Dying 'peacefully' . . . | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 10, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 10, 2011

Reflections

Dying 'peacefully' . . .


I always wondered what it meant when death announcements in newspapers used the phrase “someone has died peacefully.” How does one die “peacefully”? When we were young, the Italian poet Dante whispered into our ears, “Death, always cruel / Pity's foe in chief / Mother who brought forth grief / Merciless judgment and without appeal!” How could one have peace with such a cruel adversary? Yet, when my mother, Suraiya Begum died on the first day of August, I found no other way to describe it. She died “peacefully” --- and that is what our relatives were telling everyone.
She had dinner that night, said her prayers and complained about feeling unwell, experiencing a somewhat different discomfort than her usual ones. My eldest sister offered to sleep with her and she declined by saying that “you will not able to sleep, if you are with me.” The night passed without any event noticed by others. My sister got up in the morning and found our mother asleep in her bed. She touched her gently to wake her up for early morning prayers and breakfast. Her body was still warm, but she was no more! When we arrived there she was still sleeping, as if she would wake up if we called her and we did. But she did not respond.
She was an ordinary woman. She had not completed her schooling. With age, she had developed typical chronic diseases --- asthma, hypertension, rheumatism --- but was beautiful even at the time of her death. She was about eighty when she passed on to the other world. One cannot be exact as birth records were unknown in those days in a village in the remote island of Sandwip, where she was born. She came to life in a relatively well off family that became poorer due to a devouring of her ancestral property by the mighty Meghna river.
Her life can be divided into four distinct phases. Her pre-marriage life was a life of relative abundance but with little emphasis on education. She then married my father and struggled to raise seven children as the spouse of a college teacher, at a time when private tuition was unknown. The third phase of her life was devoted to taking care of an ailing husband. In the final phase, she herself became sick but during this period her struggle bore fruit as her children became accomplished professionals, from doctors and engineers to high civil and military officials. She lived to see her grandchildren grow up, get married, and even got to play with her great granddaughter!
As a wife of a college teacher and mother of seven children she had to live a modest life of sacrifice for her children. How modest? A couple of examples would suffice. A chicken can be divided into four leg and four breast pieces, a maximum of eight pieces of meat. Her husband plus seven children would have eight pieces of meat. So, she would have whatever bones were left, sharing with the domestic help. This became a habit for her. Later, in better days, when her children were grown up and offered her a good piece of chicken in their houses, she would exchange it for bones in the bowl --- that she was forced to develop a liking for.
In our childhood, we would communicate our demands to our father through her. She would place them before him at an appropriate time and get back to us. I needed to buy a book of poems for my school, I told my mother. It was a tiny little book of about 50 pages. My father had advised her that I should write the book by hand (no photocopiers then!) or even better memorize it. I told my mother that I would do neither. Either I would have the book or stop attending school. Thanks to my mother's persuasion, I received a brand new copy of the book.
Her emotions were always muted. It was my pleasant duty to take her to Sonali Bank to collect her pension, due from her husband's service. Sometimes to avoid traffic or because of my other preoccupations, I would offer her money instead of having her to go to the bank. She would refuse to accept the money and insist upon collecting the small pension amount. The other issue that she would constantly remind me about was to find out whether the students at Chittagong College were regularly receiving the stipend from the scholarship fund that we had created in the memory of our father.
How or when does one die peacefully? Is it after suffering long illness? Or due to exceptional sacrifices that turn an ordinary life extraordinary? After she died all three of her surviving siblings were saying they had been orphaned. How does a dead sister make orphans of her siblings? By extraordinary love, I suppose, for she had hardly much else that she could offer to them. A nephew of hers sent me a text message from abroad after her death, “We all are witness to Allah; she was a pious and kind Muslimah.” Her grandchildren competed with each other for the privilege of lowering her body into the grave.
A friend of mine who got to know my mother over a short period of time came to hear about her passing away and sent me an email, “May the Almighty bless Chachi, fill her grave with Noor, make it a Garden, grant her Shade under the Arsh on the Day of Judgment, and grant her entry into Jannatul Ferdous.” Not only her siblings and nephews, her cousins, other relatives, but all persons known to her felt the some kind of void, for she touched their lives. Perhaps the following quote from an unknown author provides an answer to my mother's “peaceful” death: “Those who have lived a good life do not fear death, but meet it calmly and even long for it in the face of great suffering. But those who do not have a peaceful conscience dread death as though life means nothing but physical torment. The challenge is to live our life so that we will be prepared for death when it comes.”
May her “peaceful” death carry her on to her final abode, iin the company of the Almighty.

Dr. M. Fouzul Kabir Khan, a former civil servant, teaches at the School of Business, North South University .

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