A saccharine, synthetic smell filled the suburban Boston nursing home where my grandmother spent the last two years of her life. It came from the cleaning supplies, though it was so pervasive that I sometimes suspected the staff had it pumped through the ventilation shafts, to mask the scents associated with decayed bodies and men and women slouching towards death.
My grandmother – we called her Maman Farah in the family – lived on the floor reserved for the neediest patients. These included a wheelchair-bound lady in her eighties, who spent her days petting and mock-nursing a baby doll. Another, about the same age, parked her chair by the reception and dozed off while holding a phone to one ear; there was no one on the other end. A tall, kindly looking man with a thin mustache walked about muttering obscenities at an unseen antagonist (“Bitch! I’ll show her!”). As for Maman Farah, Parkinson’s disease imprisoned her in bed, yet she retained her mental faculties. She was thus fully aware of her condition and of time’s slow crawling.
Her decline had been rapid. One day in 2014, I had come home – I was working in London at the time – to find that her left hand convulsed involuntarily every few minutes. “Don’t be alarmed by this,” she tried to reassure me. “Mrs Toni had the same thing, remember?”
Mrs Toni was an Armenian friend of hers in the old country, Iran, who suffered from Parkinson’s but lived independently almost to the end. Alas, my grandmother’s disease was far more aggressive. When I returned a few months later, her nervous system had declared total war against her, and the convulsions had all but debilitated her. Getting her from her bedroom to the bath was a Herculean effort involving me, my mother and my almost 90-year-old grandfather. My mother and I would each grab hold of one of my grandmother’s legs, while my grandfather buttressed her upper body with his own, to prevent her from toppling over.
“Just three more steps,” I would say.
“Your next step is right there,” my mother added.
“I can’t. I can’t!”
My grandfather, who knew that such coaxing was futile, endured in silence.Eventually, home care became impossible. We had no choice but to commit her to the facility. The doctors described the treatment as “rehab”, and her mind for a time held on to that word, with all its false promises of a future recovery.
In her prime, Maman Farah was the type of woman whom Iranians compliment for modiriat – “managerial-ness.” She taught at an elite girls’ school, maintained an active social life, cooked the full repertoire of Persian dishes and helped her two children raise their own kids. She was exacting about punctuality and loathed indolence. Never able to reconcile herself to rule by Islamist clerics, she mocked and defied Iran’s post-1979 order with courage and gusto.
Once, when I was 10 years old, she was walking me to an English-language course taught out of the former US Embassy in Tehran. We ran into an anti-American protest staged by young pro-regime women dressed in black hijabs. The two of us were moving in the opposite direction from the marchers on the sidewalk. As each gaggle of shrieking fanatics passed us by, I could hear Maman Farah’s retorts to their slogans: “Shut it! … Oh, hang it! … Get a job, sister!”
A disc disorder and later Parkinson’s robbed her of all that spirit. In her first year at the nursing home, she could still speak on the phone, watch television and feed herself. She laughed heartily at the latest dirty jokes from the streets of Tehran, which I read for her on websites devoted to bringing these cultural gems to the Iranian diaspora. My mother’s daily presence meant that Maman Farah was never lost in the muffled solitude of America’s throwaway culture.
Speaking of her room-mate, who was mobile but had lost her mind utterly to Alzheimer’s, Maman Farah would say: “This poor lady! She used to be a nurse, you know? Imagine, she took care of all those other people. Now she can’t take care of herself.” The words applied as much to Maman Farah as to her room-mate, and that was the point: the room-mate allowed my grandmother to ruminate over her own cruel fate in the safety of third-person narration.
By the second year, Parkinson’s had effectively locked Maman Farah inside her own body and barred her from speaking for much of the day. She would beg her caretakers to move her limbs now this way, now that. They complied, but these exertions brought little relief. She could only communicate with blinks and moans. A blink meant “yes,” a hard stare meant “no,” and a soft moan meant “help” or “water.” Only the shakes remained in the end.
