In the end, living is defined by dying

“We say that the hour of death cannot be forecast. But when we say this, we imagine that the hour is placed in an obscure and distant future. It never occurs to us that it has any connection with the day already begun, or that death could arrive this same afternoon – this afternoon which is so certain, and which has every hour filled in advance.” – Final Destination

We all need reminders that life is precious…

Let’s flashback to my very first day of Second Grade.

I entered the classroom nervously. It also happened to be my first day at the new school. I clutched my sister’s hand tightly and eyed my would-be classmates disdainfully.

The teacher was beckoning to me to take a seat. I remember shaking my little head vigorously from side to side, swallowing the massive lump in my throat and blinking away a pool of tears.  The teacher had a very messy mop of hair which ranged from brown to golden colored. She was clad in a blindingly multicolored ‘Shalwar Kameez’ and sported huge black combat boots. I had to stretch my puny neck all the way up to meet her probing gaze. She had very bushy eyebrows, a pointy chin, and big, beady eyes. Her lips stretched in a wide smile which revealed her pale, lipstick stained teeth. Yes, not a very reassuring sight!

“Say hello to your classmates” she said in a high-pitched voice. Only she pronounced ‘hello’ as ‘hallo’, ‘your’ as ‘yar’ and ‘classmates’ as ‘class-moths’. So it sounded something like “Say hallo to yar class-moths”. Quite simply, I was astounded and at a complete loss for words. The ‘class-moths’ were staring at me fixedly. It was not a good feeling, I felt like a bug under the microscope.

“I’ll come by to see how’re you doing at recess, you’ll make friends soon enough and fit right in” my sister said hurriedly patting my head, and then she was gone.

The teacher asked me to introduce myself and then pointed to an empty seat on the right. Mustering up all my courage I walked slowly and looked at the girl I would be sharing my desk with. I took a liking to her instantly. Maybe it was the friendly way she beamed at me, or maybe it was her kind, angel-like face. Feeling somewhat better, I gave her a faint smile. Noticing my watery eyes she quickly put an arm around me and said in kind, soothing voice “Don’t cry! It’s going to be okay, we’re going to be best friends.”

And so, best friends we became. Together, she and I laughed, talked, shared secrets, played, and competed as friends are known to do. People would often stop to ask us if we were sisters or cousins, and appear ever so surprised when we said we were simply friends. As we grew older, we changed groups of friends, but remained good friends.

Fast-forward to Grade Six. I’m at McDonald’s with her and two of our mutual friends. We’re slurping shakes and working on an assignment for English Class. Someone knocks over a drink, and we’re all going to the bathroom grabbing handfuls of paper towels and dabbing them at our clothes. That’s when one of our friends knocks over the liquid soap; it sails into the air and drops comically on her head spilling down to her shoulders. I cannot help cracking up. However, instead of joining in the laughter, I see her helping our friend wash the soap off and drying her off with paper towels. My conscience pricks and my laughter immediately ebbs away. But what’s done is done. I am left feeling guilty for laughing at a friend’s expense instead of helping out.

Eight Grade(Year 2008). The country is in a perilous state. We hear about suicide bombings, terrorist attacks and drone attacks nearly every day. Innocent lives are snatched away brutally; we’ve lost count of the ever increasing death toll. Even institutions like schools, colleges, and universities are beginning to be attacked. Funnily enough we’re going about our lives the way we always have, it’s almost as if we have become immune to it. We have started having drills at school though.

3rd December 2008. The day starts like any other day. Fourth lesson, and we’re quietly doing an English Composition. Then like a cry of death, we hear the siren signifying yet another drill. Alarmingly, the siren goes on and on, and then we hear screams and shouts. Then there is thundering of footsteps. The door bangs open, “Come out! Quick! There’s a bomb in the school!” That’s all it takes. We zip out of our seats like uncivilized ruffians and become a part of the stampede outside. We are like a tidal wave, flowing down the stairs until we reach our Ground where we had been just a few hours ago for the Morning Assembly. The entire school is gathered here. There are whistles in the distance, and then we hear the unmistakable sirens of ambulances. Everywhere I look, I see the same white, terror-stricken faces. Teachers are fruitlessly doing head counts and trying to calm us down. Then our Coordinator is on the podium, her voice travels loud and clear as she issues out commands in the microphone. Someone, a student, walks to the podium and raising his hands for prayer and begins reciting. We follow suit.

And then it is all over. It was a scam, somebody’s idea of a sick joke. We troop back to our classes even though we are all too keyed up to sit still. Then someone whips out a pen and paper, scribbling her ‘Will’ on it. It catches on and then we’re all jokingly declaring our wills. My friend from Second Grade and some of the other girls write their wills on their hands.

