Gender & Identity, Life

My Bangladeshi parents are way too comfortable talking about dying

Sometimes they forget to live.

My family talks about dying a lot.

Our clan is pretty religious, and thusly the idea that God holds our expiration dates on delicate strings of fate is something they all very much buy into. But their religiosity doesn’t come close to explaining the weirdness of their self-actualized mortality.

[bctt tweet=”My family talks about dying a lot.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I was always aware of this odd quality about my folks, but only recently I felt it affect me seriously. It was when my parents decided to go to Hajj this year.

Between packing for the three-week trip, flying in my grandparents from Bangladesh to take care of my siblings, and bracing themselves both physically and spiritually for the journey ahead, the period before they left was a whirlwind of activity.

One morning, as I was home on break before the fall semester, my mother decided to take me with her to work, for what I assumed would be last minute instruction to manage and/or overlook the business in their absence.

What I didn’t expect was for my mother to pull into the parking lot, unbuckle her seat belt and say, “We may not come back.”

Pilgrimage to the holy lands is a pillar of Islam, and perhaps one of the hardest of the five pillars to execute. It requires not only physical and mental preparedness, but also an availability of time and finances. Once there, pilgrims must also remain wary of the ease in which sickness can spread because of the high concentration of congregated worshippers, attempt to keep from getting trampled when performing tawaf (making rounds around the Kaaba), and staying hydrated on long bouts of travel and worship.

[bctt tweet=”What I didn’t expect was for my mother to say, ‘We may not come back.’ ” username=”wearethetempest”]

My parents were not ignorant of the various trials of Hajj but instead used them to accept how fleeting life really was. It’s a mindset that many Muslims adopt when preparing for the holy journey, an acceptance of mortality and a morose joy in thinking that death in the holy land, while tragic, may just be the best kind of death a person seeking paradise could ask for. I knew this from Sunday school lectures or Friday sermons at the mosque. But that knowledge seemed lost as I stared into the tranquil face of my mother explaining what I’d need to do if she and my father didn’t make it back home.

[bctt tweet=”I was promising to fulfill a dying woman’s last wish.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I felt numb as we exited the car and entered our decades-old gas station, that, for once, wasn’t so familiar and welcoming. My mother didn’t seem to notice my sudden quiet as she explained the financial autonomy and responsibility I’d have to shoulder while casually pricing bags of Bugles to be shelved in the snacks aisle of the store. I listened intently as my father skillfully kneaded pizza dough while explaining the various properties I could sell if money was tight or the lawyers I could consult about renting out our store if they themselves weren’t around to run it. I couldn’t quite understand the nonchalance (from their end) of the conversations I had with them that day.

As they orally dictated their post-mortem instructions, I couldn’t help but feel the hollow ache of loss already.

Later in the day, my mother teared up while talking about how important it was for me, the eldest child, to finish my education and help my sisters do the same, so I firmly grabbed her hand and assured her that I would.

It was as if in that moment, I was promising to fulfill a dying woman’s last wish.

After that day, my parents didn’t bring up the topic of their delicate mortality again and even advised that I refrain from sharing our conversation with my sisters, concerned that the subject matter might scare them. I understood their reasoning but keeping what they said to myself had me anxiously praying into the late night hours for their safety. 

My fear fed into a growing sense of foreboding every time I would stare at the pixelated image of their tired faces in their white swathes of clothing halfway around the world or heard the rasp of my mother’s voice over the phone as she unconvincingly tried to assure me that her lack of voice was just that and not some secret chronic illness that she’d acquired abroad.

And when they made it back home safely, I was relieved beyond belief.

And then angry.

[bctt tweet=”We shouldn’t accept our families’ view of mortality as a dark quirk.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Angry because they almost convinced me that I would have to navigate the rest of my life without their comfort or wisdom or deadpan humor.

Angry because they arrived back in Florida a few days before Hurricane Irma and insisted that hurricane prep was moot because they were too late and that if God willed their demise, “What good would any prep do?”

For a long time, I accepted that this was the way my family was.

My parents’ overt religiosity and the dangerous trend of silence and stigmatization of mental health in South Asian communities are both things that play a definitive role in how they, and others like them, view mortality and it’s something that we need to address. Maybe we shouldn’t just accept our families’ melancholic view of mortality as something that exists as a dark quirk in their personalities.

Perhaps it’s time to sit down with them and help them understand that while death is fated, random, and even meaningful, it’s also just the final ink blot of our individual stories.

And that those stories can’t be written, if we forget to live.