Fighting the Fear of Death

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My father was recently in the hospital, an occurrence that I believe my family has to start getting accustomed to as his Alzheimer’s nears the final stages of the disease. I have never been a fan of hospitals or any setting that involves showing or feeling vulnerability, at least on my part. Yet there are some things in life that we can simply not turn away from. No matter how hard we try to shun them they keep coming back standing in our faces more determined and adamant than before to force us to face them.

When my father had first gotten sick the doctors were having a hard time naming his diagnosis because his symptoms did not fall under a defined medical condition. Eventually they decided to name it early onset of Alzheimer’s as it was the closest thing they could get to. That period of about one month when uncertainty loomed over our heads and the doctors’, that period was the first time I ever thought about death and how drastically it can change life-any life.

Over time I have learnt that the best thing about terminal conditions and diseases is that they teach patience-lots and lots of it. The first stage is inevitable denial. I did not want to acknowledge my father had Alzheimer’s simply because I was too afraid of the changes that lay ahead if something happens to him. Not to mention we never prepared for anything like this happening so soon. So there was ample uncertainty of the future to not accept it. Yet it was to my own detriment. Had I come to terms with the fact sooner, I would have spared myself a lot of mental fatigue and unnecessary stress, as well as not wasted precious time while my father still remembered things more than he does now.

When a person dies suddenly their family is naturally allowed shock and years of coping mechanisms. In cases of terminal illness shock and awe is not an option. You know what is coming next, and you have to be prepared before hand. The mere idea of taking care of a terminally ill person is exhausting. For this I will forever be indebted to my mother for being an exceptionally remarkable caretaker of both my father and my brother who has Down’s Syndrome. She has both of them under her wings, protecting them as much as she can humanly possible.

To say the least, dealing with sudden death is, at least in my situation and experience, easier than dealing with the idea of death hanging on anyone’s head. Yes, we are all destined to die one day, and each breath we take is bringing us closer to it, yet having someone in your life for whom suffering till death has been destined gives you another perspective. While normally the idea of dying and changes that will follow thereafter do not even cross our minds, progressive diseases of loved ones keep reminding us of death and its effects everyday.

It also keeps reminding us that we do not have a lot of time to spend with loved ones so why waste even one moment. Not to mention why waste any moment not being closer to Allah, or our parents, siblings, spouses, children, and even our own selves. It gives us the courage to accept that death is a fact, and no matter when it visits we have to be strong enough to let it change our lives. It helps us cope with the uncertainty death otherwise leaves us with.

My father lost his best friend earlier in the same year his Alzheimer’s kicked in. It was an unexpected situation, one I am positive, he did not imagine would occur so soon in life. I believe it is one of the events that triggered his own disease-the inability to accept death and its resulting changes. Some of us might naturally be strong enough to not let death change us or our daily lives and goals.

The rest, like myself, think about it at least once every day, especially when I am having a hard day, or have a fight with someone close, or am facing any hurdle at all. I remind myself that expending time and energy on anything negative is taking away precious time as my life’s clock ticks me away to death. It reminds me to say a quick prayer before leaving the house, or in the car, or when I wake up or fall asleep, for anyone and everyone, and myself, because I do not fear death, and better still, want to prepare to gracefully and wholeheartedly embrace it. It may be a very big thing to say given that I understand death can strike anyone close to me at any time so while I am not too sure of how I will handle life after death of my father or anyone else close to me, I am sure that in the moment death enters my life I will at least try my best Insha’Allah to not falter and stand firm like the strong person Allah Intends me to be.

The Quran says in 3:185 that, “Every soul shall taste death”. While the deceased certainly tastes death, so do their mourners. Even then we are given hope that we can pray for them, and pray that someone prays for us after we die, so there is hope and faith that when we meet again there will be something more to talk about than grudges or bitterness. In my case, I know I will meet my father, or anyone else who death parts, in a much better place Insha’Allah, and with much better sentiments. So today I pray May Allah Taala Eases death for all of us, and May He Grant us enough patience to emerge as victors from it no matter which side of death we stand on, Ameen.

