Of Shamshad Ashraf, by his niece.
It’s 2:19 am. I suck at a lot of things these days, including writing. I haven’t written in ages and especially not this late. But this one’s for Abu.
No, not my Dad. “Abu” is who we called my Dad’s oldest brother, Dr. Shamshad Ashraf. His kids called him that, Abu, and it just stuck with us cousins too, our whole lives. He just passed away. It feels strange to talk of him in a past tense.
Perhaps it’s fitting we called him Abu (“called”?). Both of my grandfathers passed away in 1978. As a result, other elder men sometimes seemed to take their place. On my Mum’s side, it was her oldest brother in Patna, India, as well as my Mum’s uncle in Saline, MI, who seemed to fill that role; indeed, we called him Naana. But even they are both long gone, sadly. On my Dad’s side, I think that role of grandfather was filled by Abu. Even though he was our uncle, he was the oldest brother and most certainly the patriarch of the family for decades.
I was scared of Abu as a kid and intimidated by him, as were many. But I’ll choose to remember him by his laugh and smile. He could express exuberant joy quite often, and had a great and tremendous laugh. My Dad shares much of his voice, especially on the phone. And many have shared stories of his caring side, of his tough love.
Abu was (“was”?) a doctor, as is his wife, who for some reason we all call Auntie. That’s it, Auntie. You say Auntie in our family, we all know which one right away. Abu and Auntie. Two doctors, settled in Britain long ago. It’s because of Abu that my father moved to the UK all those years ago, around in 1972.
I recently moved back home, and I learned this story soon after: my Dad told me that he was actually on his way to Toronto at that time, back in ‘72. He had a job lined up in Canada, and he was on his way and had a layover at Heathrow. Abu met him there, phoned up my Daada - their father - didn’t even put my Dad on the phone, and Abu and Daada agreed that my Dad should just stay with Abu in London. And that’s exactly what happened. I was floored. It took 29.5 years for me to find out this story; that my Dad was supposed to have moved to Canada, not to England! This whole time I thought the move to England had been planned; it was actually Abu’s antics that had my Dad move to the UK.
And so, we owe a lot to Abu. It’s because of him that my Dad, and in turn, my Mum, after my parents got married, settled in the UK, and where me and my older siblings were born and raised, until we moved to yet another country, the United States.
I remember the house in Wales very well, even though I haven’t seen it since 2003. Where Abu and Auntie raised their kids, and where we lived for a short time as well, after a failed experiment of living in Bahrain for a few months back in ‘92. Yes, in my immediate family, we’re all migrants, multiple times over.
I last saw Abu in September 2014, when I went back to the UK finally, after 7 years since I had lived there in ‘06–’07 for a year during undergrad. I stayed at Abu and Auntie’s house in Birmingham for some days during that September, where they had moved to some years ago from Wales, in order to be closer to their kids and grandkids. Fortunately, my parents also just went to the UK a few months ago, for a wedding. By then Abu had been diagnosed with cancer. In the last three weeks things took a sharp, sharp turn for the worse.
I think we all knew what was coming. There was word this past weekend, that Abu “ki tahbet bohut kharab hai”. Abu is feeling very sick; a typical Urdu understatement. I was told that my cousin, his son, was spending his nights at the hospital, and you just know right away what that means. I’m guessing that Abu was (“was”?) in his mid-eighties at his time of passing, a few short hours ago. As I told my Mum, zindagi aati hai, zindagi jaati hai. Life comes, and goes. As just the day before, our house had been filled with the sounds of little ones, of the next generation.
Every. Single. Time. As an immigrant, or as the child of immigrants, and I am both, you know right away. There’s a sixth sense you have; the phone rings late at night, you get goosebumps, your eyes get focused and narrow. Inna lillahi wa inna ilahi rajiun. The house phone rang; my Dad picked it up downstairs. For the past few previous minutes I had been messing around on my phone and texting friends. Then the phone rang and I stopped, wondering who was phoning the house so late. Then my phone rang. It was my brother, and I knew why — I was told that Abu had passed away an hour ago, and to wake up my Mum and to tell her, and to go talk to Dad and make sure he’s okay.
