When my mother died, her face changed. I was the first to notice. When other family members and friends came to pay their respects, what I saw in their eyes was doubt; none could believe that the deceased was my mother. Even my brother, who hadn’t seen my mother alive for three years, when viewing her corpse, straightaway announced that the deceased was our aunt, the youngest girl in my mother’s family. The doctors and nurses who had cared for Mother when she was in the hospital were also surprised; no one could believe their eyes.
Standing by myself in the farthest corner of the room, I noted the look on the faces of all who came to view Mother’s corpse. Their spontaneous expressions made it easy for me to guess who loved her and who did not. I smiled, I’m sure, when I realized that only one person had curled his lips at the sight—none other than my father.
A telephone rang in my heart. “He’s jealous, extremely jealous,” a disconnected voice said. With the smile of an angel on her lips, my mother looked very young, as if she had returned in time to her age as a young woman, on the day she got married twenty years ago.
“This is my true face,” Mother whispered softly, “that of a new bride on her wedding night.” She spoke firmly and with determination: “. . . a night that began with a dazzling party at our new home that faced the silent mosque, yet ended with body blows and painful memories.”
She continued without hesitation, recalling the point in time when pain became part of her life: “It is this look on my face that made him kick me, that stirred undying jealousy in him, that caused him to curse me, and to take me by force on our wedding night—just because I performed tahajud, the midnight prayer, at the mosque in front of the house.”
As if experiencing a case of stage fright, I found my body began to shake, a condition I always experience when my emotions are running high. I felt a rush of heat, a gush of pain, a pounding inside my chest, as I shed my first tears for Mother.
Of the five children in my family, I was the only girl. For that reason, perhaps, I shared with my mother a certain similarity of feeling—though all five of us had been born from the same womb, that of the fourth wife of the immensely wealthy Hajji Kamil.
People called my father a man of property and we, his children, drowned in his wealth; we were submerged in a social sentiment that did not distinguish between a man, his wife, and his children. We were viewed by all as just part and parcel of my powerful, handsome, and famous father’s possessions.
I approached my father. “Did you see something, Father? Why did you furrow your brow?”
“Oh, yes, I saw something, something strange about your mother’s body. It must have been her illness that changed her physical appearance.”
“The doctor said that Mother suffered a brain hemorrhage. Wasn’t that made clear? Many people die from hemorrhages, but I’ve never heard of one altering the features of the victim.”
“Who knows! Your mother was strange…And now smiling like that, even in death.”
“I don’t understand. To me, Mother’s death seems fitting and her condition far from sad. One might even say that it brought happiness for her. Look at her smile. Did you ever see such a beautiful smile? Not even on the movie screen.”
“What are you talking about? And what do you know anyway? You’re just a snot-nosed kid!”
“I am sure Mother died a good death—husnul khatimah, as they say.”
“Hush! Go and do something; give your aunt a hand! Go on!”
“But I want to stay here with Mother. This is my last chance to be close to her. I want to pray for her, Father.”
We were still tense when the ambulance arrived but I was not going to allow anyone, even my father, to separate me from Mother.
“You’re a woman; you won’t be strong enough. I’ll ride in the ambulance,” my older brother told me.
“I’m strong enough,” I insisted. “All the time Mother was in the hospital, I waited there, at her side. You don’t have to worry. I’m just happy to be close to her.”
“I don’t want to hear you bawl.”
“But men also cry about things for which there is no reason to cry. I will not cry for Mother’s death. Just look! I will smile along with her until she is in His place.”
“Whose place?” my brother asked, dumbfounded.
“Well, obviously, not the same place that you’re thinking of!”
“You and your nonsense!” he said with a mutter as he walked away.
“And you are more foolish than all my nonsense combined,” I swore, sniggering to myself.
In the end it was my aunt and I who rode along in the ambulance with my mother’s body. As it was nightime, the traffic was fairly light and it only took five hours from Yogyakarta to Jombang. During the journey, my aunt slept in her seat. I, between dozing and trying to stay awake, prayed.
At one point I glanced at my wristwatch and saw that it was twelve thirty in the morning.
“Yes! It was exactly twelve thirty in the morning twenty-one years ago that I stepped out of the house,” Mother said. “That night I felt an almost desperate longing to open the door to the mosque. My heart was full of roses, my face shining with innocence. I tried to make haste, as if He were already waiting for me in the mihrab, where I would face Mecca and pray. Embarrased by my tardiness, I went up the stairs to the mosque. In prayer, I prostrated myself, time and again; one time after another, I touched my forehead to the floor before His gaze. How long I was there in supplication, I could not say, but one does not count the time one spends with Him. But afterward, when I returned to my new home, no sooner had I set one foot inside the door than a mighty kick knocked the wind from me—the first blow of the many that would follow, springing from a hatefulness that grew in intensity.”
