Smoke & Mirrors
Written by Qaanitah Hunter and edited by Benazir Cassim
Of all life’s uncertainties, death is the only absolute thing. It will happen. Yet, every time death strikes, it’s an unfathomable shock.
When my phone rings at 6:30am, my stomach drops instantly. I know it’s not good news. I barely slept all night, fearing the worst, and now it may be coming true.
“Mum? Is everything okay?”
“Oh Mar... Zayn just passed away, baby. He passed away.”
“I’m so sorry mummy. I am so sorry.”
“Would you be able to come now Mar?”
“Jee... my friend will drive me.”
“Okay… travel safely, my baby.”
“Mummy, who’s going to help with the funeral?”
“I am just in shock. I’m alone here at the hospital. I will call your aunty now and we will see what happens.”
I instantly phone Adil and he answers on the second ring.
“Are you up?” I ask, almost whispering.
“Yes, I just got back from the mosque,” he says and it momentarily shocks me that Adil prays.
“Zayn passed away,” I say with a lump in my throat so big I can barely talk afterward.
“I am coming to fetch you now — I will be outside in ten minutes,” he says.
I frantically get done and throw some things in a bag before rushing down the stairs to meet him as he pulls up.
“It’s going to be okay,” he says as he hugs me when I get into the car.
I try to control my tears.
“Percy packed you some breakfast, please eat, love,” he says patiently.
This is just another reason to add to the list of things I love about this guy. He thinks of things that I don’t even think of.
How can Zayn just pass away like that? It’s unfathomable. He is so strong and agile. And so full of life. After years of struggle, he and my mum are finally in a good place financially.
And my mother is so young. He is so young.
“I think I am going to fetch Ayesha and she will drive, and I will sit in the back with you so you can lie down?” Adil suggests, but I am too numb to respond.
I am in a deep shock. I just can’t understand how Zayn can’t just pass away so suddenly.
The drive back to Adil’s house to get Ayesha and the time it took for him to sit next to me on the backseat, is all a blur.
“Come lay your head in my lap,” he says as he soothes my shoulders with a caring rub.
I don’t protest.
Ayesha speeds the whole way and we get to Nelspruit in under three and a half hours.
I call my mum.
“Mum, are you at home or in the hospital?”
“I came home. The body just went for ghusal,” she says with a quivering voice.
“Okay I am coming home now. I have my two friends with me,” I say, almost forewarning her.
As I direct Ayesha to our house on 53 Pritcher street, I feel the need to warn them about my home.
“Guys, we live in a very humble home. Don’t be surprised if you see a matchbox house,” I say, nervous to have my two worlds meet.
“Mar. Where you live doesn’t matter to us. We are here for you,” Adil says and I start crying again.
“Shh... come here Mar,” he says as he tries to pacify me again. I have cried like three times in the last five years and every time it has been in front of Adil. I am not a crier at all and suddenly I feel comfortable crying in front of him.
As we pull up to our house, I see my mother’s sister and her husband who have started setting up. I also recognise some neighbours streaming in. Adil helps me out of the car as my knees buckle.
As I walk in the house, Zayn’s absence is immediately felt. He usually is the first to come out to greet me and is the heart of our home. I go to my mother and give her the biggest hug as she sobs into my shoulder. We stand for a full five minutes, hugging and sobbing. Once she’s composed herself, I introduce her to Adil and Ayesha. They handle her grief with so much grace.
“Khala, how can we help?” I ask my aunt who was speedily getting everything sorted out before the funeral. In Islamic tradition, funerals happen within a few hours and very soon after the shock of death, you have to deal with people and the funeral arrangements.
“I am just pushing the furniture to the side and setting up blankets on the floor,” she says.
Without prompting, Ayesha takes a few blankets and starts setting them down. Adil whispers in my ear that he is going to get a few things that we may need. He insists that I sit in the lounge with my mother and be there for her.
“Mum... did you tell Zayn’s family?”
“I sent a message. But you know they don’t talk to me,” my mother says.
“Do you want me to call?” I ask.
“If you have the strength. Tell them the funeral will take place at 3pm.”
