April 26, 2020
West Sacramento, California
This isn’t supposed to be a funny story . . .
The other day I was explaining to my grandmother that our entire family would have to maintain a safe distance from her because of her COPD, which leaves her especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. My parents and my brothers were marinating lamb in the kitchen. My wife and my sisters sat with us in the living room, watching Gavin Newsom do his best Will Arnett impression. We are one of those “multi-generational households,” which, apparently, are especially dangerous for the elderly. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but I was between programs, my brothers were between apartments, and partly due to the coronavirus itself, we all found ourselves back home in West Sacramento, splitting bills, sharing bathrooms, playing poker, and reciting the Quran with our father. Though our house was crowded, I was happy we would bear the brunt of the pandemic together.
My grandmother was also in a good mood.
“If I get the corona,” she said in Pashto, already laughing, “I’m going to die so quickly.”
A chorus of “God forbids” rang out from all across the house.
“My shitty lungs are so fucked,” she went on, still laughing, which had my siblings and me laughing, which made my mother gasp “stop laughing,” while laughing, which made us all laugh louder, and the whole time we kept exchanging glances and glares as if to say, “Why the hell are we laughing at our grandmother who is sure she will die?”
My grandmother’s lungs were first scarred during the Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan, when she inhaled too much bomb smoke during a particularly rough period of attacks on her village. The bombings and killings became so intense that she and her entire family were forced to flee from Afghanistan. Though she managed to escape the war, its scars lingered in her lungs for decades. After journeying from her small village in Logar, Afghanistan, to a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, to a trailer home in Millbrook, Alabama, to an apartment in Hayward, California, to a house in West Sacramento, California, she now only travels between her bedroom, the restroom, and her La-Z-Boy recliner in the middle of the living room. She sits directly in front of the television (the best seat in the house) and watches the news for hours. In the past, she would only ask me to translate news related to Afghanistan. “Who was bombed?” she might ask, or “How many died?” or “What was the point?” and oftentimes I lied to her, little white lies, by lowering death counts and erasing massacres. But now she asks me to translate COVID-19 updates as well. Some of her questions are similar. Who? When? How many? And where? “New York,” I say. “Seattle, San Francisco, Sacramento, here.” I try not to lie. I try to keep her wary. “It’s coming,” I say. “It will be here. We have to be careful with you.”
She laughs at me. She says everyone is so stupid, it’s impossible. She says if she dies, she dies.
I’m not sure.
I’ve lived out my whole life in the shadow of great tragedies. Historical, political, socio-cultural, personal. The Soviet Invasion. The deaths of Watak and Gulapa. The annihilation of Logar. The erasure of the annihilation of Logar. The Mujahideen Betrayals. The Afghan Civil Wars. The American Invasion. My father’s work accident. The deaths of Farhad and Ahmadzia. The imminent collapse of the peace deal (?). And yet, my family tends toward comedy. We’re a hilarious bunch. It’s something I’ve tried and failed to capture in the dialogue of my stories. Especially my grandmother’s quips, her witticisms, her curses. If I were to translate her insults, word for word, into English, you might feel secondhand offense just reading them. I promise you, they’re really much worse (and more beautiful) than you can imagine.
When my grandmother laughs at the thought of dying alone in a hospital because she was wounded by Soviet bombs forty years ago, because white supremacists elected a buffoon for a President, because America as a project was born of, and continues to thrive upon, incomprehensible violence and exploitation, we try not to scold her for laughing at the state of things. Sure, it’s a terrible set up, but my grandmother has spun tapestries with much less. Now, I’m just waiting, breathlessly, for the punchline.
In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. Kochai’s contribution will be directed to Qamar Charity Foundation.