Saturday December 09, 2023

Partings without goodbyes

June 20, 2021

When you lose three siblings in one wicked sweep of Covid-19, there is bound to be an incomprehensible surge of emotions and images in your mind. Now that I find myself incarcerated in this unfortunate situation, I must admit to not being able to make any sense of it all. There is this expression that many of my friends have used: at a loss for words.

But beyond words, there is this palpable manifestation of love and sympathy for what I and my family have suffered. I had read a lot about the value of relationships in life. I am now able to certify the veracity of multiple research projects in this context. There is nothing more precious in this world than love and friendship.

In addition, we are also aware of the shelter that family can provide in times of pain and distress. During the past few weeks, I have discovered a reservoir of strength and fortitude in my extended family that I did not know was there. My nieces and nephews, particularly those who lost a parent in this unforeseen calamity, not only kept their heads on their shoulders but also dealt resolutely with emergencies that attended the hospitalisation and demise of three siblings in a place that was virtually out of bounds for other members of the family.

I have to say that my struggle to cope with this terrible bereavement was eased a bit when I reminded myself that this pandemic has devastated so many families across the world. Many of us have suffered the agony of parting with very dear and irreplaceable individuals. Three siblings going together may be exceptional but the havoc caused by this virus, we know, is widespread.

Since this has been an extraordinary, almost surreal experience, shaking us to the core, there are obviously many stories to tell. Another lesson I have learnt is that talking about our grief, being open to friends and relatives who want to commiserate with us, and delving into memories of the departed is therapeutic. It helps.

However, I do not have sufficient space here to recount the emotional journey that I made during the past one month.

In the middle of May, a grim tragedy began to take root in Dubai where a group of the family met for Eid vacations at my nephew’s house – a house that had frequently resonated with joyous get-togethers. After days of late night chatter and happy memories, the virus struck this happy abode and eventually the three siblings were caught in the web of Covid-19.

Strangely, there seemed a pattern in how they left us. They went in an ascending order, age-wise. Then, they left us on successive Wednesdays. First to go was my youngest brother Asif Akhtar. The next Wednesday, June 9, younger sister Fehmida Moin left us. She was a former lecturer in chemistry in St. Joseph’s College for Girls in Karachi. Dr Aquila Islam, the eldest of us though physically most fragile, bravely fought her battle until Wednesday this week.

We were eight – five sisters and three brothers. In March this year, our physiotherapist sister Naheed Islam had died after protracted ailments. This means that we have been cut to half in just over three months. The family is at present in a state of mourning that is not easy to decipher. It is hard to bear that our siblings breathed their last without any of us being with them to hold their hands. And they were buried in a forlorn location, far from home.

At one level, our family has grieved for each of them in an equal measure. Both Asif and Fehmida had lost their spouses some years ago. Their children, whose self-control is remarkable, have to carry a heavier burden of grief. But Aquila belongs in a separate category because she was the matriarch of the family and a shining light for so many in different climes.

Because she was just a little older than me, we grew up together and were the best of friends. After her death, I am beginning to agonise over the fact that I have lost my own connection to my past and my memories. I’m also heartbroken that her role in promoting science education and women’s empowerment in Pakistan was not fully appreciated. I say this in spite of the tributes that are being paid to her by those whose lives she had touched. Perhaps, it is a sense I have always quietly held inside me that the system restricted her into a smaller space than she was capable of occupying.

As I see it, Aquila’s story was plugged into the story of Pakistan. Our mother never went to school. She had learnt to read and write at home. But her eldest child, a girl, was the first Pakistani woman to do a PhD in nuclear physics.

In fact, she was the only female among 120 graduate students in McMaster University’s physics department. She had completed her doctorate from McMasters University in Canada, which had its own reactor, in four years in 1970s – a record at that time. I always marvelled at her erudition and clarity of thought. But it was as a human being that she truly excelled.

Unable to think straight when the news of her death reached us on Wednesday morning, I asked our daughter Aliya to draft a message for our friends. This is what she wrote: “With a heavy heart, I must let you know of the passing of Abbo’s elder sister Aquila Islam. Our family is bereft, devastated and stunned beyond belief at what we have experienced in these dramatic three weeks with the loss of three siblings. Aquila phuppo was our queen, our centre of gravity, the force that kept our family united”.

Surely there is a story that I must tell – but, on another occasion.

The writer is a senior journalist.