Alhaj Shahjahan Ali died October 6, 1995, one week after we returned from the United States with Aniqa, who was then not quite two months old. All of those who were with him on that day say that before he died he said, “La illaha, illallahu, Muhammadur rasulullah,” and then his eyes rolled back inside his head, and he left us.
My husband had only forced himself to leave his bedridden father to join me in the states for the birth of our second child because his health had seemingly taken a turn for the better. Not long after arriving in the states, however, we received the call, informing us that Baba had been diagnosed with full‑blown cancer.
Tipu was torn between obligations. Truth be known, he would have just as soon missed the birth. His father needed him, and he didn’t know if he would ever see him again. His dilemma was solved soon thereafter, when Aniqa was born, over a week early. We would return together, on the first available flight.
Like clockwork, plans fell into place. We would leave in two weeks. All we had to do was wait. Well into our first week, we received a call from Tipu’s brother, Harun, informing us that if we wanted to say our farewells, we would have to hurry. We told Harun that we were ready, the baby’s travel documents were complete, and that if things went as planned, they would see us the following week.
Time drew out. We counted down the days, doing what we could to make the time pass more quickly. We said our goodbyes to my family. Tomorrow we would be heading back home.
Through a stroke of luck, or maybe fate, we decided to drop by Tipu’s surgeon’s office to see if he could work him in at the last minute on a Friday evening. It was as if the opportunity stuck its evil head up and said, Hey you, idiot, this was on your list of things to do while you were in America, remember? You’ve just about gone and waited too long. Now do it.
Four thirty, Friday evening, the doctor agreed to see us in a squeezed‑in visit. He took Tipu into his office, checked his vital signs, and took a blood sample, listening to Tipu’s account of his present state of health.
Waiting for the results, we sat in a corner of glass in the seventh floor of the Jewish hospital. We counted down minutes before our departing flight. All of our things were packed in suitcases and sturdy brown boxes, all labeled and secure.
When the doctor finally returned, he sat down with us as if he were in no hurry to leave. I watched him impatiently as he formed the words he needed to say. “Just to be on the safe side, I’d like to do another test. You probably don’t, but it is possible, Mr. Rahman, that you have a liver full of stones.” The procedure would involve running a tube into the liver and monitoring the flow and quality of the bile. “We’ll take you now,” he said, as if it were our only option.
The words landed on my ears but I was not comprehending. “After the test, would he be ready to travel?” I needed assurance that we would be able to fly the following day, “Would we be able to make the treatment decisions after we received the results?” It was just so sudden, we had expected the doctor to blow Tipu off the way doctors had for the past four years. For God’s sake, this had been a simple precautionary gesture. We hadn’t been prepared for this turn of events. The doctor reassured me that if there were stones, we would not want to return to Bangladesh, that it could mean Tipu—at any moment—could lapse into unrecoverable sepsis.
Tipu was admitted, and I waited in the lobby with Aniqa, wishing I had asked how long the procedure would take. Five hours later, I received word that the test was complete. The assisting doctor came to explain that Tipu was in intensive care, that his temperature had spiked during the procedure, and that the tubes pushed into his liver could not be taken out, since there had been considerable tissue damage. Crystallized congestion. The tubes would stay to ensure the proper drainage of fluids. His condition had stabilized.
I called home to tell my father the news. I wasn’t sure what I would need from my family, but our older daughter, Allia, was under their care, and I would need to let them know why we hadn’t returned. I explained that Tipu had been admitted, and that he was in intensive care with stones in his liver. My father responded in a way that was only mildly surprising. He started rambling on as if I had told him my car needed an oil change. “We probably won’t be able to make it,” he said. Fridays were the nights they spent together, he and my mother. Allia would be fine with my younger sisters, he reassured me, and he hoped Tipu’s feelings wouldn’t be hurt if they didn’t make it up to see us that night. I thought I had lapsed into a bad dream. I told him that I doubted that Tipu would mind one way or the other, that I hadn’t yet been able to see him, and that he would be under for at least another couple hours.
Reality struck. In desperation, I asked the intensive care nursery to let Aniqa sleep there while I slipped in to see her father. Sensing my predicament, the nurses obliged, and since she looked so much like the other patients, there in her little glass bed, she didn’t call much attention to herself.
