On the very memorable date of New Year’s Eve my wife’s mother Mahin died. From now on the dropping ball will remind us of her. Mahin had a long and honorable life. She was loved by children, grandchildren, and in-laws. She was the calm matriarch in the storm of her family. I meet her late in life after marrying her daughter Mali. Mahin was almost eighty then and still living on her own. She liked me and regretted having a son-in-law that she couldn’t talk to. In the 1980s Mahin followed her children out of the chaos of Khomeini’s revolutionary Iran. She settled in Canada in her late sixties taking on a new country, a foreign language and a new way of life. It would have been a big change for a young person but for someone of Mahin’s age it was almost heroic. She got on, adjusted, learned enough English to function, but not enough to properly talk to son-in-laws, and enjoyed life. She never manifested a trace of bitterness or self-pity. She was a strong woman.
In her later years Mahin suffered from dementia. Her children took turns helping her out. We were the last to look after her. She lived with us for nearly two years. Mahin and I similar tastes for the absurd. We both enjoyed the idiotic television show Wipeout. Being knocked on your ass works equally well in English and Farsi. We’d laugh at people plunging into gigantic vats of goo. Dementia slowly ate away at Mahin’s mind. Eventually she required twenty-four care and her daughters placed her in a nursing home in Toronto. They agonized over putting her in a home and did what they could to make her life comfortable. Mali stayed with her sister Sedi in Toronto five months last year to look after Mahin. She went to the nursing home every day to feed her, give her baths, do her laundry and talk to her. Dementia claimed Mahin’s English. Nursing home staff could not talk to her or understand her. Mali and her sisters were very fortunate to find a sitter that spoke Farsi. Hiring nursing home sitters is more common than you would think. Many of the residents in Mahin’s home had sitters.
Mahin died surrounded by children, grandchildren, her sitter, and nursing home staff. Home staff told my wife and her sisters that everyone loved Mahin. I am sure they tell many families something similar but having known Mahin I don’t doubt their sincerity. Mahin was a sweet dignified lady to her last breath.
A week before Mahin died I learned from my ex-wife that Carl, an old mutual friend, was in a Calgary hospice and not expected to live out the month. I’m not a particularly friendly person. Oh, I’m pleasant enough and can, when motivated, skillfully navigate social milieus. If you work with me you might even think I am your friend. I’m not! I’m reluctant to form deep friendships. Entering my sixties I can count my real friends on my fingers. Carl was the best friend I ever had. For nearly twenty years, from high school, until the birth of my daughter, Carl was a happy presence in my life.
Carl was a happy presence in the lives of everyone that got to know him and could tolerate his manifold eccentricities. He was everyone’s crazy uncle and he relished the role. Since leaving western Canada I moved out of Carl’s orbit. We’d trade the odd letter, email, and in recent years, Facebook posts. On the few times that I passed through Calgary I’d always look him up. We’d fall right back into old days blithering. Hearing that he was dying of the nasty form of prostate cancer was a jolt.
Mali petitioned me to call him right away. “You better call before it’s too late.”
I was reluctant because I don’t know what to say to the dying. I missed saying goodbye to my paternal grandfather and I botched my last conversation with my mother. Christopher Hitchens recounts some of the awkward conversations he had with friends and colleagues while dying of cancer in his last book Mortality. Many avoided the sword overhead while others swung it callously. Hitchens didn’t know what to feel. None of their goodbyes really helped.
I called Carl more for myself than him. Carl took a few moments to recall who I was. He was understandably more depressed than I had ever heard him. He was also vague and struggling to respond. Pain medications dull more than pain. I asked if family and friends were about. We aren’t comfortable with people dying alone which is strange because no matter how many friends and family members surround us we all die alone. The only hint of the old Carl that came out our chat was when he referred to Nazar: a very old friend that we both enjoyed making fun of. Before hanging up I told Carl I would check in on him later but later never came. He died less than two weeks later.
Death is the most serious thing that will ever happen to us. It forecloses on what’s next. We simply cease! There is no childish heaven or burning hell. We are not reincarnated and we don’t see ghosts or talk to the dead. If you think or believe otherwise you are simply wrong. I won’t argue with you. I am tired of your irrational objections, your contemptible myths, and your weakness in the face of oblivion. The human machine wears out and breaks down. We don’t imagine afterlives for our cars so why do we indulge such fantasies for ourselves. As much as I would like to see Mahin, Carl, my mother, or anyone of the hundred billion people who have already died, again I won’t and neither will you!