It’s been four years, but for me Ramadan will never be the same. If I close my eyes, I can still relive the entire evening and subsequent days down to the smallest detail.
It was Ramadan 2008, two months before I was to be married. It was almost time for Iftaar and it was the first Iftaar of the month so the excitement was at its peak. The spiritual high of the initial fasts combined with the anticipation of eating pakoras, chaat, jalebis and samosas. My mother was wheeling the trolley laden with dates, sherbet and scrumptious snacks when the phone rang. Leaving the trolley mid-way in the passage, she reached for the phone while we all looked at each other wondering who could be calling five minutes before Iftaar. This was a time when most Pakistani households are busy engaging in Zikr (remembrance), last-minute frying and assembling the family for breaking the fast. I still remember the way she picked up the phone, responded to the greeting of the caller with a quizzical smile on her face and then froze. Simply froze.
Ending the call with “Allah Hafiz” (literally meaning ‘May Allah be your Guardian’, which in retrospect seems even more profound considering the news she was about to break to us), she gently returned the cordless to the cradle and sat down on the chair next to the phone. In a voice devoid of emotion, but with eyes that were becoming tenser by the second she said, “There has been an accident. Talat, Jalal and the children were returning from Umrah and their car has crashed on the highway. They are being taken to the hospital but it does not look good.”
Iftaar and the excitement of the first fast forgotten, we proceeded to make further calls – both, for gaining more information, as well as for informing others in the family – that my uncle (my father’s youngest brother), aunt, their daughter, second son and his two children had been in an accident. We then proceeded to my uncle’s house – my dad’s eldest living brother – where we sat in suspense, alternately making phone calls, praying for a miracle, lending each other support and just sitting in shock. Every time someone’s cell phone rang the sound was ominous. And sadly, so was the news. Each call we received lowered our hopes further.
Until finally, it was confirmed. Both my uncle and aunt did not make it along with their son and one of the grandsons – a five-year-old boy with Down Syndrome. The only survivors were their daughter and their three-year-old grandson.
I had never seen my father break down as he did that day. As tears streamed down his face, he seemed to be reliving the death of my eldest uncle in 1981 at the young age of forty-seven. As he cried out, “I lost my eldest brother and now the youngest is gone too”, I saw my father as a person for the first time. A person with feelings, fears, hopes; someone who had experienced losses and lived through them, perhaps becoming stronger in the process. We often think of our parents as ‘parents’ – the word denoting responsibility, strength and tranquillity. Most of the time we consider the ‘output’ that is our parents and rarely do we understand or comprehend the ‘input’ that went in to produce that output. I learned that day how much we take our parents for granted. We identify them as unbreakable pillars of strength which they are most of the time but they do need their ‘off days’. I also understood that we hold our parents responsible for a lot – too much at times. For their problems, our problems, familial problems, our upbringing, our day-to-day living, how we turned out and so forth. And that’s just not right. They do the best they can, just like we do. When we didn’t get the first prize in a contest or got less than perfect marks on that test, didn’t they tell us, “It’s okay, you did your best. That’s what matters”? Then, why can’t we do the same for them? Just because they are ‘parents’?
As the details of the accident unravelled, we were even more overwhelmed and depressed. My uncle had lived in Medina for thirty-odd years with his family. That particular year he had wanted to do Umrah on the first of Ramadan and so the family set out to perform the minor pilgrimage. He was accompanied by his wife, daughter, son, daughter-in-law and their three children, and the daughter-in-law’s parents. They were returning to Medina on the second of Ramadan (first Ramadan in Pakistan) and had all planned to leave together in two cars. However, since it was extremely hot my uncle’s son advised his wife to leave from Makkah a little later with their three-month old baby and her parents, while he departed for Medina with his parents, sister and the older children earlier. Little did they know that this plan only came about since the Angel of Death was meant to come for them and not the rest. As Allah (swt) says, “…and it may be that you dislike a thing which is good for you and that you like a thing which is bad for you. Allah knows but you do not know.” (216:2 Al Baqarah). In our imperfect comprehension of Allah’s ways, we can only understand that He created this intentional divide between the husband and wife so that she would not have to experience the horror of her husband and son’s death first-hand.
