One spring afternoon, while visiting my parents in my hometown of State College, Pennsylvania, I was driving to the grocery store. As I usually do on the rare occasions I drive, I was listening to the local country station, called, for some reason, Froggy 98 (slogan: “The best and most country”). I was fortunate enough to have struck on a block of old favorites from the ’90s, and heard the opening strains of a familiar song—“Strawberry Wine,” by Deana Carter. Written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, “Strawberry Wine” was a number-one country hit for Carter in 1996, from her debut album, Did I Shave My Legs for This?
The song is an astonishing work of art, portraying a young woman’s passage to adulthood through a recollection of her first love affair.
He was working through college
On my grandpa’s farm
I was thirsting for knowledge
And he had a car.
This spare, simple stanza embodies the particular kind of beauty a good country song can achieve. The situation is immediately established in two brief lines: the characters, the setting, the time period. The slant consonance of “working” and “thirsting” adds an already musical quality to the words, rendered in the melody as naturally as the lilt of conversation. The rhyme with “college” implies a scholarly connotation to “knowledge,” but its Biblical sense is irresistibly present as well—what knowledge could be more thirsted for?
Finally, there is the masterstroke of understatement in the final line: “he had a car.” A way off the farm, a connection to the outside world, to be sure. But also the first place a teenage couple is likely to seek privacy.
After some further narrative detail, the chorus brings in the title’s thematic allegory without ceremony: “Like strawberry wine, seventeen.” Her “first taste of love” was a “bittersweet” intoxicant, produced in a cycle that began with a flower bearing fruit, “green on the vine.” The second verse brings us to the next stage in the cycle, after love ferments:
I still remember
When thirty was old
My biggest fear was September
When he had to go
It is, again, a perfectly simple expression of the narrative arc. Knowing he’s a college student, we know that September means he’ll be leaving town. We also know that more than a decade has passed for the narrator, and this wistful look back takes place from a distance.
I have always loved this song, ever since I started listening to country music as a teenager, when I myself was as innocent and as amorous as the characters in it. But that afternoon, for some reason, it hit me like it never had before. I was reduced to tears. Not a noble single tear of aesthetic appreciation, but an overwhelming surge of emotion. Trembling, sobbing uncontrollably, I pulled over. The story is moving, but that day it made me feel something other than nostalgia, or even general romantic longing. I felt dread and despair.
I collected myself and drove on, chalking it up to a lifelong propensity for mood swings. I didn’t understand why it had happened until later, back in New York, on my analyst’s couch. The year before, on my thirtieth birthday, a day I had already been dreading, my father had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The news made reaching an age that already held such symbolic weight—the official end of youth—all the more grim. I canceled my already half-hearted birthday plans, and lay in bed in the dark.
This was the following year, after my father had undergone a series of failed treatments. By that spring, my father had been given, in his oncologist’s estimate, six more months. In September, they told us, he would have to go.
My father, Jawaid Haider, was born in Karachi, Pakistan, in 1951. I called him “Abba,” a title common to Urdu and Hebrew. He spent most of his career as a professor of architecture at Penn State University, where he never retired, attending classes up to the last week of his life. He had spent two previous years on an extended sabbatical as dean of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi, the realization of a lifelong wish to promote liberal arts education in the turbulent country of his birth.
After his memorial service, I met and heard from old friends of his for the first time. I learned about my father’s involvement in a student-worker solidarity group in the late 1970s, the National Students Federation (NSF), which began as the student union of the Communist Party of Pakistan. In 1977, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq had taken power in a coup, ousting and eventually executing Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He instituted a series of restrictive policies of “Islamization,” the effects of which foreclosed any possibility of progressive reform.
According to Pakistani architect and historian Arif Hasan, up until then, Karachi’s downtown district, Saddar, had contained “seventeen bars and billiard rooms, four music and dance schools, eighteen bookshops, two clubs for sailors, five discotheques, and thirty-four popular eating places.” Zia brought about a transformation of the city, all but eliminating the collectivity of public life. Community activity was suppressed, prayer was institutionalized, and women were increasingly excluded.
