It has been somewhat of a roller coaster ride between June blending into July and the short weeks until now. My daughter turned 2 on the 1st July, so it was a Sunday spent with my husband and our two girls, followed by visiting my aunt at home who didn’t look too well when I saw her briefly the day before. The doctor prescribed some medication and rest. I was glad – she works hard, sometimes too hard, and always seems to be worrying about someone other than herself – so rest was in order. And I doubt she’s ever really even taken advantage of ‘sick leave’. The few days that followed had my aunt visiting the doctor again with a note for a hospital visit, only to end up being admitted to the trauma unit.
Not knowing what was wrong with her was like being flung into a dark room, waiting for someone to turn on the light. When that light went on it burned with the ferocity to make one’s eyes sting and feel like you were thrown into a different zone altogether. This wasn’t an awesome vibe… my aunt was diagnosed with a tumour; a brain tumour! Here enters a need to read the message from a relative again, and one more time just to be sure I had it right. Yes, nothing wrong with my reading; a tumour had taken up residence in my aunt’s brain. What now?
The days that followed were a combination of going about everyday life and visiting her every second or third day or night. Over that period my aunt was moved to a few different wards based on her health status. Things progressed from the initial hope of surgically removing the tumour after draining excess fluid on the brain, to the nature and position of the tumour posing too great a risk for surgery, to radiation therapy being the best option and prepping her for the treatment. But the nasty sonofobitch of a tumour had other ideas. It’s aggressive and fast-growing and even the hope of radiation was then a no-go option – performing radiation would simply be a death sentence. Deep breath! Nothing more could be done medically. Even if radiation therapy was still an option it would have been part of what they call palliative care, to give her some time with us. The mere months that the doctors gave her just a week before had suddenly become a stretch. Oh God! My heart just took a dive and lodged itself into my throat! How is this happening? My aunt was okay just a few weeks ago!
It’s amazing how the mind just goes into stampede mode with your thoughts – it just races with one question following another, one statement following another. It’s a chain of Hows and Buts. While your mind races your heart gallops and it all just leaves you emotionally charged. That’s how I felt… emotionally charged. It was the morning of the 24th July, a Tuesday, a normal start to the day with getting ready for work and getting my daughters’ bags ready for school while their dad got them dressed. It was a normal morning, except that I’d read a message my cousin sent late the previous night letting us know that there was nothing more doctors could do for his mom and that she would be sent home. She would slip into a coma and it was just a matter of time.
I performed morning prayers much like any other morning, except that after I prayed and said a prayer for my aunt, I sat on my musallah (prayer mat) after and just cried. As my emotions took over and the tears just spilled I felt my husband’s arms around me. He just held on a moment and let me feel what I feeling. I was overwhelmed with emotion – this was all so much so suddenly. Just 3 weeks before she was my bubbly aunt, sending voice notes and chats over WhatsApp, interacting with all of us in her usual colouful and full-of-life manner. And in a short few weeks she lay in a hospital bed, tube-fed and barely responsive, getting ready to be sent home! My heart hurt – it ached in a way it never had before. I kept seeing her in my mind as that loud and happy-go-lucky aunt with her quick wit and generous heart. And I just cried…
Still, there was a glimmer of hope somewhere amongst the sadness and heartache. A coma, she could or would slip into a coma. I couldn’t help feeling hopeful at this, almost wishing for it even. Didn’t comas put the body into a sleep mode that helped with the healing or recovery process? Didn’t doctors sometimes medically induce comas for this very reason? There was light, albeit a little sliver of it, and I held onto this thought for a bit of comfort as I now stood, hugged by my husband.
I drove to the car dealership that morning to drop the car for its service. Life carries on afterall. But some fresh tears felt the need to keep me company in traffic. I got in the shuttle that would drop me at work and was grateful for some familiar faces from work who just happened to drive the same brand of car and have their vehicles booked in for a service on the same day. It gave my mind and heart a break from my emotions by having conversations with my colleagues. But my eyes felt thick and heavy that morning, and pretty much all day, from crying that morning. I hoped I didn’t look like a zombie, but at the core of it I didn’t truly care. I just felt.
Nizaam picked me up at work since the service being done was a 2-day job. We were going to head home and pick up a few things for the girls then head to my younger sister to pick Hudaa up then head to my mom’s to get Mumtaaz. I was looking forward to taking the girls to see my aunt. They weren’t allowed into the wards before, but my aunt had been moved into a different ward where the nurse advised we could bring the children, just not little babies. The kids in the family were like my aunt’s grandkids – even when the grandchild she so yearned for came along she still always had a place in her heart and home for everyone else’s kids. So I was pleased I was going to take the girls.
