Woody Allen once said “I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
There is no way to adequately deal with death.
Despite being the only predictability it always seems to hit unexpectedly, haphazardly. Inevitable but anarchic, it turns your stomach inside out, leaving disordered and painful ruminations on your own existence and those close to you.
The passing of a cancer-stricken uncle earlier this year (in Pakistani parlance, a family friend) is the first time death feels as close as a cold breath.
A celebrated elderly surgeon, dealing with death was part of Uncle’s business, but at 28 I had barely experienced it, too young to remember grandparents overseas.
Uncle’s wife loved poetry and would invite me to their beachfront Sydney shire home as a university student. We’d chat about politics and Pakistan. I’d listen to their globetrotting stories in exotic locations.
Aunty would talk about her next planned “mushaira” or poetry night where literary types would gather reciting urdu ghazals and melancholy prose.
A migrant, rising from working class ranks to excel in medicine and return to assist the country’s most needy, Uncle adjusted effortlessly to his new life. Elegant, old fashioned, stern, dapper, organised and razor sharp, he had a pedantic meticulousness in manner and dress that seemed reminiscent of a colonial drawing room.
Even on his deathbed he retained admirable social etiquette, chatting amiably with visitors, ordering doctors about and even neatly leaving a note on funeral arrangements the day he died.
The couple spoke the same Pakistani-dialect we did and childhood trips across Sydney to their palatial homes opened up a world of what was possible.
As I offered my Aunty condolences and apologies for not being there, moored interstate for work, it struck me how unprepared our generation was in dealing with death, and how far removed we were from the elegance and niceties of Uncle’s generation.
I watched in awe as family and community friends rallied, providing support, arranging a Quranic khatam where friends gathered to pray.
They went to hospital, attended the janaza funeral prayer at the mosque and finally saw the body buried at Rookwood cemetery.
Instead of awkward platitudes their assistance was immediate, anchored within the obligations of tradition and religion that provided ritual to deal with what my friends and I find uncomfortable to even speak about.
Even the notification of death is circumscribed in Islam, to be met with a prayer: Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rajion, to God we come from and God we return.
As our lives become longer and more comfortable, as we shut our elderly in homes for remote death, dying is the last taboo, unspoken of and unwelcome, as we struggle to find words to comfort the grieving.
In the world of transient texts, virtual friendships and unanchored individuals with unlimited choice, I was reminded of the importance of community, family and faith. The all-encompassing reassurances of the frailty of our humanity, that allow pain to be collectively shared and understood.