The NSF put together handmade pamphlets of social critique, collage-style, written in Urdu script, which they began screen-printing every night at midnight. My father had access to his brother’s motorcycle, and he and his comrades rode around Karachi until dawn distributing pamphlets, evading police if necessary. After his death, at some point in the still-ongoing process of sorting through my father’s possessions, we found a stack of these pamphlets among his papers. He never talked much about this period of his life, possibly out of disillusionment.
Needless to say, Pakistan had not progressed towards social democracy, as it had seemed it might in the early ’70s. Instead, fundamentalism and militarism proliferated under Zia, turning the country into the police state it has more or less remained since. In 1981, my father emigrated to the United States; my mother followed in 1982, and they married in 1984. That same year, General Zia banned student unions. “Music, drama, film, and political and cultural events vanished from Karachi’s educational institutions,” Hasan recounts. Student discourse shifted from social and political problems to Islamic theology.
In spite of his outspokenness about his convictions, I had never really pictured my father, the amiable professor, taking to the streets in political struggle. But I realize now how he maintained his ideals in other forms—while his classmates and colleagues went into commercial design, he dedicated his career to studying public space, particularly accessibility for children and the elderly. Since I never really developed much acuity for architecture I didn’t understand what this meant to him during his life. But I think he believed that if a better world was possible, we would have to start building it, outside the confines of private property.
Goethe called architecture “frozen music,” a metaphor my father lived out. “Strawberry Wine” was not a song my father knew, but he knew many, and he frequently sang to himself—under his breath, for his own benefit. Only a few of these songs were in English. There was “Vincent,” Don McLean’s lyrically overwrought but melodically agreeable elegy for Vincent van Gogh, often referred to by its refrain: “Starry, starry night.” He also sometimes crooned, not very accurately, the chorus to an obscure Bob Dylan song, “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind.” My father didn’t care for Dylan—he preferred more graceful tones of voice—and Dylan himself never officially released the song. My father must have heard it through its numerous covers in the ’60s and ’70s—my personal favorite is Rod Stewart’s, from Never a Dull Moment.
Most relevantly, Abba would sometimes sing the first couplet of “Summer Wine,” a song he always attributed to Frank Sinatra. As far as I know, Sinatra never sang the song; the best-known rendition was by its writer, Lee Hazlewood, from 1967, performed as a duet with Nancy Sinatra. That, plus the elder Sinatra’s 1966 hit “Summer Wind,” must have caused a pileup in my father’s memory.
Nancy introduces the song:
Strawberries, cherries, and an angel’s kiss in spring
My summer wine is really made from all these things
The song then switches into the kitschy cowboy noir Hazlewood did so well, and neither sounds nor describes anything like “Strawberry Wine.” But the same kind of signifying chain that led my father to conflate Sinatras must have linked the songs in my own mind. Hearing “Strawberry Wine” that afternoon, even though my father was still alive, is the first time I remember mourning his death.
The very form of song reminds me of my father. There is an alchemy that takes place in the meeting of words and music, one that elevates both. I see it as the closest thing to a miracle that mortals are capable of bringing into being. It was by seeing how much songs meant to my father, as a source of solace, or catharsis, or simply a kind of companionship, that I came to love them myself.
My father was a dedicated collector of the music of Bollywood movies from the ’40s and ’50s, a body of work I would not hesitate to compare to the Great American Songbook. Its best-known representatives, from that era, are the virtuosic Mohammad Rafi, and Lata Mangeshkar, who held the record for a long stretch of the 20th century as the most recorded voice in history. But my father’s favorite was Talat Mahmood, whose fragile tone was perfectly suited to ghazals—melodic settings of Urdu poetry. An old friend of my father’s later told me he had developed his love of this music long before he started collecting it—a neighbor where he grew up in Karachi owned a harmonium, and would learn songs from the radio or films to play for his friends.
Talat is a unisex name, and it seems beyond coincidence that my father went on to marry a woman of that name—my mother, Talat Azhar. It is the type of occurrence that tempts you to believe in fate. If anything, it must have been a matter of convenience: his love for her was set to music. They were together until his death, a month to the day before their 35th anniversary.
Though he mostly sang to himself, absentmindedly, he sometimes sang to me when I was a child. The occasion I remember most clearly was on another spring afternoon; the weather had begun to clear and I had just been given the gift of a new kite. We walked to a nearby field, holding hands. He sang a song from Mary Poppins, from the end of the story, after the distant father is reconciled with his own children: “Let’s go fly a kite, up to the highest height.”