My grandmother’s nursing home was a cruciform space. There, the mystery of suffering and the mystery of death were more acutely present, and the Cross more visible, than they were in the humdrum world outside. As Maman Farah’s condition deteriorated by the day, she withdrew from the here and now, even as she remained trapped in the earthly vale. At her bedside, the eternal penetrated the confines of the contingent.
What was I to say to her, once she had heard every obscene joke, watched every video of my son (her great-grandson) on my smartphone, reminisced about every shared memory? How could I accompany her, when nothing, not even morphine, seemed to alleviate her pain? The best answer I came up with was the rosary, the prayer which epitomises the Gospels, in the words of the Catechism, and contains the whole of Christianity in a simple but undiluted form.
Ave Maria, gratia plena …
At almost every visit, I would kneel on a pillow next to her bed and say the rosary, sometimes in English, sometimes in Latin, occasionally in Persian. In their final years, both my grandparents but especially Maman Farah turned quite ecumenical on matters religious. Before Parkinson’s silenced her completely, my grandmother would ask me from time to time to “say that prayer of yours”. This, even as she also recited the Koranic verses and Shia supplications etched in her memory since childhood.
Dominus tecum …
When I brought her an icon of Our Lady as a souvenir from London, she insisted on kissing it before I hung it above her television; a similar icon, gifted by my mother’s Coptic partner, already hung there. Devotion to the Blessed Virgin is common among Muslims, to be sure. Still, I couldn’t help wondering what else passed between my grandmother and that truest Mother during the thousands of hours they spent together. “Do as he says.”
Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus …
Wherever the Cross is present, the Incarnation is also, and Bethlehem and Golgotha are but different expressions of the same cosmic reality. Remembering these things was no small consolation when the patient next door was howling at her caretaker (“No! I don’t wanna eat that! Noooooo! Noooooooooo!”), and while the shakes tormented Maman Farah, who kept moaning and whimpering something which neither I nor my mother could understand.
Insofar as they were human, all of the people at the nursing home – my mother, my grandmother, all the men and women whose reason and memory had abandoned them, the doctors and nurses, the good ones and the neglectful ones – were imprinted with the divine image, and the divine had in turn taken up their broken bodies thanks to a Jewish woman of the Galilee who declared, “Be it done to me according to thy word.”
Sancta Maria, mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus …
This was high-stakes prayer. The nursing home was cruciform, yes, but there were moments when, in the place of the Cross, a dreadful nothingness appeared – what Pope Benedict XVI described in his luminous Introduction to Christianity as the “abyss lurking” beneath the surface of reality.
Benedict was and remains the Church’s greatest theologian of that existential moment, when “what is at stake is the whole structure … a question of all or nothing.”
“Noooooo! I don’t wanna eat that! Noooooooooo!”
Yet, as Benedict noted in the same book, the God of Christianity is precisely the God of that icy existential moment. For my grandmother and others approaching the end of life, “There exists a night into whose solitude no voice reaches; there is a door through which we can only walk alone – the door of death.”
But peer deeper, Benedict urged – or rather, listen more carefully. Even in that darkness – especially in that darkness – resounds the voice of the lover who descended from heaven, seeking his abandoned beloved. “The door of death stands open since life – love – has dwelt in darkness.”
Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae …
And where he – the lover who is the source of all love – hangs derelict, there his mother kneels at his foot, praying and tending to his wounds. At that nursing home, where the now gave glimpses of transcendent horizons, and every hour was the hour of death, my grandmother spent nearly two years contemplating a double vision of the Theotokos, the Mother of God. And there the full meaning of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary revealed itself to me.
Sohrab Ahmari is senior writer at Commentary magazine and a consulting editor of the Catholic Herald. His spiritual memoir is forthcoming from Ignatius Press
This article first appeared in the May 25 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here