The details of the accident itself are still a mystery. My uncle’s daughter only remembers her mother reciting supplications in the back seat while her father sat in front with her brother. Soon after they left Makkah, she recalls a splintering sound and then the car collided with the crash barrier on the roadside where it continued to move at a very fast speed against the barrier until the car started rolling over. Considering the speed at which most Saudis drive, especially on the highway, I shudder to think of the magnitude of the tumble and ultimate impact. Whether my cousin dosed off at the wheel or the car had some sort of a mechanical failure, we will never know. The car itself – a Ford Expedition – was reputed to be a ‘fault-free’ car and received a five-star frontal-impact rating in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash tests for both the driver and front passenger*. Even after the accident the experts could not find any defect that could have caused the accident. But then that is why we are taught, “Inna Lillahi Wainna Ilaihi Rajioon” (Surely, to Allah (swt) we belong and to Him shall we return) right? My uncle’s daughter had bruises on her face along with major injuries to her arm and leg. Her bruises were such that when her eldest brother saw her, he actually wondered why Allah (swt) had spared her. She had to undergo surgery, get rods inserted in both, her arm and leg and was confined to the bed for a long time. But by the grace of Allah (swt), today she is the happily married mother of a one-year-old baby girl. The scars that remain are all on the inside.
But instead of being consumed with the hardship itself, you learn from it. You learn to strike up a conversation with Allah (swt). You learn to hand over your griefs and miseries, your anger and lamentations, your aspirations and visions, your setbacks and failings.
The doctors confirmed that my uncle, aunt and their grandson had possibly died on impact while my cousin had sustained major head injuries, which may have left him a vegetable for the rest of his life. Again, we see the miracle of Allah (swt) here – had my cousin survived he may have been plagued with guilt for being in the driver’s seat in an accident which took away his parents and son’s life. We see the miracle of Allah (swt) for not letting the young wife be a witness to her husband’s horrifying death and for not burdening her with a possibly comatose husband. We see the miracle of Allah (swt) in taking away the life of the child with Down Syndrome and letting the other one live in order to ease life for the young widow. As callous as all these statements seem, they are our only consolation in the shocking tragedy that took away half the family; that removed three generations in the blink of an eye; that rendered a young girl a widow and a grieving mother in an instant; that left a daughter crying for her parents and older brother; that left a minor three-year old saying repeatedly, “Meri gaari toot gaee, Mere Baba mar gaye” (My car broke and my father died).
How do you get over something like that? You don’t. But instead of being consumed with the hardship itself, you learn from it. You learn to strike up a conversation with Allah (swt). You learn to hand over your griefs and miseries, your anger and lamentations, your aspirations and visions, your setbacks and failings. You learn to lighten yourself; cleanse yourself. As you talk to Allah (swt) you feel the burdens lift; as the tears flow down your cheeks you feel your heart lighten. As your hands reach out in supplication, you feel like you are all alone in the world but with the Greatest Presence beside you, behind you, before you, above you, beneath you. You learn that that is all that matters. That is all you need. You learn as Allah (swt) said in Surah Inshirah, Verse 5 – 6, “For indeed, with hardship comes ease. Indeed, with hardship comes ease”. You learn how short life is and how important people are. You learn who the important people are in your life. You learn to sort through the clutter of life and prioritize. You learn to love, to smile, to help, to forgive, and to move on. You learn to do everything with love – love for yourself as a creation of Allah (swt), love for people and moreover, love for Allah (swt). You learn to make a home, build a family, work hard and smile. You learn how to make things work in your own unique way. You learn to say ‘Alhamdulillah’ for all you have.
Above all, you learn that Allah (swt) always, always has a bigger plan. You may not understand that plan till your last breath but you learn to submit to it and to trust in Allah (swt). You learn to sit back, relax and take life one step at a time.