I had already developed a preoccupation with death from an early age. I expect this is not uncommon among children raised without the consolations of an afterlife, but to some degree, it must be common to everyone. In an 1882 letter, Emily Dickinson, then mourning both her parents and nearing her own demise, remembered the early awakening of her consciousness of mortality: “No Verse in the Bible has frightened me so much from a Child as ‘from him that hath not, shall be taken even that he hath.’ Was it because its dark menace deepened our own Door?”
That spring day, for some reason, I was seized with the awareness of my father’s mortality. Perhaps because I felt particularly close to him, I became suddenly overcome with a sense of the impermanence of our time together. He will not always be there to sing to me, I thought. Someday he will be gone, and he won’t come back. I remember clutching his hand tighter.
My grandfather died when I was a child. I called him Baba, as did my father. It was the first time I saw my father cry. I do not, otherwise, remember his grief. My brother Asad remembers him going to work that day. Islam dictates a body be buried immediately, so my father missed his father’s funeral. Presumably he did most of his mourning in Karachi, where he traveled as soon as possible. A friend of mine who recently dealt with his own father’s death pointed out to me that this is now an experience we shared, Abba and I. We have both had to mourn our fathers.
The next time I saw my father cry was after his first surgery, in 2015, a partial lobectomy that had granted him a couple years of remission before the cancer returned. His newly reduced lung was expected to expand and fill the now-empty space in his chest, hopefully bringing him back to somewhere near normal. Along with music, one of his great loves was tennis, the affection for which he had never managed to pass on to either my brother or me. But I know my way around a tennis court, and I went to hit a few balls back and forth with him, to give him some breathing practice.
My family spoke Urdu when I was growing up, which was a source of some trouble. As twins sometimes do, Asad and I elected to speak our own private language, choosing English, which afforded us none of the intended privacy. My parents tried to keep us speaking Urdu, responding to us in Urdu even as we increasingly addressed them in English. (From what I hear, this is a losing battle, generationally—some of my cousins’ kids don’t understand Urdu at all.) This led to some idiosyncrasies in our relationship, or at least its expression. You can’t say “I love you” in Urdu—the language doesn’t include a verb form of the word love. It took me a few years, as a child, to figure this out, as I noticed how casual these declarations of affection were among the white, English-speaking families that surrounded us. But eventually, my parents became so accustomed to English themselves, speaking it to one another as much as they did Urdu, that they couldn’t reasonably insist we continue to speak Urdu at home.
After we played that day, after he had run out of breath, we sat on the bleachers, overlooking the same field where we’d once gone to fly kites. For whatever reason, my father reached out and took my face in his hands. He said, in English, through tears, “I love you.” It surprised me how easy it was to say “I love you, too.” At the same time, it felt inadequate. Part of me wishes we’d said it sooner, but I’m also not sure it would have changed much. People who love each other will only be able to tell each other a finite number of times. We continued to say it, up until our final conversations, as I sat by the side of the last bed he lay upon. But no matter how many more times I might wish I had told him while he was alive, I would still be wishing I could tell him once more.
Saying “I love you” has sometimes seemed to me, as an observer, to be an almost meaningless reflex. It tends to be the least affecting lyric in any song in which it appears, or at least the most predictable. Cole Porter wrote a song of the title in 1944, as a response to a challenge by a friend not to rely on his characteristic verbal wit. He had to cheat to make it interesting: the melody jumps downwards across the longest interval in the chromatic scale, between “love” and “you.”
But my father was not one for careless talk. He had a peculiar habit in writing emails, even in the most cursory practical messages, of using a distinctive salutation. “My dear Shuja,” he would begin. “Dear” is so formal as to become impersonal, but “My dear” is quite the opposite. He was not an effusive man, but nor would he use a perfunctory expression of affection; if he used one, he meant it. Whether or not he had much to say otherwise, he always reminded me I was dear to him.
