I had just dropped my sisters off at madrassah – the mosque school – and was heading home. The sun was finally calling it a day, decorating the sky with a glorious mix of orange and pink. It was raining lightly, my windscreen wipers wiping tiny specks of water away as I drove on. I watched as young children walked towards the madrassah, dressed in small abayas and thobes, carrying their bags and clutching Qur’ans tightly to their chests.
For them it was another evening to understand God’s message.
Another evening of embracing this beautiful gift of Islam.
It made me smile.
My phone vibrated on the passenger seat next to me, announcing a text message. With one hand on the steering wheel, I reached for it and instantly heard my mother’s voice echo in my head. “Be careful when you’re driving. Both hands on the wheel, okay? Accidents happen in seconds, remember?” I left my phone untouched and placed both hands on the wheel. “Okay, mum! Happy now?” I said to the silence in my car, slightly annoyed at the fact that even though she wasn’t there, her words were.
I slowed down as a speed hump appeared in the middle of a road and then I noticed an old woman with a shopper trolley standing at the side waiting to cross. I waved her past. Very slowly, she gripped her shopper and stepped onto the road. She was short and weak, her shiny white hair covered with a red knitted hat. Just before she reached the other side, she stopped, lifted a hand and waved at me, smiling. My headlights shone in her face highlighting the piercing blue of her eyes and the deep set of wrinkles around them. I waved back. She lifted her other hand, steadying her shopper with the first and mouthed a thank you.
And then her smile vanished.
Her head fell back as her waving hand shot towards her chest. Her shopper clattered to the floor. Her eyes widened with shock. She was clutching her chest with both hands. I blinked, lifted up the hand break and rushed out of the car. I ran towards her as she fell to the ground. Her eyes were rolling back, something was dribbling out of her mouth. Her chest rose. I waited for it to fall, but it never did. And then, she went still.
I felt my insides freeze as I remembered where I’d seen this before. Blood rapidly rushed to my head. I heard loud pounding in my ears as people crowded around us. I knelt down by the old lady. What was I supposed to do? I knew absolutely nothing about her. Who was she? Someone shouted something about an ambulance. A woman screamed. I felt strong hands gripping me, pulling me up. Someone yanked me forward. I heard horns, the screech of brakes and then I felt the world tilt as the sound of shrieking sirens invaded the air.
“Sister? Sister, are you okay?” I looked up.
It was a brother, his face etched with concern, his eyes running back to the ambulance that had just arrived. Something within me rose as my throat tightened. I managed a nod.
“She’s gone. I saw her. I saw her walking across the road and she was waving. They’re taking her in.” His disorganised words tumbled out of him; I didn’t know what to say. I watched as the stretcher was lifted, as paramedics rushed around, and as the crowd of people began to thin as everyone went on their own way. I wondered about the phone that would shortly ring in an unknown household, breaking the peaceful silence and announcing the presence of death. How many lives would it affect and shatter?
“Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rajioon.” I heard myself whisper.
To God we belong and to Him we shall return.
On the way home, my thoughts circled around what had happened to that poor woman. One second she was waving at me and the next second she was holding her chest like it was a lifeline. It was less than a second. An instance. And then death had claimed her. That was all it took. An instance. What had passed through her in that moment? Had she known the angels of death had arrived?
The loud sound of my phone ringing broke into my thoughts. It was my mum.
“Hurry home, where are you?” she asked, her voice heavy with excitement. “Your uncle just phoned that your aunt has given birth to a baby girl. Oh, gosh! He was so close to tears. Hurry up, we’re on our way to the hospital,” she said and quickly hung up. I realized I had forgotten all about my aunt and the new baby.
I was hurrying home to the arrival of a birth after witnessing a death. The very same hospital, that would consume that old woman’s body and become a grieving ground for her family, would be a beacon of light and hope as we celebrated the warm welcome of an innocent baby girl. The reality of it shocked me – when it shouldn’t have. We all know we’ll be leaving one day, don’t we? Yet it still grips us on the insides and claws its way around. We know nothing here is everlasting, yet we grip on tightly, fists bent tight, knuckles turning white. In one second it would all come crashing down, yet it’s a forgotten reality.
Life and death. They were so close, yet so far apart. So similar in their ways of changing lives and teaching lessons, of triggering emotions and clearing the specks of dust from our eyes, enabling us to see clearly.
Tonight, a few miles away someone would be grieving over an absence, whilst under our roof we would be celebrating a presence.