Nizaam and I were just getting ready to leave the house when one of my cousins called me; she couldn’t get hold of my mom. I was headed to my mom’s anyway so that we could all head to the hospital. I was telling my cousin this much and asking her what was wrong. But her voice… I could hear the tears! Oh Allah, let me be wrong! I knew I wasn’t wrong but had to ask my cousin what the matter was. Her dad just called her… my aunt just passed away. I felt like one of those people in a movie who you see grab a chair when they hear bad or shocking news. I had to sit. I was standing at the dining table at the time when my cousin called, waiting for my husband as I was itching to get out of the house to go see my aunt. Now I pulled out a chair and sat, dialling my mom then my dad – no answer on either phone – then my mom again. I could tell by her voice that she just got the news herself. We headed out the door within a few minutes. I called my younger sister and knew instantly when she answered that she knew. My baby sister lives in the same house as my parents so I knew she would know already.
I walked into the door at the sister’s house a few minutes later (she lives a short drive away) and heard her children ask her “mommy, why are you sad?”. When I greeted her we held onto each other for some time while she told me she was taking her children to visit at the hospital and how much she wanted to see our aunt. “It’s okay” I told her. I told her I wanted to see our aunt too and was also excited to be able to take the kids. I told my sister I wanted to tell my aunt that I love her and miss her being around and that I am making dua (prayers) for her. The children were around us with concerned looks on their little faces, clearly sensing our emotions as much as they could see it on our faces. We headed to our mom’s from there, just around the corner from my sister. One of our other aunts was there as well and a short while later my sister’s father-in-law popped by. It was heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking. My mom had lost a sister, the youngest sister, yet while she nursed her own emotions she was there to support us through our grieving.
Not long thereafter we left to go to my departed aunt’s house. My uncle was getting the necessary sorted to release her body to the family so that we could prepare for her janaaza (funeral) which would take place the following day. When a Muslim dies the burial takes as soon as possible after the death, in most cases the same day or the next. So my aunt’s body (how odd to even think of her that way, as a body) came home for her final rites. She was indeed sent home, just not in the way we had hoped. Not in the way we truly believed because we held onto the hope that we had some time left with her. What do the doctors know anyway, right? How many people don’t live way beyond their prognosis! This is some of the things that you think when doctors say nothing more can be done. But this was not how it was meant to be. My aunt was not meant to be in pain for days on end, to be tube-fed and washed by strangers. Allah dealt us with grief but we believe it was in trade off with giving her peace.
So my sisters and I were part of the handful of family and friends, all just women, who performed the final ablution ritual for my aunt. The process was led by what we call a toekamannie, a person who is knowledgeable on how the deceased needs to be washed and shrouded according to Muslim rites. It was the first time I ever did that. When my mom asked me later how it was I told her it was emotional for me, but I am glad I did it. It was something cleansing, something that helped the healing and one of the last physical things I could do for my aunt before her physical presence left us for good. But boy oh boy, I wasn’t lying when I told my mom it was an emotional experience. At times during the process I just cried. My aunt was laying there, lifeless. A once-warm body now becoming colder with each minute that passed. It was heart-wrenching. But these physical acts of cleansing helped me deal with the reality of her being gone. Helping to shroud my aunt in the last outfit she would ever wear, sheets of simple white cloth that wrapped the body, helped me grieve, because it all just still seemed so surreal! Like it wasn’t really happening. But it was…
We said goodbye the next day, the 25th July 2018. A Wednesday that Nizaam and I were meant to take Mumtaaz for a Grade R meet-and-greet at a prospective school – an appointment I cancelled and asked to reschedule. Amongst everything that was going on with my aunt in the weeks before we still had all these other little things going on. But we said goodbye. She lay in the middle of what was once her lounge, shrouded in white, as still as Sleeping Beauty and looking at peace. People crowded inside the house, in the garage and out front, paying their final respects. As the time drew nearer for her to be taken away the tears flowed freely from many, myself included. I held Hudaa as she fell asleep on my arm, and put my other arm around my mother who stood just in front of me. She held on firmly as she cried. Oh Allah! This was so hard! We dealth with grief before – I said goodbye to a younger cousin several years ago and to her mother, my aunt, about a year or so later. Just two years ago we said goodbye to my uncle, one of my mom’s brothers, who lay in much the same spot as my aunt just 2 years later. I am not a stranger to loss, to grief, to death, but this was so much more devastating. My heart ached so deeply; I had never felt the effects of death to quite this extent before. I was heartbroken. My hurt flowed freely down my cheeks, as it did with so many who were came to bid my aunt farewell. I hugged and was hugged, I comforted and was comforted. I remembered so many things about her in those moments – her laugh, her generosity, her unselfishness, her sense of humour. I mourned for my mom and aunts who just lost their baby sister, mourned for her son and the grandson she’d never see grow up, and who would never have the pleasure of knowing first-hand the amazing woman she was. I mourned for her colleagues who would miss her presence at the office. I mourned for myself and for my daughters who wouldn’t have her babysit them again or wouldn’t play or watch TV in her room while she lay on her bed content with everyone’s children around. I mourned for her. And while her body was still in the middle of the lounge her soul hovered, and I took some comfort thinking how she’d have gotten such a kick out of having everyone around. A smile played around my heart even while the tears flowed, thinking how she’d marvel at all of us crying for her – she’d always tell us when we’re emo that we pee too little. Oh, how I am going to miss this woman!