Abba was first diagnosed with lung cancer, large-cell neuroendocrine carcinoma, in 2015. He had been a smoker, up until the birth of my brother and me, according to him, or up until a few years later, according to my mother. After the surgery, a period of remission allowed him his time in Karachi, where my mother joined him as an administrator at another school trying to develop its liberal arts program. But he was plagued by a persistent cough, which doctor after doctor failed to take seriously enough. The eventual recurrence left little hope for his future in the long term, in spite of his eligibility for a clinical trial of immunotherapy he had long aspired to participate in. Even while dealing with her own onset of Parkinson’s disease, my mother cared for him attentively, and my brother found a temporary position at Penn State that allowed him to move to our hometown and assist the both of them.
Being a man of considerable tenacity, Abba stuck around past September. In spite of having been presented with what amounted to an indeterminate death sentence, he was in relatively high spirits. After he was officially taken off the trial, at the Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University, we went for dinner across the street at a conveniently located Popeyes, alluringly visible from the hospital’s windows.
His hair had grown back, fuller and thicker than most men his age. Strangely, his taste in food had changed since the onset of his illness, and he took great pleasure in a new Korean fried chicken restaurant that had opened up in our small town, where the batter was so spicy we struggled to finish our wings. The unchanging constant was vanilla ice cream, a serving of which he would allow himself every night.
He had fallen into a routine by that point, identifying the exact position on the couch that left his breathing least constricted and the television most visible. Every evening, he would watch his preferred TV news program, the genial MSNBC anchor Ari Melber. We would have dinner, and then we would watch Everybody Loves Raymond until bedtime. I wonder if the show’s family, with its infant twin boys, let his mind go back to simpler times: he and my mother a young couple, my brother and me still small. We used to sometimes watch Frasier together—it has always been my favorite sitcom. But at some point, he began to avoid it, to change the channel when it came on. In retrospect, I think it may have been because it presented a future that he was coming to realize he would not have the chance to experience: two adult brothers and their elderly father. Now that this future has been denied me, too, I can’t watch it either.
In the daytime, he would go to school when he was able. It was an elaborate process; a shower and a shave and a change of clothes left him so exhausted he had to do it hours in advance and take some time to rest before his commute to campus. But he would return energized. He had never stopped believing that his work, and his students, mattered. On days off, he had taken to alternating between cable news and a comedy reality TV show, Impractical Jokers. It was as much a joy to hear him shout angrily at the politicians and pundits on CNN as it was to hear him laugh at juvenile pranks.
I’d resolved to spend as much time in Pennsylvania with him as I possibly could, for the coming year, or however long it would remain an option. I’d left clothes, toiletries, and half my library there, so I could travel back and forth at a moment’s notice. I’d also bought a guitar to keep with me at my parents’ house. I’d temporarily stopped playing the year before, after the disappointing dissolution of my only real band. But I had recently taken it up again, focusing more on folk and jazz styles I could play unaccompanied, and it had become a source of great comfort—a kind of meditation, for someone otherwise too impatient to meditate.
I was idly playing one afternoon, while my father lay on the couch next to me, trying my hand at a few solo arrangements by virtuoso country guitarist Chet Atkins. I noticed at some point my father’s eyes had closed; he seemed to have dozed off. I quietly set down the guitar and got up to leave him to rest.
“Don’t stop,” he said, without opening his eyes. I picked up my guitar again.
He would later say the same thing again during his final hospitalization. Increasingly aware that his days were numbered, he told me what he wanted for my future: to stay close with my brother, to take care of my mother, to keep writing and speaking my mind.
“And don’t stop making music,” he said.
After he died, after the dust settled and relatives left and life was supposed to go back to normal, I found myself reaching for my guitar with more frequency than I had in years. I came across a Chet Atkins arrangement of “Vincent,” from 1972’s Chet Atkins Picks on the Hits, a rare occasion where the elimination of its words improves a song. My greatest weakness as a self-taught guitarist is my avoidance of transcription, but I felt compelled to learn it. I listened to it over and over, for days on end, until I had written out every note.
“Maybe I should stop fighting,” Abba once said to me. “Maybe it’s time to give up.” It was at a low point, when the chemotherapy and radiation seemed to be causing more damage than the cancer itself. He looked decades older. He seemed embarrassed. His disease had consumed the lives of our family.
I have sometimes thought to myself that the fear of death leads to so much unnecessary suffering. The assumption of modern medicine that we should always sustain life, in its barest form, can mean artificially forcing a body to keep functioning when it wants to stop, to take its final rest. As Atul Gawande writes, “the waning days of our lives are given over to treatments that addle our brains and sap our bodies for a sliver’s chance of benefit.” Every time I have observed someone dying of a terminal illness, I have found the point between maintaining life and artificially prolonging it disturbingly unclear.
