Imagine someone gave you something to borrow. You knew when you got it that you would eventually need to give it back, it’s borrowed, remember? But you had time with this thing and over time you got really attached and forgot the part about giving it back. I mean, we are human right? We have emotions, are creatures of habit, and unfortunately we also have a habit of taking for granted things we never think we will lose. We always think we have all the time in the world. So this thing, right. You build memories with it, you grow to love it, sometimes you get mad at it for not doing the things you want or expect. But still, you love it.
And then suddenly, without any warning that thing is taken away from you. Your heart is broken. But remember, that someone that gave it to you told you that eventually you would have to give it back? But they didn’t even give you a heads up. That’s stealing, isn’t it? Well, imagine that someone is God and that something is your brother.
This is the best way I could explain the passing of a loved one. Each and every one of us knows that the only guarantee in this life is death. Yet we somehow seem to forget that death is coming for even those we love the most and even at the most “inconvenient” of times with no warning.
Not too long after my grandmother, whom I cherish and love, returned to Allah (SWT) – exactly 7 months and one week later my, family mourned the loss of my oldest brother in a tragic accident. A week shy of his two month wedding anniversary my legend of a brother, Bassem, returned to God.
Writing this still feels surreal. July 8th, 2016 feels like a blur— a never-ending nightmare. It felt like a weird day but I couldn’t figure out why. Maybe because I was back in New Jersey to celebrate Eid with my family and not in California where I had been living for several months. Either way, something felt off all day. I spent the morning with my sister and our friends at the beach and when they all got up to leave at 4pm, I stayed behind. I sat alone for about 30 minutes before packing up to leave. Bassem passed away at 4:06pm. But I wouldn’t know this until hours later.
When I got home from the beach I contemplated cancelling my dinner plans with my friends. It was raining and I honestly wanted to spend time with my mom before my planned flight back to California on Monday. My best friend texted me while I was contemplating my day, asking what I was up to. She said she would join my dinner plans. I hadn’t seen her since I arrived a week earlier so I decided to get ready and as I was leaving the house I went to kiss my mom goodbye.
In that moment, I felt like I needed to stay with her. She was sitting on the chaise in the living room reading Quran. As I kissed her, I told her to cancel any plans she had the next day so we could spend the morning at the beach together. She told me to drive safely and I left the house. Even as I walked to my rental car I kept second guessing my plans to leave.
When I picked up Chelsea and began driving, I remember telling her something that I don’t think she and I will ever forget.
“I don’t know why people get so sad about people they love passing away. I mean, death is the only guarantee in life, right?”
I will never know why on that day, in that moment, I said those words. A few minutes later I told her that my stomach hurt; I said I felt like something bad was going to happen. Little did I know that shortly after I said those things a police officer would be knocking on my parents’ door around 8:30pm to deliver the worst news they would ever get. Their first born, their beloved son, was no longer with us.
My sister Soha called me telling me that I needed to come home. Why? What happened? “Just come home Hoda, put someone on the phone.” As I handed the phone to Chelsea and saw her face change color and her voice shake I knew something was wrong. We have to go back to your house Hoda, let’s go.
I grabbed my phone and called my mom.
Two words uttered to me by my father through sobs changed my life forever. “Bassem tawafa” (Bassem passed away).
I don’t remember much of what happened after that moment. All I know is that I felt like an 18 wheeler full of bricks had hit me in the chest and later my friends said they had to pick me up off the ground. To this day I have a painful knot in my stomach that appears out of the blue. I have to stop my brain from playing scenarios in my mind of losing everyone I know and love.
I called my other sister, “Sarah, what happened??” She kept saying she didn’t know, in her voice I heard fear and sadness and I knew what my dad said was true but didn’t want to believe it.
Sometimes when my sister calls me I still feel my stomach tense up. When I pick up, sometimes she can sense the anxiety in my voice— “Don’t worry, nobody died Hoda,” she has had to say to me on more than one occasion.