Her body was carried out of the house and taken to the mosque for prayers. I accompanied. My aunt was a woman who prayed, and it felt right to say the final prayers for her in the mosque. I was filled with emotion as we stood in prayer for my aunt. My body shook silenty while tears just flowed. It was the last time I’d physically be close to my aunt. I was really saying goodbye! As I stood in prayer with my emotions raw and exposed, Mumtaaz, who wanted to come with me, came to me and hugged me. How intuitive children are – my little girl knew her mommy needed a hug!
After the prayers I returned to my aunt’s house while the men proceeded to the cemetary for the rites of buriul. I spent some time moving between crowds, greeting and being greeted, and being comforted from multiple angles. My aunt’s house generally had a buzz with whoever was visiting, but this was a buzz of a different kind. The house was familiar but not the mood. Her house suddenly didn’t feel the same. She was gone. Her physical presence was gone and it was never coming back! This was such a tough pill to swallow! It all seemed so unreal still, like I could close my eyes and when I open it she would be with us. She would be joking with us or chatting with us. She’d be asking for traffic updates on WhatsApp. We’d be driving to or from work together. She’d be laughing… But I reminded myself that she is with us – her memory is there. There is so much that reminds us of her, that reminds me of her, that she will never truly be gone.
I’ve been thinking of her often these last few days. It has been a bit more than a week since her soul exited her body; a bit more than a week since we were shaken by her loss; a bit more than a week since we felt a deep pain and numbness that comes with recent death. It’s been a bit more than a week and I think of her often, especially driving to work since we drove together many times joking and talking like two old friends.
Oh, Shenaaz, my dear Aunty Naas, you left so much sooner than I ever thought you would. You left a hole in our lives that only your memory can fill, because there’s no one else quite like you. Your son comes a close second though, you’d like that thought I’m sure. I miss you SO much. I pray you knew how much you were loved. I pray for you often, in quiet moments on my musallah and as I go about my usual activities. I pray for you when I think of you, which is often because so much reminds me of you. You were such a big part of my life that so much reminds me of you. Next to my dad you’ve always been the most generous person I knew, a heart too big for your own good sometimes. But that’s how you were. You left so soon, in hospital one day then a mere few weeks later you were gone. Through all this time I missed you, missed you being the way you were before. And I yearned then, as I do now, for one more of your voice notes asking me where I am or telling me about traffic on the route we travelled, for one more of your quick laughs while your shoulders bounce up and down, for one more conversation in the car, for one more of your favoured emojis on WhatsApp, for one more visiting you at home while you tell Aunty Bieda to make me a cup of tea (and I’d tell you I can make my own and should be making tea for my aunts and not the other way around), for one more chance to fetch you at work and message you to say “I’m outside”. I yearn for one more anything, but it’s just not meant to be. But you leave me with your memory – and what an amazing one it is. You leave me feeling blessed, because even though my heart still aches and I write this with a lump in my throat, I know that with time the ache will dull. With time the hurt and pain gives way to a sense of peace and comfort that I got to share a part of my life with you, and you with me. I am reminded by the grace of Allah that my heartache is just a reminder of how much you meant to me, to everyone. You remind me I am blessed. Miss you always Aunty Naas, and love you even more, always. ♥