It seemed like the right thing to do would be to agree. To tell him, You don’t have to fight, it’s okay to accept your circumstances and depart with dignity. But facing him that day, seeing a rare look of doubt on his face, I had a moment of clarity.
He had to fight. It was who he was. As much as he may have wanted to die peacefully, he also wanted to spend his every last minute on the planet with his family. He would not, as Dylan Thomas famously put it, go gentle into that good night.
“It’s up to you,” I said. “You don’t have to give up if you’re not ready.” I told him the choice was his, and we were with him to the end.
“Old age should burn and rave at close of day,” says Thomas. That was what my father did. That was who he was.
But the fight was for life, not the futile continuation of mere physical existence. When he recognized, in December 2018, that his life was rapidly reaching a point beyond which it could not continue in any meaningful way, he checked himself into the local hospital, the same one where my brother and I were born. There, he set himself to the task of preparing the rest of us for what he had already accepted. When I spoke to him on the phone, there was a sense of urgency in his voice that was new to me. It had only been a matter of days since I had last seen him, but his condition had accelerated suddenly and unexpectedly. I was planning a trip that weekend for a story I was reporting, that I hoped might be a break for my career. He wanted me to go, but I canceled the whole thing. I had a feeling that from that moment on, I would regret every second I didn’t spend with him.
After I arrived, the doctor took my brother and me aside. He showed us two images on a computer, scans of my father’s lungs, one from a year ago and one from that day. Each in isolation would have meant nothing to me. But they were entirely different colors. That, the doctor, told us, was the cancer. The implications were unmistakable.
Abba spent his last days receiving visitors, from there on the sad height of his hospital bed, asking for many by name. He told them how glad he was to meet one last time, offering to share his meals. Our neighbor, Lily, had lost her own father not long ago—like Baba, from a great distance, in his native Tanzania. Falling right between generations, Lily had managed the singular feat of simultaneously being equally good friends with both my brother and me, on one hand, and my parents, on the other. I had even babysat her son, years ago. A geriatric nurse herself, Lily spent every possible moment in my father’s hospital room, serving as both friend and caretaker. It was less a synthesis than a violent oscillation. When there was nothing to do to comfort him, she became overwhelmed with emotion. She had seen too many patients in his condition to harbor any delusions about what was coming next.
One day, upon being informed they had ice cream available for patients, Abba insisted everyone in the room be brought a serving, including the attending nurse. He was visited by former tennis opponents, all of whom mentioned his devious drop shot. He took calls from students of decades ago. Having never known much about his professional life—I’m the only member of my immediate family who has not become an academic—I was in awe at how many lives he had touched. Former students felt they owed their careers to his teaching.
Gradually, though, with a combination of the decay of his body and the effects of the powerful medication administered him, he grew distant. The previous year, I had bought him a portable Bluetooth speaker for his birthday, and I brought it to the hospital. I put on a song: “Hai Apna Dil To Awara,” sung by Hemant Kumar, with lyrics by Majrooh Sultanpuri. The title means something like, “My Heart Is a Vagabond,” and jauntily accounts for the singer’s tendency to fall in love repeatedly.
As I watched him there, curled up in his bed, nearly nonresponsive, I saw a smile appear on Abba’s face. Gradually, almost inaudibly, he began to sing along.
As he fluctuated between semiconsciousness and the disorienting haze of both illness and anesthetization, we continued to play him whatever favorites we could remember. Among them was Talat Mahmood’s “Tasveer Banata Hoon,” with lyrics by Khumar Barabankvi. It seemed to correspond to the situation we found ourselves in, confronting the inexpressible; the realm beyond the reach of language, beyond experience.
I paint a picture, but no image appears
I saw it in a dream, but no words occur
But where words fail, there is music.
Being a South Asian family, ours is populated by not a few doctors. My mother’s younger sister Gohar, a geriatrician, spent most of my father’s hospital stay with us, on leave from her own practice in Arkansas. She was one of many members of my mother’s family who had become as close to my father as if he had been related by blood. She once mentioned to me, offhand, that even when unconscious, patients nearing death can hear, and are believed to be able to understand speech. In one of science’s moments of awkward convergence with mysticism, it seems likely that the dead can continue to hear for several minutes after they die.
