Archive for March, 2016
The news that anyone who has a loved one in intensive care dreads to hear. The doctor advised that we were prolonging the inevitable. I knew it was coming, but nothing really prepares you for it. Everyone dies right? With a heavy heart, we made the hard decision to switch off my dad’s life support.
I was in London when I got the news. The journey to the hospital would take me just over three hours. It was an agonising race against time. As I walked out of my door with a few belongings to hand, my neighbour smiled. “Abida, are you going somewhere nice,” he said. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was embarking on the worst journey of my life. I associated travelling home with joyful thoughts of seeing my family, how could I reconcile that I was having to say goodbye forever? Sat on my seat, in my mind, I was thinking, ‘please train, don’t stop, I’m not ready yet.’
Standing in his hospital room, they gave him drugs so that he wouldn’t suffer. After they switched off the machine, he gasped for air a few times, then there was silence. I kept hold of his hand throughout, tears streaming down my face. Apparently hearing is the last sense you have, so I told him that I loved him, and he will always be in my heart.
I thought that was the worst day, but it wasn’t…
Religion seems a rather alien concept to me. Given my name, Abida, is Arabic, I’m already assumed to be born and to die a Muslim. However, up until this point, I’d never stepped into a mosque. My dad was unusual for his generation, unlike many South Asians who were shop-keepers, he was highly educated, naturally gifted in Mathematics and Physics. My dad told me that when he was a small child in India (before the partition), in those days, he had to swim across the river to get to school every morning, there was no other way. I asked him what would happen if you couldn’t swim? The answer was simple, you wouldn’t get educated. It wasn’t surprising that he was a strong swimmer. The reason that I mention this was that his philosophy was that the most important aspects of life were education, family and kindness. He had his faith but he never thought it necessary to go to mosque and pray, it’s what you do with your life that is of any worth were his thoughts.
I’m trying to paint a picture of a non-traditional Muslim family. We had an unusual upbringing, the only non-white family in the village, my dad thought it best that his children didn’t feel segregated, so we celebrated Christmas and Easter like any other normal child. He was multicultural with the opinion that if you live in a country, you should respect their traditions.
Years later, we were now faced with not knowing anything about Islam. My mother was still in shock, so my older brother took over. He researched the internet and found that we had to bury him within 48 hours, given that a post mortem wasn’t required. With the kindness of family friends who were practicing Muslims, they were able to guide us through the process. In Islamic faith, a dead body has to be washed prior to burial (known as the ghusl) by family members of the same sex. So my brothers had to go to the mosque and wash our father’s dead body, as one can imagine, they found that pretty horrific, but got through it. Then his body was wrapped in white cloth (enshrouding) and placed in the coffin. The men and women are kept separate in two rooms for the prayers (salah), an unusual aspect is that anyone who also uses the mosque for prayers can be present, so there were people that we didn’t know in the rooms. I found that unnerving. My dad’s coffin came to the women’s room first. I walked towards it, but when I saw his sunken and sallow face it broke my heart. I gasped in horror. My sister-in law said, “what’s wrong?” I noticed that his tracheostomy tube hadn’t been removed. That wasn’t my dad, it was his shell. My sister-in law grabbed my hands and told me to block that image out of my mind, to focus on good memories of him. I didn’t look again. We knelt on the floor, but as I didn’t know how to pray, I just read a few verses of the Quran with a scarf around my head.
Then the coffin was moved into the men’s room, on speaker, we listened to a man start chanting. It felt strange to me, as I didn’t see the point in it all, he’s dead, why are we doing this, and why am I separated from my brothers? The worst part was to come, only men can bury, so I wasn’t allowed to go to his grave until the day after.
That day was surreal. I felt like the girl in school that would often get picked on by the Maths teacher. “Ceri, what’s the answer to the question,” he retorted. My mind: why is he asking her, he knows that she doesn’t know the answer. He’s feeding her fear of Maths not enthusing her. I turn and look at Ceri, she’s staring intently at the blackboard, but her face is blank, she’s puzzled. Why can’t she see the answer? That’s how I felt about the funeral, I didn’t understand any of it. Regardless, I am however well-brought up and respectful of faith; that day no matter how hard it was, I followed the tradition because it wasn’t about me, but about my dad.
The day after, I visit his grave. I notice diagonally opposite there’s a small pink chair with a doll wrapped around next to the tree. I walk towards it and I read the gravestone, the little girl was only 4 years old. At least I can reconcile that my dad had his life, but this was devastating. I imagine that was her parents worst day of their lives. We share witnessing death of loved ones in common, in fact, we all inevitably do.
The saddest thing? That I may have to go through that whole process again in time…