quarter century elegy
Today marks a quarter century since losing my darling angel beloved maternal uncle to suicide. He sponsored my parents’ immigration. Legal. He is the reason I am an American citizen. He is the reason I am a proud New Yorker. He is the reason I have all I have today. He is the reason I earned not 1, not 2, but 3 degrees, working 4 jobs, in only 5 years. He died when I was 4. They took me to the morgue to see him. I’ll never forget his face. After he died, family said he won’t be forgiven. That he won’t go to Paradise. That he would burn in hell for taking his own life. That the sight of his cold, dead body, hanging off a bathroom shower rod, meant nothing to them, and so it shouldn’t matter to me. They called him a thief and a criminal. Family said this. They shamed, mocked, shunned his mother, my darling angel grandmother, over her grief. To this day, nobody can tell me, why, then, does his grave lie at the feet of her grave? Doesn’t Islam say, “Paradise lies at the feet of your mother”? (Hadith). Yes, Islam does. One of my community leaders, who leads hundreds of faithful believers every night in the recitation of the Qur’an during Ramadan tarawih prayers, called suicide “a bitch move”. “People change”. Live long enough, and you’ll see the truth in the lie. No, they really don’t. I take solace in knowing, if there is a God, and there is a Hell (which I’m not too sure we’re not already in), it will be full of devils like him. I learned to turn the love I once had for flesh and blood into stone cold hatred after he died. Grief. Grief is valid. Grief isn’t temporary. Grief is permanent. Grief is a life sentence. Grief can also be a death sentence. I know. People ask me, how I became depressed. When the panic attacks and anxiety started. This. This is how. I never had a childhood. It didn’t end on 9/11. It ended 01/18/1994. It’s why I was a class clown. It’s why I write, why I make you laugh most of the time, and cry some of the time. This is how I cope now. (I am safe, not suicidal. This is no cry for help. I forced function from grief, taught myself peace. Somewhere along the journey, I adapted, even if God, the universe, friends and family did not.) RIP. Love you forever. Miss you so much Mamoo.
LET ME TELL YOU MORE ABOUT MY UNCLE.
Syed Shamsul Haq was the best-dressed, smartest, kindest, gentlest, most caring, articulate, selfless, hardest-working man anybody who knew him ever had the pleasure, honor and privilege of knowing. He was my darling angel mother’s second-eldest brother. He immigrated to the United States from our native Pakistan in his 20s back in the 1970s for college and graduate school at the University of Texas. He earned an MBA and worked as an accountant. He financed my aunt’s medical studies and raised their son, my best friend/brother/cousin, while pushing her to become board-certified in two specialties. My mom tells me I resemble him somewhat, and have a similar work ethic, orientation towards compassion and justice, and remind her of him more with each passing day. Mamoo lives on through me. In the words of Prophet Jacob, peace be upon him, mine shall remain a beautiful patience, until our reunion in the world beyond this one. My life will be a celebration and salute of his, and I will care for his baby sister just as he wanted. Though we lost him to suicide at a very young age, he is survived by his son, who, despite unspeakable grief, loss and tragedy, has a love for animals that is unmatched by anybody you’ll ever meet. I’m glad I failed when I tried to end mine that awful summer 5.5 years ago. That failure was the greatest success of my life. Since then I have been lucky to speak, write and coach about these topics. Anxiety, depression and ideation are real disease processes, whose basis includes abnormalities of brain chemistry, receptors and hormones, the same kind of malfunction that leads to diabetes. Or any and every other disease we claim as being somehow different from mental illness. I majored in neuroscience and physiology, and although that’s an appeal to authority logical fallacy. I’m trying to eulogize here, so bear with me. I will never rest until suicide stops being a scarlet letter. 25 years is a long time to put up with anything, and I’m tired of not being able to talk about this. Without blowback, criticism, or feigned outrage, like the time I was publicly slandered for not using “trigger warnings”, as if life comes with those, as if it did on the morning of January 18th, 1994. There’s no moral or lesson to be drawn here. Bleed, show your scars, tell your story, and don’t entertain, fear or respond to the peanut gallery. Remember, the boos only come from the cheap seats.
Rest in power, Shams Mamoo. I love you.
Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!
— Henry Scott Holland (1910)
A butterfly lights besides us like a sunbeam, and for a brief moment its glory and beauty belongs to the world, but then it flies once again and though we wish it could have stayed, we feel so lucky to have seen it. — Anonymous/Unknown
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
— Mary Elizabeth Frye (1932)
This story is one of many eulogies in my trilogy of memoirs titled Brown Grass. For this reason, and so many more reasons unspoken and perhaps even unthought of yet, I still struggle to find the right words to articulate the magnitude of this loss. In my work and past lives as a graduate public health student and professional (MPH), mental health advocate, suicide prevention activist, former crisis response hotline volunteer operator, intimate partner violence (IPV) emergency medicine researcher, preacher and motivational public speaker, I learned a few salient, hard, inconvenient, ugly, hairy, monster truths, over and over and over. One of them, what I’ve been living with for exactly 25 years, is this:
Grief is valid. Grief isn’t temporary. Grief is permanent. Grief is a life sentence. Grief can be a death sentence.
That’s why this has been the rawest, most difficult thing for me to ever type. The loss of my uncle to suicide in January 1994, and the decade-long death of my grandmother to grief, advanced dementia, and what I will go to my grave arguing was in fact a broken heart and the loss of her will to live, followed by my grandfather’s sudden demise five years after, comprise a trio from hell. These are the singular events of greatest impact in my life.
“Wait. Not 9/11”? No, not 9/11, and the soon-to-be 18 years since of being scapegoated, otherized, dehumanized, treated like a domestic terrorist, considered suspect for just breathing, public enemy number one or enemy combatant take your pick, being subject to Patriot Act micro-aggressions, being forced into the lead role of unwilling victim of many hate crimes, being intimately acquainted with the TSA’s Feel-You-Up service and then being expected to say thank for being violated, seeing childhood friends and familiar faces entrapped, detained, tortured, deported, and plain disappeared… only to stumble into a nightmare which began 729 days ago today, white supremacy has a new address and it’s called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — or 721 Fifth Avenue, depending on whom you ask — felt like static shock compared to this loss. Ask anybody who’s lost a parent, or their best friend, or is grieving for a lost childhood robbed from them. It’s just not the same.
I have a simple ask here. I want to share my story, because it forms the basis of my upcoming debut book, a memoir titled Brown Grass. I don’t want to pimp anybody’s suffering, especially mine personally, for fame and fortune.
Hence, I decided a long time ago, and will commit it in the future, to first publish Brown Grass here on Medium in its entirety. Because I am amongst the last of a dying breed of unrepentant perfectionists, it still isn’t ready yet. Share this story, only if you believe it’s worth spreading. I myself think it is.
I leave you with wise words I’m trying to implement. Fade to black in 3, 2, 1…:
I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out
in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time. — Jack London’s Credo