Dear Wajeeha, (I always knew you as Jia)
You were always such a happy baby. I remember when I was fifteen, seeing you for seven months of your life. Loud and shrill, your voice would ring through the house as you sat in front of your Mum’s mirror, pretending to put lotions on your face, gesticulating, pointing, all the while a shrill monologue spilling joy from your tiny mouth, filling your chubby cheeks with happiness. You were always so vocal as a child: in the house, in your Dad’s hospital, in reception with the nurses, your Urdu would ring out like a bell, loud and deliberately babyish, as though you knew it was cuter to say it wrong, but not quite wrong enough so you weren’t understood.
Fast-forward a number of years and suddenly you were a young teen and we had come to yours for another wedding and to escape the blessed failure of mine. Struck by your maturity, I spent much of my time chatting to you in my own Urdu, offensively broken with English words; I was awkward and quiet, the black mark of shame hanging over my head. But you never mentioned it, unlike the others, you never asked. And that’s what drew me to you that day in your kitchen; you still lived in your old house and were making roti, though your Mum was discouraging you; the dough rolled itself as you chatted, oblivious to the black mark, so I thought you might not have known. But you did. You must have. You just drew no attention to it because in that moment, in that kitchen, I was your best friend. My broken Urdu didn’t phase you and you never once smirked that I scattered English words throughout my sentences; instead you chattered on like we had never spent a single year apart. In that moment, I was your best friend.
And now, at thirty-three, I sit here, hoping for redemption, writing to a young woman I hadn’t met for around eight years. A young woman I was hoping my daughter would one day come to know. Looking at pictures of you, I still see the same kindness, the same maturity. You lived like your name: noble, prestigious, honourable; and that’s what I see in your pictures. I see what others say of you and I see that girl, in the kitchen, letting the roti make itself, the effortless effort of chatting to a subdued cousin floating in the humid air around us.
In my head, you weren’t supposed to die. Your parents weren’t supposed to outlive you. Our grandmother wasn’t supposed to outlive you. I wasn’t supposed to outlive you. You were over ten years younger than me, teetering on the cusp of life, ready to jump in and get started. Except you fell off, you fell off far too soon. It wasn’t an accident that got you; it wasn’t a short, sharp shock, it was something much more sinister: it crept upon you and into you when no one was looking, when no one suspected. A stealthy demon, it buried in and hurt you from the inside, so no one saw.
I didn’t even bother to find out which cancer it was. “Blood cancer,” my parents told me when you were first diagnosed. But there were so many types. I should have asked you, I should have spoken to you. But I didn’t. I kept meaning to send you something; I even bought you a card for the first time you went into hospital; I put together a pack of toiletries that I thought would be useful, but I never got around to getting your address in Mirpur to send them to you. And that’s my excuse: you were too far away. Three thousand miles and a telephone call away. I saw some cute pens and notebooks you might have liked to write in, but I never bought them, and asking for your address and sorting international postage was too much effort. That’s why I failed you: I was lazy and you were too far away.
Three thousand miles a telephone call and a click of a few buttons. That’s how far you were. I knew you had an account on Facebook as I saw your profile come up a number of times; I thought about contacting you, but I never did. What would I say? Wouldn’t it be awkward? Hadn’t it been too long? I could always send a message tomorrow, couldn’t I? But I never did. And tomorrow never came and now I can’t send you any messages. I can’t even click on your profile to assuage my guilt: like you, it’s just not there anymore. Instead I sit here writing you a letter, a letter you will never read, as though it will atone for my failure to you as a cousin.
If you were reading this, you’d make an excuse for me, tell me it was alright that I didn’t contact you; you’d tell me that it was you who should have contacted me. But your imagined thousand kind words won’t erase my three thousand failures as a cousin. You were suffering, changing and learning about pain and I should have contacted you. But I didn’t. I know it wouldn’t have changed a thing; I know what was written for you would have come to pass; I know it was all part of God’s plan to take you, but at least you would have known: I had not forgotten. Seven months I stayed with you as a baby and I didn’t forget; seven months I knew about your illness and I could have been there, even from three thousand miles away. But I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there and I failed.
You galloped through life and were thrown from the horse, caught by God and taken away. One day, I’ll fall from the same horse, hoping I won’t hit the ground, hoping I’ll be caught like you. And that will be my chance. That will be my chance to reach for redemption.