want to die” with Angelou’s words. No one should ever wait for anything to happen to think, utter, and share: This is a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before.
Because this sense of wonder is all there is to life. The opposite of death is not life, I don’t think–it is wonder. My grandpa’s words “I don’t want to die” reverberated until they did not.
On Saturday, December 31st at approximately 11 p.m., Angelou’s words and those of my grandpa coalesced into one in my head, reminding me of how grateful I was for every little-and big- thing, every soul who touched mine, every decision I had made thus far that brought me where I was, to that exact moment on an island in a big city, surrounded by the waves, the moon, the people dear to my heart, music, mulled wine and chestnuts
and despite everything, the inevitable, reminding me of how inspired I was, moving on to 2023
all the beautiful humans in my life and the new souls who will be a part of it. my cats. morning coffee. the parts of the earth I’ve seen and am planning to see. words. the sea. meaningful connections with my students. books, all the books
This is a wonderful year, I thought before I went back inside, We’ve never seen this one before.
Well, this post has ended up being an unorthodox year-in-review post.
It’s January 15th already, and I’ve been thinking about writing one since the first week of the year (I write one every year: see last year’s post here). But after the lovely NYE dinner, I fell ill with a pesky cold with not enough time to rest as we were wrapping up the semester (still are) on this side of the world. I haven’t been able to carve out a time for writing until this morning, and when I sat down to write about my favorite books I read in 2022, this post came into being.
And when it comes to cultivating a sense of wonder, books are a comforting reminder that one can also move beyond the familiar, their reality, to find beauty woven intricately into the tapestry of everyday life. In fact, reflecting on my reading list in 2022 underlines the significance of literature for me in nurturing a sense of wonder despite the anxieties that permeate various aspects of my life. I feel that the majority of the books I read in 2022 were amazing guides and companions (how cheesy yet true!) as I navigated my way through an interesting year.
Sally Rooney’s Conversation with Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018), Small Pleasures (2021) by Clare Chambers, Either/Or (2022) by Elif Batuman, Songbirds (2021) by Christy Lefteri, among others, all tackle various difficult subjects but revealed to me the beauty of the present moment amid chaos, anxiety, and hardship.
Overall, 2022 saw the publication of intriguing novels like Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou, Wahala by Nikki May, All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir, and We Do What We Do in the Dark by Michelle Hart, but I had only one favorite:
When We Were Sisters (2022) by Fatimah Asghar
Fatimah Asghar’s debut novel follows three young sisters who become orphans following the murder of their father. Kausar, the youngest sister who is also the narrator, writes:
In this world we were born into nothing but everything is ours: the sidewalk, the yellow markers in the road. The rain falls through the leaves and kisses us just so. What no one will ever understand is that the world belongs to orphans, everything becomes our mother. We’re mothered by everything because we know how to look for the mothering, because we know a mother might leave us and we’ll need another mother to step in and take its place. The tree mothering its shade. The restaurant door, propped slightly open, mothering its smell of cookies to us. The blinking walk sign, holding on long enough to mother us across the street.
The novel is indeed about what it means to be an orphan, to feel that you have no one. And it covers a wide range of challenging subjects, from losing parents and losing/finding a sense of self, sexual trauma, sexual awakening, bullying to poverty, domestic abuse, and Muslimness/Americanness. But the poetry-prose form of the novel adds a touch of sublimity and beauty to the story. I loved how rhythmic and poetic each chapter was; as a poet Ashgar (successfully) experiments with the novel form. In a brief chapter where Kausar listens to her sister Aisha play the cello, she writes:
It dissolves me, her song. In my mind, a harbor. A boat tied to the dock. The turtles roam. Their little legs crawling them forward through the algae. I could live there, on that boat, the sky is clear and open. I don’t even need to be bothered. A little bit of food. Some games. A book. The moon. The fish doing fish things. The ocean oceaning. Where everything is so clear.
The novel is filled with such moments where Kausar finds exquisite beauty in her world–despite everything.
While When We Were Sisters (2022) by Fatimah Asghar is my favorite book of the year so far, among the other books I read from the previous years, two stood out to me:
Shifting the Silence (2020) by Etel Adnan
Lebanese American poet, painter, thinker Etel Adnan’s Shifting the Silence is a work of poetry, prose, and meditation; it has shifted the way in which I see the world.
