My father’s traditions

As a parent of two, and a full time lawyer and editor of this site, life is often a blur for me. Further weighing down on me are memories of my father–the epitome of busy-ness, who accomplished more in a day than many do in a lifetime. He left a legacy of tremendous accomplishment, with “accomplishment” defined not just in self-serving terms, but also – primarily – in giving back to the community, and living a life of gratitude and submission to God. And, somewhere in all of that, to also be a dad.

That’s the legacy I have to fulfill. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, especially on days when things get a little too crazy, or when the craziness interferes with my parenting.

In thinking about it, I recall a series I drafted several years ago. The series is called ‘Traditions’ – my father’s traditions. Lessons to me as I grow into a role akin to his. I will share these traditions here over the course of the next few weeks. And maybe at the end of it, I can pick up where I left off…writing about not just what my dad did, but also how his example is reflected in what I do now.

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Traditions: A Series

I am 27 and my childhood is not very distant. Still, the contours of my life have changed so dramatically in the past decade that it sometimes feel as if more time has passed; both the tragic and the ecstatic elements have imbued my life with so much depth that in thickness, though not in length, my life has been full.

I don’t like speaking of all such tragedies, or even all of the determinative ecstatic elements of my life. The morsels of true happiness are worth protecting, especially from the evil eye. As for the tragedies, some are uncomfortable to conjure up, and they exist only as unmentionables. Things that are but never were; things that once were but no longer are. Somewhere between now and then they have gotten lost in the folds of time and memory, intentionally so, since they signal discomfort, negativity, and perhaps even failure.

But the tragedies that I do think and speak of are no less difficult; they are just more relatable, “normal,” and perhaps reflect my personal strength in a way I feel comfortable celebrating. I think we all filter our memories in ways that help manufacture a personality and a reputation that we’re comfortable seeing and being seen as.

Of the tragedies that I can speak of, like that of my father’s seemingly sudden death from liver cancer, I can speak of only some parts and not others. From the perspective of an external observer, I can speak of his struggle and personal resilience. I can talk about the story of the man he once was, the man he continues to be through his inspiring example. I can even speak about, perhaps even obsess about, the madness that ensued soon after he passed away – the practical realities of having the breadwinner, the stalwart guide, the symbol of piety and calmness disappear into the total chaos engendered by his absence.

But it’s a bit more difficult to articulate the thoughts that run between this warm fuzziness. There are endless crevices in this landscape of memories and mourning. From the crevices ooze regret, fear, confusion, disbelief, and a number of other states of being with which I’ve become acquainted only through my dreams. In my dreams, I see him in a moment when we were equipped with knowledge of what was and what was about to happen. It was an omniscience possible only in dreams; an omniscient supernaturalism that allowed me to know but not despair. In that absence of despair, I am able to concoct new possibilities, new clinical interventions, mixed with that greater likelihood of momentous victory that, too, is often only possible in dreams. In my dreams, he survives. And I stand in the sidelines, observant, amazed, yet aware even in my dream what it feels like to live the reality outside of that dream.

Similarly, my waking reality is influenced by my dream existence. The tragedy and the suffering aren’t just unanalyzed emotions, clichés taught by society and absorbed complacently by me and my very human experience. Dreams make the grief palpable, infuse it with meaning, and sculpt it into something that elevates me as a human being.

I often mine my dream experiences, desperately in search for not just semi-real glimpses of my father, but also for the essence of his example. It reminds me of when I stood outside his hospital room moments after he had passed away. In stepping away from his deathbed and out into the brightly lit hallway, bustling with mourners pouring in and down the hall, I had felt a separation. My brother was weeping silently, calmly, and he said quite resolutely, “Abu, I won’t ever forget you.” He repeated the statement several times, murmuring to himself, trying to both make sense of and push away the grief that was suffocating him. He was right. The greatest peril of my father’s passing is the possibility of our forgetting him. My father’s 25-hour days and superhuman faith, his mannerisms, appearance, actions, words, and weaknesses – the traditions that he represented and for which we, too, stand. In stepping out into that hallway mere moments after his passing, I was already scrambling to revive him – not remember him, in the way memories distort – but to conceptualize him as he had been when he had existed in the here and now, as if he still existed in that realm.

In recounting the traditions he lived by and, through his example, taught us, I am reminded of a recent book I read by Ralph Nader: The Seventeen Traditions. “From listening to learning, from patriotism to argument, from work to simple enjoyment, Nader revisits seventeen key traditions he absorbed from his parents, his siblings, and the people in his community, and draws from them inspiring lessons for today’s society.” He calls these principles “traditions”, as they were meant to be passed on through the generations and to inform and shape his and his siblings lives intrinsically and meaningfully. I’m not sure that I am interested in recounting the traditions for the sake of social reform, as I am no Nader-like activist. But I am a thinker and self-reformer, someone who appreciates critical thinking for the purpose of self-enlightenment. In revisiting the traditions that informed my childhood, I am analyzing the inward, wanting to hold onto the traditions at a young age when I feel like parental traditions should still be in the making, rather than merely a matter of reminiscence.

I want to resurrect my father’s teachings and reinterpret them as time goes on, sort of but not really like the way Muslims and other religious folk approach their sacred texts. He was not infallible, but there’s something deeply true about what he taught us. In subsequent blog posts, I want to begin the search for that truth.

First published on Wednesday, December 12, 2007

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