Enduring with beautiful patience
Isa Sheikh | Monday, April 25, 2022
It’s 5:36 a.m. on this Sunday morning and though it’s still dark out, the birds are singing, one after the other.
After another long night of playing Secret Hitler into the early morning after saying I would go to bed early, having had my pre-dawn meal for my fast tomorrow and prayed my morning prayers, the thought of this column has taken over my mind, one idea after the next emerging and then being discarded in my head.
I could try and emulate the fun I’ve had reading columns in these pages that don’t take themselves too seriously and tell a couple of jokes. Or I could make an argument about something or another, like how awful it is to cheat at a late-night board game. But I’m not gonna talk about that in my inside column (la la la).
As I lie here listening to the birds’ symphony — finally in my bed after far too long, awkwardly pecking at my keyboard while trying not to hit the ceiling with my head — one thing keeps coming to mind.
When my mom died (plot twist!) the summer after my sophomore year of high school, a well-meaning relative off-handedly said at some point that this would be good for my college applications. Perhaps it was true, but then and there it felt like a slap across the face. Someone had suggested I might win the crappiest consolation medal at the state fair after having my life shattered.
Regardless, had they mentioned this inside column, they’d have been absolutely right! It is something of note to write about, whether or not it’s a good idea. I don’t tell most of the people I know that my mother is dead. Do you want to know how to suck the air out of a room, make everyone uncomfortable, and start to feel the water well up in your eyes? Confirm verbally that the most haunting idea hanging around in your psyche is truth.
My mother was without hesitation my favorite person on the planet, and there was no one I was closer to. There’s a note she wrote to me somewhere that mentions how inseparable we were from our introduction in that hospital room.
She passed in a car accident while I was attending a summer community college class, so there was no goodbye, no warning.
When she sat down to write her book “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Joan Didion’s first words typed into Microsoft Word were “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. The question of self-pity.”
Didion, whose husband died after slumping over motionless at their dinner table, reflects in her prose the abruptness of death.
I was devastated, and to use the past tense is generous.
Didion writes about so-called “magical thinking,” a condition that’s characterized by denial of reality. She couldn’t donate her husband’s shoes, because what if he came back? Early this semester, I sat waiting at Hesburgh Circle for a bus that just would not arrive as I saw a golden Toyota Highlander pull into the lot. My heart dropped, a delusional burst of magical thinking telling me it was the same Highlander my mom had picked me up in a thousand times. I could throw my backpack across the backseat and tell her how my week had been.
Grief has been a large part of my life for the past almost three years (ouch). It did not stop my sobs when I was told that my mother’s death was part of God’s plan, or that I was lucky to have the sixteen years with her that I did. When those things were said to me, they did not help and though I knew in my mind they were true, it felt in my heart as though impenetrable mourning had swallowed me whole, even as I kept a brave face for those who needed me.
During this holy month of Ramadan, I’ve tried to pay more attention to my faith, including the words of the Qur’an. Earlier in the month, on an early morning like this, I read Surah Yusuf, the twelfth chapter. It tells the story of Prophet Yusuf, or Joseph from Genesis.
In the eighteenth verse, when Ya’qub (Jacob) is presented with his son’s shirt falsely stained with blood, part of his response is “fasabrun jamil.” The Arabic words are often translated as “patience is most fitting.” The word “jamil,” however, literally means beautiful. For Jacob, in the face of his devastation, patience was not only a way of keeping his senses, there was beauty in his grief.
Last November, Andrew Garfield discussed the loss of his mother with Stephen Colbert, and he told Colbert that grief had been key to his recent art. “I hope this grief stays with me, because it’s all the unexpressed love I didn’t get to tell her,” Garfield said.
Not only is grief surviving love for the people we mourn, but an opportunity to receive the love of God. As much as it was hard to hear on those hot summer nights three years ago, as the Qur’an says, our souls are not burdened with more than they can bear.
It is the devastation of loss that challenges our perceptions of an ever-lasting life on this planet; shocking us with the palpable knowledge that there is something more than our daily worldly pursuits. When you bury your mother in the ground, your bank balance or GPA are not your true concerns.
Grief reminds us to share that love when we still can, as a friend reminded me this week. There is deep beauty in loss that words simply can not express. What I’m trying to say is: I wrote the darn column.
The sky is now going from purple to blue. The birds are chirping still. Sleep beckons.
Call your mother if you can. Memento mori.
You can contact Isa at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.