The Greatest Planner of All…

March 13, 2012 was gorgeous day weather wise. Spring had sprung upon us Torontonians a lot earlier than we expected, not that we were complaining. I was at home that day reminiscing this day exactly a year ago, I was in India for my cousin’s wedding. Made a mental note to call and congratulate her for making it through the first year. I had an interview the next morning for which I was prepping for. I had been applying to this company for two years since I graduated and was ecstatic that I finally landed an interview. It was just a summer position, but I figured it’d get my foot in the door.

My aunt next door called and asked if I could drop my cousin off at University. I took the opportunity to take in some of the fresh air and give my Salams to the Sun. It’s just a five minute car ride each way so I really had no reason not to go. Little did I know that in that 10 minutes I was away, we’d receive news that would set me on an unexpected and unforgettable journey. As I walked into the house after parking the car, I heard my mom crying and she was calling my name. She was saying something but I couldn’t understand properly. I saw that my dad was on the phone and even he had tears in his eyes. It was only after the third time I properly heard what she said, “Mansoor mama passed away…” He is my mom’s elder brother, who was living in California. I was in shock, I kept on saying ‘What? How??’ He passed away in his sleep from a heart attack. His room mate went to wake him up for work and found his cold body with his left fist clenched. That night he was up until 3:00 AM talking with his room mates  then called home and spoke with his wife/mother before going to bed around 4:00 AM. So, he had passed away sometime around Fajr (right before sunrise). This news reached us around 5 PM, but in India it was 3:00 AM.

My uncle had diabetes, cholesterol and blood pressure. He never went to the doctor in the 6 years he was in the states as he didn’t have insurance coverage. So his sugar/cholesterol/blood pressure was last checked before he left for the states in 2006. All his medicine he took was parceled from India. He had been taking the same dosage for 6 years, it’s actually a miracle that it didn’t affect him earlier. He had been complaining about pain in the left hand for about a month and just attributed it to his work strain. At night he’d take an aspirin and say it was better the next day. He completely ignored it and didn’t realize that the pain was indication of an oncoming heart attack.

Everyone back home insisted that my mom go to California for the janazah (funeral) as she was the only immediate family that was so close to him distance wise. We didn’t think it was possible for my mom to make it in time for the janazah as it is usually done within 24 hours of the TOD. My dad’s passport had expired too so no way my mom could go by herself as she has no prior experience travelling alone. By the end of that night, we had decided that there is no possibility of my mom going. In the meantime we talked to anyone and everyone we knew in California in order to arrange the funeral. Two of my mom’s first cousins living in Houston and Los Angeles, and they were making their way over to Vallejo, where my uncle was.

For majority of the 6 years, my uncle had worked at a gas station in Clearlake, California. It is a tourist spot in the mountains. He lived alone, worked 6 days a week 11 hours per day and his boss was heartless. It was a horrible and lonely place to work but he sucked it up for the sake of his family. The main reason he had come to America was to earn money to rebuild the 100 year old ancestral home he had inherited. In 2008 the first stage of the house was completed and there was a house warming party. I was there at the time and I had filmed and photographed the house and sent it to him so he can see the fruits of his labour. When I was in India in 2011, all the floors of the house was completed and now it was just waiting to be seen by my Uncle. During Ramadan in 2011, he finally got his green card. Now his plan was to wait another year, save up some money for his four daughters’ future and leave America. He had told everyone that he will be home for 2012 Ramadan. Mom and I had previously asked to visit him, but he told us not to come and instead he will visit us on his way to India. That never happened.

One of his major complaints living in Clearlake was that there was no Masjid to pray or at least go for Jummah. About a week prior to his death, he had moved from Clearlake to Vallejo. A friend had gotten him a less stressful job. He would be living with 3 other friends rather than alone. He had moved in on a Thursday and for the first time in 4 years he went for Jummah prayers that Friday. If only he had known that would be his last Jummah. It was almost as if he had moved to Vallejo just in time for passing. If he was still living in Clearwater, it would have been almost impossible for anyone to go there for the funeral. He had paid of all his debts, and had about $4000 in the bank, which is actually the amount needed for his funeral expenses. That money was sent to the family back home, while the community pitched in for the funeral. I’ve heard that you are buried at the exact same place from where the soil was taken to create you (unsure of the authenticity). Ever since he was a kid my uncle had wanted to come to America. Yet, it was almost as if his death was what brought him to America.

The next morning, I went for the Job interview. I have no idea how I did it. But it was as if a completely different person was in my place, not the girl who just lost her uncle the day before. Once I got home, various conversations had happened and it was decided that my mom is going for the funeral as it was planned for the next morning. When the paramedics came, they took the body to ensure it wasn’t suicide/homicide and determine the cause of death and they will only release it the next morning. Therefore, my mom had to get to California by the end of the day. However, I didn’t think it was safe sending my mom on her own so I offered to go in her place. We started looking for flight tickets, but there were no flights that went from Toronto and reached SFO by the end of the day. Then I thought of looking for flights from Buffalo and managed to find one at a really good price so both my mom and I can go. Told my parents about this ticket and how I can drive to Buffalo and fly from there. When I called back to book the flight, the agent said only one ticket was available and I ended up booking it for me. When I told my dad that I had booked my ticket for myself only, being the overprotective father he looked as if I had bought a one way ticket to Gitmo.