So my aunt suggested that I should speak to my father even when he wasn’t responding, advice that was corroborated by the local doctors. But I didn’t say much. Abba had never been one for small talk, never had much to say over the phone. Having a good conversation with him meant being around, being engaged, doing things together. His sister Nasreen, with whom he had been closest among his five siblings since they were comrades in the NSF, was still on a plane from Karachi.
Eventually, his condition reached a point where we could do nothing but wait. My mother, Asad, Lily, and I sat with him through one particularly agonizing night of delirium. We did everything we could to calm him down as, over and over again, he processed the shock of discovering where he was and what was happening. He tried to remove his IV and catheter. He tried to get out of bed. Labored breathing dried out his mouth, and I administered water to his lips with a sponge. His last words to me were “thank you,” after I told him he’d done a good job absorbing it. He passed out, and would not awaken again.
I was once again struck by how artificial the situation was. We consider the survival instinct so natural that the complex machinery designed solely for the purpose of keeping an unconscious person breathing until the heart stops is considered a neutral measure. But any observer can see that it is a major intervention. Had we been able to ask him, I have little doubt that at that point, my father would have asked to complete the transition, as quickly and as painlessly as possible. My cousin Hasan, from my mother’s side, had arrived by then from Michigan. A surgeon, he agreed that this was a stage of life that Western medical practice has not figured out how to deal with. He hoped it would become a more forthright, humane process by the time our generation reached it.
These were the worst moments of my life, and they may always be. Watching him breathe, increasingly slowly, I felt my heart leap between each increasingly desperate inhalation. Gradually, the sound of wet breathing, known by the horrible name of the “death rattle,” became apparent. He had been taken off any monitors of his vital signs, which were not going to tell anyone anything but that he was proceeding inexorably along a predictable decline. He was no longer being provided any life-enhancing treatment, only oxygen, saline, and morphine, to ameliorate as much of his suffering as possible.
I spent many consecutive nights sleeping in a hospital chair. One morning, everyone had temporarily stepped out of the room but me—on the phone, to the bathroom, to the cafeteria. I wondered if he could sense the relative absence of company. I decided to set aside my discomfort and take my aunt’s advice. I pulled my chair closer and leaned over to whisper in his ear.
“Abba,” I said, “you made the world a better place. Thank you. I love you. You can go if you have to.”
I tend not to believe in mystical things, even those grudgingly allowed for by science. But I struggle to understand this moment rationally. Immediately after I spoke to him, he took his last breath. It was as though he needed some sort of confirmation, a gesture of approval. As though he had lain there worrying we weren’t ready to lose him, and needed one of us to tell him we wanted him to be at peace.
I don’t know if that’s true, and I’m sure I never will. But I hope, at least, that he heard me.
I called to my mother. I tried to speak, but all I could do was shake my head. She went to him, and stroked his face, and whispered to him. I left them their privacy. Whatever she said, I hope he heard her too.
My aunt returned and listened to his chest with a stethoscope she had brought with her. I don’t know if she heard his heart stop beating, but I’m sure it had long ceased by the time the doctor showed up to make the pronouncement. By then, everyone else had trickled back in: Asad, Lily, and my parents’ friend Claudia, who had busied herself making sure my mother wouldn’t have to deal with any surprises or demands.
More of my cousins—Hasan’s brothers Husain, Askari, and Sajjad—had arrived, from various different states. I embraced each of them and thought of the times they had spent in our home when I was growing up, sometimes as an extended intermediary point after immigrating to the United States for their studies. I remembered, from an early age, watching them taking academic career advice from my father, or getting into arguments with him over politics, or just coming over during bouts of homesickness and joining him on the couch for some channel-surfing.
“I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for him,” said my aunt Gohar.
“None of us could say otherwise,” said my cousin Askari.
Hasan, who, as a surgeon, has had to make his own pronouncements, sat in silence.
“After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” Emily Dickinson tells us, in an 1862 poem. “The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs.”