Grief is really a true test of character. About 30 minutes after I called Zayn’s sister, who I never had a relationship with, they rock up at our house with four cars.
“Where is my brother’s body? We will bury him from our house!” his lunatic sister shouts as she aggressively walks through the door. Thankfully at that moment the imaam from our local masjid arrives and puts out that fire.
I feel so bad for my mother, who has to deal with the loss of her husband and best friend and be reminded of how his family treated her for two decades. He chose her over his family for a reason. At every chance they got, there would be some drama and my mother would respond with such grace and strength, never losing her calm or even reacting to their provocation.
Ayesha keeps pouring juice for them and serves all the people who come for the funeral with such generosity. Adil brings back a ton of tea bags, milk, sugar and juice from the shops. He also arranges with my aunt and orders food for supper after the funeral.
Muslim funerals are so quick, so it helps to have people to help with logistics while those closest to the deceased can have a moment of closure. Besides the drama of his family, I’m surprised by how many people have come to Zayn’s funeral — people who’ve brought their cars to him to fix for over ten years, his colleagues, all the neighbours, kids from the township where he used to coach soccer have all come to pay their respects.
Zayn’s lifeless body is placed on the ground and everyone sits around it and prays quietly. Many people in my family don’t really know how to read Quraan so it’s mostly silent until Adil comes to me and asks if he must recite out loud and I nod. I had no idea Adil had memorized the Quraan when he was younger, and the moment he starts reading Surah Yaseen, which is read on the dead, I start crying.
Zayn was not my biological father, but he was my real dad. He taught me how to ride a bike and showed me how to change a tyre. He was not even 50 and soon we have to lower his body into a grave. The more Adil reads, the more we tear up. But at the same time, there’s something soothing about the Quraan to a grieving heart. It buffers the pain and gives a sense of acceptance.
As Zayn’s remains are picked up to go to the graveyard, my mother and I have our final moment with him. It just doesn’t make sense. He’s always been fit and healthy. But I suppose death is not logical or rational. Death can come at any time to anyone. All we can really do is just hope and pray for the best.
I close my eyes and pray and pray as they pick up his body and transport it to the nearby hearse while the sounds of loud prayers ring in the room.
I am so grateful that Muslim funerals are simple and easy. Once the men return from the graveyard, we start laying tables for dinner.
Zayn’s family leaves almost immediately after his body does. I suppose it’s actually easier that way. They can grieve in peace, and so can my mother. At the funeral his sisters all had a look of guilt on their face which was hard to ignore. They cut off their brother simply because he loved a woman who had a child with someone else.
I can understand that for that generation it was so taboo but it also angers me that my existence brought so much pain to Zayn’s life. It is probably why I am so deeply insecure and in constant need of validation. I don’t know.
We don’t have much time to process the funeral, when we have to start setting up for dinner. The thing about brown people is that we believe food heals all pain. I must have had three different people dish out food for me to eat as I try to get my mother to eat. Ayesha, in her true commander-in-chief mode, handles all the cleaning up and soon she is making pot loads of tea.
It’s weird to see her, the usually fancy lawyer type, humbling herself and cleaning our house. My mother is a neat freak and she’s so appreciative that this random girl constantly has a toilet spray in her hand and cleans the toilet every time someone used it.
“Your friends are too kind,” she tells me with a little smile as we sit in the lounge.
“They are mum...”
Without any prompting, they helped organise the entire funeral and get me here from Joburg in record time.
An insecure part of me still questions why they are so kind to me, especially since they are so wealthy and successful. They don’t need to do this for me but it’s unspoken and effortless. I can understand Adil’s kindness, but Ayesha just blew me away.
As everyone leaves to go home, Adil and Ayesha come and sit with my mother, me and her sister in the little room we call a lounge.
“I must thank you guys,” my mother says.
“It’s no problem at all,” Ayesha says and I feel the genuineness of her words.
“You know Zayn was not just my husband. We grew up together. We went to school together. There’s nothing I did without him.”
“He used to finish your sentences, mum,” I add.
“That type of love we can only dream about,” Ayesha says.