I was granted my first peek at the miracle of science when he was being sedated. He had just come out from under his initial anesthesia, and a nurse was obliging him with a dose of something. He was on his way back in. With a weak squeeze of the hand, and a slight twist of his lip, he gave me a vague sense of reassurance. And I was asked to leave.
Back in the waiting room, I sat and contemplated my next move. Also in the intensive care unit was a teen boy. At the moment, the combined efforts of the doctors were focused on him. His mother and father were praying silent prayers. Their eyes were damp. One of the teenagers got on the phone to notify his group of friends. Silence swelled all around. His car had been found in a ditch. He had been drinking. Broken skull. Model student. Nobody had suspected anything awry prior to the accident. In little or no time, the room was amassed with thirty or so sobbing and clutching teenagers. “Somehow,” I heard someone say, “maybe it would be better if he didn’t live–that if God were kind, He would just take him away in his sleep.” And they prayed.
And God heard. It ended for the boy, but the children lingered in the halls, trying to fathom the reality.
My reality returned when I saw the faces of my parents finding their way into the waiting room. I could still tell them little, since I hadn’t been able to speak to a doctor. My dad tried to apologize and explain that they had been able to work the visit in with a restaurant supper, and I wished he would melt back into the crowd of people in that waiting room who meant nothing to me.
The problem remained, that I would need to make arrangements for my baby. Allia would be fine, since she could occupy herself, for the most part, and could be passed from one of my family members to another. I hoped that transportation wouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience. Aniqa, on the other hand, would need continuous care–something my family would not be able to deliver.
After my parents left, the doctor came to explain that there would be a team of liver specialists working with my husband. He went on to explain what they had learned, and what they had agreed upon as a prognosis for recovery. Until they cut him open, it would be impossible to say, but one of two things would need to be done. Since he had previously been through a similar operation, there was a lot of scar tissue existing in a full third of his liver. Either this portion of the liver would be cut away (not to worry, ma’am, livers have an amazing regenerative capacity, you see), or the stones would be removed from the large pocket which had formed, and attempts would be made at creating a new duct, through which bile would continue to pass out of his liver. The operation would take place on Wednesday. It was confirmed. We wouldn’t be flying tomorrow.
Previously diagnosed and treated as Coroli’s disease, the rare congenital condition which afflicted my husband caused the ducts in his liver to swell, impeding the passage of the caustic stuff generated there. As a result, it would pool and crystallize. This I had known. Tipu had received all kinds of explanations for his continued dis‑ease, including Lyme’s disease, and fibromyalgia. He had been treated for depression, and more than one health professional had left him with the vague impression that it was all in his head.
It must have been grace that allowed me to locate the woman who had cared for Allia when she was an infant, and she agreed to keep Aniqa while I nursed my husband back to health. As it turned out, he spent eleven days in the hospital, and became an outpatient with two tubes extending from his body, each occasionally draining a greenish liquid. An additional two weeks would be needed to assure the stability of the new ducts that had been created during the operation. After they were sure, the doctors would remove the tubes.
Of course all this had been kept quite secret from Baba, who had been first puzzled by our delay, and then angry. Then, perhaps, a bit suspicious. Daily, maybe hourly, he would ask Harun about Tipu’s return. Harun would act as irritated as possible and lie, saying that there had been trouble getting the baby’s documents. Baba would drop the subject.
When we returned, the family was exhausted. Our sister-in-law, Munni, seemed to be at Baba’s side at all times, but she also managed, with superhuman effort, to serve guests, direct servants, feed Allia and Sara–all with an unflagging grace. Baba had looked so small, so frail when we returned. It was difficult for Ma to see him and so she stayed, tormented, in her own corner of the house for much of the time. Tipu said that he was vomiting blood. Friends and acquaintances with Type O+ were standing by, for the chance that he could take it, but toward the end, they couldn’t find any more veins for the needles.
The room where Baba laid was the focus, night after night, day after day. In the house, it was difficult to think or discuss anything else besides Baba, and the constant presence of guests. I had heard the comment that Baba’s leg was swollen but, being always covered by a lungi or a blanket, I hadn’t actually seen. So the day I went to rub his leg, I inadvertently went first to the swollen one. Through the lungi it seemed normal, though a bit heavy. The shock occurred when I shifted my attention his other leg. What was that gnarled and knobbed thing that I felt under the cloth? Could this have been an appendage, or had I grabbed something else? Then the truth of it hit me. The first one had been completely bloated–I had heard the doctor say–from liver failure. The other was nothing but brittle bone and parched skin.