I have to stop my brain from playing scenarios in my mind of losing everyone I know and love.
On the drive back to my house that night Chelsea squeezed my hand as she drove my rental and I felt every single emotion imaginable. Confusion that Bassem was gone, sadness for my family, fear of the days to come, peace that Bassem was resting and no longer burdened with this Dunya (world) and so many other emotions that I can’t even put into words. In the hour it took to get home I got multiple phone calls from people who were just as much in disbelief as I was, I recall yelling into the phone, asking what happened, because until then I had no clue what exactly happened. My mind was pretending the two words my dad said to me weren’t true. There was a mistake, I knew it, I just needed to be home to hear what really happened. It was a mistake, Bassem may just be hurt, but he wasn’t gone forever. How could he be? He just got married less than two months ago.
When I ran into the house I remember seeing people I hadn’t seen in years, and my sobbing mother with so much pain in her eyes. As I look back now I realize how blessed I am to have been surrounded by dozens of people, their hearts exploding with sadness and love all at the same time, comforting our family during the most horrific night of our lives.
“It will get easier with time.”
I heard this so many times after the passing of my brother that I thought my ears would bleed. It felt like a promise that everyone was making. How much time? How much easier? Am I grieving right? Why do I feel so numb?
As the date of my brother’s fatal accident approaches I can’t help but reflect on his life and how this past year has changed me and my family. I can’t help but reflect on the, “It will get easier with time,” promise that everyone made. What they didn’t say was that while it will get easier to get out of bed, to smile, to laugh, to look ahead, it will be impossible to ignore the overwhelming feeling of sadness that follows any immense moment of joy. The more time that passes after losing a loved one the bigger the void they left in our lives becomes. Because as time passes new memories are made and every new memory is missing them.
It seemed that instead of time making things easier it just filled me with guilt. I wish that I had more time with Bassem. That I spent more time listening to his elaborate stories and plans. That I took the time to call him more. He asked me during one of our last phone conversations, “Why don’t you call me more often?” I laughed and told him that I never knew if it was safe to call him since he was always climbing a ladder or driving while eating and singing, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (as seen in his infamous Facebook videos). I always feel a tang of guilt when I remember him telling me this or all the times he stormed into my bedroom to tell me a story but I was distracted with work or on the phone and told him to come back later. I wish I had given him my attention then. What I would give to hear his voice again or get bombarded with one of his stories that seemed to run on forever. I get my elaborate story telling ability from him.
Time suddenly becomes so much more precious when reality slaps you in the face and reminds you that you don’t have an indefinite amount of it. When someone is ripped out of your life with no pre-warning you suddenly realize how selfish you were with your time and how it could have been spent making memories with your loved ones. Fuck everything I thought was important a year ago. I find myself always saying this, when I decline to go somewhere or do something I don’t want to do I no longer feel guilty. Time is so precious, if any of it is wasted on something our whole heart isn’t in then it’s just not worth it.
“You have so many good memories, remember those.”
The night of my brother’s passing, as my parent’s home filled with family, friends, strangers, and religious figures from our community. I went to a cabinet where my mom keeps photos and combed through the pictures like a woman on a mission. It was almost like a defense mechanism. I needed to capture and bottle up every memory of Bassem, good or bad, before it left me suddenly just like Bassem did.
I became annoyed when people would tell me to think of all the good memories because I felt as though I needed to always have them at my disposal. What if I forget every single memory? I can’t remember everything? It took me months to stop obsessing over his Facebook and watching his old videos. My brother had a thing for taking videos on Facebook and I am so grateful he did because at any point in time I can pull up his page and hear his voice or his laugh. I couldn’t stop looking through every single photo on my college laptop and my Facebook photos. Every picture of him suddenly became like a golden treasure I just wanted to keep close to my heart.
I felt pressured to remember it all and scared that I would forget every single moment. To this day, I sometimes spend countless minutes or maybe even hours trying to dig through my mind and recall precious moments. Fearing that I’ll forget a memory made me obsessive. I still ask my brother-in-law, Bassem’s wife, and anyone who met him to tell me stories or memories they have of him. I cling to those memories in hopes that they will ease the gaping hole left in my heart.
