Two Deaths and a Birthday Weekend

Sohaib Sultan returned to the Sender on Friday April 16th, on the same day that I got news that my uncle —who was doing well in his Covid treatment in a hospital in India– passed away. I was in the produce aisle, picking up coriander for $0.75 and debating whether or not to buy the big watermelon when I first got the news of my uncle. This was the uncle who had picked my wedding gown, my walima gowns, and pretty much all my clothes from my wedding. His daughters are like my sisters. And almost 8 hours later, while grieving death with my in-laws, I got the news that my dear friend Sohaib had passed away.

So in 48 hours, we had 2 deaths and a celebration of birth for my eldest child.

Death and Birth sandwiched in a weekend.

My heart has been grieving for weeks, after seeing Sohaib Sultan and his beautiful family on March 30th. Here is an account of some important dates.

Friday April 16 12:35PM

My husband called me. I knew from our 15 year marriage, that when my husband called me if and only if there was an emergency. He never –despite my requests– called to say hello, just because. He did not have that kind of time during the work day. I called whenever I felt like speaking to him, and left rambling voice messages on his whatsapp  that lasted for minutes, while I drove, or did something extraordinary, like drive on the NJ Turnpike. It never bothered me that he didn’t reciprocate in this way. His way of showing his thoughtfulness was putting the children to bed every single night, putting them down for naps, and putting them back to bed whenever they cried in the mornings. I’d take that kind of peace and solitude over a voice message or text any day. 

Well, he called me that morning. I knew to expect something bad.

“Eboo Uncle passed away today. Inna lilahi wa inilayhi rajioon” he said, the translation of which is: To God we Belong and to Him is Our final return. As soon as he said that, I began to sob. I was mostly alone in a grocery store at 12:30 in the afternoon — and the thought that our uncle who was here yesterday and gone today hit me like I was hit in the face with a baseball bat. Like there was pain, blood as I bit down too hard on my lip, and agony next to the watermelons and the oranges. Like I was the one dying. We had made such a long dua, and dhikr, and shukr, and done all these things yesterday as a family to ask for his protection. And God seemed to say, NOPE; it’s time to go. I knew that our supplications matter no mater the results. I know that our love for him, and our good deeds on his behalf will count, regardless of the results. I knew these things cognitively, and yet the pain of that separation hurt. 

What kept me sobbing was the fact that his daughter — Razina — lives 5 minutes from my house. I stop by to drop off food occasionally. I hadn’t seen her since the last death in the family last year, or after the birth of her 3rd child. I used to call, and then sorta just stopped keeping my habit of calling my husband’s relatives. I said I only have space between 3-4 on Fridays for a set number of calls. Anyway, what really hurt was the fact that her father never got to meet her 3rd son. Her parents are thousands of miles away in India, and due to the Covid pandemic, they cannot travel. How can a daughter be so far from her family for so long? It broke me down. I see my parents each month, with regularity. Maybe it was guilt. How am I that kind of daughter, that I can’t speak to both my parents every day even though I am blessed with this time and opportunity to do so? It feels quite debilitating to think about all the wrongs I commit against my parents and how openly I express my opinions that they neither ask for nor want to hear. My 6 year old does that too — constantly telling me her thoughts. I ask her to politely stop talking, that I need the silence. 

I went to visit Razina that afternoon, to hold her and comfort her, to distract the children with toy trucks. I saw so many members of my husband’s extended family. 

I do all the things that bring me joy, and yet, at moments, I am reminded of how fragile our existence is, and how quickly we may be returning to the Sender. No one is prepared for death. Absolutely no one.

Two Weeks Ago, March 30th

I placed the daffodil plant on her step, handed her a bag of soft bread, and sliced salmon that Rashda said that he likes to eat. I took the gift bags, overflowing with purple tissue paper, out of my car. My 5 year old and 3 year old had packed their own gifts for their friend Radiyya. Each of us wanted to bring something for Radiyya.

My children did not know that Radiyya’s dad was dying.

Yet, in their generosity, they wanted to give their friend whatever they had, whatever would make their friend happy.

I stood before Arshe’s home, as she greeted me with her smile, and warmth. The children played outside with her niece and aunt. Radiyya pointed to the gift bags I brought for her. There were filled with indian party dresses, pakistani khusas, toys, and books. I unpacked little distractions for the child whose father was dying. Strawberry jello with real strawberries was my real specialty, so I even made that.

There’s not enough strawberry jello in the world to make up for the sense of loss.

My brain felt frazzled. I reached out to my spiritual teacher, and finally my friend for their advice and guidance on what to do in that meeting. The email I had gotten a year ago announcing his diagnosis left me feeling wracked with existential pain. How can the Most Loving hurt those He loved the most? Why would The Most Loving bring so much pain to a wife and child with his absence? I cried at the opportunity to speak to him and tell him what I felt.

