Two women, two tragedies and two smiles.
Yesterday I was honoured to meet two awe-inspiring women. Both are women from my local community in Tooting, south London. Both are friends of my mother whom my family has known for over 30 years.
Approaching the nondescript semi-detached house from a distance it was clear that a disabled person lived there. A concrete ramp had been built from the doorstep to the pavement. Two rows of aluminium hand-railings bordered the path.
As I entered the house, Auntie Saima hugged me with tears in her eyes. She had seen me as a little boy, but now this was the first time she had seen me in years.
My mother told me that Auntie Saima had prayed for me during all the years that I was in prison. I was visiting her to say thank you.
Auntie Saima was sitting on a wheelchair. Next to her was a mechanical hoist that lifted her into and out of her wheelchair.
As I looked around the front-room I noticed a medical bed, similar to those found in hospitals. One of the four different nurses assigned to care for her had just left.
Auntie Saima had been an active woman. A hospitable host, she used to hold dinners at her house and welcome her guests with an open heart. Back in the day, she had painted and decorated her own house from top to bottom.
“We didn’t have money in those days to pay someone to do it, we had to do it ourselves,” she smiled.
Three years ago, in 2013, Auntie Saima’s life changed forever.
She was at the top of the stairs in her own house when she lost her balance and fell all the way down to the bottom. “I was lying in the hallway, in pain. I pulled the telephone cord to reach the handset, then called for help.”
The fall was so severe that it damaged her spinal cord, leaving her paralysed from the waist down and unable to walk. She spent the next three months in hospital.
Auntie Saima seemed bothered by the fly in the room. While talking to me, she kept an eye on the fly. I was already aware that even small things like a fly can cause huge distress to a paralysed person. I tried to usher the fly out of the room but was unable to do so.
“Alhamdulillah [God be praised] for everything,” she smiled. “There is so much suffering in the world, we only have to look around us. My life is good in comparison. I can talk, eat and drink. I have a roof over my head. What do I have to complain about?”
My mother told me that since her accident, she had not heard Auntie Saima complain once, not once, about what she was going through.
After asking Auntie Saima for her blessings, I left to visit Auntie Asiya, ten minutes walk away.
Auntie Asiya was lying on the medical bed in her front room. Next to the bed was a zimmer frame. Her daughters had just fed her lunch. Due to the multiple medications that she was on, she was unable to observe the Ramadan fasts.
Auntie Asiya had also lived an ordinary life, bringing up her two children as best as she could. One day in 1997, nineteen years ago, Auntie Asiya fell in her house. She only tripped over one step but the fall was devastating. She injured her head and suffered brain damage.
With time, the injury developed into Parkinson’s Disease, an illness characterised by uncontrollable trembling of the limbs and slurred speech.
Auntie Asiya mumbled something to me. I smiled at her, unable to understand even a word of what she had just spoken to me. “Mum is asking how you are finding your first Ramadan since coming home,” her daughter interpreted.
A couple of years ago, the trembling in Auntie Asiya’s limbs had deteriorated. She was falling up to a dozen times a day. Surgeons offered to operate on her brain to relieve the shaking. But at a cost. “Her speech will suffer,” the doctor said.
Imagine having to choose between walking and talking?
The family decided to proceed with the surgery. Now, her limbs trembled less and she ‘only’ fell down 3-4 times daily, instead of a dozen times a day.
I handed Auntie Asiya some fruit that I had bought for her. “You shouldn’t have,” she managed to smile even as she grimaced in pain. “Visiting me was enough.”
The frustration on her face at not being understood was evident. Most of the time she remained quiet, but when she did speak, her daughter had to tell me what her mother was saying.
“Alhamdulillah [God be praised], for everything,” she mumbled. These words I understood clearly.
Before I left, I told her the hadith (saying) of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that had brought me great comfort during the years I spent in captivity:
“The people who lived comfortable lives in this world will wish that their skins could be cut up with shears on the Day of Judgement from what they see of the reward of the people who were put through trials and tribulations.”
Her eyes welled with tears as she asked me to pray for her.
On my way home, I reflected on three lessons that I had learned from the two hours that I spent with these two awe-inspiring women:
1. Our lives can change forever in the blink of an eye. Life, health, wealth, liberty… all can be gained or lost in an instant. So we should always appreciate what we have today, because tomorrow it might be taken from us.
2. We cannot always control what happens to us but we can always control how we choose to react to it. These women are enduring unimaginable suffering, but they have chosen to be content with their destiny while praying to God to relieve them of it.
3. No matter what suffering we go through in life, there is always always someone in a worse position than us. Looking at those worse off than us helps us to appreciate our blessings.
There was one last detail I forgot to mention. Auntie Asiya, the Parkinson’s patient, told me that Auntie Saima, the one who fell down the stairs, came all the way in her wheelchair to visit her.
Even though she herself was suffering, she was still able to reach out to someone else who was in a worse position than her.
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