We had just been talking about him: My father had mentioned that his brother, my uncle, had just been discharged from the hospital and was feeling better. My uncle had been in and out of the hospital in the past, so I thought little of it. He always bounced back, and I took it for granted that I would see him again. After all, he was only 60 years old.
Then the phone call came. I was pulling into the hospital parking lot, about to begin another jam-packed work week, when my mother called me. "I'm calling to let you know," she said, "that your uncle has passed away. The ultimate destiny is to God."
"What? He died?" I asked incredulously.
"Yes. We are having a memorial service for him this Saturday," she replied.But I am only a human being, and the frenetic business of living frequently causes me to forget these crucial realities. Ultimately, though, that is what death is for those who remain living: A reminder of what is to befall every human being. And although it still feels so strange and unreal for me to say this prayer for my uncle, I must say it anyway: May God shower His unending love and mercy upon my Uncle Mohammed's soul. Ameen (Amen).
I could not believe my ears. Just like that, my uncle was gone forever. I still cannot believe he is gone. My uncle was such a kind-hearted, loving man. I don't think he ever harbored any ill will towards anyone or anything. The father of one of my uncle’s dearest friends once said, "You will never find a better friend than Mohammed Hassaballa."
My uncle was like a father to me, and I always loved to see him. My daughters absolutely adored him. After first meeting him they told me, "Baba, we like this new 'Giddo' (Grandpa)." Coming to terms with his death was difficult enough--breaking the news to my innocent daughters elevated the pain to a whole new level.
My uncle and I frequently had discussions about religion and politics, and I would frequently roll my eyes and say, “There’s my uncle complaining again.” Yet, as I grew older and learned more about the world around me--especially after 9/11--I came to realize how correct he really was. I found myself agreeing with him so much more than before. I am really going to miss our conversations. I can’t believe he is gone.
My uncle was pretty ill, even at the tender age of 60. He had a very frail heart, and he had a pacemaker inserted to help it beat. He was also on blood thinners to prevent a clot from forming in his bulging, weak heart. Still, I never thought he would die. He had managed with his weaknesses for so long. I had believed that he would always be around. But taking life for granted was the big mistake I made.
This goes to show how truly fragile life is. One minute, you can be alive and well. The next minute you can die, never to return to earth again. My uncle had passed away in Egypt, and there are times when I thought, “If he had been in the United States, he would have lived.” But I quickly remind myself that this is not true. God is the One who gives life, and He takes it away. God had willed him to die in Egypt, and there is nothing I, or anyone else for that matter, could do about it. It is exactly as the Qur'an says:
“But never does God grant a delay to a human being when his term has come, and God is fully aware of all that you do.” (63:11)
I do have one regret about his being overseas. There has been no closure for me. When my mother called me with the news, she said that he had already been buried. (Muslim tradition holds that the deceased be buried as soon as possible.) If he had died here, at least I could have attended his funeral and helped bury him. It would have helped me to properly say goodbye. It would have helped ease the pain of his loss.
But that will never be, and there is nothing I can do about it. It has taught me a valuable lesson: Never take anything for granted. We should seize every moment on this earth. Since my uncle's death, I try to call my parents more often. Recently, in fact, I made a point of having lunch with my father even though I was pressed for time. I will try to call my other family members more often, and--most importantly--spend more time with my own wife and children. Lord only knows how much time I have left with them.
The same goes with my deeds on this earth. My uncle's death has reminded me not to squander any chances to do good work. Because any moment may be my last moment on earth. It brings this verse of the Qur'an to mind:
“And spend on others out of what We have provided for you as sustenance, before there come a time when death approaches any of you, and he then says, "O my Sustainer! If only Thou wouldst grant me a delay for a short while, so that I could give in charity and be among the righteous!"(63:10)
Although the verse does not help bring closure to me for my uncle’s death, it does give me a further reminder of the inevitability of my own death. It helps detach myself--if only a little--from the life of this world and turn my vision heavenward. Hopefully I will not say to God--when it is too late--“If only Thou wouldst grant me a delay for a short while …”
I define myself by my faith and my profession. So since I am a doctor who faces death almost every day, you would have figured that I wouldn’t have been so taken aback by my uncle's death. And being a Muslim who tries to worship God as devoutly as possible, you would’ve thought that I had already known not to waste any chance to do good deeds on this earth.