Monday, 25 July 2011

Building a bridge

Around 12 years ago, at the time of my first marriage, my mum called me late one night to say “you can’t get married, your Grandfather may have cancer!”. That was the height of the sentence, and the subsequent conversation! Now, any outsider looking at this would clearly see it for what it was, i.e., emotional blackmail! However, for me, as an only child, an 18-year-old with a small family and little worldly wisdom, it shook me to the core! I went ahead with the marriage, all be it with a great deal of guilt on my shoulders. There was no wedding party, no celebrations, in fact I spent the 6 days proceeding my marriage in floods of tears! I’d got it in to my head that my Granddad had cancer, was critically ill and that somehow, this was inextricably linked to my marriage: I’d not listened, I’d gone ahead and so his ultimate death would be exclusively my own fault!
Of course, he did not have cancer mashallah, and all lived to recount the tale! However remnants from that painful period in my adult history still haunt us all! 5 years later, while working in Pakistan, mum called me again, late one night. This time, it was to tell me that my Grandmother was in the hospital. I offered to come home, but mum insisted that it was not serious! I stayed where I was, mainly because I had neither money for a flight, nor leave to take from my job in Karachi! Yet every night I lay awake, listening for the telephone and being overcome by nightmares involving the deaths of my closest family members! Only when I returned home permanently a year later, did I learn just how serious my Grandmother’s illness was. She was in the intensive care and the family were called for on 2 occasions, as doctors believed she was breathing her last! Had she left this world back then, I would never have had the chance to say goodbye, never had the chance to do my duty by her. It was hard to forgive my mum for not sharing this knowledge, however I understood that she too felt guilty for the lies she had loaded upon me, all those years ago!
Last year, when I went to Azerbaijan to meet Reza for the first time, I learned that my Granddad was in hospital, just as I landed back in to Heathrow! Doctors were running tests on him, and we did not know exactly what was going on. My Grandparents had not known I was out of the country (they have the idea that blind people can’t travel and so, whenever I’m overseas, we have to tell them I’ve got work in London, or else they plague mum with late night phone calls filled with dread!). While there was some debate over why I’d not been to the hospital sooner, every one was happy to have me there and I was able to take over and relieve some of the pressure from my mum.
Why am I recounting all this you may ask? Well; one of my aunts on my father’s side past away 2 weeks ago, and her funeral was last Tuesday. SR Masooma had also been talking about the death of a loved one on her blog, which meant that these subjects were at the forefront of my mind. The day after my aunt’s funeral, my Grandmother went in to hospital for a hip replacement operation. This is a fairly straight-forward surgical procedure in most cases, however, if you are 81, diabetic, visually/hearing impaired with multiple ulcers and IBS, it becomes rather more complex!
The surgery went well, but in the subsequent 5 days, she has taken a reaction to the morphine, (which had me running to the hospital at 3 AM to try and calm her down and stop her hurting herself!), severe blood loss and a sky-high blood sugar level!
She is undergoing tests to try and determine the cause of the blood loss, which have revealed nothing thus far! Every day I watch her deteriorating, and feel a painful sense of foreboding deep in my stomach!
Losing a loved one is painful, and although my Grandparents are not dead, the process of losing them began a long time ago!
During my childhood, my maternal Grandparents largely brought me up! My mum started working and did not have time for me. My parents had all kinds of emotional/marital problems of their own, so it was in my Grandparents home that I enjoyed the real stuff of childhood: baking, planting flowers, daytrips to the seaside, lunch out; picnics, songs, stories and so much more! As their only Grandchild, they poured allot of love in to me. When I was sick, they took me to hospital, They did every thing they could to satisfy my childish desires; my Granddad even took me along to Indian dress shops to buy me bangles and ornaments when I began studying Hindi! They were also responsible for my religious education; and perhaps this is why I lost them, or rather, the reason for the severity of the loss!
My Grandfather was a religious scholar, and often took me along to his lectures and bible studies. My Grandparents belong to a little known Christian cult (The Plymouth Brethren), so its understandable that aspects of their doctrine did not make sense to me! However even in my early teens, I had begun to realise I had questions that Christianity could not answer, spiritual gaps in my world that the religion of my birth couldn’t come close to addressing.
The journey to Islam was slow and gradual, yet the absorption in to the faith was immediate, instantaneous and complete, hence the depth of shock experienced by my family. They could not accept my life changes and their rejection was as extreme as my own lifestyle change!
2 years, 4 years, 15 years went by; and some things have changed in that time. My parents, though unhappy, do accept the fact that I’m a Muslim; and that is not likely to change! They prepare halal/vegetarian food for me when I visit, and even buy Halal Turkey at Christmas! They greet me on eid and though they would never attend a mosque, have attended Muslim weddings or programmes in the homes of my close Muslim friends. Last year, my dad walked out with me in hijab for the very first time, something I know was a massive step for him. His family never talk about my Islam; it is the elephant in the room; and I don’t really know what they think; whether they expect me to grow out of it or if they think that just like a foreign disease, this too shall pass!
My maternal Grandparents however, have never got over it. Initially they were very aggressive, banning me from their home and making no secret of their disgust, sharing it with any one who cared to listen; be they neighbours, postmen or other church members. For years, I could not walk freely in my home town without being plagued by brethren, recounting my Grandparent’s pains to me. Talking did no good, it only inflamed; and silence seemed to make them think I’d given up on them entirely!
So, somewhere in the years that followed, I fell in to an indifferent space; I met them every fortnight and enquired after their well-being! I attended Christmas parties and other family celebrations, always feeling like the outsider I knew I was!
Then, things took an unexpected upturn when, while striving to improve my spiritual practises, I began attending my local Episcopal Cathedral! I didn’t tell my Grandparents about this, fearing that they’d view it as a rejection of Islam. My mum however, couldn’t wait to tell them; and the inevitable happened! They were delighted! You have to understand that, the Brethren, rather like Wahabis, believe that all other forms of Christianity other than their own are false! So accepting the Episcopal Church was a big deal for them! However, I guess on a scale of “evil” ness, it ranked higher than Islam in acceptability! So, I was accepted back in to the fold, (that is, for a time!). As soon as they learned that I attended the Cathedral as a Muslim, not as a Christian or potential revert, I was way back down the ranks to where I’d come from, that is, until this most recent hospital episode! See, mum works full time, and I work from home, only having to attend an office base for a few evenings per week! this means I’m on hand to call social workers, attend care plan meetings, run around town in pursuit of the best fitting incontinence pads, order medication, collect said medication, maintain the empty house, …., you get the picture! Sure there are times when I’d rather not do this, when hours spent filling Dosette boxes could be more pleasurable spent in bed with a good book, but I do it; and moreover, am glad to do it. Allah (SWT) is the best of planners, and somewhere between resentment and impatience, I started to see the wonder in what I was doing. I began to see these apparently mundane chores as a means for regaining a level of closeness with my Grandparents, a way of building bridges, a way to celebrate the common good/values that we can and do share. When my Granddad asked me to track down a particular book for him, I did so. I spent a ridiculous amount of money purchasing an original copy from Amazon, but it was worth it to see the joy on his face; and, last night, when I was about to head back to my apartment, I stayed an extra night in my home town, so that I could visit Gran in the hospital! She was ill and unhappy, yet looked pleased to see me; and somehow, I did seem to make her smile!
I realised something else too; I used to believe that, when my Grandparents accepted my choices, every thing would be OK! Moreover, the Wahabi fuelled version of Islam I initially adopted taught me that non-Muslim family weren’t really worth the effort if they weren’t interested in converting! Thus I subconsciously saw my family as a commodity, who received conditional affection subject to converting on request! Life is short, and the memory is shorter! The animosity that had built between us meant that I could no longer see the commonality which, in reality, our faiths gave to our respective lifestyles! Attending the Cathedral helped me to see that; and translating it in to action, as I’m now doing, enables me to use/live out my learning. I do not know if my Grandparents view all this as I do, but for me, if the time should come for one/either of them to leave this world, I’ll live easier with the pain knowing that I had a chance to repair our relationships; and to translate the present in to something comfortable, sometimes even beautiful, for all involved. I am married, in to an Iranian family. Aspects of my life now, and my life to come will no doubt prove different, or even difficult for my Grandparents to take on, but in this case, my Grandmother’s illness has proved a healing, not just for her, but for me as well. I have learned how to maintain routes that she can sit upon, while stretching out my branches wide enough to grow in to a better wife, a better Muslim and, Insha Allah, a mother some day.
If you are facing something similar, take heart/hope from the above, and remember the importance of building bridges. It is not necessary, rather, its impossible to knit your 2 worlds together seamlessly, but a bridge if well-built, creates a platform for both worlds to travel upon, and maybe even to meet in the middle. It might not be what you want, but the bridge will help you to find beauty in what you’ve got! Life is about stories; your stories, their stories; and how each universe crosses over to meet the other; after all; what is Islam, what is any faith; if it can’t stretch wings/bridges of humility out to the other worlds that surround?
…, PS: Please, do remember my Grandmother in your prayers/duas, and pray too that we, as her family, maintain the strength and patience to support each other, and to care for her, to the best of our abilities.

