I was four years old when I learned that I had a brother who had been killed before I was born. Joey had died when he was only four years old himself. My life was suddenly divided into before and after.
Before I knew Joey, my family seemed to be one of the lucky ones who had never faced tragedy. Afterwards, I suddenly understood the stream of grief that silently permeated my home. At 4 years old, I was old enough to see my reality shaken by the revelation, but too young to understand that his life, and his death, touched me as deeply as my parents and my 8-month-old baby brother. Years later, I would learn that Joey was hit by a truck while my family was living in Egypt, the same month John F. Kennedy was shot. My mother cried telling me how weird and touching it was to have strangers on the streets of Cairo assuming she was from the United States and telling her they were sorry for her loss; that is, the loss of the president.
My mother was furious that my father told me about this family trauma at such a young age. I know his goal was to protect me, but it came out as anger, as if I had done something wrong. So I learned not to talk about Joey and instead to look for clues to his existence, to a life that had been.
After my parents divorced when I was 13, without comment, my dad hung pictures of Joey on the wall next to mine. Dad must have hidden them in his drawers for 17 years. Without explanation, I knew it was Joey. He and I share the same eyes, so maybe I saw myself in him. I found her baby book when I was 15, tucked away in the area where we kept our encyclopedias. My heart was pounding as I read the steps of his early years, each empty line filled with words until the end. My own baby book, with many empty pages, proved that I really was a second child.
Joey’s life and death was a family secret that everyone knew about, but none of us talked about. Would I have been so erased if I was dead? I learned from my parents that death was so unbearable that it could not be faced. The loss was still just below our shaky family foundation, making it difficult to know where it was and where it wasn’t safe to walk.
Then, when I was twenty-one, I was at a church meeting to learn more about pastoral care. The subject was death. I walked through the doors worriedly, but I wanted to be there. A woman in her 50s shared that she had a near-death experience that left her with no fear of dying. She spoke with such conviction that I believed her, but I was stunned. It seemed nearly impossible to go from my nagging fear of death to calm acceptance of it. I had culture to do.
I set out to face death more consciously, hoping to become someone who could think, speak and feel the ultimate truth that surrounds us all: one day I will take my last breath and say goodbye to everything. what is on this Earth.
I added a contemplation of death to my morning spiritual practice: sun salutations each with a specific purpose. The first is for gratitude, the second for sending love and care to others, the third I ask to find my purpose and meaning – and during the fourth I remember that I will die at some point. unknown who might be today, or many years from now.
My first experience with death was with my stepfather in 1991. My wife and I rushed through the county, barely reaching the hospital for his last breath. I was only 26, nervous and unsure of what to do. I observed myself and those around me, noticing the rituals and truth that accompany death.
My second was the death of my mother when I was 31. I listened to her rattle for hours, confident that the hospice nurses were right and that it was only painful to hear, not feel. I learned that I was grateful that she died of cancer, which at least gave us the gift of being able to say goodbye and I love you.
My third was the death of my father. I sang “Go Now in Peace” with my hand over her heart, pouring love and release into her final beats. My wife brought my children soon after, to learn that death can be faced directly with sadness and without fear.
These three deaths and heartaches prepared me well for the other two we faced in 2021. In January, our neighbor and friend died in our living room. Cancer amid COVID meant the unthinkable: she would be isolated from her children and everyone she loved if she went to an institution. Rather than leaving her to die alone in a hospital, a group of us ran in and out of her home, with a palliative care team, until her final two weeks, when she needed constant care. I believe I could only make the decision to care for our neighbor because I had faced death so squarely.
During what we thought was our summer of freedom, as the Delta variant of COVID spiked, my mother-in-law had a big drop while we were on a trip to visit family we hadn’t seen in two years. Her 84-year-old digestive tract slowly gave way, leaving her in a lot of pain. She and I had lots of sweet talks about her life, her thoughts on what comes after being on this Earth, and how she wanted to live out the rest of her life. After a particularly painful visit to the hospital, with no permanent pain relief in sight, she said she was done with the stints, tests, shots and antibiotics. It was hard to hear, but she was clear that she no longer wanted to live in pain and discomfort. As sad as it was to say goodbye to her, I’m grateful that she and I were able to speak directly about her thoughts and feelings. His death was calm and painless.
Deep in my heart, I am a religious educator and I want to give people tools and practices to find faith even in difficult times, maybe especially in difficult times.
My religious tradition is more concerned with this life than the afterlife, but children are not so easily willing to let go of their egos. They want to know: why do we have to die? What comes next? Among other answers, I often tell them that what comes after our last breath and the end of our heartbeat is a mystery, and no one knows for sure if we have a spirit that survives afterwards. I also tell them that our lives are sweeter knowing that they will end.
As an adult, I got to ask my mom about Joey. How did she cope? She told me that the pain was so great that she would have committed suicide if she had not had a living child. After a while, she realized that there were only two choices: to live or not to live. Shakespeare suddenly had a new meaning. She simply decided to live each day until no more was given to her. She lived each day, with joy and sorrow, until the end.
In the end, my mother was not afraid of what was to come, only sad about what she left behind. And I wasn’t afraid for her either, only sad to say a final goodbye to the sound of her voice and the warmth of her skin. As for his mind? I know it lives in me and my children, and if it has been recycled, it flies across the universe in joy and sorrow.
Laila Ibrahim is the bestselling author of Scarlet Carnation, Golden Poppies, Paper Bride, Mustard seed, and yellow crocus. She has spent much of her career as a preschool director, birth doula, and religious educator. To learn more about his work, visit lailaibrahim.com.
All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
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