My husband and I just returned from a wake for the father of my husband’s best friend. The man who passed away had lived a long and full life, but had declined rapidly over the last two years, finally succumbing to a heart attack. He lingered for a while on life support, and after the family made the painful decision to cease all supportive interventions, he lived a few days longer, passing from this world on Thursday. My husband did the honor of preparing his body for burial and helping the family coordinate the funeral. The ceremony today was a final chance for the many friends of the family to pay their respects.
I don’t do well at emotionally draining ceremonies like this; the grief that wells up stays with me for days and it takes time for me to get back to myself. But I wanted to go, to pay my respects, to hug my friend who had lost her father-in-law, to comfort her kids who had lost their grandfather, to give words of respect to a woman who had lost her husband. My husband and I arrived and went inside and I made the rounds, trying to stay on top of the wave of grief and keep my words hopeful. I chatted with friends I hadn’t seen in a while, but spent most of my time talking to my friend’s daughter, who was all mixed up with grief and confusion and anger. I managed to maintain my composure most of the time and didn’t have to resort to one of the boxes of tissue scattered around the room.
The Imaam of our masjid gave a short but lovely talk about death and how our lives here are a gift from Allah, how our time is borrowed and we have to understand that Allah will return for what he allowed us to have for a while, the practical reality of “inna lilahi wa inna ilahi rajiuun”. “Indeed, we belong to Allah, and to Him is the return.” His Qur’an recitation was soothing and beautiful, his translation kind and comprehensive for the non-Muslim visitors.
The best and truest words were spoken not by the Imaam, however, but by my friend Cathy, the daughter-in-law of the deceased. She sprinkled her eulogy with bits of humor, recalling her father-in-law’s love of spoiling her kids and taking them all the time to the dollar store. She touched briefly on the fact of his last illness, and I called to mind all the times her husband had called mine to tell him that his father had fallen, his father had had a spell, his father was back in the hospital, had been moved to rehab, was on life support, was slipping away. He had many visitors at the hospital and his family attended him faithfully, but the pain of the last years and months and days of his life were a heavy burden that threatened to overshadow the long history of his full and active life. Cathy realized that, and she called on everyone to bear in mind that the last two years were “just a smudge on a life well-lived and well-loved”.
Those words struck me to the heart, and woke me up to the fact that we cannot let present pain overshadow the joy of having had a loved one in our life. Death is a reality that will come to all of us; if we get stuck in obsessing over the manner of our loved one’s death, we do a disservice to the fullness of his life. What a powerful lesson in those few words. The best way we can honor his memory is to remember the whole of his life, not just the last few years of illness and decline. Said Shalaby was more than a hospital patient. He was a Muslim, a man, an engineer, a husband, father, grandfather, father-in-law, friend, entrepreneur, pillar of the community, and so much more. I didn’t know him well, but I know that those around him loved him, and that tells me more about him that some hospital chart or an obituary in a newspaper, the smudge on a life well-lived and well-loved.