In the moments following my father’s death, as his body was moved to the morgue, I felt a sudden absence of emotion, as though a lightbulb had burned out. The overwhelming sorrow would return, with a vengeance. But for now, the ceaseless stream of tears that had fallen while I watched him in his hospital bed had abruptly abated. I attended, nearly frantically, to housework, logistics, the arrangement of his memorial. I became fixated on keeping all the flowers he’d been sent alive for as long as possible—trimming stems, changing water, locating patches of sunlight. I put all the medicines he would no longer need into a box.
“The Feet, mechanical, go round,” Dickinson says.
He had made some details clear—there were to be no ceremonial speeches, no religious ritual. Any resemblance to Islamic tradition was coincidence. There was to be food served and music played. My mother chose the menu, making vanilla ice cream the centerpiece. My brother and I put together a playlist of the songs we most often remembered hearing him sing. My cousins on my mother’s side served alongside us as pallbearers. The event itself was a blur, but in my mind I kept an index of who showed up and who didn’t, as though he and I would be able to gossip about it later.
I catch myself wanting to tell Abba everything that happens, the same types of things I always told him before, and, if I only had the chance, more than that. I wanted to get to know him better. I wanted him to get to know me better. I find myself wishing specifically that I could tell him I miss him, a paradox caused by its own impossibility. Sometimes I call out for him. What I have not been able to do is speak to him, the way some mourners find themselves doing naturally, in response to the loss of a loved one. My experience has been characterized by absence. The habitual search for him is met, as Freud put it in his 1917 paper “Mourning and Melancholia,” by the “verdict of reality.”
When my mother, Asad, and I went to choose his headstone, I noticed a remarkable display in the funeral home’s office. There were two shrines, collections of framed photos and inspirational quotes, in tribute to disgraced former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and disgraceful former American president Ronald Reagan. I was overwhelmed with the urge to find my father in the room, to nudge him and gesture with my eyes towards the garish display, to share a private laugh. It was the closest I’ve come to feeling like he was still there—more than when I visit the grave that was to be adorned with the block of granite we picked out.
There is no way of anticipating the pain of bereavement. I would say that no one ever tells you what it feels like, as C. S. Lewis begins by claiming in in his memoir of his wife’s death, A Grief Observed. But they do. It just doesn’t matter whether or not you’ve been told; you don’t know it till it hits. Lewis describes his loss as an amputation, leaving a “wounded stump.” It does not seem to me like a metaphor. I feel as though I had a lobe of my lungs cut out, just as my father did. I was given no anesthesia, and there has been no subsequent regeneration of missing tissue. I’ve been awake through the whole procedure, and I have not healed. Like him, I’m left with what the doctors called “air hunger”—an unquenchable yearning to fill the emptiness in my chest.
I tend to have trouble remembering my dreams, a shortcoming I have often lamented during sessions with my analyst. But I have been dreaming of my father. I know because of a song I find stuck in my head many mornings—an experience I believe relies on the same chain of association as the imagery of a dream.
The song is Talat Mahmood’s “Raat Neh Kyah Kyah Khwab Dikkhaye,” with words by the lyricist Shailendra.
What dreams the night revealed
Full of color, I cast a hundred nets
As my eyes opened, the illusion was broken
Leaving grief’s black shadow
When I open my eyes every morning, the first thing I see is the void, the empty space left where my father used to exist. It is difficult to comprehend nothingness. Science calls the space in the universe where there is nothing—not even, apparently, any space—“dark matter.”
Darkness is an obvious metaphor for grief. There are others. They are obvious because they are unavoidable. Immediately after my father’s death, I felt that the world had become a few degrees colder, now lacking his warmth. It was literally the midst of winter, but of a darker, colder atmosphere than I had ever experienced. In her 1882 letter, Dickinson evokes her mother’s death with the same comparison: “Her dying feels to me like many kinds of Cold.”
In “After great pain, a formal feeling comes –” Dickinson describes “Freezing persons,” surviving a loss, left to “recollect the snow.” The last line seems to blur dying and mourning into one: “First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –”
As she often did, Dickinson ends with a dash rather than a period. This distinctive rhythm was sometimes eliminated in the few of her poems she saw published during her lifetime, with the imposition of conventional punctuation by uncomprehending editors. We often talk of a “period” of mourning, as though it concludes, completed, and something new begins. But I do not expect my grief to go away. I live in the dash now. It is an ending, and it is an eternity.