2 comments:

  1. Sometimes when I think about it, even though there were some tough times, I am amazed how far a lot of my family came in terms of 'accepting' me. I know they do not understand my choice, and probably some of them say things about me behind my back, but oh well.
    Family is really important, and I think when we're younger we don't quite get it yet, that strained relations does not mean the relationship isn't still important. At the end of the day, if all our family were gone, where would be, how empty or lost would we feel, even with things imperfect as they are?

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  2. You make some powerful points sister, mashallah as always! Actually, when I read about your family, it gives me allot of hope! I’ve actually learned a great deal from reading about your interactions with them. I agree with you that in youth, we don’t always possess the wisdom, patience and knowledge to negotiate such things. I think these are the issues reverts prefer not to talk about, the elephants in the room! I’ve watched so many reverts on Ahlulbayt TV, talking about how perfect relations are with their families! If this is true, then Allah ho Akbar! However I’m pretty certain that in many cases the reality is pretty different! I think if some one had been open with me and talked about the changes, that we would drift apart a little, disagree and be strained in our dealings, but that it was OK and that there was a way through it, I would have been better equipped to deal with these things, even if I didn’t understand all that was going on, or how to tackle it back then.
    I think the older we get, the more significant family becomes, as we start to understand where we have come from, and our own contribution to that family’s history. Things might not be perfect, but I’m at peace knowing that doors remain open, and that light has not gone!

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