In Shifting the Silence, Adnan presents us with a poignant meditation on time and mortality and what really matters in life. If you need to be convinced, you can read the reflection I wrote on the book here. Reading Adnan’s thoughts will help you appreciate your life because, as I’m convinced, that’s all that matters.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo (2019) by Christy Lefteri
Another book that truly fascinated me in 2022 is Christy Lefteri’s The Beekeeper of Aleppo which was published in 2019. The following synopsis is from the essay I wrote on the book here.
The novel follows a young Syrian couple, Nuri and Afra, who flees Syria after having lost not only their son but life as they knew it before the civil war in 2015. Nuri, the narrator, metaphorically looks the reader in the eye and shares the agonizing details of their migration to England. The chapters alternate among the past where Nuri happily ran a bee farm with his cousin Mustafa, leading a fulfilling, art-filled life in Aleppo, the present marked by mixed feelings of anxiety and relief as Afra and Nuri apply for asylum in Britain, and their harrowing journey in between across Turkey and Greece.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo is too about finding a sense of wonder and beauty in the darkness, and Lefteri’s writing is hauntingly beautiful.
And with this, it’s time for me to wrap up.
I hope that you’ve had a wonderful start to 2023, and you’re already dancing your way through the first month of the year, like my new 80-year-old friend 🙂
If you have written a reflection on your year, please share your link with me so that I can read about the books that made (or not) your year. And have you read any of the novels I mentioned? What did you think? What was your favorite read(s) of 2022?
10 thoughts on “Existential Threats & Good Books | 2022 in Review”
A lovely post and thoughtful words on your grandfather. As I read it seemed to me he was saying ‘I want to live’ even if he chose other words to say that because he’d had a bit of an epiphany about how great life can be when we change our way of looking at it. Sadly most of us have talked little about death so it somes as a shock rather than an understanding of it as a process and an entry into another realm.
If you’re open to a slightly ‘out there’ look into what happens towards the end, then I recommend the short book Angelic Attendants by Julie Ryan. I read it 3 years ago when my 17 year old daughter passed away suddenly and I found great comfort in it and have since talked with a friend about it whose 101 year old grandma was in decline. She too found it reassuring and it explained some of the things her Grandma was saying. Not all of it needs to resonate, but listening to or reading of these experiences to better be able to navigate a new situation can help.
As for books, well I read only half my normal reads as I was focusing on a writing project but I did put together my Top Reads for 2022 here:
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Thank you for your beautiful response, Claire. You’ve said it well- if the society didn’t see death as a taboo subject, and instead we were encouraged to discuss it openly and understand it as a process, I feel that the anxiety around it would be alleviated to an extent. I’m not sure whether a collective (or an individual) shift in the perception of death would make it less somber, though; it is a truly sad phenomenon, one against which we are simply defenseless. Seeing my grandpa in decline and hearing him say “I want to live” is simultaneously sad and heartwarming–bittersweet is the right word here, I suppose.
I do need to shift my perspective on death, the fear of the unknown, though. Because of the way I was raised, I often get uncomfortable and overwhelmed. That’s why I’ve been doing some more reading and writing on it. And having these conversations help too. I’m glad to hear that Julie Ryan’s book brought you some comfort after your daughter had passed; I will certainly check it out.
I am now off to read your post on your favorites of 2022! What is the writing project you’re working on, by the way?
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Thank you for visiting my Top Reads as well, I have been working on a memoir project, a kind of adventure story that becomes an existential quest, it’s about searching for the people who created me in my 20’s, then after knowing them for 25-30 yrs reflecting on who I have become. It’s called A Mythical Family, and it’s like 3 short books. It wasn’t easy to write, but blogging is easy, so I became my own taskmaster and withdrew the reward to reading/writing about books until I finished it. I’m in the editing phase now.
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That sounds like such an interesting project. Writing is never easy— especially if it’s personal ( and i feel like it mostly is). Kudos to you for finishing it up! Editing is my favorite process— I hope you enjoy it. Hopefully I can read the books soon 🙂
Lovely post, very uplifting thank you
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I’m glad 🙂 Thanks for the note.
This was such a beautiful post, thank you so much for sharing.
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Thanks for the note, Sarah. 🙂
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Thank you for including the link to my post, Sarah 🙂 Hope your February is off to a great start!