For the next post in our ongoing Things Parents Say series, author lawyer, charity activist, friend and all-round superwoman, Hina Belitz shares a deeply moving and poignant reflection on the death of both her parents in the past year, the lessons they left behind and some mysterious experiences which remain unexplained…
My Glimpse Beyond Death the Year Mum & Dad Passed Away
Sometimes when I think of mum and dad I feel winded. Life giving breath forced out of me as if I’ve been struck with great force. Other times it’s like a trance. I’m on the commuter train and next moment the world is lost to me. Through a blur I’m seeing ‘death’ – out there like some creature sat upon the fields and trees rushing by. Last year I lost both mum and dad. Nothing will ever be the same again.
We all thought dad would go first with his frailty and that relentless creeping dementia. But it was mum, our strong, feisty powerhouse of a mother who passed first. A mother who loved with a rare passion and who fearlessly moulded the world about her. Losing her was like the loss of sight in one eye. A whole part of my life lost forever, never to be regained.
Dad had been unwell for years, stolen away a little each year by his debilitating condition. And yet there were times of exceptional lucidity so at odds with his diminished state. When those moments came, they cut through his dementia in miraculous ways which felt like witnessing a new-born sit up and speak. His memory and fierce intellect would return and he’d again become that loving dad who cared more deeply for his three children than all else.
Stranger still, there were times dad developed a visionary quality, seeing things that weren’t there, saying things there was no way he could know. One time, mum phoned. Dad, she says, has been awake all night and keeps shouting, ‘someone’s upsetting Guria,’ (meaning ‘dolly,’ the nickname he’d coined for me since birth.) It was entirely true, but I hadn’t told anyone and no-one knew it was that very night I’d lain awake in tears. Another time, dad had a vision. These were regular occurrences. Dad saw people sitting next to us when there was no one there, and often he’d speak to them. The doctor said they were hallucinations. Tricks of the mind, quite normal for those with dementia. I was unsure. Could it be some inner eye had been opened? An eye with which dad could perceive an unseen world, a world invisible to us.
This vision came during Ramadan. Dad sees a very tall man standing in the doorway of his bedroom. So tall his head, he tells us, is reaching the ceiling of his bedroom. Go away, dad tells this giant visitor. Mum jokes,
“Has an apparition come to meet with you again.”
“No” dad replies, “he’s come to take you away.”
Dad argues with this vision. “Go away. I’m not letting you take her.”
I dismissed dad’s spat with this presence, ignoring the knot as it formed in my stomach. Had he foreseen, I wonder, that mum would soon be leaving this world?
Witnessing a parents’ death is an extreme experience. As they passed, dad after years of suffering, mum after being struck down, I was gifted with momentary insights. I felt with visceral force the extraordinary uniqueness of every one of us. That there will never be another mum or dad or you or me. The choices we make, from the smallest to the biggest, carve and colour our souls making each as different from the next as the patterns on snowflakes. And I was overcome with the certainty that our lives, each breath, every breath is a gift of such immense magnitude. Magnitude, like the size of the universe all about us, we are not given to grasp in our limited minds.
And now they are gone, the finality of that passing is total. I yearn for a single moment more with them, but the barrier is raised and I am left only with the memory of who they were to me. Our interactions.
One time, when I was eight or thereabouts, I heard dad’s melodic voice singing a prayer about our house as he so often did. It’s early morning. He calls me to walk with him in the park adjacent to our home. The air is crisp and damp and fresh as our footsteps break a path through a light web of gossamer. I see it then. There, shining in the grass nearby. I run to dad.
“I found money, daddy,” I say.
Dad goes down on one knee. That a nice coin he says turning it around in his palm as I’m working out how many sweets I can buy.
“But Guria, that coin belongs to someone else,” he says, thoughtful eyes staring into the distance, “and what if they come looking for it?”
I am momentarily confused.
“What do you think? Shall we put it back?”
I take it from his palm, run back and place it exactly where I found it. To this day I now find myself putting things back, filling gaps when I see that something’s been taken, whether it’s an object, money, love. Always, I think of dad.
Dad had the sharpest moral compass and was scrupulously conscious of God in every moment. A staunch, steadfast lover of the Lord who never missed a prayer. As a teacher, a writer and a former academic, he loved nothing more than spending his time expounding the beauty of God’s words and contemplating the knotted mysteries of being. While mum was a constant presence, an active support about me at all times, dad surrounded me like an invisible fluid through which I picked up the shape of righteousness by osmosis. And later when he became ill and his memory failed he’d forget everything, often demanding a meal he’d just moments earlier eaten, but throughout this time, he never forgot to stand before God to perform his five daily prayers.
In the last year, I had considered dad to be diminished. A percentage of the man he used to be. It wasn’t possible to be more frail or thin and one by one, his faculties began to shut down. It was on the afternoon of the 23 October 2016 having returned to the hospital that I noticed dad’s breathing become intermittent. His breath, when it came, was deep, raspy, urgent. It was then, sitting under florescent lights in that sanitised hospital ward, that I became engulfed by a scent so beautiful, that I was compelled to draw myself to the source. It came from dad. I breathed him in, intoxicated. Yaseen, a chapter of the Quran, was playing softly in the background on my phone as I repeatedly whispered the testament of faith into his ear. As if he’d been waiting for me, he passed away within minutes in my arms. At that moment, I was struck with the realisation I’d been wrong. Dad was never ‘less’ even at the depth of his illness. His unique essence, that carved colourful eternal core, was fully present until the moment he passed.
Death comes without warning. They say life goes on. It does and yet in very real ways it doesn’t. A paradigm shift is permanent and it changes us. I cannot now ignore the fact that I too will pass and this has focused my mind. Everything must matter. With all that my extraordinary dad was, it was mum, who passed a few months before dad, that was the most powerful force in my life. When I think of her I hear her reassuring mantra, God is the best planner and recall her chide before she passed, don’t you ever stop doing the right thing, no matter who you may upset or offend. She remains the most remarkable person I have ever known. My parents shone a light of such beauty into my soul and I know I will carry that light with me always.
Thank you Hina, for your beautiful words and sharing your experiences and the wisdom of your parents with us.
Hina’s first novel, Set Me Free, was released last year and is a gripping, can’t-put-down page-turner of a book which tells an emotional story of family, culture, immigration, hope and humanity. Named as an Amazon Best Debut and Lovereading’s Book of the Year, Set Me Free is published by Headline Review and can be ordered here.