The milk from my breast was scant from the travel and jet lag, I suppose. I kept forcing myself to drink and eat, but I had no appetite. It turned out to be inconsequential, but for the first four days, Aniqa failed to resume her normal eating habits. Of course I didn’t expect Tipu or Ma to notice my concern, and they didn’t. Rather, in their desperation, each in his or her turn asked me to give my milk to Baba. Ma would bring her glass, and hold her trembling finger halfway up the side to show me how little she needed. I was expected back to work the following day, and my efforts at reserving a supply for Aniqa had resulted in next to nothing. Then, when I got a bit of it accumulated, Ma would come again. I wanted to lock the door; I wanted to smash the glass and watch the shards splinter. But it was impossible. Once again, my supply would be depleted.
When I went back to work in the International School office, I realized that I had some catching up to do. I had missed a month of work on maternity leave, but it felt like I’d missed half the school year. Aniqa had enough milk, as it turned out. And Baba doesn’t need it anymore. But while he was alive–though he didn’t know what he was drinking–it kept him from throwing up what he ate afterwards, or so it seemed to Tipu and Ma, so I turned my head, bit my tongue, and tried not to complain. They were groping for a miracle, and human breast milk was the only one they could find. Since the chemo had stopped, Baba couldn’t keep anything down and he just kept getting weaker and weaker.
The days passed, one merging into the next. It was my second day back to work. I stepped out of the car, onto the concrete driveway, only to feel the weight of death heave itself back into my bones. Being at the office had offered a surreptitious refuge, somehow distancing me from the plague that consumed the house and the family. Guilt plagued me. How could I just leave at a time like this? But as I walked through the doorway to my home to face the myriad stares, the glazed or tearing eyes, the lost souls looking for a place to sit or stand, and overflowing into my bedroom and dressing room, I wondered where my home had gone and how I would maintain my sanity if I couldn’t leave, at least for a time. It seemed that everyone I had met in my brief one-year stay was there, congregating in the house, waiting for Baba to die.
My brief trip to Baba’s room on this particular day was not encouraging. Baba was looking small and uncomfortable. The distant stares I saw as I glanced around the room expressed a sense of resignation, telling me all there was to be known.
I was getting Allia ready for bed in my room late that evening when the driver came to call me to Baba’s room. For that, I knew that the time was drawing near. An even larger crowd had gathered. Bodies were spilling out of the sitting room and into the dining room and kitchen. Munni was reading the Quran at his head. Siddick, a relative of the household maid was also reading. The reading filled the room, droning on and on. It was filled with desperation, pleading. Baba’s breathing was rough, and his hands were cold. His chest heaved. His head rolled. Munni read louder, on and on. Ma broke down, rolling and tumbling on the floor, wailing.
As Munni read the Quran over Baba’s head, I looked up to see my brother-in-law, Harun, cry for the first time. What I saw that night was a little boy. All along he had been pretending to be a big businessman. I didn’t know how to ease Baba’s pain, but I reassured myself that I could support those who supported him. I had yet to discern whether I really loved, or even knew this dying man, but I hurt to see his loved ones hurting, and the pain of it all.
Allia didn’t understand. She brought her toys into the room, trying to cheer everybody up–to make everybody laugh. I finally had to take her away for everyone else’s good more than her own. She had forgotten her grandfather, as I had. We hadn’t known him for that long, and the happy memories we had were so greatly overshadowed by the marathon of his dying.
“Take me for a full check-up in Singapore or the United States,” Baba had told Harun, weeks ago. No one had had the heart to tell him that his body was riddled with cancer. “There, I could be properly diagnosed and treated,” he had reasoned. And Harun would leave the room to tell us, with a quaver in his voice, how bitter it had been to tell Baba that until his health improved, he would be simply unable to make the trip.
Another day would go by. The crowd would disburse. Baba would talk about business with his sons. Or so they said. Maybe they just talked and he listened. Tipu told me that Baba would ask every morning whether I had gone to work. If there was a car for me—a driver. I knew that would be just like Baba, but I wondered how it could be true. When I was there, he could scarcely move his mouth to let us know what he wanted.
