Watching my father die

It was a random morning, on a random day when I found my mother in the kitchen, distraught and trying to conceal her tear stained face. She was, and still is, the strongest woman I know. She fixed a brave smile on her face and shielded her two girls from much of the pain and anxiety she was going through due to my father’s illness. My father suffered from melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, and over time this cancer metamorphasized into a tumor in his brain. He began to lose his short and long-term memory, could not comprehend basic things, and at times wasn’t aware of his surroundings.
That morning my dad had taken a tumble and injured his head while praying the pre-sunrise prayer, but had no recollection of what had happened. I walked into my parents’ room and there he was, frail, bruised and confused. My father had been an avid photographer, enthusiastically documenting every school awards ceremony and every first day of classes. He was by far the most gung-ho Al-Ahly (Egyptian Soccer Team) and Miami Heat fan I knew. We were incredibly close; I would always run to him first when distraught at seeing anything less than an A in my report card, and I would sit and listen to him for hours as he recounted his childhood in Egypt.

My father’s upbringing in a liberal household was rooted more in cultural tradition than in religious tenets, but he would tell his daughters with pride how his relationship with Allah strengthened after moving to America. His knowledge and practice of Islam flourished after marrying my mother and settling in the United States. He began to pray daily and enjoyed surfing the web to listen to the different recitations of the Quran. In fact, he was so impressed by Sheikh Muhammad Gibreel of Egypt’s melodious recitation that he connected with the Sheikh and offered to design his website—this hobby sustained my father when he could no longer work because of his declining health. His love for my mother was as deep and admirable as his attachment to his faith. While propped up against the pillows on his bed, drained from the cancer treatments, he would say, with tears in his eyes, how blessed he was to have her by his side. If that wasn’t love, I really don’t know what is.

But as my father’s cancer progressed at a fierce rate, doctor visits, surgeries, chemotherapy, uncertainty, and pain replaced our moments of bonding. Chemotherapy ravaged his body, but never shook his faith in God’s mercy. I walked up to him as he sat on his red computer chair, the same chair that had flipped over and injured him earlier that morning. His body too weak to pray standing up, this red chair was now his support. My protector looked so small and fragile. He seemed bewildered when I gently pressed him about how and when he had fallen, and it took him a few moments to even recognize me, his daughter of 14 years. It was in that moment that it hit me like a block of cement: my father was dying.

A few months later , the doctors who were treating my father for almost two years admitted defeat and reluctantly told us there was nothing further they could do to help him. My parents decided to travel to Cairo to look into a treatment option a close family friend had suggested, while my sister and I stayed behind to finish off the school year. At 14-years-old, I had to adopt the role of my mother for the sake of my sister who was 9 at the time. I would speak to my mother almost daily on the phone, but was never able to hear my father’s voice because he was either in a drug-induced sleep or wrapped up in tubing and machinery that prevented him from speaking. I later found out that towards the end, my father’s cancer had advanced beyond any hope of treatment and that he had fallen into a coma—a sleep from which he would never awaken. A few weeks after my parents had left for Egypt, my mother returned home, exhausted and alone. My best friend passed away.

I will never forget the day my mother tearily told my sister and me that our father had returned to Allah. The pain was sharp and searing. My mind knew better, but my heart felt sure that now that my father had died, the world would also come to end. In that moment, everything I once thought possible became impossible; my idealism and naiveté fell away, and there I stood, a cynical, angry young woman. For years to come, when I experienced some sort of loss or failure, I would use the “this wouldn’t have happened if my father were alive” justification to vent my frustrations.

My faith reached rock bottom because I didn’t know how to navigate through my future without him. Only recently did I find myself tapping into my father’s faith in God, his patience and his perseverance, to help me get through the loss of someone else in my life. Despite my father’s awareness of his nearness to death, despite knowing that he would leave behind a widow and two fatherless daughters, he never once questioned why he was given this challenge. The “Why me?” refrain that had become my life’s motto, was never a self-pitying lamentation that came from his lips.

I have come across many young Muslim women who have lost a parent and are, understandably, in a place of anger, bitterness and depression. If there is one piece of advice I would give to these sisters, it would be to know that if you can arrive at the other side of this incredible pain, perhaps weary and scarred, but with your faith intact, then you will, without a doubt, rise over any trial that comes your way. It may take a long time to heal and the route will likely be an undulating, circuitous one, but slowly your pain will turn into sweet memories of your father or mother and a wellspring of patience and tolerance that only someone who has survived the loss of a parent can possess.
Yasmin Hussein is the Young Leaders Program Coordinator at the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Washington, DC. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Intercultural/Organizational Communication and is currently writing her thesis for her Master’s degree in Intercultural, Cultural and Rhetorical Communication from Florida Atlantic University.

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