Two years ago today my mother died after a difficult yearlong struggle with cancer. It was a strange year, a difficult year. What struck me most was that time became very different, as if we, her loved ones, slipped behind a curtain to some other place. A place where time was measured by pain and medication, drops of liquid passing through an IV, her sleep and waking moments, the shuffling of nurses feet, the sound of a cough meaning an infection, the success and failures of her treatments, and the precious words and touches we shared.
I dreamed a lot, she dreamed a lot. Sometimes our dreams seemed more real than our waking moments. Sometimes the moments of sitting and waiting beside her bed for her to wake felt like dreaming too. Like cotton being pulled apart. I remember one day, towards the end when she was awake very little, morphine sleeping, I was sitting at her feet, and holding them. I used to give her foot massages. Holding her feet, I knew somehow when I held them this time, that it could be the last time I ever held them alive. Her feet seemed so remarkable to me in that moment, the skin taunt over bones, the sweaty coldness of their touch, the ten toes extended from flesh. They seemed strange, and my mother seemed unlike my mother, alien to me. A being so unusual and beautiful. And I thought looking at those feet lying on her white sheet, that this is what death looks like. It looks like the unremarkable, like a moment that suddenly isn’t. Alhamdullillah. There is something very extraordinary about being with a loved one, a mother, through their sickness and dying. I thank God for her as well as that experience every day.
My brother told a beautiful story about my mother at her funeral. He had recalled a day he had been driving her to Uppsala for her treatment. She had been looking out the window, and suddenly asked my brother what animal he would be if he could choose. He laughed at what he thought was the oddness of the question and said he didn’t know, what would she want to be? She looked out at the farmland to the side of the freeway and said “a cow.” My brother laughed at this. Why a cow of all things? She said because their life seemed easy and they didn’t have much to worry about. I guess she forgot that many of them get slaughtered and was only thinking of them through her window, standing around eating grass, while she, sitting in the car, was on her way to the hospital. My brother asked why not a bird instead? She thought this was a bizarre suggestion and surely gave him a look. My brother recalled this conversation at her funeral, and he said, “The thing is she was a bird.” She was our brazen bird. Vibrant, soaring, taking risks, vivid, and she somehow knew that the wind would always catch her. She did not live easily but Subhanallah, she had faith.