Two nights later, the word had gone out again, and bodies poured in to see Baba off once more. I couldn’t help wondering what kind of morbid obligation all these people had to fulfill. If I had my druthers, I’d make my exit with a lot less fanfare, I thought, as I looked down at Baba’s tortured body. Tipu’s cousin, Pony, was there, sitting alongside him, holding his hand, searching him with her swollen eyes—hair and clothing disheveled. Pony adored Baba, sometimes it seemed even more than she did her own father. Fear hung like a rain cloud, threatening to release its burden down onto the dazed and exhausted crowd. Prayers swirled up through the dense fear and filled every corner of the room. You could feel them—whispered—issuing forth, imploring, imploring. People sat at each available space on the bed, rubbing his legs, his arms, his head, his shoulders. Those who weren’t quite as bold sat on stools and chairs alongside the bed. Others lined the walls around the room and still more loitered around the remaining rooms of the house. The rest stood in the driveway and smoked filterless cigarettes.
Baba had an IV in his arm and it prevented him from finding a comfortable position. Once his body settled down, the rough breathing started. Pony, at a loss for anything more poignant to say, cried out, still disbelieving, “What are you doing?” She was not ready to let him go. Then I cried. Baba cried. It would take time to fathom what this man had meant to so many.
The next day, a five‑day hartal for the following week was announced. No traffic would be allowed to pass, due to a political strike. That was the day it rained. The hartal was scheduled to start on Saturday morning, and on Thursday evening there was a meeting between the brothers and the doctors. At the meeting it was suggested that Baba set out by ambulance for the village before the hartal started. As I sat looking from one exhausted face to another I wondered at their judgment. What would Baba think? What would it mean to him, to die in an ambulance on the road to his funeral? How could they even consider it?
Baba died at two on Friday. Tipu had arranged for a wooden box, tea and the white cloth they would use to swaddle his body. Dr. Rumy was trying until almost the last minute to find one more vein to give him blood. Munni was there. Baba’s sisters, Chorto Fubu, Shezi Fubu; the ones who held him most dear; Munni’s parents–really everybody. I had stepped out of the room when the wailing started again. Ma came through the house toward her room, waving her hands in despair. “He’s gone–he’s gone,” she said. I thought that would be the end of it, and that she’d taken it remarkably well. But the next thing I knew, she was back in Baba’s room hyperventilating. She gasped, over and over. “Allahray, allahray, allahray,” she cried, her body rocking an impassioned dirge. All I could imagine was that she didn’t want to be left behind. She was trying to find her way out of her body. Munni’s mother caught her and scolded her, but it took all her strength to hold her, and then they were both crying, clutching, tumbling.
Since making his purchases, Tipu sat there the sofa at the foot of Baba’s bed. He appeared to be taking it all in calmly. I sat next to him, wondering what I should do. What was an appropriate way to lend him my support and express my concern? Surely there was something I should be doing. Soon I noticed that he wasn’t acting normal. His breathing started to get heavy and I tried to get his attention. Then it became apparent to a couple of people that something was wrong. I asked for help. Maybe a glass of water. Maybe he needed to lie down. Two men carried him–one on each side–thinking he might be able to support some of his own weight. But Tipu was completely limp. His knees drug behind him as the two carried him to the bed where he was put, completely unresponsive, lying in a stiff heap, still breathing strangely. We tried to get him to come to. Finally he started sobbing. But that, too, soon became repetitious. I was so afraid I was going to lose him to some awful emotional state. I rolled him sideways into a fetal position so that he was hugging a pillow, and went to Ma.
I met her coming from the room where Baba’s body was, and I sat with her as long as she would sit. She looked utterly lost. Then, for no apparent reason, she headed for her room, alone. Munni’s brother Manwar’s harsh demand prompted me, “Laila–go with her,” and of course I did. I felt that, strangely, I was the most unlikely candidate to offer her comfort, but did my best until she was surrounded by her closest friends.