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An Eight Year Old Night

She saw him dash to the bedroom and take a quick glance around the room as if scanning it to confirm everything was in order. He then called out her and her brother to come and sit with him on the bed. Both children cozily sat down with crossed legs on the bed, excited and confused as to what was coming up. Usually when he called them both like this, they were either in big trouble or he had a surprise for them. Little did they know that this time it was a bit of both, mostly the latter, but their ten and eight year old hearts and minds did not have the capacity to fathom the gravity of this slow surprise as it would unfold in the future.

He lovingly gazed at both of them, patted their heads, and said in his calm yet coaxing tone, “You both should know what I love you a lot, and some day when we will all look back to this night, we will appreciate our family more. You have to promise me that you will not fight with each other. You will not bother your mother or be a nuisance to her in anyway but you will take care of her, and each other. You will write to me regularly and tell me what is going on in your lives. You will concentrate on your studies and not waste time. Then when I come back I will bring lots of gifts, what ever you want for both of you. You will take care of your grandfather, and your aunt. I only want to hear good things about the both of you whenever someone mentions you. And when the older people leave for the airport tonight, you will quietly go to bed like every night and not stay up late.”

He then gestured both of them to hug him and they did. They made jokes about what gifts they want and how they would try to get along. Eventually it was bed time and they were cuddled into bed while every body else stayed awake. The little girl heard noises of the elder people talking, laughing, crying in the lounge. And then there was silence as everyone left for the airport. She was too sleepy to get up and see what time they left. It was as if she was hearing them in her dreams, distant but near enough, so real but vanishing as she reached out her hand to reach them.

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Eight years later he was finally returning to his family. He had not seen them by face all this time, just kept in touch through letters mostly, and phone calls. The internet was new at that time and video chats were a rare luxury yet they had just gotten access to this too just so they could erase the distances created by five thousand miles, twelve seas, and possibly eons of emotional emptiness. He had not even seen his youngest son’s face till then, only seen his pictures, as he was born six months after he left.

As he walked out the international arrival portal he heard excited voices crying Dad and he had no trouble finding his family. Or so he thought. As he hugged his then eighteen year old daughter, sixteen year old son, and the youngest, eight year old son, his eyes misted and he said, “Before walking out this door I felt as young as I had left eight years ago. Now I suddenly feel years older with you before my eyes.” His wife stood watching the father and children hug as tears of joy streamed down her cheeks. Her eight year old spouse-less strife was a story of its own.

But little did he know that even though he felt so much more older seeing his children in person after so long, they had grown up that very night he had left eight years ago. That little girl just jumped from ten to eighteen. She never had a normal childhood because she never lived in a normal family where children expect fathers to be home at five, and both parents attend all family and social events together. Where fathers bully anyone who looks at their daughter or wives with misleading intentions. Where husbands manage all manly duties by being physically present. Where men handle out of control extended family matters. Where rogue male family members and strangers don’t mess with the wife or kids because of fear of the man of the house being present.

An empty space lived in her heart in place of a hero as she did not have a live example of one. She had to draft her own version of a father figure which unintentionally led her to look up to fake heroes instead of the real blood figure. There is a saying that means if someone is not visible to the eye then they are as good as not being present. She knew it was true as years later she looked back at her ten and eighteen year old self and tried to connect the dots as to what turbulence a father’s physical absence caused her. She eventually came to terms with the fact that he sacrificed too along with all of them, probably the most because they were four living together, her mother and brothers and herself, but her father was all alone in a strange land.

But then again the primary reason for his absence, and that too for eight years straight, was securing a future for his children, and making ends meet for the while. For years she kept arguing with herself if this was the only primary responsibility of a father-just to provide material comfort? What about building children’s personalities? Spending time with them? What about the emotional needs of a family? Is it better to be less educated but more emotionally stable? Poorer in wealth than poorer in psychological well being? It would take a life time or maybe more to make sense of it all.