And she’s right. It was truly an unconditional type of love that was sincere through hard times and good times. It was a literal case of for rich or poor.
“Just the other day, he knows I love avocado milkshake, so he bought a bag of avocadoes and made some for me and brought it to the library,” my mom says.
The two of them lived such a simple life, between my mother’s library and his car workshop. Zayn always took turns to cook with my mother and never ever raised his voice at her, even when he was visibly angry.
“I wish we could’ve met him,” Adil says with a small smile.
“You would have loved him. Everyone loved him. He just had a heart of gold,” my mum says.
“I wish people could speak half as glowingly about me when I pass away,” Ayesha says.
“Aysh, we must go. We will come back in the morning InshAllah,” Adil says.
“Where are you guys sleeping?” I ask him.
“I called a BnB about 10 minutes from here.”
“Thank you for everything. You two were angels today,” my aunt tells them as we all get up to see them out.
Ayesha hugs me and goes to the car but Adil lingers a little bit on our front stoep.
“You okay?” he asks, genuinely concerned.
“Jeem I am just tired now. I can’t thank you enough,” I say squeezing his hand a little.
“It’s okay. I got you,” he says quietly and then walks to his car.
If I had any doubt about Adil, it all disappeared at that moment. He really came through at a time I genuinely needed him the most. He has always been there for me when I needed him — through the eviction, the closet sale and now the funeral.
He did it so selflessly. It’s unbelievable at times.
“Your friends are a godsend,” my mother says as I walk back inside the house.
“Mum, you have no idea how they have been there for me,” I say.
“Are you dating Adil?” she asks casually.
“No... I mean... not really...” I say, confused.
My mother doesn’t say anything.
“We have been friends for a few months now,” I tell my mother frankly. We never really hold things from each other.
“Are you ready to get married again?” my mother asks, and I don’t have an answer.
This is probably the first time I am going to bed in our house without Zayn to lock up and switch off the lights.
Life is so temporary, yet we attach so much to it.
I am worried about my mother and whether she will cope all by herself. I know Nelspruit is all she knows but I hope one day she will sell her house and move in with me in Joburg. But my mum is very stubborn too, she won’t agree. Just before I sleep, I log on to Instagram to check up on what is happening. I get a flurry of messages from girls saying they are so happy with their purchases at the sale and so many others posting pictures of their goodie bags and tagging me.
I had at least 800 new followers in just a day.
I decide to put up a picture of a sunset with a caption informing my followers that my stepfather had passed away.
As I’m scrolling through Instagram, Adil messages me.
“Hey, you okay?”
“Jee. Thank you so much.”
“You have to stop thanking me.”
“I can’t. You do so much.”
“I would do anything for you,” he says.
“It means so much to me,” I say, hoping this would prompt him to tell me how he feels about me.
“Go sleep, I will see you in the morning, Mar.”
It’s hard to understand loss and death but in that moment, I realise that sometimes God tests you in one area of your life and makes another part easy. For the first time in my life, I am financially free, but at the same time, I don’t have a home in Johannesburg. Zayn passed away, but I have Adil to help and comfort me. Sometimes it’s easy to forget where you come from, but on days like this, it dawns on you so vividly.
I wake up at about 7am and hear some pottering in the kitchen. Adil and Ayesha are already here, and my mother has insisted on making them breakfast.
There’s something about their presence here that comforts me and my mother.
“Aunty Zarina, was Maariah a troublesome child?”
“As a baby, she gave me sleepless nights! Oh, she was so naughty!”
We laugh as we eat our simple breakfast of tea and toast. I observe Ayesha eating it heartily, knowing that she only usually eats Ayrshire yoghurt and chia seeds for breakfast. I don’t think my mother even knows what Ayrshire yogurt is.
The day after the funeral is much quieter but there are still neighbours and friends that pop in all day.
On the third day, our house is full again and surprisingly, some of Zayn’s family come to visit. My mother is genuinely happy that they came but I am a little bit suspicious of them. There’s just something that feels odd about their presence. And I usually hate my gut feeling because it always ends up true.
Within 30 minutes of small talk, Zayn’s younger brother spits out why they are here.