When I returned to my husband, the space on the bed was empty. My heart ached for it to be over—for calm and normalcy to return to our home and our life. I could only assume that Tipu had returned to his senses, and joined his brother in doing what needed to be done in order to honor the traditions, and properly send their father off. Activity encompassed the house. As I wandered through it I felt that I belonged nowhere. Baba’s body was being prepared in an empty room across the drive, where the men had taken it and were working behind the clean linens that hung in the doorway for privacy. Harun and Munni were in the dark corridor outside what had become Baba’s room, planning the grim trip to the village. A funeral procession would have to be clearly marked to safely contravene the hartal. Once in the village, a customary meal would need to be prepared in his honor.
It was decided, after painstaking deliberation that I alone would stay, keeper of the keys. I would manage. The difficult part would be the compulsory fourth‑day prayer ceremony which would be held at our house. Arrangements for this had been put into place. It would be carried out with the help of Tipu’s aunt, Meju Chachi and Munni’s mother, Kala Ma. Now it was just a matter of time. Before the house went quiet, Allia and I were coaxed to the slab box where we had one last look at Baba all wrapped in white. Then they were gone.
Tipu’s cousins, Pitu, Blackie Bhabi and Moonira, Meju Chachi and Kala Ma would remain in Dhaka. They milled about and made kind gestures at senseless conversation. Worried that I would be afraid, and not wanting to say so, they refused to leave for their homes. My mind was so tired I could think of nothing but shutting myself in my room and turning out the light. But I was the keeper of the keys. Someone needed to let the last guest out and lock the gate. Tipu’s uncle Issac arrived when all but a few of the others had finally decided to leave. Devastated to learn that he had missed the caravan to the village, he found his way into the living room, sank onto a sofa, and held his head in his hands. Another uncle and two teenage sons arrived next and joined him there. They also remained. I asked Issac to find a place for them all to sleep, handed him the keys, and retired with Allia and Aniqa to my room. In the morning, a certain degree of normalcy returned. The hartal successfully insulated us from any residual concern.
When Tipu and his brother returned, I learned that Ma would come later. Walking trancelike,
Tipu’s body seemed not of flesh and blood, but spirit, floating, passing through us, not responding. He wouldn’t smile, and he wouldn’t make eye contact.
I, likewise, was close to the edge. Yet my biggest grief was guilt, in the tremendous relief I felt. I had thanked God for Baba’s release. After my experience alone in the big house for the first time, I longed for the companionship of my husband. I needed to know if it had somehow changed him. I was afraid. I had been through so much, alone. I wanted to explain. I had endured the formalities of Baba’s fourth day ceremonial prayer, counting prayer beads, wearing the right clothes, hosting visitors in nothing but Bangla. It had seemed it would never end.
Petty as it seemed, I also needed to know if he needed me. I had commitments and responsibilities at the school. But he wouldn’t look at me or acknowledge my presence. Allia held back, somehow sensing that her father would not want to play. Minutes seemed like hours, and hours froze in time.
A slight relief blessed us all, however, when Tipu held his baby Aniqa, and a faint smile finally escaped his lips. His frozen pain was melting. When I couldn’t wait a moment longer, I pulled him aside. I told him I was afraid. “When I look at you, it brings back so many memories,” he told me with so much child in his eyes. Then he broke into tears. “I couldn’t even go down into the grave. I couldn’t help carry the coffin because of my operation.” I tried to console him; I held him.
The surge of memories returned with an even greater force when Ma came home. I met her with Aniqa in my arms, and she was relieved to be blessed by the little bundle of responsibility. Placing Aniqa in Ma’s care was the one thing that could help loosen loss’s grip on her. Seeing her lose herself in the child, we all secured a new hope that our lives would again return to normal.
With all the reasons why we shouldn’t, it seems like a miracle that we exist at all. Life hangs on the edge. Then it passes on. It would have been easier for Baba to have flung his life away from him leaving the suffering to those who better deserved it. Baba’s body had been determined to fail him. But Baba was just as determined to stay. That is why it had been such a wretched struggle. He wanted to give so much to his children that he hadn’t yet been able to give. What he didn’t realize, is just how much he had.
I heard Tipu wonder aloud how, strangely, it didn’t feel any different. Baba was gone, but life was still there, slapping him in the face. So, maybe I was not alone in my relief. Baba had fought with God. In the end they both won. Maybe we lost. Maybe we didn’t. We still have his love.