This is Day 20 of Altmuslim’s #30Days30Writers series for Ramadan 2015.
What was the last thing you said to someone you love?
The worst thing you ever told another human being?
What do you wish you could say that you never have?
I’ve always struggled to connect with people who come from more innocent backgrounds than I did. I have no idea how to sympathize with those who have no concept of family or romantic relationships built on violence, manipulation or substance abuse. When Muslims talk about happily “submitting” to God, I want to snap at them, ask if they know what real submission feels like.
If you grew up seeing the world as wholly good and safe, having complete faith comes easy. If you know what it is to struggle with addiction or the after-effects of abuse, the concept of submission is terrifying. Submitting to me means relinquishing control, which is something I adamantly refused to do. Most people don’t change until a catalyst takes place that forces them to change. And that was true the day my childhood sweetheart called to tell me he was dying.
“S” was the boy whose initials I drew in the margins of my diary, each of us “liking” the other before there was ever such a thing as dating; when a boy holding a girl’s hand was the pre-teen equivalent of “going out.” With spiked hair and a penchant for white t-shirts, to me he resembled River Phoenix in the film Stand by Me. My mother’s rule was we were free to sit on the front steps and talk after dinner, but “S” had to return home before the streetlights came on.
Over the past seventeen years we chose different paths but still found ways to connect. A few months before Ramadan, “S” messaged me through Facebook. On that day he was reaching out not to talk about a new job or to celebrate the birth of a child, but to inform me he had been diagnosed with brain cancer and had started aggressive chemotherapy, which would be followed by invasive surgery six months after. “S” had decided to tell me because he could no longer hide the fact he was sick, and the doctors ultimately didn’t know what the prognosis would be.
As time progressed his sandy hair started to fall out, leaving him completely bald. Where he was once muscled and strong, he became pale and weak, skin hanging loose on his arms and stomach. During late nights I would message him, asking if he was in pain. Sometimes he said the pain was only a three or four and not to worry; on really bad nights he admitted it was an eight or a nine. Vomiting was common. So was dizziness.
Once during a conversation that left me in tears, “S” admitted he was starting to forget things. He then asked me worriedly: “How did we meet? I can’t remember how we met. I used to know…” and I choked back sobs, soothing him with mundane details of the summer we had met.
That same night he gently reassured me: “I’m not afraid Leanne, I’m ready for whatever happens to me. I have no bad days anymore, only good days. I will always love you.” Hearing the peace in his voice reminded me of texts I’ve received from friends embarking on Hajj or Umrah: I’m sorry, please forgive me, whatever wrongs I have done to you.
For Ramadan I wanted to do something deeply difficult for me, a person who hates to look vulnerable; the potential to appear weak — sometimes a cynical person with a harsh public personality. I decided I would write 30 letters of apology to 30 people for 30 days of Ramadan.
We all remember as children our parents dragging us over to a mess we had caused, them demanding “Say you’re sorry!” our tiny selves pouting, kicking dirt, mumbling the word “sorry” with no emotion at all. This time I would say I was sorry without prompting. Each apology written in full sincerity, knowing there was a good chance they wouldn’t be accepted. The purpose of sending the letters was only to make things right. Knowing that it shouldn’t take cancer or dying for us to be our best selves with each other.
And I began.
“I’m sorry I was jealous of you when…”
“I’m sorry I insulted you…”
“I wanted to tell you how proud I was when….”
Please forgive me.
Please accept this apology.
I would like to make things right.
It’s now past the halfway point of Ramadan, and all of my words have been scattered through the U.S. mail. Some letters got me delighted phone calls in return, others stiff email acknowledgments of receipt. Some only silence. I am not disappointed with any of the outcomes, because like “S” told me, learning to say all the things you’d wish you’d said leads you to no bad days, only good days. Inshallah, I will create only good days.
Author’s Note: At the time of this writing, “S” has completed all chemotherapy, surgery and further treatment. Doctors have deemed him 100% cancer free.
The writer works for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health in the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services and is working on her Master’s degree from Salem State University in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Her recent publications can be seen in Patheos, Coming of Faith, Muslim Girl and Alt Muslimah. She was the only Muslim in her family, but no longer identifies with the faith.