“We are here to fetch my brother’s inheritance,” he says, arrogantly.
He hasn’t spoken to his brother in 22 years, but he is here to fetch his inheritance!
I am about to lash out but Adil reads the situation and interjects. Because he’s been reading Quraan they presume he is a moulana or imaam.
“InshAllah, we will go through the estate tonight and divide the inheritance according to Islamic law. We know he has a will so we will see what assets he has and will distribute it accordingly,” Adil says in his most assertive voice.
“We want to know when we are going to get the keys for my brother’s house?” this stupid man pushes further.
“What house?” I lash out.
“Shut up. I am not talking to you, you white trash,” he spits at me.
I am seething. My nails are digging into my palm as I tightly clench it.
“Uncle, maaf but now is not the time for this,” Adil tries again.
“I don’t care about time. When are we getting my brother’s house?”
“Maaf... I looked at the title deed. This house belongs to aunty Zarina. She paid for it. In his will, Zayn says so. And like I said, we will divide his belongings according to the Islamic law,” he says with authority.
I don’t know who told Adil this but thank God he responded in this way.
Soon those vultures leave, and I am so angry I could punch someone in the face.
“Who the hell gives them the authority to come here and demand things!”
“Mar... relax. People are like that. Don’t be angry. They were just trying their luck,” he says as follows me into my mother’s room.
“Mum you need to sell this house and move to Joburg with me,” I tell my mother. I admit it’s a stupid thing to say given the timing, but I am so emotional and angry I am barely thinking straight.
“Mar, my child... you go back to Joburg tomorrow. I need some time alone. Next week I am starting work again. We can decide what we are doing later on,” my mother says.
I don’t want to leave my mother, but I know that she needs the time to think about what she should do with her life.
“Can we sort out his inheritance before we leave so those vultures don’t come back?” I suggest.
“Okay. You see in the will, Zayn has money which he has said in his life that if he dies all his savings go to you. The house has always been mine. His little car, clothes, and tools we can give it to them. All the furniture, we bought it together. That’s it.”
“Mummy, I can’t take his savings. You keep it for you,” I say, thinking about how simply Zayn lived that he barely has anything to his name.
“His savings is about R200 000... and he has a pension fund at work that has me as a beneficiary. From there I will get about a monthly amount.”
“So why do you have to work mum?”
“Because you are not settled. The moment you are settled, I will come to stay in Joburg.”
“Mummy, why don’t we sell this house? Then we add the R200 000 Zayn left and whatever else we’ve got and buy a flat for us in Joburg. We don’t have anything here.”
“Okay,” my mother says, deep in thought and I am shocked she doesn’t put up a fight.
“Mum, I can stay with you for a while to help you,” I offer again but my mother insists we leave for Johannesburg after three days.
I don’t think she realises that because social media is my job I can work from anywhere. Ayesha again chooses to drive back to Joburg and Adil and I sit at the back.
“I need to find a place soon,” I tell Adil.
“I will give you one of my new units,” he says.
“No, I am getting my own place”.
“Mar... don’t be so stubborn”.
“Adil, I told you how I feel about this. I can’t move into one of your houses.”
He shakes his head vehemently.
“No. I am looking after myself. The last two times I trusted people I ended up with nothing,” I blurt out, instantly regretting the venom I just spat out.
I am tired and emotional and worried and frustrated and sad.
Adil just squeezes my hand and looks out the window at the picturesque landscape of the low veld passing by.
“Mar, I get you. It’s fine. We will help you find a place,” Ayesha says.
“Don’t get involved Ayesha. She’s not going anywhere. We’re checking her out of the Airbnb immediately and she’s coming to stay with us now,” Adil snaps.
I shake my head. I need a break. A holiday from life. A trip to another side of the world. Maybe I should book a ticket to the Philippines or somewhere far away.
I hate that Zayn died so young. I hate that my mother is a widow. I hate that his family is vultures. I hate that I am not settled and don’t have a stable home so my mother can come to stay with me.
I hate myself for being so self-centred.
This is fiction
No, really. It is fiction. All characters are made up.