My mouth hung agape. I thought I had been able to divine most everything in the book of my mother’s destiny, but apparently my eyes were clouded and not keen enough to decipher in its entirety the secret code of my mother’s fate. Mother, a person at once so intimate yet so distant…How very well she had concealed her secret hurt, hiding it with unstinting kindness and her well-known patience.
“While correcting the aim of his foot, your father said, èYou think you’re the only Muslim! You think you’re the only faithful one! Well, listen! Starting today, I am your husband. I have more right over you than anyone. And as for you, you will obey my orders above anyone else’s. Your loyalty must be unconditional and reserved for me alone. Do you understand?'”
“But when I went to the mosque you were playing cards…”
“Shut up! I will not argue with you, woman!”
“And so I shut up,” Mother said simply, “and kept my mouth shut, for the next twenty years. Only your father had the right to speak. I was the mute, wordlessly watching life’s dreams pass, living in a world of silence that was as frightening and cold as the tip of death’s dagger. I was your father’s prey. Every moment of every hour meant memorizing his instructions on how to be a model victim—and smiling amiably while going to slaughter. And now I have fulfilled his dream. I am your father’s sacrificial victim; they think I died for him.
“It was only when he suddenly saw me smiling like this that he realized that my smile was the same one I had on my face when returning from the mosque twenty years ago—before he began to beat me. For the next two decades he searched for the smile I am now wearing on my lips; he longed for it and dreamed of it each night and day. But all he found was idle fantasy because my lips had been sealed with dried blood, blood that had oozed from my mouth when he clamped his coarse fingers over my mouth.”
Mother took a deep breath before speaking to me again: “You know what time it is now, don’t you? Yes, it’s twelve thirty in the morning. On the nights that followed during my first month as a bride, I felt that same desperate longing, one that could not be checked by any amount of force, to be in His presence and to pray before Him. My longing assailed all limits and bounds: it was only His smile at my prostrations and prayers that was able to make it abate. In a corner of our newlyweds’ room, I bowed my head to the floor repeatedly and counted the beads of my rosary with a rhythm that testified to my intense communion with our Maker.
“Perhaps I sighed out loud and didn’t realize it but, apparently, other ears pricked at the sound and my own were then burnt badly by the fire of jealousy whose flames roared and overpowered your father’s nerves, heart, and mind…And how could I have forgotten about his crocodile-skin belt hanging there in the room, so stiff and heavy and cruel! He grabbed the belt, raised it, and then lashed my back tens, maybe hundreds, of times. My silence caused the fires of jealousy in him to rage ever more wildly. I fainted and did not gain consciousness until the call for morning prayer struck my ears.”
For a time, Mother said nothing. Her eyes were fixed on the distant sky and a smile, befitting an angel of paradise, floated on her lips.
“I’m sure you’d like to know what happened then,” my mother said. “Maybe your father really did think I was crazy. And why not? After the unending suffering and pain he caused me, the strange thing was, my longing for Him only intensified. It was almost too difficult for me to bear. Every breath, every heartbeat brought His face closer to mine. I was often jumpy and easily startled. When cooking in the kitchen, I’d look down to see that all the fish I was frying were charred in the pan. Or at night, as if hearing a knock, I’d open the front door to the house but find nothing there. My behavior and actions convinced your father that I was cursed. He often thought that spirits had possessed me.”
I wanted to stroke Mother’s arm but drowsiness had overcome me.
“So it was on that day when your father left the house for some kind of business or another. It was morning, around nine o’clock, and so I performed the ritual ablutions and then fulfilled my desire to commune with Him. My prayers were so intense that I, stooped deeply in supplication, did not hear your father’s car when he came home. Apparently that was my final prostration before I truly went to meet Him. The blow to my head, the crush of my brittle skull against the shiny hard porcelain tiles, was so hard, it was like a burst of lightning suddenly exploding, mirroring the wild look in your father’s eyes as he pulled me up by the throat with his hands and did not release me until I fell, near lifeless, to the floor.”
“And then what happened, Mother?”
“Suddenly everything was dark. Black and inky. The entire world fell silent. But then, in the distance, there appeared an incredible light, so brilliant and steadily focussed. It was a chariot of light, enveloped in the luminescence of seven moons, coming to greet me—just like in a child’s imagination. And I smiled, enchanted by the miracle of a conjurer that not even a million poets would be able to describe. The distance the chariot traversed seemed almost infinitesimal—no greater than the measure of space between my wedding room and the mosque in front of the house which I had crossed twenty years previously—as it carried me to His throne. And that is where I found the most perfect love, now revealed in the smile on my lips.
“Was your father right to be jealous of Him?” Mother mused.
The ambulance sped onward, powered by a hundred angels. Beneath an overcast, water-filled sky, I tried to wash away my tears. But then roses of love bloomed and filled my heart with pride. My mother, my ocean of love, how very near heaven is—found just beneath the sole of your foot. Good-bye, Mother. Dear God! Greet her with your loving hand. Amen.