It is the one thing we all dread. The unexpected message notifying us of the death of a loved one. Distance doesn't make it any easier. Nor practise or time. The shock still reverberates, maybe even amplified a little by the inability to connect with the family. There is no script for it. Every phone call undoes life a little.
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One of our dear friends passed away today. An exceptionally kind and wonderful man, he had been diagnosed with chronic liver disease a few years ago. Not wanting to trouble his wife and children he kept the diagnosis a secret until the organ failed last month and he collapsed, needing to be admitted to the hospital. It was a dual shock for the family, finding out first about the illness and then its severity. Arrangements were made for a liver transplant; his children fought amongst themselves to be Baba's donor. My brothers had gone to school with his daughters; our mothers swapped recipes and gossip over the phone. We knew them well and their grief touched us. The family flew to Pakistan for the procedure and our friend passed away during the surgery earlier today.
Although my parents' age, he had been a guiding influence as I was growing up. Most people of our parents' generation sequester themselves away from the children. He sought out their company. He would talk to us about our lives, what we were doing, what our plans were for the future. Being a pediatrician, talking to children came naturally to him but it was more than that. It wasn't a performance. He didn't ask us to be cute for the amusement of others. He was truly interested in who we were as people. I remember a dinner party at his home. I must have been about ten or eleven. A girl and I were sitting in their living room watching TV while the adults talked amongst themselves elsewhere. I knew the girl. She was shy and hirsute and didn't have any friends. We went to the same school and she was always the last one to be picked for anything. We sat and stared at the TV until our host came in.
He sat down and asked us how we were, how school was going, what we liked about school and what wasn't so great. He asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. He directed the questions to us individually, looking us in the eye, listening attentively for our clumsy answers. We weren't used to being addressed like this by grown-ups. None of the other uncles and aunties had ever come by and tried to get to know us. Usually we were just praised for our good grades and then passed over. I was a little more confident than Mariam and spoke brazenly the words I thought he wanted to hear. Mariam was much quieter, almost uncomfortable with the attention, but by the end of our talk, even she was smiling. When I think about it now I realise that it was true of almost everyone who met him; they left with a smile on their face.
I last met him a few weeks ago. I was home for my annual holiday and my father told me he had been admitted to the hospital again. We hadn't met in many years and I was unsure about going. I felt like I didn't know him any more, my childhood self receded and our connection severed. A pediatrician myself, I saw his felicity with children as merely an extension of his bedside manner. I did the same thing every day; it was no big deal. My parents insisted however and I went. I didn't think it would be the last time we would meet.
He was lying in a hospital bed with his wife sitting beside him, eating her supper. He looked gaunt. The plump was gone from his cheeks. The skin looked sallow. I passed his wife some flowers and sat down beside him. He had trouble sitting up and she helped him. Without much preamble, as if he had known me all my life, he caught me up on the story of the diagnosis and the collapse. It sounded like a speech rehearsed for visitors, delivered fresh each time, with the same vivid eye contact. We talked about the upcoming transplant and he was excited about it. He was glad to be going back to Pakistan where all the family could be together. He spoke freely and without the usual adult jargon of disappointment. As ill as he was, he didn't seem defeated. He asked how I was doing, where I was. When I told him I was a pediatrician, a consultant like him, his eyes lit up. It's not often that you get to give back to the mentors who helped you and I'm always going to be grateful for this moment. We talked for about half an hour and then the nurses came in for a blood draw. I excused myself and wished him well, still charmed by his demeanour, civilized by his kindness. For some reason I didn't say "see you next year" although by this time I was sure that I wanted to stay in touch, that things would be alright. He didn't say it either.