Her smile in the last precious minutes with her kept everyone from letting out their streams of tears. Any pain or negativity had no place in this space — it was her space, and it wouldn’t be devalued in such a way, regardless of the tension in the room. Every expression of sorrow, every teardrop of pain and every sigh of anguish in these crucial minutes could not come to the surface because that’s what we knew she wanted. She would worry too easily about our future, rather than come to terms with her own. She needed to see the strength that she’d instilled in us in order to take her final steps with certainty.

Somehow, my mother let us know all of this without saying a word. Indeed, some of the most powerful things are conveyed to us in silence. We know actions speak louder than words, but perhaps paradoxically, the loudest action is silence. We all fear awkward silences, but sometimes silence can be the most important way of communicating. Refusing to cry or weep, we also communicated back to her in our resilient silence that we were strong enough to go on without her.

As her breathing picked up and grew sharper, the imminent became clear. The nurse had been keeping track of her bodily functions and activity, and her prediction proved to be accurate. Days without a meal, not by choice or reason of some sort but by simple lack of hunger. Days without a gulp of water due only to a simple lack of thirst. Extended periods of sleeping, albeit with a gentle, blissful smile affirming that her dreams were pleasant ones.

My godmother poked and prodded through a lifetime of memories, recalling positive ones to bring some warmth into the dark reality. The memories my mother couldn’t remember, my godmother would summon for her. But even in speaking, my godmother’s silence was palpable. She was vocal about the past so she could remain silent about what was happening in the present.

But there was something still bothering my mother. My godmother’s sibling sense assured her of it. As my godmother repeated promises to her sister in hopes of reassuring her of whatever it was that seemed to be on her mind, nothing seemed to work. Reaching out to this person or that person, handling this problem or that one, my godmother could not figure out what was wrong. And then, my mother’s silence alerted my godmother to the real cause of her anguish.

As she continued to draw sharper breaths, her condition appeared even more urgent than before, and it became clear that she wouldn’t leave until she was given the reassurance she needed. She had to have it. My godmother drew closer, put on her brave voice so as to get through to her sister loud and clear, and took a deep breath knowing her following sentence would give this warrior the freedom she needed to set off on a journey of no return, a journey that everybody must eventually go on. But nobody wanted to let the warrior leave, albeit selfishly.

“Don’t worry,” she said to her sister, holding back tears and trying with all of her strength to keep the words from strangling her, “I will put food in Adeenah and Wasil’s mouths before I put food in the mouths of my own children.”

Suddenly her sharp, rapid breathing escaped the room. My mother drew one, deep breath, and with it took her leave from this world, trading it in for a piece of all of our hearts. And just like that, the world stopped. For a few seconds, time itself ceased to exist. Clocks stopped ticking, the wind at the window no longer howled and a silence fell upon the entire neighborhood.

The world was listening — a queen was speaking.

And speak she did, without a single word.

WASIL AHMED is a junior in Benjamin Franklin College. Contact him at wasil.ahmed@yale.edu .

  • Higherominous Bosh

    Wow. Just wow. Thank you.