An hour of his blessed time, at a time when we knew his moments are quickly fleeting.

It was a meeting unlike anything I had every experienced before, and felt like it needed to be written down, memorialized somehow.

I am not his sister. I am not a close friend. I am nobody, but simply a believer in There Is No God but God. And so, I felt like I was dying. How would I ask for forgiveness if this was my time to go? If we traded places? I thought so many things.

I asked my mother for her advice: Ma why can’t I stop crying I asked? My mother told me that my heart cannot hold this kind of pain, and the solution is to avoid anyone who is dying. I said, we are all dying.

The world is a place full of wonder, but when there is an expiration date on how long you will live, it is hard to hold that wonder, that happiness in place. Yet, Sohaib was so full of light, and wonder, and happiness. His wife sat smiling. He sat smiling. No one cried except me. I could not bear the weight of his leaving. I prayed for his daughter, and his wife. I prayed that they would be happy together again in the gardens of Jannah.

He was a great source of inspiration to so many people. He healed many hearts. He always brought a gentle smile and helped people to remember God.

The day before I met with Sohaib, I was told by my client that my project was closed. I was disappointed by the news, that my career halted again but I remembered:

“Nobody ever leaves something for the sake of Allah, except that Allah compensates him with something better” (Musnad Ahmad).

What have I filled my days with since hearing the news? I have made more adventures out of nothing. I have not taught or attempted to teach the kids. I have only taken them to parks, and let them play more freely. I have let them jump on furniture. I have let them watch TV. I have given myself permission to cry openly, and read openly. I have tucked them into bed an hour before it was their time. I have done things differently as a result of the news, the end of a contract. But I imagine, my contract with God is also set to expire. How would I have a “close out” meeting with the One who Created me? What deeds would I bring back? How I literally cried over spilled milk when Ali knocked down a glass. How I react harshly with my own children? On the Day of Judgement, will my spiritual affairs be in order?

Sohaib taught a joyful Islam.

That day, Sohaib, Arshe, my husband and I took the children to see the turtles in their tank in his bedroom. He provided a spiritual lesson on turtles, which I have uploaded here.

He asked us to promise him something, which we did. He smiled through all his emotions. He said to my son, “Love you” as we were leaving his bedroom. And I always answer for my toddlers — a habit I will stop when they say what I want them to say, which is never –and I said:

“Love you too.”

Those were the last words I said to Sohaib. Life is too short not to say what you really think, and to show your affection in these random ways. Which is why, after 1 day of grieving (Saturday), I got back to the business of making messes and creating joy with my kids.

Saturday April 17 12PM

My husband attended the prayer services and burial at the cemetery. Wasim, my brother in law, was part of the organizing committee. It hadn’t occurred to me to be there, after the two weeks of crying. My heart felt more at ease that day, though the tears flowed silently when I heard Arshe speak. I cannot really account for this day, as it felt like I was mostly glued in front of my laptop, though I meet with my Tajweed teacher.

Sunday April 18 7:30AM

I woke up to Ali’s incessant “Mama, I’m hungry” whine. I got dressed, and decided I will not waste this moment because I am sad. I made an intention to create joy with my child, the child who blessed me with motherhood after years of infertility. I wore a new top, some lipstick, and makeup. I cleaned and decorated the birthday girl’s bedroom; blew up 6 balloons; took them to see tadpoles at the garden; fed them pizza and chicken nuggets while Madina Institute hosted a beautiful mawlid where she saw friends over zoom; hosted her friends for a pop up Ramadan crafting session where we decorated sheep; screamed as the kids got caught in an upside down inflatable bounce house; picked up my favorite food from Namli Turkish; decorated a home-made birthday cake with sparkler candles; and finished a Quran Khatam. THIS WAS IN 10 HOURS. I did all the things she had asked for: balloons, nature, friends, her grandparents. We had a wonderful dinner and chai with my in-laws, Ruhina Aunt and Shakir Uncle. My friend Faizah delivered her spring rolls, and I had made spring rolls. My mother in law made her amazing chai; Dad had cooked. It was a birthday celebration that had everything I loved, with the people I loved.

Two Requests

When I finally found my phone that night, I asked folks to do 1 simple thing.

Give What You Love the Most

I want to encourage my friends and family to give here to the Sohaib Sultan Family Trust:

Parenting during cancer and through death is another level of pain and having watched Arshe go through this– please do what you can to help. May God grant Arshe ease and have mercy on all of us.

Write something for The Radiyya Project

Please help us compile stories about Sohaib Sultan for his daughter Radiyya, who is too young to understand all the things that are being said about how wonderful he is. If your child has a story about Uncle Sohaib that would be particularly helpful. The goal is to create a repository of beautiful memories and stories for her to enjoy her whole life. Here’s the link to the Radiyya Project.

Kids picking something off the trees. Birthday cupcake floral arrangement via Baked Bouquet.

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