Nothing normal comes out when little girls grow up in one night. They cannot be normal even if they want to. Their perspectives about the world and people around them, the way they micro analyze feelings and intentions, the way they place mistrust and trust blindly, the way they are forced to be responsible and mature before their times, leads to young women who are older than their bodies, more sensitive than regular girls, and more distant in vision than “normal” daughters.

Tonight she is sitting in the hospital by his side recalling all fateful nights of life. The night she grew up ten years, to the night he returned, to the one he had to go back, and to the one they reunited to live together as a family too. But most vividly she will remember this night when his memory is falling apart in crumbles in front of her and he is struggling to hold onto each one of his precious memories as if trying to lock them up safely in a box hidden from the world. But he can’t. And she can’t help him. She helplessly watches him slowly travel to a time and space away from this physical world leaving her again just like he had left years ago. She had a father then, but she didn’t either. And from this night onwards too she will have a father, but she won’t either.

The esoteric daughter of an ephemeral father then cannot be and yet not be.

Ducks on the Railway Track

Every morning the three year old little girl’s mother would dress her in a new frock with matching clips or rubber bands for pony tails, and take a picture from their extremely old fashioned camera. The little girl would hurriedly gobble down some breakfast and as soon as her mother would wipe her face clean she would run outside to her father’s motorcycle and impatiently wait for her father to seat her on the motorcycle’s tank in front of him.

It was a time when seat belt laws were not yet effective, when children could sit wherever and however their parents wanted them to on vehicles, and truly have fun by feeling the breeze ruffle their freshly made hair unlike having their noses buried in tablets and cellphones all along the journey.

It was also a time when the city this little girl grew up in was peaceful and beautiful. It was not yet bombarded by billboards or skyscrapers competing to surpass the last one in height. Not yet infested with business minded zombies, foreign franchises, and power hungry vigilantes. It was a place where mothers would allow their little ones to spend afternoons in their front yards or at a neighbor’s house without fear. When people could still leave their balcony doors open as they took an afternoon nap in the warm summer breeze when electricity would go out. It was something like heaven compared to twenty five years later.

So one peaceful and beautiful summer morning, wearing a new frock with matching shoes and ponytails, jumping in joy to be seated on the motorcycle, this girl was about to leave for her Montessori school. Every morning her father would seat her in front of him, hold the motorcycle’s handles from both sides around her and that was the safest place for her she ever sat despite no belt or car seat for protection. Her joy was not only because she knew she was going to learn something new at school but because in order to get to school they had to pass her favorite small passage. The passage that had ducks on a railway track.

Although ducks are not a rare sight in most places, and nor are railway tracks, but this particular combination of both served as a beautiful start to her day. She loved driving past these ducks and waving at them every morning. If any day she would not see them due to taking another route her mornings would lack that extra flair that she only forgot once she got to school and got busy in some activity. Her father would always smile as they drove past those ducks and he had to slow down his motorcycle in order to prevent damage to its wheels especially since those railway tracks were very stubby and old. While slowing down he would show her the ducks and talk to them for her and she would just laugh gleefully in pure joy.

There must be many other fond memories of her childhood but this one is the earliest one she has. Maybe because she did not get to spend such beautiful mornings alone with her father making her laugh and protecting her from falling as he slowly got off his motorcycle without letting go of the handles on both sides with her seated firmly between his clasp, and walking till the tracks ended. Some days they brought crumbs that the little girl clutched safely in her little hands till they reached the tracks. She then used to throw them scattering them amongst all the ducks.

Twenty five years later she is driving in her car towards her home, her father seated besides her as they talk about his memories. Its a different city, a different place, and certainly no ducks on their journey, but he remembers his motorcycle vividly and how he took it to venture in different places. What he doesn’t remember at all is those ducks, or the railway tracks, or even one such morning from her childhood. They are driving home from his neurologist’s office who hasn’t seen any progress in almost a year and has just provided a fresh list of “numbing” pills as his daughter calls them because all they do is numb his sensitivity to his rapidly escaping memory instead of curing it.
There is no cure for lost memories any way.