Over the last few weeks, I have been surveying my life as if from a mountaintop, taking in the landscape and looking for ideal spots for further development like a rural proprietor. Two recent deaths, similar in hardly any details save the final one, have left me questioning and wondering and self-guessing,
We’ll start with the first one.
My maternal cousin Amna passed away in Lahore, Pakistan on January 15th, 2019. I did not know her, had no clues to her personality to memorialize to my social set, no peels of laughter to remember fondly, no relationship to honor. We shared a couple of years together as kids in bustling Lahore in the late 80s/early 90s, before my family moved to New York City. Throughout the 90s, I was often being handed the phone to shyly talk to relatives I could barely recall by face, and now that I scrutinize it, it was always aunts and uncles, never cousins. She and I never spoke, or wrote or visited. A couple of years ago, in my young adult foray back to the country I was born in, I stopped to visit her family, and even now I cannot remember much of Amna. She sat by her mother, I think and played with a pet bird. That’s it. That’s all I’ve got.
Amna was sick for most of her life, I am not sure if she had a learning disability, and I know the grown-ups always said she was prone to seizures. I don’t know if she ever had adequate diagnoses or treatment. Her family was very poor, and it is true their circumstances didn’t allow them the opportunity to give the life and care to this one child most in need, out of four.
Circumstances. That word smacks of harshness to me. We are slaves to circumstances from the moment we are born, aren’t we? The socio-economic category of your parents gives you a leg up or puts you at a miserable disadvantage. Your religion, your sect, what you’re born into, rewards you with either acceptance, celebrated in the mainstream, or abject persecution. The color of your passport can grant you mobility around the world or render you motionless.
What makes my circumstances different from Amna? That my parents were able to scrap together a move to the US? Is that it? Had she been able to do so, would she have been alive? Healthy? Had her country developed a way to help its citizenry (lol it’s Pakistan, wildly corrupt system buttressed by a self-centered elite class so don’t hold your breath), would she have gotten the care she deserved? I’ve checked my privilege on this one. I got to move and fight for my own life, on my terms. She didn’t. I don’t feel survivor’s guilt. I feel survivor’s anger at this unjust set of circumstances we feel powerless to change.
I was still distilling these heavy thoughts when I learned a young Pakistani woman of much more means passed away. Fatima Ali, or Chef Fati, as many called her, was a sparkling empress in her kitchen, and by all accounts, in her life. She left the comforts of her home in Pakistan, studied at culinary institutes, broke barriers and records as the youngest sous chef in NYC, winner and fan favorite of popular reality tv cooking shows. She was wickedly funny, you could tell just from her Cheshire cat grin, and she had my favorite of all traits, a twinkling kindness in her eyes. On that same trip to Pakistan years ago where I last saw Amna, I was also at social events with friends and family of Fati’s. She and I never met, but I am among the countless people who cheered her on, through a cancer diagnosis, through the all-clear, and then through the relapse. She was told a few months ago she had a year to live. She didn’t stay that long.
In her reckoning with death, she was raw and honest and scared and grateful. She was 29.
How could someone with that much to give the world, someone brimming over with still untapped talent and dreams, just be snuffed out? What kind of sense does this make? Who makes these decisions? Who doles out cancer? Who chooses to cause hearts to break? Her family posted on her instagram page, her plea that we will lives with meaning and love and compassion, that everything else just takes up space.
So here I am, taking stock of my life’s landscape.
Am I living my life with meaning? What is driving the list of priorities I have? Am I letting fear keep me from experiences? Am I able to forgive the people I feel have betrayed me? How long will I let bitterness and resentment and so much sadness take up space? How am I continuing to be involved in the matters that affect my community, city, country? How am I doing my part to fight the circumstances that keep millions of people from opportunity?
These are immense, vast, and heavy questions. I think it takes a long time to find the answers to some.
We are all victims of circumstance. We are born slaves to it, but we don’t have to die at its altar. We can help each other live better, fuller lives because as far as I know, we only get one and no one really knows what happens next. We can fight the man-made circumstances and be there for each other when unimaginable tragedy appears in our genetic and neural code.
How ironic, after all our learning and schooling, we go back to the lessons of childhood: be kind to one another, share what you have, and go to bed early – much more to do the next day. I will view every day as an adventure of its own, so when my own time comes, I can summon a litany of memories to help me close it out.
Thank you for reading, if you made your way here and through this all.
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