Legend goes that there was a species of swan that remained mute throughout its life; however, at the moment of death, it sang in a beautiful voice for the first and last time. Orlando Gibbons’ madrigal “The Silver Swan” states the legend:
The silver Swan, who living had no note,
when death approached, unlocked her silent throat.
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
thus sang her first and last, and sang no more:
“Farewell, all joys! O death, come, close mine eyes!
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.”
When I asked my mother’s sister to relate her experience about her forty-year-old brother, who died of duodenal cancer, she had only this to say: “One has to realize the inevitability of death and move forward from there. That applies to both: the person, who is facing the situation, and the support group. You know, what they say about death and taxes – let the person actually LIVE and do things as much as possible, rather than turn into a complete invalid by force and talk, talk, talk.”
I was fifteen the year my mom’s younger brother died. In eighties, he worked as a computer programmer in UAE, and he always found time to take interest in my life, no matter how superfluous the problem was. One day he came home to visit and told my mom, quiet pleased with himself, about how he had suddenly lost so much weight. My mom, being a physician, immediately suspected the worst. She set him up at the hospital for all the tests, and when the diagnosis came in, we were all terrified. Cancer was the ‘evil’ incurable disease back then, and his was in its final stages. My mom and all the physicians in our family chided themselves, on how they could’ve missed the obvious signs, but those are the ways of the Almighty. I remember mom’s first reaction was denial; then, she tried all kinds of medicine and therapy; finally, the trip to the US for ‘expert’ treatment.
Aftab Mamu’s oldest brother is a pediatric oncologist in the US. Here are his memories: “I was living in Saudi Arabia, when I got the news of Aftab’s illness from your mother. His illness had started sometime back, when his abdomen was getting big. He thought he was putting on weight. One day, your mom must have checked him and noticed that something was not right. Once the diagnosis was made (mesothelioma), it was a surprise – there was no exposure to asbestos, and we never knew how he got it. (Thinking back, my mother once told me, how he was always cleaning the kitchen in our old house in Siddiamber Bazar (Hyderabad, Deccan), which was made of asbestos.)
“Anyway, chemotherapy was started, and he felt better. I remember sending medicines from the US, when I returned from Saudi. I came to Sharjah to see him in May of 1986. He was very sick, pale and cachectic. He knew that he did not have long to live but was always cheerful and wanted to come sit and talk to me. I remember taking him to a Chinese doctor, who claimed he had acupuncture treatment for cancer. After the doctor saw him, he took me to another room to tell me he could not help. Aftab walked in as he was talking to me, and he probably knew what was going on.
“During his final weeks, he went back to India and stayed in Mumbai till his demise. I used to call him up once a week to enquire. He was always cheerful and told me he is fine. The day I got the news, I was preparing to go for an Eid party in Des Moines, IA. That news changed everything for me. When I had come to Sharjah, I had left some money with him, in case he needed it for treatment. He did not like the idea, but at my insistence kept it and then quietly, after I returned to the US, he mailed it back to me with a letter, which I still have, to this day.”
It is amazing to think that even in his last moments Aftab Mamu thought only about others, he listened to what their problems were, he never once complained about the pain. But I recall he would tell my mom that he was tired and wanted to sleep – that was our cue to leave the bedroom, and my mom would then inject morphine, so he could rest for a few hours.
They say hindsight is 20/20, and as I look back, I realize he traveled despite his condition to the US, India and UAE, where he met every single acquaintance, friend, family member and colleague, during his last few months. He spent as much time as he could with his two-and-a-half years old son. He participated in all the picnics and outings. Most importantly, no one remembers him crying or complaining. Aftab Mamu was always religious; I am not sure, if he prayed more during his illness, but he certainly was more philosophical. I remember him telling my Mom (we used to fight a lot back then) that she should let me pursue my ambitions and not mould me per her requirement.
My grandmother was alive, when he died. Later, she told me that of all the deaths she endured (she was widowed at a very young age and brought up nine kids on her own), this was by far the worst. She wanted to take away his pain and suffering, to shield his son from the harshness of reality, and she prayed for his easy and painless death. Our entire family was always close by – there was no shortage of people visiting and talking with Aftab Mamu, and, amazingly, no one was actually sad till he died.
It is not only hard but impossible to predict, how to react or behave at hearing the news that someone has only two or three months to live. Every family is different, but being physically present is very helpful, talking and repenting, forgiving all the old grudges and, most importantly, encouraging the positive spirit within that person.
Aftab Mamu’s son has now, Masha’Allah, graduated with a Master’s degree and is working. I think it makes no difference, if you know you are going to die. We should live each day as our last, not leave any unfinished business till tomorrow, repenting and asking forgiveness, and, most importantly, trying to keep all our near and dear ones close and happy. Death is inevitable: “Everyone shall taste death. Then unto Us you shall be returned.” (Ankabut, 29:57) We should always keep that in mind.