In the few weeks before my father was diagnosed with advanced-stage primary live cancer, I remember my first realization that something was wrong. The nature of primary liver cancer is that it progresses silently with little or no symptoms for years. The liver is tucked away deep inside one’s body, enveloped by several layers that serve as buffers between the tumor’s signs and any physical realization that something very deadly is going on. As such, his disease came as a total shock to everyone who had ever known him – a man who had never suffered even a minor illness, now faced with a life-threatening situation.
It was precisely his seemingly superb health that made otherwise simple matters alarming. During a weekday in March, on a day I had come home early from work, I went to pray in our prayer room, or musalla. Our prayer room served as a guest room as well and there is, accordingly, a bed in there. I noticed my father sleeping there that afternoon and was a bit puzzled, though distracted by my prayer obligation. As I finished praying, though, I remember turning around and looking at my father’s sleeping body and feeling profoundly disturbed, a feeling of dread beginning to gnaw inside. I quieted my fears, though, telling myself that perhaps he was just getting older and needed to rest. But my rationalization wasn’t very convincing, as the one thing I and everyone who had ever lived with my father knew was that he was a man of superhuman endurance. He barely slept at night, much less in the daytime. This was no simple case of a 55-year-old man coming home to take a nap. It was, in fact, a reflection of total exhaustion overcoming a million running thoughts and an endless list of “to-dos”, including places to go, people to talk to, projects to run, and charities to support. Every day of his life was equivalent to almost a week’s worth of an average person’s life, so a few hours sleeping in the day for him meant a loss of a good 24-hours-of-an-average-man’s work. Perhaps you may think that this is a colored memory, a hyperbole that helps me venerate him. But you think that only because you never met him.
A hafiz since his early teens, my father rose every day at fajr to pray the dawn prayer and spend an hour reciting the Qur’an. He liked to sit outside by the pool and watch the sun rise as he greeted it with his recitation. It was the only time during the day when he was doing just one thing at a time, rather than numerous intersecting tasks. Soon after he completed his recitation, he took a moment for breakfast and then went about organizing the kitchen, taking care of any cleaning he hadn’t completed the night before. Then he would shower, get ready for work, and before heading to his office he would go out of his way to take my brother to school. During the ride he would have my brother, just as he had done with each of us when he took us to school, recite the chapters of the Qur’an my father had helped him memorize. After the recitation, my father would introduce new verses, and each day’s ride to school helped build upon the prior day’s knowledge.
Only after my brother had been dropped off did the real work of the day begin. Aside from running two engineering firms, one of which dealt with multi-million dollar design projects throughout South Florida, my father also designed several mosques, financed a number of prominent Islamic projects, and helped a large but unknown number of families with their financial woes. His assistance ranged from interest-free loans to land trust agreements, the intention always being to help people get on their feet, own homes, and live full lives. Because he went out of his way in offering a helping hand and never turning away anyone who came seeking help, he was inevitably respected as a man of tremendous generosity and wisdom. Indeed, he didn’t just provide financial help but also offered his advice and assistance, whether it be helping people complete immigration or other legal forms or helping individuals set up and prosper in their own businesses. Somehow, his energy and time were forever expandable, and his patience resilient.
And after 8-10 hours working on all of these projects on any given day, he would come home and help clean the house, often doing his own laundry, helping clean up after dinner, and then spending the later hours of the evening either discussing household matters with my mom or making some calls and preparing documents for the various charitable projects on his plate.
Some might call my father a workaholic. That is certainly the accepted social term for someone who enjoys being productive and prefers it over relaxing and doing “nothing.” Indeed, he enjoyed his work and spent most of his life working. However, the variability of his work, ranging from professional engineering matters to faith-based initiatives to pure social networking, community service, and interpersonal counseling, gave his work so much meaning and personality that anyone can understand why he loved his work so much.
There were of course times when my family and I missed him, wishing he were less busy and more able and willing to participate in pure silliness. We were a world-traveling family, visiting a new country every summer. Our hallway wall is a testament to these travels, featuring pictures from the Taj Mahal, the Alhambra, the Tower of Pisa, and many other important landmarks. And of course, living the tradition that my father embodied, we all were involved in a multitude of our own activities, always thinking and doing and achieving. Still, in those times and in the time since his passing, I think we all wished there had been more carefree bantering, the type that transpired at the dinner table during many evenings. Maybe it would have been better if he was more interested in watching TV or going to the movies with us. In contemplating on his tradition of work – both the tremendous achievements and the gaps in between – I can see clearly how best to apply his example without forgetting the potential pitfalls.
Read the first entry to Traditions: A Series.