In July, my aunt died. She was only 32 years old, and the light of our lives. We knew it was coming, not quite as quickly as it did; but she had advanced cancer, so her days were numbered. As soon as the cancer reached her brain, it was game over.
There is nothing that could ever have prepared me for the past weeks since she died. Death, as we all have heard, comes in waves. These aren’t waves; these are gargantuan freight trains that ram into your very soul, from nowhere. They come as you stand in the fruit aisle of the supermarket, looking around you, wondering how the hell anyone can manage to get on with life when this terrible thing has happened and suddenly, from out of nowhere that train comes hurtling at you. It feels as if someone has sucked out everything you have—your guts, your heart, your oxygen, your whole being.
Of course the Brit in you remains still and stoic as the train does its thing before pulling away, and you continue filling your trolley. But it’s there, and you never know when it will run into you next. You live in fear of that.
For a little while, I didn’t speak to any friends on the phone, for fear of breaking down. I only spoke to my parents and to my wife Aisha. Job number one was to explain to her that my beloved aunt was dead. No easy feat. I could barely remember it. I came up with a nonsensical story of her now being an angel, and a star in the sky and that whenever the sky was pink in the morning, it meant she was saying hello.
My wife feels uncomfortable with it; I don’t ever know what to feel. But it was all I had at the time. It probably confused her more than I’d like to admit.
After Khadija was told she had cancer, it was the last time she and I ever looked at each other in the eye. We avoided that. I know she felt the same. We knew that if we ever locked our gaze, that the tears would never stop. So it was better that way. Now I regret that, I regret not grabbing her and looking at her, deep into her soul, and telling her how much I admired her bravery. How she was a warrior, a trouper, an inspiration, and a truly beautiful human being, and of course, how much love I had for her. But I didn’t, and I hate myself for that. I know she knew, but did she actually know? That much I know.
My sister’s two greatest fears when she was ill were: 1) being forgotten; 2) leaving behind any sadness.
The first is just silly. The second not so silly. I was never one who feared death, really. I mean, I knew it would come, I just assumed it would be when I was an old man, and I was fine with that. Now, I have a fear, in fact utter terror, not so much of death, but for what happens after death to the people who remain. The life change that happens to those people the minute they find out that their loved one is going to die. This experience for her was, I think, the worst of all of it. Her worry for her beloved husband, bereft at losing the only lady he ever loved from young age to this adulthood age, the heartbreak of our lovely parents, the confusion of her niece who thought she had “pancer”, and her seeing the sheer devastation of her friends of 25 years who just couldn’t believe that their best mate would no longer be around.
She never wanted us to be sad. But we are so, so utterly filled with sadness. Actually, I can get through the days. My biggest amazement and awe in all of this is the wonder of the human brain. The kindness of it, that it allows you a few hours, sometimes three or four hours in a day or night, where you are all right. Where you laugh, smile, make a meal, play with your kid. You just are allowed to be OK sometimes and I thank the brain for that. Allowing us a little slice of time-out from the horror that surrounds us.
What haunts me, more than anything, more even, than her not being here any more, is the thought of the fear she faced alone. She faced the worst thing any person could ever face. She looked death in the eye and it never let up. It was relentlessly wheedling its way into her life and she dealt with that with absolute poise and composure. How she managed to control that fear is truly beyond me.
My guilt that my sister, who I was supposed to protect my whole life, would be lying there at night, while the world slept, knowing her drugs weren’t working and this cancer was killing her. That destroys me. And when I see my mother sobbing like a wounded animal at her grave every Friday lunchtime, I know it destroys her too.
The secret stories that only we shared just evaporate, because they are too old or too weird to try to explain to anyone else. Every year we wrote the exact same thing in each other’s birthday cards, and howled with laughter each time we opened them, knowing full well what it would say, but there isn’t any card to write now, so that joke just disappears forever.
Sometimes I feel anger towards my loving and sensitive three-year-old Zulaihat whom we call by her nickname (Rainbow) because of how special her real name was to us as her parents; when she carelessly throws something that was a gift from my sister on the floor. I shout and she gets frightened and doesn’t understand. When she does that, I find myself preferring my sister to my own child, and then I hate myself. I have a paralysing fear of losing things such as the screw top of a cheap plastic bottle that she bought my daughter at amusement park, in case the bottle is no longer whole.
The guarding of every solitary thing she ever gave us as gifts over the years, like the shriek toys, and the blind panic and rage when one of those things is temporarily lost among the chaos of living with a three-year-old. So it’s hard. No doubt it is life-changing. And what next?
Well, we’ve been dreading August, of course. The month we share for our birthdays, anniversary, the time of happiness and love and family. And yet for us there is none of that without her. We will pretend, though. We have become good at that. But we all have an underlying anxiety that while we slowly move toward more years, desperate to see the back of the year that brought us so much sadness, we also fear entering a year not touched by her, moving further and further away from the last time we were a family, all present and correct. We will survive, though. Unlike her, we will survive. But we will for ever live with a shade of darkness over us. A grey filter over our world for ever.
But before she died. She left one important message to us. And I quote: “Many of us are oblivious to our own close-mindedness. We picture ourselves as the centers of our own, individual universes, instead of seeing the bigger, more interconnected picture. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important, if you want to operate on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you’ll know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred on fire with the same force that lit the stars.”
At long last I became very much confident that death shouldn’t change our way of thinking or attitude over what life throws at us. And that has made the difference in this present condition.