I quickly had lunch and starting packing. In the meantime, I have no idea what happened but my parents had asked an aunt and uncle to drop me off at the Buffalo airport. My aunt told my mom to also pack a pair of clothes and toiletries and maybe we can get a ticket for her at the airport. On the way to the airport, my dad somehow managed to get a ticket for my mom on the exact same route as mine. Which was a huge relief and in retrospect, I am so glad my mom made it as there was no way I could have managed it all on my own. A family friend had offered to host us while we were there. We have never seen them and they have never seen us, yet they were coming to pick us up at the airport. I spoke to the sister over the phone and told her I’ll call her once we land. The route was from Buffalo to Minnesota and then SFO. There was only a 30 min layover at Minnesota. It took us almost 30 minutes to go from one end of the airport to the other end where the flight for SFO was. We were literally running across the airport and made it in time only to find out the flight had been delayed by an hour. Once we landed in SFO, my phone battery was dying but I managed to send her a text saying that I am wearing beige top and hijab. For about 15 mins Mom and I walked around the arrival area trying to find someone we’ve never met while they drove around the airport looking for us. Luckily at one point my mom saw a women in an abaya and said she might be it. She looked at me and smiled as she noticed the beige top/hijab. We tried to get some shut eye that night to get up early to head over to Vallejo.

Vallejo was a small battered town with mostly African Americans. The masjid was a home that was falling apart and was soon to be rebuilt. It was raining, cold and gloomy, fitting for the occasion. We were the first ones there and we waited in the parking lot for the rest. My mom saw her cousins for the first time in over a decade and I was probably 5 when I last saw them. We sat in the women’s area as we waited for people to come and most importantly for the hospital to deliver my uncle’s body. Everyone back home wanted at least one last glimpse of my uncle before he was buried so we were arranging a live broadcast of the janaza via Skype. One by one, the families that had heard of the death or met my uncle before started coming in. Conversations with them helped give us a better idea of his life in California. He had been ill for a long time and everyone had told him to quit America and go back home. If only he had listened to them maybe we could have seen him at least once. Mom and I last saw him in 2002, and 10 years later here we are at his funeral.

While I was talking to my mom’s cousin, the ambulance had arrived with my uncle. Standing at the doorway of the women’s entrance I can see the stretcher being lowered from the ambulance. I was in utter shock that the man who used to be around 300 lbs had lost so much weight over the years that he was only as wide as the stretcher. Only his belly was protruding but he had lost weight everywhere else. The Imam of the masjid lit up incense and I saw him bring out the 3 white shrouds that will be used to wrap the body. The men got busy with washing the body and it was about an hour later I heard them say ‘Allahu Akbar’ as they carried my uncle in a coffin into the prayer area. The top half of the cover was open and his face was covered. My mom’s cousin uncovered the face so we can see. They told us not to touch him. The coroner was told not to make any cuts on the body, so they took a blood sample from his jugular vein in order to determine COD. There was still blood coming from that spot so we could see the cotton with blood stains near his neck. He was just 48 years old. I remember a picture of my uncle when he was 19 and he looked exactly like that. This was the fairest I’ve seen him as he is darkest in the family. If my mom was white as milk, he was dark as coal, people would wonder how these two could be siblings. He had a trimmed beard that outlined his face and it was just starting to gray. He looked so young, handsome and he was glowing. We could see a bit of his teeth which made it look like he was smiling. There was a sense of peaceful aura around him.

Once the janaza prayer was done, we all headed over to the graveyard in Livermore. The women stayed inside the car in the parking lot. But it was an open field nestled in between mountains with windmills. It was a gorgeous place that I couldn’t help but wish to be buried in such a graveyard. Through the fence I could see all that was taking place. It was pretty far and I was actually recording it with my camera to show back home. A plot had already been dug out for my uncle. I didn’t notice them lowering the body but I saw the men each throwing a handful of sand. Then they prayed and a truck filled in the remaining soil. A sense of relief came about us, or maybe our bodies were just tired from all that crying. He’s six feet under, can’t do anything about it now.

We went home and for the first time mom I spoke to my aunt, well we listened to her cry. That cry will stay with me till my last day. She was married to my uncle at 15 and now she was 35 with four daughters from 17-6 that she has to be the mother and father to. For the past 6 years, the highlight of her day was the phone call from her husband. My uncle had mostly worked abroad so at most she had probably lived about 6-7 years with him in their 20 year marriage. This is very common in my community, where the husband is often living abroad earning money at mediocre jobs while the wife stays back home and raises the kids. It’s an awful lifestyle that people need to put an end to! Also not Islamic at all!

Islamically, only 3 days are allotted for mourning. Death is part of life so no point in dwelling on it longer than needed, easier said than done. It’s the hardest for my aunt and to my grandma to some extent. The rest of us picked up where we left and moved on with our daily routines. It only seems like yesterday that I came home to my mom crying and yet it’s been a year already. I doubt it’s any easier today than it was a year ago for my aunt. For her, it will take longer to adjust or maybe she will never fully recuperate. I doubt she will re-marry, but the possibility is there. In the meantime she is supported by her siblings and my mom’s siblings.

Before going on a trip, we plan it to the finest details. How often does everything we plan happen exactly the way we want? There was almost no planning done on my part to go to California for my uncle’s funeral. Everything just fell into place. It was as if someone else was moving the pieces and it kind of had a domino effect. Can’t really explain it but I still cannot fully digest how everything happened. This is when I realized that we barely have any control over our lives. It is the almighty that is holding on to the steering wheel and we are just here for the ride.



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