And just like that, I remember it all.
At the age of 25, after 6.5 years of marriage, my best friend died with my hand in his. Cancer transported his vitality too quickly into a realm better than life, facilitated by a roomful of angels whose countenances I couldn’t see, but whose warm wings and nur soothed my sore, bloodshot eyes.
He used to call me his “heat seeker,” borrowed from a Talib Kweli Reflection Eternal verse. Ha! Funny. I was anemic, occasionally. I’m cooler blooded anyways, it’s in my chi. When we slept together I hated wearing socks, but my toes were always cold. From my side of the bed I placed my feet on his back for as long as it took for my toes to became warm. He (almost) never minded. He always shared his warmth, his love radiating from within.
Hospitals are frigid environments, designed to keep germs from repopulating with warm blankets in constant rotation. As I fought sleep and frustration, I kept friends and family updated via Facebook, text and email, my fingers cold as ice, laboring on the keyboard.
I wasn’t going to go to the hospital that day. I was drained. Devoid of damn near everything. I had spent time at a gathering of kindred ones but it only dramatically heightened my stress. After weeks of sleeplessness, I needed to rest.
But, my mother drove near the hospital on our way home. I gave a real gritty reason as to why I didn’t want to be in the hospital again. She kept driving closer. She encouraged me to “be there for him.” Ramadan was in full effect and I hadn’t been able to fast given the toxic stress on my body. As he withered away, so did I.
Her words pricked my conscience, my heart, my emotions. Once again, I geared up for the role of caretaker. I didn’t know then that it would be for the final time. I went up the elevator on auto-pilot. We all knew it was a matter of days – or hours.
His breath labored in and out slowly, chest heaving. I found myself panicking listening to his breathing. In my mind I encouraged him to “fight and breathe!” but knew that’s not what he wanted at this point.
A millisecond later I was in awe and in humbled surrender as the human body before me respired for the last five times. We, my brother Musa and I, recited surahs during that transition. As years go by, some details, probably for my own protection, have just been completely forgotten. They may come back one day. Some have. Allahu ’alim. But, seriously do I even want that?
My fingers were freezing. His body still warm. I placed my hands on his once strong arms a few minutes after he was gone, and sought the last of his fading heat to take into my core.
Inna ilayhi wa inna ilahi rajiun: from God we come and to God we return.
On the anniversary of his death yesterday, I woke up at the same time as his passing. I just couldn’t sleep.
I like to live in the present as much as possible. Even my children prefer now and tomorrow over images of yesterday, of the man they can never see again while they breathe in this realm. (Though of course they do look at photos and videos occasionally.) Our story is different, my reality is MY truth. My words aren’t dusted in sugar, more like organic molasses and apple cider vinegar. Sinuous, slow, thick. and hard to swallow.
I can only be thankful that time has gone by. Sometimes it feels like all that must have happened a decade ago. Other times, I can’t even believe it happened to me at all, as if this life with children on my own has always been my existence. In the past three years, recalling his death no longer feels like it was just yesterday. Thank God for healing my gaping wounds with His merciful gift of time, love, and patience.
There are so many things that can be said, yet so many things that must be simply felt, understood and done. We don’t live for public approval, pity or accolades for our strength and resilience. We live because we have to: it is our birthright and a gift that shall not be squandered.
I used to feel compelled to make these public statements, throw dinner or birthday parties, iftars, gatherings to celebrate, cling, honor, and vent with grieving familiar souls about how we’ve coped, to remember his best soccer moves, our most hilarious moments, how well he cooked, the wise things he said, how he made us laugh…
Eventually, I just grew tired of it. It was a benevolent charade, a beautiful, well-intentioned one but an act nonetheless. I was carrying a burnt-out torch across the stands and waving it. That weighed me down. I was tired of living it for everyone else.
I wanted time for my children and me to just BE in this new existence without added pressure and pity. To not have to be reminded every…single…year…that we have to do *insert any activity that he can’t partake in anymore*.
Lately, I rarely tell people I am widowed. Not because I can’t handle their responses, but to save others from the intense emotion they feel in knowing our tragic truth. At times I have even wanted to be free from the black cape of a widowed warrior. Or at least to make it selectively invisible. I’m not asking to be stripped of the title, but to exist more like a “has been” with it. Get it? LOL <——-Cause I can laugh about it.
After so many years I want the focus to be on what he asked me to do: keep moving forward. Retain the legacy, yes, because we bore children together in love, to keep on propagating life. Holding on to, clinging onto, and suffocating in the sadness, tragedy, and cancer trauma surrounding his last 5 or 6 years and especially those last 11 months was eating me alive.
We had put up a great unified front for the world. We didn’t tell most people of the metastasizing gall bladder cancer diagnosis until a few months after we’d found out. Knowing that we had to build up our strength to heal and continue, but also to combat the instinctive yet oppressive sadness and heavy pain of others.
It’s a reality, we all grieve in different ways.
I look at my children today knowing that they are enduring something that is still foreign to me; fatherlessness. Not being able to ask daddy for homework help, to be comforted by his presence when frightened, if they can eat a second snack because mommy said no, jump on daddy’s back together, or just talk to him. It is a privilege that is not afforded to them anymore. They cope by double timing me (LOL). Widowed Motherhood hasn’t been easy by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly is rewarding and a journey.
I’m grateful to have shared with them the good, raw, bad, ugly, beautiful and eye-opening parts of this journey. They’ve seen and heard me doubled over, wailing on the prayer rug many days and nights and I’ve felt no shame in them witnessing my humanity. I’ve seen them act out with anger, frustration and sadness over seemingly banal things to the untrained or non-grieving eye. We’ve literally grown up together through our journey of coping and lessening grief – with more maturity to achieve, inshAllah.
This wasn’t designed to be some ultimate, absolute widow’s truth, or a newfound mantra on living life after death. It was simply me sharing a glimpse of my story, my life, our reality. September 8th and the 8th Day of Ramadan are synonymous with death, re-birth, life, renewal of love, faith and strength.
Life carries on and so shall we. May God make our paths full of light, clarity, peace, love, resolve, joy, faith and fortification.
adieu. salaam. adios.
Cross-posted by permission. Original post on author’s Tumblr, here.
Writer, mentor and artist Na’aisha Austin was born in Saint Louis, Missouri. Raised in a creative environment, she had a panache for the arts and literature from an early age. Na’aisha’s poetry has been published in literary magazines, journals, and in Azizah Magazine; her photography in Hycide Magazine, Elegant Cloth and the PBS documentary New Muslim Cool companion book islamerica.
In her free time she enjoys attending concerts, yoga, painting, dj’ing, giving back to her alma mater Agnes Scott College and raising her two wonderful children in Atlanta. Na’aisha also works as prenatal, LDR and postpartum recovery doula in her doula/concierge company Malika Maternity. She is planning to release her first two books – a non-fiction compilation on the diversity of American Muslim women and a compendium of poetry – later in 2014.