I’m in Virginia now at at my grandmother Nahid Joon’s house. She’s gotten so frail and yet she still took the time and energy to make me my favorite Persian dish, stewed eggplant with tomato sauce and rice. She’s currently making monthly payments on her grave. This is decidedly the worst, but illustrates her enviable practicality. She is one of my favorite people and I wrote the following piece about her many years ago. It deserves to be out in the world, not because it’s a particularly great piece, but because it’s about a particularly special human being.
The first time I saw my grandmother Nahid Joon cry was the day I left for college. She had spent the night at our house and woken up at 5 AM to see me before my dad and I made the 8 hour trip down to school. It was a quick choke up; her small face crinkled for a moment and then she kissed me and held up the Koran so I could walk under it to ensure a safe trip.
The second time I saw her cry was at a baby shower for my aunt-in-law. I had been fighting with my mother for weeks and subsequently, she didn’t attend the party. Nahid Joon walked me to my car and we sat inside. “How can someone I love so much be so unkind to her own mother?” she asked with two or three tears sliding into the grooves of her wrinkles. Without kissing me goodbye, as she always did, she got out of the car and went back to the shower. I cried all the way home—ashamed.
My grandfather has been in the hospital for about a month now. I try and visit every week, and feel guilty for not going more often. I cite work, a busy schedule, other superfluous responsibilities, like needing to get things straightened out at the bank or organizing the garage. Nahid Joon is always there, any time I walk in, every time I call. She sits in the chair at the foot of his bed. Her devotion is endless and she sits, watches him, sometimes for days at a time, until one of her children drags her away for a few hours of restless sleep. “Nahid Joon,” I say, as I look from my grandfather’s skeletal frame in the hospital bed to her weary, pale face, “please let me take you home. Let me take you to dinner. You’re so tired.”
Always the same answer: “It doesn’t matter. What is tired anyway now?” She rubs his toes to get the circulation running; she wets the little green sponges with the plastic handles to moisten his lips; she instructs the nurses in her very broken English on how to straighten his blanket (he could never stand the folds and ripples). When I was there a few weeks ago, he came back from the dark place of memories and murmurs to try and take out his dentures. Nahid Joon laughed and clapped her hands together, “Look,” she said to me, “Look! This is a very good sign,” and she helped him take the fake teeth out and scrubbed them in the sink of the hospital room as though they were really a part of him.
A few days earlier, out of nowhere, she had grabbed my brother’s arm and said, “Your grandfather who everyone loves so much is leaving this life.”
They married 64 years ago in a small town in Iran when she was fifteen. She bore him seven children; two did not make it past three months. When I was young, I’d lay on her legs, her back against the wall on the floor, my head at her feet and my feet at her waist. She told me stories about the days in Iran, the big gated house in Shemran. “Your grandfather was a great lawyer,” she told me. “I always took clothes and food to the poor. Your uncles were very naughty and played tricks on each other.” I asked about her girl and boy who did not live; it seems so heartless, so tactless, in retrospect. But she didn’t mind—it was so long ago. “These things happened in those days,” she said. It seems they are still happening.
She told me about my grandfather’s political incarcerations during the Shah’s regime. “I brought him meals in jail. He’d be released, then go right back in!” laughing at his folly. And then the subsequent emigration to the States, the 1979 revolution, numerous executions of their political friends and colleagues. Throughout all her stories, the greatness of my grandfather, and not a tinge of sadness or regret in her voice.
“My sister passed away last week,” she said to me several years ago. “She was so kind and loved plants. I wish you could have seen her garden.” She looked off for a moment, her head bent, her mouth puckered like a tiny, dried cranberry. And that was that.
On our way to her doctor’s appointment once, the driver in front of me slammed on the brakes and I had to swerve to the shoulder to avoid a crash. I let out a yelp and with my heart thumping out of my throat, I looked over at Nahid Joon terrified that her heart had stopped altogether. She sat with her hands folded neatly on her lap and looked out at the road ahead. “No matter,” she said, and smiled.
For years now my grandfather has been bedridden. Nahid Joon has been his nurse, cook, seamstress (“he doesn’t like the elastic in his socks”), pharmacist, audiovisual technician (Iranian radio every day at 3 PM on the shortwave), scribe, hostess, hearing aid, miracle worker. “I feel like a slave,” she says sometimes while shuffling her hunched body to the kitchen to puree his lunch. Yet she turns right back around at the sound of his shouts. “Nahid,” he calls from his bed, with palpable desperation—an urgency I can’t begin to understand. “Leave him,” we all scold. “He doesn’t need to call you for every little thing.” She waits a few seconds, tries to continue what she was doing, but the pull to him is planted deep inside her, as though her freewill in the matter doesn’t exist.
I’ve seen my grandfather cry countless times. He cried at the first sight of his great grandson. He cried when Nahid Joon was in the hospital. He cries when someone comes into his room to kiss him goodbye. “This is the last time you will see me,” he says to my mother on a regular basis. I have come to realize that the tears come when he closes his eyes and sees his own mortality—and it stares right back at him.
They brought him home from the hospital a week ago. For someone who has sought comfort in routine, it was decided that his home is where he should be. Nahid Joon limps back and forth from the bedroom to the kitchen. Unable to sleep, she just keeps going. I went there a few days ago, to visit, and offer some help which I knew she would not accept. She was on the phone with a doctor friend of theirs. “Poor Dr. M,” she said, putting the receiver down, “he always cries when he calls to check on us. He is a very good man.” She walked to my grandfather’s room. I followed ten minutes after to find her rubbing ointment on his bed sores. I averted my eyes, which fell on the yellow “Do Not Resuscitate” order taped to the wall next to a bureau with family photos on it.
“Come sit in here. We can talk in here. He likes to have people around, as usual,” she chuckled. She asked me about work, lamented about how exhausted I must be from my busy schedule, told me to be sure and try the homemade face mask of onion juice she had suggested a while ago. Is this what death is, I wonder. All this waiting … sitting by his bed and holding his hand, talking about onions while in the same breath begging him not to leave her. No, I decide … this is love. The kind I haven’t ever witnessed.
Her heart is heavy. There are 64 years of love weighing it down, and the only one to share the burden of that love will soon leave his side of the bed vacant.
I saw Nahid Joon cry for the third time in my life that day. We stood in the kitchen as I tried to pry a dish from her hand, “Let me wash it,” I said. “Please.” She let go and steadied herself against the counter. I was startled by her suddenly reddened face. She gripped my shoulder tightly. A child-like whimper tinged with a fear I had never heard before accidentally escaped her lips: “My heart aches so much for him.”
She could not even look at me. And then she took the dish out of my hand, turned on the faucet, and washed the plate as though she were washing his dentures.