After school, I call her a few times but no one answers.

4th December 2008. She does not come to school. 9pm, and I am fast asleep. Someone is shaking me, and someone is crying. I open my eyes to see my Mom’s tear-streaked face. My blood runs cold, and my heart hammers madly against my chest as horrifying images flit across my mind. I am about to ask her what’s wrong but stop in mid-sentence when she holds me close and rocks me back and forth. I am terrified and for the first time, I do not feel completely safe in her embrace. A part of me does not want to know what is wrong. That’s when I fully understand the English proverb ‘Ignorance is bliss’. But, a larger part of me needs to know. I look at my Mom searchingly, but she only shakes her head as fresh tears slide down her face. I have never seen her like this. Her pain is my pain, her suffering is my suffering, and her overwhelming grief is my grief.

“A friend of yours called. She was crying, and wanted to speak to you. She told me to wake you up when I told her you’re asleep” my Mom starts in a shaky breath. “Oh honey…” she trails off and then she is crying even harder. My head is spinning. There is a pregnant pause and then, “It’s Fatima, she was shot and has passed away” my Mom says finally. And my mind is in free-fall, unable to grasp the possibility as dread washes over me. I cannot believe it, I will not believe it, I adamantly refuse to believe it; I am in denial.

I do not cry. All of my emotions have been replaced by anger. My anger is directed at everything, and at everyone. I still do not believe it. Grabbing the phone, I furiously text my friends. They all say the same thing; they say she was murdered, they say she passed away. A mixture of anger and frustration grips me hard and fast now. ‘Fatima, my angel-faced friend from Grade Two cannot be gone, I just saw her yesterday’ my mind lashes out over and over again like a broken record.

And then a friend, who was also Fatima’s distant relative calls me, she is sobbing. “She’s not dead” I tell her unnervingly calmly. But she too says the same. She tells me that Fatima’s father had a dispute over part of his land with some people. Today, Fatima and one of her brothers had stayed home from school since her parents and her other brother were in Lahore for the day. The doorbell rang around 11am, and those very people began firing at the house. Hearing the gun-shots, her brother rushed to his sister’s room but he was too late. She was lying down, and covered in blood. The firing stopped after a few minutes, he slung her across his back and borrowing the neighbor’s car rushed her to the nearest Hospital (Allied Hospital, Faisalabad). Their parents and brother who had been in Lahore at the time were informed, and they too reached the hospital as soon as possible. The doctors said she lost too much blood, and could not undergo surgery. They know she’s dying. Fatima, the only sister of her two older brothers, the darling and only daughter of her parents, the baby of the family; was passing away before her family’s’ eyes. She too, knew she was at death’s door. And that very day, sometime around 8pm, she passed away.

I listened to the tale in horror. Murdered and martyred at the tender age of thirteen over a petty, trivial land dispute! And then I am crying. I cry till I can cry no more. I am still hoping for it to be untrue. Memories of Fatima spin in my mind. Her face is so clear in my head, and her voice is almost real. But knowing that I will never hear her voice again, or see her sweet smile again tears and rips my insides apart.

I do not sleep the night. My Mom advises me to stay home from school but I must go. A part of me is still childishly hoping to see her at school. All my worst fears are confirmed the minute I set foot at school. Everywhere I look, people are crying, talking in hushed voices and I find myself crying again. Walking into my classroom, I see her empty desk. My classmates and I stare at it for the longest time, each of us mourning for our friend; the sweetest, kindest person we had ever known. And I know then that she really is gone, and there is no coming back.

Later that day, Mom and I go to her funeral. I cannot stop the tears streaming down my face, try as I might. It seems like the entire school is here. We offer silent prayers. It is so unreal, and yet so real. Moments later, I see her. She looks so peaceful, like she is merely asleep. She is so close, and yet so far away…

Even though you’re no longer amongst us your presence still lingers on and your memories keep reminding us of how much we treasured you and how much we gave up when we lost you Fatima Mehmood. May your soul Rest in Peace. AMEN.

Ironically, some months before her young life was snatched away mercilessly, she wrote me this short yet poignant inscription – as if she knew that she would tread the world of the unseen and become a cherished memory held in our hearts forever. Though her stay in this world was short and brief, her smile, her angelic face, and her sweet disposition had an eternal impact on everyone around her! I can never ever forget her;

“In the end, living is defined by dying. Bookended by oblivion, we are caught in the vice of terror, squeezed to bursting by the approaching end” – Bernard Beckett