One of the other things I’ve really sucked at is praying. For the past year or so. Prayer has just left me. I finally started to get more of a handle on it again, then my period hit, of course. And so I’ve kept a tasbeeh near my bed, as a reminder for me to keep making dua for graduate film school. I did this earlier this night; I made that dua, then I kept going, and made this dua that I’ve been doing for at least a decade: Oh Allah, please make our time easy in the grave. For those already in the grave, please make their time easy. May we all be ready when our time comes, and when the time for others come.
As in, may we all be prepared to meet God when our time of death arrives, and may we also be emotionally ready when death arrives to those we know.
An hour later after this dua, my brother told me that Abu had passed away an hour ago. I wonder if it was during the time that I had made that dua.
That happens, you know. I’m sure we all have a story like that. Someone we know passes away, and at that exact time, we happen to know that something is up, or we note the time in some way. When I was in high school, a friend of mine died in a car crash. I remember watching TV, and then looking at the clock, and really noting the time, studying it, connecting with that moment. Time had frozen inside of me. It turned out, that it was the same time of when the truck hit my friend’s car in Ann Arbor, killing her instantly, but fate saving her mother beside her.
My Mum has a similar story. When the first of her siblings passed away, all the way back in 1990 I believe, she told me that she had gotten up achanat seh in the middle of the night, and a cold sweat broke out, as she looked at the clock. She knew something was awfully wrong. And so it was in that moment, she found out soon after, that her dear brother had passed away in India.
Many people don’t think of Islam in this way, but I do. Of how a lot of Islam is about the unseen, of the mystical. For example, we cannot hear or see God. Ever. Not in this life. Or His angels. Or the jinn. Or heaven and hell, not in this life. But as Muslims, our faith develops and we believe in all of these unseen things. Unseen forces. The unseen I think comes into play in matters like death, which is why we can connect with the moment or time of someone’s passing.
It has been difficult to live with my parents again. Much harder than I expected. I have always had issues with my Dad, but these past few weeks, have been some of the worst times in our father-daughter relationship, I’m sad to say. How wise, is God though? Infinitely. I’ve been venting to friends, trying to figure out what I can do to make things better between me and my family, how to repair these relations or at least, not fight as much. And then, just earlier today, my Mum suggested we all go on Umrah, what’s known as the lesser pilgrimage.
I told her, you’ve both already done Hajj, why go on Umrah too, now? How will you get around, you both can’t walk far at all. You want to go in Ramadan? Mum, the crowds. The insane crowds at that time. And the heat. It will be June, in the desert!
She told me, it would be good to go on Umrah, regardless, especially in Ramadan. And for me to come with them. I told her, I would fight with them too much. She told me, no one is allowed to argue during the sacred pilgrimages. This, I already know. And it made me think. Even though I deeply hate the Saudi government, one can arrange Umrah without a ridiculous package deal; just get visas and book a flight, my Mum said. And I thought, maybe, just maybe, if we decided to go through with this, this would give me a better connection with my parents, because after all, I’d be pushing their wheelchairs in Mecca and Medina, and also would be forced to be patient and to cut all of my anger off, in order to focus on the Divine. Which I’ve also really failed at for a while. Focusing on the Divine.
And then Abu passed away just a few hours later. Even though my Dad seems fine, and of course I think my Mum is more sad than him, I know, that this is a time for me to be supportive. To listen. To not complain. To consider their needs, his needs, over mine. I write this here, hopefully to be more accountable to myself. Perhaps God in His infinite wisdom, had me move back home at this time, for this reason. Not that my parents really need me around, I think, but maybe my presence, and a more pleasant one at that, will be of some use along the way, somehow.
I shake my knees sometimes when I sit. Abu was infamous for doing that. My Dad does it too, and says my Daada used to do it as well. My brothers didn’t pick up the habit. As my parents and I sat in the living room after learning of Abu’s passing, the phone ringing with call after call, relatives awake in the early hours all around the world, I was wiggling my knees, hands under my shins. Just like Abu. Like I have for ages, without even thinking. It really unnerved my Mum this time, much more than before. And I know why. Because it made her think of in memoriam.
Duas, please. 3:27 am.