We seem to sometimes forget that in the wake of death, in the loss of a loved one, there still remains life. We keep those we loved and lost alive in our hearts by remembering them, by talking about them or by doing good in their name. Friends and acquaintances get really awkward and sometimes uncomfortable when I bring up Bassem’s name or share a story about him. What they don’t realize is that by remembering him – it helps keep him alive for me. That every story or memory I share is a way for me to remember that he was once here, he has made us laugh, he has made us cry and he has made us grateful even in his passing.
Nine months to the date of my bother’s passing, on April 8th, 2017 my sister, her husband, and our family welcomed a baby girl into this world. The feeling of happiness and joy that my sister and her husband were new parents was immediately followed by the most overwhelming feeling of sadness. Bassem would be so happy right now. To say Bassem loved children would be an understatement. Bassem was a child at heart, consuming more candy and dessert in one sitting than anyone I have ever met. He could make any child laugh, his heart was bigger than anyone’s I know and still had space for any child he encountered. Seeing his baby niece would have surely made him so happy. Yet here I was, in one of the happiest moments for our family, overwhelmed with sadness.
My brother was the most spiritual person I have ever met. I have met “religious” people but none of them could compare to the complete trust in God that Bassem encompassed. He would tell me stories of times were he felt ready to give up. And then suddenly a vision would tell him to get up and do something. One time he was working on a case and had given up. He read through dozens of pages and the hearing was the next day. He said that a voice urged him to get up and read. Through exhaustion he gave into the nudge and got up and read. As he was reading he came across something that would throw the entire case out. If that isn’t a sign that Bassem is one of a kind than I don’t know what is.
After Bassem’s passing my outlook on life changed. I went from always being anxious about the future to instead trying to make the most of my days. I don’t know how long I have left in my life so I am going to enjoy it. I tried as many new things as I possibly could. Taking a ten day road trip, living with a roommate, quitting my job to join a startup, extending my time in California and doing stand-up comedy.
…He has made us laugh, he has made us cry and he has made us grateful even in his passing.
Bassem can’t be summed up into words, but I will try my best. He cared so much about other people yet he didn’t care what they thought about him. He loved to make people laugh, but he was shy in large crowds. He was the smartest person I knew, memorizing the most random pieces of information, but he wasn’t very good at formal schooling. He wasn’t a big guy but he was strong. He had perfect curly hair that he primped but his hands were always covered in cuts and paint from his job. He was in great shape but ate a diet consisting of 600g of sugar a day. He was spiritual and knew so much about religion but he didn’t preach or judge.
He was too good for this world and all the troubles it threw his way. And now he is resting and my whole family and so many people are mourning.
The other night I got home from spending time with my baby niece and some friends. I heard crying from my parent’s room and ran over. I found my mom crying over a piece of paper. On the top was the date “Jan 2015” – 1.5 years before Bassem’s accident. On the paper was something he wrote to himself, almost like a promise or a diary entry. It was a goal he had set for himself, and I know he reached before his passing. It filled me with happiness and sadness all at once. He not only reached the goal but he exceeded it. Something he was probably working towards his whole life he was able to accomplish ten fold before he passed. It puts me at ease, knowing that it was like God knew Bassem would pass having accomplished so much and that we would find this piece of paper almost one year to the date of his passing. SubhanAllah. Allah (SWT) tests us with heartache and then provides comfort.
There is a void in your heart after losing a loved one, that feeling of immense sadness I explained. It’s not that we are sad they are gone, we are likely more sad that we didn’t have enough time and that in this happy moment they aren’t physically there to make a new memory with us. I may be too early in my grieving process to know if this feeling ever disappears but there is always comfort in knowing that my brother is resting and in the care of the Most Merciful.
Keeping laughing Bassem. We love and miss you even more, one year later.